Soccer·Analysis

Uruguay gives Canada lesson in World Cup reality

Canada’s men have been on an incredible run to qualify for their first World Cup in 36 years. But Tuesday's 2-0 to No. 13 Uruguay gave the Canadians the rare reward that takes the form of an awakening, a welcome that doubled as a rejection.

‘There’s not going to be any special award for losing games,’ says coach Herdman

Canada forward Junior Hoilett, left, and Uruguay forward Martin Satriano vie for the ball during a friendly match between the two national teams in Bratislava, Slovakia on Tuesday. (Vladimir Simicek/AFP via Getty Images)

Because soccer is low scoring, it's a game in which subtle differences matter, and better teams often prevail because of small but consistent advantages in speed, movement, technique.

The best win inch by inch, touch by touch.

Canada's men have been on an incredible run to qualify for their first World Cup in 36 years, but that success will see them matched against the toughest teams on Earth in November.

Tuesday's friendly in Bratislava against Uruguay, ranked 13th by FIFA's measure, was that rare reward that takes the form of an awakening, a welcome that doubled as a rejection.

"This is what Canada's got to learn," head coach John Herdman said after the 2-0 loss. "You're not going to get a gift. You have to earn it."

WATCH | CBC Sports' Chris Jones reacts to Canada's pair of WC friendlies:

Takeaways from Canada's friendlies against Qatar, Uruguay

2 months ago
Duration 5:06
CBC Sports' Anastasia Bucsis is joined by Senior Contributor Chris Jones to get his reactions to the CanMNT's friendlies against Qatar and Uruguay.

Uruguay scored in the sixth minute off a top-corner free kick from Nicolás de la Cruz, and the outcome was never really up to the Canadians again. Ranked 43rd, they showed resolve and had an admirable share of the ball. It's just the Uruguayans knew so much better what to do with it.

"I think we controlled the game," midfielder Stephen Eustáquio said. "Just the quality stands out."

Uruguay's talent and grace

It's been more than a decade since Canada played a team with Uruguay's talent and grace. For long-time Canadian soccer fans, the game was surreal to watch; it must have been otherworldly to play. Alistair Johnston, who was starting in League1 Ontario only three years ago, found himself marking Uruguay's Darwin Nunez, who cost Liverpool €100 million in June.

Johnston has been excellent during qualifying, but when Nunez towered over him to head home Uruguay's second goal in the 33rd minute, the differences in level — and height — were painfully clear. Dreams are dreams. Reality remains reality.

WATCH | Canadian men fail to convert chances in World Cup tune-up:

Uruguay shut out Canada in penultimate friendly before World Cup

2 months ago
Duration 0:55
Luis Suarez set up Darwin Nunez's header for the insurance goal, as Uruguay blanked Canada 2-0 in the Canadians' second-last friendly before the FIFA World Cup kicks off in November.

The Canadians opened their international window last week by beating World Cup host Qatar convincingly, 2-0. (It was, in some ways, much like the Uruguay match but with Canada's role reversed.) Despite the victory — the sort of win that "new Canada" should come to see as routine — the game exposed flaws that Herdman can only attempt to hide.

Milan Borjan, for instance, has been a sensation in the Canadian goal but his distribution doesn't match his shot stopping. Watching him, it feels like a howler is coming. Opponents will apply massive pressure on him when he has the ball at his feet, and his teammates will have to work to make sure he has easy outlets.

Finishing is also a major concern. Soccer is a game of limited opportunities, and successful teams make the most of them. The Canadians are still less-than-clinical with their set pieces and inside the box.

"There's not going to be any special award for losing games where you have a chance to win them," Herdman said.

In the waning minutes of the Qatar game, Kamal Miller had a gift of a rebound that he put off the crossbar and over the net from four yards out. In a closer or more pivotal match, that's the sort of blunder that might haunt you forever.

Missed chances

Against Uruguay, the missed chances, particularly on dozens of unmet crosses, were legion.

Now, after one final friendly against Japan on Nov. 17, Belgium, Croatia, and Morocco await. World Cup nerves won't make things any easier for the Canadian men. Herdman has been carefully, if a little obviously, trying to ease the pressure they must be feeling, talking about how his team will be the underdog in every game it will play.

He's emphasized experience over results, growth over achievement.

"I think there will be lots to learn," Herdman said in advance of the Uruguay game. "It's been about building."

WATCH | Canada shuts out Qatar in World Cup friendly:

Cyle Larin scores winner in Canada's friendly victory over FIFA World Cup host Qatar

2 months ago
Duration 1:06
Cyle Larin scored his 25th international goal, extending his Canadian men's record, in Canada's 2-0 win over Qatar in Vienna.

After, he was more ambitious, perhaps a little carried away by his newfound proximity to greatness.

"We're close," he said.

Closer, maybe. The gulf between Canada and the top teams in the world is undeniable. It exists, plainly and starkly, and there is no way to cross it in the weeks that Herdman and his charges have left before the biggest games of their lives.

If Canada as a country decides that competing at soccer's highest level is something we want for ourselves and our children, there is 20 years of work ahead. The effort begins with games like Tuesday's loss.

It was an accounting — inch by inch, touch by touch — and it was a sobering one. But you need to know who you are before you can realize who you might be.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Jones

Senior Contributor

Chris Jones is a journalist and screenwriter who began his career covering baseball and boxing for the National Post. He later joined Esquire magazine, where he won two National Magazine Awards for his feature writing. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine (RIP), and WIRED, and he is the author of the book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @EnswellJones

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