TORONTO -- Canada got its first taste of the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying on Thursday, having to fight hard for a 1-1 tie with Honduras.
The game -- fast-paced and often prickly with little room to breathe -- was the first of 14 for Canada in the eight-team Octagonal. And Canada's first trip to the final qualifying round since the lead-up to France '98 was an instant reality check, with two valuable home points dropped.
"That was a big welcome to the CONCACAF Octagon, I guess you could say," said Canadian defender Alistair Johnston. "Nothing's going to be easy, nothing's going to be given."
"It's the start of a journey and we 've got the ability to get better," added coach John Herdman. "That's the exciting thing for us."
The teams each scored from the penalty spot with Honduras going ahead 1-0 in the 40th minute from Alexander Lopez with Cyle Larin pulling the Canadian men even in the 66th.
Canada, currently ranked 59th in the world, came into the game on a wave of optimism. But No. 63 Honduras, looking calm and collected some 3,400 kilometres away from home, proved to be a stubborn opponent.
The Canadians now head south to face on the U.S. in Nashville on Sunday. Then it's back to Toronto to host El Salvador next Wednesday.
Next month, the Canadians visit Mexico and Jamaica before returning to BMO Field to entertain Panama on Oct. 13. Canada will play eight more matches after that, wrapping up play in March.
Canada got some help from other CONCACAF results Thursday with the U.S. tying El Salvador 0-0 and Panama drawing Costa Rica 0-0. Mexico defeated Jamaica 2-1.
Veteran goalkeeper Milan Borjan's message to his teammates in the post-game huddle was the Canadians can't wait until the second half to get into high gear, according to Johnston.
Herdman said his team lacked cohesion and chemistry in the first half, but came on strong in the second with substitute Junior Hoilett making a difference.
"It's going to be a marathon," Herdman said. "We've got a long way to go. The first game at home, it was a three-point focus. But these boys were in a number of occasions an inch, an inch away from making it one of those nights where the crowds goes home very happy."
Both teams managed 15 shots with Honduras holding a 6-3 edge in shots on target. The Canadians had 66 per cent of possession in a game that featured a total of 39 fouls.
"A call or two went against us," Canadian defender Steven Vitoria said diplomatically.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) September 3, 2021
Canada had more of the ball but could not unlock the Honduran defence until Larin converted his penalty for his 19th Canadian goal. That moved him into a tie for second place in Canadian men's scoring behind Dwayne De Rosario's 22.
Veteran defender Maynor Figueroa took down Hoilett after Borjan triggered a rapid-fire attack following a save at the other end. Richie Laryea did most of the work with the ball before the Honduran defence was compromised.
Lopez opened the scoring after Canadian wingback Tajon Buchanan brought down Andy Najar in the box. A nice give-and-go between Kervin Arriaga and Najar allowed for the Honduran penetration with Buchanan's leg catching Najar as the D.C. United wingback headed towards goal.
Mexican referee Fernando Guerrero Ramirez pointed to the spot and Lopez slotted the ball into the corner.
Lopez appeared to injure himself on the penalty, grimacing and holding the back of his thigh as his teammates celebrated. He was taken off the field on a stretcher, giving way to CF Montreal forward Romell Quioto.
Canada pressed in the second half with Honduras doing its best to kill time and slow down play. The visitors still had some teeth, however. Borjan got a fingertip to a Brayan Moya header in the 74th minute, pushing the ball off the post to safety in a game-saving save.
Jonathan David had an opening in the 80th minute after Vitoria headed the ball to him on a free kick but the Canadian forward's shot was blocked. Laryea then shot high from a tight angle in the 89th minute.
Herdman liked what he saw in the second half.
"If they can carry that sort of spirit and resilience that we've seen, this is going to a great journey for the team," he said.
The top three in the final CONCACAF round-robin qualify for Qatar 2022 with the fourth-place finisher taking part in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them. Honduras made that playoff last time around, losing 3-1 on aggregate to Australia.
Thursday's game was the first for the Canadian men on home soil since Oct. 15, 2019, when they scored a landmark 2-0 win over the U.S. in CONCACAF Nations League play at BMO Field. The Canadians played their next 15 matches on the road due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, going 11-4-0 with the only losses to Iceland, Mexico and the U.S. (twice).
Attendance for Thursday's match was capped at just under 15,000 due to COVID regulations. The announced crowd of 14,822 was enthusiastic and noisy with a chant of "Canada, Canada" in the first minute of play. "Super Canucks" read one large sign in the south stand.
Canadian captain Atiba Hutchinson earned his 86th senior cap, moving within three of the retired Julian de Guzman, who holds the Canadian men's record.
Herdman fielded an attacking lineup with Alphonso Davies, Larin, David and Buchanan all starting. Borjan made his 54th appearance for Canada.
The Canadian starting 11 came into the game with a combined 294 caps. Six of the starters had less than 20 senior appearances
Herdman said prior to the match it might take his team a little while to find its rhythm given the layoff since the Gold Cup. But it was a frenetic opening with neither team given much time on the ball.
Davies wasted little time showing his pace and guile, beating defenders down the left flank in the 11th and 13th minute but unable to find a teammate in the box as Honduran defenders scrambled. Buchanan showed off his bag of tricks, nutmegging a Honduran in his own half.
Honduras was unfazed, looking to counter-attack and shoot from any distance. Borjan made a diving save in the 20th off Diego Rodriguez after punching away a Honduran free kick.
Davies and Buchanan changed sides midway through the half. At times, Canada had a line of five attackers waiting for the ball as attacks developed.
Canada had 58 percent of the possession in the first half but was unable to turn that into goals.
A call for a Honduran handball went unanswered in the 58th minute. The CONCACAF final round does not feature video review with the confederation saying the technology was not available in the stadiums of five of the eight competing federations.
With the CONCACAF road map changing several times as the pandemic played havoc with the world soccer schedule, the Canadians -- along with El Salvador (No. 64) and Panama (No. 74) -- fought their way through a 29-team first round and then a knockout second round to earn the right to join Mexico (No. 9), the U.S. (No. 10), Costa Rica (No. 44), Jamaica (No. 50) and Honduras in the so-called Octagonal.
Canada defeated Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Aruba, Suriname and Haiti (twice) to get this far.
The Canadian men came into the game 7-11-6 all-time against Honduras but 5-2-2 on home soil. The teams drew 0-0 the last time they met, at the 2017 Gold Cup in Frisco, Texas.