The Canadian men's national team had an epic tilt against Mexico in the Gold Cup semifinals this summer, and head coach John Herdman wants his players to remember that heading into Thursday night's World Cup qualifier against El Tri at the Estadio Azteca on Thursday night (9:40 pm ET | Paramount+, Univision, TUDN).
"We left a mark on them in that last game," Herdman said in a pre-match press conference Wednesday. "And good teams, good players, championship teams, they step up. So we're not a surprise anymore. So what we're expecting is a big response from the Mexican team. We've got to be able to handle that."
Adding that he saw a "little bit of fear in the Mexican team" in that epic match, he predicted, "they'll raise their intensity," and noted, "We've got to bring ours if we want to get this result."
Canada will also have to negotiate the match without several key players. Herdman confirmed that goalkeeper Milan Borjan, captain Atiba Hutchinson, former Orlando City SC forward Cyle Larin and Vancouver Whitecaps striker Lucas Cavallii will all miss the game. Minnesota United goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair has been called up as a replacement. And Herdman said the squad depth Canada showed in the Gold Cup will come into play in this window.
"Especially in these kinds of qualifiers, and the ways to set up for this cycle, with three games in such a space of seven [or] eight days, you need that," he said of the national team's abilities up and down the roster. "That's what's going to take you to the World Cup ... we showed that in the Gold Cup, showed that in the last window as well. I think we had about 18 different players that started throughout the three games. So, yeah, we're very confident with ourselves we're confident with the players that come in, and we know that they're going to get the job done. So, honestly, I think, as far as that goes, I think maybe we are one of the deepest in this region for sure."
In the Gold Cup showdown, Canada lost 2-1 on a Hector Herrera winner after Tajon Buchanan drew Canada level in the match at NRG Stadium in Houston. Since making the Concacaf tournament's final four, Les Rouges have started their World Cup qualifying stage competitively, drawing with the U.S. 1-1 in Nashville on Sept. 5, and getting a home draw against Honduras and a home win over El Salvador to amass five points and a +3 goal differential, good for second in the eight-team WCQ standings after three of 14 matches.
Jonathan Osorio called the match against Mexico "our biggest test to date so far" — keeping in mind that Canada's already made its World Cup qualifying trip to the U.S.
"These guys are have been one of the best for a very long time in this region," Osorio said about El Tri. "As a competitor, you always want to play against the best, you want to prove yourself against the best. It's the way you grow as a person and everybody on the team is looking forward to it."
He also remarked, "We have a lot of confidence. We have a lot of belief in this group," he said. "We're not scared of anybody. We believe that we can beat anybody in this region."
Herdman did admit regarding the Azteca, one of the most notoriously difficult venues in all of Concacaf, "Our history in this stadium hasn't been great. And the Mexicans are the perennial champions of Concacaf, we know that."
But he also called Thursday's match "a wonderful opportunity to step forward," and made the point that his players have already effectively played a recent home match against Mexico.
"We took a big message in the Gold Cup in Houston with 75,000 Mexicans cheering their team on," he observed, before pledging, "When we play, it will be no backward step. We want to keep stepping forward."