Canadian soccer gives Costa Rica reason to fear

SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA — In preparation for what will be the most important game of most of his players’ lives to date, a game that could secure Canada a World Cup berth for the first time in more than 36 years, coach John Herdman took his team on a trip down memory lane this week.

Herdman played two minutes of video from a team camp in Murcia, Spain in March 2018. He was his first camp as head coach, after taking over from the fired Octavio Zambrano two months earlier. Herdman would later describe that squad, then ranked 94th in the world by FIFA, soccer’s governing body, as a dysfunctional team split into cliques. There were two fights in camp.

It was also in Spain, though, that the team pledged to qualify for the next World Cup, in Qatar in 2022. The squad believed it would be the last Canadian group to “earn the right” to play at a World Cup, as the competition will expand from 32 to 48 teams after Qatar. Canada wanted to get back into the World Cup mix in this last iteration of the current, more exclusive, format.

A commitment to the goal was made then and there. A reminder of it this week was exactly the motivation Herdman thought the team needed to go out and achieve it.

“We brought them right back to that moment,” Herdman said of showing the video in Miami, where the team trained before flying to Costa Rica on Wednesday afternoon, ahead of Thursday night’s match.

Little more than four years later, the Canadians lead the final round of World Cup qualification standings in the CONCACAF region. Of the eight teams battling for three guaranteed World Cup berths out of North and Central America and the Caribbean, Canada is the only team still unbeaten through 11 of 14 matches. Herdman’s team has scored the most goals, and conceded the fewest. The squad has not only convinced its fans and opponents alike that it is ready for World Cup competition, it has convinced many on the global soccer scene that it has taken over from the United States and Mexico as the best team in the region.

Canada, which has jumped 40 spots in FIFA rankings since previous rounds of World Cup qualification began on March 25 of last year, is now one of the biggest stories in international soccer and has the chance on Thursday to solidify itself as the biggest Canadian sports story going by beating Costa Rica. Win and the team is World Cup qualified. A tie could work in Canada’s favour, if Panama loses or ties to Honduras at home or the US loses to Mexico away. Even with a loss, there’s an outside opportunity the Canadians could clinch on Thursday, if Panama loses to Honduras at home and the United States loses to Mexico away.

The Costa Ricans, sitting fifth with hope of World Cup qualification still alive, won’t go quietly. Thursday’s game will mark the first time the National Stadium of Costa Rica in downtown San Jose will be at full capacity, with about 34,000 fans, for a soccer game since before the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. Los Ticos, who have reached the World Cup five times since 1990, have won their last four qualifying matches, conceding just one goal. They have lost just one game at home in this final round of qualification. The country shut down its domestic league for the last three weeks so the national team could focus on its final three qualifiers. The Costa Rican Football Federation is pushing an “Until the last minute” campaign in support of the team’s ongoing fight, and it has caught on throughout the city of San Jose. National team jerseys are everywhere here, on sale and on fans’ backs.

For all the fighting spirit, though, Costa Rica knows it’s in tough against Canada. Coach Luis Fernando Suarez and forward Joel Campbell spoke respectfully of the Canadians in their pre-match press conference on Wednesday. For the first time in decades, Costa Rica has reason to fear Canada.

Canadian midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye said this week that if any of the Canadian players who were at that first camp of the current World Cup cycle in Spain in 2018 professed to know then that the team was about to begin on a meteoric rise, it’s probably a lie. It took time to implement ideas, culture and tactics.

“(From) that beginning to now, we’ve definitely all bought in and it’s paid off,” Kaye said.

So much so that Canada is on the brink of the biggest night in its soccer history, with its destiny in its own hands.

“They’re in the front row seat, their hands are on the steering wheel,” Herdman said. “They can do this.”

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