Three games in seven days spanning three countries with contrasting climates is a challenge for anyone, but the Canadian men’s national team have navigated the situation incredibly well.
In fact, Canada could become the first Concacaf nation to officially qualify for the Qatar 2022 World Cup if several results go their way come Matchday 11 of the Octagonal.
Should the US men's national team, Panama and Costa Rica (who can also draw) lose their respective matches on Wednesday, coupled with a Canadian win in El Salvador, then Les Rouges will book their first World Cup spot since 1986.
That is a significant amount of scenarios, so it’s unlikely that Canada mathematically clinch an automatic berth on Wednesday night (9 pm ET | OneSoccer, Paramount+). But the fact it’s being discussed after Sunday's 2-0 win over the USMNT highlights how far the program has come over the last year.
Taking eight points from Mexico and the USMNT (home wins, road draws), exorcising the demons of San Pedro Sula by defeating Honduras on the road, and staying undefeated with the most goals scored and fewest conceded through 10 games was beyond any Canadian’s wildest dreams. It seems a matter of when, not if, World Cup qualification is achieved, even though the squad is having none of that chatter.
"I am not even allowing the players to talk about the table,” said Canada coach John Herdman. “We have just got to go into this with the same sort of attitude. Start again, El Salvador is a cup final. The second we take our eye off that and we start thinking about the math, I think that is the mentality that is going to hurt us."
Added goalkeeper Milan Borjan: "The job is not done yet. We cannot celebrate yet. There are still four games to play. We have a very hard game in El Salvador and we have to get the job done. We want to go undefeated the whole campaign, so we are not relaxing or anything. We are just staying focused and we want to get our goal, our dream, to go to the World Cup and for the world to respect Canada."
Unlike the first two matches, there should be more selection options available to Herdman for Wednesday’s match. Center back Steven Vitoria is suspended due to yellow-card accumulation, but CF Montréal defender Zachary Brault-Guillard has been called up as a replacement.
That could indicate the likes of Alistair Johnston, Richie Laryea and Tajon Buchanan will remain in the lineup against El Salvador. Brault-Guillard would then serve as depth.
Predicting Herdman's decisions is a fool’s errand at this stage but there should be a couple of changes, starting with Vitoria being swapped out of necessity. Scott Kennedy might receive a second start in this window after a strong performance in the 2-0 victory over Honduras last Thursday. Don’t discount Doneil Henry receiving the nod, either, as he’s been Vitoria’s usual replacement during this cycle. However, Henry is lacking match fitness like various members of the squad and may not be risked as a result.
There is encouraging news in the central midfield. Stephen Eustaquio trained with Porto on Saturday, flew to Canada over the weekend and was rerouted to El Salvador where he awaits the rest of the team’s arrival. The team’s maestro should, therefore, be available in some capacity. Ditto for Atiba Hutchinson, who will be well-rested after sitting out of the US game. Both players could be reunited together if they are deemed fit enough.
Cyle Larin, the new CanMNT all-time leading scorer, has about 40 fewer minutes in his legs than Jonathan David, yet it will be difficult to drop either striker based on the synergy between them in the last two matches. Then again, El Salvador present a much different challenge than the US and they were held in check by Honduras until David’s wondergoal.
Whatever tactics or personnel Herdman opts for is unknown, but it hasn’t deterred Canada from their mission. Even if qualification is secured over the next game or two, it would behoove the Canadians to keep winning to boost their world ranking, therefore earning a better seeding for the World Cup group-stage draw.
Though it seems presumptuous, the fact this is a serious discussion highlights how close Canada are to attaining that elusive World Cup berth, which might be wrapped up as early as Wednesday evening in Central America.