John Herdman christened this CONCACAF Gold Cup quarter-final showdown as “David vs Goliath in Cincinnati” after Canada qualified with the 4-2 victory over Cuba on Tuesday. Indeed, Canada comes into this match as the underdog against tournament favourites, the United States. The question is whether CanMNT can emulate David and slay the American Goliath.
The Canada-USA rivalry became more intense and meaningful over the past five years beginning with Les Rouges’ 2-0 Nations League victory at BMO Field in Toronto in October 2019. Unfortunately the U.S. reciprocated the following month with a 4-1 victory in the return leg in Orlando to advance at the expense of Canada to the inaugural Nations League finals.
In 2021, the two North American rivals were pitted against one another in the Gold Cup group stage. Despite their valiant efforts, Canada fell behind early in the match and could not find the equalizer falling 1-0 to the Americans.
Hostilities resumed in September 2021 when the two teams met in the first of their World Cup qualifying Octagonal matches in Nashville. Canada fell behind again but came back to draw the Yanks 1-1. In the return fixture in Hamilton in January 2022, Canada prevailed 2-0 to put themselves in the driver’s seat to a spot in Qatar. Their most recent match-up was perhaps the most disappointing.
Canada lost the most recent edition of the Nations League final 2-0, three weeks ago in Las Vegas. It was a flat performance from a CanMNT that looked tired and had many players battling or returning from injuries. However, expectations of the program have been elevated over the past few years contributing to the sour mood among Canadian fans.
Our southern neighbours have maintained a competitive advantage in results over Canada this stretch but the gap narrowed, somewhat, with the emergence of Canada’s proclaimed ‘golden generation’ of international stars. But a crucial advantage remains for the Americans and this particularly comes to light in the Gold Cup, where most of both first team rosters sit out. This crucial advantage is largely driven by a massive superiority in squad depth. This is not very surprising considering the United States’ population is approximately nine times that of Canada’s.
The U.S. men’s national team has been sending so-called ‘B teams’ to the Gold Cup for several tournaments now. For the Americans this tourney has become an opportunity to test out up-and-coming young players, and reward top performing MLS players. Just two players on B.J. Callaghan’s Gold Cup squad also played in the Nations League final against Canada.
This year’s Gold Cup marks the first time Canada has followed suit with a similar approach to roster construction. However, CanMNT does have a few more veterans that regularly appear on their A squads, such as Steven Vitória, Junior Hoilett and Jonathan Osorio. While the absence of stars like Jonathan David, Alphonso Davies and Cyle Larin appears as a sign of the maturation for the program, it also exposes CanMNT’s deficiencies in depth in comparison to the USA.
Since the tournament started the USMNT has lost the services of midfielders Alan Soñora (injury) and Aidan Morris (personal reasons). Midfielder Jackson Yueill has been brought in as a replacement.
The CanMNT have lost the services of goalkeeper Milan Borjan (ostensibly, injury) with no replacement called in to the camp. There also remains mystery about whether Scott Kennedy who could leave the squad to join his new Austrian Bundesliga club Wolfsberger AS. This would be a limiting factor to Herdman’s defensive options for the US match.
How did they get there?
Canada made it through to the quarter-final finishing second in their group, the consensus softest group at the Gold Cup, with a win over lowly Cuba and a pair of draws against marginally better sides Guadeloupe and Guatemala.
The USA topped their group with wins against a pair of weak squads in Trinidad and Tobago, and St. Kitts and Nevis. However, the USA was put to the test in their tournament opening draw with an improving Jamaica. The wins were backed by a pair of back-to-back hat-tricks by Jesus Ferreira. The draw with Jamaica demonstrated that the USA are not invincible as it required a late Brandon Vázquez goal for the Americans to escape defeat.
The Americans left it late to bag the equalizer against Jamaica and despite owning the ball for much of the match were feeling the pressure as the minutes left in the game drew down. Jamaica scored early in that first half and then defended for most of the remainder of the match. By some accounts Jamaica was unlucky not to have found a second goal that match that may have seen them through to victory.
Canada will need to look to the example of Jamaica where they were almost up by two goals midway through the first half. Jamaica rode a physical defensive approach with some aggressive offensive play along the flanks to put the Americans on the back foot for several moments early on. Jamaica’s inability to cash in on their opportunities would haunt them before the final whistle.
Herdman will need to play a fine line between taking a similar physical approach and being wary of yellow cards with so many Canadians sitting on yellows. Officiating the match will be Mexican referee Marco Ortiz. For those with a short memory, Ortiz officiated Canada’s group stage match with Guatemala where he handed out yellows like your mother handed out Christmas cards. All told, five Canadians were yellow card recipients in that game.
Among those Canadians entering the USA match with yellow cards: Dominick Zator, Kamal Miller, Moïse Bombito, Liam Fraser, Jacob Shaffelburg, Zac MacGraw, Steven Vitoria and Lucas Cavallini.
Canada’s keys to the game
Herdman’s side will need to put on a defensive clinic against the USA’s high octane offence that led all teams in the group stage with 13 goals. The first order of business for Canada must be to shut down Jesus Ferreira, and therefore half of the U.S. goal production across their last 2 games. Critics south of the border have been quick to point out that Ferreira’s 14 international goals from 21 caps is renowned by his propensity to pile on the goals against the minnows of the region but then disappear against the better quality teams.
Canada cannot concede early goals and ideally not allow the first goal of the match. To do so would mean the US could close shop defensively, and their defence is still about the best any side will see this tournament. In order to accomplish this Canada will have to be comfortable without the ball as it is expected that the USA will win the possession battle. In this environment Canada will need to be compact and disciplined in their shape and their defensive responsibilities, but remain alert to transition quickly on the counter-attack whenever opportunities arise.
John Herdman has to produce a managerial masterclass. He must get the tactics and starting XI down right, and make the timely and correct substitutions the match demands. Those tactical decisions begin with determining whether to stay with the 4-4-2 that contributed to victory over Cuba, or revert to his favoured 3-4-1-2. Psychologically, many Americans have projected an aura around John Herdman and believe coaching is an area where Canada has had a decided advantage for a couple of years now. Herdman needs to rediscover his Octagonal acumen, when he seemingly could not make a wrong move, for this match.
Dead ball defending has proven to be of fundamental importance in Canada’s matches. In particular Canada has to succeed in defending against the aeriel threat posed by the US from set pieces. For this to happen Herdman will need to deploy at least two of Vitoria, McGraw, Bombito or Kennedy, if still in the camp. These are his four tallest central defenders and the best equipped to deal with balls whipped into the box.
And finally, Dayne St Clair will need to be the very best version of himself between the sticks. St Clair has bailed out his defensively suspect club team on several occasions over the past year and he may likely have to do the same for country too. While he had a few nervy moments against Cuba, such as the foul that ultimately gave up the first of two penalties given up by Canada in the game, this could be chalked up to a combination of nerves from having made his first start for Canada in nearly a year, and from the lack of action he was seeing in the game. A solid performance from St Clair could steal the game in Canada’s favour.
While the heavily favoured Americans are expected to win the match the opportunity to secure an upset on American soil is foremost on the minds of John Herdman and the CanMNT. This is the game that Herdman publicly embraced. Indeed, the match with the US is pivotal for Canada; to attain a victory against the odds means a lighter path to the final. In many respects, for Herdman and Canada, this match with the USA is their final.
Opponent: United States
When: Sunday, July 9, 2023
Kick-off: 7:30 pm ET / 10:30 pm PST
Watch: OneSoccer, FuboTV
Stadium: TQL Stadium, Cincinnati OH