Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team is getting set to take on Panama in a must-win game at BMO Field on Wednesday. Here’s a look at how the team is feeling ahead of that one.
After a tough journey down in unfamiliar territory, they’re excited to be back home.
For Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team, who are finally back home after a tough road journey, they’re now more than ready to take the pitch at BMO Field on Wednesday night, where they’ll face off against Panama in a massive CONCACAF World Cup qualifier.
Coming off of two tough road games against Mexico and Jamaica, respectively, where they did well to grind out 2 draws, Canada are more than happy to be in familiar confines once again, as they prepare for what might be their biggest game of these qualifiers to date.
As part of the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers, this will be a meeting between the two sides that currently sit 3rd and 4th among 8 teams in the Octo, making this a key battle for a top 3 spot.
Given that finishing in the top 3 will guarantee qualification to the 2022 World Cup, establishing an early stranglehold on one of those spots would be huge for either side, and they realize that, adding importance to this game.
Finishing in 4th isn’t bad, as you can still qualify to the World Cup via the intercontinental playoff spot, but considering how volatile that route can be, the best way to head to Qatar is most definitely as a direct entrant.
So for Canada, it’s imperative that they climb up back into a top 3 spot, which they’ve held for most of this Octo, with a win on Wednesday. They might be still undefeated through 5 games of the Octo, but they have just 1 win, so they’ll need to find a way to put 3 points on the board against Panama, making this a must-win game for this group.
“Oh, absolutely, it increases the urgency,” Canadian head coach, John Herdman, said of if this game is a must-win for his team when asked about that on Tuesday. “We want to win every game, and I think with this group, we’re undefeated, and we’ll take pride in that mantle, but at the end of the day, we need points on the board.”
“And this is a group that wants to win, we want to win football games, we don’t want to be known for having good performances, we want to be seen as winners, with that winning mentality, winning behaviours.”
So while it feels early to be calling any games must-wins at this stage of qualifiers, as there will still be 8 games to play after this match, the last thing you want to do is to fall behind the pack before reaching the halfway point, which is quickly approaching here.
Seeing that Canada not only has a chance to avoid falling too far behind, but get ahead, too, that adds importance to this game, and this Canadian side is well aware of that.
“I think heading into this match, if there’s really a game that we want to win to set the tone, it’s this one,” Herdman continued. “I feel like this is a 6-point match for Canada given where the standings are, but more importantly, where I think Panama are going to be by the end of this journey, I think they are one of the genuine threats to a top 3 place.”
But at the same time, while Canada is preaching urgency ahead of this one, they’ve somehow remained calm in the lead-up to this match, or at least as calm as one can be ahead of a game of this magnitude.
While it’d be easy to be overwhelmed by the occasion, they’ve instead chosen to remain level-headed despite the circumstances, as they know how easy it is to get dragged into the hype of a match like this.
Having already gone through the wringer just to get this far, qualifying for this final round as one of 3 teams that had to go through the first 2 rounds to get to the Octo (5 teams got byes directly here), these sorts of tough must-win games aren’t anything new for this Canadian side.
Plus, so far this Octo they’ve already had to play the US and Mexico away, the arguable two toughest matches on paper, yet escaped with those matches with 2 draws, which is pretty impressive, especially considering that those games came in packed houses in Nashville and Mexico City, respectively.
Because of that, they feel that experience has played a big role in their approach for this Panama game, as they’ve looked to avoid getting sucked into the rollercoaster that can be World Cup qualifiers, instead choosing to approach each game with the right attitude, and just going from there.
It’s not what we’re used to seeing from teams, but Canada has managed to stick to that approach so far, picking up some key results along the way, and they’ll look to continue that process on Wednesday.
“I think it’s come down to going through that long qualification process, it really kind of hardened us,” Canadian defender, Alistair Johnston, explained on Tuesday. “We went down and we experienced some tough things, so going to the Azteca, as crazy as something like that was, it wasn’t something that we weren’t fully prepared for, which is a real testament to this group, and the characters that are in this group.”
“We got great leadership from the staff and the older players here that have really guided us and not let us get too big or get down too low either, we know that qualification is going to be a rollercoaster, but we know that we have targets that we’ve set.”
And that road warriors mentality is expected to serve Canada quite well here against Panama.
An upstart team in CONCACAF, fresh off of making their first and only World Cup in 2018, Panama have continued that good feeling into this cycle, first making it through the early rounds of qualification earlier this year along with Canada and El Salvador, before becoming one of the surprise teams of this Octo so far.
With wins over the US and Jamaica in their back pocket, along with key draws against Mexico and Costa Rica jammed in there, Panama has proven that they aren’t scared of anyone in this Octo, and believe that they have what it takes to make back-to-back World Cups.
So for Canada, they’re aware of the threat that their Central American foes pose, but at the same time, they’re looking to build off of what has been a decent start of their own.
Do they believe that they should probably have more points than they currently do right now? Absolutely, but having played 3 out of their 5 games on the road so far, they’ve had to battle and claw for every point that they’ve earned so far, and because of that, they’re happy to be back home, where they can be a little more comfortable.
Just take their last game, for example. On paper, it was disappointing to see Canada draw 0-0 against what looks like a very beatable Jamaican team, yet that doesn’t factor in the fact that the state of the pitch and the humid weather made it very hard for Canada to play their style, especially considering that Jamaica played one of their best games of qualifiers to try and nullify the Canadians.
And that’s just a taste of what it’s like to play on the road in CONCACAF, so Canada is more than happy to be back at home in front of their fans, who they believe can give them a big edge in this one.
“When you’re on the road, you’ve got a lot against you,” Herdman explained. “You’re not only fighting against your own mental performance, but the opposition crowd, at times the referee, it’ll be the conditions that aren’t conditions that you’re used to playing in, so the first thing is that you remove all of those excuses when you come home.”
“We’ve got our crowd, we’re on familiar ground, we’re able to control our environment.”
And make no mistake, this crowd promises to be a special one on Wednesday night.
Thanks to some changes in government rules in Ontario, this game will be able to be played in front of a full house of fans for the first time since before the pandemic, which is massive for a Canadian team that hasn’t had much of a chance to truly play in front of their faithful in recent years.
That means after playing their first two home games in front of 15 000 fans at BMO Field, there are expected to be anywhere from 30 000 to 35 000 fans, most of them Canadian, supporting their home team on Friday.
It’s going to be the biggest home crowd that Canada has had in years, so the fact that it’ll happen for such an important game is a bonus, and knowing that, they’ll want to try and make it a game to remember.
With so much at stake, it can be easy to get wrapped up in the occasion, but Canada is going to instead look to use that to the best of their advantage, knowing what this can do for them.
After many years of seeing what big crowds have been able to do for their opponents, this is a big chance for them to get that boost for themselves, so they’ll look to make the most of it on Wednesday.
As their quest towards qualifying for the 2022 World Cup continues, this might just be one of the biggest stops on that journey, and they’ll look to make sure to properly mark the occasion as such with a performance to remember.
“Emotionally and mentally, we feel safe and we’re at home,” Herdman said. “And I think that’s massive when you think that there’s potentially 30 000 Canadians in here tomorrow night.”
“I mean, as long as we can handle that, handle being in front of a packed out crowd, which I’m sure we’ve got enough winners in here that have that experience, I think this could be a good night for us, and I think that the fans will tip us over the edge.”
Up Next: Canada vs Panama, Wednesday, October 13th, 2021, 16:30 PDT, 19:30 EDT (BMO Field, Toronto)