Canada's World Cup dream on hold after tale of two halves vs. Costa Rica

Watch as John Herdman addresses the loss to Costa Rica, and he believes that it is destiny for Canada to clinch a berth into the World Cup on Sunday at home at BMO Field.

The wait continues.

The Canadian men's national team was down a man. It was down a goal. It played in front of a raucous, desperate home crowd that needed a monumental result for their side. It would've been easy if Canada folded under the pressure like so many teams before.

Yes, the first half was a folding of sorts in the form of Mark-Anthony Kaye's sending off in the 34th minute and the goal conceded off a set piece. But credit the Canadians for willing themselves back into the match and almost securing an equalizer, even in a 1-0 loss to Costa Rica at Estadio Nacional on Thursday.

A defeat means Canada's inevitable qualification is prolonged until Sunday against Jamaica at BMO Field, it also means that attaining more favourable seeding for the World Cup draw on April 1 is likely out of reach.

Baby steps, though. First, Canada needs to qualify for Qatar, and the silver lining is that the team could do so at home and kick off a celebration 36 years in the making.

Here are three thoughts from Canada's first loss in World Cup qualifying.

TALE OF TWO HALVES

Canada coach John Herdman named a unique lineup for this game. Ever-present centre-back Steven Vitoria was not risked due to a minor injury and Doneil Henry – his usual replacement – was suspended, so Herdman started four midfielders.

Some of those decisions paid off, like Atiba Hutchinson as a defender-midfield hybrid (more on him later).

Other choices were less rewarding.

Canada's major issue in the first half, apart from Kaye's unnecessary sending off, was defensive set pieces. By not having any of Vitoria, Henry or Scott Kennedy – who was on the bench along with Vitoria – no one in that side was a capable defender in the air.

The early warning signs were apparent after about 150 seconds, when Costa Rican defender Francisco Calvo was wide open but fluffed his header.

Calvo latched onto another corner about nine minutes later, although this one was significantly more dangerous.

Celso Borges got in on the act shortly thereafter, too.

But Borges wasn't going to miss twice and converted the eventual winner.

“We said in the big learning from November, we were too aggressive," said Herdman. "We weren't controlling enough in our own defending quarter. We said we can't give those cheap free kicks away because the only way they are winning this tonight was a set piece and a transition, and I thought we managed the transition brilliantly. But the set pieces when they have got (Kendall) Waston on the pitch, Calvo, they are good threats, and they've been training for two weeks on it.”

In terms of expected goals (xG), Canada generated 0.33 xG in the first half on four shots, none of which hit the target. Three of those attempts were blocked and half of that output was from outside the box. Costa Rica only had five shots, yet four came off those set pieces and Borges' goal.

Yet Costa Rica wasn't a major threat from open play when analyzing its first-half pass map and touch map. Then again, neither was Canada.

Canada's pass map (left) and Costa Rica's pass map (right). Green indicates a completed pass, red is incomplete and yellow is a shot assist.

The game completely changed in the second half with some of Herdman's substitutions, primarily Junior Hoilett, who provided an outlet for Richie Laryea on the left and they managed to pick the lock of the Costa Rican defence a few times.

Stephen Eustaquio was equally brilliant in the second half and created two golden opportunities for Canada that went to waste.

Richie Laryea's (No. 22) and Junior Hoilett's (No. 10) second-half pass map, left, and Stephen Eustaquio's second-half pass map, right. Green indicates a completed pass, red is incomplete and yellow is a shot assist.

“Absolute warriors," Herdman said of Laryea's and Eustaquio's performances. "I think that there is no doubt in my mind when you have players when they are fighting for a World Cup, they can find another level. The sports science will tell you they can play for 60 minutes in altitude and the human will, it will just keep pushing."

The common theme was Canada increasing the tempo of its attacks and weaponizing its superior speed. Costa Rica eventually sat back and absorbed pressure to the tune of 14 shots in the second half alone.

Ultimately, Canada won the xG battle 1.55 to 1.09, and Tajon Buchanan alone could've pulled the visitors level in three different sequences.

Jonathan David came just as close to wrapping up a World Cup berth, too.

“The response was solid," Herdman said. "I thought the boys responded really well. Football is football; cruel at times, it's been good to us for the last 17 (games), but we'll take this one on the chin tonight.”

Coaches will make decisions that occasionally go awry. The key is how the team and the coach adjust when it does, and to Canada's credit, it essentially righted the wrong of the first half. All it needed was that elusive goal.

THE AGELESS WONDER

There are no more superlatives to describe Atiba Hutchinson. At 39 years of age, the national team's all-time caps leader was deployed as a centre-back for the first time since the 2019 Gold Cup group stage, yet none would be the wiser based on his performance.

Hutchinson completed an astonishing 89 of 93 passes, nine recoveries, three tackles and one interception in his 90 minutes. But it was not just the accuracy of the passes, it was how he calmly orchestrated his side when building from the back to bypass Costa Rica's medium blocks. There were some lovely passages of play kick-started by the veteran that may not have been executed as precisely without him.

Atiba Hutchinson's pass map (left) and interceptions and recoveries (right) vs. Costa Rica. Green indicates a completed pass and red is incomplete.

Even defensively, Hutchinson contributed greatly. Goalkeeper Milan Borjan might owe him a steak dinner for this intervention on Joel Campbell in the second half, which was arguably Costa Rica's only dangerous sequence in the final 45 minutes.

Once Canada is officially slated for Qatar in November, no one will deserve it more than Hutchinson, who has logged nearly 20 years of lows with this program. Thursday might sting but the last two years have seen significantly more highs, and hopefully for Hutchinson's sake, he experiences the euphoria he merits.

KONE SHINES IN DEBUT

Nineteen-year-old Ismael Kone was the headline inclusion on this roster after a hot start for CF Montreal. Even though he registered just under 20 minutes versus Costa Rica, he showcased why Herdman, and many others, are enthralled by the youngster.

Kone checked into the game in the 77th minute and looked like he belonged from the moment he stepped onto the pitch. He completed all 11 of his passes and broke through Costa Rica's lines gracefully.

With Kaye suspended, don't be surprised if Herdman throws Kone into the starting lineup on Sunday against Jamaica. The Montreal midfielder has now played at Costa Rica's Estadio Nacional, Estadio Azteca in Mexico City and in two pivotal Concacaf Champions League second legs at home against Liga MX opposition. Kone has proven he can shine in big moments, and this can be a real boost in confidence to have that trust from his coach.

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