PANAMA CITY — Canada wrapped up a remarkable World Cup qualifying campaign Wednesday on a down note in a 1-0 loss to Panama but will still go to Qatar as the top finisher in CONCACAF.
Canada thought it had equalized on substitute Cyle Larin’s diving header in the 80th minute but the goal was ruled offside after video review.
With the Canadian men pressing for the equalizer, Atiba Hutchinson’s backheel found Junior Hoilett and the veteran floated a cross to Larin in front of goal for what looked like his 25th goal for Canada. The Besiktas striker put a finger to his mouth to silence the crowd before kissing his badge in celebration.
But the celebrations ended when referee Jair Maruffo went to the pitchside monitor to check on offside. Canada kept coming forward during the seven minutes of stoppage time but could not get the goal, with a Larin header flashing wide off a free kick.
The Canadian men finished tied with Mexico on 28 points at 8-2-4 but took first spot in the eight-team round-robin by virtue of a superior goal difference. The U.S. (7-3-4, 25 points) finished third on goal difference over Costa Rica.
In other games Wednesday, Costa Rica blanked the visiting U.S. 2-0, Mexico downed visiting El Salvador 2-0, and Jamaica beat visiting Honduras 2-1.
No. 42 Costa Rica finished fourth and will face No. 111 New Zealand in an intercontinental playoff in June. The All Whites blanked the 142nd-ranked Solomon Islands 5-0 earlier Wednesday in the final of the Oceania qualifying tournament.
With a berth in Qatar 2022 already confirmed after Sunday’s 4-0 win over Jamaica in Toronto, the 33rd-ranked Canadian men were looking to finish first in CONCACAF qualifying and earn valuable FIFA ranking points that could help in Friday’s World Cup draw in Doha.
The four pots for the 32-team draw are divvied up by world ranking. Canada hopes its new ranking will move it out of Pot 4 to Pot 3, which should allow it a more benign draw by avoiding a tier of higher-ranked countries.
It was a humid 27 C at kickoff at Estadio Rommel Fernandez, feeling like 30 degrees. And it was a scrappy affair with neither team on target in the first half.
The home side went ahead on a counter-attack in the 49th minute with Gabriel Torres, on his 100th appearance, volleying home a perfect cross from Jose Luis Rodriguez. The cross curled past Kamal Miller with Torres directing it home with his right foot past Maxime Crepeau into the top corner.
The Canadians pressed as the second half wore on with both teams finding more room on offence.
The Canadians came into the game needing just a point to ensure finishing first in the CONCACAF qualifying final round-robin table. No. 63 Panama (6-5-3, 21 points) finishes fifth just out of qualifying contention.
The Canadians finished three rounds of qualifying with a 14-2-4 record, outscoring the opposition 54-8.
“We have qualified today. But it’s time to believe in tomorrow,” Hutchinson said in a Canada Soccer video released before the match.
The Canadians’ top the region in their first participation in CONCACAF’s final qualifying round since the lead-up to France ‘98.
John Herdman made seven changes to the starting 11 that secured qualification Sunday with a 4-0 win over Jamaica in Toronto.
Hutchinson returned as captain, playing at centre back instead of his normal midfield role, with Crepeau taking over in goal. Also slotting in were Miller, Alistair Johnston, Ismael Kone, Lucas Cavallini and Mark-Anthony Kaye.
The starting 11 came into the game with a combined 316 caps.
The 39-year-old Hutchinson collected cap No. 95, extending his Canadian men’s record. It was a first start for the 19-year-old Kone, the CF Montreal midfielder who made his debut off the bench last week against Costa Rica.
A physical Panama had slightly more of the ball in the first half but didn’t do much with it as Canada kept its shape.
After an even start, Torres’ header was off-target in the 13th minute after Kone was dispossessed. Panama looked to the long ball to get behind the defence.
Canada appealed unsuccessfully for a penalty in the 29th minute when Jonathan David went down in the Panama penalty box after tangling with Jose Cordoba.
Sam Adekugbe’s attempt at goal from a free kick in the 39th went over the Panama crossbar. At the other end, Johnston’s sliding tackle broke up a dangerous Panama attack near the stroke of halftime.
Jonathan Osorio replaced Kone at halftime, earning his 55th cap. Johnston made another key tackle in the 58th to nip another Panama attack in the bud.
Larin and Hoilett came in with a half-hour remaining as Canada looked for an equalizer. Hoilett and Larin almost had an immediate, combining to feed David in front of goal, only to see Panama ‘keeper Luis Mejia block the ball with his body.
Crepeau made a fine diving save in the 77th to stop Edgar Barcenas’ free kick from the edge of the penalty box.
Herdman’s record at the men’s helm was 29-7-4 coming into the game with the lone losses to the U.S (twice). Mexico (twice) Haiti, Iceland and Costa Rica. The men were ranked 94th in the world when Herdman took over in January 2018, moving over from the women’s program.
Canada’s qualifying road started March 25, 2021, when it opened the first round with a 5-1 victory over Bermuda in Orlando. The Canadians were ranked 73rd at the time, climbing 40 rungs in the ratings on a journey that has seen them play on the road in eight different countries.
Panama, which like Canada and El Salvador had to survive two preliminary rounds to get this far, started the final qualifying round-robin in style with a 4-2-2 record that included a win over the U.S. and draw with Mexico. But it won just one of its next five games (1-3-1) ahead of the finale against Canada.
Canada came into Wednesday’s game with a 4-1-6 career record against Panama, winning 4-1 when the two met Oct. 13 at BMO Field with Alphonso Davies scoring on a memorable solo effort. The lone loss came at the same venue as Wednesday night, a 2-0 defeat in September 2012 in qualifying for Brazil 2014.
Canada Soccer says Panama secretly recorded its pre-game training session back in 2012 and promoted a Panama supporters party outside Canada’s hotel that went into the wee hours of match day. It also said the stadium grounds crew only watered half the pitch — to the advantage of Panama’s attackers — during halftime.
That game was delayed briefly when some of the stadium lights failed early in the first half.
Hutchinson was the only starter that day still with the Canadian team.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2022
The Canadian Press