Last night in Toronto, the Canadian men’s soccer team defeated the United States 2-0 in a CONCACAF Nations League match. This is the first time in 34 years that Canada beat the U.S. in men’s soccer. No one on the current team was even born the last time this happened.
Does this matter? Yes. The 34 years is a bit misleading because Canada and the U.S. met only 17 times during that span. But anytime you snap a three-decade-plus losing streak, that’s something to celebrate. And it’s always sweet to beat the Americans in a sport they’re better at. The U.S. is ranked 21st in the world. Canada is 75th, and has never been taken seriously in men’s soccer. The women’s national team is stronger, but even they haven’t beaten the U.S. since 2001. So this is a pretty big upset.
Does this really matter? Maybe. The CONCACAF Nations League is a brand-new, season-long regional tournament that doesn’t carry much prestige yet. But the matches count toward the world rankings, which matter in the World Cup qualifying process. In the most recent rankings, Canada was seventh among the CONCACAF countries, which cover North and Central America and the Caribbean. Soccer Canada says that last night’s win moved the team, unofficially, into sixth. That’s key because the top six after the June window of international matches get into what’s called the Hexagonal (or “Hex” for short) — the final round of World Cup qualifying for the CONCACAF region. It’s not the only way to qualify for the World Cup, but it’s the best way. The top three finishers in the Hex get direct spots in the 2022 World Cup, and the fourth-place team gets a second chance. It plays the winner of a tournament between the CONCACAF teams that didn’t qualify for the Hex, and the winner of that matchup faces a bubble team from another region for a spot in the World Cup. The Hex was introduced in 1998, and that’s the only time Canada made it. So getting back would be a big step.
So should we start getting excited about this Canadian team? That would not be unreasonable. This team has the potential to do good things in part because of some (very) young building blocks. Eighteen-year-old Alphonso Davies, who scored one of the goals last night, is the guy everyone’s really excited about. He’s a rising star who plays for Bayern Munich — one of the best teams in one of the best soccer leagues (the German Bundesliga) in the world. Bayern paid $22 million US to buy Davies from the Vancouver Whitecaps — a record transfer fee for an MLS player. That shows his potential is sky-high. Nineteen-year-old Jonathan David, who plays in the Belgian First Division, has 11 goals in 11 matches with the national team. He didn’t score last night, but he had chances and he combined with Davies to put a lot of pressure on the American defenders. Canada also seems to have a strong head coach in John Herdman. He switched over last year after guiding the Canadian women’s team to back-to-back Olympic bronze medals.
When will we find out if this Canadian team is for real? A good test will come on Nov. 15, when Canada plays the U.S. in Orlando. That’s the back end of their Nations League home-and home, and also Canada’s final match of the group stage. Canada heads into it with a 3-0 record (it also beat Cuba twice). So all it needs is a draw with the U.S. to win the three-team group, which you have to do in order to advance to the four-team final round in June. But you know the Americans will come out swinging on home turf after last night’s loss. In their post-match comments, both teams mentioned how Canada outhustled the U.S. all night. It’s fair to wonder whether the Americans went all out — they fielded a strong team, but two of their best players either missed the game or played at less than 100 per cent: Jozy Altidore sat out with an injury and Christian Pulisic was subbed out in the 60th minute after playing through what the U.S. coach called “flu-like symptoms.”
So what’s the big takeaway here? Taken out of context, the win itself may not be a huge deal because the Nations League doesn’t mean a lot and Canada could end up falling back down the rankings (and out of the Hex picture) after the Nov. 15 U.S. rematch and/or the next time they face a tough away contest. But the bigger picture is that ending the losing streak is great for team spirit, and it shows that this fresh-feeling version of the Canadian team may actually have enough juice to make its 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign interesting. Maybe more importantly, it raises hopes that the national team can put in a strong showing in 2026 when Canada co-hosts the World Cup. If those things play out, we might look back on last night’s win as the start of something big.
Jesse Campigotto, The Buzzer, CBC Sports
Slightly edited for this publication