Both sides met in the group stage during the 2019 Gold Cup, which was the first marquee test for Les Rouges under coach John Herdman. Canada switched to a back-three for that game and named a few surprise starters in the lineup, eventually losing 3-1. However, some wondered if Herdman’s selection decisions were calculated to not tip his hand ahead of a potential semifinal with Mexico.
“We wanted to learn a lot from Mexico,” said Herdman after the loss in 2019. “Hopefully the weapons on the pitch are ones we would be able to use in a semifinal against them.”
In the end, Canada didn’t get the chance. A gut-wrenching loss to Haiti in the quarterfinals prevented the grudge match from occurring. Fast forward two years and Canada are receiving that opportunity against the defending champions.
With El Tri one of the superpowers in Concacaf and a perennial contender for the Gold Cup, Canada aren’t expected to win. In addition, there will be a partisan crowd at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, as there often is for Mexico’s matches in the United States, making the task even trickier for Herdman’s team.
"It says underdog on paper, but we are going into that game with full confidence that we are going to get the job done,” said CF Montréal defender Kamal Miller. “We are going to make a game plan and stick to it and go out and give our all. It doesn't matter who we're playing: Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, doesn't matter. We are going to go out and obviously have respect for our opponent, do our homework and give it our best shot."
To make matters even more stressful for Canada, Herdman has to rotate his lineup due to suspensions for Vancouver Whitecaps FC striker Lucas Cavallini and defender Steven Vitoria, who picked up their second yellow cards of the Gold Cup in the 2-0 quarterfinal victory over Costa Rica. Center back Doneil Henry and current Orlando City SC forward Tesho Akindele are expected to replace Vitoria and Cavallini, respectively, in the side.
For Henry, it should be a seamless transition after starting recent matches for Canada, but Akindele will be forced to sink or swim. He only earned a call-up as an injury replacement after Cyle Larin (leg injury) and Toronto FC homegrown Ayo Akinola (ACL tear) were ruled out for the rest of the tournament.
Thankfully for Akindele, he got his feet wet as a second-half substitute against Costa Rica, logging 20 minutes and two shots, one of which hit the target.
But the midfield will be key for both sides. Mexico’s trio of Edson Alvarez, Hector Herrera and Jonathan dos Santos (LA Galaxy) was electric in a 3-0 quarterfinal win over Honduras, while Orbelin Pineda was dominant in a free role. Head coach Tata Martino is also blessed with a bevy of options, including the LA Galaxy’s Efrain Alvarez, Inter Miami’s Rodolfo Pizarro and Sporting Kansas City's Alan Pulido as potential game-changers in attacking spots.
"They operate in areas often in front of your frontline,” Herdman said of Mexico’s midfield. “They'll drop in to create back threes in the central areas, back threes in the side areas. Alvarez and Herrera are key players in setting Mexico up. But a lot of that is a mask. The mask is they'll create that tight pentagon centrally and those five players in those central channels will look to combine [with] one-touch football. Some of it is just world-class, it's really difficult to deal with.”
Herdman’s midfield corps isn’t too shabby, either. Stephen Eustaquio was the man of the match in their win against Costa Rica, Mark-Anthony Kaye (Colorado Rapids) is a ball-progressing machine and Jonathan Osorio (Toronto FC) is a workhorse in the middle who combines nicely with the fullbacks. Then there’s defensive stalwart Samuel Piette (CF Montréal) and Liam Fraser (Columbus Crew), a solid orchestrator in his own right.
“The battle in the midfield is central spaces that you have to deny,” Herdman continued. “I don't know if it comes down to players, per se, but I think you almost need a whole team to deny what Mexico really want to take out of that game. Then when you deny that central space, they operate in the flanks, and they bring new levels of quality there.”
Eustaquio will be the main man of the three. His ability to play through pressure, dictate the tempo, cover ground and contribute defensively will be integral to Canada’s chances. Even though he only has nine caps, he’s already a crucial piece of the national team.
The Pacos de Ferreira midfielder led the charge against Costa Rica by harrying them for the majority of the 90 minutes, recovering possession and cycling the ball forward. Los Ticos had no answers for it.
“I think Stephen just has an experience with that style of football,” said Herdman. “I think he understands the high pressing and the high-pressure tempo that you see in Mexican football."
The week off between Group B's finale and the quarterfinal clearly benefited Canada. They had ample training sessions to perfect their pressing, patterns from the back and other intricacies. With only three full days to prepare for the semifinal, it’ll be intriguing to see their approach for Thursday's knockout round game.
Whether they advance to face the Qatar-USA winner or not, the mission is the same for Canada: proving they can manage games of this magnitude and react to any situation, all ahead of World Cup qualifying beginning in September. Anything further is icing on the cake.