In its first match of the 2016 calendar year, Canada fought a valiant battle against its traditional American rival in a 1-0 loss in Carson City, California.
Going into the match it may very well have been Canadian head coach Benito Floro’s plan to provide a first cap to to at least two of his three unblooded keepers. As it turned out, it was Montreal Impact reserve keeper Maxime Crépeau that got the nod, and he would not relinquish the position due to his Man of the Match performance.
The match was approached from an experimental perspective by both Floro and USA head coach Jürgen Klinsmann. Although the US starting lineup included regular first teamers such as Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Matt Besler, it also featured a number of question marks like Jermaine Jones in central defence, David Bingham in goal and Kellyn Acosta at left back. Canada had a similarly balanced lineup with veterans Julian de Guzman, Will Johnson and Nik Ledgerwood getting starts alongside youngsters Steven Vitoria, Kianz Froese and the aforementioned Crépeau.
Although Vitoria and Froese had some good moments, it was Crépeau who stole the show, making a number of spectacular saves. The saves came from a combination of good reflexes and excellent positioning, but what may have impressed most was his confidence in barking instructions to his his defence and the command he imposed over his 18-yard box – no small feat for a 21-year old keeper. There is a raging debate in US soccer circles over Klinsmann’s preference for players signing with European clubs over American ones, and he may very well hold up Crépeau as an example to back his claim. The native of Longueuil has spent most of this winter training at Joey Saputo-owned Bologna of the Italian Serie A. The difference from this version of Crépeau to the one we saw during last summer’s Olympic qualifying was drastic. Credit must also go to FC Montreal, the USL side that doubles as the Impact’s reserve team. Had Crépeau not seen as many match minutes as he has in the past year, it’s doubtful he would have even started last night. Fodder for both sides of that argument, then.
Two defensive experiments, one from each country, went horribly long. Jermaine Jones played some of the best football of his life during the 2014 World Cup as a defensive midfielder (his natural position), but was a complete disaster as a centre back against Canada. Canada were unable to capitalize on his dreadful positioning and weak marking, but if Jones is hoping to transition to the position for the twilight of his career, there is much work to be done. Canada’s defence looked very good for most of the night, and in fact has been one of the most consistent features of Floro’s reign. No one is going to bathe the Spaniard in glory over his decision to insert Doneil Henry into Ledgerwood’s right back spot at halftime however, as Henry was consistently beaten by Giasy Zardes, Darlington Nagbe and finally by Ethan Finley.
It was Finley’s play, after having subbed been on in the 77th minute, that provided the USA with the winning goal on this night of razor-thin margins. Finley rather easily dispatched Henry to create just enough space for a masterful cross to Toronto FC’s Jozy Altidore, whose size and strength finally produced the space he needed to head the ball past Crépeau.
A loss to an American team is never a pleasant experience for Canadians, but it’s not difficult to take the perspective that there were so many positives that, with nothing on the line but some bragging rights and a few FIFA ranking points, the night can be seen as another step forward in the Floro experiment. The most important factor for Canada is that the squad is looking well-organized and confident going into two important World Cup qualifying matches against Mexico in March.
It may even have found a new star goalkeeper.