Canada’s senior men’s national team defeated their hated rivals Honduras 1-0 in Vancouver Friday night to collect a crucial three points in this group stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
The win, and the decidedly pro-Canada crowd of over 20,000 at BC Place, will finally put to rest a spectre that had been hovering over this team and its supporters since a 2-1 loss to Honduras in WCQ in Montreal in 2008 and which turned into a monster when Honduras eliminated Canada from qualification for Brazil 2014 with an 8-1 drubbing in San Pedro Sula in 2012.
On a night that will not soon be forgotten by Canada’s supporters, Les Rouges dominated the match in every respect. Canada was able to dictate the pace of the game from the get-go, with a lineup made up of the strongest available players at the moment, minus David Edgar who is nursing an injury. Mixing the experience and calmness of captain Julian de Guzman and Atiba Hutchinson with the youthful exuberance of Cyle Larin and Junior Hoilett, Canada were a constant threat moving forward. Head coach Benito Floro must be lauded for a two-year process that has lead to this moment in the team’s evolution, just in time for the most crucial matches of this cycle.
There’s no getting around it; Hoilett drastically changes the dynamic of the Canadian offence. With two speedy wingers and a target man in MLS Rookie of the Year Larin, the Canadian attack is now a three-pronged weapon that can hurt opponents through a variety of different ways. The key is to be able to move the ball from defence to midfield, then midfield to offence, with some fluidity.
Early in the match this was a problem. Canada was most dangerous in the opening 20 minutes when Adam Straith was launching balls over the midfield to Tosaint Ricketts. Ricketts was able to turn and head upfield, but the attack would fizzle without midfielders to support him. Once the midfield trio of Hutchinson, Will Johnson and de Guzman got into the game, the bridge to Larin and co. was gapped.
In the 31st minute, de Guzman was robbed of a golazo for the second time in as many matches. On Sunday in Ottawa, the Fury midfielder launched a 30-yard right-footed strike on goal that was barely parried away by Minnesota United keeper and Cameroon international Sammy Ndjock. On Friday night, it was Honduran captain and keeper Noel Valladares who who denied de Guzman on a nearly-identical shot, this time with his left foot. If Honduras wasn’t on high alert already, they certainly were after that rocket.
Seven minutes later, it was Larin that sent a perfectly-weighted ball into space for Hoilett to run onto. At first glance it appeared as though Honduran right back Brayan Beckeles might intercept the pass, but Hoilett’s speed negated that possibility. The Queen’s Park Rangers winger then sent a divine cross over the Honduran centre backs to find Johnson’s head, who knocked the ball into goal off Larin’s back as he completed his run into the box. Larin knew nothing of the goal he had just scored, but was rightly credited with it for being in the exact spot you would expect a strong no. 9 to be in that situation.
At this point, supporters were simply hoping Canada could hang on to their lead for the seven remaining minutes until the break. The Canadian back line of Karl Ouimette, Straith, Dejan Jakovic and Marcel de Jong, along with keeper Milan Borjan, certainly kept everyone on their toes, and may have caused a few fans reaching for the antacid, with their short passing at the back in the face of a high and aggressive Honduran press. Thankfully for Canada, nothing came of it and the lead was secure going into the tunnel.
Supporters of Canada’s men’s squad are conditioned for the wheels to fall off when things are going well – for good reason. Whether it be a mental lapse, a keeper error or a referee remembering he’s in CONCACAF, all manner of calamities have been inflicted upon this team and their fan base. No one was counting their chickens as the teams resumed play for the second half.
Despite this trepidation, Canada appeared to take well to the role of frontrunner. The same confidence on the ball was present, and Hutchinson suddenly seemed to elevate his game to another gear. No Canadian, past or present, male or female, has ever looked so poised and in control on the ball as the man from Brampton, Ontario. Shielding the ball, holding it in the face of pressure, distributing to the outlet, winning possession – these are the hallmarks of Canada’s greatest footballer of all-time (G-FAT?). When Atiba is in form, and with the players that currently surround him, there’s no reason to limit Canadian dreams to the Hex.
Speaking of form, it must be pointed out – and not just because I’m from Ottawa – that Fury head coach Marc Dos Santos needs to be credited for rejuvenating Julian de Guzman to the levels of his prime. Many scoffed when de Guzman chose to play this season in the NASL, but the choice has paid off in spades for both the Fury and the national team. Benito Floro also saved himself an earful from Dos Santos by starting the Fury midfielder. When asked about de Guzman playing for Canada instead of the Fury in Sunday’s NASL Championship Final, Dos Santos was diplomatic at first, saying that de Guzman had agonized over his choice but that it was the correct one. When pressed, however, Dos Santos added: “I’ll tell you something: he better play.” Asked if that was because the CSA had insisted de Guzman report to camp, he replied with a firm “Yes,” and walked away.
In the 63rd minute, Will Johnson almost gave Canada the insurance goal it so desperately desired when he rocked a free kick off the Honduran post. You could feel BC place hold its collective breath as the ball traveled through the air, and exhaled in exasperation when the ball was harmlessly knocked into touch.
Shorly thereafter, Floro began to make his substitutions . First to make way was Larin for Crewe Alexandra forward Marcus Haber. Although Larin worked his butt off and scored for Canada, more is expected of him in his ability to hold the ball and bring his teammates into the play. This was made evident when Haber came on and successfully executed this task. A perfect sub for Floro. In the 78th minute, de Guzman was replaced with Repentigny native Samuel Piette. Rejuvenated he may be, but asking de Guzman to go 90 minutes two matches in one week is a bridge too far. Finally, Tesho Akindele was brought in to replace Hoilett in the 81st minute. With Akindele’s strength, it was another great sub for Floro to kill off the match.
Canada only got one scare in the second half, when Borjan made a fingertip save off a Mario Martínez blast from outside the box. It was one of only a handful of chances for Honduras on the night, and none coming from inside the Canadian 18-yard box. The defensive prowess Floro was quick to point to after a disappointing Gold Cup is alive and well, despite Edgar’s absence.
All in all, a cathartic night for all Canadians involved. Canada earns a massive three points to kick off this six-match round of qualifying against one of its main contenders for a spot in the Hex. Just as important, Canadians can close the book on October 16th, 2012 in San Pedro Sula and support their national team like well-adjusted human beings, free of a massive dark cloud over their heads.
Man of the Match: Atiba Hutchinson. Silk watched last night’s match and was envious of Atibas’ smoothness. Honourable mentions to de Guzman, Straith and Hoilett who all had excellent matches.
Next Match: Canada travel to San Salvador’s Estadio Cuscatlán to take on an El Salvador squad that was powerless to stop Mexico on Friday night. Honduras head home to take on Mexico, who are fresh off their 3-0 home win over El Salvador.