Canada 1 – 0 Panama
The Prelude to Battle
This was one was billed heading into the game as the biggest match that the Canadian National Team has played in many years and described by many as a must win match on the road to Canada qualifying for the final “Hex” round of World Cup qualifying for Brazil 2014.
With four points from their first two matches in the current round of qualifying, Canada entered this game in a very positive position in second place in their group, especially considering the fact that at this point back in 2008 the team was essentially out of contention for the Hex, having earned only one point from two home fixtures and with Mexico still to play against.
However, with Panama considered by many to be the strongest team in the group – and with impressive wins in their first two matches of the current round doing nothing to dispel that notion – Canada were staring down a challenging opponent that is solid in every facet of the game. Ultimately, the FIFA rankings aside, there wasn’t much separating the two sides prior to this game.
Canadian National Team Head Coach went with an offensive lineup for this one, starting Simeon Jackson, Olivier Occean and Dwayne De Rosario at the three forward positions with Atiba Hutchinson starting behind them in the attacking midfielder role. Lars Hirschfeld got the start in net and Hart elected to go with the same back four (David Edgar, Kevin McKenna, Andre Hainault, Ante Jazic – that played such a key role in Canada earning clean sheets against Cuba and Honduras back in June.
The Opening Forty-Five
The first half would end up being characterized by electric atmosphere at BMO Field and a Canadian team that would dominate the run of play while once again struggling to find that final finish or killer ball to punctuate all of their excellent build up play.
Canada’s first scoring chance came in the 6th minute when forward Simeon Jackson delivered a cross that the Panama back line had to be perfectly positioned to clear.
Jackson made an excellent run in the 14th minute and was brought down a few years outside the Panama penalty area, earning Canada a free kick in a decent position. Unfortunately for the red nation in attendance for the match, David Edgar shot wide of the target on the ensuing dead ball opportunity.
Canada continued to dominate the half, barely allowing Panama out of their half and winning pretty much every ball that was up for grabs.
The Canadians best chance at a breakthrough goal came in the 35th minute after some dogged play by Olivier Occean earned his side a free kick in a dangerous position. Will Johnson delivered the ball into the Panama box and Canada captain Kevin McKenna beat his defender and delivered a blistering header off the post.
The Second Half
After being thoroughly outplayed in the first half, Panama engineered some dangerous chances in the early going of the second half.
In the 53rd minute, Panama striker Blas Perez had an excellent chance at an uncontested shot but his effort sailed several feet wide of the post.
Canada came close again in the 57th minute when Dwayne De Rosario got off a dangerous shot that tested Panama keeper Jaime Penedo. Two minutes later, striker Olivier Occean volleyed a shot just a foot wide of the far post.
As the half progressed it was starting to look very much like Canada was once again going to dominate the game while at the same struggle to score the goal needed to earn the victory.
However, much to the delight of the crowd of 17, 586, Canada broke through and got the goal just as the pressure to score looked like it was becoming unbearable. In the 76th minute, Simeon Jackson made another excellent run that caused his defender to pull him down. Atiba Hutchinson smartly took a quick free kick before Panama could fully set up their defence and delivered perfectly placed ball to De Rosario, who made the tap in under pressure look easy. With the goal, the Toronto native became Canada’s All-time leading scorer.
Marcel de Jong
Canada were able to hold off Panama for the remainder of regulation and what felt like three very long minutes of extra time, as the entirety of BMO Field erupted in jubilation when the referee blew the final whistle.
The Final Word: Canada show they have what it takes to get the job done
In many ways, this was a storybook night for the Canadian team and their fans. The stage was set early on by the appearance of the Olympic Bronze winning Canadian Women’s National Team, who got a well deserved acknowledgement from the Toronto fans for their Olympic success. That was followed by the energy of a pro-Canadian crowd that was phenomenal for the full ninety minutes as the twelfth man. Special credit must go to the Voyageurs for bringing an exceptional presence to the South Stand.
The Canadian team came out like bulldogs with fire in their eyes and their hearts and dominated the majority of this match. This was a squad that rose to the occasion for a match that demanded that they take the initiative to grab the brass ring. Furthermore, the team showed a lot of character and tenacity in pushing forward to get the much needed goal to seal what was another strong overall team performance.
Speaking of the goal, it wasn’t a big surprise to see two of Canada’s most experienced players playing key roles in the win. Dwayne De Rosario now holds the sole spot as Canada’s all-time leading scorer and he has not scored a more important goal in his national team career than he did today. It wasn’t a spectacular goal when compared to many of the goals he has scored in his distinguished career, but he delivered this one under the immense pressure brought upon by Canada’s recent struggles to score.
Atiba Hutchinson made a very intelligent decision to quickly take Canada’s free kick on the goal and delivered a perfect ball to De Rosario in the box. It is that combination of skill, experience and intelligence that makes Hutchinson a special player.
Lastly, Simeon Jackson’s contribution to the goal should not be overlooked. He was fantastic down the right side all game. His crosses as a wide player were not always perfect, but his pace and ability to run at players 1v1 was central to many of Canada’s chances in this game. He earned the free kick that lead to the goal and, thus, more than rewarded Stephen Hart for his decision to start him.
As has been the case in all of Canada’s recent successes, it is hard to highlight particular individuals in this win. This was another strong team effort in which every player played an important role. That said, Julian de Guzman, Will Johnson and Patrice Bernier were all excellent in central midfield roles and Olivier Occean was a very effective cog in the Canadian attack with the physicality and excellent hold up play that he brought to the proceedings. Keeper Lars Hirschfeld was solid when called upon and his experience and calm approach shone brightly when Panama threatened the Canada net.
Lastly, what else can you say about the back four? Another clean sheet pretty much encapsulates how well Kevin McKenna, David Edgar, Andre Hainault and Ante Jazic have been playing as a unit. Panama were more dangerous and physical than Cuba and Honduras had been in the previous two matches in this round and the Canadian defence showed their experience in another near flawless performance.
There are still three more games to go in this round and it would be crazy to count Canada’s chickens before they are hatched. That said, on this day, Canada were excellent and delivered the type of performance they needed to in vanquishing a quality CONCACAF opponent in a pressure filled match.
Outside of the players, special credit needs to go to Stephen Hart. Seven points earned after three games now has Canada in the pole position to qualify for the final round of World Cup qualifying. He has had plenty of critics over the course of his reign as head coach, but he has always stuck to his philosophy and plan and showed belief in his players. It now looks like he has the team close to peaking at the right time and his approach to getting results with this particular group of players has been validated through three qualifying matches. He decision making and team management for this game was also excellent. His decision to stick with the same back line and midfield that had been central to the results against Cuba and Honduras was vital to this win. All three substitutes also made an impact in this game, as the energy brought by Ricketts, Bernier and De Jong was very important when Canada looked to be stuttering a bit in the second half.
Canada is in first place in their group after three games. That basically says it all. On this night, it feels fantastically good to be a Canadian soccer fan.
1 Lars Hirschfield
15 David Edgar
5 Andre Hainault
4 Kevin McKenna
21 Ante Jazic
6 Julian de Guzman
13 Atiba Hutchinson
8 Will Johnson
10 Simeon Jackson
17 Olivier Occean
14 Dwayne De Rosario
Substitutions: (66) Ricketts in for Occean; (72) Bernier in for Johnson; (86) De Jong in for Jackson.