Canada ready for World Cup clincher after Costa Rican ‘wake-up call’

By John Molinaro, Sportsnet

A disappointing draw against Jamaica five months ago was a turning point in Canada’s bid to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Since then, the Canadians have been the class of the Concacaf qualification process, and now stand poised to clinch a spot at the World Cup for the first time since 1986 and only the second time in their history.

With two games left to play, Canada sits atop the standings with a 7-1-4 record, and with 25 points enjoys a six-point advantage over fourth-place Costa Rica (19). The United States and Mexico are tied for second place with 22, while Panama is fifth with 18 points. El Salvador (10 points), Jamaica (eight) and Honduras (four) are at the bottom of the table.

The top three in the eight-team group automatically qualify for Qatar, while the fourth-place team moves on to the intercontinental playoffs.

Canada can book a spot in the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1986 with a win or a draw against Jamaica. Watch the Canadians chase history on Sportsnet and SN NOW beginning at 4 p.m. ET/ 1 p.m. PT.

For Canada, the scenario is simple. A victory or draw against Jamaica on Sunday at Toronto’s BMO Field would clinch a World Cup berth. The Canadians could also punch their ticket for Qatar if they lose, provided Costa Rica either loses or draws away to El Salvador, or if Panama beats the U.S.

Jamaica has already been eliminated from contention, which means they have nothing at stake other than pride. The Reggae Boyz have been a major disappointment in the Concacaf qualifiers, scoring just 10 times (third-worst in the region), while conceding 17 goals (second-worst). Little wonder that the Jamaicans have registered just a single victory in 12 matches, and are winless in their last seven contests.

But in many ways, Canada has Jamaica to thank for giving them a wake-up call, and reminding them not to take anything for granted. Fresh off a historic and thrilling draw away to Mexico last October, Canada was involved in a dour scrap with Jamaica at Kingston’s Independence Park a few days later, managing to only walk away with a point from a 0-0 stalemate.

Canada travelled to Jamaica riding a tidal wave of momentum after battling Mexico to a 1-1 draw, marking the first time it had picked up a point or even scored at the venerable Estadio Azteca since 1980. Jamaica, meanwhile, was winless and collected a single point through its first four games of the CONCACAF qualifiers.

As such, John Herdman’s side entered the match in Jamaica as the heavy favourite, but the Reggae Boyz made life difficult for the Canadians in a physical contest that featured five yellow cards issued by the Costa Rican ref. The Canadians dominated the game in terms of possession (63.3 per cent), but didn’t make it count for anything against a resolute Jamaican side. Questions began to be asked about Herdman’s side, and whether they were legitimate qualifying contenders.

“We’d love 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 after the game.

As much as Herdman and players put a positive spin on the result, there was no escaping that the failure to earn three points was a major missed opportunity for Canada against last-place Jamaica, as they were leapfrogged by Panama and dropped to fourth in the standings.

But the disappointing outcome in Kingston pumped new life into the Canadian team. Three days later in Toronto, the Reds responded with a convincing 4-1 win over Panama, a game renowned for Alphonso Davies’ highlight reel goal that went viral around the world in minutes.

Herdman’s men would go on to win their next five games in a row, featuring a rare home victory over Mexico, and a perfect 3-0 record during the January international window that saw them record shutout wins over the U.S., Honduras and El Salvador. During the Reds’ 6-0-0 run since the Jamaica game, they outscored the opposition by a combined 13-2, and trailed only once for all of 23 minutes.

Thursday night’s 1-0 loss in Costa Rica delayed the World Cup celebrations for Canada. But that setback, like the draw against Jamaica last October, could be a good thing for the team as it refocuses on the task at hand.

“Coming out of Costa Rica, it was like the gut punch we needed; get back down to Earth, get your feet on the ground, let’s get this done. Let’s just get back to business. … At the end of the day, a group of men are about to put Canada into a World Cup. They’re going to have to work for it very hard [Sunday] against Jamaica,” Herdman told reporters after the team’s final practice on Saturday.

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