If you’re still buzzing (or fuming) from Sunday night’s Concacaf Nations League final thriller (by the way, the third-place match between Costa Rica and Honduras was also pretty fun), please consider the following public service announcement.
There’s more Concacaf to imbibe (mainline?) on Tuesday evening.
As is the case all too often, it’s lamentably flying under the radar in the United States. But Canada's men’s national team has one of their biggest games in years on Tuesday evening (9:05 pm ET | OneSoccer in Canada, Paramount+ in the US), a moment of truth with even higher stakes than that CNL carnival between Mexico and the USMNT. It even features MLS protagonists on both sides.
Canada meet Suriname on Concacaf's final day of First Round World Cup qualifying, needing a win or draw to advance out of Group B and into the Second Round, one step closer to a prized spot in the “Octagonal” final stage alongside the US, Mexico and five others. From there, the region's tickets to Qatar 2022 will be doled out next year.
If you’re a Yank frustrated with the USMNT missing out on Russia 2018, contemplate your side trying and painfully failing – oh so painfully failing – to return to the big dance every four years since 1986. Let’s spell it out for emphasis: a soccer-mad nation of some 38 million with a thriving soccer culture has been waiting for a second men’s World Cup adventure since the year nineteen hundred and eighty-six, Common Era, and hasn’t even reached the final round of WCQs since 1998.
The underachievement implied in that paragraph is a big reason why the CanMNT must tread a much longer and more arduous path back to glory than their US and Mexican counterparts. Thankfully for them, they’re doing so with probably their most talented squad ever, headlined by Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Mark-Anthony Kaye. It's packed with solid players across the pitch, about half of them based in MLS.
Les Rouges had to deal with Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and Aruba (and did so by a combined margin of 22 goals). They now must avoid any slipups against the second-place Surinamese.
In classic Concacaf fashion, that’s a much tougher matchup than it once was – and there’s a whole story behind it.
A former Dutch colony on South America’s sweltering northeast corner, Suriname is bonded with Concacaf by history and culture – just like neighbors Guyana and French Guiana. Thanks to a recent law change, their national team can finally call on a greater share of professional players from their enormous diaspora to the Netherlands, much like the Curaçao side that proved a handful for the USMNT in the 2019 Gold Cup.
That means that a team nominally ranked 136th in the world is now packed with Eredivisie regulars and veterans of other top European leagues.
They’re captained by English Premier League and La Liga campaigner Ryan Donk. Inter Miami’s Kelvin Leerdam is a key weapon, as is winger Sheraldo Becker of Bundesliga overachievers Union Berlin. Nigel Hasselbaink, Jimmy Floyd's nephew and a lively attacker currently based in the Israeli league, has already bagged two hat tricks in qualifying. Oh, and Philadelphia Union faithful may get nostalgic at the sight of Roland Alberg, their mercurial playmaker of bygone days.
“If you’d asked me 11 months ago, we had a good [group],” CanMNT head coach John Herdman told reporters last week. “Bermuda was the toughest team in the group. Suriname are a completely different team now. They’re a top-six to top-eight team in Concacaf in terms of the quality of play. I don’t think anyone would have predicted that in nine months they’d have 15 new players who have played at the highest levels in the Eredivisie.”
As good as Canada have been lately, De Natio have won all three of their qualifiers by a combined score of 15-0. With so many new faces in such a short time, even Suriname probably don’t know what their own ceiling is. But it’s safe to say they’re far from “minnow” class.
Davies & Co. can’t even call on their recently strong home-field advantage in the Great White North, where, if you recall, CanMNT inflicted the USMNT’s only Nations League defeat.
Much like their country’s MLS trio from Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver, Les Rouges are presently stuck playing in closed-door, home-away-from-home stateside venues thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. After playing their first three qualifiers in Florida, they’ve decamped for Chicagoland – more specifically Bridgeview, Illinois, former home of Chicago Fire FC – in search of a less tropical climate in which to host a tropical opponent.
Herdman seems to have infused his players and their supporters with the optimism of a new dawn in Canadian soccer, but the stakes are high, the history is grim and the nerves are jangling. As charismatic as he is, the Englishman was half-kidding (or was he?) when he urged journalists not to report in too much detail on his team’s tactics and personnel this month, born out of fear of tipping off their adversaries.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the country’s soccer renaissance could well be run off the rails by another prominent faceplant. Conversely, survive this test against Suriname, then navigate the two-legged playoff structure of the second round, and suddenly Canada are an Octagonal upstart for everyone in the region to regard with apprehension.
What more can be said? Have fun storming the castle, my Canadian friends.