Photo Marcel De Jong
By Jim Wilkie Special to ISN
VANCOUVER — Impressive defence has been Canada’s trademark under manager Benito Floro, and it will have to be at its strongest to get a positive result Friday against Mexico in their World Cup qualifying match at BC Place.
In 15 games since the start of 2015, the Canadian men’s senior team has conceded just seven goals and allowed more than one goal in a game just once (a 2-1 loss to Iceland in a Jan. 16, 2015, friendly). Canada recorded six wins, six draws and three losses along with nine clean sheets during that time.
Meanwhile, in stark contrast, Mexico scored 44 goals in 24 matches while picking up 12 wins, nine draws and three losses over the same period.
“It’s obviously a bit more difficult opponent, but we’re going into the week confident that here at home we can play with anyone,” Canadian defender-midfielder Adam Straith said after training Tuesday. “It’s going to ask a lot out of us. It’s going to need to be one of our better performances probably that we’ve ever had, but we’re up for the challenge.”
The two sides also play March 29 in Mexico City, and containing striker Javier Hernandez will be critical if Canada is going to earn any points in the two matches. “Chicharito” (Little Pea), 27, has been re-energized since moving to Bayer Leverkusen this season and ranks fourth in Germany’s Bundesliga with 14 goals in 22 games.
“It’s a big challenge for me, but I like a challenge and it’s going to be interesting,” Canada fullback Marcel De Jong, 29, said Tuesday about facing Chicharito. “He’s just a world-class player, and I’m going to be ready for him. I’m going to be focused for him and do my best, and see where it goes.”
Straith, 25, said Chicharito’s movement is probably comparable with the best players in the world, but Mexico has other weapons to contend with up front.
Benfica’s Raul Jimenez, 24, has two goals in the UEFA Champions League and three in the Portuguese league, and Hirving Lozano, 20, has netted six goals for Pachuca of the Mexican league, including five in his past four games.
“At the end of the day there’s only so much you can think about them. We also have to put a good emphasis on our performance too. And also try to attack, we can’t just sit back the whole time and try to soak in pressure because they are a very good team and if we’re defending for 90 minutes there’s a good chance that they could get one by us. So we’re obviously going to try to attack and put some pressure on them at home.”
Straith, De Jong and fellow defenders Karl Ouimette and Dejan Jakovic played all 90 minutes in each of Canada’s first two matches in the current round of qualifying. The 0-0 draw at El Salvador and a confidence-building 1-0 victory over Honduras at BC Place in November has Canada second in Group A with four points, two behind Mexico.
Canada’s defenders turned back Honduras’ attack and stood up against their notoriously rugged style.
“It’s a different kind of physicality with Mexico. They obviously do have some big players but they’re probably quicker, shiftier than Honduras, obviously very good with the ball,” Straith said. “So we’re going to have to be very sharp (with) high concentration defensively. There won’t be any time for us to switch off.”
Canada’s all-time record against Mexico is 3-16-7. Two of the victories took place in British Columbia (1990 and 1976), where El Tri has never won. And the teams have played to draws in the past three qualifiers on Canadian soil.
Ticket sales have surpassed 50,000 and fewer than 5,000 seats are remaining, according to the Canadian Soccer Association. It will be the biggest crowd in Canada for a World Cup qualifying match and surpassing the record for the highest attendance by any Canadian national team event (54,027 for the Canadian women’s team vs. England during the 2015 World Cup) remains a possibility.
Feeding off the energy of such a big home crowd, Canada won’t just sit back on defence, Straith and De Jong promised.
“There’s gonna be times in the game where they most likely will have a good spell of possession,” Straith, who plays for Fredrikstad FK in Norway, said. “It’s about being in the right shape defensively. And then when we win the ball try to utilize them maybe being out of shape attacking wise, and try to utilize where they have left a little bit of space open for us.”
Discipline, composure and creating an effective counterattack to generate shots at the other end would be the best defence of all against Mexico.
“I think we need to be aggressive from the get-go and just play offensively and don’t sit back and drop off,” De Jong, who plays for Ottawa Fury FC of the NASL, said. “Just press high and let them make the mistakes instead of waiting for them to make the first move. You have to be the first ones to do that.”