VANCOUVER – One of the most chaotic weeks in Canadian soccer history ended on a high note.
A labour dispute between the men's national team and the federation dominated headlines to the point where many wondered how the Nations League opener against Curacao would affect attendance and the overall performance of the team.
It's all good on both fronts.
An announced attendance of 17,216 watched Canada defeat Curacao 4-0 on Thursday at BC Place, with former Vancouver Whitecap Alphonso Davies bagging a brace in the victory.
Here are three thoughts from Thursday's match.
Davies shines in BC Place homecoming
If it wasn't for the negotiations, Alphonso Davies' return to BC Place would have been the main talking point of the week.
Even in the aftermath of Sunday's cancellation against Panama, Davies still put on a show for his old fans. But it was more than just the brace. It was his fearlessness on the dribble, lifting supporters off their seats in the process, almost as if it was a flashback to 2016-18 with the Whitecaps.
“I felt good,” Davies said of his return. “Even coming back to the stadium for training, I was excited. Scoring just brought back all the memories from the last game [in 2018] with the Whitecaps and I’m just grateful for the support today.”
Ironically, Davies completed a brace in his previous appearance at BC Place in October 2018 with the Whitecaps. It was his final game ahead of his transfer to Bayern Munich. Curacao was also the opponent for the 21-year-old's Canada debut in 2017.
Most notable of all, this was Davies' first game for Canada since November. There was no international window until January, but Davies was diagnosed with mild myocarditis in mid-January and did not return to action until April. The Canadians played six games without their star player, winning four of them en route to World Cup qualification in March.
But this is clearly a much more lethal team with Davies in the fold. It appears he'll be deployed further up the pitch for the time being with Sam Adekugbe excelling at left-back for club and country. Adekugbe was a menace down the left, launching several dangerous crosses into the box throughout the game while producing a strong defensive performance.
“Every time I put on the jersey for my country I give it my all wherever the coach wants to play me,” said Davies. “I’m happy and willing to play in that position whether it’s up the field or behind.”
World Cup preparation
Even though this was Curacao, there were some noteworthy tactical trends to watch as Canada prepares for Honduras on Monday.
The first was the partnerships on the flanks. On the right, Tajon Buchanan and Alistair Johnston were combining nicely while Adekugbe and Davies produced some sublime moments of their own on the opposite wing.
Eventually, Davies drifted across the pitch. He went from out-and-out left winger to striker to free-roaming attacking midfielder during his 75 minutes.
“We did try some different things,” said Herdman. “We've been training hard for the last couple of days and right at the beginning of the week to just bring a new level of intensity to our pressing, our sets, so players can get ready for what's coming in Qatar."
Secondly, there was a reliance on early, whipped crosses and quick long balls on the counter. Considering Canada will face Belgium, which has an aging and slower defence, and Croatia with a back line that's still gelling, this is a wrinkle that coach John Herdman could utilize in Qatar.
"We've got some real speed, quality and innovation that can happen around this team in those wide areas," Herdman said. "That's what we've been working on, just making sure that everyone's clear on how we're able to set those moments up and then at times I think you've seen it with both Alphonso and Tajon, it's their movements of freeing [Jonathan David] or freeing Cyle [Larin] and getting Sam Adekugbe released.
"Sometimes what they do on and off the ball is more important than what you see on the ball."
Unless there is a home friendly booked for September, this was Canada's final home match before travelling to Qatar for the World Cup.
Despite a major PR backlash since Saturday, more than 17,000 fans — including two pitch invaders — watching a non-marquee opponent on a Thursday night is a solid turnout all things considered.
Vancouver sports fans are notoriously late to games, so the landscape before kickoff wasn't encouraging but it eventually turned into a respectable crowd about midway through the second half.
Hopefully there are more games than cancellations when the men's team returns to Vancouver.