The lesson, not the score, will ultimately determine the result of Canada’s World Cup qualifier in Costa Rica

Dreams have a cost. Climbing higher than you’ve ever reached means you are one misstep away from your worst fall. If you are close to achieving meaningful things, then whatever you do matters more than it once did. Greatness amplifies everything around it, including your mistakes.

On Thursday night in San José, Canada’s men came agonizingly close to turning their wildest wish into reality — qualifying for their first World Cup since 1986. A win or a tie would have seen them through. Instead, they fell 1-0 to Costa Rica. After 17 consecutive CONCACAF qualifiers without a loss, they finally tasted defeat.

Now we will see what they take from it.

“There’s a group of warriors there who will pick themselves up,” head coach John Herdman said after. “They’ve just had a punch in the ribs, and I think the response will be strong.”

Given the night’s results from other games in the group, Canada remains a virtual lock to qualify for Qatar, needing just a single point from its two remaining games to earn an automatic berth. (If fourth-place Costa Rica fails to win both of its matches, that would also get the job done.)

WATCH | Short-handed Canadian squad drops 1st qualifier to Costa Rica:

10-man Canada falls to Costa Rica, misses chance to qualify for World Cup

Celso Borges lifts Costa Rica to a 1-0 victory over Canada in CONCACAF qualifying action. The Canadian squad’s next opportunity to secure a spot in Qatar will be Sunday against Jamaica. 1:39

The first of those games comes on Sunday, when Canada will host Jamaica, already eliminated from contention, before a sold-out crowd at BMO Field in Toronto. Nobody on this team doubts that victory will come, or that an incredible celebration will follow.

“It’s in the stars to do this at home,” Herdman said. “Get ready Canada, because we’re coming.”

Goalkeeper Milan Borjan echoed the sentiment, essentially guaranteeing a win. “We’re going to get it done at home. We’ll give just everything … I know we will, because I believe in these guys. It’s meant to be.”

But nothing teaches like experience, and it would be a missed opportunity for these players not to reflect on their first defeat in a year. The overarching lesson should be one of accountability.

Canada’s Alistair Johnston loses a battle for the ball with Costa Rica’s Johan Venegas. (AFP via Getty Images)

‘Bend, don’t break’

Fifteen minutes into the game, the Costa Ricans were pressing, the winds were swirling, and the Canadians were struggling to find anything resembling forward momentum. That’s not unusual for Herdman’s side, which has become expert at soaking up waves of attack before brightly countering. “Bend, don’t break,” is his principal mantra, and it has served this team well.

On this pressure-filled occasion, however, Canada bent a little too dramatically. Without need or provocation, midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye made a rash challenge on Ronald Matarrita, putting his studs into the Costa Rican’s ankle, just above the protection of his boot. Referee Said Martinez issued Kaye a yellow card. Then, ominously, Martinez was summoned by his video assistant to the touchline to take a second look.

Martinez took a third look, and then a fourth, and then a fifth, sixth, and seventh. The Costa Rican crowd chanted for a red. When a referee spends so long in front of the monitor, that’s usually what comes. A foul, like guilt, doesn’t often lessen upon further review.

WATCH | Canada’s Kaye sent off in 1st half after 2 yellow cards:

Canada’s Kaye ejected in 1st half after receiving 2 yellow cards

The Canadian men’s soccer team is down to ten men against Costa Rica after Mark-Anthony Kaye is given yellow cards in the 15th and 34th minute. 1:55

Perhaps because it was so early in the match, or perhaps because Kaye’s contact wasn’t slightly higher up Matarrita’s leg, Martinez granted clemency in the end. The yellow stood.

Then Kaye inexplicably broke. Less than 20 minutes later, just as Canada was starting to assert some control over the match, he felt as though he’d been clipped by Johan Venegas in the middle of the pitch. Kaye went down; play continued. Kaye got back to his feet and sauntered toward Venegas, who purposefully drifted into his orbit. Kaye should have walked away.

He did not walk away. He put his shoulder into his opponent’s chest. It wasn’t a charge, exactly, but the contact was obvious, as was the opportunity: Venegas dropped to the ground as though he’d taken a javelin to the gut. Kaye was issued a second yellow, leading to the red card and ejection that he had only narrowly avoided. Canada was down to 10 men with two-thirds of the game to go.

There was a lot to admire about Canada’s immediate response. After Costa Rica scored its lone goal seconds before halftime, the Canadians were ferocious for most of the second half, taking chance after chance. They hit the crossbar and the post.

“Going a man down, we still dominated the game and were unlucky not to get a goal,” Junior Hoillet said.

WATCH | What qualification would mean for Canadian soccer:

What it means for Canada if it qualifies for Qatar 2022

CBC’s Chris Jones is on the ground in Costa Rica to set the scene ahead of a pivotal World Cup qualifying fixture. 6:26

That’s true. It’s also true that Kaye’s twin fouls were mindless and selfish, and so unlike this team, which has set new standards for itself. To a man, they speak of the brotherhood they share, the responsibility they have to one another and their country. Kaye, who didn’t talk to reporters after his terrible night, must have known that he had let his teammates down.

“Football, we learn,” Herdman said. “Pressure does things to people. It’s normal. The lad is devastated. Absolutely devastated. He knows what that meant.”

Kaye, and Canada, are just lucky that they still have every chance to repair this particular rupture. They almost certainly will. Sunday’s game will likely turn into a coronation, and if it does, Canada’s men will take their rightful place among the best in the world. Seventeen games without a loss is a ridiculous, wonderful run. What a joy. Now isn’t the time to forget that.

And yet, there will soon come a time — if these men’s dreams really do come true — when the same sort of blunder will send them home from Qatar, and that shouldn’t be forgotten, either. The World Cup isn’t the place for you to find forgiveness. You can’t make mental errors against Germany. You can’t give Brazil a gift.

Otherwise you’ll receive one of the hardest lessons: Sometimes all that separates a lifelong regret from a helpful reminder is whether you learned from your mistake.

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