Canadian men’s team’s landmark moment within reach after signature win

Canada midfielder Alphonso Davies looks at forward Lucas Cavallini as they celebrate Cavallini's goal during the second half against the United States, in Toronto. (Cole Burston/CP)

TORONTO — As far as I could tell, the country didn’t stop Tuesday night. Too much stuff on right now: serious, political stuff. Hockey. Life as it is in this country in the early days of Fall.

But for once it seems as if that day may not be far off for the Canadian men’s soccer team. Canada beat the United States 2-0 at BMO Field Tuesday night in a CONCACAF Nations League game and it’s been 34 years since Canada’s men have beaten their arch-rivals. That’s 17 matches. Rivals? This thing has been so one-sided that the rivalry itself has become one-way. Typically, Canada has been a nuisance at best for the U.S.

But this… well, this is a different Canada under John Herdman, who said last week in an interview that among the steps toward qualifying for World Cups and winning Gold Cups and the like, he wanted his team to provide a moment that would “stop the country.”

“Today I saw a different Canada — a different generation,” said Canadian striker Lucas Cavallini, who came on as a substitute in the 66th minute and scored the insurance goal one minute into added time in front of a crowd of just 17,196. Added goalkeeper Milan Borjan, the 31-year-old who emigrated to Hamilton from the former Yugoslavia as a 12-year-old, kept a clean sheet in his 49th appearance for his country and fittingly sat alongside Herdman at the post-match news conference:

“Unbelievable. First I want to say thanks to all the fans that came out tonight. We need more support than this. We showed that we have a young team that’s going to bring new football to Canada and this man sitting right beside me … He brought new football to Canada.

“And I just want to say to him right now, in front of all of you: Thank you for bringing the spirit and belief and the energy to these guys. This is a big win for us and this one goes to this man right here.”

Borjan fell to his knees and raised his fists in the air as the whistle ended the match and set off celebration among Canadian players and fans, who had witnessed not just a victory over the U.S. and three crucial points in Nations League but something almost rarer: a match in which the score flattered a big-time Canadian opponent. This wasn’t Cuba, this was the U.S., who until Alphonso Davies scored in the 63rd minute had never even trailed Canada in a match since 1993. This loss will send shockwaves through the teetering U.S. program — the game was televised back to the U.S. on ESPN 2 and commentators Ian Darke and Taylor Twellman were scathing in their analysis. “Could be 4-0, maybe 5-0 right now,” Darke said at one point.

This is, frankly, the type of loss usually dealt to the U.S. by Mexico.

U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter said his team “couldn’t match” Canada’s desire. Nor could he match Herdman tactically. He spoke afterwards about Canada playing a diamond midfield. Herdman’s eyes widened when he was asked about that strategic wrinkle, saying: “Actually, we played a box.” He also vowed to have “something else up our sleeve” when the teams meet again in Orlando next month.

Here’s hoping it’s more of Davies, the soon to be 19-year-old from Ghana who was raised in Edmonton and plies his trade with German giants Bayern Munich — although seldom, it must be noted, in games. And Jonathan David, the 19-year-old who plays for Gent in the Belgian First Division. They were going concerns against the U.S., with Davies scoring Canada’s long-sought after goal when he charged in to take a Scott Arfield pass and rammed the ball past U.S. keeper Zack Steffen. The goal summed up the miserable U.S. night: former captain Michael Bradley getting stripped of the ball, current captain Tim Ream pooching a clearance, and DeAndre Yedlin falling asleep and failing to cover the far post.

The U.S. were rubbish for much of the match.

An injury in the fifth minute to midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye forced Herdman into an early substitution. Liam Fraser of Toronto FC came on, but it was another more subtle move made by Herdman’s that tilted the match largely Canada’s way. Already playing with a make-shift back line, Herdman urged Davies to move into an even more central role up front, as opposed to the wing. Canada has never had this much offensive skill, let alone flair, and this was the night in which Herdman gave them the keys.

Davies’ speed left Ream over-matched and the Bayern Munich player had the game’s first chance — a left-footed shot — after being denied a chance on an offside call that was 50-50 with Ream caught in-between. David had two chances after a Cristian Roldan giveaway but keeper Zack Steffen, familiar to MLS fans from his stellar work with the Columbus Crew until a move to Fortuna Dusseldorf of the Bundesliga, made himself big and stopped David’s initial shot, then looked on as David skimmed a ball wide of the net.

Canada deserved better than a scoreless draw at the half. The U.S. was terrible. Target man Josh Sargent of Werder Bremen had as many touches as Kay did, despite Kay being out of the game in the fifth minute. Christian Pulisic, who has had difficulty breaking into Chelsea FC’s lineup but is considered the U.S.’s best young player, had three turnovers in the first 45 minutes. He was taken out in the 60th minute, tearing up as he dumped himself on the U.S. bench. Pulisic, who according to Berhalter had been battling flu-like symptoms, completed just 11 passes, his fewest ever for the national team.

In comparison, Davies flourished until he and David were subbed out for Cavallini and another veteran, Junior Hoilett, but Herdman cautioned against turning Davies into the face of the program.

“He doesn’t need to be that yet,” Herdman said. “He just needs to be a kid and enjoy it. Let him (Borjan) take all the pressure, him and Scotty (Arfield, the Canadian captain) and Atiba Hutchinson. Let’s just let Fonzie enjoy his football.

“Just go out and play, son,” Herdman continued. “Just go out and do your thing. I want him to play free and not be thinking where he has to be in a structure. He was free tonight. And it was lovely to see.”

This was a signature win for the Canadian team and Herdman, who left the successful Canadian women’s program to join what at times has been a dysfunctional and usually massively disappointing Canadian men’s team — masters of the false spring and the early, cold, depressing winter, as was the case in this summer’s Gold Cup, where it suffered a shocking 3-2 loss to Haiti in the quarterfinals.

Truth is, Tuesday’s turnout was disappointing considering the goodwill that surrounded this program when Herdman took over. But Herdman all but forecast that last week in an interview on Sportsnet 590 The Fan.

“If we’d won the Gold Cup, we would have had 27,000 people in Toronto,” Herdman said, noting the women’s team sold out stadiums within two hours after winning its bronze medal at London 2012.

“Until we win things and show we’re serious, people won’t get behind us,” he said. “We felt that negativity after the Gold Cup. It was good to feel that. You can sort of say the future’s going to be bright but you’ve actually got to feel it. Jonathan and Alphonso need to feel it. When they failed in the quarterfinal in 2017 there was none of that. Everybody said: ‘Well done! You got beat 2-0 by Jamaica … well done guys!’

“But this time it was the biggest catastrophe in Canadian history to lose 3-2 to Haiti. We have to embrace that loss. Wear it like a medal.”

Canada sits atop Group A of the CONCACAF Nations League this morning with nine points. Canada has greatly increased its chances of advancing to the regional World Cup qualifying event — know as ‘the Hex’ — but even a draw over the U.S. in the return match in Orlando would clinch first place in the group and see Canada advance to the Nations League final. In the complex stew of mathematics and rankings that determine a country’s fate in international soccer, this result was massive.

Herdman was emotional following the win.

“We were on-task at the half,” he said. “We were on-plan, it was a calm dressing room — there has always been a belief in this group. It was just nice and calm, and we looked at some clips where the U.S. was starting to break us down … but there’s been a belief right from the onset.

“I’m not naive enough to think it’s my ideas and my passion. It’s just trying to draw out the passion that’s already there.

“They’ve been hurting for a long time,” Herdman said, looking at Borjan. “And they’ve wanted a night like this for a long time.”

We all have. Herdman didn’t manage to get the country to stop in its tracks last night. But he did get everybody’s attention, again.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.