Toronto Star ePaper

Game changer

Canadian men head to Toronto with shot at coveted Copa spot


Not a lot had gone the way of the Canadian men’s soccer team in 2023.

It had lost its bid for both Nations League and Gold Cup glory in the summer, lost momentum, lost precious playing opportunities to budget constraints and ultimately lost its inspirational figurehead, coach John Herdman.

On Saturday morning in Kingston, Jamaica, lady luck finally turned the other way and looked down upon the team.

Under interim head coach Mauro Biello, Canada recorded its first win on Jamaican soil in 35 years to take one big step toward a historic berth at next summer’s Copa America.

The 2-1 win was hard fought, and fortune played a part. But the contest’s two moments of pure quality came from Canadians and arrived at crucial junctures, too. Jonathan David poked home the opener in first-half injury time. An hour later, with the clock ticking down and the morning sun now moved to its energy-sapping midday peak, the game looked destined for sweatglistened stalemate. Stephen Eustáquio had other ideas.

The game’s outstanding player began the move, sending Richie Laryea clear down the right. A short moment later, there was Eustáquio stealing in to meet Laryea’s superb cross to decide things. The Porto midfielder had handed Canada a little slice of history, but also a crucial advantage ahead of Tuesday night’s rapid return leg in Toronto.

“We wanted to come out of here with the result,” said Biello, formerly an assistant to Herdman and now toasting his first win at the helm. “We knew that if we were able to achieve that, it would put us in a good position for the game back in Toronto. So the first phase, it’s mission accomplished.”

Bigger history awaits at BMO Field. This home-and-away series is nominally a CONCACAF Nations League quarterfinal, but it doubles as a qualifier for the 2024 Copa America and that tournament carries so much more weight.

South America’s continental championship has always had its quirks with invitees from outside its borders. But next year’s edition is very different. Expanded to 16 teams and taking place south of the border in many of the same U.S. venues which, along with Canadian and Mexican cities, will host the 2026 men’s World Cup, it offers a huge opportunity: Lionel Messi and Argentina, Neymar and Brazil, glamorous and weighty tests in a crucial World Cup cycle.

It offers exactly the kind of opposition Alphonso Davies and a gifted Canadian generation have had to frustratingly wait for. In keeping with a year when stasis has been the most common feeling around this team, they had to wait for Jamaica, too. This first leg had been delayed by over 14 hours after Kingston was drowned in a deluge that left Independence Park inundated Friday night. When the teams reconvened Saturday, the disruption looked to have unsettled the hosts particularly.

Jamaica lost two of its better players, Demarai Gray and Amari’i Bell, who failed pre-match fitness tests. Star striker Michael Antonio then picked up an early hamstring injury and fellow Premier League attacker Leon Bailey spurned three wonderful chances to open the scoring.

Biello followed through on his promise to stick with the “brotherhood” who had guided the team to its historic place at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar 12 months ago, but Canada started fitfully. Yet as these moments of good fortune piled up on the side of the visitors, they grew impressively.

Eustáquio began to get a grip in the middle, and Davies and Tajon Buchanan looked to threaten from wide. When openings came, David — and to a lesser extent Cyle Larin — looked like an attacking tandem dreadfully out of form, which they were. David had just one goal in his last 14 for Lille; Larin one in 13 for Mallorca.

It was Bailey who wasted the game’s best opening yet on 39 minutes, when the Aston Villa forward somehow hit the woodwork. This was lady luck hitting Canada over the head: make the most of this. Belatedly, David did when Larin’s dogged work put an unmissable chance in front of him.

After the year they’ve endured, the visitors knew they couldn’t have it all their own way, and 10 minutes into the second half things broke for Jamaica when Shamar Nicholson sprung in to equalize. An offside flag initially went up, but the video assistant referee intervened and referee Tori Penso saw that Kamal Miller had indeed played Nicholson on. Canada’s players protested that Penso had failed to blow her whistle before the free kick was taken, but there was no reprieve.

The contest slowed, and 1-1 looked likely. A hallmark of Herdman’s Canada was that they no longer settled for enough and instead sought more. With five minutes remaining, Biello got more: Eustáquio coolly side-footing the winner for Canada’s first victory in Jamaica since 1988.

“They are an experienced (group of ) guys and you ask for their experience to come through in these moments. I think that’s what we saw,” added Biello, whose candidacy for the permanent job would be helped significantly by punching that first Copa America ticket. “It’s special for sure, the first win. For me just representing this country, it’s an honour every day. To be able to work with this group and to make our fans proud, that’s my job. We showed a lot of resilience in the end today. Now we have to finish the job back home.”

Do that and they can truly begin to shake off the frustrations of 2023 and look forward again.





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