canada beats u s cementing a soccer power shift

Canada Beats U.S., Cementing a Soccer Power Shift

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HAMILTON, Canada — If it wasn’t already clear which country in North and Central America and the Caribbean had the best soccer team during this World Cup qualifying cycle, Canada provided another resounding argument for its primacy on Sunday.

With a 2-0 win over the United States on a frigid afternoon, Canada, without its best player, extended its lead atop the eight-team qualifying group that will determine the region’s berths in this year’s World Cup. Now four points clear of its closest rival with four games remaining, Canada has put itself in pole position for one of the region’s three automatic spots in Qatar in November.

And with its hardest tests behind it — Canada went unbeaten in home and away matches against the region’s two traditional heavyweights, the United States (1-0-1) and Mexico (1-0-1) — a generational achievement may be just around the corner: Should Canada qualify, its World Cup trip will be the first for its men’s team since 1986.

Canada’s head coach, John Herdman, who is from England, said Sunday’s events made him feel for the first time that he was living in “a football country.” The team bus, for example, was welcomed by cheering fans, confetti and smoke.

“This is what we’ve dreamed of,” he added later. “It’s absolutely what we’ve dreamed of to get people excited. And people who have always had to wear an Italian shirt or a Serbian shirt or a Greek shirt, they can put them down. That’s what we want them to do, and pull on their Canadian jersey and now be proud of us.”

The defeat, in front of a raucous crowd in Hamilton, was a blow for the United States, but hardly a fatal one. The Americans moved into a tie for second place with Mexico, which tied Costa Rica, 0-0, later on Sunday.

“The result hurts but the performance doesn’t,” U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter said. He insisted he wasn’t making excuses, but noted how a narrow field and “very poor field turf” made it harder for his team to create and process scoring chances. A few injuries in the game also undermined the Americans. Overall, Berhalter noted how the United States dominated possession of the ball but lacked precision at the other end of the field.

“When we talked about what we needed to do to win this game, we checked almost all the boxes,” he said.

The last — and only previous — time Canada played in the soccer’s showcase tournament, only one player on its current national team roster was alive: defender Atiba Hutchinson, 39. But re-energized by a talented crop of young stars, and Europe-based professionals like Cyle Larin, who scored an early opening goal on Sunday, and Sam Adekugbe, who added the late clincher, Canada has risen from years as an afterthought into a power.

With its victory, Canada remained the only unbeaten team in the final round of qualifying in the region, and posted its first victory over the United States in World Cup qualifying in 42 years.

“Whenever we went to the U.S., they have 50-, 60,000 people screaming at us, and we’re tired of that not respecting us,” said the Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan, adding that he didn’t want his country to be “humiliated” anymore.

He added later: “But now, when they come to us or we go there, they’re scared. They’re scared the last four or five matches; they’ve been scared against us.”

Canada took advantage of a sloppy start by the United States to snatch an early goal after only seven minutes, and held on the rest of the game even after the Americans began to dominate play. In front of a crowd that braved the wind chill of 18 degrees Fahrenheit at game time, Canada yielded its share of possession at times but little ground, matching the Americans’ pressure with aggressive, physical and at times pugnacious responses.

The opening goal came amid a series of U.S. mistakes. Canada won Matt Turner’s short goal kick in the air and then used a quick interchange of passes to transform a turnover into a goal. Larin, after a give-and-go with Jonathan David, got a step on U.S. center back Miles Robinson, who slipped trying to keep up, and blasted a shot past a diving Turner. Canada did this all without Alphonso Davies, the Bayern Munich star who will miss this window’s games while recovering from a Covid-related heart issue.

As the first half wore on, the United States slowly gained more control of both the pace and the ball. But the same issue that marked its earlier qualifying missteps returned: It failed to convert its chances.

Berhalter has relied on a rotation of players, particularly at forward, as he has tried to balance his players’ fitness and exploit matchups in World Cup qualifying. On Sunday, he started Gyasi Zardes at striker over Jesús Ferreira, the surprise starter in Thursday’s win over El Salvador, and Ricardo Pepi, the teenager whose form may be the key to America’s World Cup hopes. Called upon again by Berhalter on Sunday, Zardes looked overmatched at times, and eventually was replaced in the 67th minute. Pepi offered a spark, but by then Canada had hunkered down to close out its victory.

“Defensively,” Borjan said, “we played amazing.”

Zardes, though, was not the only American who failed to find the back of the net. In the 36th minute, Christian Pulisic sailed a free kick from just beyond the penalty area over the goal.

Weston McKennie had a header saved off the crossbar by Borjan just before halftime. And in the 85th minute, Paul Arriola — another late substitution as Berhalter chased a goal — sent a bicycle kick just wide of the goal.

When Adekugbe split the defense on a counterattack in injury time and slotted in the second goal, the Canadians on the field, on the bench and in the stands knew victory — and perhaps a World Cup spot — was theirs. It may take another game or two, but for the players, and perhaps for some of their fans, it is starting to feel like the chance of a lifetime.

“We’re the only team that is undefeated and we take pride in that,” the Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio said. “This is a big win, but it’s just another three points. We want to stay atop of this region.”