USMNT anticipating a tricky Nations League test in Canada

TORONTO — When the United States men’s national team last lost a soccer game to Canada, Ronald Regan was the president, the Soviet Union was the global bogeyman and Major League Soccer was still more that a decade away from kicking off its inaugural season. Counting only competitive matches, Les Rouges’ winless streak dates back to 1985, nearly three and a half decades.

But while not one player on the current USMNT nor the vastly improved Canadian squad that will attempt to end that run of futility in Tuesday’s CONCACAF Nations League contest [7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN2] north of the border was alive in the early- to mid-1980s, neither team is thinking much about history ahead of the contest.

“These opportunities come along in people's careers every now and then,” Canadian coach John Herdman said Monday. “I don’t think many of the guys have seen that opportunity to play a really meaningful match against the U.S.”

United States' head coach Gregg Berhalter (left) and his team will face a much improved Canadian side. (Tim Vizer/Getty)
United States' head coach Gregg Berhalter (left) and his team will face a much improved Canadian side. (Tim Vizer/Getty)

For the hosts, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Herdman’s side is desperate to leapfrog Panama and El Salvador in the FIFA rankings. Breaking into the top six spots in the region and staying there would put Canada into the final, “Hexagonal” round of World Cup qualifying next year for the first time since 1997.

And with a young, dynamic group of attacking players led by Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies apparently unburdened by their predecessors’ lack of success against the Americans, Tuesday’s encounter represents their best chance in a some time.

“It is a good team — they've showed that in this last year,” U.S. boss Gregg Berhalter said of Canada. “I think all across the board and all positions they're good, and it's going to be a good challenge for us.”

An interesting one, too. Much like the Canadians, the USMNT is still in the midst of a transition period under a relatively new coach. Berhalter has implemented a possession-based playing style in his first year on the job and the Americans have struggled to execute in the system at times, not least in last month’s 3-0 drubbing by Mexico. In that match, El Tri unsettled the U.S. by giving them no time and space on the ball, leading repeatedly to turnovers in dangerous spots.

It’s a game plan the Canadians could copy. If they do, the visitors will have to be sharp to counter it.

“I think they’ll want to start in an aggressive way,” said veteran U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley, who captains MLS power Toronto FC. “If they’re gonna step out and press, then certainly our ability to play behind them and to look to put their defenders on their heels will be important.”

Canada's young squad is led by 18-year-old Bayern Munich attacker Alphonso Davies. (Omar Vega/Getty)
Canada's young squad is led by 18-year-old Bayern Munich attacker Alphonso Davies. (Omar Vega/Getty)

Herdman, for his part, admitted that pressing the U.S. is a possibility. But he also believes that strategy will be a secondary concern.

“We've got some ideas and a plan of how we want to approach it, but then right underneath this it's a physical contest,” Herdman said. “In some games tactics are everything, but in games like this it's who's willing to really impose their will.

“I think it’ll be blood, guts and thunder from us regardless.”

The Americans will have to match that intensity. Berhalter insisted that won’t be a problem, even in enemy territory, as the match marks the first away game of the Berhalter era.

But while a heavily pro-Canadian crowd of about 15,000 is expected at 30,000-seat BMO Field, the surroundings should be far more hospitable to the U.S. than, say, Mexico City. After all, most of the MLS-heavy U.S. roster has traveled to Toronto often for league games against TFC.

It’s “not such a foreign country,” U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie cracked. “I think that won’t be a big factor.”

“As far as the facilities and everything, it’s great,” defender DeAndre Yedlin added. “We’ll see in terms of the crowd how much of a road game it feels [like].”

Given the stakes, Canada will take any advantage it can get.

“Everybody knows how important that game is for us,” midfielder Samuel Piette said. “And for the nation as well.”

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