Floro got it wrong in Canada’s Gold Cup opener

Canada's Gold Cup action started with a 0-0 draw against El Salvador.

The story of Canada’s Gold Cup opener was the story of that big miss. The goal was right there for that taking and, despite how easy it seemed, the opportunity was sadly and maddeningly wasted.

I’m talking about Cyle Larin’s almost impossibly bad finish after rounding the El Salvadoran goalkeeper, of course. But I’m also talking about the game in general, and for Larin as the waster of a great chance at one goal, sub in Canadian coach Benito Floro as the guiltiest party in wasting a great chance at three points.

Those who’ve watched Canada play through Floro’s tenure have grown used to a few things: Ball on the deck; playing through the middle; passing with increasing confidence; improving bit by bit with each game. The World Cup qualifiers against Dominica felt like the culmination of the work put in during the Floro era (if we can call it that). Canada played well, attacked well and scored freely, something that seems a perennial problem for the Reds, even against such lowly opposition.

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Then came Canada’s Gold Cup opener—the first tournament game the team has played since the former Real Madrid manager took over in 2013. With group heavies Costa Rica held to a 2-2 draw by Jamaica earlier in the day, Canada had a chance to shoot to the top of the group by beating a team it can reasonably expect to defeat nine times out of 10.

It didn’t go that way, at least in part because Canada strayed from the tactical path they’ve trod since Floro arrived. Les Rouges lumped the ball forward, bypassing the midfield entirely and relying on physicality and hold-up play. Set pieces took on greater importance, and were all the more disappointing for it when they failed to produce. The tactical shift didn’t sit well in the run of play, either: the attack seemed disjointed and unsettled. Even Larin’s golden chance—clear in on goal he rounded the ‘keeper but hooked his shot high and wide of an open net—was an outlier, a fluke opportunity rather than a result of tactics finally working properly.

What’s so frustrating about all of this is that it was unnecessary. Forget the FIFA rankings, Canada is better than El Salvador. The Canadians, simply by playing their game, can out-pass, out-pace and out-play Los Cuscatlecos. Forcing Canada out of their natural game—the game that Floro himself has been cultivating in the team—seemed unnecessary at best.

Now, I see points in favour of trying what Floro tried. This was the second half of a Gold Cup doubleheader, so the already played-on pitch would be less than ideal for the passing game. Moreover, recognizing that Canada can also outmuscle El Salvador, there’s a case for holding two key midfielders (Russell Teibert and Jonathan Osorio) back to keep them fresh for later, more difficult games. There’s also a case (a weak one, but still) for using this game to work out a tactical Plan B that may come in handy down the road.

But it was clear at halftime that things weren’t working: despite being the better team, Canada was generating very few chances and El Salvador wasn’t being completely stymied. Larin isn’t a back-to-goal number nine and Canada made little headway bombing it up from the fullbacks or whipping crosses in from the flanks. Midfielder Samuel Piette offered little moving forward and provider/dead-ball man Kyle Bekker underwhelmed. In short: experiment failed, it was time to change things up.

But Floro didn’t change things up. What made this so especially hard on fans who’d watched this team for a long time is that the solution to the problem was right there on the bench: Bring Teibert and/or Osorio into the midfield to inject creativity and play the ball to the feet of the attacking trio of Larin, Tesho Akindele and Tosaint Ricketts. Simple. Canada’s national team is littered with problems, and the solutions are never just sitting right there, so nothing aggravates more than seeing an easy fix go unmade.

In fact, Floro doubled down on his tactics, swapping Larin for target-man striker Marcus Haber in the 69th minute. Larin wasn’t the problem behind Canada’s attacking woes, and Haber wasn’t the solution. By the time Teibert and Osorio fionally did come in (in the 83rd and 86th minute, respectively) there was too little time to change the game but just enough to show what could have been. Canada was better, more dynamic and more recognizable. We all got a clear view of how much better Canada could have played.

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If trying to outmuscle El Salvador made some sense, trying to do it against Jamaica doesn’t. They’re too big, too strong and too fast. Canada will have to out-play Jamaica, a tough ask against a team who turned heads in their opener for holding World Cup quarterfinalists Costa Rica to a draw. Which makes the El Salvador game all the more odd. Why open a tournament with a tactical one-off, an aberration from how you’ve developed your team and how you will likely proceed? It seems an unnecessary risk. What’s more, it’s not like Canada is so rock-solid in its usual approach that it can afford to experiment. Much of Floro’s tenure has been marked by cycling just about every eligible Canadian with a pair of boots through the team. Having only just settled on a best-available squad for the World Cup qualifying home-and-away with Dominica in June, you’d think Floro would use the El Salvador game as another chance to hone the partnerships and develop the chemistry you’ll rely on moving forward. He declined that chance.

Heck, you can take the argument a step further by acknowledging that, for Canada, the whole Gold Cup is just a warm-up for the World Cup qualifiers to come at the end of the summer and (if all goes well) in the fall. Given that, it’s hard to understand why Floro would pass up a good test of his primary tactical arrangement in favour of a kind of game-specific pragmatism that suggests out-managing El Salvador was of primary importance.

In the end, Floro seems only to have out-managed himself. Now, moving into Canada’s next fixtures knowing that Canada could and perhaps should be sitting at the top of their group, we find ourselves level on points with everyone. And things are only going to get harder. Looking at the group table, we’re all left ruing two big misses from the El Salvador game—Larin’s and Floro’s.

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