How Canada beat El Salvador to all but secure Qatar 2022 World Cup spot

The Canadian men’s national team extended their winning streak to six games thanks to a narrow 2-0 victory at El Salvador in Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier, closing the winter window on a high note.

Here are three takeaways from Canada’s latest celebratory evening; a Qatar 2022 spot is all but secured for the Concacaf Octagonal’s first-place nation.

The Besiktas connection

For all the world-class goals that Canada have scored in this qualifying cycle, Wednesday’s winner was certainly unique.

Tied 0-0 after an hour, Cyle Larin – a second-half substitute in this one – went bombing down the right flank and saw his Besiktas teammate, Atiba Hutchinson, darting towards goal. He fed the 38-year-old midfielder at the near post, but the ball somehow bounced off the post, off an El Salvador defender, off Hutchinson's back, looped over goalkeeper Kevin Carabantes and went in.

It was Hutchinson’s second goal in as many games against El Salvador but this had to be the most bizarre of the pair.

"Didn't know much of it, to be honest,” Hutchinson admitted after the game. “From what I remember, Cyle made a good effort at getting free of his man, staying on his feet, not going down to ground. Once he got into the clear, I just tried to make my run first post … he played in a good ball [and] I think I got a touch. It hit off the post and after that, I don't know what happened.

"Obviously a very lucky goal but it crossed the line, and in football, sometimes you need that luck.”

Nonetheless, they all count the same and it helped Canada maintain their lead atop the table, undefeated through 11 matches and winning three straight 2-0 games after previously downing the United States and Honduras.

Changes galore

Playing their third World Cup qualifier in a week in their third different country, a couple of changes were expected for Canada on Wednesday.

As it turns out, half the team ended up switching out. Hutchinson, Doneil Henry, Scott Kennedy, Stephen Eustaquio, Junior Hoilett and Liam Millar all drew into the lineup with mixed results.

Hutchinson and Eustaquio were their usual consistent selves. They orchestrated well and did not skip a beat after missing one and two games, respectively. Kennedy continued his strong performances, and even Henry was solid next to him.

But the effects of playing three matches in a week, coupled with the travel and the heavy pitch, all seemed to influence the final product just as much as the changes.

"This was one of the toughest places I have ever been,” Eustaquio said of the conditions in San Salvador. “Hard grass, hard environment, the weather was very hot. ... A lot of noise everywhere. But we stood together. We had some hard moments during the game, but at the same time we knew it was normal and we wanted a nine-point window and we got it.

“This has been a big window,” said Canada head coach John Herdman. “A challenging window where we are happy that we picked up the points and we are steps closer to Qatar. But this one was tricky."

Herdman acknowledged that four staff members and three players – the latter group thought to be Lucas Cavallini, Liam Fraser and Cristian Gutierrez, who were all omitted from the matchday squad – tested positive for COVID-19 before departing for El Salvador. All seven are in “good condition,” according to Herdman.

On the pitch, one of the changes was Millar, who could have capitalized with Tajon Buchanan on the bench. It was a tremendous opportunity for the Basel forward to stake his claim after a few decent showings for Les Rouges as a starter or as an impact substitute.

Millar was defensively responsible and that was always a guarantee. The 22-year-old has always worked hard off the ball. It was what he did with it that left a lot to be desired. He completed 14 of his 19 passes but most of them were mundane. To top it off, Millar didn’t complete a single dribble nor attempt one shot in his 58 minutes.

It’s only one game but given how often Millar will show flashes of brilliance and then fizzle out, he needed to impress here for future consideration. Luckily for him, he’s still young and remains highly regarded by Herdman.

More clean sheets

Make it six clean sheets in 11 games during Canada’s Octagonal trip so far. It was also their third of the window and even more impressively, they only allowed 0.35 expected goals on six shots.

Canada’s defense has been as sturdy as ever in these three matches across a variety of different circumstances. In Honduras, the Canadians faced a few waves of pressure and needed a couple of Milan Borjan saves to preserve their lead. The US win saw Canada concede 13 shots but other than Weston McKennie’s header off a first-half corner, none of them were particularly threatening.

This time, it was a low volume of attempts of little to no quality. That requires extra focus sometimes, yet the Canadian players didn’t relent with their pressing and ensured there were no clear-cut chances for the hosts.

That left the door open for Jonathan David's clinching scoop in second-half stoppage time, a brilliant solo run that sealed the 2-0 scoreline and dented El Salvador's already-faint World Cup hopes.

Defensive solidity has been one major factor in Canada’s success during World Cup qualifying. It’s ironic considering that was arguably the biggest worry before the Ocho began.