US men’s national team boss Gregg Berhalter saluted Canada’s climb back toward the Concacaf men's elite ahead of their Gold Cup Group B faceoff in Kansas City on Sunday afternoon (5 pm ET | FOX, Univision, TUDN in US, One Soccer in Canada).
For the first time in more than two decades, the CanMNT have booked their place in the final round of World Cup qualifying, the “Octagonal” phase that kicks off in September. And they’ll meet their southern neighbors right off the bat, as Les Rouges visit the USMNT at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium on the fifth of that month for the second of three qualifiers in that FIFA window.
“First of all, I'm really happy that Canada’s in the final qualifying group,” said Berhalter in Saturday’s matchday -1 press conference. “They've done a great job of getting to this point, and I'm not happy because I want to face them, I'm happy for the group, for the players. It's a lot of players that we're familiar with, we’ve got a lot of respect for those guys. It's been nice seeing them grow over the last five years, and they've arrived to this point and I think it's a good team.”
Praising the Canucks' navigation of the winding path of the first two rounds of 2022 qualifying, Berhalter later suggested that their comparable youth movements, much of which is rooted in Major League Soccer, have made the league’s two home nations the fastest-rising programs in the region.
“I would say that we made a lot of strides in the last couple of years in terms of developing a young player pool and getting this young player pool to a point where they have international experience,” said Berhalter. “The Costa Ricans, Honduras, Mexico, those teams have been through it before, they know exactly what it’s about. I’ll add Panama to that. But I think the resurgent teams in Concacaf are the United States and Canada.”
John Herdman and his side snapped a 34-year winless streak against the United States when they ambushed them 2-0 at BMO Field in Toronto during the group stage of Concacaf Nations League play in 2019, and can now deal the Yanks another blow with a win or draw on Sunday.
Either outcome would earn Les Rouges top spot in the group, and push the USMNT into what’s expected to be a tougher side of the knockout bracket when the quarterfinals kick off in a week’s time.
“There's a special aura and energy about that game,” suggested US fullback Reggie Cannon, who said he’s fully healed from a hamstring issue and looks likely to start this match. “They've been very strong these past eight games, they’ve been on a very hot streak. So to us it's just about playing our game; Gregg has prepared us very well tactically and physically for what’s to come. We know this is a very important step in our journey. Gold Cup obviously is a huge part of the plan, and everyone here knows that.”
Cannon was alluding to the evaluation aspect of this tournament, which Berhalter has made clear is helping him sort out his best choices to fill the rosters he’ll use for the intensely compacted qualifying schedule to come.
“Everyone in this tournament has an opportunity to be able to secure their spot in World Cup qualifying, that's the reality of the situation,” said the FC Dallas product, now at Boavista in Portugal. “We have a lot of players over in Europe that are succeeding at a high level, and it's going to be a matter of proving every step, every game with the national team that you can compete in those options.”
There is a bit of tactical intrigue ahead of Sunday’s match at Children’s Mercy Park. The CanMNT have used a three-player backline in their first two matches, twin 4-1 wins over Martinique and Haiti, and the USMNT’s shift to a 3-4-2-1 in Thursday’s win over Martinique hints at the possibility of Berhalter matching Herdman’s shape to blunt some of the northerners’ weapons up top and in the wide spaces.
Influential Canadian central midfielder Stephen Eustaquio is suspended on card accumulation, having picked up an odd-looking caution against Haiti that conveniently provides him a clean slate when the knockout stage begins. But Alistair Johnston, Steven Vitoria, Liam Fraser, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Lucas Cavallini are all carrying yellows that could affect their deployment against the Yanks.
In positive news for everyone involved, a sellout crowd is expected for this one – something most of these players have experienced precious little of since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That's one of the biggest things that's been missing from this year of football,” said Cannon. “It's going to be incredibly, incredibly important going forward that we have the support of our fans, because we know what it's like to almost play away in your home country – I felt that in the 2019[Gold Cup] final against Mexico, it was one of the craziest things, not being to hear yourself think. Hearing that energy, being in that environment, it really motivates you to get to the next level, to find a way to win.”