“There’s nothing but excitement for this game”: Ahead of daunting Azteca visit, CanMNT looking to ignore past history as they chase a result against Mexico

Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team is getting set to take on Mexico in a crucial CONCACAF World Cup qualifier later at the famed Estadio Azteca later this week. Ahead of that, here’s a look at how Canada is ignoring the daunting prospect of heading into the toughest stadium in the region, as they look to win in the country for the first time ever.

Having gotten a chance to dip their toes in the water the first time around, they’re getting ready to get thrown into the deep end now. 

For Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team, they’re well aware of what’s at stake for them this month, as they get set to tackle 3 crucial ‘Octagonal’ matches, which is what the final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers is also known as.

After kicking off the Octo, as it’s more commonly referred to, back in September with another 3-game window, the next set of games has almost snuck up on Canada here, as it still feels like it was just yesterday when they closed out that first window with a big 3-0 win over El Salvador. 

It ended up being a pretty decent September window for Canada, who sit 2nd out of 8 teams with 5 points through the first 3 games of the Octo, which is exactly where they want to be right now, especially considering that the top 3 teams at the end of this 14-game stage will go straight to the 2022 World Cup, while a 4th will play in a playoff to join them. 

They might have gone through a bit of a rollercoaster to sit in this position, having started the last window with a disappointing home draw against Honduras to recover a crucial away draw against a tough American side and pick up that vital home win against El Salvador, but now that they’re here, they want to stay in this position. 

Having done so well to recover from that slow start, where they proved that they’re a team that is ready to battle with the best in the region, that bodes well for them heading into this window, where they’re looking to recapture that form ahead of the games that still await them now. 

“What I want is to continue on our ability to respond,” Canadian head coach, John Herdman, explained last week. “After a timid first half against Honduras, the response to that setback against the US, and the response to that first 20 minutes against El Salvador, I mean those are elements that (shows to) this group that this is a resilient team, and when you’ve got that ability to respond, you’re able to push your boundaries a bit further.”

At the same time, though, Canada just got a small taste of what is coming for them in the next 11 games, as it’s important to remember that 2 of their first 3 games were at home, with the other one coming in Nashville, which is rather comfortable as far as away games go. 

That changes this window, though. 

With a visit to Mexico and Jamaica awaiting them, before they close out their 3-game set by taking on Panama at home, they will get their first true taste of a CONCACAF Octo away game in their first 2 matches, before doing their best to recover in time to take on a must-win game against a rising team at home. 

So if they thought the last window was hard, they’ll be in for one this window, as they’re now going to get the true CONCACAF experience. 

Along with the presence few injuries and other absences that have cropped up for them as of late, they’ll also have to tackle these games shorthanded, so not only will they be swimming in the deep end, they will be doing so without some key flotation devices, which will force them to truly kick their legs and work to stay afloat. 

“I think it’s a window where we’re going to suffer a bit,” Herdman admits. “And that’s normally what’s going to happen, but it’s a real opportunity for us to show the quality of our depth, and to strengthen this group, adding more people to the depth of this Canadian squad.”

Canada’s Tajon Buchanan battles for a ball against El Salvador last month (Keveren Guillou)

Plus, in their opening game, they must take on the true shark of CONCACAF, and that’s Mexico, who are the team to beat in this region right now. 

Having made the World Cup every year since 1994, they just don’t tend to slip up in this competition, making them a team to fear. 

Especially when they’re at home, at Mexico City’s famed Estadio Azteca, they can be so dominant, as they just know how to make the most of what can make their venue so tough to play in, and find a way to amplify that effect. 

You just know that when you play in Mexico, you’re going to have to deal with altitude and heat, and those are just the natural elements. Along with the presence of tens of thousands of screaming Mexican fans, who hurl both their lungs and objects at opposing teams, playing in the Azteca isn’t exactly what one would deem to be a ‘comfortable’ away day. 

There’s a reason why Canada has never beaten Mexico in Mexico, and hasn’t picked up any points in a competitive game in the country against their hosts since 1981, and that’s because it’s that hard of a place to play in.

So while this Canadian team did get a slight taste of what this environment is going to be like at this summer’s Gold Cup semi-finals, where they took on Mexico in a very pro-Mexican environment in Houston consisting of around ~75 000 fans, they’ll need to be ready for that and more this window. 

Despite that, though, they’re just looking to try and make the most of the occasion, well aware of what it entails, no matter how daunting it might seem to head right into the thick of it. 

“It’s similar, there were 75 000 Mexicans in there, there was beer flying past my head every 10 minutes, so you know what you’re coming into,” Herdman said of the Gold Cup. “It (the Azteca) is one of the football coliseums in the world, so to go and play a game of football in that stadium, I want to make sure that these players get a chance to embrace that mentality.”

“And we’ve experienced that Mexican crowd before, and there’s a little bit of something that was left on the field that (Gold Cup) game, and I know this group of players want that answered, so they’re going to go into this with some belief and some confidence that they can compete with historically the best team in CONCACAF in their hometown, and there’s nothing but excitement for this game.”

And in a sense, Herdman is right. This Canadian team might historically have struggled against Mexico, but this is a new Canadian side. They’ve shown that over the past few years, and that was no exception in that Gold Cup clash earlier this year. 

So while the result ended up being the same as most Canada versus Mexico clashes, a Mexican victory, this time a 2-1 result via a late Hector Herrera winner, Canada did something that they haven’t often done against the CONCACAF giants in their history – control segments of play. 

Usually, if Canada is playing Mexico, a 0-0 feels like the goal, as they just try to kill the game, and hope to etch out a point. 

For the first time in a while, though, they tried to go out and actually play, and to everyone’s surprise, that actually worked, as they made a game of that one, giving themselves a good chance to win. 

Considering that they were missing several key regulars, such as stars Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, who will both be available to Canada this window, it was a pretty big statement, even if the result didn’t back it up. 

So while the sentiment after that game was and still is that they lost a game that they should’ve won, and that the moral victory of playing well meant nothing to them, they also showed that they can play with this Mexican side, so they’ll want to build off of that in this game. 

“I think the game in the Gold Cup was a good starting point,” Herdman explained. “Again, you got a sense of the Mexican crowd, but you also got the sense that we were able to impose ourselves for periods, which I think rocked the Mexicans, and I think that’s going to be the mindset of their players, knowing that for periods Canada were holding their own, and at times controlling elements of the game, so I think it’s mentally about building on that performance for us and not taking a backwards step from that standpoint.”

Because of that, Canada are doing their best to prepare for this game with that mindset. They believe that they can go out and beat this Mexican side, and while that’s way easier said than done, for the first time in a while, it feels like if Canada plays their game, they can make it happen. 

They’re looking to leave nothing on the table in terms of their preparation, having already spent multiple days in Mexico to help prepare (most teams tend to fly in as last-minute as possible), helping them adjust to the altitude and heat. 

Along with their first-hand experience of what the crowd might be like, they feel like they’ve done a good job of preparing for the extra-curriculars, allowing them to just focus on the task at hand, and that’s winning this match. 

So while that’s going to be no easy task, they feel like they’ll have at least prepared for it properly, and as the saying goes, failing to prepare is preparing to fail, and they’ve avoided doing that. 

As they look to make it back to the World Cup for the first time in a generation, these are the sorts of games that can go a long way towards helping make that happen, and they’re well aware of that, so with that in mind, they’re going forward with a simple mindset – let’s surprise the Mexicans.

“We’ve had the highest security team here, where we’re making sure that we’ve come into Mexico early just to experience the elements of altitude, and obviously the elements of heat in the training environment, but for us, we’ve just tried to take every precaution so that our training sessions are carefully secured and we can go into that game on the front foot and hopefully surprise the Mexicans a little bit.”

Up Next: Canada vs Mexico, Thursday, October 7th, 2021, 18:40 PDT, 21:40 EDT (Estadio Azteca, Mexico City)

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