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Canada’s men’s soccer team knocking out opponents with a counter-punch strategy that’s proving unbeatable

There’s an axiom in boxing: styles make fights. A battle between dopplegangers doesn’t often make for an exciting matchup. Pit a dancer against a slugger, and then we have something to talk about.

The same holds true for soccer. The best matches, at least from a tactical perspective, often see a clash of philosophies.

On Sunday afternoon at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, with the city’s iconic steel mills churning in the distance, the men’s World Cup qualifier between Canada and the United States didn’t make for the prettiest combination, stylistically.

But Canada’s 2-0 victory showed something gorgeous about this side nonetheless. John Herdman’s players know exactly who they are, other than the first-place team in CONCACAF: They are counter-punchers. And coming off an improbable five victories in a row, they are now almost certain to battle their way to Qatar.

“It’s a huge win for all of us,” midfielder Jonathan Osorio said after. “We protected our home ground. The way we fought for each other today, on that field, in a tough game — it’s amazing. It just goes to show how much of a family this team is, and how much we’re willing to fight for each other.”

The Americans looked wounded after, like boys who had just had their bikes stolen.

They are clearly a team out of sorts. They had also learned no lessons from their first game versus the Canadians — a 1-1 draw in Nashville forever ago, in September — when Canada sat back and waited for chances to pick the American locks. It was as though they thought Herdman would mix things up. Why mix things up when you have no doubt? 

In Sunday’s rematch, the home team opened the scoring in what has become classic Canadian fashion. In the seventh minute, U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner saw his high goal-kick stall in the wind and drop to the centre of the pitch.

The Canadians seized their opportunity, quickly pushing the loose ball back up the middle to Cyle Larin, who had a touch-perfect exchange with Jonathan David. Larin then broke free and fired a long shot into the goal, off a stunned Turner’s outstretched fingers. 

It had taken exactly nine seconds for the ball to leave Turner’s foot and find its way into the back of his net.

True to Canada’s heart-stopping fashion, this victory wasn’t sealed until second-half injury time, when Sam Adekugbe — one of the great revelations of this stretch — led the Canadians in yet another counter-attack after an eternity of American pressure.

He did it mostly on his own, slicing through three U.S. defenders and stroking a perfect shot from just outside the box into the bottom corner. Turner didn’t move, except to throw his hands into the air in exasperation. At the other end, Borjan dropped to his knees and raised his fists in ecstasy. 

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