After statement win, Canada’s men’s national team may never look the same

ARLINGTON, Texas — One by one, Canada’s players left their dressing room, some arm in arm, some with open cans of cold beer in hand.

Ismael Kone, who scored Canada’s winning penalty in its Copa América quarterfinal win against Venezuela on Friday, carried a speaker over his head blaring hip-hop music as he strolled past dozens of stunned Venezuelan journalists.

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You could not mistake the strange, new feeling it represented.

Less than two years ago, Canada was eliminated by Croatia in its second game of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The Croatia team stormed through the mixed zone — where reporters wait to speak to players after games — pumping music out of a speaker to remind any onlookers of which team was victorious.

And so as Kone and his teammates danced with swagger, that feeling Canada had long pined for was clear: unbridled and deserved pride and joy.

For years, this Canadian team has been defined by promise. Its players are rich with talent but bereft of experience. Their biggest wins came inside the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football. But outside the region, and even in tournament knockout rounds within the region, Canada stumbled. The Canadians would learn the hard way, with Croatian pop songs in their heads.

Now, with a signature win, Canada can proudly march to its own song. This is finally the team it has long wanted to be.

At Copa América, Canada, ranked No. 48 in the world, has lost, 2-0, to its semifinal opponent, Argentina (No. 1); beaten Peru, 1-0 (No. 31); drawn, 0-0, with Chile (No. 40); and knocked out Venezuela (No. 54) on penalties after a 1-1 draw. It was Canada’s first penalty shootout win since beating Martinique a generation ago in a 2002 Gold Cup quarterfinal in Miami.

The story of Canada’s forays into Central America have usually ended the same way: with it returning home with its tail between its legs. A messy and crushing 8-1 defeat in Honduras in 2012 when Canada needed just a draw to advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying was the norm, not the outlier.

But this time, Canada did not wilt under the noise. No more learning moments. After years of disappointment, the win over Venezuela showed that the Canadians have developed the kind of emotional fortitude needed to win in tournaments.

“It takes all those other experiences, those games in the World Cup that we lose, to get to here,” midfielder Jonathan Osorio said.

What Canada has gone through for years has been necessary to its evolution. For generations, a lack of interest swallowed this team, borne largely out of a lack of results and the dominance of ice hockey as one of the country’s national sports. A visit to the 1986 World Cup, Canada’s first, is more mirage than memory in the minds of Canadians. Now they have a World Cup on home soil to look forward to in less than two years’ time.

And we need to separate the men’s team from the women’s team here. The latter has experienced the kind of success — including an Olympic gold medal in 2021 — that has lapped their male counterparts.

But as the women’s team rose, the men’s team flagged. The sport grew in popularity through the 2000s. Canada’s men, unfortunately, did not produce results nearly good enough to make them relevant with a larger audience.

Things looked different under John Herdman from 2018. There was a new star in Alphonso Davies and a forward-looking culture that made Canadians take notice. Qualifying for the 2022 World Cup was a start, but three disappointing losses in Qatar led to whispers of “Same ol’ Canada” in bars and basements across the country.

Especially in tournament soccer, what good is process without results?

Winning on penalties in what was essentially an away game — in front of a very pro-Venezuela crowd in Texas — could be Canada’s greatest leap into the wider conversation across the country.

“We’re reaching a bigger crowd than just the football-mad crowd in Canada. And that’s what you want to do,” defender Alistair Johnston said. “We’re inspiring a lot of people and a lot of people are really tuning in, feeling like, ‘Wow, not only is this team reaching these kinds of tournaments, but they’re competing.’ That’s something that the guys can be proud of.”

The win could, and should, change the discourse around this team. The Canadians were missing Tajon Buchanan, their best player at the 2022 World Cup, after a broken leg in training cast a shadow over this team’s chances. Instead of letting that defeat them, it fueled them. When Jacob Shaffelburg pulled out a Buchanan jersey to celebrate his goal, Canada’s resolve hit newfound highs.

Yet the dramatic win over Venezuela was a reminder of what those deep in Canadian soccer have been saying for years: There is more to soccer in Canada than Davies, and there is more to this team than its stars.

Because this team feels different. Where it did not earn respect in the past, now it should.

“Probably not,” Canada’s new head coach, Jesse Marsch, said when asked if Canada was getting enough respect. “But that will take time. Respect comes in a lot of different ways, but the best way to earn respect is to win matches.

“When you have these moments, the key is to stay focused and capture the energy around the team. We’ve done that. Inside the group, there’s been focus and concentration to keep going.”

Even with Argentina looming again in the semifinals Tuesday night at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the Canadians can now feel as though they belong in that game in a way they never could. That means Canada’s national team might never look the same.

“I think people need to realize that doesn’t just happen right away,” Osorio said. “You need to learn and you need to take steps forward. And we have done that. And that’s why we are where we are today.”

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