Three takeaways from Canada's heartbreaking Gold Cup semifinal loss to Mexico

Canada’s 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup campaign has ended after a gut-wrenching 2-1 loss to Mexico in Thursday’s semifinal at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas.

Here are three takeaways from the defeat.

Ball don’t lie

Ironically, penalty decisions were a major talking point in another Canadian match.

When they lost 1-0 to the United States in their Group B finale, Canada wondered if they deserved a penalty when Richie Laryea was tussling with Walker Zimmerman. In the end, a spot-kick wasn’t awarded and the Video Review officials felt that was the correct decision.

Two matches later, Video Review was Canada’s downfall as Doneil Henry fouled Jesús Corona after lunging studs-first into the Mexican forward in the box at the end of the first half. Orbelín Pineda eventually converted to give Mexico the lead.

Perhaps spurred on by that moment, Canada dug deep and pulled level through Tajon Buchanan in the 57th minute. Just as the match began to fade, Video Review added some drama when Mark-Anthony Kaye was adjudged to have fouled Corona at the edge of the box in the second half. But, perhaps justifiably in Canada’s eyes, Maxime Crepeau stopped Carlos Salcedo’s 66th-minute penalty to keep the match level at 1-1.

"They weren't frightened tonight,” said Canada coach John Herdman in his post-match press conference. “They left all their fears behind and committed to each other and kept it that simple.”

As resilient as Canada were, even they couldn’t withstand a late rally from Mexico as Héctor Herrera’s 99th-minute strike in second-half stoppage time sealed a victory for El Tri after a couple of close calls.

It’s a heartbreaking defeat to accept, but in the moments afterwards, Canada should be pleased with their efforts given the adversity they dealt with before and during the match. Not only was it a partisan crowd in a tournament that Mexico traditionally dominates, but the Canadians were also missing four key attackers in Alphonso Davies, Cyle Larin, Ayo Akinola and Lucas Cavallini. That’s not even counting Jonathan David, who was left out of the 23-man squad due to a groin injury.

Despite all of those factors against them, Canada still managed to pull level and almost forced extra-time against a mostly full-strength Mexican lineup.

“That's what we wanted to show tonight,” Herdman said. “That we're more than that grit and resilience. We can play and we can go toe-to-toe with the best in Concacaf. Some of those men came of age tonight. Some of those men gave what they could in a red shirt. That's all I can ask for, that's all the country can ask for. We're just gutted."

To Canada’s credit, they literally did not go down without a fight as a minutes-long fracas ensued after Herrera’s goal. That just adds to the excitement for the first meeting of World Cup qualifying between these two teams on Oct. 7.

Buchanan's star continues to rise

When Canada needed him the most, Tajon Buchanan delivered.

The New England Revolution winger had a relatively quiet opening half on the right flank as Canada attempted to weather the Mexican storm while trying to exploit the flanks on the counter.

Then, in an effort to unleash him, Buchanan switched to his inverted flank on the left for the second half and ran wild. He was tormenting Luis Rodríguez, then unleashed a fierce strike to level the match for Canada.

"The first half, we gave him more of a defensive responsibility,” Herdman said of Buchanan’s deployment. “We had a plan to shift him into higher positions during the first half and when we did, you could see it impacted him. But moving him into that higher position, shifting into a more defined 4-4-2, 4-1-3-2 defensively, it helped … and they couldn't handle him on the flanks.”

In total, Buchanan finished the match with 40 touches, two key passes and two shots, most of which were accumulated in the second half.

Four months ago, Buchanan was the star man for Canada’s U-23s at Concacaf Olympic qualifying. Now he’s one of the standout stars for the senior team in what’s been a breakthrough 2021 for the 22-year-old.

Unsung heroes shine

It takes an entire squad to mount a run at a knockout tournament, and Canada saw some of their unheralded players shine in what’s arguably been their biggest match under John Herdman thus far.

At the back, Kamal Miller – who has been tremendous throughout the Gold Cup – was a stud. He was locked in defensively and on the few occasions he had to carry the ball forward, was able to break lines with his passing. The CF Montréal defender logged two tackles, four clearances and four recoveries on the evening, along with his five successful aerial duels out of six attempts.

Up front, the experienced Junior Hoilett was everywhere. He was covering ground defensively, creating space for himself on the dribble and winning fouls all over the pitch. His stats don’t really do his effort justice, but Hoilett was clearly motivated for this match, and Canada needed one of their experienced players to be locked in.