If 2021 could be encapsulated with one word for the Canadian men’s national team, “redemption” would be a fitting summary.
Canada already salvaged their 2019 Gold Cup quarterfinal collapse against Haiti by eliminating the Caribbean side in June to reach the final phase of Concacaf World Cup Qualifying for the first time since 1997. They – sort of – avenged a loss to the US a few weeks after the Haitian triumph with a 1-1 draw during a September Octagonal qualifier in Nashville.
Now a third opportunity for revenge is on the cards. Having suffered a dramatic 2-1 defeat to Mexico in the Gold Cup semifinals this past summer, the Canadians begin the October window with a crunch tie against El Tri at the famed Estadio Azteca on Thursday evening (9:40 pm ET | OneSoccer, Paramount+).
Mexico are top of the table in qualifying with seven points, while Les Rouges are two points adrift in second place. A surprise victory catapults the revitalized Canadians into first place.
It will also be the first Estadio Azteca experience for several Canadian players, including Tajon Buchanan, Canada’s goalscorer in the aforementioned July loss in Houston.
"It's one of the greatest football coliseums in the world,” head coach John Herdman said. “To go and play a game of football in that stadium, I want to make sure that these players get a chance to embrace that mentality. We've experienced the Mexican crowd before [at the Gold Cup] and there is a little bit of something that was left on the field in that game that I know this group of players want answered. They are going to go into this with some belief and some confidence that they can compete with, historically, the best team in Concacaf, in their hometown.”
Complicating things for Herdman is the likelihood of being short a few first-team regulars, with Cyle Larin and Atiba Hutchinson recovering from minor muscle injuries, goalkeeper Milan Borjan testing positive for COVID-19, and Junior Hoilett and David Wotherspoon also ruled out due to the United Kingdom’s travel restrictions from Mexico.
Still, Buchanan has quickly become a key figure for Canada and is on a tear with the New England Revolution this season. Jonathan David has scored five goals in his last four games for Lille, plus Alphonso Davies can play up front. Maxime Crepeau performed admirably at the Gold Cup and is a solid replacement for Borjan.
The midfield is thinner without Hutchinson and Wotherspoon, but Herdman establishing a tactical identity that allows the team to fluidly change formations in-game overcomes this issue. Canada could line up in a 3-4-3 and shift into a 4-4-2 when needed.
The 4-4-2 caused fits for Mexico's defense at the Gold Cup when Herdman made that switch for the second half, so it’s entirely possible that they will need to prepare for that scenario.
But that tweak was a symbol of Canada’s newfound mental resolve. They’ve seldom gone toe-to-toe with Mexico until that night in Houston. Even with the deck stacked against them again, the Canadians still believe they could replicate that performance and close it out properly.
"Whether it was the response after a timid first half against Honduras, the response to the setback against the USA and the response to that first 20 minutes against El Salvador, those elements are parts of the performance that this group of men know this is a strong team, it's a resilient team,” said Herdman. “When you have that ability to respond, you're able to push your boundaries a bit further, so we're able to take a bit more risk in games to know that we have the ability to come back from tough situations, we're able to respond well when it gets tough."
That’s why if the Reds win in Mexico for the first time ever, Canada’s 2021 storybook could have a three-word title: Redemption and Resolve.