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Canadian men’s soccer is looking more and more like a World Cup team

It was the kind of night you might look back on a year from now — or five, or 10 or 20 — and say that’s where it all started. The Canadian men’s soccer team’s 4-1 triumph over Panama in Thursday’s World Cup qualifier in Toronto was convincing and electrifying on a number of levels.

For starters, it kept Canada undefeated through six of its 14 matches in the final stage of regional qualifying. With two wins and four draws, Canada sits in third place in the eight-team CONCACAF group. The top three teams after this round receive a ticket to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The fourth-place team gets one more shot via an intercontinental playoff matchup. Canada’s two toughest-looking matches — at Mexico and at the United States (the top two teams in the region) — are already in the rearview, with Canada earning a 1-1 draw in both. So, nearing the halfway point of the final round, the Canadian men are in good position to qualify for their first World Cup since 1986.

That’s the big picture. And when you zoom in on last night’s victory, it gets even brighter.

Even if you didn’t watch the match, the result alone is impressive. Panama is a quality opponent that made it to the most recent World Cup and currently sits fourth in the CONCACAF standings. In their previous two matches, they defeated the United States and tied Mexico — the top two teams in the region. This is the kind of team Canada needs to defeat to become a World Cup team. And the Canadians didn’t just beat Panama. They walloped them, rallying from an early 1-0 deficit with four unanswered goals while generating far more shots, shots on goal and scoring chances than the visitors.

And if you did watch the match, you came away even higher on this Canadian team. The style with which they delivered last night’s triumph was really something. Alphonso Davies’ go-ahead goal in the 66th minute was an instant classic — possibly the best individual effort in Canadian soccer history. Fully unleashing his incredible foot speed, the 20-year-old superstar raced up the right sideline as if shot from a cannon to win a ball he had no business winning (or even being anywhere near) from an incredulous Panamanian defender. Somehow keeping the rock in bounds with Astaire-like footwork, Davies cut in on net and beat another defender and the goalie with a world-class finish.

Davies’ jaw-dropping strike touched off a barrage of three Canadian goals in 12 minutes — fittingly capped by one from the team’s other young cornerstone, 21-year-old forward Jonathan David. The French league’s co-leader in goals has now scored 17 times in only 22 matches for Canada. He’s already tied for fifth all-time on the men’s national team. It’s also worth noting that Cyle Larin, Canada’s active leader with 20 career goals, missed last night’s match. When he’s back in the lineup, Canada will have even more firepower at its disposal.

OK, so now what?

The next World Cup qualifying window is in mid-November, and it’ll see Canada host fifth-place Costa Rica on Nov. 12 and first-place Mexico on Nov. 16. Both matches are at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium, where chilly weather could give Canada an edge versus its warm-weather opponents. Temperature aside, Canada’s home-field advantage should continue to play a bigger role. Last night’s crowd in Toronto was bonkers, and you can sense the entire country starting to realize this team’s potential. That should translate into more boisterous support at the remaining four home matches, which might help with avoiding another result like that 1-1 home draw vs. last-place Honduras — Canada’s only real blemish so far in the final round.

After the November window, Canada will face the second-place United States and sixth-place Jamaica at home and Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and seventh-place El Salvador on the road. Those matches will happen in two windows — one in late January/early February, the other in March. The intercontinental playoff for the fourth-place team takes place in June. The World Cup kicks off in November 2022. It’s looking more and more like Canada might be playing in it.

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