Canada Is Rising
9:01 AM EDT on October 14, 2021
Through five rounds of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, there had not been a more jarring dichotomy between performance and results than Canada's. The lads up north have been a joy to watch so far, and yet all they had to show for it was a single measly win. Sure, the schedule had been tough—two of its four draws came in away games against the Big Two—but this is the best Canada team in ages, one that on paper has all the talent necessary to qualify for only its second ever World Cup. The Canadians needed goals and points in a hurry, and thankfully they got just that in a 4–1 win over Panama on Wednesday.
In beating Panama, Canada secured a big victory against one of its main rivals for the key third place spot in the final round of qualifying. (Under the new CONCACAF rules, the top three teams of the Octagonal will punch a ticket directly to the 2022 World Cup, while fourth place will enter an inter-confederation playoff for a spot.) Through six matches, Canada now sits in third, two points ahead of Panama and four points ahead of Costa Rica. There are still eight more matches left to play in the Octagonal, but as qualifying inches closer to the halfway mark, every point against a direct rival is precious.
It didn't start off all that well for Canada on Wednesday. They went down a goal after five minutes, thanks to Panama's Rolando Blackburn slotting in a gorgeous cut-back from right back Michael Amir Murillo:
Murillo would go from hero to unlucky goat—the lower-case variety—23 minutes later. A powerful corner from Alphonso Davies bounced off Murillo and into the Panamanian goal, giving Canada hope and space to breathe and take control:
The second half was more of the same for about 20 minutes: Panama had most of the ball, but Canada hit hard on the counter to lead the way on shots taken (16 to Panama's seven for the game). It took Alphonso Davies, Canada's best player, operating on the opposite side of the field and scoring one of the great solo goals of these qualifiers to change that.
I have watched a lot of soccer in my life, but I don't know that I've ever seen a player zoom at a ball that was trickling out of bounds, keep it in the way Davies did there, and then turn that into a fade-away near post low shot for a goal. The degree of difficulty of the entire sequence was through the roof, and Davies—who primarily plays as a left back at Bayern Munich—made it look like it's what he does every day for laughs.
From then on, the Canadian rout was on. It's important to note that the team's goalscorers are rudely young. Davies is only 20 years old. Tajon Buchanan, who scored Canada's third with a looping header to the far post, is 22.
Jonathan David, the 21-year-old who has been excellent for Lille this season, scored the fourth, and though it wasn't the best shot you'll ever see, it counts all the same:
Canada's youth movement has made the team CONCACAF's most entertaining sight through the first six matches of this final qualifying round, and those same youths are making sure that the non-hockey Canucks are in great position to push for one of the aforementioned auto-qualification slots for the World Cup. The team isn't perfect; no team in this confederation is, and Canada's goal-scoring issues will be tested once again in the next batch of international games, as it hosts Costa Rica and Mexico back-to-back in November.
There are growing pains that the team's stars have to work through—David's decision making, for example, led to two spoiled chances early in the first half—but given the top-level competition that both Davies and David face abroad, and the solidity of the midfield and defense when out of possession, those growing pains can be overcome. Canada might not have reached its peak form just yet, but games like Wednesday's will accelerate that process. As good a showing as Wednesday's win was, it should only be the start of a long, successful, extremely fun journey. Where that journey will ultimately lead Canada is uncertain at the moment, but it's looking more likely that one stop along the path will be Qatar.