Captain Atiba Hutchinson, on the verge of his 39th birthday, and young gun Jonathan David ensured unbeaten Canada kept rolling towards Qatar 2022.
Their two very different goals produced a gritty 2-0 win over El Salvador on Wednesday — the sixth straight victory for the Canadian men, who remain atop the eight-team standings in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
It was the latest chapter in a remarkable story that is enlarging a Canadian soccer bandwagon that grew substantially last summer when the women’s won Olympic gold.
Coach John Herdman said he reminded his players before the match that there’s “a whole country behind you now.”
“‘So when it gets tough out there, just know that people are there, And keep pushing through, because there’s 30-odd million back home waiting to go to Qatar. And never forget that,”’ he told them.
With three games remaining, Canada (7-0-4, 25 points) has a four-point cushion over Mexico and the U.S. (both 6-2-3, 21 points). Panama (5-3-2, 17 points) stands fourth, with Costa Rica (4-3-4, 16 points) fifth.
Come the end of March, the top three countries will represent North and Central America and the Caribbean in Qatar. The fourth-place finisher will face an Oceania team in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.
Canada emerged with a maximum of nine points from the three-game, seven-day FIFA window following 2-0 victories over Honduras, in San Pedro Sula, and the U.S., in Hamilton.
“The boys have executed. They’ve had that clarity and the confidence is there,” said Herdman. “There’s a real confidence that we’re going to find a way and get the job done. So today was just another step. It’s going to happen, we know it going to happen.”
Wednesday results essentially means Canada can finish no lower than fourth. And it shows no signs of finishing anywhere but first.
The Canadian men are now 13-0-4 through three rounds of qualifying, outscoring their competition 50-6.
Canada wraps up qualifying play at Costa Rica on March 23, at home to Jamaica on March 26 and at Panama on March 29.
Herdman said he and his squad while holding their emotions in check apart from a jubilant post-game tweet showing a snippet of the locker-room celebration, have already visualized the headlines that will accompany the country’s first qualification for the men’s World Cup since 1986 — and only the second ever.
Hutchinson, who turns 39 on Feb. 8, spoke to the media after the game with a poster behind him showing Canadian players under the slogan “Fear Nothing.”
“The team is fearless. There’s nobody that we fear now,” said the soft-spoken Besiktas midfielder, who brought his Canadian men’s record caps total to 92. “We know that we can go up and play against anybody in this region. And that’s because we stick together and we know and trust in each other.”
A prickly El Salvador side made life difficult with a choppy, physical game filled with fouls on a warm, humid night at Estadio Cuscatlan before some 10,000 fans.
There were challenges off the field, as well.
Herdman revealed that four staff members and three players had tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of leaving for El Salvador. He said all were doing well.
The breakthrough came in the 66th minute when substitute Cyle Larin beat a defender and sent a cross that a diving Hutchinson headed at goal from close-range. The ball hit the foot of the post and came back first off defender Eriq Zavaleta and then Hutchinson’s body past a stranded goalkeeper Kevin Carabantes, who was unable to claw the ball away when he finally located it.
“It hit off the post and after that, I don’t know what happened. I think it bounced off my shoulder and found its way in the back of the net somehow,” said Hutchinson, who had made a lung-busting run to get in front of goal. “Obviously a very lucky goal, but it crossed the line.”
The Salvadorans did not put a shot on goal until stoppage time with Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan reaching high to palm away a long-distance ball that somehow found the target.
David’s 93rd-minute goal was remarkable in its own right. With the home side pressing, he anticipated an El Salvador throw-in in the Canadian end and intercepted the ball, taking it off his thigh as he raced towards the Salvadoran end while Carabantes, who had been near midfield, backed hurriedly towards his goal.
Four touches later, with two defenders trying in vain to reach him, David chipped the ‘keeper for his 20th international goal in 27 appearances.
The Canadians came into the contest knowing that a win combined with other results could see them qualify for Qatar. That would require Panama to lose to Mexico, the U.S. lose to Honduras and Costa Rica lose or draw against Jamaica.
But the 11th-ranked Americans torpedoed that scenario earlier in the evening with a 3-0 win over No. 76 Honduras in frigid conditions in St. Paul, Minn.
There was some doubt Canada’s game might go on with the El Salvador players releasing an open letter during the day saying they would not play over a bonus dispute with their football Federation. But they recanted soon after.
While No. 70 El Salvador (2-6-3, nine points) came into the game sixth in the standings, it had shown it was no pushover at home, having tied the U.S., Honduras, Jamaica and Panama with a lone loss to visiting Mexico.
Herdman made six changes to his starting lineup with Hutchinson, Stephen Eustaquio, Liam Millar, Junior Hoilett, Doneil Henry and Scott Kennedy slotting in. Defender Steven Vitoria was suspended.
Eustaquio, who just signed on loan at FC Porto, missed the first two games in the wake of Portuguese reports that he had tested positive for COVID.
While Canada had more of the ball in the first half, the home side began to make more inroads into the Canadian end as the half wore on, albeit without really threatening.
A drink from the crowd landed near Millar as he prepared to take a first-half corner for Canada. The next time, police with riot shields held them up behind Millar as he prepared to take a corner.
Herdman sent on Larin, Tajon Buchanan and Alistair Johnston in the 57th minute. And it paid dividends, with Larin posing real problems for the Salvadorans.
Canada came into the game with a 9-5-4 all-time record against El Salvador and won 3-0 when they met last September in World Cup qualifying play at Toronto’s BMO Field. It was 2-2-2 in games in El Salvador before Wednesday, last winning there in December 1996.
Canada remains without Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies, who has been sidelined by myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, after testing positive for COVID-19. The 21-year-old from Edmonton has shown his support for the team by enthusiastically live streaming on Twitch as he watches Canada’s games.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2022