There are always unique mental hurdles to overcome in Concacaf World Cup qualifying. Throw in the backdrop of a global pandemic, there are twice as many barriers to overcome.
That’s why the Canadian men’s national team’s 1-0 victory over Haiti in the first leg of their second-round matchup in Port-au-Prince on Saturday was relished by players and coaches alike.
Navigating tricky away fixtures is a must in Concacaf. Canada will surely face tougher situations, especially when fans are present in stadiums across the region. But the Reds passed their first proper road test of the cycle and were rewarded with a crucial advantage on aggregate win.
The squad barely had time to relish the result, though. Mere moments after the full-time whistle, the Canadian contingent departed Stade Sylvio Cator for the airport, with Canada coach John Herdman fielding post-match queries from reporters inside the security convoy.
Such is life during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now the focus shifts to SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Ill., the former home of Chicago Fire FC, on Tuesday night in what promises to be a polar-opposite experience to Port-au-Prince. The likes of Alphonso Davies struggled on the artificial turf and the overall fluidity of the game was hampered by the sweltering humidity on top of the less-than-stellar playing surface. It showed in the final shot count, with Haiti edging Canada 6-5 in that department.
“You can see with all these players,” Herdman said when discussing the pitch conditions. “[Davies] found it difficult to get going on the dribble and guys were pulling on their shorts all game. It wasn’t easy, it always looks easier on TV and that was a tough pitch to play on for these guys.”
Unlike Saturday night, the circumstances are favourable for the Canadians in Bridgeview, but they won’t let their guard down despite scoring that pivotal away goal. They are aware of Haiti’s potency on the counter, which led to that 3-2 comeback victory over Canada in the 2019 Gold Cup quarterfinals. All the more reason why defensive solidity and chance conversion, the latter of which wasn’t on their side over the weekend, are necessary to secure the desired result on Tuesday.
Jonathan David and Cyle Larin each had opportunities to double Canada’s lead, only to be stopped by Haiti goalkeeper Johny Placide. But considering David also missed his first clear-cut chance versus Suriname in the first round of qualifying before finishing with a hat trick, the odds are he won’t err for a second match in a row.
Should David and Co. show that ruthlessness, it would book Canada’s spot in the final round of qualifying, simultaneously vanquishing the demons of 2019 while parting the dark clouds that have shrouded Canadian men’s soccer for decades. Not since 1997 has Canada reached this stage of World Cup qualification, and that’s where this generational group of players, headlined by Davies and David, belongs.
Accomplishing those goals all comes back to the mental aspect of the game, an area Herdman has constantly addressed since he was hired as coach in January 2018.
This will be Canada’s fourth match in 10 days across three cities and two countries. The European-based players are coming off a grueling campaign in Europe where they achieved domestic success. It’s been a hectic year without factoring in the emotional weight of this match with Haiti.
“I think you can see very quickly that the fatigue levels started to hit around that 30-minute mark,” said Herdman following the first leg. “Then early into the second half, the two midfielders [Stephen Eustaquio and Mark-Anthony Kaye] started to get a little bit leggy.”
Luckily for the players, everyone has shined in their respective roles this month. Whether it’s veterans like goalkeeper Milan Borjan or defender Scott Kennedy, who earned his full debut against Suriname on June 8, those who’ve been called upon to get Canada over the hump appear determined in their task of advancing through the gauntlet known as Concacaf World Cup qualifiers.
Herdman stated it would be a “disappointment” if Canada didn’t qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar more than two years ago. That highlights the confidence and expectation of this group, a mindset that could will them to victory on Tuesday and move them one step closer to their ultimate goal.