The Canadian men's national team closed out Concacaf World Cup Qualifying with a 1-0 loss to Panama at Estadio Rommel Fernandez on Wednesday night.
Here are three takeaways from the game, a Matchday 14 result where Les Rouges had already booked a Qatar 2022 ticket.
For as tremendous as Canada’s attack has performed during the Octagonal phase, the offense was nowhere to be found in this qualifying finale.
Apart from a quickfire double from Jonathan David around the hour mark, and a disallowed Cyle Larin goal in the 80th minute for offside via Video Review, Canada generated few shooting opportunities in general, let alone quality ones.
In fact, Canada finished with just five shots. That is by far their lowest tally in the 14 games played during this round in a single match.
That was mostly down to how Panama approached the game. The hosts committed 21 fouls and despite boarding the limit on a few tackles, largely avoided bookings until the second half. But even when the Panamanians weren’t fouling a Canadian, the visitors were struggling to build from the back against the high press.
This was a similar issue against El Salvador in January. At that time, El Salvador’s passes per defensive action (PPDA) was 7.87 through nine games, so it can’t be a coincidence that a similarly aggressive team, especially at home, was keeping Canada at bay until a few unfortunate bounces and a sublime goal from Jonathan David lifted the Canadians to victory.
“When you look at the press, what they did tactically, they just took the bottom of that box away,” said Canada head coach John Herdman. “For periods, they were able to be more aggressive on the top of our box and from that, I just felt we weren't quite on our game. We've had better performances.”
That’s correct because the expected goals (xG) finished practically dead even at 0.73-0.78 in favor of Canada. If Larin was positioned a foot onside or David buried one of his two opportunities, it’s a different conversation.
The El Salvador game in January could’ve been chalked down to it being the end of a grueling window where nearly half the squad was lacking match fitness due to the MLS offseason.
In some cases, it was about game management and just a lack of killer instinct for, essentially, just the second time in this qualifying campaign.
“I told the boys that I managed to glean quite a lot of information from the US' experience down here and listening to Gregg Berhalter, his team had burnt themselves out in the first 20 minutes and it cost them the game and we weren't going to do that,” said Herdman. “We wanted to make sure we finished stronger than Panama and that was the plan so we had players coming off the bench that we knew could change the game."
Regardless, this will be an area that Herdman and his staff attempt to fine-tune before the World Cup begins.
Among the changes from Sunday was 19-year-old Ismael Kone receiving his full debut for the national team. Kone, who only had eight appearances for club and country as a professional, had already started at Estadio Azteca and Estadio Nacional in San Jose last Thursday. He can add Panama’s Estadio Rommel Fernandez to that growing list.
But like the Concacaf Champions League match at the Azteca against Cruz Azul with CF Montréal, Kone’s age showed. He was struggling to control the ball and weigh his passes on a less immaculate pitch compared to the Costa Rica game, plus Panama were pressing aggressively which led to a couple of poor giveaways.
It’s easy to get carried away with a young player who starts his career on a high. Sometimes these moments serve as a sobering reminder that they will go through peaks and valleys. This just happens to be one of those valleys.
There is a bigger picture at play here, too. Herdman has constantly discussed the need for Canada to produce at least five or six “Tier 1” players in top European leagues to be competitive at World Cups. Starting the likes of Kone in matches of this magnitude is a step towards that goal.
“That's what we've been pushing, trying to give young Ismael Kone tonight some opportunities, trying to springboard those players with these experiences, so we can push more players into those competitive environments where they are getting Champions League experiences,” Herdman explained.
The key now for Kone is that he learns from this and ensures it isn’t a consistent trend after Wednesday night.
There was a chance that if Canada defeated Panama, it would claim a spot in Pot 3 for the World Cup draw on Friday. Therefore, a shot at landing in a more balanced group compared to if they were in Pot 4.
Unfortunately for Canada, that is no longer a reality. Now the likes of African Cup of Nations winner Senegal and Robert Lewandowski’s Poland could land in their group from Pot 3.
The silver lining for Canada is that they finished atop the table by goal difference over Mexico and the US men’s national team. That is a tremendous achievement for a team that had not been to this stage of qualifying for more than 20 years.
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