Canada upsets Mexico in World Cup qualifier

DENVER, COLORADO - JUNE 19: Cyle Larin #9 of Canada advances the ball against Nester Araujo #2 of Mexico in the second half during group play in the CONCACAF Gold Cup at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on June 19, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Alphonso Davies ran the length of the touchline waving a Canadian flag. Milan Borjan accepted a beer from a fan. Tens of thousands who had already been braving cold and windy temperatures for hours stuck around a little longer to share a stadium-wide Viking clap with their men’s national soccer team.

Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over Mexico was the biggest night for Canadian men’s soccer in recent memory, and one of the biggest ever for a team that for decades has been more commonly associated with letdowns than triumph.

No longer. Eight matches into CONCACAF’s final 14-game round of qualifiers for Qatar 2022, the new Canada is here and will finish the year atop the eight-team standings with a firm grip on one of three direct World Cup berths.

That the Canadians beat what is historically the best team in the region to get to the top is further proof that they’re for real, if that hadn’t already been established after a seven-game unbeaten streak heading in.

“Tonight was the top competitor in CONCACAF,” Herdman said. “There’s no better enjoyment than when you get that opportunity to put your wits against (Mexican coach) Tata Martino … and then for the players it’s all about the performance. Good work brings that good mood, and we have to perform to enjoy it.”

It was Canada’s first win over Mexico in men’s soccer since 2000, and first in World Cup qualifying since 1976. The Canadians took four of a possible six points from the regional giant in this round.

Herdman made four changes from the starting 11 that beat Costa Rica here on Friday, including bringing in captain and new all-time appearance leader Atiba Hutchinson, who earned his 90th Canadian cap, and striker Cyle Larin. They were necessary and ultimately effective moves — by a Canadian side that had lacked link-up play through the midfield and someone who could stretch the lines, hold up the ball and bring players in up front four days ago — against the five-man backline Mexico unexpectedly rolled out.

“It was a bit of a tactical battle,” Herdman said. “We got wind that Mexico were going to change their structure with three centre backs. We’ve never seen them do that since Iceland a couple of years ago, so we had to adapt pretty quickly, change some roles and responsibilities. Right at the core was always (Stephen) Eustáquio and Atiba, whether we were playing with that 3-4-3 defensively or the 4-4-2 defensively. Those two players are really the heartbeat.”

The bulk of the Mexican team didn’t arrive at “Iceteca” — a cold-weather play on Mexico’s Azteca Stadium, which made the rounds on social media after winter weather hammered Edmonton — until midway through Canada’s warm-up at Commonwealth Stadium. But when the whistle blew they didn’t seem bothered by the conditions, starting the game by pressing high and getting on the front foot early.

The Canadians expected that, with Mexico looking to make amends for a 2-0 loss to the United States on Friday. But the hosts weathered some early possession by the visitors, a chippy period midway through the half that saw four yellow cards handed out and far more fouls called, and seemed to start finding a rhythm just as the break approached. Mexico hadn’t had a shot, let alone put something on target.

Larin did, though, in first-half injury time.

Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa failed to deal with a dipping, long-range shot from Canadian defender Alistair Johnston in the cold, wet conditions and Larin was in the box to score off the rebound.

“There was a genuine opportunity to bring out the Canadian in all our players,” Herdman said of the conditions. “They’ve all grown up on plastic pitches in cold positions. For us, we wanted them to feel like it was home.”

The game certainly brought out the Canadian in Johnston, the lone player to wear shorts and a T-shirt for the match, and teammate Sam Adekugbe, who launched himself into a snowbank near the corner flag after Larin scored his second in the 52nd minute. Larin had been left alone at the back post to redirect Eustáquio’s long free kick into the back of the net.

The end game wasn’t without drama. Herdman called the six minutes between Héctor Herrera pulling a goal back for the Mexicans, in the 90th minute, and the final whistle “the longest of my bloody life.” He had to breathe through a goal-line stop from Milan Borjan. But Canada weathered the last storm.

The next challenge is more than two months away, when Canada will play in Honduras (Jan. 27) and El Salvador (Feb. 2), and host the U.S. (Jan. 30). The home stadium for that match is still to be determined, said Herdman, who had other immediate plans.

“The only chance at this stage is for me to go back, have a couple glasses of wine, put my feet up and then get to the war room with my staff and then start thinking about some other thing.”

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