Walker Zimmerman on Canada: “There’s been a shift in their mentality. They play with a chip on their shoulder. They play with something to prove and they play with an intensity that is very high. They’re a confident group.” (© Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
While the U.S. men’s national team oldest rivalry might not have the history and expectations of the border clash with Mexico, Sunday’s World Cup qualifier between the Americans and Canada has risen to a new level.
On one end of the Tim Hortons Field pitch will be the USA, which has qualified for seven of the past World Cups.
On the other end of the artificial turf field in Hamilton, Ontario will be the upstart Canadians, who haven’t reached international soccer’s promised land since 1986, when most of their players hadn’t been born quite yet.
Both teams are vying for a spot in Qatar this November and December.
Canada (5-0-4, 19 points) leads the Concacaf Octagonal with the USMNT (5-1-3, 18) training by a point.
“They’ve certainly improved a lot over the past couple of years,” USMNT center back Walker Zimmerman said during a Saturday media conference call. “You look at the shift of players of theirs that are playing in Europe, playing in top leagues and playing well.
“There’s been a shift in their mentality. They play with a chip on their shoulder. They play with something to prove and they play with an intensity that is very high. They’re a confident group. Whenever you go out there, you know that they’re going to compete. You have to match that level of intensity and desire. That’s something that that John [Herman, head coach] has brought to that group. That’s a strength of their so we’re going to be up for it.”
On paper, it promises to be a high intensity confrontation and a cold one as well as temperatures have been forecast to be around 24 degrees with a few flurries or snow showers possible at 3 p.m. ET kickoff, according to weather.com.
It will be the second of three games for the USMNT in which it will play in cold-weather city. The Americans blanked El Salvador in sub-freezing temperatures in Columbus, Ohio on Thursday night, 1-0. After Sunday’s encounter, they will play Honduras in St. Paul, Minn. on Wednesday, Feb. 2, a venue that could bring even colder and more severe weather.
There was speculation that the Canada-USA game would be held in Vancouver. U.S. Soccer would have had qualifiers in Portland, Ore. and San Jose, Calif., to cut down the travel. But the Canadians opted for an east coast venue in between trips to Honduras and El Salvador on both sides of Sunday’s match.
“My perspective is that the coach is doing everything he can to help his team be successful, and we would do the exact same thing,” USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “I don’t know the behind the scenes of it. But if you think about them playing in Vancouver and traveling to Honduras and El Salvador, I don’t think that would set their team up for success. I’m pretty confident that the coach’s lobbying to play somewhere on the East Coast and make the travel easier. Makes a lot of sense to me.
“In terms of the weather, it is what it is. It’s cold and it’s about dealing with it. They’ve played in Edmonton. We’ve already played in Columbus. We’re used to cold weather right now.”
Canada’s surge to the top of Concacaf during WCQ might have surprised many observers, but not Berhalter, who felt the Maple Leafs’ recent results have reminded Berhalter of another team – the USA.
“I think it’s similar to us in that they have a young player pool. They have highly talented players,” he said, rattling off the names Canada’s best players, including Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Cyle Larin, Tajon Buchanan and Jonathan Osorio.
The Canadians let the world know to take them seriously when they defeated the USA, 2-0, in a Concacaf Nations League match at BMO Field in Toronto on Oct. 15, 2019. Davies and Lucas Cavallini scored.
“If you guys remember what I said in 2019, after we lost them, I said it’s a good team,” Berhalter said during a Saturday afternoon media conference call. “I didn’t think that team was given enough credit. And here they go to a couple years later, top of the table after nine games.
“They’re well coached team. They know how to play. They have a clear philosophy, and they deserve to be where they are right now. For us, it’s an opportunity to try to get first in the group. That’s where we want to finish. To do that, we’re going to have to have a good game against Canada.”
And beat the Canadians as well.
Of course, the hosts will have a say in that.
Canada with be without its best player, Bayern Munich defender Alphonso Davies, who will miss the winter window after he had shown signs of inflammation of the heart muscle following a bout with COVID-19.
But like the USA, the Canadians are much more than just one player.
Those aforementioned forwards will pose challenges and threats to an American side that has conceded five goals and recorded four shutouts in the nine WCQers. The U.S. hasn’t surrendered two goals in a match in 17 games, or since a 3-2 victory over Mexico in the Nations League final on June 6.
Larin, 26, who performs for Besiktas (Turkey) has tied Dwayne DeRosario for the all-time Canadian scoring lead with 22 goals). He leads all Concacaf WCQ scorers with 11 and is co-leader with David in final round scoring (four each).
David, 22, a teammate of USA forward Tim Weah on Lille (France), is not too far behind with 19 goals in 25 appearances. He has eight qualifying tallies, second to Larin (there will be no confrontation between those two players, as Weah could not travel to Canada due to COVID-19 vaccination issues).
For background on Weah’s situation, please read this story:
“They’ve certainly been in good form,” USMNT center Walker Zimmerman said. “Jonathan David has been excelling this past year to John obviously with his move away from New England and Larin we know him from time and MLS and abroad as well. They’re all guys that have a lot of quality and they have a nose for the goal. They have a desire, as most number nines do, to score goals, and they’re good at it.”
Buchanan, 22, who transferred from the New England Revolution to Club Brugge (Belgium), also has made an impact with three goals in 17 international contests.
“The special thing about him is his 1 v 1 attacking ability,” Zimmerman said. “He’s very quick, and very good with the ball at speed. He is able to get to the end line cut inside. He’s very dynamic and the final third.”
The speed of that trio can be devastating, so the USA has its work cut out for itself.
“It’s just being organized is probably the first thing communicating with your defensive line, all the cliches,” Zimmerman said, “but really just competing, going out there, making sure that physically we’re taking it to them, making sure that they know that they’re going to be in for a good fight and a tough game and not giving them too many touches where they are being consistently put under pressure.”
One other reason why this rivalry isn’t the same orbit as USA vs. Mexico?
Off the field, Berhalter and Herdman have communicated, talking about their favorite subject – soccer. Not surprisingly, World Cup qualifying has come up on many occasions.
“We’ve been able to bounce some ideas and some notes off each other through qualifying,” Berhalter said.
“It’s a good relationship. It’s a relationship filled with mutual respect. He’s done a great job with the program. I said this over and over. It’s the talented players that the group has, but it’s also his strong leadership and painting a vision for where the Canadian program can go. Once you have people buying into that vision, it’s no surprise that they’ve had the success that they’ve had.
“We’re pulling for the Canadian team to qualify. There’s no secret about that. It’s only tomorrow that I want them to lose and then every other game and I’m happy that they win.”