“It feels like a derby match”: The CanMNT are eager to reignite USMNT rivalry in crucial top-of-the-table World Cup qualifier Sunday

The CanMNT is getting set to take on the USMNT in a pivotal CONCACAF final round World Cup qualifier on Sunday. Here’s what’s dominating the conversation ahead of this one. 

It promises to be the game to watch on Sunday.

Two top-of-the-table teams, two long-standing rivals, two teams interconnected in several ways – Sunday’s matchday between the CanMNT and the USMNT is going to be a memorable one on a busy slate of CONCACAF final round World Cup qualifiers. 

And as the ‘Octagonal’ continues with matchday 10 out of 14, it’s a big one for both teams involved, as they currently enter this game sitting among the elite of the region, alone atop the Oct standings. Canada leads the way with 19 points, while the US isn’t far behind with 18, but with Mexico (17),  Panama (14) and Costa Rica (12) sitting in the weeds, this game will be a grand opportunity for one of the two leaders to create some separation. 

Plus, it’s a great measuring stick opportunity for either side, as they are currently 1-2 in goals scored (Canada is 1st with 15, the US tied for 2nd with 13), in goals against (they’re both tied for 1st with 5), clean sheets (both are tied with 4) and goal difference (Canada is 1st with +10, the US is 2nd with +8), showing how good both teams have been so far in this final round. 

So not only is it a chance for someone to really grab hold of the top spot of the Octo with 4 games to go, cementing their status in the top 3 (and the automatic World Cup bid that comes with it) in the process, but it’s also a chance to prove who really is the top dog in the region right now.

Because of all that, many eyes will be peeled on Hamilton for this game. Given that the 1st meeting between these two teams this Octo finished in a 1-1 draw in Nashville, it shows how fine the margins really are between these sides right now, but whoever wins will know that they can derive a huge psychological boost from this one, which could be valuable as they get set to tackle the last few games of these qualifiers. 

As a result, it’s helped breed all sorts of excitement heading into this game from those involved. Always fierce rivals in everything that they do, be it in the sporting sense, or even politically, geographically and socially, Canada vs US games are always special, but this one could be especially memorable. 

And considering that the last time these two had a game as big as this, it would’ve probably been the Gold Cup semi-final back in 2007, or if we’re talking one with World Cup implications, any of the two games they played in the final round of World Cup qualifiers back in 1997, it shows that either way, a match of this magnitude between these two teams is long overdue. 

But as two of the hottest teams in the region right now, with the US coming off one of their most successful years in recent memory, while Canada is fresh off a 2021 that saw them rise more than any other in world soccer, this sort of matchup will hopefully change the course of this rivalry. 

So heading into it, excitement is understandably high, as everyone involved in this game knows what’s at stake, and they’ll look to head out and put up a performance that reflects that on Sunday. 

Time for Canada vs USA rivalry to reignite: 

Anytime Canada meets the US in sporting events, there are always fireworks. 

It doesn’t matter the sport, the age group or the level – there is just this natural rivalry that exists between the countries, and you can feel it when they play each other. 

There is obviously history behind that, stemming from the fact that they share a massive border across the 49th parallel, and they’ve been through some intense historical conflicts against each other, but even when taking that out of the equation, you can just feel it from a societal level. 

On one side, you have the US, who are a global superpower, and in the eyes of many Canadians, tend to lean into that fact a bit too much at times. On the other side, you’ve got Canada, who despite being much smaller than the US, are a pretty big power themselves, but really like to lean into this plucky, quiet and polite underdog personality, often a bit too much in the eyes of many Americans. 

And when it comes to sport, that just tends to manifest itself. Canada loves to play the underdog against the US, while the US loves to win as the favourite, and when they both take the field, that helps stoke a very intense competitive fire. 

So heading into this game, you can feel that intensity among the 2 fanbases. The other does not want to see their rivals win, and vice versa. Then, you add what’s at stake in this game, and it gives us the recipe for an intense matchup.

Canadian head coach, John Herdman, understands that, having witnessed what the Canadian vs US rivalry can look like in very competitive settings in his time as both the Canadian Women’s and now Men’s national team coach, so when talking about the rivalry on Saturday, he noted that what’s at stake will certainly get his team going, at the very least.  

“They’re coming across the border now, and looking to try and take the top spot from us,” Herdman warned. “I mean it’s an opportunity for these players, it’s World Cup qualifying and a massive game, it’s not a friendly game, you’re playing your biggest rival, the USA.”

And on the other side, his opposite number, Gregg Berhalter, agrees with that sentiment. 

“They’re top of the table and we’re in second place, so there’s an opportunity to become number one in the table, and that’s valuable,” he noted in his pre-game availability. 

And that’s key, and what’s so exciting about this sort of game. 

While the Canadian and US rivalry will never go away, it’s no secret that games between these two teams had lost some of their shine in recent years. A Canada vs US game was always going to stoke the masses, of course, but given that before 2019, the last Canadian win over the US came in 1984, it had become a really one-sided rivalry over time, one that the US stopped taking as seriously as they instead focused on dethroning Mexico as a top team in the region. 

But then, in 2019, Canada snapped that drought, surprising the US in a 2-0 win at home in CONCACAF Nations League play, one where they caught the Americans by surprise with their play, showing that they’re eager to really bring back this rivalry. 

And while the US quickly got their revenge for that game, beating Canada 4-1 in the return leg of that Nations League competition in Orlando, that win over the US can arguably be seen as the catalyst for the run that this Canadian team is now on over 2 years later, as these teams get set to meet once again. 

Not only that, that win also sent a message that games between the two would no longer be a cakewalk, either, and given that the 2 matches they’ve played since were a narrow 1-0 US win in the Gold Cup last summer, and then the 1-1 game in the fall, that’s proven to be true. 

You can sense a desire from this Canadian team to want to really beat the US now, and while that’s always there, they’ve also now proven to be a threat that the US needs to keep an eye on, and that’s really what’s going to start stoking the fires of this rivalry now, as both sides made sure to admit. 

“I think there is definitely a mindset shift in our team in terms of how we look at the US,” Herdman admitted. “There’s a real excitement to play them, it feels like a real derby match, and it’s a fight for the top of the table. So I think that’s all that I need to say in terms of what this means to us now.”

“I think there’s been a shift in their mentality and they play with a chip on their shoulder,” American defender, Walker Zimmerman, added. “They play with something to prove, and they play with an intensity that is very high.”

“They’re a confident group. And so whenever you go out there, you know that they’re going to compete and that you have to match that level of intensity and desire.

So because of that, expect an intense game on Sunday. With what’s at stake, it promises to be an intense, enthralling affair, one that could really kickstart the rivalry back into overdrive. 

The US might still be the big, bad bullies that they always were in the eyes of Canadians, but now instead of looking at them with fear, they instead do so with hunger and one message in the back of their mind – we’re coming for you. 

“I think the US is a few years ahead in how they’ve been able to build their talent pool and deepen their roster with players in Europe across every position,” Herdman said. 

“But Canada are coming. We’re coming.”

Canada line up for a team photo ahead of a clash vs Honduras in World Cup qualifying last week (Canada Soccer)

Cold weather a factor: 

For every good battle, however, there must be an arena, and it’s going to be interesting to see how Sunday’s venue of choice, Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field, is able to cope with hosting such a big matchup. 

Returning to the ‘Hammer’ for the first time in any capacity since 2018, when the Women’s National Team battled Germany in a friendly, and for the first time with the Men’s National Team since they drew Bermuda 0-0 in a friendly back in 1988, this sort of game is a long-time coming for the city. 

And in response to that, they’ve shown up for it so far. The first ticket sale of 24 000 tickets (the full capacity of the stadium) sold out before the general sale even opened, and when it was announced that the game would actually be played at half capacity (12 000) due to updated COVID restrictions in Ontario, the re-sale also sold out very quickly.

So there’s no doubt that Hamilton is going to welcome their Canadian team with open arms, giving them that ‘sea of red’ that has been crucial to Les Rouges currently having the best home record in the Octo with 4 wins and 1 draw through 5 home games so far. 

But at the same time, there were still concerns with this game. 

From a temperature standpoint, it isn’t exactly warm right now in Ontario, with the temperature at kick-off on Sunday being somewhere between -5 and -6 degrees Celsius, with windchill much colder than that, which isn’t ideal for a soccer game. 

And from a logistical standpoint, it’s a location that is quite close to the US, which helps the Americans, whose support typically travel well, potentially slightly nullifying that home crowd advantage. 

The good news, though? 

Canada has no problems with both of those things.

For the cold, it’s important to remember that their last two home games were played in Edmonton, where they played in weather just as cold (and even colder) than this in wins over Costa Rica and Mexico.

And as for the US fans potentially travelling well, that was going to happen no matter where they played, so Canada was always going to be ready for that, and will relish that opportunity to quiet them and give their fans something to cheer about. 

This Hamilton location was chosen for one reason, and one reason only, which is travel. It’s important to remember that Canada had to come Hamilton from Honduras, where they had their 1st match of this window, and will then head to El Salvador for their 3rd match, so Hamilton was found to be the Canadian city closest to those two teams that had a usable stadium this time of year, hence their choice to go there. 

“The thing we learned from that first experience was that we were able to maintain that high intensity running,” Herdman said first of the cold. “And that’s how we set all the games we played in the cold, knowing that you can repeat those sprints, and as you saw, it became quite a chaotic game against Mexico, and we thrive in that sort of chaos, so that’s a big part of playing in the cold.”

“But I think you all know that the reason for coming out here was to ensure that we’d reduce the travel times,” he continued. “And made sure that we didn’t get stuck on the tarmac missing a matchday-i1 training session like today’s, so everything’s worked really well, we’ve all got our layers on the boys, they’re having a good laugh in the cold, and they’ll be ready to go.”

So while some might lament what this game could’ve looked like in warmer Vancouver, or in stadiums where you could’ve gotten bigger crowds, such as in the prairies, Canada made it no secret that they wanted to minimize the travel time (which would’ve been much larger in either of those locations), leading to their selection of Hamilton. 

It might not be popular with everyone, and Canada realizes that, but their goal right now is to make the World Cup, and they feel this is the best choice to help them do so. 

And it’s not as if Herdman doesn’t wish to get a chance to play across the country, allowing them to capitalize on their growing popularity in the country, but as he said back in November, right now, it’s all about prioritizing doing whatever helps this team get to a World Cup, and as he reiterated ahead of this game, that hasn’t changed. 

“Everything that we’ve done has been to optimize the opportunity to qualify for the World Cup, that’s been the biggest priority,” Herdman noted assuredly.

Canada set to receive a big boost in midfield: 

But for all of the talk of logistics off the field, it’ll be interesting now to see how Canada looks on the field Sunday, as they’re hoping to welcome back two key players ahead of this game. 

Obviously, they remain without their starman, Alphonso Davies, who is out for this window as he recovers from Myocarditis, but he wasn’t the only big piece missing in Canada’s first game, as Stephen Eustaquio also missed out as he recovers from COVID. 

Included in the squad, though, there was some hope that Eustaquio could be involved in some capacity for this game, be it in this US game, or at the very least, in the El Salvador game that awaits on Wednesday. 

And the good news is that despite conflicting reports out there on Saturday that we wouldn’t be ready to join the team before the US game, it looks that he’ll indeed make it to Hamilton in time for this match now, as Herdman said that Eustaquio is slated to join the group “hopefully tonight or tomorrow” when asked of his status in his availability.  

That’s massive news for Canada, as they’re currently a bit stretched thin in midfield without him, and with a bunch of Canadian midfielders all on a yellow (including Eustaquio), the more bodies available for these last 2 games, the better.

So while it’s unsure yet how much he’ll play against the US, as he wasn’t able to get a training session in before his arrival, and is coming off COVID, it’s worthing noting that he went 90 for his (now old) club, Pacos de Ferreira (in what turned out to be his last game with the club before a move to Porto) just 8 days ago on January 21st, which means that his fitness should be decent, assuming he has no lasting effects of his bout with the virus. 

Otherwise, though, he’s not the only doubt for Canada heading into this game, as one other name to monitor will be Samuel Piette, who started for Les Rouges in Honduras this past Thursday, but left the game through 35 minutes after picking up an ankle injury, one that didn’t look too great at first glance.

Reports out of Montreal on Saturday suggested that he’d be day-to-day, however, which is good news, and Herdman confirmed that he’d be a game-time decision for Sunday, depending on how his body holds up.

“We’ve obviously got the injury of Samuel Piette,” Herdman explained. “He’s nursing an ankle injury, there will be fitness testing tomorrow (for him)”

Obviously, if Eustaquio returns, Canada can be a little more cautious with Piette, saving him for the El Salvador game if they feel it’s too risky, but if Eustaquio isn’t ready, or isn’t able to play much, it’d be nice to have Piette involved in some form or another, so hopefully he can pass those fitness tests with flying colours Sunday morning.

Canada’s going to need as many healthy bodies as possible if they’re to beat this US team, and while missing Davies will hurt, getting everyone else back would be a big boost, making it something to watch out for ahead of kick-off. 

Plus, as this team has proven time and time again, they’re so much more than just the individual, and they proved that in their last win, and will look to prove so against their closest rivals now on Sunday, no matter who suits up. 

Up Next: Canada vs US, Sunday, January 30th, 2022, 12:05 PST, 15:05 EST (Tim Hortons Field, Hamilton)

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer

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