Canada are through to the semifinals of the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup after defeating Costa Rica 2-0 in Sunday’s quarterfinal in Arlington, Texas, thanks to Junior Hoilett’s calmly-chipped finish and Stephen Eustaquio’s second-half strike.
Here are three takeaways from Canada’s monumental victory.
For the first time since 2007, Canada will play in a Gold Cup semifinal.
It’s been a long time coming for this generational squad of players, too. It appeared attainable two years ago until the second-half collapse against Haiti in the 2019 quarterfinals when Canada coughed up three goals in 26 minutes to lose 3-2.
Three players who started that match were in the lineup tonight. Junior Hoilett was among them, along with Lucas Cavallini and Jonathan Osorio. It was fitting, then, that Hoilett scored the goal that helped Canada clear the quarterfinal hurdle.
Most importantly, Canada managed to overcome a marquee opponent in reaching the quarters. The Costa Rica starting XI didn’t include some of their ‘A’ options, yet the same can be said about this Canadian squad, having lost Alphonso Davies, Cyle Larin and Ayo Akinola to injuries at different stages of the tournament.
"We just managed Costa Rica in a way that was important for this team to show, number one, their tactical awareness and, number two, that brotherhood which you've seen them pressing Costa Rica for almost 70-plus minutes,” said Canada coach John Herdman in his post-match press conference. “That's not an easy thing to build, the mentality to do that, as well as their sort of bravery to commit that every man is going to be on the front foot."
"At the beginning of the tournament, we knew this was going to be an important game for us,” added midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye. “I'm glad that everyone came onto the field, committed to the gameplan and committed to each other and played well."
Adversity will be a common theme for Canada over the next few months as Concacaf World Cup qualifying approaches in September, so managing these games and attaining the necessary results, no matter the circumstances, are crucial.
"We really want to show the country and all of Concacaf that we're a very deep, deep team and that no matter who is on the field, we will get the job done,” asserted CF Montréal defender Kamal Miller.
“I feel like we'll die for each other on the field.”
If there were two players Canada sorely missed against the United States in the Group B finale, they were Kaye and Stephen Eustaquio.
Eustaquio missed the US match due to suspension and Kaye wasn’t risked as a starter, likely due to his yellow-card warning ahead of the game. But they both returned for the quarterfinals in top form, particularly Eustaquio.
The crowning moment for the Pacos de Ferreira midfielder was the sublime long ball over the top of the Costa Rican defense to the feet of Junior Hoilett, who eventually converted with a chipped effort over goalkeeper Esteban Alvarado. He followed it up with a composed finish off a loose ball in the 68th minute to wrap up the victory for the Canadians.
Outside of the goal and assist, Eustaquio was marshaling the midfield as he has throughout the tournament. The 24-year-old finished the game with 47 of 55 completed passes, three key passes, four tackles, three interceptions and 10 recoveries in a dominant display.
“He's really stepped up in this tournament,” said Herdman. “His free-kick goal and tonight was just one of those really controlling games from Stephen Eustaquio."
He’ll be rightly praised for his efforts on the ball, but the willingness to hound Costa Rica for 90 minutes and recover possession until the final moments of the match were admirable as well.
Considering he could have represented Portugal internationally, but opted for a generational Canadian squad, it's a real coup for the program.
“That's what motivates him and you see that in his play,” Herdman stated. “The intensity he plays at, the desire, the passion. I think he embodies everything we want this football country to be moving forward. He's not just a fighter. He's got that quality as well and that precision."
Kaye, meanwhile, was quietly effective. Not every pass came off, but that's the risk-reward balance with a dynamic midfielder who always tries to progress the ball. Those killer line-breaking attempts were sorely lacking versus the US, and the LAFC man still completed 34 of his 42 passes. He also added two interceptions, two tackles and 10 recoveries.
Notably, neither Kaye nor Eustaquio are suspended for Thursday's semifinal against Mexico. Good thing for Canada, too, because that would have made it a near-impossible task.
Not for the first time at the Gold Cup, Canada couldn’t escape a match without a selection-based headache for the next fixture.
Having picked up their second bookings of the tournament on Sunday, defender Steven Vitoria and Vancouver Whitecaps FC forward Lucas Cavallini, who replaced the injured Cyle Larin, will be suspended for the semifinal.
Vitoria will likely be replaced by Doneil Henry in defense, but Cavallini was the undisputed No. 1 option up front after Larin’s injury. Orlando City SC forward Tesho Akindele was called in for cover, so he’ll be among the possible options and would be a like-for-like replacement, but coach John Herdman clearly has a massive decision to make up front for the semifinals.
"When one man falls over, another man has to step up,” said Herdman. “That's, I think, the culture we've brought here. We've been rotating the squad well ... I'm excited to see another man get an opportunity. Tesho Akindele has just sort of came into the tournament, he was very unlucky to have not been called in, but now he gets a chance. He may be one of the guys starting the game in the next match, a crucial game."
Good thing he’ll have four days to mull it over.