Squizzato: Time for Canada to walk the walk in Gold Cup quarterfinal clash

There’s a classic writing trope that Canada would be well advised to heed ahead of Saturday’s quarterfinal match with Haiti at the Concacaf Gold Cup (7 pm ET | TSN in Canada, FS1, Univision, UDN in US):

Show, don’t tell.

Or, to put it in a less geeky way: Actions speak louder than words.

To their credit, it’s not as though John Herdman and company have been the ones pumping their own tires throughout this tournament; most of the bullish bloviating has been coming from observers such as yours truly.

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But to our credit, it’s been hard to slow our pulses while witnessing a Canadian team that, for the first time in recent memory, can regularly and intentionally score goals on the correct net in competitive play.

On the backs of blowout wins over Martinique (4-0) and Cuba (7-0), Canada scored as many goals in the group stage of this Gold Cup as they’d scored in the previous five Gold Cup tournaments combined.

It was six Gold Cups ago, back in 2007, that Canada last made the semifinals — and that’s exactly where they’ll need to get in 2019 in order for this tournament to be considered anything but a letdown.

Though the pre-tournament suspicion was that Les Rouges were on track for a quarterfinal showdown with Costa Rica, their opponent will actually be Haiti, who posted an unexpected 2-1 win over Los Ticos on Monday evening.

And though that might seem like a wonderful gift, no one who knows anything about Canada’s soccer history in games they were “supposed to win” will be considering the Haitians a cakewalk.

“[Haiti are] a very cohesive team,” Herdman said on a media conference call on Thursday. “They’re excellent in that transitional moment. They have so much athleticism and it’s the speed at which they can send numbers forward… for Canada, it’s definitely a red flag.”

Despite the two nations’ disparities in size, socioeconomic status or any other factors, let’s be honest — both are second-tier competitors in Concacaf.

Both are former regional champions (Canada lifted the Gold Cup in 2000; Haiti won its predecessor tournament, the CONCACAF Championship, in 1973) and both have but one winless FIFA World Cup appearance to their names (Canada in 1986, Haiti in 1974). While that’s all ancient history, the parallels continue to the current day.

Both teams had to earn their way into this Gold Cup through the Concacaf Nations League qualifying process — and both did so with four wins from four games and a +17 goal differential. Haiti actually edged out Canada for first place by virtue of having scored one more goal (19 to 18).

Four years ago, while Canada were celebrating their status as Gold Cup co-host by goallessly floundering out at the group stage, Haiti were going toe-to-toe with the likes of Honduras (win), Panama (draw) and the USA (1-0 loss), en route to a narrow loss to Jamaica in the quarterfinals.

Two years ago, while Haiti were watching the Gold Cup from home, Canada went undefeated in the group stage, en route to a narrow loss to Jamaica in the quarterfinals.

This time out, neither Canada nor Haiti will have the Reggae Boyz to blame for their quarterfinal loss. But however similar the two sides’ fates have been as of late, let’s not mince words: if Canada wants to change anyone’s mind about who and what they are, this game is a must-win.

“These are the moments our team has been questioned,” said Herdman. “They’ve got a goal, and they’re very clear on that goal, and I’m pretty confident they will give their best without any distractions to get the result for Canada.”

The mention of “distractions” was, perhaps, Herdman’s way of noting that while everyone’s aware of Canada’s history in big, meaningful games, he doesn’t intend to let it weigh too heavily on this squad’s mind heading into Saturday.

“We’ve put our attention on what we can affect and what’s important to us, and [we’re] trying to take away any other sort of distractions or clutter that surrounds the game,” he said.

“These players are very clear on what their mission is: to bring respect to our flag in the football world [and] to really step forward with a talented group.”

The potential is there. Lucas Cavallini and Jonathan David are a devastating strike force for Canada; David, the 19-year-old, has a mind-blowing nine goals in six appearances for the national team, five of which have come during this Gold Cup.

Behind them, players like Alphonso Davies, Scott Arfield, Junior Hoilett and Jonathan Osorio comprise one of the region’s most dangerous attacking contingents. The central midfield support of Mark-Anthony Kaye and Samuel Piette helps glue the whole thing together, while Milan Borjan remains one of the sturdiest goalkeepers Canada’s ever had.

There are, of course, questions heading into the quarterfinal, and as was the case heading into the tournament, they revolve around the defense. What role will the timeless veteran, Atiba Hutchinson, play against Haiti? How is Kaye’s health, and how will this affect Herdman’s choices on the back line?

Will a young defensive unit (plus, perhaps, Hutchinson) hold up in the high-stakes environment of a Gold Cup knockout game?

These questions remain to be answered, but they won’t be answered with words on a screen or sounds emanating from mouths at press conferences; they’ll be answered with flesh-and-blood actions on the field at NRG Stadium in Houston.

For years, there’s been a strange sense in some Canadian soccer circles that the men’s national team was somehow playing beneath its “rightful” place in the hierarchy, that it was merely some combination of bad luck, bad circumstances and nefarious “Concacaf-ing” that was holding the team down.

The truth is, the Canadian men’s team have fully earned the reputation they carry. Now, though, it would appear the squad has the talent to change those perceptions. It won’t, however, be enough for the team to tell us, or for us to tell each other, that times have changed.

On Saturday against Haiti, Canada must go out and show us.

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