Canada finds goals hard to come by in CONCACAF Nations League rematch with Cuba
Canada forward Junior Hoilett (10) and Cuba midfielder Alejandro Portal (8) battle for the ball during second half of Concacaf Nations League play at BMO Field in Toronto, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston
GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands -- Canada survived heat, a hard pitch and a physical Cuba side in a 1-0 win in CONCACAF Nations League A play Tuesday, just three days after running roughshod over the Cubans in Toronto.
Canada dominated play but needed a ninth-minute Alphonso Davies goal for the win.
Despite losing centre back Doneil Henry to a second yellow card in the 55th minute, the Canadian men had 82 per cent possession at the Truman Bodden Sports Complex and completed 696 passes to the Cubans' 93.
Canada only managed six shots, the same as Cuba, and only put one on target.
"It was a tough game. The surface was not the best but I think we fought hard," said Davies. "We're happy to get the three points."
"This is football. You have to grind a result. It's not always pretty," he added
Davies, who had a fine game despite absorbing plenty of punishment from the Cubans, scored with a powerful left-footed blast from just inside the penalty box after a Cuban turnover at midfield. It was the Bayern Munich teenager's fourth goal in 15 national team appearances.
"He wouldn't be at Bayern if he didn't have that quality," said goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who captained Canada for the first time. "The kid is just amazing. He's a wunderkind."
Playing at a neutral site, a revamped Canadian roster found itself dealing with a Cuban side that was decidedly more stubborn and physical despite reportedly losing players to defection on the trip to Canada.
The Cubans chopped down Canadians as needed and Guatemalan referee Mario Escobar content to let them play.
Canada, ranked 78th in the world, thumped No. 179 Cuba 6-0 on Saturday at BMO Field with captain Junior Hoilett recording a hat trick and Jonathan David, Jonathan Osorio and Henry also scoring.
The Canadian men had beaten Cuba 7-0 in group play at the Gold Cup in June.
"We knew on this pitch and (with) the conditions, the goals weren't going to be as flowing," said Canada coach John Herdman.
"But I was really happy with how the players responded," he added. "I think we controlled the game, even down to 10 men."
Tuesday's game was shifted to the Cayman Islands capital when the stadium in Havana did not pass CONCACAF scrutiny.
While Canada controlled Tuesday's game, the Cubans were more disciplined in defence -- sitting deep with two lines of four and content with the occasional counter-attack by forward Maykel Reyes, who had a stint with Mexico's Cruz Azul in 2018.
Canada had 72 per cent possession in the first half but only put one shot on target. The Cubans had one first-half scoring chance but the ball hit the side of the goal.
The Canadians wanted a penalty for handball in the 46th minute but didn't get it. Herdman introduced Osorio in the 52nd minute in a bid to help open up the Cubans.
With Henry off the field, Herdman brought on centre back Derek Cornelius and removed striker Cycle Larin in the 60th minute. Liam Millar replaced Davies in the 79th minute.
Canada's career record against Cuba stands at 9-2-3 with a 27-9 edge in goals.
Herdman rang in the changes with only goalkeeper Borjan, defenders Henry and Richie Laryea, midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye and forwards Davies and David remaining in the starting 11.
Canada kept pushing the attack despite the man disadvantage.
Hoilett, who plays for Cardiff City FC, returned home after the Toronto game to deal with a family matter.
In came defenders Steven Vitoria and Sam Adekugbe, midfielders Will Johnson and David Wotherspoon and Larin up front.
Borjan, making his 47th appearance for Canada, captained the squad. He had almost nothing to do.
The 24-year-old Larin started up front with the 19-year-old David on the right flank and 18-year-old Davies on the left.
Cuba made four changes from its starting 11 with goalkeeper Sandy Sanchez dropping to the bench in favour of Nelson Johnston.
The three other changes appeared not to be soccer-related.
El Nuevo Herald, a Florida newspaper, reported that three of Cuba's starters Saturday -- defender Alejandro Portal, midfielder Andy Baquero and forward and captain Yordan Santa Cruz -- had defected after the game.
All three were missing from the Cuban roster Tuesday.
David Urgelles and Orlendiz Benitez reportedly left before the Toronto game. They were not listed on Saturday's or Tuesday's official roster sheets.
CONCACAF did not immediately respond to a question about possible defections. The Canadian Soccer Association referred questions to CONCACAF.
Canada's next Nations League game is Oct. 15 against the 22nd-ranked Americans at Toronto's BMO Field. The Americans will host the Canadians on Nov. 15.
The winner of the three-team group advances to the CONCACAF Nations League final four. The top two in the group also automatically qualify for the 2021 Gold Cup.
The Canadian men currently stand eighth in CONCACAF, behind Mexico (No. 12 in the world), the U.S. (22), Costa Rica (44), Jamaica (52), Honduras (67), El Salvador (68) and Panama (74).
They are trying to crack the top six in the region to make the so-called Hex round of World Cup qualifying, the most direct route out of the CONCACAF -- which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean -- to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
El Salvador was beaten 1-0 by the 155th-ranked Dominican Republic on Tuesday and Panama lost 2-0 to No. 174 Bermuda on Sunday -- upsets that are good news for the Canadian men.
"We're definitely in the fight for that Hex and it's only the first round," said Herdman.