“We have to be stronger”: The CanMNT and USMNT looking to put day 1 Octo disappointments behind them ahead of pivotal Sunday clash

Canada Soccer’s and US Soccer’s National Teams get set to face off in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying action on Sunday. Ahead of then, though, they’ll have to erase their memories from the opening day of the ‘Octagonal’, where they were left wanting more in a pair of draws, which only upped the stakes in this clash between two longtime rivals.  

Heading in with such high expectations, both sides were left wanting more after day 1. 

For both Canada Soccer’s and US Soccer’s Men’s National Teams, as 2 of the early favourites to finish in the top 3 of the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of World Cup qualifiers, they probably expected to run the table in matchday 1 of the Octo on Thursday. 

As Canada faced off against a Honduran side that they were favoured to beat quite comfortably at home, while the U.S. travelled down to face an El Salvador side many are picking to finish near the bottom of this Octo, both sides felt like they had what it’d take to pick up all 3 points Thursday. 

Instead, they both suffered a CONCACAF initiation of sorts, as Canada was left to salvage a 1-1 draw with Honduras at BMO Field in Toronto, while the US failed to break through a resilient El Salvador side in a tepid 0-0 road draw. 

With some of the strongest teams in the region, both sides felt like they could walk into those games and get the job done without a second thought, but instead, they got a taste of what’s to come in their next 13 games in the Octo, where all 8 teams involved will fight tooth and nail for one of the 3.5 spots in the 2022 World Cup that are up for offer. 

“It’s our first time in this phase, we expected a little bit of everything, but that’s not the result we wanted,” Canada’s Steven Vitoria said on Thursday. “We wanted to win at home, in front of our fans, and with our performance, we thought we did more than enough to get 3 points. But we feel that we’re on the right road, we’ll definitely grow with this point, but there are improvements to be made and that’s what we’re focused on.”

 “[It was] a great learning experience for our group,” US’s head coach, Gregg Berhalter, added after his team’s game. “From my vantage point, there’s a lot of things to improve on. I thought the fight was good, the intention to win the game was good, but we’ve got to get better. We’ve got to be more connected as a team, and be able to finish our chances in a better way.” 

But while both teams are far from out of the race quite yet, with 13 games left to play, those opening day draws have only upped the intrigue heading into both sides’ next clash, a duel between Canada and the U.S. at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium on Sunday. 

With tickets almost sold out for that game, it promises to be a fantastic atmosphere, one that should be significantly pro-U.S., with a decent smattering of Canadians only adding some emotional feeling to what should be a special night. 

Heading into this game now, though, this clash has gone from a ‘should-win’ to a ‘must-win’ for both sides, which should be fascinating to watch. 

On one side, you’ve got Canada, who will want to pick up a surprise win, knowing that of their road games, this may be their best shot at doing so, because while the US might be one of the most talented teams of this Octo, their home support is among the least hostile. In an Octo stage where winning all of your home games and drawing all of your away ones is seen as the magic formula to qualifying to the World Cup, the fact that Canada drew one of their most ‘winnable’ home games means that they’ve now got to recoup the points elsewhere, and this might be one of their best chances at doing so. 

On the other, the US will have to look at this at their best chance at picking up 3 points this window, as their next game is a trip right into the lion’s den to take on Honduras in San Pedro Sula, which is arguably the most intimidating away game in CONCACAF. If they thought El Salvador would be a tough atmosphere, they’ve just got a small taste of what’s to come in that one, so they’ll want to head into that game riding a high of a win versus Canada, reducing pressure for them then.

Again, if either side loses on Sunday, with so many games left, it’s far from over, but it’s always hard to make up ground in competitions like this.

So considering all of that, all of a sudden a routine 2nd matchday battle between these 2 teams has now turned into arguably the must-watch match of this window in CONCACAF, which should be fascinating, helping continue to reignite a previously forgotten rivalry that is gaining a lot more steam once again. 

Has the panic button been hit too early?

But while both teams were left wanting more on Thursday, was that a case of them actually playing that poor, or was it a case of their opponents just stepping up and giving them more of a fight than they maybe expected?

And looking at the advanced numbers, it looks like it actually might be the latter, despite many calls of the former.

Despite the overwhelming sentiment from both sides that suggested that they could’ve played much better than they did, they still won the Expected Goals (xG) battle quite handily in their respective games. 

Obviously, that’s not a be-all, end-all decider of how the game will go, but on most nights, Canada has the talent to win matches where they win the non-penalty xG battle 1.6 to 0.58, and ditto with the US in matches where they out-xG their opponents 1.68 to 0.29 in non-penalty situations. 

It’s one thing to go out there and drop a dud of a performance, one where you barely have a sniff at the opponent’s goal and snatch out a borderline undeserved point, but both Canada and the US went out there and did enough to head home with 3 points in both cases. 

On 2 very young teams, ones where among the cumulative 22 players who started for either team on Thursday, just 2 had even played a game at this stage of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers before, there was always going to be a learning curve. 

So the fact that they went out and actually played without fear is positive. 

Based on the talent that these two teams have at their disposal, you’d like to imagine that they’ll convert their chances going forward and control games more. In a CONCACAF region that can snatch the souls of even the most talented players, they responded to the challenge, and that’s important. 

Lessons learned: 

At the same time, though, these teams learned some valuable lessons on Thursday, one that they’ll take into their clash on Sunday and beyond. 

For Canada, they learned that you can’t start slow in CONCACAF and get away with it. On the balance of the game vs Honduras, they were probably the better team, especially statistically, but they let their opponents control the game in the first half and snatch a lead, and it was always going to be tough sledding from there once that happened. 

As for the US, they learned that in these CONCACAF away games, talent isn’t always going to be enough, because there’s no amount of talent that can prepare you for what those games are like. Talent can’t help you when El Salvador’s fans are all screaming at the top of their lungs, or launching projectiles at you on corner kicks, or pointing lasers at you whenever you take set pieces. 

It’s a simple cliche, but sometimes you need to just want it more, and as they saw on Thursday, El Salvador really wanted the game, willing a 0-0 draw out of it. 

Otherwise, both teams will need to find their finishing boots, and quickly, because if there’s one lesson that they’ll both take away here, is that you often come to rue your missed chances in this region. 

Considering that Canada has scored 42 goals in 12 games in 2021, and the US 33 in 14 themselves, that usually isn’t a problem for them, but as they saw on Thursday, none of these teams in the Octo will be intimidated by their high-powered offences anymore, especially given what at’s stake. 

“When you get in the final third, that’s where you just come alive, just do it,” US midfielder Tyler Adams said Thursday.“Do what you’re good at, be a little bit selfish at moments, take shots, be dangerous. I think in games like that, it’s important to test the goalkeepers, test the defence, make them uncomfortable.

“These guys are going to be warriors,” Canadian head coach, John Herdman, added. “They’ll patch themselves back up, we’ll take every camp like it’s our last, and we’ll be giving everything, so some of these guys will recover, and do the work to reset ourselves for the US.”

Canada and the US walk out ahead of their 2021 Gold Cup clash earlier this year (Canada Soccer/MexSport)

Looking Forward: Time to renew a rivalry?

So turning to Sunday’s game, it’ll now be interesting to see which of the sides can take those lessons that they learned on Thursday and apply them out on the field. 

Doing so, they’ll hope to reignite their budding rivalry from the last few years. Geographically, these 2 teams are about as linked as anyone, so their rivalry will never fade away, at least in most sectors, but that was the case in soccer the past few decades, but that’s changing again. 

When Canada snapped a 34-year losing streak against the US in Nations League all the way back in October of 2019, they showed that they’re here to make this a rivalry again, and although they’ve lost their 2 rematches with the Americans since, this will be the clash between the 2 with the highest stakes, which would make a Canadian victory massive. 

Looking at both sides, you can tell what a victory over their neighbours would mean, especially at this stage, so you’d only expect them to add another chapter to their storied past in Nashville on Sunday. 

“There’s a lot of mutual respect for each other,” Berhalter told reporters of the budding rivalry back in July. “But there’s also a lot of tension and competitiveness (between the two), because we’re 2 programs in a similar position.”

But while personal vengeance will be on both teams’ minds, both sides are well aware of how important a victory in this game would be for their long-term futures, and more specifically, their World Cup chances. 

They’ll want to dominate their rivals, yes, but they’ll also want to leave with all 3 points, doing whatever they can do to get their first victory on the board. As they learned on Thursday, you can play as well as you want, but if you don’t win, all of your hard work will be for naught. 

As Canada’s players lamented, the time for moral victories is gone, so now it’s just about keeping an eye on the 3 points that are up for grabs in this game, and then roll onto the next one. 

“It’s a marathon.” Vitoria said. “We just have to be focused on being stronger than some of the things that we can control. We have to be stronger, instead of finding excuses, we just have to be stronger, we didn’t want it enough to deserve the 3 points.”

“It’s important that we have that short-term memory,” Canadian defender, Alistair Johnston, added. “I don’t think anyone would be at this top-level if you had a long-term memory.”

“You need to compartmentalize those things and put them aside, and just take what you can from this game, and I think we can take a lot from this one.”

Up Next: Canada vs US, Sunday, September 5th, 2021, 17:00 PDT, 20:00 EDT (Nissan Stadium, Nashville)

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl

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