FRISCO, TEXAS – For the first time since 2009, a CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament will see Canada into the knockout rounds.
Canada played Honduras to a creditable scoreless draw at Toyota Park on Friday night to move to five points and finish in second place in Group A, two points behind leaders Costa Rica.
“In a weird way, I’m kind of disappointed we didn’t win the group,” midfielder Scott Arfield admitted.
“I think we were good enough to do so. I think that has to be the mentality going forward, that we can’t be second best. It’s a huge stride for soccer in this country. It gets people taking notice.”
The top two teams in each of the three first-round groups, as well as the top two third-place nations overall, move on to the quarter-finals.
Canada will have to wait to see who it plays in the next round, but it does know it will face the runners-up in Group C, so that could be one of Mexico, Jamaica or El Salvador. Group C wraps up on Sunday at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
Given the dry spell in this competition extending back eight years, Canada will worry about potential opponents another day and enjoy the moment for one night.
“We just need to calm down right now a little bit and do our celebrations a little bit because you have to enjoy this moment,” Canadian coach Octavio Zambrano stated. “Either, or, I think the most important thing right now is us. If we play like we have played up until now, I think we’re onto something. How much it is, we don’t know yet.”
With a good number of players putting in great performances during this tournament so far, Zambrano has a bit of a decision to make.
Gold Cup rules allow teams to make six roster changes ahead of the knockout round. Players such as forward Cyle Larin are available to come in for Canada, but there is always the worry about disrupting the chemistry that’s been established in the team.
“I think I’m going to have to talk to my pillow tonight about that,” Zambrano joked. “I don’t want to make that decision tonight. I have to assess a few things, look at the video, see what’s in front of us. We do have players that could come and contribute and other national teams are going to do it.”
Given its history against Honduras, Canada was eager to show off its mantra that it’s looking to the future and not looking back in any way.
With younger players taking on big roles and the freedom to get out there and play almost with abandon, it’s no surprise that Canada created a few offensive openings for itself against Honduras. And while there were some heart-in-the-throat moments defensively, the team grinded out a result when they may not have in the past.
“Everybody is putting the effort there and we’re moving on slowly but progressively,” veteran captain Patrice Bernier stated. “Confidence is building and we’re looking forward to the second round.”
Canada’s first chance fell to Marcel de Jong. Playing a little further forward than his left back role, de Jong got on the end of a Junior Hoilett cross that had been flicked on by teammate Steven Vitoria, but his left-footed volley came off on the outside of the post.
Honduras wasn’t without its scoring chances as Canadian defenders twice had to clear shots off their goal-line.
First, it was Michael Petrasso who was in the right place to clear an Alberth Ellis header in the dying seconds of the opening half.
Then it was Vitoria who was the hero late in the game when he scrambled back to redirect a shot that was heading into an open goal with goalkeeper Milan Borjan out of position after trying to claim the ball.
Second-half substitute Jonathan Osorio was denied by a diving Luis Lopez save with just under 20 minutes remaining. Honduras had backed off and the Toronto FC midfielder took the opening, firing a shot that looked like it was headed for the corner but for the goalkeeper’s fabulous stop.
De Jong also had another chance late in regulation when he tried an ambitious right-footed shot from the edge of the penalty area that just missed high.
Borjan had to pull off one final save in the dying moments in denying a Ovidio Lanza header off a free kick.
Canada failed to get out of the group stage in the previous two Gold Cup tournaments after reaching the knockout round in 2009.