GLENDALE, ARIZONA – Jamaica was the surprise of the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup by reaching the final before ultimately falling to Mexico.
Along the way, Jamaica broke Canada’s heart in the group stage by scoring with one of the last kicks of the match to win 1-0 in Houston. Many Canadian players involved on that day still say it was the hottest game in which they had ever played.
Two years on the weather in Arizona is just as scorching, but fortunately for Canada, Thursday’s Gold Cup quarter-final against Jamaica will be played indoors at the massive University of Phoenix Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
Jamaica comes in having conceded just once through three group stage games at this tournament, including a scoreless draw against Mexico, and will be a tough team for Canada to break down.
“I think we have a potent enough offence. We have some players that want to score and are encouraged,” Canadian coach Octavio Zambrano said.
“Our idea is predicated on the fact that if we can score, then we can manage the game. It doesn’t always happen that way but that momentum that you can build upon. Canada will have a difficult time against a team that defends well, but we think that at least the games that we have seen that Canada can do more offensively against Jamaica.”
Canada hasn’t experienced the atmosphere of a knockout round match since it last qualified for the quarter-finals at the 2009 Gold Cup. There are just three holdovers from that team on the current side, with captain Patrice Bernier and defenders Dejan Jakovic and Marcel de Jong bringing a bit of experience to what is a young Canadian outfit.
With the group stage now over, it’s a matter of going out for 90 or 120 minutes and leaving nothing in reserve. There is no tomorrow.
“It’s like chess. You cannot go out for the first couple of minutes,” de Jong offered. “You can win the game in the last minute but obviously, you don’t want that. You want to control the game and make the tempo. I think we can do that, I think we have a really good chance if we control the game and have possession. If they run after us instead of us after them, I think that’s going to be huge.”
The return of forward Cyle Larin adds to what’s been an exciting Canadian roster that’s turned a few heads in Zambrano’s first tournament in charge. While much of the focus has been on teenager Alfonso Davies, who has been tearing up-and-down the line with world class speed and scoring goals, Larin is another talented player who could pose problems for Jamaica.
Presuming Larin slots into the starting lineup, Jamaica has to be wary of a few Canadian stars, which then opens up opportunities for others to contribute.
“Cyle is power forward. He’s a presence. He’s a guy that in the 18-yard-box, he’s someone that attracts a lot of attention and he can finish as well,” Zambrano stated. “He’s had a couple of seasons where his numbers as a striker speak for themselves. I think that he adds a little bit more power to our offence.”
These two teams know each other quite well. Not only did they square off at the previous Gold Cup, but Jamaica was also the opponent when Canada picked up its first win under previous coach Benito Floro. On that night in 2014, Canada came away with a 3-0 decision. They’ll also play each other again in a friendly at BMO Field this September.
“I think I know most of the squad and I’m friends with most of them,” Larin said of Jamaica. “They’re a very physical team that can play. They have individual talent and it’s going to be a good game.”
Just which Jamaica side shows up, however, is a bit of a mystery. The Reggae Boyz tied both El Salvador and Mexico, and beat Curacao in the gorup stage. But they also lost to that same Curacao side at the Caribbean Cup last month, and needed penalties to beat French Guiana at that same tournament.
With the possibility of Thursday’s contest going to penalties, it is a very enticing encounter between two nations that are clamouring to be one of the teams that leads the chasers in the CONCACAF region behind the big three of the United States, Mexico and Costa Rica.
That makes the game tough to predict.
“It is my opinion that they are going to come out and play against us on equal terms, so to speak,” Zambrano stated. “That will be the opportunity that we can take advantage of to try and score. Obviously, these are speculations but tactically I think what this calls for is an open game.”