Canada under pressure to rotate against Haiti ahead of USMNT showdown

One month to the day the Canadian men’s national team defeated Haiti in the second leg of their second-round matchup in Concacaf World Cup qualifying, both sides are set for another battle, this time at the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup.

Plenty has changed since that fateful night on June 15. But in an eerily similar twist of fate, Haiti are dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak to start the tournament, with five players and one assistant coach testing positive.

Last month, it was visa issues that prevented some of Haiti’s starters from playing the second leg at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Ill.

Despite those absences, Haiti held firm in its Gold Cup opener against the United States. An early header from Sam Vines was all that separated the two teams as the US secured a narrow 1-0 win

That should be enough for Canada to proceed with caution Thursday night (7:30 pm ET | FS1, TUDN), although an additional dilemma for coach John Herdman might level the playing field.

While Canada overcame a rocky start en route to a 4-1 win over Martinique on Sunday, six players were booked during the match. With yellow cards resetting for the quarterfinals, that means if any of Alistair Johnston, Steven Vitoria, Stephen Eustaquio, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Liam Fraser or Lucas Cavallini receive a second booking before the quarters, they will serve a one-match suspension.

“It’s not what you want first game of the tournament,” Herdman lamented after the victory. “You’d want to hope that there would be a bit more leniency given that it’s a tournament environment.

“We’ve just got to be smart and more disciplined. But there were a couple where guys genuinely just don’t know what they’ve done wrong and I think that’s something we’ll go back and look at just to make sure that this isn’t something that continues for us.”

With a pivotal game against the USMNT on Sunday (5 pm ET | FOX, Univision, TUDN), Herdman might be enticed to rotate his squad to ensure he has as many options at his disposal for the critical Group B finale.

With both Johnston and Vitoria on yellow-card warnings, that could open the door for Frank Sturing to make his Gold Cup debut in place of the former and Doneil Henry filling in for the latter. In midfield, Fraser might be the lone risk to replace either Kaye or Eustaquio with Samuel Piette slotting in for the other.

Of course, that’s contingent on Herdman sticking with the 3-5-2 formation he’s leaned on for the last four games.

Should that system remain, the approach to Thursday’s match will likely be similar to the two legs in June. Canada will try to build most of its attacks down the left side, but instead of Alphonso Davies carrying that weight, it will be New England Revolution sensation Tajon Buchanan.

Buchanan was practically unstoppable against Martinique, repeatedly burning Romario Barthelery for pace in the first half. The 22-year-old finished the match with an assist and a game-high three dribbles completed from five attempts.

Herdman revealed Davies and Buchanan were starting at left and right wingback, respectively, in training before the Bayern Munich star withdrew from the Gold Cup with an ankle injury. That could’ve been a scary prospect based on how Buchanan performed Sunday, and in an inverted role, no less.

Now it’s Buchanan tasked with unlocking Haiti’s defense, although Kamal Miller will be equally key to that mission. The CF Montréal defender, who missed the June qualifiers due to injury, started on the left of Canada’s back three and was tremendous with his distribution. The combinations with Buchanan and Junior Hoilett were integral to breaking down Martinique.

“This week we’ve been trying to shift some habits to get him to play faster on that side of the field just because of the quality we have in front in those wide areas like Tajon,” Herdman explained. “I thought Kamal played with the real clarity he needed to find Junior, find Tajon quickly and when he couldn’t, to keep the ball circulating.”

He doesn’t receive the plaudits of other Canadian attackers, but Hoilett’s experience is key for a young attacking core. He didn’t play a single minute for Cardiff City after January before he was released from his contract at season’s end, yet the veteran forward remains a focal member for the squad. 

Hoilett partnered Cyle Larin up front against Martinique and made history in doing so. The 31-year-old is now Canada’s all-time assists leader with 14, surpassing Dwayne De Rosario’s record after assisting Eustaquio’s goal in the 26th minute. That was his second helper of the night, following a sublime delivery off a corner for Larin’s equalizer.

“It is a great honor to represent the country and set a record for this country for assists,” said Hoilett. “With the team we have here, it makes it easy for me to get those assists because we have great finishers and a great all-around team. It is an honor playing with this group of brothers and I can’t wait for the next game.”

Even though Canada exorcised some demons by reaching the final round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying for the first time since 1997, revenge will still be top of mind. Haiti dumped the Canadians out of the Gold Cup in 2019 after scoring three goals in the second half of their quarterfinal to win 3-2

It was a monumental comeback for Haiti, but a tragic result for Les Rouges, one they’ll attempt to avenge as they push for a spot in the knockout stage.