SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA — There was always a chance it could happen. An off night. At CONCACAF night. A loss.
The Canadian men’s soccer team has been so untouchable for so long in World Cup qualifying that it felt like it might just pull off the unthinkable — qualifying for the country’s first World Cup in more than 36 years in unbeaten fashion.
One dream died with Thursday’s 1-0 loss to Costa Rica, on a night when multiple scenarios, including a second-half goal, could have clinched a berth in Qatar for Canada. They still need a point to earn that World Cup spot. Their next chance is Sunday in Toronto vs. Jamaica.
“We’ve got 17 games where we’ve sat (on) the other side of the table and tonight I think just the football gods were just not going to give us what we needed,” coach John Herdman said afterwards about Canada’s first loss since January 2020.
On a night when there could have been so much to celebrate, the Canadians were still proud of their performance. On-and-off field behavior typical of CONCACAF, a red card and the magnitude of the moment seemed to affect some of the players in the first half. A 1-0 hole was eventually too deep to get out of, despite some lifelines from results elsewhere in the region. But Canada held its head high after a vastly improved second-half performance with just 10 men.
When substitute Junior Hoilett addressed the team in a huddle in the field’s center circle after the final whistle, as Costa Rican players and their fans celebrated around them, his message was to “be proud.”
“Look where we are,” Hoilett said. “Ten men down and teams are still giving us respect and we still go and implement our game.”
The win provided hope for Costa Rica, which leapfrogged Panama into fourth place in the qualification standings.
It didn’t take long for the Canadian players to get a sense of how much this match mattered to Costa Rica. Thousands of fans gathered when Canada’s bus whipped into the stadium with less than two hours to kickoff, greeting them with jeers — and a number of hand gestures, too.
The theatrics didn’t stop in a sold-out stadium housing more than 34,000 fans. The playing of “O Canada” was conveniently drowned out by a fireworks display above the stadium.
It all made for a hostile environment from the first whistle, and the Los Ticos squad played into it, landing some hard tackles early, taking some quick free kicks and shouting for a penalty. Canada was going to have to weather the storm.
It looked as if the moment got to midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, one of five changes Herdman made to the lineup from Canada’s last game against El Salvador in February. Kaye left his foot in a tackle that took down Costa Rican defender Ronald Matarrita at the shins in the 15th minute. The crowd shouted, “Red, red,” (red) at referee Said Martinez, who handed Kaye a yellow card despite checking the replay on the video assistant referee’s pitchside screen. Given the ambiguity of the call, it was clear to anyone familiar with the quirks of the CONCACAF region that Kaye would be walking a fine line for the rest of the game.
So it was perplexing about 20 minutes later when Kaye went shoulder to shoulder with Johan Venegas during a stoppage in play. The Costa Rican forward dropped to the ground in a performance worthy of Meryl Streep, but it was a risk Kaye shouldn’t have taken when he was already under the referee’s watchful eye. The red card he had previously avoided was promptly produced.
Herdman chalked Kaye’s red card up to “just a moment.”
“Pressure does things to people, it’s normal … The lad’s devastated, absolutely devastated. He knows what that meant tonight,” the coach said.
The card came just as the game looked like it was turning in Canada’s favour, with the team beginning to settle into the environment and a rhythm after absorbing some expected early pressure from Costa Rica.
But a goal in the wake of a free kick in first-half injury time set the Canadians back. Celso Borges put the home team up 1-0 with a header perfectly placed in the top right corner of Milan Borjan’s net. The Canadians were missed their main aerial threat on defence, with Captain Atiba Hutchinson stepping in for Steven Vitoria at centre-back on the night.
It was the first time Canada had trailed since Oct. 13 against Panama. Tempers flared on the sideline, with coach Herdman at the center of the melee. los ticos went into the break accompanied by a standing ovation from its fans.
“It wasn’t a case of a lack of desire or passion, it was there,” Herdman said. “Football’s football. It can be cruel at times but it’s been good to us for the last 17 (games). We’ll take this one on the chin tonight, congratulations Costa Rica, fine defensive performance tonight.”
All of Canada’s good play to that point in qualification left it with lifelines despite falling behind. Honduras’s 1-1 tie with Panama meant the team only needed a tie to clinch. A United States loss in its tilt against Mexico could have sealed the deal too, but that didn’t materialize as those two sides ended in a 0-0 draw. Nor did a Canadian comeback, despite a header off the crossbar from Tajon Buchanan, Jonathan David being denied by the Costa Rican post, a last-gasp free kick opportunity for Stephen Eustáquio and more, as the Canadians took offensive risks by going after the result . Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who missed Canada’s 1-0 victory over Costa Rica in Edmonton last November, stayed strong.
“We just didn’t have luck,” said Borjan. “It’s God’s will. Today he didn’t give us that chance to qualify but I know he will next game.”
Borjan said the team has its foot in the door for a World Cup berth. The only thing between Canada and a spot at Qatar 2022 is a tiebreaker — goal difference — and Canada’s is the best among all eight teams in the standings. A tie on Sunday at BMO Field against Jamaica and the Canadians are in.
For so long, Canada’s unbeaten qualification run seemed written in the stars. That ended Thursday, but achieving the team’s most important goal of this run, reaching the World Cup, on home soil isn’t a bad silver lining.
“The dream is not over,” Hoilett said. “We just have to go home and handle business.”
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