It’s okay, Canada fans, you can breathe a sigh of relief (For now). After much chatter online about a potential sleeping powerhouse in Suriname, Canada ended their first round of World Cup Qualifying with a nearly unblemished run. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though and instead take a look back at the two games played over the past week.
Canada vs Aruba
With much respect to their rivals on Saturday, Canadian fans could have been forgiven for glossing over this match as compared to the much anticipated round closer, but this match also had its own merits. What was essentially the closest thing to a Canada soccer ‘B’ team took the field, and it arguably was a strong lineup within itself:
Veterans Lucas Cavallini and Junior Hoilett were joined by newcomers Tajon Buchanan and Dayne St. Clair, along with other players plying their trade across the MLS and Europe. In fact, six out of the starting eleven were players from Europe: Adekugbe, Vitoria, Millar, Hoilett, Sturing, and Wotherspoon, who all for the most part had productive seasons in their respective leagues. The MLS choices were nothing to be scoffed at, as the ones who found themselves on the field had proven that they could perform on the national stage, or were standouts for their respective MLS team. (With talks of a European move surrounding Buchanan.)
Canada, for the first part of the match, seemed to be testing Aruba and figuring out their playstyle, worrying those who were hoping for an early goal to signify this team’s strength. Luckily, Vancouver’s own Lucas Cavallini opened the scoreline in the 18th minute in order to give the Canadians the lead, and from there it looked like Canada found their footing with four goals by the 50th minute. Another barren spell threatened Canada right after, until John Herdman made some changes and introduced, Davies, David and Larin into the match, all who scored. The final score was 7-0 favoring Les Rouges. With heads held high and goal differential favoring them, Canada would only need a tie against Suriname in order to progress to the next round, but if they were to make waves in CONCACAF, they would rather make a statement come Tuesday’s match.
Canada vs Suriname
Credit has to be given to CONCACAF for the scheduling, as most of the matches on the final day of first round qualifiers were group deciding matches. Outside of a shock Trinidad and Tobago collapse that gave St. Kitts and Nevis the group before the final day, every group had something to play for. It was no different for Suriname and Canada, level on points, looking to make a statement as an emerging big dog in the region. I have to admit, looking upon multiple Canadian outlets for coverage during the qualifiers, it was hard to avoid the many Surinamese fan comments that held a resolute confidence that their side wasn’t an underdog, but rather the clear favorites to win the game altogether. It was a loud minority, and while not causing me to doubt the strength of the team, I was made nervous by the “What ifs” that constantly ran through my head.
When Canada took the field on Tuesday, they seemed to reflect the same sentiment, as the first fifteen minutes were very shaky. The entire team seemed to be feeling the pressure of a potential knock-out game, and Suriname was gifted many chances to open the scoreline early in the half, with a notable shot rattling the crossbar early into the match. Canada couldn’t hide behind the excuse of this being a B-team either, as this was mostly their strongest possible lineup:
It was also an interesting decision to try a completely new centreback partnership during such a crucial game, especially with a debutant in Scott Kennedy. With the scrambles near the Canadian box in the beginning it looked to be a gamble not paying off. Slowly though, Canada seemed to be getting control of the midfield, with Stephen Eustáquio demonstrating why he was one of the best midfielders in the Portuguese league this season, appearing to be in multiple places on the field at the same time. His effective tackling and passing made him the best midfielder on the field that night, and is a reminder that he is also a special talent behind only David and Davies in terms of European ceiling, except that given that he is a CDM that the spotlight is rarely on him.
After 30 minutes, it was still scoreless, and Canada had some good looks at goal too. Even though Canada had the lion’s share of possession, it was not being converted to goals, a worrying thought that mounted pressure with every passing second. Luckily, before the half, Alphonso Davies was able to break the deadlock thanks to a Jonathan David through ball and Canada went into halftime up by one goal. A favorable scoreline that would boost the Canadian’s confidence, yet not out of the clear still.
The second half was a much better display than the first. Hopefully all of the ‘do-or-die’ jitters that Canada seems to have were shaken off after this, as the second half was completely under Canadian control. Davies and David were the clear standout performers, as they continued their linkup with Davies returning the goal favor to David twice over. Suriname looked to get more and more agitated and desperate as their chances of World Cup qualification slipped through their fingers, and their effective game plan from the beginning of the match was replaced by a team that was awarding possession to Canada and allowing them to get many more chances. One of these was when Lucas Cavallini was subbed on for Cyle Larin and drew a penalty, which he let Jonathan David take in order to complete his hat-trick. With that goal, David finds himself seven goals behind Dwayne De Rosario’s record tally, a number which could very well be matched or surpassed at this year’s Gold Cup. With the 4-0 scoreline, Canada cruised to a victory and booked themselves a spot in the second round two leg playoff against Haiti.
Overall, the past two matches demonstrated that this Canadian team is something special, and hopes of joining the Octagonal are not just wishful thinking. This team still has a long way to grow, and that is a very good thing as the standard they have set for themselves here is not a bad place to start off from. Now eyes are turned towards 2019 Gold Cup party crashers Haiti, as Canada looks to exorcise their ‘do-or-die’ demons once and for all, and claim that they are the next big player in CONCACAF.