There can no longer be a shred of doubt — Canada have come in from the cold as one of the hottest teams in international football.
John Herdman’s side, 2021’s most-improved international team, have begun 2022 by making more history as they seek their first men’s World Cup berth since 1986. On a frigid winter afternoon, they scratched their biggest itch and dismissed their noisy neighbours at a raucous Tim Hortons Field.
Gregg Berhalter and the USA were fitful and frustrated as they found no answer to Cyle Larin’s ferocious seventh-minute strike before defender Sam Adekugbe delivered the dagger in injury time for a famous Canadian victory.
The US now approach Wednesday night’s meeting with Honduras in Minnesota with apprehension, knowing they need to pick things up. For Canada there is only elation. By Wednesday their ticket to Qatar 2022 could be punched.
These really are times without precedent for Canada. In the summer the women’s team won Olympic gold. Sunday marked the first competitive midwinter window on home soil since 1985. Herdman and Canada eschewed the option of playing indoors in Vancouver to keep things interesting outdoors, with logistics also a factor. Conditions weren’t as frigid as feared however, the mid-afternoon slot ensuring the mercury didn’t quite plummet as far as it had last November when Mexico were beaten on the night Edmonton became the Iceteca.
Managing the compressed Concacaf schedule has been as challenging as any environmental issues. Herdman’s cycling of his squad has been particularly impressive, coaxing his players through nine unbeaten games before Sunday, when he was without Alphonso Davies. He tinkered again here making four changes to Berhalter’s three.
It was one of Canada’s newcomers who set the tone, defender Kamal Miller leaving Christian Pulisic shuddering with a heavy foul four minutes in. The USA star’s abysmal delivery from the resultant free-kick hinted that Miller’s hit had indeed been felt.
Three minutes later, the visitors were really rattled. Matt Turner’s goal kick got caught in the breeze swirling in from Lake Ontario and barely made it to the halfway line. Miller’s header was flicked on by Jonathan Osorio and a neat but simple one-two between Larin and Jonathan David opened a chasm in the heart of the visitors’ defence. Larin lashed a shot across Turner and into the top corner and stood alone as his country’s record goalscorer.
Canadian lungs emptied into the afternoon air. In an arena the locals call The Donut Box there was a bad joke to be made about the hole in the US defence but Berhalter was unlikely to find the humour in it.
Slow starts have been a bugbear in this campaign for Berhalter, who had watched the US draw a first-half blank in seven of their nine games before Sunday. They’d make it eight here in spite of controlling much of the possession. Pulisic continually cut a frustrated figure as, behind him, Weston McKennie struggled to impose himself in the middle. Referee César Arturo Ramos was letting the game flow but the Americans could find little fluidity of their own: Sergiño Dest and Antonee Robinson were both blunted when they attempted to go forward.
Steven Vitoria blocked bravely from Brenden Aaronson before the half hour. More set-piece opportunities came and went with Canada content to sit, soak and frustrate. Pulisic wasted a free-kick in a particularly dangerous position before finally, two minutes before the break, getting a corner right. His delivery was met with plenty of power by McKennie but Canada captain, Milan Borjan, back in his hometown, clawed it on to the bar and to safety and then bellowed into the crowd in delight.
Berhalter once again had to scrabble to find answers at the interval.
The manager’s matchday footwear won rave reviews on social media but Berhalter was in danger of wearing out his Air Jordans on the synthetic surface as he paced the technical area. It was a lot of the same early in the second half with Canada’s pace on the break looking more threatening than most of what the Americans could muster. When it opened up for Aaronson on the hour mark he snatched at the ball and shot straight at Borjan.
Change finally came on 69 minutes when USA skipper Tyler Adams was forced off through injury and Berhalter used the break to bring in Kellyn Acosta, Ricardo Pepi and Jordan Morris.
But still the best chances were Canadian. Turner spilled a David shot from range and Larin almost poked in his second.
Evening’s shadow began creeping in and the cold came with it. When Adekugbe misjudged a cross on 79 minutes, there was a brief flick of light for the US but Pepi blazed wildly over.
The seconds ticked down and Adekugbe blocked heroically from substitute Paul Arriola who then flashed the ball acrobatically wide. Canada’s left-back somehow had the legs to break forward soon after and almost seal the win.
The Americans were given five more minutes but mustered nothing. Instead it was Adekugbe who scorched clear and delivered the exclamation mark. Doubts? Not a single one. Canada have arrived.