Canada’s unbeaten dream is gone after loss to Costa Rica, but World Cup berth can be earned on home soil
SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA—There was always a chance it could happen. An off night. A CONCACAF night. A loss.
The Canadian men’s soccer team has been so untouchable for so long in World Cup qualifying that it felt like it might just pull off the unthinkable — qualifying for the country’s first World Cup in more than 36 years in unbeaten fashion.
And so one dream died with Thursday’s 1-0 loss to Costa Rica, on a night when multiple scenarios, including a second-half goal, could have clinched a berth in Qatar for Canada. They still need a point to earn that World Cup spot.
“We know qualifying for a World Cup is the most important part of the event,” coach John Herdman said earlier this week.
It won’t immediately quell the disappointment of Canada’s first loss since January 2020, on a night when there could have been so much to celebrate. On-and-off field behaviour typical of CONCACAF, a red card and the magnitude of the moment seemed to get to the Canadians in the first half. The hole was eventually too deep to get out of, despite some lifelines from results elsewhere in the region.
The win provided hope for Costa Rica, who leapfrogged Panama into fourth place in the qualification standings.
It didn’t take long for the Canadian players to get a sense of how much this match mattered to Costa Rica. Thousands of fans crowded when Canada’s bus whipped into the stadium with less than two hours to kickoff, greeting them with jeers instead of cheers — and a number of hand gestures, too.
The theatrics didn’t stop in a sold-out stadium housing more than 34,000 fans. The playing of “O Canada” was conveniently drowned out by a fireworks display above the stadium.
It all made for a hostile environment from the first whistle, and the Los Ticos squad played into it, landing some hard tackles early, taking some quick free kicks and shouting for a penalty. Canada was going to have to weather the storm.
It looked as if the moment got to midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, one of five changes Herdman made to the lineup from Canada’s last game against El Salvador in February. Kaye left his foot in a tackle that took down Costa Rican defender Ronald Matarrita at the shins in the 15th minute. The crowd shouted, “Roja, roja,” at referee Said Martinez, who handed Kaye a yellow card despite checking the replay on the video assistant referee’s pitchside screen. Given the ambiguity of the call, it was clear to anyone familiar with the quirks of the CONCACAF region that Kaye would be walking a fine line for the rest of the game.
So it was perplexing about 20 minutes later when Kaye went shoulder to shoulder with Johan Venegas during a stoppage in play. The Costa Rican forward dropped to the ground in a Meryl-Streep worthy performance, but it was a risk Kaye shouldn’t have taken when he was already under the referee’s watchful eye. The red card he had previously avoid was promptly produced.
And so a game that started to look like it was turning in Canada’s favour, with the team beginning to string some passes together — and with Honduras drawing even with Panama on the out-of-town scoreboard — briefly went off the rails. Celso Borges put the home team up 1-0 in first-half injury time with a header perfectly placed in the top right corner of Milan Borjan’s net. It was the first time Canada had trailed since Oct. 13 against Panama. Tempers flared on the sideline, with coach Herdman at the centre of the melee. Los Ticos went into the break accompanied by a standing ovation from its fans.
All of Canada’s good play to that point in qualification left them with lifelines. Honduras’s 1-1 tie with Panama meant the team only needed a tie to clinch. A United States loss in its tilt against Mexico could have sealed the deal too, but that result never materialized. Nor did a Canadian comeback, despite a header off the crossbar from Tajon Buchanan, Jonathan David being denied by the Costa Rican post, and a last-gasp free kick opportunity for Stephen Eustáquio.
For so long, Canada’s unbeaten qualification run seemed written in the stars. That ended Thursday, but the Canadians have a chance to clinch that World Cup berth in front of their fans, against Jamaica, at Toronto’s BMO Field on Sunday. That isn’t a bad silver lining.