EDMONTON -- The strategy is to draw Costa Rica, then Mexico, outside on a cold Edmonton night in November, put nearly 50,000 fans inside Commonwealth Stadium, and walk away with six crucial points thanks to assists from Mother Nature and home-ice advantage.
It may a bit crass by football standards, what with the bounding ball on the frozen artificial turf. It was one degree Celsius at kickoff, with a packed house singing their hearts out under a cold, black Edmonton sky.
“I think Alberta is underrated for how passionate the fans are,” marvelled Canadian defender Sam Adekugbe. “They were loud, they were electric.”
Hey -- there is no column in the Concacaf standings for hospitality points. Soccer is a winter sport, and Canada was better at winter than their Central American opponents on Friday, winning 1-0 and collecting three valuable points against a foe that simply had to be defeated if Canada is to advance to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
“The first thing is a massive, massive thank you the Edmonton fans. The people who travelled from B.C., all over the country. The atmosphere was absolutely electric,” echoed Canadian head coach John Herdman. “This team really feels, the country is behind them. It’s like something we’ve never experienced.
“Costa Rica had a very clear plan and the fans stayed with us. They got us through.”
Here's how the table looks halfway through the octagonal.
Will the current top three hold their ground and automatically qualify for the World Cup? pic.twitter.com/3qyZb7MD6F
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 13, 2021
The subplot here was the return of Edmonton-raised Alphonso Davies, who was the guest of honour for 48,806 Commonwealth Stadium fans, the third-largest crowd ever to watch a Canadian men’s team play a home game. However the Costa Ricans must have been reading the advance copy for this game, as they arrived with a clear game plan to swarm the 21-year-old Bayern Munich phenom at every touch.
The problem? Davies was slow to recognize that, or perhaps hell-bent on making his return to Edmonton a memorable event.
Davies spent the first half trying to beat two and three defenders at a time, rather than using his considerable passing skills to move balls to teammates who were left on by the Davies-focused Central Americans. It’s understandable -- this was a big moment in a young man’s life with friends and family in the pews and a country counting on him to provide.
“The one thing the fans want is Phonzie on the board. The next thing they want is to see him dribble. I’ll never take that away,” Herdman said. “For Alphonso coming home, he feels he has to perform at levels way beyond what he really needs to do. (Herdman told Davies), ‘We actually don’t need anything more from you. We don’t need superstar moments. Your maximum effort will be enough for us’
“I’ll never criticize Alphonso. He’s going to slowly learn and mature around moments when he should be dribbling, or (releasing) the ball. On a night like this, let him have his moment. I think against Mexico you’ll see a different type of performance.”
We’d also bet on a more settled, measured performance Tuesday against Mexico, a game that became even juicier when Mexico lost 2-0 Friday in Cincinnati to the United States.
A Tuesday loss to unbeaten Canada -- who managed a tie at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City on Oct. 7 -- and the Mexicans will be looking up at Canada in the table, a viewpoint that would be rare indeed for the Concacaf power.
“We know how good Mexico is,” Adekugbe said. “It’s going to be another tough game. We went there and got a result in one of the toughest stadiums in the world. We know our quality, what we can do.”
Canada dominated this game early, but got drawn into a physical affair that saw four yellow cards split between the two countries. When Tajon Buchanan’s bicycle kick rang off the under side of the cross bar in the 54th minute, there was a palpable feeling that Canada’s attack was mounting. That Buchanan’s brilliance was a precursor to something big, not a tremor after the fact.
That’s when the Costa Rican keeper failed to get a grip on a long Canadian ball into the box, and it fell to the foot of Jonathan David, who now has goals in the last two Canadian games.
David calmly deposited the ball into the net for the game’s only goal. A second Canadian goal was called back on an obvious hand ball.
“He’s a special talent. A real special talent,” Herdman said of David.
And so the special talent they came to see went without Friday. But now, Canada has more than one player they can count on.
David provided where Davies did not, and somehow, Canada is the only unbeaten side in Concacaf this morning.
It’s Mexico on Tuesday.
Let’s hope for snow.