VANCOUVER—“It’s been a long time coming for us, from the last round to right now,” said midfielder Will Johnson, looking both elated and relieved, after Canada defeated Honduras 1–0 at BC Place on Friday night, an important win to kick off the fourth round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“It feels good to have taken another positive step for this country.”
The long wait Johnson was referring to was a key storyline in the lead-up to the match: The last time Canada met Honduras in a World Cup qualifier, three years ago, the result was a cataclysmic 8–1 loss for Les Rouges. Canada was ousted from qualifying, and worse, the team was in shambles.
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It was a relief, then, for the veterans who’d suited up for that game, to earn a win against Honduras on Friday. They weren’t exorcising demons, exactly—a day before the match, Julian de Guzman made it clear that this was “a new team,” and that the 8–1 game wasn’t “a motivating factor” for any of them—but the team was moving forward, and building a new storyline.
Canada’s newcomers, including Junior Hoilett and Cyle Larin, were key figures in that storyline. As much as the team’s young stars showed their worth, the team’s veterans, too, showed how valuable their contributions could be.
The lone goal of the match was officially credited to Larin—the ball bounced off his back as he dove toward the goal—but had initially been awarded to Johnson. The 28-year-old Portland Timbers captain headed the ball off a cross from Hoilett, who was superb in his long-awaited competitive debut for Canada.
“He’s such a special player,” Johnson said of Hoilett after the match, noting that the 25-year-old Queens Park Ranger creates “little bits of magic” on the pitch.
Johnson had some magic of his own on Friday, and he came close to increasing Canada’s lead in the second half, when his free kick nearly made it past Honduran goalkeeper Noel Valladares but instead hit the post.
For the Toronto native, the solid performance was especially sweet because of recent injuries he’s suffered. Many people were a little surprised at his inclusion on the roster: Just last month, Johnson underwent a minor operation to remove two screws from his right tibia, which he’d broken last year during a match against Toronto FC at BMO Field.
Another near-goal came courtesy of two veterans earlier in the game: 32-year-old Atiba Hutchinson and 34-year-old de Guzman. Hutchinson set up de Guzman, whose shot was tipped over the bar by Valladares in the 31st minute.
De Guzman looked sharp—his 84th cap ties him for first all-time in Canadian international appearances, and he left the field to a roaring ovation—while Hutchinson, a star for the Turkish Süper Lig’s Besitkas, was the epitome of control and poise, and the most impressive player of the match.
“It was a good start for us,” Hutchinson said of the win, noting that the team had wanted a bit of payback.
It was just a start, of course. The team will need to turn their attention to El Salvador, whom they’ll face on the road on Tuesday. For Canada’s veteran players that match in San Salvador will be another chance to demonstrate how far the team has come.
“Happiness in soccer is one second,” coach Benito Floro said in his post-match press conference, referring to the team’s celebration—brief, because of the work still ahead.
Still, for the Canadian side—and their veterans especially—it’s a second to savour.