Canada's message has been loud and clear.
It was clear when John Herdman, the Canada men's national team manager, claimed last month that the October Concacaf Nations League showdown vs. the U.S. was akin to "a cup final" and that "this is the game we have been waiting for, for 10-15 years."
It was made even more clear in the build-up to Tuesday's showdown at BMO Field–the first competitive match between the USA and Canada on Canadian soil since 1997–when Herdman elaborated, saying: “Normally, playing an old rival like the USA is enough to get the juices flowing, but there’s a lot more to play for in this match with Concacaf Nations League Group A positioning and FIFA ranking points on the line.”
As he spells out, Canada's motivations are multi-faceted. There's the obvious little-brother syndrome, wanting to overcome years of underachievement and underperformance by striking down the mighty (relatively speaking, anyhow) neighbor to the south. There's the knowledge that a win over the U.S. Tuesday night puts Canada in a more favorable position to reach the Nations League finals next June. Then there's the biggest motivation of them all: qualifying for the World Cup.
Concacaf's structure for the 2022 cycle ensures that the top six teams in the region based on FIFA's ranking system will compete in the traditional Hexagonal for three automatic berths in the 2022 World Cup. Failing to reach the Hex doesn't keep a nation out of contention for Qatar, but it adds layers upon layers of qualifying complexity, all for the hope of reaching an intercontinental playoff.
Canada is currently in Concacaf's seventh position, tantalizingly close to passing El Salvador and reaching the necessary level. Canada has only played in one men's World Cup, back in 1986, and even then, it had the worst record of the 24 teams in Mexico. Needless to say, there's a perpetual sense of urgency and compulsion to prove itself.
Canada figures to be automatically part of the 2026 World Cup in North America that it is co-hosting–its automatic berth has not been made official yet, but common sense would lead one to believe that it will be taking part in the opening match in Canada, while the USA and Mexico do the same on their respective home soils–but qualifying for a 32-team World Cup is a lot different than gliding without merit to a 48-team one.
“Our boys are ready to leave it all out there," Herdman said. "It's a game that means a lot to us."
Standing in Canada's way is a U.S. team with motivations of its own. Friday night's 7-0 thrashing of Cuba must have felt cathartic in some way, on the heels of a three-match winless streak and a series of other matches there were never truly dominated both on the stat sheet and the scoreboard. But doing it to 178th-ranked Cuba is one thing. Doing it to a smack-talking regional rival is another, and doing so when its regional dominance is not just being questioned but is no longer truly prevalent is another. Beat Canada as is expected–it's been 17 meetings since the U.S. last lost to Canada in the series, a streak that stretches back to 1985–and order will be maintained. Lose, though, and those carrying the critical questions during the Gregg Berhalter era will have a new tentpole event.
Regardless of the stakes and Canada's motivations, this remains a match the U.S. should win. Forget about beating the U.S.: Canada hasn't scored on the Americans in their last four meetings, a span that goes back to the 2007 Gold Cup semifinal, when Atiba Hutchinson's would-be equalizer was disallowed over a dubious offside call. Canada went scoreless in the six meetings prior to that game, too. All of that means that in their last 11 meetings, dating back to 1997, Canada has scored a total of one legitimate goal against the U.S., losing eight games and salvaging three scoreless draws.
Michael Bradley played–and was sent off late–in the infamous 2-1 U.S. win in 2007, and given that he plays his club soccer at BMO Field and has become a fan favorite in Toronto–arguably more so there than in his own country at this point–he has a unique perspective on the match.
"From their side it's a really big game," Bradley said. "It's going to be an exciting night. I think we've all read some of the things that are coming from their side just in terms of, again, how long they've been looking forward to a game like this, how much they're ready to put into it, what it means to play against the U.S. So I think we have a real understanding that it should be a fun night, great atmosphere and we're playing against a good young team that feels like they have a lot to prove and is really going to go after the game in a big way."
The U.S. has its own motivations these days, namely putting Berhalter's plan into practice on a more consistent basis against every level of opponent and getting back to a point where its regional standing is on steady ground–not one where an away match to Canada is perceived as a potential banana skin.
"As we're growing, as a new team is being built here, we're trying to make sure that all the little checkpoints along the way, we're there and we're ready," Bradley said. "So the first away game in a real competition is something that we're taking seriously."
It's the USA's first away game under Berhalter, period. After going 9-4-2 in a combination of matches in friendlies, Gold Cup and Nations League, the U.S. is finally going on the road. Canada didn't play earlier in this international window, meaning it will be a better-rested side, while the two are level on goal differential at +7 despite Canada having played one more game (it beat Cuba 6-0 at home and 1-0 on the road last month). They're all aspects to a match that carries a fair amount of intrigue, as far as non-USA-Mexico Concacaf matchups go.
In terms of tangible elements, both sides have some personnel issues to manage. For the U.S., both Josh Sargent and Paul Arriola left Friday night's match with knocks, while reserve center back Miles Robinson was forced to withdraw from camp with an injury. Jozy Altidore, who, like Bradley, plays his club soccer at BMO Field, is missing out after suffering an injury on MLS Decision Day.
For Canada, center back Doneil Henry's suspension could wind up proving decisive in an area where the hosts are not particularly deep. All eyes will remain on the attack, where Europe-based teenage talents Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich) and Jonathan David (Gent) and veteran Junior Hoilett figure to give the U.S. plenty more to handle in defense than Cuba's non-existent attack did a few nights ago.
"The first thing that pops out right away is some of the young, dynamic attackers they have," Bradley said. "Their ability in transition with speed, with mobility to really cause teams trouble. They have different guys in different spots. They can play in different ways. ... We'll have to be at our best."