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Canadian men ready for U.S. and the cold in World Cup qualifying showdown

After dispatching Honduras in 20-plus Celsius on Thursday in San Pedro Sula, Canada is looking for layers as it hosts the U.S. in a World Cup qualifying match Sunday in Hamilton. The forecast for the 3 p.m.

After dispatching Honduras in 20-plus Celsius on Thursday in San Pedro Sula, Canada is looking for layers as it hosts the U.S. in a World Cup qualifying match Sunday in Hamilton.

The forecast for the 3 p.m. EST kickoff at Tim Hortons Field calls for -4 C, feeling like -9. That's an improvement from forecast overnight temperatures of -18 C, feeling like -26. 

"We're Canadian. We love the cold," Canada coach John Herdman, a native of England who certainly did not grow up in such conditions outside Newcastle, said with a chuckle.

Herdman, who now makes his home in B.C., said the artificial playing surface field will be "tricky" judging from Saturday's training session — held in conditions that warranted an extreme cold warning from Environment Canada.

"At 4 o'clock the ice sort of set in and it ended up rock-hard," he said. "I definitely didn't have enough layers on on the sideline."

The Canadians are no strangers to playing in frigid temperatures, having brought both Costa Rica and Mexico to Edmonton in November. The Mexico game, in particular, was played against a snowy backdrop.

"As you saw, it became quite a chaotic game against Mexico and I think we thrive in that sort of chaos," said Herdman.

He said Hamilton was chosen as a venue simply to minimize travel, given Sunday's game is sandwiched around trips to Honduras and El Salvador. As it was, the Canadians left Honduras immediately after Thursday's game, arriving back in Canada around 6 a.m. EST Friday. 

"The next day you're in the freezing cold on a football field, against the U.S. of all people," said Herdman. "It was a hell of a ride."

The Americans, meanwhile, opted to play their other two matches in the window in Columbus and St. Paul, Minn.

The U.S. takes the field Sunday with plenty of respect for the Canadian team that awaits them.

For one, the second-place Americans (5-1-3, 18 points) are looking up at Canada (5-0-4, 19 points) in the CONCACAF World Cup final qualifying round standings.

"We know that they're going to be fired up," said U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter. "We know they're playing in front of their home fans. We know they're going to be confident and it's going to be a competitive game. And if we can embrace that, we'll be OK. And it's a good opportunity for us to move up in the standings."

Both teams are coming off wins Thursday.

The 40th-ranked Canadians recorded their first victory in Honduras since 1985 with a 2-0 decision over the 76th-ranked Hondurans while the 11th-ranked Americans downed El Salvador 1-0 in Columbus.

Canada closes out the international window on Wednesday at No. 70 El Salvador. Just three matches remain for Herdman's team after that.

Come March, the top three countries will represent North and Central America and the Caribbean at Qatar 2022 with the fourth-place team taking on an Oceania opponent to see who joins them.

Canada is leading the way in the region, muscling past traditional CONCACAF heavyweights Mexico and the U.S.

"They have a talented group of players, make no mistake about it," said Berhalter, listing off Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Cyle Larin, Tajon Buchanan and Jonathan Osorio.

"They're a well-coached team. They know how to play. They've a clear philosophy and they deserve to be where they are," he added. "So for us it's an opportunity, that's all it is, an opportunity to try to get first in the group and that's where we want to finish."

Added U.S. defender Walker Zimmerman: "I think there's been a shift in their mentality. They play with a chip on their shoulder. They play with something to prove and they play with an intensity that is very high. So they're a confident group.

"And so whenever you go out there, you know that they're going to compete and that you have to match that level of intensity and desire. I think that's something that John has brought to that group. And that's a strength of theirs. We'll have to be up for it." 

The Americans will be without two players Sunday.

Berhalter said defender Brooks Lennon has returned to Atlanta United to have a "slight" ankle injury evaluated while Lille forward Tim Weah was unable to get into Canada due to his vaccination status.

Weah had his first vaccine dose and then contracted COVID-19 while awaiting his second shot, a combination that meets full vaccination requirements in France but not in Canada, Berhalter explained.

"This was a nuanced technicality that we were hoping was going to get pushed through and unfortunately it didn't."

Canada is without Davies, the Bayern Munich star who has been sidelined by myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, after testing positive for COVID. The 21-year-old from Edmonton was an enthusiastic observer of the win in Honduras, however, livestreaming on Twitch as he watched the game.

Herdman said he hoped influential midfielder Stephen Eustaquio, who missed the Honduras match in the wake of Portuguese reports that he had tested positive for COVID, would be back with the team Saturday night or Sunday.

Midfielder Samuel Piette, who limped off the field Thursday with an ankle injury, will undergo a fitness test Sunday.

"The roster at this stage, it's still a work in progress," Herdman said.

Sunday's game originally sold out in hours with Canada Soccer expecting a capacity crowd of 24,000. But stricter pandemic-related restrictions capped attendance at 12,000 with the first ticket sale voided.

Canada and the U.S. tied 1-1 when they met Sept. 5 in Nashville in the second game of the final qualifying round.

The U.S. won 1-0 when they met at the Gold Cup in July in Kansas City where the Americans scored in the first minute and then held off a Canadian charge the rest of the way.

While the Americans lead the overall series between the two North American rivals at 16-9-12, Canada has a 6-4-4 edge in World Cup qualifying.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2022

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press