National Writer: Charles Boehm

"This is new Canada": Concacaf WCQ leaders bask in paradigm shift after beating USMNT

Canada celebration

HAMILTON, Ontario – It was a clear, frosty afternoon 36 years in the making for the Canadian men’s national team.

With suitably brisk temperatures, heaping piles of snow at the margins and a spirited crowd flocking to Tim Hortons Field as this lakefront industrial powerhouse’s smokestacks puffed out a gritty backdrop, Les Rouges put their haughty southern neighbors to the sword in a deserved 2-0 win that extends their lead atop the Concacaf Octagonal standings.

“Whenever we went to [United States], they have 50-60,000 people screaming at us and everything, and we're tired of that, not respecting us,” declared goalkeeper and Hamilton native Milan Borjan, whose point-blank denial of a Weston McKennie header just before halftime was every bit as crucial as the goals from Cyle Larin and Sam Adekugbe. “So whenever we play them it’s something special and we give our all-best just to make our country proud, and not be humiliated [like] before.

“Before it was like, you play US, and they're like, ‘Oh, we play Canada, it’s easy, yeah, blah, blah, blah’ and this and that. But now when they come to us, or we go there, they're scared. They're scared. Last four or five matches, they've been scared against us. Because we have an amazing team,” he added, comparing this rivalry to the bitter Red Star-Partizan derby of his birthplace and current club home. “This is new Canada. This is new soccer Canada, and we’re just going to keep pushing and fighting for the future generations. And we will change the football here in Canada.”

Even with linchpins Alphonso Davies and Stephen Eustáquio sidelined, Canada’s World Cup qualification surges on, undefeated. And with every confident step towards Qatar 2022, the pain of all the failure and suffering since their first and only World Cup appearance in 1986 recedes further into the mists of history.

“I think the swagger comes from our brotherhood,” said Adekugbe. “We have so much confidence in each other, we’ve all grown up together and we’ve all grown up in this last cycle through John Herdman, and I think when we see ourselves go to the US and get a result, when we go toe to toe with Mexico, our confidence grows.

“When we’ve got people like Tajon [Buchanan], like Cyle, like Jonathan David that are playing at top European clubs, there's no reason for us to not have this confidence. When we have a good coach like John behind us, giving us the organization and tactics, there's nothing we can’t do.”

As much as their rising young crops have strengthened the talent pool, plenty of this CanMNT squad experienced firsthand the successive cycles of qualifying disappointment and are euphoric at their sudden evolution into Concacaf heavyweights.

“These guys don't know how to stop, man,” said Borjan with a grin. “This team is something special. But what we've been fighting for, we are one step closer, to making the history of Canada.

“Too many emotions in me right now,” he admitted. “Twelve, 13 years with the program, it's been a long time. Been a long time and this is what we deserve. This is what Canada deserves. It’s just believable, an unbelievable feeling.”


Borjan opened by extending birthday greetings to his father, joking that he and his teammates had given dad “a perfect present.” Born in the former Yugoslavia, his family and those of many of his teammates were immigrants to Canada, a heritage that, like the perennial pains of their long-suffering supporters, the CanMNT are embracing with pride.

“You all know that I came when I was 13 years old,” said Borjan. “This is my way to return to Canada. We're one country and Canada is a multicultural country and we fight for what’s given to us. Canada gave us peace, better schools, better life, better everything. And this is just the way for us to return it to Canada, bringing them to the World Cup after 30-something years. … when somebody gives you that much love and everything, you have to return it. And we're doing our best to return that love to this amazing country.”

As Sunday’s passionate support – and rude welcome offered to the visiting Yanks – reflected, their adopted nation is responding in kind.

“I’ve seen nothing like it, it's glorious. It’s everything we've dreamed of,” said head coach John Herdman, comparing the matchday color that greeted his team in Hamilton to the Newcastle United matches of his youth in England. “The atmosphere from the fans, it’s the first time I've really felt like I’m living in a football country.

“I'm an immigrant here to Canada, we've got a high immigrant population, which many of those people have come from football countries. And the national team have been beaten up for so long. I think there's a lot of people now that can rally around the sport they love and pull a red jersey on at the same time,” he added, suggesting that wins like this one can even aid in the recruitment of dual nationals like Canadian-Mexican wunderkind Marcelo Flores. “And be proud, just be proud that we’re talking about football in this country in a way that, we've got stars now. We've got young star players that’ll be around for a long generation.”

As they were careful to note, this hasn’t clinched their spot in Qatar, or changed anything about their approach to their final four Ocho games, which include long trips to Central American nations El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama. But the vision they and their predecessors dreamed of is nearly at hand, and new ones are beginning to materialize.

“World Cup qualification, the financial opportunity that falls with that, if invested properly, can really set the country up for a long time,” said Herdman. “And then knowing we've already got ‘26 in the bag, this country could really start setting itself up as a top-20, top-30 nation, given our population. And once this passion catches fire, I think we will make sure the best athletes come to our sport and made sure that those with dual passports wear the maple leaf.”