National Writer: Charles Boehm

Concacaf realities may lead USMNT to keep Canada rematch in perspective

“Top-of-the-table clash.”

Those can be magical words in any competition, a distillation of a match’s high stakes as well as its likely – or hoped-for, at least – levels of quality. When schedules and results align for a faceoff of two frontrunners, especially far enough into the campaign for the standings to carry real weight, it tends to become the biggest fixture on the docket.

For the current window of Concacaf Octagonal World Cup qualifying, that’s Canada vs. the United States, who lock horns on the frigid FieldTurf at “The Donut Box,” aka Tim Horton’s Field in Hamilton, Ontario on Sunday afternoon (3:05 pm ET | Paramount+, Universo, Telemundo in US; OneSoccer, Sportsnet in Canada).

Some of the key protagonists seem to see it that way:

Even without Alphonso Davies, this could well turn out to be a classic, the latest high-water mark of a border rivalry suddenly simmering with almost as much vibrance and relevance as the ancient USMNT-Mexico showdown.

You can be sure that Les Rouges’ cunning capture of a 1-1 draw in Nashville in September didn’t sit well with the Yanks. It certainly didn’t with the 43,028 fans in attendance at Nissan Stadium that evening, who greeted the final whistle with a wave of boos.

For two historically underachievement-prone programs intent on changing the way the world perceives them, this matchup is a chance to lay down a marker. (By the way, it's also a vindication of sustained investment in player development by MLS clubs in both countries; just peruse the list of academy products who'll be in uniform.)

Looking ahead a bit, three points in Canada would ease US nerves in March, when Gregg Berhalter’s side must close out their Ocho slate with the traditionally brutal trips to Mexico and Costa Rica on either side of a home date with Panama. And results like Sunday’s count not only for qualification to Qatar 2022 but also the FIFA rankings that will be used to seed teams for that tournament’s draw.

So there are both numerical and psychological arguments for goosing the throttle and having a go here.

But the inconvenient reality is that Sunday doesn’t really matter as much to the Yanks – at least, not in the way that their supporters, and neutrals seeking an engaging spectacle, might wish. Not compared to Wednesday's meeting with Honduras in St. Paul, Minnesota.

As satisfying as it might be to avenge the dropped points in Tennessee and knock those noisy neighbors down a peg or two, the USMNT’s overriding priority coming in this window is securing all six points available to them on home turf. You know the old Hexagonal saying about successful qualification, and it’s turning out to apply to the Ocho, too: Win at home, draw on the road.

So the CanMNT need a W in Hamilton more; even though they have yet to lose in this cycle, they dropped points at home in an opening-day draw with Honduras at BMO Field. This time around they’re forced to jet to San Pedro Sula and San Salvador for away games on either side, though.

The Americans got a necessary three points against El Salvador on Thursday. And of the remaining two, it's the game at Minnesota United FC's Allianz Field that is a must-win for the US. Or to put it another way: It was the home losses to Mexico and Costa Rica that really doomed them in the 2018 cycle just as much as, if not more so, than that iconic stumble in Couva.

What is Berhalter's outlook? He has made “one game at a time” a team-wide USMNT mantra on par with “His name was Robert Paulson,” and made the calculated gamble of siting these games in the coldest, least hospitable settings imaginable for the Central American visitors, even at the potential risk of severe winter storms turning them into ice bowls where victory or defeat hinges on a single slip or snowy skip of the ball.

“The way I see it is, all windows are tough. All windows are difficult. All windows are important,” Berhalter intoned before the win over El Salvador. “Any three-game window, there's nine points on the line, right? This window is no different. And every point is valuable. Every point you get gets you closer to eventually qualifying for the World Cup. So to us, there's no extra emphasis.

“I think it gets a little bit dangerous when you start over-emphasizing one window versus other windows.”

If Wednesday really does come first, some lineup shuffling might be in order. Tyler Adams (who is carrying a yellow card), Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah and Antonee Robinson look essential to the best version of the USMNT and all of them went the distance in Columbus, save for Musah's 89th-minute exit. Christian Pulisic looked uncomfortable and ineffectual in his 65 minutes on the pitch and might benefit from a substitute's role next time out.

Then again, if the Yanks are really serious about “one game at a time” then perhaps they'll leave nothing in reserve on this jaunt to Ontario.

Berhalter has posited that it's physiologically feasible for his players to feature in all three of this window's games, a prospect Adams and Robinson welcomed earlier in the week. Plus, Thursday's 2-0 home loss to Canada might have crushed winless Honduras' dwindling hopes for good – and Los Catrachos have only rarely in their qualifying history taken points on US soil.

So to borrow a term popularized by a prominent Canadian rapper, let's all hope Berhalter is feeling YOLO this weekend, and we can entertain the possibility of a full-bore Canada-US slugfest.

But that's not really his MO, is it? He knows it’s Wednesday that can put the USMNT on the doorstep of Qatar, and Sunday is likely to unfold accordingly.