Riding high after a historic result at Estadio Azteca, the Canadian men’s national team have a golden opportunity, one that could mark the beginning of their road to Qatar 2022.
Having earned a 1-1 draw with Mexico, which could have been a win if not for a lack of clinical finishing, Canada now travel to Kingston to face a struggling Jamaican side Sunday (6 pm ET | OneSoccer, Paramount+) in their second of three Concacaf World Cup qualifiers this window.
Having lost the likes of defender Ethan Pinnock and striker Michail Antonio to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Jamaica’s squad is weaker on paper than initially anticipated. Both players would’ve shored up their respective positions immensely but the Reggae Boyz are shorthanded for October and sitting bottom of the Octagonal standings.
“You've got to give them a little bit of grace given they’re the hardest hit of any team by some of the pandemic realities,” said Canada head coach John Herdman.
Jamaica have successfully recruited numerous dual-nationals over the last few months, but navigating through the United Kingdom’s COVID-19 travel restrictions for the September window was a challenge for the Caribbean island nation. Unable to enter red-list countries such as Mexico and Costa Rica, a large contingent of English-based players skipped those games and were only available for the team’s 3-0 home loss to Panama on Sept. 5.
To add insult to injury, Sunday’s match will be played without fans inside Independence Park as a precaution.
With Canada’s four remaining away games coming in the cauldron of Central America, three points are there for the taking. Nothing is guaranteed in Concacaf, of course, but with Panama facing the United States and El Salvador traveling to Costa Rica, a win would widen the gap between the Canadians and the chasing pack for the third and final automatic qualification spot.
Despite the factors working against Jamaica, Canada have a dilemma of their own. Defenders Steven Vitoria and Richie Laryea along with the in-form Tajon Buchanan are suspended after picking up yellow cards against Mexico. Sam Adekugbe, Stephen Eustaquio and Mark-Anthony Kaye are one booking away from a one-match ban of their own as well.
There’s also the continued absence of Besiktas teammates Cyle Larin and Atiba Hutchinson, who’ve been battling respective thigh injuries and were deemed unfit to make the trip to Mexico City. They're not in Kingston, Herdman confirmed Saturday evening, nor is forward Lucas Cavallini.
Junior Hoilett and David Wotherspoon will return, though, having skipped the Mexico match due to the UK’s coronavirus travel restrictions.
Hoilett is heavily favored to start in place of one of the suspended trio, but Herdman has a headache of sorts in preparing a potential starring lineup.
He could maintain the midfield trio of Eustaquio, Kaye and Jonathan Osorio, who’ve been fantastic together in 2021. But with the former two on a yellow-card warning, they risk missing Wednesday’s home qualifier against Panama at Toronto FC’s BMO Field. Even Adekugbe, a potential replacement at the back, is one booking away from a suspension.
“We’re not at full strength, but what is full strength for Canada?” Herdman questioned. “I think what you’ve seen in the Gold Cup and that performance from that group of players, I have every confidence that this group can take any team to that point of a result.”
This is one of many challenges Concacaf offers with these three-game windows. Squad rotation and depth are massive, which could be the ultimate factors in determining who qualifies for the 2022 World Cup.
“Depth is what is going to take you to the World Cup,” said Osorio. “We have a lot of it. We showed that at the Gold Cup. We’ve showed that in the last window as well. I think we had 18 different players that started throughout the three games, so we are very confident with ourselves, we are confident with the players that come in and we know that they are going to get the job done.
“As far as depth goes, I think maybe we are one of the deepest in this region for sure.”
Canada have enjoyed a strong start to qualifying but only have one win through four games. Road points are valuable currency, yet if Les Rouges truly mean business and want to build on Thursday’s monumental performance, a pair of victories – starting on Sunday in Kingston – could send a message to the rest of Concacaf that they're a force to be reckoned with.