Canadian men face critical stage of World Cup qualifying in Edmonton
Canada plays important international matches against Costa Rica and Mexico
They keep moving the goalposts on the Canadian men's soccer team.
When Canada kicked off the final round of its CONCACAF World Cup qualifying campaign in September with a road game against the U.S., and home contests against El Salvador and Honduras, it was touted as the most important slate of matches in the team's history.
In October, Canada faced the biggest international window in its history for the second month in a row when it travelled to Jamaica and Mexico, and hosted Panama. Now, the Canadian side once again is set to play in its most important international matches when it plays Costa Rica on Friday (9 p.m. ET) and Mexico next Tuesday (9 p.m. ET) in a pair of crucial games at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium.
Canada has gone undefeated through its first six matches of the qualifiers with two wins, and sits in third place in the standings with 10 points, behind Mexico (14) and the United States (11). Costa Rica is fifth (six points), so Los Ticos desperately need a win in order to climb up the table and get back into the thick of the race for a top-three spot, while Mexico will be looking to cement its status atop the table. The top three nations at the end of the group stage next March automatically qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
After this window, four of Canada's final six matches are away from home — with tricky road trips to Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panama — which means the Reds have to make good in Edmonton if they want to operate from a position of strength down the final stretch of CONCACAF qualifying.
"I've always said in these qualifiers [that] your home games are very important to take maximum points," veteran Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio said.
"It's been like that with the home games that we've had, and it's going to be like that in these games and it's going to be like that in our home games moving forward. We know how important these two games are; we want to take advantage of being at home for these two games.... We want to take the maximum points from this window, and we believe we will."
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Exciting young stars
Led by a group of exciting young stars, most notably Edmonton native Alphonso Davies, Canada has distinguished itself during these qualifiers with its dynamic and fearless attacking play. Instead of sitting back and playing defensively, the Canadians have been aggressive in forcing their opponents onto the back foot and to adapt to them, rather than the other way around. Don't expect Canada to suddenly change tactics and become more conservative in its approach, especially with a crowd of 45,000 spectators expected for each match of this doubleheader.
"We have to get our performance right first and we have to bring our intensity," coach John Herdman said. "We have to look to own the ground that we are on, and doing that is about playing our way. If we play our way then the fans come with us. If we show our commitment, the fans come with us."
At the same time, Herdman does have some important lineup decisions to make. After missing out on last month due to COVID-related issues, starting goalkeeper Milan Borjan has been recalled. The veteran shot stopper has been Canada's undisputed No. 1 for the past several years, but Maxime Crepeau is having a career season in MLS with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
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Crepeau brilliant against Mexico
Crepeau also did a fantastic job of deputizing for Borjan in October, especially in a 1-1 draw in Mexico, which marked the first time since 1980 that the Reds earned a point at the venerable Estadio Azteca. Whether Herdman will go back to Borjan or stick with Crepeau is one of the more interesting questions the Canadian coach faces going into these matches.
Also returning into the squad after being ruled out for October's international window due to injuries are striker Cyle Larin and veteran midfielder Atiba Hutchinson. Larin has been red hot for Canada in 2021, scoring a team-high 12 goals in 11 appearances. He should get the start, but who does Herdman remove from the front three of Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan that combined so well against Mexico and Panama last month in order to accommodate Larin?
Hutchinson, 38, has played in 88 games for the national team, and is just two caps away from eclipsing former teammate and good friend Julian de Guzman's mark as Canada's all-time appearance leader. As Canada's most experienced player, Hutchinson would be expected to see some action under normal circumstances.
But the midfield trio of Osorio, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Stephen Eustáquio has been superb for Canada in this final round of the CONCACAF qualifiers, raising questions as to how Hutchinson fits into Herdman's plans.