HOUSTON — A gutted Canada exited the Gold Cup on Thursday, sent home by a heartbreaking 99th-minute goal in a 2-1 loss to Mexico in the CONCACAF tournament semifinal.
But the young Canadian side sent a powerful message in defeat, demonstrating it is a team to be reckoned with in the region that covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
"I'm proud of the lads but broken inside to be honest .. It's tough to take, in the last minute," said Canada coach John Herdman. "We're feeling it."
Hector Herrera's goal deep in stoppage time was the coup de grace in a game that seemed destined to go to extra time. Instead Mexico will head to Las Vegas to face the U.S. in Sunday's championship game.
The Canadian men, currently ranked 70th in the world, deserved a better fate against No. 11 Mexico. After trailing 1-0 at the break, Canada turned it on in the second half and gave as good as it got against the CONCACAF powerhouse.
"We wanted to show tonight that we're more than than that (Canadian) grit and resilience," said Herdman. "We can play. And we can go toe to toe with the best in CONCACAF.
"Some of those men came of age tonight."
Tajon Buchanan pulled Canada even with a highlight-reel goal and goalkeeper Max Crepeau saved a penalty on the night.
There were seven minutes of stoppage time given but that was extended after Canadian defender Alistair Johnston required treatment for a head knock. And so the game went on, with the Mexicans taking advantage.
Substitute Rodolfo Pizarro, with a nifty backheel, sent the ball into the Canadian penalty box. Canada failed to clear the ball and it went back to Pizarro who, despite having three Canadians around him and a line of five defenders strung in front of goal, sent it back to Herrera at the edge of the box where he fired a left-footed shot home.
The late goal touched off a melee between players as bad blood boiled over, not for the first time on the evening. Players from both side jostled as the officials struggled to regain control.
The Canadian men were hoping to reach the final for the first time since 2000 when they won the tournament, dispatching Mexico along the way. Canada had not beaten the Mexicans since, going winless in eight matches (0-6-2) while being outscored 16-4.
"In the past maybe it's a rollover or a blowout," wingback Richie Laryea said of facing Mexico. "But today we showed that we can go up against anyone … I think there's a lot of very good things we can take moving forward because we played a hell of a game. And a lot of guys showed up today."
"We can compete with anyone in CONCACAF. We've proved it," added Crepeau.
Canada's only other loss at the tournament was a 1-0 setback at the hands of the 20th-ranked Americans in preliminary-round play. The Canadians conceded a goal 20 seconds in but then rallied to put the U.S. under pressure for the rest of the game,
U.S coach Gregg Berhalter summed up his team's game as an amazing start followed by "a lot of suffering.''
On Thursday, it was Mexico's turn to take it on the chin in a game that saw emotions run high with Mexico awarded two penalties following video review, with Crepeau stopping the second penalty kick after Buchanan had evened the game at 1-1.
Buchanan, elusive and fast, was a force throughout the tournament. Herdman expects the 22-year-old New England Revolution winger to land in a top European league sooner than later.
"He's just one of many shining lights tonight," said the Canada coach.
Mexico had 60.4 percent of the possession and outshot Canada 14-9 (7-3 in shots on target) with 458 passes to Canada's 299. But Herdman changed to a 4-4-2 formation in the second half, pushing Buchanan up front, and the changes gave Mexico problems.
Herdman, known for his motivational skills, had shown his side in the buildup to the game the Canadian women's 2012 performance at the London Olympics. The Herdman-coached women took the Americans to extra time in a semifinal loss before rebounding to beat France for the bronze.
Mexico has been a mountain the Canadian men have not been able to climb.
Going into Thursday's contest, Canada's record against the Mexicans over the last 20 years was 1-11-3 with the Canadians outscored 40-10.
The two teams will meet again in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
Canada should be able to field an even stronger lineup then. Herdman was without Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Atiba Hutchinson, Milan Borjan and Scott Arfield, who were injured or unavailable for the Gold Cup. Forwards Cyle Larin and Ayo Akinola were injured earlier in the tournament.
Thursday's game was paused in the dying minutes of regulation time because of offensive chants from some quarters of the sellout crowd at NRG Stadium. The crowd was overwhelmingly pro-Mexican, as demonstrated by the loud, enthusiastic rendition of the Mexican anthem before kickoff.
The U.S. beat No. 58 Qatar 1-0 in an 85th-minute goal by Gyasi Zardes in the earlier semifinal at Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas. Qatar, host of the 2022 World Cup, was a guest entry in the championship of the region covering North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Mexico went ahead in first-half stoppage time on an Orbelin Pineda penalty. The Cruz Azul midfielder hesitated just before he launched his kick, freezing Crepeau before calmly slotting the ball into the corner.
The goal came after a wild passage of play.
The Mexican players were irate when Jamaican referee Daneon Parchment failed to point to the penalty spot after Jesus Corona, taking a fine through ball after Canada lost possession in midfield, went down as he tried to slice between defenders Doneil Henry and Johnston.
Seconds later, Edson Alvarez chopped down Laryea in front of the players bench and a full-blooded melee ensued with players from both sides getting involved. When the dust settled, Parchment pointed to the spot after the video review with Henry yellow-carded for taking Corona down.
The Mexican players ran to midfielder Jonathan Dos Santos during their goal celebration. His father passed away earlier in the day.
Canada pulled even in the 57th minute on a fine individual effort by Buchanan, who has been the Canadians' danger man for much of the tournament.
Mark-Anthony Kaye started the play, with a perfectly weighted long pass that found Buchanan alone on the flank. Hips swivelling through several stepovers, Buchanan turned defender Carlos Salcedo and beat goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera at the far post. Salcedo and the Mexicans had hoped the offside flag would go up but it stayed down as the 22-year-olf Buchanan celebrated his first senior goal for Canada in nine appearances.
A second penalty was awarded to Mexico after video review with Kaye judged to have fouled Corona in the corner of the Canadian penalty box well away from the goal. But a diving Crepeau stopped Salcedo's penalty attempt in the 66th minute to keep the score knotted.
Prior to the opening goal, Canada had looked composed and well-organized despite Mexico dominating possession.
Mexico probed the Canada defence from the get-go, looking for ways to breach a backline that often contained five defenders. The Mexicans had 62.3 percent possession in the first half and outshot Canada 8-3 (4-0 in shots on target).
Both teams had chances late.
Canadian substitute Theo Corbeanu forced a good save from Talavera in the 77th minute after another dizzying run from Buchanan. Then Rogelio Funes Mori's header went just wide of the Canadian goal in the 86th.
Canada also won the tournament in 1985 in its previous incarnation as the CONCACAF Championship.
Mexico has won the event 11 times and finished runner-up twice. It has hoisted the trophy at four of the last six tournaments (2009, 2011, 2015 and 2019). The U.S. won in 2013 and '17.
Thursday was Canada's first trip to the semifinals since 2007 when it finished third.
The game also marked a return to the stadium where Canada had lost 3-2 to Haiti in the 2019 tournament, blowing a 2-0 lead in the quarterfinal. Canada had previously lost 3-1 to Mexico in group play.
Canada was without captain/defender Steven Vitoria and forward Lucas Cavallini on Thursday, both suspended after receiving a second yellow card. Henry and Tesho Akindele slotted in the only two changes to Herdman's starting lineup.
Junior Hoilett captained the side in place of Vitoria.
The Canadian starting 11 came into the match with a combined 214 caps with Jonathan Osorio (41), Henry (37) and Hoilett (35) accounting for 113 of those.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 29, 2021
The Canadian Press