Canada’s quest for glory in the Concacaf Nations League begins on Friday night with the first leg of their quarterfinal series against Jamaica at Independence Park in Kingston, Jamaica.
The match will be broadcast on OneSoccer with kickoff set for 7 pm.
Given a bye to the knockout rounds, Canada and the other top four sides in the region were paired against the four teams to emerge from the group stage. The winners of each series advance to the Concacaf Nations League Finals in Arlington, Texas next March and assure themselves of a spot in the 2024 Copa América as well.
“The mood is really good, players are really excited for what’s up next,” said interim head coach Mauro Biello to Canada Soccer from training in Fort Lauderdale, Florida before heading to Jamaica.
“It’s a massive two games for us, against a really good opponent.”
Looking at the four teams to emerge from that League A group stage – Panama, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Honduras – the Jamaicans are perhaps the side nobody wanted to face. They have been undergoing a revolution of sorts, much like Canada, enticing dual nationals from the diaspora into the fold.
“If you look at their roster, it's a little bit different than the team that we played back in qualifying,” outlined Biello during Friday’s match day minus-one press conference. “The likes of [West Ham United’s Michail] Antonio, [Aston Villa’s Leon] Bailey, [Demarai] Gray, [Bobby De Cordova-]Reid, [Ethan] Pinnock, these are players that are playing in the [English] Premiership.”
“We're expecting a tough opponent in difficult conditions,” he continued. “It's about preparing in the right way and that's what we focused on this week, doing everything that we can to put us in the best conditions, whether it's fighting elements, whether it's fighting their style of play, to be ready now to face a very difficult opponent.”
Jamaica went unbeaten through the four group stages matches in September and October, outscoring their opponents 10-5. They are unbeaten in their last five matches overall and have lost just once since the start of the 2023 Gold Cup – falling 3-0 to Mexico in the semifinal.
Canada’s ascent to the top of the table in World Cup Qualification began with three hard-fought away draws – against the USA, Mexico, and Jamaica – before wins at Honduras and El Salvador all but assured at spot at the Finals.
Playing away from home in Concacaf is never an easy prospect. The only defeats in qualification came on the road to Costa Rica and Panama.
“We had some good results on the road in qualifying,” recalled Biello.
“This is going to be a difficult place to play. We haven't won there in 35 years. It's understanding that, but we know what we're capable of doing.”
“We had to dig deep in those moments in qualifying. Whether it was the fans, whether it was the field, whether it was the weather, it's all things that we had to deal with going into these environments,” he continued. “This is why there's an experienced group that has lived those moments. You can't go in here and be surprised and not know what to expect. The players know what to expect, they know it's going to be difficult, and they know what they need to do to get the results here in Jamaica.”
Canada’s last win in Jamaica was a 4-0 result in 1988. In the seven meetings since on the island, three have ended in draws and Jamaica has won four.
“This is Concacaf. Every away stadium is difficult to play,” levelled Biello.
“We've seen that, we've experienced that throughout our history. You have to be able to adapt to that quickly and you have to be strong mentally.”
“That ball may bobble up and hit you in the shin and you lose control, but it's not about putting your head down, it's about reacting in the right way and doing what's needed and getting on with the next play. It's about having that mindset to be able to deal with these conditions, deal with the heat, stay focused on what we need to do to get the result,” he reminded. “Don't get off script, stay focused, get all the little things done right. and that will give you the best chance to win this game and get the result that we want.”
With that in mind, Biello called in a strong and experienced squad: Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Stephen Eustáquio, Tajon Buchanan, Milan Borjan, Richie Laryea, and Toronto FC’s Jonathan Osorio amongst them.
The second leg is set for BMO Field next Tuesday, the same venue where Canada clinched their long-awaited World Cup berth in March 2022 with a 4-0 win over Jamaica.
Expect 180 minutes-plus of frenetic action over the two legs.
“We know the elements in Jamaica will be difficult, but it'll also be difficult in Toronto. It's how we manage the chaos – there will be a lot of chaos in these two games,” added the head coach. “These two-game series, it’s always important that first one, getting that result and giving us that that opportunity to take care of business back home.”
Canada’s only match since the quarterfinal defeat to the USA at the 2023 Concacaf Gold Cup was a 4-1 away loss to Japan in October.
It was a match that brought some valuable lessons. Ones that Canada will look to implement in their crucial fixtures against Jamaica and their fearsome attack.
“It starts with a tight team, front-to-back, side-to-side,” began Biello. “When you're able to have those lines nice and compact, you're able to close spaces, you're able to break a play. It starts with that.”
“Closing spaces down, being patient are things that we're going to have to continue to work on, but when you're super tight, you’ve got to expect that ball in behind. That's some of the things that we learned from the Japan game,” he continued. “We want to be super tight, they won’t play through us, but when they don't see that space through, they're going to try to go in behind, so we got to be ready for that ball, win all those races, making sure that they're not getting any success in the channels.”
“Defensively there's been a lot of work this week and a lot of focus on that – box defending, running back to goal defending – all these types of situations that we're going to expect against Jamaica,” closed Biello. “The work has been done, we've been sharp, but now it's time to execute.”