For the first time since 1997, the final round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying will feature the Canadian men’s national team.
Canada followed up on its narrow win over Haiti in the first leg of their second-round qualifier in Port-au-Prince with a 3-0 victory on Tuesday night at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Ill., the former home of the Chicago Fire, via a Josue Duverge own goal and a Cyle Larin strike before Junior Hoilett added a late tally.
Here are three takeaways from a historic night in Canadian soccer.
It took 24 years, numerous heartbreaking results and “The Hex” to be renamed to “The Octagon” to get there, but Canada has returned to Concacaf’s gauntlet.
The exorcism of countless losses in Honduras and previous heartbreaking results in World Cup qualifying has been complete. Now Canadian men’s soccer can move forward with optimism and hope instead of eternal dread.
It couldn’t be more fitting that Canada endured a four-game, 10-day window in order to book its spot in the Octagonal phase of qualifying, which promises to be even more grueling. Players are surely exhausted, both mentally and physically, from the travel and emotions of playing each match, so this couldn’t have been an easy task.
"It's been a helluva journey,” said Canada coach John Herdman in his post-match press conference. “This year, as I say, has been complicated. But the passion that these guys have shown and the staff to get us where we needed to be, which is in the Octagon. This team deserves to be there. Now we are even more hungry and more battle-hardened with more experience under our belt. And if we can go to Haiti, we can travel anywhere."
"It was very tough,” said captain Milan Borjan. “Every second day getting tested, watching to not be close to the people outside the hotel, staying in the hotel, just taking care of ourselves. We showed that we had one brotherhood."
But the job is done, and the players can soak in the achievement until the focus shifts to the Concacaf Gold Cup this summer before the Octagonal kicks off in September. A visit to the U.S. men’s national team wedged in between home dates with Honduras and El Salvador is on slate for Canada when the final round begins.
While June was a grind for Canada, it provides an advantage that five of its opponents in the final round don’t have.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the reshuffling of World Cup qualifying, there will be triple matchdays in September, October, January and March. Playing four games in 10 days is a small taste of what the eight teams can expect from the outset.
Thanks to these four qualifiers, Canada coach John Herdman will know how to best rotate his squad, arrange training sessions and to maximize the overall quality of his squad.
The most important quality, though, might be trusting the team to stay tight at the back.
"I'm not getting too ahead of myself because there are gaps here,” Herdman admitted. “We still need to keep improving. But what we achieved were clean sheets. Right at the start of this journey, that is what this team was closing. That was the performance gap we were closing on this tour. The clean sheets win you games."
Due to visa complications upon entry to the U.S., Haiti’s No. 1 goalkeeper Johny Placide was one of several players who were made unavailable for the second leg. As a result, Montreal-born Josue Duverge was thrust into the spotlight.
He started brightly, too. A triple save on Jonathan David was among the first-half highlights as Canadian players were left staring up at the sky wondering what more they had to do to score.
As it turns out, they didn’t have to.
Early in the second half, Duverge received an innocent back-pass from defender Kevin Lafrance. The 21-year-old goalkeeper took his eye off the ball, it rolled through his feet and in a moment of panic, accidentally kicked the ball off his trailing left foot and into the open goal.
Even on a day when Canada can celebrate, a Canadian native was made to suffer in a do-or-die World Cup qualifier.
As recently as two years ago, Cyle Larin’s national-team stock was at an all-time low.
It couldn’t be higher in 2021.
Fresh off a 23-goal season at Besiktas, where he was deployed as an inside forward – primarily on the left wing – and helped guide the club to a Turkish Super Lig title this season, the former Orlando City SC striker arrived at camp on a high and he showed that newfound clinical finishing in both legs against Haiti.
But Tuesday’s was as cool as they came, evading two defenders before converting with aplomb to wrap up the win.
Larin’s pair of goals against Haiti now gives him 15 with Canada across 37 caps, placing him in a tie for seventh on the national team’s all-time scoring chart with teammate Jonathan David and Ali Gerba. The Vancouver Whitecaps' Lucas Cavallini (tied with Alex Bunbury) is the next man on the list, which highlights the newfound attacking talent in the Canadian player pool.
Make no mistake, though, few players deserved to play the role of goal-scoring hero more than Larin, who’s become a focal point of this generational squad.