That Canada and the United States should be set at odds on a sporting pitch is only natural. Though we share much with our neighbours to the south -- a language, for instance, and in some places, a climate -- much is also different (like une autre langue, for instance, or in most places, a climate). To the U.S., we're a mysterious younger sibling from the frozen north. They outnumber us ten to one, and there's no denying which country is the bigger global superpower. In sports, though, Canada punches well above its weight when it comes to our American rivals. There's something about playing against the U.S.A. that gets Canadians out of their seats much more, for example, than playing Honduras -- a fixture whose gravity is understood only in the specific niche of men's international soccer. That's why, when the brash, confident U.S. men's national team comes to Hamilton on Sunday to do battle on the frozen tundra of Tim Hortons Field, Canada will be watching. The country has already taken notice of their newly-exciting men's soccer team -- an Alphonso Davies highlight reel goal against Panama and a gutsy win over Mexico helped in that regard -- but this weekend's showdown with the Americans could well be the watershed moment required to push this team over the edge into the collective consciousness of even the most casual sports observers. No matter the sport, Canada-U.S.A. is always heated (even in sub-zero weather). Everyone remembers Sidney Crosby's golden goal in 2010, right? And the... controversial women's soccer semi-final of London 2012? Few will have forgotten the women's hockey spectacle at Sochi 2014 thanks to Marie-Philip Poulin's OT heroics. At any level of any game, there's a little extra bite to contests between these old enemies. In soccer specifically, the rivalry has been pretty lopsided historically. In total, Canada has played the United States in a senior international match (men's and women's) 99 times -- making Sunday's encounter the hundredth (depending on the count -- some unofficial games could be included in the figure). The Canadians have a combined 13 wins, 69 defeats, and 17 draws.
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On the men's side specifically, Les Rouges are a more balanced 9-17-11, their encounters with the Americans being fewer and farther between than in the women's realm. The Canadian women's team, of course, has a very bitter rivalry with their arch-nemeses below the 49th parallel, although the U.S. had the better of the fixture for a very, very long time -- until Canada changed that in the semi-final of last summer's Tokyo Olympics. John Herdman -- himself well-versed in the women's rivalry, having been Canada's coach for that 2012 semi at Old Trafford -- is keen on inciting a similar narrative shift on the men's side. The Canadian men have one triumph over the U.S. in recent memory, with that magical night at BMO Field in the 2019 Concacaf Nations League really the first indication that Canada might not be content to play second fiddle anymore.
Since then, the two sides have played three times, two of which have been U.S. wins (the third being the 1-1 WCQ draw in September). Canada still haven't beaten the Americans in World Cup Qualifying since 1980. In fact, prior to that win in 2019, Canada's men hadn't beaten the U.S. at the senior level since 1990. Much like the rest of Canada's recent soccer history, there's been a lot of heartbreak in fixtures against this opponent. Perhaps the main reason why these two sides haven't been particularly hated foes in the past couple decades is the simple competitive balance: the U.S. has long overshadowed Canada in terms of success, qualifying for seven World Cups in the time since Canada reached its only one ever, with seven Gold Cup titles to boot. Canada just hasn't been able to compete with the American side in any serious manner for quite a while -- until now. That night in 2019 has become rooted in the Canadian mindset every time they take on the U.S. -- quite literally. Herdman and his staff have made a deliberate effort to stoke the emotions of their group when they play this particular opponent. Before the meeting at last summer's Gold Cup, Herdman showed his players images and footage of that Nations League win -- alongside other key moments in the Canada-U.S. rivalry from the women's game. "It was part of the pregame meeting, where we were able to show just a little bit of the end of Toronto, October 15, 2019," Herdman told reporters at the time. "We were able just to show some pictures of the U.S. players’ faces, and the doubt that we know is in their mind now. For 20, 30, 40 years, there was never a doubt in their mind that they were gonna beat Canada. There was never a doubt in their mind even if Canada showed up and were gritty and resilient, that they would find a way to win in the final 20 minutes. "We just said, look, you earned that right to put that doubt in their minds. If tactically we’re on the page, if the intensity is there, always in the back of their mind they know Canada can win this match." The doubt, certainly, is there; the U.S. did not have an easy time playing against Canada in two games in 2021, both of which easily could've gone the other way. That said, we're not quite at the point of blood feud that this matchup can reach. American boss Gregg Berhalter has been full of praise for Herdman and the Canadian program in recent months. At the Gold Cup, he was nothing but complimentary about his side's most serious challenger for first place in Group B. “First of all, I'm really happy that Canada’s in the final (World Cup) qualifying group,” Berhalter said. “They've done a great job of getting to this point, and I'm not happy because I want to face them, I'm happy for the group, for the players. It's a lot of players that we're familiar with, we’ve got a lot of respect for those guys. It's been nice seeing them grow over the last five years, and they've arrived to this point and I think it's a good team.” The mutual respect is good, and it's an integral part of all great sporting rivalries. And Berhalter is right when he suggests the two men's programs are in similar spots right now, on the upward slope of an incoming generation of young, homegrown players. Nonetheless, it's clear Canada has a little more distaste for their neighbours than the Americans do for them at the moment. Mexico remains, by far, the greatest rival of the United States men's national team.
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That may never change, but with a few more years of tug-of-war between Canada and the U.S. it's not hard to imagine this being a close second. Canada have already made their intentions clear; they will not be polite or accommodating for their foes, forcing them to play on frozen Hamilton turf (and waiting until the very last moment to confirm it, making it much harder for the U.S. to schedule their own home games in this window). True rivalries are born from drama and competition, and they're what make the greatest moments so special. In the history of professional sport, few things have caught the public's attention more than a high-stakes, theatrical encounter between bitter rivals. Think Red Sox/Yankees, Frazier/Ali, or Prost/Senna. Or within football, think Real Madrid/Barcelona, Celtic/Rangers, or River Plate/Boca. Such gold standards by which all rivalries are measured are, surely, beyond the reach of Canada and the U.S. in men's soccer at the moment, but that same competitive fire when they meet on the pitch this weekend is what they'll be trying to channel. And if Canada, once again in this remarkable World Cup Qualifying campaign, emerge triumphant and continue to rewrite history? Well, their next visit south of the border might be just a little less amicable.
Canada and the U.S. kick off at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ontario this Sunday, January 30 at 3:00 pm ET. Watch live on OneSoccer or Sportsnet.