The first clash is Tuesday in Toronto. Canada enters with two victories over Cuba, while the United States is coming off a 7-0 rout of the Cubans in its tournament opener Friday in Washington.
A victory or draw at BMO Field would put the Americans in prime position to win the group. The teams will get together again Nov. 15 in Orlando. The other U.S. match is with Cuba on Nov. 19 in the Cayman Islands.
The reward for finishing first is a spot in the Nations League semifinals next summer; a 2021 Gold Cup invitation (two teams in the three-nation group will advance); and a restrengthening of the U.S. team’s FIFA ranking (21st overall, second in Concacaf), which is important for earning one of the six berths in the final round of 2022 World Cup qualifying.
The U.S. and Canadian men first met in 1925, yet despite sharing a border, competing in the same Concacaf circles and MLS cross-pollination, the national teams have played just nine times in the past 20 years.
Typically, Canada, ranked 75th in the world and seventh in Concacaf, is not a big game for the United States, but amid Coach Gregg Berhalter’s rebuilding campaign, a meaningful away match raises the importance. Since Berhalter was appointed last winter, his team has played 15 consecutive home matches.
“These are the games that are going to help our team grow,” he said. “We are really looking forward to a game like this because we are going to learn a lot about our group. It is going to be a potentially difficult environment to play in, and it’s going to be a very motivated opponent. … Everything lines up for us to really test ourselves against Canada.”
One big reason for the absence of a true rivalry is Canada’s inability to grow its program and join regional powers Mexico, the United States and Costa Rica. For that matter, the Canadians have not advanced to the final stage of World Cup qualifying since 1997.
In that time, Honduras, Panama, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago have qualified for the World Cup. Canada’s most recent World Cup appearance was in 1986, when it finished last among 24 participants.
The Canadians need to beat the United States at least once to strengthen their claim for a place in the final round of World Cup qualifying, which begins next fall. Teams outside the top six will face a long road for one spot in a regional playoff.
“Our boys are ready to leave it all out there,” Canadian Coach John Herdman said. “It’s a great opportunity for the fans to unite around this team and a big moment for the team to test themselves against one of the best in Concacaf.”
The Americans and Canadians have met four times in the Gold Cup, most recently in 2011, but haven’t squared off in a meaningful match at a Canadian venue since November 1997, a 3-0 U.S. victory in suburban Vancouver that secured passage to the 1998 World Cup in France.
It’s been 34 years since the United States lost to Canada, a 9-0-8 stretch since a 2-0 defeat in the Vancouver area.
With his team playing for the second time in five days following the demolition of Cuba, Berhalter is expected to make several lineup changes.
Top candidates include goalkeeper Zack Steffen, defender DeAndre Yedlin and midfielder Michael Bradley, who as captain of Toronto FC of MLS calls BMO Field home. All three sat out Friday’s match.
The easy victory against Cuba — it was 4-0 after 13 minutes and 6-0 at halftime — allowed Berhalter to pull Weston McKennie (hat trick, assist) and Jordan Morris (one goal, three assists) at intermission and Christian Pulisic (one goal) midway through the second half.
The Americans are bracing for a much greater challenge in Toronto.
“We know they are going to be up for this game,” Morris said. “It’s going to be good, going away out of the country. That’s going to be a really good test as well. … It’s just going to be another great learning experience for this team. We need to come out with the same attitude.”
Notes: Defender Miles Robinson rejoined Atlanta United for evaluation after straining a hamstring in postgame workouts Friday at Audi Field. He had not played in the match. No replacement was named, leaving 24 players for the trip to Canada.