Boos were heard at the Azteca Stadium as the men’s teams from Canada and Mexico disappeared down the tunnel at halftime of Thursday’s World Cup qualifying game.
The 1-1 scoreline at half-time, which would not change with the final whistle, was not acceptable to the relatively small crowd of fans in Mexico City. Mexico was the regional power competing on its territory, after all. The Canadian men’s soccer team, historically anyway, far from it.
But it wasn’t just the scoreboard line that would have been unsatisfying for the pro-Mexican crowd. It was the fact that things could have been a lot worse.
“We wanted to open this game tonight,” Canada manager John Herdman said. “I said from the beginning, we had to be brave, we had to dare to lose to win … It’s easy to come here and park the bus but we want to show that we are taking a step forward, we want to show that there is more to come.”
Herdman’s men entered Thursday’s game, the first of three in this international window, tied for second among the eight teams competing in the final CONCACAF qualifying round for next year’s World Cup in Qatar. The only team ahead of Canada was Mexico, a country the Canadians had never beaten in an away game.
But this much-improved Canadian team arrived in Mexico City seemingly unfazed by the regional giants, and they showed it in the 21st minute of the match, when they fell 1-0. The goal came against the march, a momentary lapse of the Canadians who saw the Mexicans play the ball from the baseline to the back of the net in three passes. It was defender Jorge Sánchez who got ahead of Canadian winger Richie Laryea to score, followed by Canadian defender Alistair Johnston.
It was a moment of relief for all the Mexicans in the building. Canada had dominated possession up to that point and had the first clear chance of the game, a give and take down the left wing between Alphonso Davies and Laryea that ended with a shot from Laryea that had to be parried by Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. Canadian forward Tajon Buchanan skipped the rebound.
The comfort would only last up to a point. Having one goal less didn’t shake Canada. Herdman made a tactical change shortly after the goal that saw Buchanan fall deeper, and a better balance in midfield opened the doors for the Canadians. Buchanan produced the next opportunity for the visitors, a sizzling ball through the area to Davies in the 31st minute, yards from a tap-in at the back post. A free kick by Canadian midfielder Steven Eustáquio nearly tied things nine minutes later when he found teammate Steven Vitoria at the back post, but the defender was unable to head off Ochoa.
In the end, it would only take two touches from two Canadian stalwarts to find the tie. Davies received a ball yards out of the top of the box. One touch to take, one touch to thread a pass through the Mexican defense to Jonathan Osorio inside the top of the area. A touch to take away from Osorio, a touch to go quietly to Ochoa’s house.
The goal would eventually mark a momentous route point for Canada in their quest to reach Qatar 2022. Mexico inflicted most of the pressure in the second half, finishing with 11 shots against Canada’s eight, but the Canadian defense held firm. in the face of increased pressure, increased emotion and chants of hatred from the crowd, which caused a strike in the 59th minute when he erupted in homophobic insults. It was another despicable display from a Mexican crowd at Azteca, which had previously been punished by FIFA for such chants, and a blemish on another well-played and well-refereed match.
But the fact that Canadians are disappointed that they did not take all three points, and rightly so, is representative of the progress the team has made in international football.
“I’m happy with the point, but at the same time I think there was an opportunity to take three,” Herdman said. “I think we’ll walk away from this looking at this in time thinking, ‘We could have taken three points.’ “
At the beginning of this window, Sunday’s away game in Jamaica, which lost 2-0 to the United States on Thursday, and next Wednesday’s home game against Panama, which lost 1-0 to El Salvador, were the matches more likely than Canada. to win.
The result against Mexico does not change that, although Canada is now only in third place in the standings after Panama lost points. But if the dominating performance from the beginning of this window, the kind of performance that got home fans scoffing at their own team, sets the tone for the next two games, it is certainly Canada’s games to lose.
Still, Canada won’t go up too much in the bottom line, Herdman said.
“I still think there is another step with this team.”
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