2022-23 Concacaf Nations League — Group Stage Curaçao vs. Canada March 25, 2023 9 p.m. ET / 6 p.m. PT Ergilio Hato Stadium Willemstad, Curaçao Watch Live: OneSoccer.ca & TELUS Ch. 980

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Consider the two upcoming March Concacaf Nations League matches for the Canadian men's national team in video game terms. Saturday's trip to Curaçao and Tuesday's match against Honduras in Toronto are like mini-boss battles. By winning those, Canada is looking to unlock the final boss battles that will truly allow them to level up as a side. These will be the national team's first matches since going winless at the 2022 Qatar World Cup. The lasting lesson from that tournament? This group still needs bigger tests against better opposition before co-hosting the next tournament in 2026. Topping their group in Concacaf Nations League would go a long way toward making that possible. They would reach the Nations League final four -- to be played in Las Vegas in June -- for the first time, unlocking matches against not only top Concacaf opposition but also a chance to pick up their first silverware since the 2000 Gold Cup. It would also have some critical secondary effects. It would almost certainly give Canada enough Concacaf ranking points to see them maintain their spot as a top-four team in the region -- making qualifying for the 2024 Copa America significantly easier. As a top-four side, they would also not be forced to play Nations League matches during the September and October windows, which would mean additional opportunities for high-profile friendlies. "Hopefully we can get Tier 1 games in the future because the players and staff are clear: Canada can't go into the next World Cup with only one tier 1 game in a decade," Canada head coach John Herdman told media this week. "When you are in those matches you are learning on the job as players as staff as you start to realize the differences between your team and the teams you are playing against. We need those games." Canada currently trails group leaders Honduras by three points, albeit with a game in hand. Canada's opponent on Saturday, Curaçao, is the third team in the group, whom they easily dispatched 4-0 back in June at BC Place in their first meeting of the group stage. This meeting, however, will present some unique challenges, including the absence of Herdman due to suspension after being sent off against Honduras in June. Curaçao has proven to be a nation on the rise in Concacaf of late too. They reached the 2019 Gold Cup quarterfinals and beat Honduras away from home earlier in this Nations League group. Their squad features plenty of quality, such as Columbus Crew goalkeeper Eloy Room, Birmingham City midfielder Juninho Bacuna and his older brother Leandro who plays with Canada's Ismaël Kone at Watford. Playing on the road in Concacaf will also forever remain a different beast. Les Rouges were certainly reminded of that during their last regional road trip, where they played on a horridly rain-soaked pitch in San Pedro Sula and lost 2-1 to Honduras. Aside from Herdman, Alistair Johnston, who played more than any other Canadian player during 2022 World Cup qualifying, was also handed a red card and will therefore miss the Curaçao match (Raheem Edwards also received a sending off from the Canada bench, but was not called into this camp). Both Johnston and Herdman will not be on the field and touchline respectively in Curaçao. Injuries to regulars Kamal Millar, Max Crepéau, Sam Piette, Lucas Cavallini and Junior Hoilett also mean that Canada will be without some key players for this match. In their place, former Cavalry FC midfielder Victor Loturi, former Cavalry/York defender Dominick Zator, Brighton goalkeeper Tom McGill and St. Louis CITY defender Kyle Hiebert have been called up. “We have to ensure that there isn't any complacency going into Concacaf because there are just no easy games," said Herdman. "The conditions, how hungry these teams are to chase you now." The good news is that many of Canada's star players are in excellent form. Jonathan David is leading Ligue 1 in scoring, Cyle Larin has scored five goals in eight matches since joining Real Valladolid in Spain on loan and Alphonso Davies has been playing some of his best football for Bayern lately. Those players helped Canada to finish top of 2022 World Cup qualifying. But as a new cycle begins, the goal now is to stay seated on the throne. That will require a new mentality, and bring with it new challenges, starting with a tricky match against Curaçao. "We're the hunted now, not the hunters in many ways," Herdman said. "So there's a lot of added motivation for this group. But right at the core of it, they want to experience lifting a trophy for Canada. They want to experience winning and pushing up the rankings at the world level."

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