Back in 2012, the Canadian men’s soccer team faced a straightforward proposition: win, or even draw, against Honduras and progress to the final phase of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
What followed was perhaps the most embarrassing 90 minutes in the history of the program — a pummelling that is now known simply as "the 8-1", a thorough humbling in San Pedro Sula that marked the end of a generation of internationals including David Edgar, Julian de Guzman and Dwayne De Rosario which was, in retrospect, little more than hot hype and false hope.
Now, as Canada once again vies for a berth in the region’s decisive round, it’s reasonable, even recommended, given the disappointments of campaigns past, to ask what, this time, has changed.
In a word? Everything.
Eight-and-a-half years ago, when this country was still tricking itself about progression to the World Cup in Brazil, every team in the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football had to go through at least two stages of qualification.
That meant Canada’s route was always going to be difficult, and they found themselves in a group including Honduras and Panama. That said, they only went to San Pedro Sula needing a result because of a 2-0 defeat in Panama City, although recent draws with Puerto Rico and Saint Kitts and Nevis should have indicated the impossibility of the assignment, the inadequacy of the team.
Sorry, but you can’t record a 0-0 with Saint Kitts and Nevis and reasonably expect to line up opposite the likes of Germany and Argentina, nevermind Mexico and Costa Rica, nevermind Honduras and Panama.
That’s why the demolitions of Bermuda and Cayman Islands this past March were so important.
Yes, Canada should have always been winning both matches, but the fact is they’ve not always delivered in encounters that have appeared, at least on paper, to be walkovers. The 5-1 and 11-0 triumphs served notice that this particular team needs better opponents to be challenged, as it should, and later this month it will get one.
But first things first.
At 7 p.m. this evening, Canada will face Aruba in Bradenton, Fla. (all matches streaming live on OneSoccer). Suriname follows on Tuesday in Bridgeview, Ill., in a showdown, if you can call it that, to determine first place in the section. From there, it’s a home-and-away series against another group winner with that coveted spot in the final round of qualifying on the line.
It wasn’t initially supposed to be such an unfussy path, but when FIFA adjusted its international windows because of COVID-19, CONCACAF’s typically gruelling schedule had to be changed as well. What resulted was essentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Canada to advance at least as far as the ultimate, octagonal stage of World Cup qualification, where Costa Rica, Jamaica, Honduras, Mexico and the United States already await.
Now, about that home-and-away series.
Next Saturday, as EURO 2020 gets going in earnest, Canada will play a first leg against one of Haiti or Nicaragua. It will likely be Haiti — a rematch of the 2019 Gold Cup quarter-final in which the Haitians overcame a 2-0 first-half deficit and prevailed 3-2 in Houston.
In other words, this will not be an easy pair of matches, but it’s one for which manager John Herdman and his players have been preparing these last few months.
For one thing, the team will look quite different.
An entirely remade defense will work in front of goalkeeper Milan Borjan, centred by Steven Vitoria and Frank Sturing, who made his national team debut against the Caymans. Samuel Piette and Mark-Anthony Kaye will provide both a shield and a good first pass in midfield, where impressive albeit internationally inexperienced teammates Stephen Eustaquio and Theo Corbeanu will provide depth and options.
Then there are the superstars.
Each of Alphonso Davies, Cyle Larin and Jonathan David won domestic titles with their clubs in Europe last season, and the latter two and their combined 23 goals form one of the most lethal strike partnerships in CONCACAF. Davies, meanwhile, can play at either left-back or the wing, as Herdman’s formation dictates.
Those titles, won with Bayern Munich, Besiktas and Lille (Borjan also won the Serbian championship with Red Star Belgrade), feed into the confidence that marks this group of players as distinct from its predecessors. Its best players are already champions at the highest level of the game; their performances don’t tend to dip in international competition.
Not only eight-and-a-half years separate "the 8-1" from the current Canadian national team. Skill-sets and pedigree stand between that debacle and the present as well. The expectations, however, remain in the same.
Only now, they’re actually realistic — and within reach.