“CONCACAF Chronicles” is a column by Sam Reno about North American soccer.
“CONCACAF Chronicles” typically runs Tuesdays.
Normally, these World Cup Qualifying previews and reviews take the form of a list of things to watch for and things we learned. But with five points now between the fourth-place — playoff qualification — and fifth-place nations, the four leaders have created a sizable amount of separation.
While the gap between the top and bottom halves has swelled, the fight for the throne in the ocho is tighter than ever. Just four points separate first from fourth, and three different nations took the qualifying lead over the span of just five days.
Canada, the United States, Mexico and Panama, in that order, occupy the top spots with just six matches to play in the cycle.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Canada. First place. World Cup Qualifying.
Les Rouges haven’t qualified for the World Cup since 1986 — their lone appearance in the tournament. Before this cycle, Canada had not advanced to the final round of qualifying in 24 years.
The year is now 2021, and the Canadians are the only nation yet to suffer a defeat through the first eight matches.
They already took points off the U.S. in Nashville in the first window and followed it up in the second by escaping the Estadio Azteca in Mexico with another one. The two away fixtures against CONCACAF’s long-standing giants were undoubtedly their hardest, yet they answered the call.
The third window came to a close on Tuesday night in Edmonton, where excitement was rising as the temperature was falling. With snow drifts lining the pitch and a kickoff temperature of 17 degrees, the stage was set for Canada to put the world on notice.
All eyes turned to Commonwealth Stadium, or the “Iceteca” as it was dubbed that night, for a budding rivalry showdown between Canada and Mexico. By virtue of a U.S. draw in Jamaica earlier in the day, the winner would ascend to the top of the octagonal.
At the death in the first half, Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa spilled a routine save and Canada striker Cyle Larin buried the rebound. Seven minutes out of the break, Larin went completely unmarked on a free kick and punished poor El Tri defending again.
Mexico was frozen, in both expression and physical condition. The Canadian players flung themselves in the snow drifts in celebration as jubilant vaporized breaths filled the Edmonton night sky.
It was after the final whistle sounded, however, that the shifting of power became seismic in nature.
As it often does, a scuffle riddled with shouting matches and shoving broke out between the two sides, but it ended abruptly with Canada actively choosing to claim the throne it had rightfully earned.
In a moment of collective clarity, nearly half of the Canadian national team immediately abandoned the altercation and sprinted toward their supporters in the crowd. They began flinging the snow off the advertisement boards, whipping the nearly 45,000 on hand into a frenzy.
In fact, it was not the only postgame moment this window to signal not exactly a changing of the guard, but a sharing of it.
In Cincinnati the United States beat Mexico Friday night for the third time this calendar year, a feat not accomplished in the rivalry since 1937. Chants of “Dos a Cero” rang out in TQL Stadium as the USMNT had once again bested El Tri to the tune of that now infamous scoreline.
So what song was played in celebration?
You guessed it. Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.”
U.S. Soccer’s DJ decision was, of course, in response to comments made by Ochoa in advance of their much-anticipated contest.
“Mexico has been that mirror in which they [the United States] want to see themselves and reflect, what they want to copy,” Ocho said in an interview with TUDN.
Superstar winger Christian Pulisic had his own response to Ochoa’s antiquated take on the state of the rivalry. He lifted up his shirt after scoring the match’s opening goal to reveal the words written in black marker: “MAN IN THE MIRROR.”
While the USMNT won both finals this summer in the Nations League and Gold Cup, this victory was arguably the greatest performance in national team history.
Rather than muddy the game and hope to get the last goal, as they did en route to the two trophies, they took the game directly at Mexico. Their high pressing gave the Mexico back line fits all night long, and they outshot Mexico 18-8 over the 90 minutes.
Pulisic, the U.S. Soccer DJ and everyone else aboard this high speed train that is the USMNT knows exactly how talented this group is. They don’t just want to win, they want to make sure everyone knows exactly what they got wrong along the way.
The United States chose to assert and Canada chose to ignore. While completely opposite in nature, their responses reveal the self-belief in both sides.
The Americans are determined to rewrite the soccer narrative on this side of the Atlantic while the Canadians could not be bothered by any team regardless of historic stature.
We’ve now played eight matches and these three teams are all within two points of each other. That’s not to mention a resilient Panama team whose perfect third window has them level with Mexico.
The passion and world-class talent in the matchups between Canada, the United States and Mexico is at a level we have never seen before. The top of CONCACAF has been blown wide open, and we have just six matches left to try and separate what has so far been inseparable.