Canada will be missing some important pieces when it takes on Mexico at historic Azteca Stadium in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying play Thursday.
Coach John Herdman said veteran goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who is recovering from COVID, did not make the trip. The Red Red Star Belgrade 'keeper's contribution instead was limited to a video message to the team.
"He's pretty emotional," said Herdman. "This is a big loss for us. Not just as a goalkeeper but his presence. He's been unbelievable with this group during this campaign."
Captain Atiba Hutchinson and forward Cyle Larin (Besiktas, Turkey) are both returning from injury and also absent. Striker Lucas Cavallini continues his return-to-play protocols with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
"We're monitoring them every day. We're getting good information that's leaving us hopeful — hopeful that they might join us in this (international) window," Herdman said.
Canada, on the climb in recent months, is ranked 51st in the world, compared to No. 9 for Mexico.
After playing No. 59 Jamaica in Kingston on Sunday, the Canadians return home to face No. 68 Panama at Toronto's BMO Field next Wednesday.
Canada Soccer had previously said veteran forward Junior Hoilett (Reading, England) and midfielder David Wotherspoon (St. Johnstone, Scotland) would meet the team in Jamaica ahead of the weekend match against the Reggae Boyz so as to avoid the quarantine that visitors to Mexico have to undergo when returning to Britain.
Herdman, speaking to reporters virtually from Azteca Stadium on Wednesday evening, said Minnesota United goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair was with the team.
In the absence of Borjan, Canada is expected to start Vancouver's Maxime Crepeau in goal. Crepeau was impressive in Canada's 2-1 loss to Mexico at the Gold Cup semifinal in late July, stopping one of two penalty kicks as well as making a marvellous stop on Rodolfo Pizarro's header in injury time. Mexico eventually won the game with a goal in the 99th minute.
Herdman says he saw "that little bit of fear in the Mexican team" that day. And he expects a big pushback Thursday.
"We left a mark on them in that last game," he said. "And good teams, good players, championship teams, they step up. So we're not a surprise any more. So what we're expecting is a big response from the Mexican team. We've got to be able to handle that."
"So they'll raise their intensity. And we've got to bring ours if we want to get this result," he added.
Midfielder Jonathan Osorio, who has played at Azteca with Toronto FC, is looking forward to the matchup.
"We have a lot of confidence. We have a lot of belief in this group," he said. "We're not scared of anybody. We believe that we can beat anybody in this region."
Herdman said the keyword ahead of the game is opportunity.
"Our history in this stadium hasn't been great. And the Mexicans are the perennial champions of CONCACAF, we know that," he said. "So for us, coming in here, it's just a wonderful opportunity to step forward.
"And that's the message loud and clear. We took a big message in the Gold Cup in Houston with 75,000 Mexicans cheering their team on. (Thursday) when we play, it will be no backward step. We want to keep stepping forward. This group of men are ready and, I think, really excited just to express themselves in this coliseum."
The Canadian men have never beaten the Mexicans in Mexico.
Mexico (2-0-1) leads the so-called Octagonal standings in the final round of qualifying in the region. Canada (1-0-2) is second on goal difference after beating No. 65 El Salvador and tying No. 63 Honduras and the 13th-ranked Americans.
The U.S. and Panama are also 1-0-2. Jamaica is last with an 0-2-1 record.
Come March, after the eight remaining teams have each played 14 games, the top three finishers in the round-robin will represent North and Central America and the Caribbean at Qatar 2022. The fourth-place team will take part in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.
The Canadian men have not made it to the final round of qualifying in the region since the lead-up to France '98
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press