If anyone ever needs an example of regression to the mean, show them Canada’s performance from Friday night.
After last month’s triumphant 2-0 home win over the US men’s national team in Concacaf Nations League play sent expectations into the stratosphere, Friday’s 4-1 loss brought perceptions crashing right back down to Earth.
The result at Exploria Stadium felt more familiar to Canadian fans – characterized as it was by Canada’s defensive brain-farts and inability to capitalize on the sporadic attacking chances created – than the inspired result at BMO Field back in October.
Canada’s fate in Group A will ultimately be exactly what it was expected to be: second place behind the USMNT, presuming that they defeat Cuba on Tuesday (7:30 pm ET | FS1, UniMas, TUDN). And yet, the emotional fluctuations of the last 30 days will cause this result to feel more devastating than it is.
Consider that any team conceding off a set piece in the first two minutes, as Canada did on Friday night, is likely dooming itself to an extremely rough night. But consider also that, once Les Rouges miraculously escaped the first half without having anyone sent off, they were able to compose themselves sufficiently to allow the possibility of a comeback in the second 45 minutes.
Such praise of a fruitless and formless attempted comeback may seem like a desperate attempt to apply lipstick to a pig. But an ugly three-goal loss against a favored opponent does little to alter several unimpeachable realities.
Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David are still just 19, while Derek Cornelius is 21 and Mark-Anthony Kaye is 24. They’re just a few of the members of Friday night’s squad whose brightest days in Canadian colors remain ahead of them.
And, perhaps most importantly, a combination of other results in CNL play mean that Friday’s loss wasn’t necessarily a death knell for Canada’s chances of being top-six in the region and slotting into Hexagonal qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.
However, it does necessitate that Canada Soccer finds a way to get games – friendlies, as they’re widely known – over the course of the next seven months. If that can be done, and Herdman’s side can put together a few results, then perhaps all is not lost.
If the governing body regresses to the mean on that front, then Canadians dreaming of seeing their team in a World Cup might already be better off drifting their focus towards 2026.
Here are three other big takeaways:
1. A Tale of two Phonzies
The absurd moment at the end of the first half – which saw Canadian players huddled on their own goal line defending an indirect free kick after a rare (but correct) decision to punish an instance of “backpass trickery” – perfectly symbolized what may have been Alphonso Davies’ toughest 45 minutes for the national team.
Davies was the one penalized for flicking the ball to his own head, then into the arms of goalkeeper Milan Borjan (a rule that seemingly no one in a Canada jersey had ever heard of), and it came at the close of a difficult first half in which the former Vancouver Whitecaps phenom returned to left back.
The resilience of youth was on display after the break, as Davies largely righted the ship and created some of his trademark headaches for American defenders. His willingness to switch roles back and forth with right back Richie Laryea (a tactical move we’ve seen Herdman utilize before) is another potential positive to extract from what was a dire result.
2. Center of attention
A day after being linked to a move out of Vancouver, Doneil Henry made his return to the Canadian lineup (after serving a one-game suspension) and, along with his peers on the defensive front, left much to be desired.
Henry then left the game early in the 48th minute with an apparent leg strain, to be replaced by Derek Cornelius, while Steven Vitoria scored Canada’s lone goal to put a bit of shine back on himself. While Henry’s injury is hopefully minor, the saga of how to straighten out the Canadian backline remains ongoing.
The return of John Anthony Brooks certainly steadied things for the USMNT on the night, so one wonders if it’s simply the Cornelius/Henry/Vitoria triumvirate finding the right rhythm and continuity? Or are there other faces to whom Herdman might turn when the next roster selection comes about?
3. A bright moment
Lost in the wreckage of the outcome might be that Stephen Eustaquio, the 22-year-old Cruz Azul midfielder, made his on-field debut for Canada. It wasn’t a cap-tying moment per se, as the Ontario-born Eustaquio had already filed his “one-time switch” paperwork with FIFA to repatriate himself from the Portuguese national-team setup.
But it was the latest reminder that, however harsh this one result may appear, the reinforcements continue to arrive for Herdman. While October’s dominance of the USMNT may have been a historical outlier, perhaps the new reality of player-pool depth will render Friday’s result similarly anomalous.