TORONTO – It was supposed to go much differently for Canada.
After seemingly growing more confident – and more lethal – in each of the first three matches of their young World Cup qualification campaign, the Canadians headed into Tuesday night’s game against Puerto Rico with high spirits.
They had finally learned to dominate games, both in possession and on the scoreboard, something that has eluded Canada throughout their history.
But with the determined Puerto Ricans in front of them, old habits resurfaced, and a frustrating scoreless draw was the result despite the hosts holding a huge possession advantage at BMO Field.
“Nil-nil at home against a weaker opponent, it’s very frustrating striker Olivier Occean said following the match, summing up the mood that seemed to permeate throughout the entire stadium. “[We] should have done better.”
Occean came into the game for an injured Iain Hume just after the half-hour mark and, despite seeing a lot of the ball in front of the Puerto Rican net, he couldn’t break through for a clean look at goal.
However, the Brossard, Quebec, native gave the visitors credit for stifling a Canadian attack that has been firing on all cylinders recently.
“They were very organized, and they had a lot of players at the back so it was a bit difficult for us to get through,” he said.
Central defender Adam Straith, who spent most of the game watching as his attacking teammates were repeatedly stopped just short of Puerto Rico’s goal, shared Occean’s frustration.
“We knew coming in that they would play a deep game defensively, and it was frustrating because we couldn’t find a way to solve them,” Straith said. “I think at times we moved the ball a little too slow, we were a little too predictable when we were going forward, and I think that hurt us.”
Canada were perhaps too patient in their play, content in keeping possession and looking for a perfect outlet. It was that style that played right into Puerto Rico’s strategy.
“Sometimes we’re going to come up against teams that’ll play that deep and we’ve got to find ways to get through that,” Straith said.
Head coach Stephen Hart agreed with that assessment, as he also felt that his players did not move the ball quickly enough to maneuver around a steadfast Puerto Rican defensive plan that amounted to putting 10 men behind the ball for most of the game.
“We tried to find the answers, but [Puerto Rico] basically parked the bus and waited for us and allowed us to have the ball,” Hart said. “At times we played too slow and just couldn’t find the answers, and when we did get our opportunities, we didn’t take it.”
Always looking ahead, Hart said he hopes that Canada could use Tuesday night’s frustrations and learn from them going forward.
“Canadian teams are not accustomed to teams sitting on top of the penalty box and waiting for them to come,” the coach explained. “We don’t get the opportunity to play like that, so once a team plays like that, you are forced to try and break them down.”
One thing in particular Hart wants from his players in future games is the ability to mix up the attack when an opponent is stifling them, something that he felt the Canadians did not do against Puerto Rico.
“I think it was a huge lesson to understand that if what you’re doing is not working, you have to switch up to something else,” he said. “If it’s one thing to say that we learned today, it’s that it’s necessary to have a plan B.”
Regardless, Canada held on to their four-point lead in Group D, helped by a 1-1 draw later Tuesday night between St. Lucia and second-place St. Kitts and Nevis. In the end, getting that one step closer to the next round is all that matters to Hart and his team.
“We got a point, and more than likely we’ll go to the next round,” Hart said. “The objective is to qualify for the World Cup. If we had thrown ourselves reckless into that game, we’d have lost.”