However far Canada may have come in the last few years, it seems the Mexican mountain may still be too steep to climb.
The Canadians fell 3-1 to Mexico on Wednesday night in Group A action at the Concacaf Gold Cup, leaving us in the situation that most would have predicted when the tournament schedule was announced: El Tri as presumptive group winners, and Les Rouges as presumptive runners up.
John Herdman’s side finishes up the group stage on Sunday against Cuba, who’ve lost their first two matches by a combined score of 10-0. Barring an incredibly unlikely pair of results that day, the Canadians are most likely staring down a matchup with Costa Rica in the Round of 16.
Did Herdman choose Canada’s “best” starting XI to go up against Mexico? The point could be debated ad nauseam without any kind of satisfactory conclusion—though one suspects that, if some platonic ideal of a Canadian lineup existed, Scott Arfield and Junior Hoilett would be in it.
Neither, however, started on Wednesday night. Nor did Jonathan David, who scored twice against Martinique in the group-stage opener. It’s all, presumably, in the name of squad rotation.
Through two games, Herdman has used 17 of his 20 outfield players, with 16 of them having started one or both games. Keeping players fresh and healthy is vital for any team in a short tournament like this one—and having the “best” squad available and prepped for a must-win knockout game surely takes precedence over shooting for the moon in a group-stage affair.
What could Canada have done against Mexico with a different lineup on Wednesday? We’ll never know. But if Herdman’s squad rotation experiment pays off, they could get another look soon… in the semifinal on July 2.
Speaking of Herdman’s experiments, the Englishman has never been shy to try out new things in his tenure as manager of Canada’s two senior national teams, be they tactical formations or positional decisions.
In the latest round of the “let’s see if this person is a fullback” game, Herdman slotted Russell Teibert in as an ostensible wingback in a 3-4-3 who, more realistically, functioned as a fullback in a 5-4-1. The Teibert experiment, in isolation, went well enough—and Canada did well to absorb the early pressure Mexico was inevitably going to bring.
The ongoing Mexican wave of pressure eventually produced cracks in the structure, and some sloppy plays allowed Mexico to break through. But with about 30 minutes left, and the injection of the trio of Arfield, David and Jonathan Osorio, Herdman switched to a 4-4-2 and all of a sudden, Canada looked more dangerous than they had to that point.
Again, the question of “best formation” can be endlessly argued; but now, at least, there’s some more hard data upon which to draw.
Fire and desire
At about 30 minutes into a scoreless game, viewers were treated to the sight of Herdman and Mexico manager "Tata" Martino angrily barking at each other along the sideline. What prompted the back-and-forth is anyone’s guess, but seeing a man in a Canada zip-up fearlessly chiding a peer of Martino’s renown is surely good for Canadian morale boosting.
It radiated onto the field as well, from Atiba Hutchinson loudly directing teammates to Canadian players getting riled up after tough challenges, to the team coalescing in a supportive circle at the final whistle. Fans from up north are perhaps too accustomed to seeing their men’s national team slink off the field disconsolately after a tough decision; this team, it seems, is intent on breaking that stereotype.
Milan Borjan: 6. Kept the game competitive with a huge save just before halftime to keep it 1-0; couldn’t have done much about any of Mexico’s goals
Derek Cornelius: 5. Suffered a nasty head knock late in the first half, and was off the field during Mexico’s opener; growing into his role as the marshal of Canada’s back line
Doneil Henry: 4.5. Greeted Mexican attackers with some characteristic strong challenges; a wayward pass led to Mexico’s second goal
Atiba Hutchinson: 5. Showed some shortcomings of playing in an unfamiliar defensive role for most of the game, but blossomed a bit when “the switch” came in the 60th minute and he could move forward
Mark-Anthony Kaye: 5. Back in his comfortable central midfield role; showed more glimpses of his ability, but lacked precision in a few key attacking moments that could have shifted the game
Zachary Brault-Guillard: 4.5. Given lots to do along the right side, in terms of defense and supporting the Canadian attack; a missed clearance allowed Mexico to capitalize for their first goal
Will Johnson: 5. Provided some good distribution and presence in his hour on the field
Russell Teibert: 5.5. Decent performance in an unexpected left fullback role, offering some width in the attack and making a few good defensive interventions
Alphonso Davies: 5.5. Kept Mexico honest with a few of his trademark blazing runs; looked the most likely Canadian to find the back of the net (and nearly did) before dropping to left back, where he got caught on Mexico’s third goal
Lucas Cavallini: 6. Left lonely as the target man for long stretches, though showed his skills with a 30-yard bulldozing run late in the first half; got into the right place at the right time for his sixth Canada goal
Cyle Larin: 5. Much more to do than usual in an hour-long shift, playing as a left/right winger and also called upon to drop back and help out defensively
Jonathan David: 6. Just like against Martinique, showed great instincts and timing to strip an opposing defender in a dangerous position; on this occasion, he set the table for Cavallini to tap one in
Jonathan Osorio: 6. Came on with a half hour left and helped lift Canada into the ascendancy, fizzing one shot just high and another just past the Mexican post
Scott Arfield: 6.5. Entering the game together with Osorio, helped press the midfield and attacking unit forward and put Mexico under plenty of late-game pressure