It’s about to get very serious for Canada at the Concacaf Gold Cup.
After the Canadians blanked Martinique 4-0 in their tournament opener at the Rose Bowl last weekend – their largest victory ever at the continental competition – the Reds will face a significantly sterner test on Wednesday night when they take on Gold Cup favourites Mexico in Denver.
Mexico is the top Concacaf nation in the current FIFA world rankings, coming in at No. 18 (60 spots above Canada), and it has won the Gold Cup a record seven times. What’s more, the Mexicans have historically dominated their Canadian counterparts. According to Canada Soccer’s website, the countries have squared off 27 times in international play, dating back to their first meeting in 1957. Mexico has won 18 of those encounters, with only three losses.
There’s been some humiliating setbacks for the Canadians along the way, most notably an 8-0 loss at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca in a 1994 World Cup qualifier. Canada’s last win came in the quarterfinals on the 2000 Gold Cup, so it’s been a while since they’ve bested the Mexicans.
Despite Mexico’s complete dominance in the series, Toronto FC midfielder Jonathan Osorio believes there’s absolutely no reason for Canada to fear the kingpins of Concacaf in Wednesday’s Group A contest.
“I think we shouldn’t fear any team. If you fear any team you’re at an immediate disadvantage. We can’t fear Mexico. We have to respect them; respect them, yes. Historically, they have the number on us. Mexico has very a long history in football, Canada does not. They’ve been at an advantage, but things have changed, and we’re developing better players and catching up, so if anybody has to be a little fearful maybe it should be Mexico,” Osorio told Sportsnet.
That’s bold and brash talk from Osorio, who has three goals in 24 appearances for Canada, and is playing in his fourth Gold Cup. But that’s entirely the point. Tired of playing the patsy in the Concacaf region, Canada entered this Gold Cup with newfound confidence, thanks in large part to the fact that so many of its players are plying their trade at top European clubs.
Youngsters Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich) and Jonathan David (Gent) have breathed new life into the Canadian attack, while captain Scott Arfield (Glasgow Rangers) has brought stability and strength to the midfield. There’s plenty of other success stories on this Canadian side, including Osorio, who is a regular starter in MLS, and played a starring role in TFC’s championship season in 2017.
Coach John Herdman also deserves credit, according to Osorio, for helping to change the culture within the national team since taking over the managerial reins last January.
“I think the biggest thing John has done is that he’s put in a culture of togetherness. In the past, people used to use the national team for their individual careers at times. We always had good groups, but there was this little piece missing of everybody having the same goal and doing whatever it took to achieve that goal,” Osorio explained.
“John has changed that. He’s given us a vision and a togetherness, a real clarity in everything we do. A clarity of what we want, how we work for it, tactically, and our team identity. Having that clarity has helped a lot to improve things.”
There’s no doubt that Canada has looked solid since Herdman succeeded Octavio Zambrano last year. In that time, the English coach has widened the national team player pool by blooding several youngsters and capping players who had other international options, most notably Ballou Tabla, who’s on the books at FC Barcelona’s reserve side.
Canada sports a perfect 6-0-0 record and has conceded just one goal since Herdman took over. The team also comfortably qualified for Group A in the inaugural Concacaf Nations League, which kicks off in September. But most of its wins came against teams that can be charitably described as minnows – an 8-0 win over the U.S. Virgin Islands and a 5-0 win against Dominica are hardly impressive.
Even though many of Mexico’s best players are at home and this can be described as their “B team,” El Tri presents Canada with its biggest challenge, by far, in the Herdman era.
Osorio called this Gold Cup “probably the most important one” for Canada in terms of it serving as a barometer of the progress made under Herdman. If the team is serious about moving up the power rankings in the Concacaf hierarchy, it has to, at the very least, be competitive against Mexico and the region’s other top teams.
“Yes, we’ve had great results in the Nations League [qualifiers] and we’ve taken care of business how we should have, which is what good teams do. But in the end, it matters the most in these tournaments against the top nations, and that’s what proves that you are a great team,” Osorio opined.
Likewise, national team veteran Atiba Hutchinson expects big things from this Canada team at this Gold Cup.
“We want to be the best team here and want to make Canada known in the soccer world. That’s what we all talk about when we speak to each other one-on-one or as a group. We’re here to win the tournament. That’s the way we’re approaching it. We feel as though we can go out there and play against the best in Concacaf. We haven’t played any big opponents in the last little while, but the results have gone our way and we’ve been dominant in games,” Hutchinson told Sportsnet.
“At the same time, we don’t want to be naive. We have to respect these teams we’re playing, and they are not going to lie down. We have to be smart, and understand we have the ability and confidence, and we know we can play against anybody in Concacaf.”