Commentary: Canadian national team misses an opportunity despite strong showing on the road

Canada just did something they haven’t done in over a decade – and it was actually something good! So why does it feel so… unsatisfying?

The 0-0 draw with El Salvador on Tuesday night was the first time Les Rouges have earned a point on the road in Central America in World Cup qualifying since 2004. It puts the team second in CONCACAF Group A after two games in the semifinal round, and has reminded everyone up north that it is possible to go to Central America in World Cup qualifying and not lose.

Yet, despite this delightful novelty, the situation does seem altogether familiar. And for Canada in World Cup qualifying, “familiar” usually doesn’t mean good.

Flash back to the last World Cup qualifying cycle. Canada opened the semifinal round with a win in Cuba, then dominated Honduras at home but could only record a 0-0 draw. It was that result – much more than the campaign-ending 8-1 loss in San Pedro Sula – that truly derailed the squad’s chances at reaching Brazil 2014.

Now, flash forward to Tuesday night. This El Salvador team was, to put it as elegantly as I can, bad. That was probably to be expected with most of their top players currently on strike. This was, far and away, Canada’s best chance at earning a win on the road in this round.

Could the dropped points come back to haunt the team, the way they did the last time out?

Perhaps. But there is something different about things this time. Whatever the deficiencies of the inexperienced El Salvador team, Canada still looked more confident and composed on the road in a Central American World Cup qualifier than they have in a long time (including September’s qualifier against Belize).

Head coach Benito Floro has faced criticism ever since his hiring about playing a style that seems too defensive-minded, too content to settle for a draw even when a win might be there for the taking. His counterargument is that he’s simply doing his best with the players he’s got – which is true to some extent, though one wonders what impact a certain Toronto FC midfielder could have on a team searching for a goal.

Either way, having 11 players on the field buying in to the same system, the same structure, likely represents Canada’s best chance at earning any sort of result in the tougher road games to come, in Mexico and (gulp) Honduras. And that, seemingly, is what Canada currently has.

This team now knows that they can go down to Central America and earn a point. The next two road games will be exponentially more difficult than Tuesday night’s encounter was. But let’s remember, Canada didn’t lose 8-1 back in 2012 because Honduras was seven goals better than them, the same way that Germany wasn’t six goals better than Brazil in the semifinal of the last World Cup.

Both Canada and Brazil got blown out because they buckled under the pressure. They mentally capitulated.

With a clearly defined system, a no-nonsense veteran coach and Tuesday night’s result under their belts, this Canadian team isn’t going to capitulate in those upcoming road games. That’s not to say they’ll necessarily go out and win; but if they don’t, they’ll surely make the other team earn those points.

Now, that grind-it-out style may not be the most entertaining to watch sometimes, but if it’s enough to get Canada to the Hex, no one is likely to care very much. And however dour some may be feeling at the moment, there is a not-unreasonable chance that Canada could reach the Hex with just seven points (quick reminder: they’ve already got four, with a home date against El Salvador yet to come).

They’ll need the other results in the group to line up in a very specific way to make that possible. And the most likely scenario is one in which Canada needs, at the very least, another point on the road in order to advance.

But at least now this group of players knows that’s something that can be done.

Player ratings

Starting XI

Milan Borjan (7.5) - Second straight great game; was alert all night and kept Canada in it with a couple of huge saves.

Marcel de Jong (6.5) - Solid defensively and, as is his wont, got involved in the forward movement on several occasions.

Adam Straith (6.5) - Another good performance in central defense, in a relatively new pairing with our next contestant…

Dejan Jakovic (6) - Did his work at the back, just loses the half point for a spurned scoring opportunity off a free kick.

Karl Ouimette (5.5) - Not a great game for the converted center back, filling in at right back, but did enough to keep El Salvador at bay.

Julian de Guzman (6) - In his record-setting 85th appearance for Canada, the captain marshaled all of his CONCACAF experience.

Will Johnson (6) - Another sprightly effort from the Timbers captain, though an early yellow card curtailed his game somewhat.

Atiba Hutchinson (6.5) - Perhaps getting the half-point bump on reputation alone, Hutch did what Hutch does – controlled the midfield smoothly and safely.

Junior Hoilett (6.5) - A dynamic first half, with another bit of magic that nearly got Canada a goal; tapered off a bit as the game wore on.

Tosaint Ricketts (5.5) - He works his backside off and loves playing for the national team. Those are both good things! 

Cyle Larin (5.5) - Put his best chance of the evening off the crossbar, then hit side netting late; could have used better service on the night.


Samuel Piette (6.5) - Came on as a sub, but was in full “pitbull” mode, playing tough and breaking up plays in the midfield.

David Edgar (6) - As a late replacement for de Guzman as holding midfielder, did enough to withstand a late surge from the home side.

Tesho Akindele (6) - Came on late for Hoilett, and had a few good runs down the left side, but not enough time to change the game’s outcome.