Sometimes it’s about the journey, not the destination.
Such is the case with Canada’s 1-0 defeat in Costa Rica on Thursday night, a result that temporarily put its hopes of qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup on hold, and provided a valuable lesson for coach John Herdman’s side.
The loss was the Canadians’ first in this final round of the CONCACAF qualifiers, snapping a six-game winning streak and ending a 11-match unbeaten run. They were also undefeated in their previous 17 qualifying contests since their campaign kicked off in earnest last March.
It had been pretty smooth sailing for Canada thus far in the qualifiers, with wins secured against the region’s traditional heavyweights, and points earned on the road against the United States and Mexico. Thursday’s game at Estadio Nacional in San Jose was supposed to be the crowning moment for Canada, a victory finally ending its World Cup drought after 36 years.
WATCH | Short-handed Canadian squad drops 1st qualifier to Costa Rica:
The Canadians have been the model of restraint through these qualifiers, keeping their cool and staying poised as they’ve dealt with a gruelling travel schedule, and the type of chicanery and gamesmanship from opponents that is typical in the CONCACAF region. But small cracks in their steely exterior began to appear on Thursday.
Buoyed by the fervent hometown crowd, Costa Rica made things very uncomfortable for Canada early on with its aggressive pressing style, and didn’t allow the visitors to find their attacking rhythm.
Canada weathered the furious Costa Rican storm of pressure and started to find a foothold in the game, but things took a dramatic turn when midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye picked up a second yellow card for an off-the-ball foul in the 34th minute when he brushed shoulders with Johan Venegas as the two players jawed at one another.
WATCH | Canada’s Kaye sent off in 1st half after 2 yellow cards:
Venegas sold it by collapsing to the ground in a heap as though he’d been shot, but Kaye should have known better to get sucked in by Venegas’ baiting tactics while already on a caution. His act of petty petulance forced Canada to play the rest of the match a man down.
A Costa Rican goal just before halftime seemed to indicate how the rest of the match might play out, with the hosts using their numerical advantage to force the issue against the under-manned visitors.
Instead, it was the other way around. Costa Rica fell into a defensive bunker as though it had been reduced to 10 men, while Canada furiously attacked in the knowledge that a draw would see it clinch a World Cup berth.
Tajon Buchanan latched onto a cross into the box from Stephen Eustáquio, and forced a sharp save from Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas. Jonathan David had a chance to score with a shot from in close after making a quick turn inside the box, only to see his attempt blocked by a defender. Eustáquio also had a good look on goal, but pushed his angled shot just wide of the far post.
WATCH | CBC Sports’ Extra Time examines 1-0 loss to Costa Rica:
Herdman took off defender Alistair Johnston in the 70th minute and replaced him with forward Junior Hoilett in an attacking change that clearly showed his intention to go for it. The visitors continued to turn the screws on the hosts, but Navas came up with a big save to deny Richie Laryea. Buchanan’s two rebound attempts went begging — his header hit the crossbar from six yards out, and he blasted his second attempt over the crossbar.
As Costa Rica dropped deeper into a dour defensive posture, Canada tightened the vice by applying more attacking pressure. Richie Laryea’s swerving blast from 22 yards out forced another important save from Navas. David’s attempt on goal off a feed from Laryea swept past a helpless Navas, but hit the far post in the dying minutes. It just wasn’t Canada’s night, and the 34,000-plus in attendance erupted when Honduran referee Said Martinez blew his whistle.
Costa Rica held on for the win, but just barely.
WATCH | Canada showed grit in loss to Costa Rica:
“The response was solid,” Herdman said after the game. “I thought the boys responded really well. Football is football; cruel at times, it’s been good to us for the last 17 [games] but we’ll take this one on the chin tonight.”
The good news is that Canada is still in the pole position to qualify for the World Cup. The loss in Costa Rica was nothing more than a bump in the road, and there’s no need to read too much into it, nor do questions have to be asked about Herdman’s tactical approach. Every team faces adversity along the way. On Thursday night, it was Canada’s turn. This experience will only make them stronger.
With two matches remaining, Canada tops the table with a 7-1-4 record, and with 25 points enjoys a six-point advantage over fourth-place Costa Rica (19). The U.S. and Mexico are tied for second place with 22, while Panama is fifth with 18 points. The top three in the eight-team group automatically qualify for Qatar.
Canada returns to action on Sunday at Toronto’s BMO Field when it hosts Jamaica, a game that presents Herdman’s side with a chance to immediately move and show they have learned a valuable lesson from the loss in Costa Rica. More importantly, the Canadians can punch their ticket for Qatar with a win or draw against a Jamaican team that has already been eliminated and earned just a single win in 12 qualifying games.
“It’s in the stars to do this at home … No excuses. It’s in our hands. Destiny is in our hands to go home and qualify at home,” Herdman said.