Canada's late win in Jamaica puts Copa América within reach: "We have to finish the job"

2023 Nations League

KINGSTON, Jamaica - With a veteran-laden squad, the Canadian men's national team battled to a 2-1 victory at Jamaica Saturday morning in the first leg of their Concacaf Nations League quarterfinals tie.

The victory marked Canada’s first in Jamaica since 1988 and set the stage for Tuesday's return leg at Toronto FC's BMO Field, where the aggregate winner will automatically qualify for the 2024 Copa America in the United States and advance to the Nations League Finals in March. 

After an immense downpour postponed Friday night’s kickoff to Saturday morning, both sides had to readjust and reorganize in what still proved to be a critical matchup, despite Canada struggling to find their footing early. 

“It was tough, but we had to adapt... that’s what this group is about, too. We don’t look for excuses; we look for solutions, and together, we had to dig deep,” Canadian center back Steven Vitoria said post-match.  “Our brotherhood had to be dug out, and now we have a big win and want to bring that momentum back to Toronto.”

While both sides had to tackle the delayed kickoff, Les Rouges prevailed after early worries and took the lead just before the break when Jonathan David finished off a classy move inside the box from Cyle Larin to beat three-time Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake at the far post.

Although Canada controlled most of the final hour, Jamaica found their way back into the game in the 56th minute, when a quick set-piece and a finish from Shamar Nicholson left Canada’s defenders unaware, looking for an offside flag or whistle to indicate a restart. 

Stephen Eustáquio scored the match-winner with five minutes remaining, finishing on a first-touch after Vancouver Whitecaps fullback Richie Laryea drove the ball down to the touchline before pulling it back.

“We wanted to come out of here with a result, and we knew that if we achieved that, it would put us in a good position for the second leg in Toronto on Tuesday,” interim head coach Mauro Biello said, following his first win at the helm of the CanMNT. 

“We’re going to have a difficult game in Toronto, but that first phase is mission accomplished for us, so we switch our focus to recovery, get the players ready, and focus on performing in that game."

Laryea shines

Despite his Audi MLS Cup Playoffs ending earlier than he had hoped with Vancouver, Laryea proved to be one of Canada’s top contributors on Saturday, providing the assist on the final goal while being one of the top defensive players.

Although he often slotted into a back three alongside Vitoria and Inter Miami CF’s Kamal Miller while Canada were in possession, allowing Whitecaps teammate Sam Adekugbe to push into attack, he proved vital in all aspects.

Through 90 minutes, he made 25 successful passes on 48 touches while making two tackles and winning six of eight duels. He also recovered seven loose balls, and his speed saved the CanMNT from several defensive mishaps.

The 28-year-old’s versatility is critical to Canada’s approach, and finding his feet under Biello allowed Canada to play positively in the second half, as he contributed to both sides of the ball, eventually proving critical.

Past issues remain evident

While Canada found both goals off of two strong chances, there were several worrying points for Biello’s men, particularly early, as they struggled to settle into the match, with past weaknesses showing in critical moments.

The center-back duo of Vitoria and Miller has proved strong in the past, but they have often struggled to deal with direct aerial balls. That factor nearly cost Canada on Saturday.

In the 14th minute, Leon Bailey found himself clear on goalkeeper Milan Borjan, getting on the end of a lofted ball over the top, which snuck past Vitoria’s head and eluded the recovery runs of both defenders. Yet, Canada was able to force the ball out to wide areas through the final 60 minutes, minimizing the potential issue.

While Jamaica constantly pressured Canada’s center backs, the Canadian midfield also struggled in transition through the first half, with Alphonso Davies drifting centrally and failing to play through balls to runners off the ball.

Similarly, Eustáquio struggled to control spaces when forced out wide. When he and Davies swapped to more natural roles in the second half, Canada controlled play, developing their eventual winning tally. 

“If you’ve been watching him for a while, he’s been doing well, and he’s in great form, so when a player like that is coming out for their club teams with that type of form, and they’re able to transform it into the national team, it’s great,” Biello said of Eustáquio. “I’m happy for him and the boys in their commitment to this win.”

With no decision on the permanent head coaching role expected to be made until early 2024, this window is critical to Biello’s efforts in securing the role while pushing Canada towards the Copa America and further opportunities for young players ahead of the 2026 World Cup on home soil. 

“This win is special. For me representing this country, it’s an honor, and it’s an honor every day to be able to work with this group and make our fans and country proud,” Biello said. “We showed a lot of resilience today to come out here on top. Now we have to finish the job back home.”