Canada seeks payback against the U.S.
As Canada's national team prepares to take on the U.S. in the CONCACAF Gold Cup opener in Detroit, the players will have plenty on their minds. Yet remarkably, revenge isn't one of them.
Of course, if the Canadians decided to go into the vengeance business, you wouldn't blame them. Four years ago, in this same tournament, the two teams met in what proved to be an enthralling semifinal encounter. The U.S. raced to a 2-0 lead on goals by Frankie Hejduk and Landon Donovan, and appeared to be cruising to the final. But then things began to unravel. Iain Hume entered the match as a substitute and began unsettling the U.S. back line with some robust aerial challenges. He proceeded to score a goal for Canada in the 76th minute and later cleared a goal-bound effort from Clint Dempsey off the line. And when U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley was sent off with four minutes of normal time remaining for a tackle on Julian de Guzman, the Americans found themselves limping toward the finish line.
At which point, the drama meter flatlined. Five minutes into stoppage time, a cross into the box glanced off the head of U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu straight into the path of Canada's Atiba Hutchinson, who proceeded to bury a shot from 12 yards past Kasey Keller. But just as the U.S. began contemplating how it would survive overtime with 10 men, the linesman's flag went up for offside, disallowing the goal.
The Canadian players howled in protest, but to no avail. The final whistle blew shortly thereafter, and the U.S. had escaped with a victory it scarcely deserved. Conspiracy theorists everywhere surmised that it was all a plot by CONCACAF to ensure that its dream final of the U.S. and Mexico went ahead as planned.
What isn't in question is that the match proved to be one of several key moments in that World Cup cycle for the Americans. The win allowed the U.S. to progress to the final against Mexico, which the Americans won 2-1. That, in turn, earned the team a trip to the Confederations Cup, which saw the U.S. develop a priceless dose of confidence that carried over to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
As for Canada, the elimination set the stage for what turned out to be a thoroughly disappointing World Cup qualifying campaign that saw it eliminated in the semifinal round.
"Let's be brutally honest here, we were robbed," said Jason de Vos, the former Canadian international and current TSN and CBC broadcast analyst. "There's no way that goal should have been disallowed. It changes the whole landscape of the competition."
Yet for Canada coach Stephen Hart, who managed the side on an interim basis during that tournament, there's no point in reopening an old wound. "I think that's in the past," he said of the 2007 semifinal. "Situations with referees aren't under either team's control. We're building toward World Cup qualification and that's all that's on our mind."
Hart does have his reasons for looking forward, as the team under his command possesses some impressive attacking talent. Forward Simeon Jackson is coming off a season with English side Norwich City during which he scored 13 goals and helped secure the club's promotion to the Premier League. Josh Simpson tallied 12 times this season for Turkish Super Lig side Manisaspor. Combine these players with veterans such as Dwayne De Rosario, Hutchinson and Will Johnson, and you have a team that could pose plenty of problems for the U.S. defense.
For Hart, the emergence of such players isn't by accident.
ESPN FC on Twitter
Don't miss a moment of the latest soccer coverage from around the world. Follow us on Twitter and stay informed. Join »
"I think it was important to increase the depth of the entire squad, and to try and make the team go forward with a little more ambition than we have in the past," said Hart. "It's a work in progress, and hopefully these young players will gain a lot of experience off of the tournament competition format. It's a lot different than exhibition games."
As so often happens with such efforts, the emphasis on attack has coincided with a period in which Canada's defense hasn't made the same kind of progress. A hamstring injury to D.C. United defender Dejan Jakovic has ruled him out of the entire tournament, leaving Hart with fewer options in the back than he would prefer, though he professed confidence in the central pairing of Andre Hainault and Kevin McKenna.
That said, Canada will be counting on its complement of talented attackers and its aggressive attitude to make up for any defensive shortcomings.
"One thing Canada will do, they won't be afraid to go at the U.S., and they won't be afraid to play," said current San Jose Earthquakes coach and former Canada manager Frank Yallop. "The Canadian mentality is to not sit back and wait and see what happens. It's, 'Let's get at them.' I think they'll be no different in this game."
That attitude can be a detriment as well as an asset, however, and it will be important for Canada to play aggressively without being reckless. A sizable contingent of fans is expected to cross the border to attend Tuesday's match at Ford Field. That could pose a mental challenge for a team that doesn't get many chances to play in such an intense atmosphere.
"We're definitely going to be fired up for the game," said De Rosario. "There's no doubt about it. Of course, we definitely have to control our emotions. Sometimes, we get too fired up and we get too [eager], and we get out of position when we try to do too much. So it's very important that we keep our composure and don't let the emotions get the best of us."
The U.S., for its part, remains wary of its northern neighbor. And after the Americans were mauled 4-0 on Saturday by World Cup champion Spain, they aren't in the position of being able to take anyone lightly, no matter how big an edge in talent and experience they might have.
U.S defender Steve Cherundolo said he expects Canada to be "very motivated -- team who will want to win that game at all costs, a physical team, a fast team. Obviously, technically not as good as Spain, but by any means not a bad team. It's going to be a really tight game, a close game."
Based on what transpired the last time these two teams met, that seems a given.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.