There are plenty of overused tropes in North American sports (“giving 110 percent”, anyone?), but perhaps none is as frequently misused as the phrase “must-win game.”
The second game of a best-of-seven playoff series isn’t a must-win game. A midseason matchup with a rival isn’t a must-win game. The fifth game of the season is never a must-win game, even if you lost the first four.
A must-win game is one where anything less than a victory would either eliminate your team from a competition, or render their advancement a mathematical impossibility. Period.
Now, all of that being said, let’s put pedantry aside for a moment to look at Canada’s upcoming clash with Honduras (Friday, 10 pm ET, TSN) for what it is. Yes, it’s the first game of the six-game semifinal round of qualifying in CONCACAF, so it cannot, by strict definition, be a must-win game for either side.
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But realistically speaking, nothing less than a win at Vancouver’s BC Place will do for Canada.
There are plenty of symbolic reasons why a win would be awfully nice. Many Canadian soccer fans still wake up in cold sweats thinking of the last meeting between the two teams, that infamous 8-1 debacle back in 2012. But that game is far from the only sticking point in this rivalry.
There was the Hondurans’ controversial win at the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup. And the Hondurans’ controversial win in a World Cup qualifier in Montreal in 2008. And the Hondurans’ controversial draw in a World Cup qualifier in Edmonton in 2004.
Noticing a trend?
So, sure, a win on Friday would produce many soliloquies about revenge and redemption and finally turning the tide. But it isn’t the symbolism or the narratives that make this showdown a not-a-must-win-but-realistically-a-must-win.
A win, of course, would entail scoring at least one goal—and anyone who’s seen the national team play recently (or at any point in history, really) knows that scoring goals is hardly Canada’s strong suit. You may recall the side’s hideous 2013, in which 13 games played resulted in just a single, solitary goal.
Head coach Benito Floro took charge halfway through that year and, while the team’s goals-per-game rate has increased since then (small victories!), the Spaniard’s focus has undoubtedly been on establishing and maintaining a tight, defensive-minded structure.
And hey, that’s all well and good in many situations. If the other team can’t score (in 19 of 22 games under Floro, Canada has conceded either one or zero goals), they can’t win. But the inverse is also true—if you don’t score, you won’t win. Playing for a goalless draw on Friday simply isn’t good enough.
So the microscope will be on Floro, and whether he’s able and willing to make use of the personnel he now has at his disposal to go for the jugular. However, the potential vindication of Benito Floro also isn’t the reason why this Friday’s match is a realistic-must-win.
Quite simply, anything less than a win on Friday and it’s going to be exceptionally tough to convince anyone that Canada have a shot at reaching the Hexagonal round, never mind Russia 2018.
To escape Group A (which also includes Mexico and El Salvador), Canada will likely need at least 10 points from six games, and possibly more. In the last World Cup qualifying cycle, 10 points in the semifinal round earned the Canadians third place in their group, behind Honduras and Panama. This time out, Canada can perhaps hope that Mexico will run the table (or come close), leaving the other three teams to battle for second place.
Getting 10 points in this round would mean that Canada’s home dates against Honduras and El Salvador are realistic-must-wins, with the remaining four points coming from either a quartet of draws or a win in Central America (something the team hasn’t done in more than a decade) and a point in two games against Mexico.
That latter scenario is hardly unattainable. The last time Canada and Mexico met in World Cup qualifying, in 2008, a Mexican team in need of points could manage only a 2-2 draw at a chilly Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. The teams will meet again in March 2016, with the venue of Canada’s home leg yet to be determined. Could a frosty locale give Les Rouges the advantage, and a crucial point?
As for playing in Central America, which has traditionally been Canada’s Achilles heel, there’s perhaps no better time than the present to reverse the historical trend. El Salvador, where Canada will play on Nov. 17, are a team in disarray, with their first-choice players having recently gone on strike due to a disagreement with the national governing body.
Grab a draw in San Salvador and Canada's got four points from two games; not a bad start at all. The dreamers amongst us may even be thinking of six points from the first two. Seven points from four games would put Canada in a very good position to reach the Hex, and it isn’t out of the question—unless the boys in red fall short against Honduras this week.
With more than 15,000 tickets already sold at BC Place, Canada can reasonably hope for a sold-out lower bowl, and the psychological boost that a raucous home crowd can provide. The Canadians will also benefit from the absence of Carlo Costly—who has scored four career goals against Canada in World Cup qualifying—and Andy Najar, who is taking a break from the national team.
But then again, Canada’s roster situation is hardly rock solid either. Cyle Larin had a terrific year for Orlando City SC, but is still a 20-year-old rookie. Junior Hoilett looked impressive against Ghana, but that was his first game ever for the national team. Will Johnson is on the squad, but hasn’t played for a month, due to a minor operation.
The margins will be razor thin on Friday, as they always are in World Cup qualifying. The only safe prediction is that there will likely be one defining moment, one crucial decision by a player (or an official) that could shape not only the game’s outcome, but the trajectory of both teams’ journeys toward the next World Cup.
While the nature of that decision, and its aftermath, is yet to be determined, one simple truth remains. A moral victory will not suffice. If Canada are to have any realistic hope of advancing beyond this round of World Cup qualifying, then Friday against Honduras is, indeed, a must-win game.