As soon as Kevin McKenna headed in Will Johnson's well-taken corner (the first well-taken corner this team's had since, well, the last time they played Honduras at Stade Saputo) to make the score 2-1 Canada, Gerry Dobson went wild on the Rogers Sportsnet broadcast. "And Canada has equalized!" he declared in delight, before realizing his mistake and chuckling his way out of it. Dobson's a guy who messes things up on air - I think Lars Hirschfeld was probably the only Canadian player he didn't confuse with somebody else - but even for him that was pretty bad.
On a level he could never have intended, though, Dobson was right. A one-goal victory over this Honduras "B" squad - that's probably worth a draw against the best Honduras had to offer. Canada was missing four players who I'd start in their best lineup - Julian de Guzman, Dwayne De Rosario, Ali Gerba, and of course Mike Klukowski - whereas Honduras barely had four players who could start in their best eleven. Neither team was at full strength but one was quite clearly at less strength than the other. To fight hard and emerge with a credible but not overwhelming 2-1 victory is not a result we could expect against Honduras's best.
Of course, right now that feels like aimless whining. At the time I was delighted just to win. Having had some time to reflect on it I'm still delighted just to win, our first victory for the senior men's team since we knocked off El Salvador 1-0 in the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Our first time scoring two or more goals in a match since we drew Costa Rica 2-2 in the next game of the same competition. Stephen Hart proving everybody wrong, adjusting his tactics, going to a true 4-3-3, and getting some results out of it. Paul Stalteri playing out-of-position at left back and actually doing pretty well. Even Rob Friend not aspiring to his usual levels of uselessness.
Canada has won again, and all is right with the world.
The remarkable thing about Canada's performance last night was that we fell into none of our usual traps. We resisted the usual urge for our attacking players to go one-against-the-world and try to play his way through nine opponents at once. Only Simeon Jackson showed flashes of this, and he was sufficiently more skilled than the Hondurans that he was able to back it up (although it wore him down for later in the game). Nor were we lulled by the comfort of the long ball. We got the ball forward, certainly, but we actually passed effectively in the final third for the first time in I don't know how long. Even at the Gold Cup, that had been a weakness.
Josh Simpson deserves a great deal of credit for this. He's made a lot of pretty effective appearances as a substitute for Canada in friendlies, in the Gold Cup, in World Cup qualifying, but I don't recall ever railing for him to be a starter. I'm not quite sure what I was thinking, in hindsight. I can remember a lot more games where Simpson electrified Canada's offense than I can games where Simpson let it down, and for ninety minutes in Montreal Simpson was electrifying indeed. Duane Rollins called him "a younger, quicker Dwayne De Rosario" but I think he was actually what Dwayne De Rosario's supposed to be but never is: a dynamic attacking midfielder/striker who can outplay guys with the ball at his feet but also handle some physical play and get the ball to his teammates more than once a century. He was my Man of the Match and with distinction - I'd be fine with making him a Member of the Order of Canada for that game.
Simpson not only played well, he seemed to inspire Canada into playing some beautiful football. We actually strung together some passes like a real soccer team: I can't wait to get the video of this game so I can once again enjoy Simpson, Issey Nakajima-Farran, and Jackson passing the ball into the Honduran area before Jackson knocked a you-must-be-kidding-me ball back to a charging Simpson who thundered the ball into the post. You could actually watch the Voyageurs in the stands behind the Honduran goal swell up and then drop as Simpson's shot ran so agonizingly close to actually getting Canada into the Highlights of the Night for once.
Or how about even later in the game, when Simpson capitalized on a Honduran mistake and chested a ball to a suddenly streaking Simeon Jackson on the penalty spot. Honduran keeper Ricardo Canales also ran out to try and beat Jackson to the ball, but Jackson stretched out, just got a foot on the ball, and directed it... over the goal. Jackson was clearly tired by that point of the game and perhaps had he been fresher he'd have gotten his second goal for Canada, but it was an unusually heads-up play by Canadian standards on both Jackson and Simpson's part.
Given all the beauty, how nice is it that both of our goals were of the less ugly variety. Our first was almost spectacular in its brutality. Terry Dunfield plays an incisive pass for Will Johnson, lurking near the top of the box. Johnson hits a thundering shot into the crossbar but it falls right for Rob Friend near the goal. Friend jumps up to get it but is simultaneously shoved hard from behind by the Honduran defender, falling back and knocking the ball away with his arm as he does so. Forget the hand ball, that's a penalty in anyone's books, but the referee doesn't even have time to blow the whistle because Friend has accidentally fisted it to Josh Simpson, who awkwardly half-chests it into the goal but it's in the goal, who cares! It was Simpson's first goal in twenty-eight caps, but this game illustrated with Simpson with that awful strike rate is so much more valuable than Friend with his awful strike rate.
The second goal was... well, it was a corner. Will Johnson had tried to set Rob Friend up with a long cross but the cross was a bit too long and flew over Friend's head. The Honduran defender panicked, however, and headed the ball behind his own touch line. Given a second chance Johnson struck the corner perfectly to Kevin McKenna, who headed in his tenth international goal on his forty-eighth appearance. Even apart from his Johnny-on-the-spot heroics McKenna also put in a strong game, tackling hard and maintaining good coverage on the inferior Honduran defenders, although towards the end of the game he got involved in the attack quite a bit as if hungering for a brace.
Two more Canadian players have to be favourably highlighted. Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Terry Dunfield took a rather unnecessary yellow card that led to the Honduran goal when he slide-tackled Honduras's Roger Espinoza but apart from that was in surprisingly terrific form. After his desultory performance against Venezuela many Voyageurs, including myself, were writing Dunfield off as a contributor for the national team, but a couple solid games for the Whitecaps and now a night where he helped pull the strings for Canada? His passes weren't audacious but they were tremendously accurate, and defensively (when he wasn't kicking Honduran ankles) he was more than able to hold the Hondurans. Many of our midfielders are of the attacking variety, running and making moves and trying to beat guys. Dunfield plays a far simpler game but a team needs someone like that too. He may be making a case as a bench player for Canada in the future, and apart from everything else it's nice to see Hart rewarding Dunfield for scuttling his English club career in an attempt to make the national team more often.
Finally, my usual Canadian man-crush, Dejan Jakovic, returned to the lineup and was exceptional as ever. He probably saved the result for Canada when he stopped a Honduran breakaway with sheer speed and intellectual presence, flying in from out of nowhere (or at least off the television screen) to hack the ball away from a Honduras attacker without even leaving his feet. I can't recall a player he misplayed or a scoring opportunity that was his fault. Dejan Jakovic should be an automatic ninety-minute man for Canada as long as he is physically capable of it.
The game wasn't brilliant. But the result was. Bravo, Canada, and we'll see you in Kiev.
News and Notes:
- The rumour is that, after the game, Stephen Hart was on his way to Spain to talk to Jonathan de Guzman. I have nothing to say about this. I'm afraid to say anything about this.
- Paul Stalteri is Canada's all-time cap leader. Bravo, Paul! As I've discussed, I could not be happier for him, and it was nice to see him live up to the occasion with a good performance at an uncomfortable position.
- When Terry Dunfield was replaced by Atiba Hutchinson, Dunfield appeared to be limping a bit. The verdict? Leg cramps. Bear in mind that Dunfield spent most of the season in Great Britain and isn't exactly in mid-season physical form right now.
- Speaking of Atiba Hutchinson, how good was he when he didn't have to defer to De Rosario or de Guzman? My god, more of that Hutch! He's a nice, soft-spoken guy, but sometimes he lets his teammates cut loose and drops back to cover them too much. He may be the most talented out of any of them.
- By starting last night, Terry Dunfield was the first Vancouver Whitecap to start a match for Canada since Charles Gbeke started in a meaningless World Cup qualifier in Jamaica on November 19, 2008. The only other Whitecap to play since then was Randy Edwini-Bonsu, who came on as a substitute in a friendly that was also in Jamaica earlier this year.