The Canadian men’s national team awaits a familiar position. A two-legged matchup against Haiti across June 12 and June 15 is all that stands in Les Rouges’ path to the octagonal round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying, which would be their first appearance in the region's final gauntlet since 1997.
Five years ago, a similar situation presented itself. Canada took a shocking 1-0 lead in Honduras through defender Manjrekar James, only to cough up that advantage and fall 2-1. It was a far cry from the 8-1 loss to Los Catrachos at the same venue in 2012, but equally redundant. A draw would’ve secured qualification for the decisive hexagonal round in either cycle.
However, this is not your older sibling’s Canada. Gone are the days of parking the bus and praying to the soccer gods for that desired result. This is a new age, led by a group of domestic champions in some of Europe’s top leagues, from Alphonso Davies at Bayern Munich to Cyle Larin at Besiktas.
Saturday’s match at Port-au-Prince’s Stade Sylvio Cator (5 pm ET | OneSoccer, Paramount+) isn’t a grudge match in the cauldron of San Pedro Sula, but even this exciting generation has some demons to exorcise.
Two years ago, when it appeared that Canada were set for their breakthrough moment at the 2019 Gold Cup, Haiti – who trailed 2-0 at halftime – clawed back three goals and stunned them in the quarterfinals.
Not only do Davies and his teammates have the weight of history on their shoulders, they also have revenge on their minds from 2019.
“At the end of the day, we get Haiti back and that’s the game we’ve been wanting for two years,” Canada coach John Herdman said after Canada’s 4-0 win over Suriname this past Tuesday. “Whether it’s in Haiti or Timbuktu, wherever they want to put us, that game is so important for the boys. We get to play them twice and put right the wrongs of two years ago and show how far this group has come.”
The 4-0 win over Suriname sounds straightforward on paper, though it was anything but. Switching to a 3-5-2 formation for the crucial Group B match that’d decide who advances from Concacaf’s First Round stage to the Second Round, Canada experienced some early hiccups. Tjaronn Chery forced a save out of goalkeeper Milan Borjan via a free kick, then Sheraldo Becker smacked the crossbar two minutes later.
The script was starting to write itself. Canada could either fold or show the mental resolve needed to survive Concacaf. They opted for the latter, largely thanks to their generational stars.
Davies opened the scoring off a Jonathan David through ball before returning the favor with two assists for the Lille striker, who finished the game with a hat trick.
But this is a new challenge for Herdman’s squad. Apart from two Concacaf Nations League matches on less-than-stellar pitches in the Cayman Islands and Saint Kitts and Nevis, they’ve seldom experienced – at least in recent years – the hardships of playing meaningful games in Central America or the Caribbean. The weather forecast in Port-au-Prince is ominous, which could lead to a heavier playing surface, not to mention the external factors plaguing the country.
Haiti have experienced a rise in COVID-19 cases, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flagging it as a high-risk country and recommending only fully vaccinated travelers visit the country if it’s an essential trip. The Caribbean country is designated at “Level 4: COVID-19 Very High.”
Crucially, though, Haiti is experiencing civil unrest, which has led to a recent increase in kidnappings of Haitians, dual-nationals and foreigners in Port-au-Prince, according to the Canadian government.
“At the end of the day, it’s an adventure and this is the ride for these boys and this is our destiny and we can only control what we can control,” Herdman said. “There has been good work at our head office to put security attachés with us to look at the risks from either COVID or other risks that could be undertaking.
“I think there is a good plan in place to keep people safe and I think FIFA have obviously done their risk assessments to say it’s a safe place to go.”
Of course, avenging the 2019 loss is easier said than done. Canada may have weathered the storm against Suriname, but tempting fate twice in a matter of days is risky. Haiti caused major issues with their high press against the Canadian backline, which forced an error out of Borjan for the Haitians’ first goal of that Gold Cup quarterfinal.
Les Grenadiers eventually targeted the flanks, mainly the right wing where Davies was situated as a left back. He’s significantly more adept in the position as a key starter at Bayern, and in this 3-5-2 setup, Davies has the license to sprint down the left wing and drift centrally, which led to Canada’s second goal versus Suriname.
“I have no problem playing wingback,” Davies said after the victory over Suriname. “It gets me an opportunity to get forward and the system we played, it was good for our wingbacks and for us to get forward to attack. … It was a new system to us, but we are all top professional footballers and we figured it out quickly.”
However Herdman decides to approach these two legs, advancing is a must. It’s wondrous for Canadian men’s soccer to see Davies, David and Larin winning trophies in top leagues and playing UEFA Champions League games, but it hinders the national team’s mainstream image when the same players link up and trip over hurdles of this magnitude.
To defeat Haiti across two legs, they’ll also need to take care of business next Tuesday in the second leg at SeatGeek Stadium, Chicago Fire FC’s former home. Accomplish that and a wave of momentum will carry them into marquee World Cup qualifiers with the US, Mexico and others as they seek their first World Cup berth since 1986.