What a difference a few days can make.
The mood surrounding the Canadian men’s national team entering Wednesday’s Concacaf World Cup qualifier against Panama at Toronto FC’s BMO Field is a stark contrast to Friday morning. Having earned a vital draw at Estadio Azteca versus Mexico, and arguably deserving the win, Canada are now staring at the prospect of a winless October window.
Canada are coming off a dull scoreless draw against Jamaica and trail Panama for the third and final automatic qualification spot after they defeated the US men’s national team on Sunday. That makes Wednesday night’s affair even more significant (7:30 pm ET | Paramount+, OneSoccer).
The likes of Stephen Eustaquio and Mark-Anthony Kaye are on yellow-card warnings but did not pick up another booking against Jamaica. Eustaquio came on as a second-half substitute but should start, whereas Kaye has started two matches and could be due for a rest.
Unfortunately for Canada, Junior Hoilett returned to Reading after suffering a hamstring tear leading up to the Jamaica match. None of Lucas Cavallini, Cyle Larin nor Atiba Hutchinson were able to make the trip as they stayed at their respective clubs to recover from injury.
That makes Buchanan’s return especially vital for a Canadian attack that lacked incisiveness on Sunday afternoon in Kingston. While Liam Millar produced the best opportunity for Canada in that draw, the New England Revolution forward was a livewire against Mexico and should be equally lively at BMO Field.
"It's crucial,” said Canada coach John Herdman. “We knew in the Mexico game, we wanted one of Richie [Laryea] or Tajon to pick up a yellow. We did need one of those players, I felt, for the Jamaica game either starting or coming off the bench, so to have two of them fresh is brilliant.”
With a few options returning to the fold, it allows Herdman to name a mostly full-strength lineup versus the Panamanians, pending potential changes to the midfield – and he will need it.
Panama have conceded 37 shots and just two goals through five matches, which includes games against the USMNT and Mexico. Facing one of the stingiest and battle-hardened teams in the Octagon means all hands need to be on deck.
"They have that veteran leadership,” said Herdman. “You can see that in every game, they are just a team that can manage games very well. That game at home to Mexico ... was a big one for me because they are a team that aren't really rotating players. They rely on a veteran core, guys are playing a lot of accumulated minutes, and then you watch them in a match against Mexico, they were a little bit wounded through that phase and were able to be 1-0 up until the 74th minute or 75th minute, and you just see how committed and connect that group is.”
“He's strong to a challenge, super competitive, one of those guys that is just a winner and a leader all-around,” said Johnston. "He's very good at the Concacaf thing. He's qualified for a World Cup with this team. He's great at being able to draw fouls [and] just dominate a midfield. He really knows how to win games in Concacaf and it's something that they have shown, again, with that roster beating the US and getting some really good results.
“We know how big of a game it's going to be and one of our keys is going to have to be to shut down him and shut down their midfield."
This is the first of three consecutive home qualifiers run for Canada, with November dates against Costa Rica and Mexico in Edmonton following suit. This trifecta could make or break Les Rouges' qualifying hopes.
“I think coming into this match, if there is any game we have got to win to really set the tone, it's this one,” Herdman stated. “I feel like this is a six-point match for Canada given where the standings are, but more importantly, where I think Panama are going to be by the end of this journey. I think these are one of the genuine threats for a top-three place."
A victory over Panama renders the Jamaica draw relatively hollow. Ten points from six matches would keep Les Rouges on a solid trajectory. However, a draw or loss could turn Canada from the pursued to the pursuers, which is not an ideal position in Concacaf.
Such is life in this region.