BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Now the adventure really begins.
Helped by an own goal and strikes by Cyle Larin and Junior Hoilett, Canada dispatched Haiti 3-0 on Tuesday night and 4-0 on aggregate to advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF.
The Canadian men, who last reached the final qualifying round in 1996-97 in the lead-up to France '98, now join the heavyweights in CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean. The eight-country final round includes Mexico (ranked No. 11) the U.S. (No. 20), Jamaica (No. 45), Costa Rica (No. 50) and Honduras (No. 67), who received byes as the top five teams in the region.
The 70th-ranked Canadians joined them the hard way, slogging through two rounds and six games in qualifying, all during a pandemic. They have earned themselves at least 14 more qualifying matches and the chance to make soccer's showcase for the first time since 1986.
"It's just a proud moment for us all," said Canada coach John Herdman, who has overseen a remarkable turnaround in the men's program since taking charge in January 2018. "We'll enjoy the moment. But at the same time we've just got to stay humble now, because tomorrow the focus shifts on to the big mountain. And that big mountain is one of the most exciting mountains I think this whole country has got to try and climb together.
"And that's where I'm inviting all of you guys to come on that mountain climb with us. Because it's happening. We did it."
Panama and El Salvador joined Canada in making it out of the second-round playoffs, the last three teams standing from the 29-country first round.
Earlier Tuesday, No. 78 Panama held No. 76 Curacao to a 0-0 draw for a 2-1 aggregate win. No. 69 El Salvador downed No. 135 St. Kitts and Nevis to advance 6-0 on aggregate.
The eight teams in the so-called Octagonal final round will play each other home and away starting in September with the top three finishers booking their ticket to Qatar 2022. The fourth-place team will take part in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.
Canada will open in September at home to Honduras before facing the U.S. on the road and hosting El Salvador. That will be followed by three matches in October, two in November, three in January and three in March.
The hope is pandemic-related travel restrictions will be eased by then, allowing Canada to finally play a game at home.
Canada came into Tuesday night's match at SeatGeek Stadium against No. 83 Haiti needing a win or a draw to advance in the wake of Saturday's 1-0 win in Port-au-Prince on a 14th-minute goal by Larin.
Canada came on as the first half wore on, with a string of late chances off set pieces. But Haiti, despite missing some players who were unable to make the trip, somehow survived the pressure to go into the changing rooms scoreless at halftime with Montreal-born goalkeeper Josue Duverger standing tall.
But a 46th-minute blunder by the 21-year-old Duverger extended Canada's aggregate lead when the 'keeper misplayed a routine back pass from Kevin LaFrance. Duverger missed the ball with his attempted first touch and, when he went to control it with his right foot, it bounced in off his left as Jonathan David steamed towards him.
"These mistakes at this level, you put blood in the water for any of these top teams and they take it," said Herdman. "After that goal you could sense it. It was almost like the bottle top had been released for the guys. And they could just drop their shoulders and let the talent start to flow."
Herdman revealed that he had his players practise penalties the night before the game, asking each to make three. That took a while for some, which led to the turf in the penalty box where Duverger had his misfortune getting cut up a bit.
"The goalkeeper coach came up and said 'Look, you're wrecking my six-yard box.' And we were, to be fair," Herdman said.
Alphonso Davies and David once again proved to be a dangerous combination. Along with Larin, they created plenty of chances but could not finish them — until the 74th minute.
LaFrance was unable to corral a long ball from Alistair Johnston and Larin pounced, beating Ricardo Ade before slipping a shot through Duverger for his 15th goal for Canada.
Hoilett made it 3-0 off the bench, knocking in his own rebound in the 89th minute after hitting the goalpost for his 11th international goal.
Canada came into the match with a 7-2-2 all-time record against the Haitians, who rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the quarterfinals of the 2019 Gold Cup to defeat the Canadians 3-2.
Herdman made one change to the starting lineup from the first leg on Tuesday. Defender Doneil Henry came in for Richie Laryea with Johnston moving up to wingback. The starting 11 came into the match with a combined 240 caps.
The Haitian Football Federation said goalkeeper/captain Johny Placide, defenders Alex Christian and Martin Experience, and striker Carnejy Antoine were unable to join the team on the trip to suburban Chicago because of U.S. COVID-19 travel restrictions. Placide and Christian started in the Port-au-Prince game. Former CF Montreal midfielder Steeven Saba started for Haiti.
As in the first game, the physical Haitians took no prisoners.
Canada had 61 per cent of possession in the first half, outshooting Haiti 8-2 (4-1 in shots on target) with a 7-3 edge in corners. The Canadians ended up outshooting Haiti 18-4 (8-1 in shots in target).
Canada had an early appeal for a penalty denied when David went down in the penalty box. But Canada began to turn the screw with David, Davies and Larin making inroads onto the Haiti defence.
Duverger, making himself big at the near post, made three straight saves in one sequence to deny David from in-close in the 33rd minute after Davies dribbled his way into the penalty box and found his teammate.
The Canadians had already dispatched Suriname (No. 136), Bermuda (No. 168), the Cayman Islands (No. 194) and Aruba (No. 205) in World Cup qualifying outscoring the five teams 27-1.
"It's just an amazing feeling. It's a pleasure to represent this country ," said veteran goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who was born in the former Yugoslavia and came to Canada with his family when he was 13. "It's a pleasure to give back something to this country because this country has helped me and my family come to a better life."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 15, 2021