World Cup qualifying in Concacaf is a gruelling marathon, the ultimate battle of attrition for three automatic tournament berths contested between eight nations over 14 games in a seven-month period.
There is very little that is glamorous about it. Yes, there are the odd nights filled with mystique and glory. But more often than not, Concacaf’s World Cup qualifying campaign is a long, arduous and sobering slog that humbles the most ambitious teams and wears them down. Only the strongest survive, and World Cup qualification in the region usually comes down to who’s merely left standing at the end.
Canada’s men’s team was reminded of this on Sunday night after scraping to a 0-0 draw away to Jamaica at Kingston’s Independence Park. Fresh off a historic 1-1 result against Mexico at Estadio Azteca earlier in the week, Canada was riding high as it travelled to the Caribbean to face a Jamaican team that went winless through its first four games and sat in last place in the qualifying standings with a single point.
Buoyed by the talents of Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David – rightly touted as among the two best players in Concacaf – a Canadian side that took points off both Mexico and the United States on the road and went undefeated through its four games looked a good bet to brush aside the Reggae Boyz.
Jamaica had other ideas, though, and its combination of stout defending and physical play prevented Canada from getting into any kind of attacking rhythm. The Jamaicans were also abetted by a heavy and bumpy pitch that negated the Canadians’ pace up front and limited their ability to move the ball quickly in transition in order to catch out their opponents.
Notably, Davies wasn’t able to find that extra touch or that half yard of space he needs to turn on the jets and burn his defensive marker with a penetrating run. Had this game been played on a pristine pitch in Canada, Davies could have freely wielded his dribbling magic, and the final result might have been different. Alas, this is Concacaf, where each game presents a unique challenge to the visitors, and the home conditions heavily tip the scales in the hosts’ favour.
Canadian coach John Herdman admitted that the quality of the surface made it difficult for his team, but he didn’t use that as an excuse for only coming away with a draw against the struggling Jamaicans. It was just another obstacle to overcome, another hurdle to jump over in Concacaf qualifying.
“We rely on our buildup strategies, we rely on our transitional work. The Jamaican style is very direct, second phase and then they break your lines. They tailor their style to their conditions here and I thought they did well at that. For Canada, we had to adapt. We said we needed to get things in behind (their defence) a bit quicker, and I think that could’ve been better, particularly in the first half. We were just missing those runs in behind that would allow us to be more direct,” Herdman told reporters after the game.
“At the same time I thought we had some good control on a tricky pitch. The boys showed that spirit to want to play, and play their style and have come away with a good point. This is a good point.”
Indeed, it was a good point given the playing conditions, and the fact that Canada was missing several key starters, including captain Atiba Hutchinson, red-hot attackers Cyle Larin and Tajon Buchanan, and starting goalkeeper Milan Borjan.
Also, and it can’t be stressed enough, any point and clean sheet earned on the road in Concacaf should be considered a success, especially for a Canadian team that is navigating the tricky waters of the final round of World Cup qualifying for the first time since 1997. It also says a lot about how far Canada has come since Herdman took over an under-performing program in 2018 that expectations are now so high, and that the team only taking a single point from this game will be viewed by some as a disappointment.
“We’d loved to have got three points here, but we’ve taken two away from Jamaica, and added one and stayed undefeated. It’s not easy to do (that) on the road. I’m happy with how the boys came through that tonight given how many players we were missing, but at the same time, just the commitment of that group to get out there and in some tough conditions just give everything, which is what they’ve done,” Herdman said.
To be sure, Canada will leave Kingston with pangs of regret, that the game was there for the taking, and they could have won had they been able to attack with the same vigour, purpose and consistency that they displayed in Mexico.
“We never really threatened (Jamaica) at the levels that we can,” Herdman admitted.
But this valuable road point sets things up quite nicely for Canada, whose next three games of the qualifiers are on home soil, including Wednesday’s contest against Panama at BMO Field that gives the Canadians, who currently sit fourth in the Concacaf table, a chance to overtake the Central Americans for third place.
“I think this is a good point. We’ll rue missing (not taking three with the win) but I think coming out of this — Mexico’s a tough place to get a point, Jamaica’s a tough place to come and get a point. And we’re on our way back home now for three home matches.”
John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for a number of media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. To check out TFC Republic, CLICK HERE.