Canadian men's soccer team proving to be more than just Alphonso Davies
'There's been growth,' says national coach John Herdman
Surely, the top nations in CONCACAF have sat up and taken notice of the Canadian men's team, recognizing that this is not the same team which has under achieved for more than two decades.
If they hadn't before, they have now after Canada's 3-0 destruction of El Salvador at Toronto's BMO Field on Wednesday night in a crucial World Cup qualifying contest.
That win came on the heels of a pair of credible 1-1 draws against two of the historical heavyweights in the region - Honduras (at home) and the United States (on the road) — to put Canada in a three-way tie for second place behind Mexico in CONCACAF qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
The final round of the qualifiers, known as "The Octagon," is a 14-match marathon that runs until next March, with all eight teams facing each other home and away. The top three nations at the end of the group stage automatically qualify for Qatar. The fourth-place team still has a chance to advance to the World Cup via a two-game playoff against a top team from another qualifying region.
A win and a pair of draws from three matches is a very good return for a Canadian side whose bristling form in September's international window has sent a clear message to the other top nations in the region, that it is no longer the same doormats that they have casually walked over in the past.
WATCH | Signa Butler, John Molinaro analyze Canada's peformance:
Canadians displaying great resiliency
Canada is competing in the final stage of the CONCACAF qualifiers for the first time since the 1998 World Cup in France, but you'd never know it's been such a lengthy exile. The Canadians displayed great resiliency in their three matches this month, coming from behind against both Honduras and the U.S., and overcoming El Salvador's bruising style of play to earn an important win on home soil.
Tajon Buchanan, in particular, was on the receiving end of a few nasty challenges in the first half, as the Salvadorians systematically targeted one Canada's key attackers, and tried to throw the hosts off their game with their use of stall tactics and chicanery, described by Canadian coach John Herdman as "dark arts." Rather than taking the bait by acting out in response to El Salvador's tactics, the Canadians kept their composure and didn't come unglued.
"It's a big part about how they play, with their high-intensity style," coach John Herdman told reporters in the post-match press conference.
"The players have had experience together that we can adapt in games and no longer get caught in long periods where we're losing momentum."
Canada also showed that it is not a one-man team centred around Alphonso Davies, who is unquestionably their biggest star, and arguably the best player in the entire CONCACAF region.
The Bayern Munich fullback suffered a minor knee injury in the second half against the U.S. over the weekend, and wasn't available on Wednesday.
But he was hardly missed, as Canada's fervent attack didn't skip a beat against El Salvador, swarming the Central Americans right from the opening kickoff by scoring two goals inside 12 minutes, and never letting up until the final whistle.
"We came out on the front foot and that's what we wanted to do. We wanted to be relentless in attack, and we wanted to bring an intensity that maybe we lacked in the attack in the last two games," Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio explained.
Indeed, Canada improved over the course of September's international window, going from strength to strength with each passing game to take five out a possible nine points.
"There's been growth — if you get into the first couple days of training, one thing that's clear is that foundation of trust," Herdman said.
"We have to have that learning in the first 45 minutes against Honduras — to feel the intensity and see teams not back down."
WATCH | Canada shuts out El Salvador in World Cup qualifier:
Borjan thrilled with win
Veteran goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who tied the national team record for all-time clean sheets with his 25th on Wednesday, could hardly contain his excitement over Canada's strong start to its World Cup qualifying campaign.
"It's just an amazing feeling that through three games we haven't lost …To score three goals tonight and draw away to the United States — we'll take that."
It seems odd to say, but what's even more encouraging is that Herdman walked away from this month's trio of qualifying games somewhat unsatisfied. It's a sign of how far the men's program has come since Herdman took over in January, 2018 that Canada felt it left points on the table and could have walked away with even more.
Had this been even four years ago, the Canadian team would have gladly made a deal with the devil to take five points from three games. Merely getting by is no longer the objective, like it once was under previous regimes. With Herdman at the helm, the Canadian team has much higher expectations of themselves.
"We're content. We wanted seven [points], but what we've learned is that this is CONCACA. … No one is going to lie down or back down at any moment," Herdman stated.
Forward Jonathan David, one of Canada's goal scorers against El Salvador, concurred with his coach.
"This win puts us in a good position ... Obviously, we would have preferred to have more points, but this is the situation we're in, and we have to take the confidence from these games into the next time," David stated.
Tougher challenges ahead for Canada
Still, as impressive as Canada was through its opening three games, much tougher challenges are ahead. The players now return to their pro clubs before coming back for the October international window that will see Canada, currently ranked 59th in the world, visit No. 9 Mexico and No. 50 Jamaica before hosting No. 74 Panama on Oct. 13 in Toronto.
Canada has never defeated Mexico in a World Cup qualifier, Jamaica could prove tough to beat at home, and Panama has been a rising force in CONCACAF ever since competing in its first World Cup in 2018 in Russia. So next month's international window will be a stern test of Herdman's managerial mettle in what is shaping up to be a closely contested qualifying campaign amongst the eight nations.
"Given what I've seen from the other results, there haven't been that many goals separating teams," Herdman said. "So to [score] three goals tonight, and get an away result against the U.S., and even though the first draw at home wasn't what we wanted, we'll take it, given what we've learned. Five points puts us [in] second place and we have to grow every game and every game is going to be another battle."