Cold Commonwealth Stadium what Canada ordered for World Cup qualifier vs. Mexico

·5 min read
Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium on Tuesday, site of a World Cup qualifier between Canada and Mexico. (Twitter/@CanadaSoccerEN - image credit)
Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium on Tuesday, site of a World Cup qualifier between Canada and Mexico. (Twitter/@CanadaSoccerEN - image credit)

EDMONTON — There is a long, sordid history of dirty tricks in CONCACAF, a soccer confederation known for staging the beautiful game on the least level of playing fields. No country has mastered the dark art of odds-stacking quite like Mexico. After inconveniencing their visitors with mysterious late-night fire alarms and bus breakdowns, the Mexicans then usher them into storied Azteca, where the heat, high altitude, and nearly 100,000 screaming fans make it one of the world's hardest places to play.

And that's before the bags of urine start raining down from the crowd.

Canadian soccer fans aren't quite so committed to the cause of home-field advantage, but we haven't been above our own shenanigans. When the Canadian men qualified for their only World Cup in 1986, they played their deciding match against Honduras on a freshly laid cow pasture in St. John's. Their guests were cold and tired from their long journey, and the vanquished Hondurans were among those rare visitors who have left Newfoundland complaining about the hospitality.

For Tuesday's all-important World Cup qualifier against highly ranked Mexico, Canada Soccer has made another considered — and inconsiderate — choice of venue: Welcome to sunny Edmonton, where the team is hoping chilly, cavernous Commonwealth Stadium becomes something like Canada's Azteca, perhaps minus the bodily fluids.

WATCH | CBC Sports' Chris Jones breaks down Canada's Edmonton qualifiers:

"There's a great opportunity for the people of Edmonton to be part of history," head coach John Herdman said before the match. "That's what this is."

Edmonton hasn't always been such a positive choice. For decades, Canada was one of the few international sides that had to endure hostile atmospheres at home, at least whenever it played in its most cosmopolitan cities. (I remember a friendly against Scotland at old Varsity Stadium in Toronto in 1992. It looked like a kilt convention.) Better to retreat to Edmonton and run into a largely empty stadium than appear in front of "home" supporters rooting against you.

But Commonwealth Stadium has made an awesome turn from quiet sanctuary to noisy cathedral, beginning in earnest with the Women's World Cup in 2015. Herdman coached the Canadian women at the time, and he can close his eyes and still hear the sound of the place when Christine Sinclair scored her late penalty against China. He hasn't forgotten which city made that roar.

"It felt like a fortress," he said. "When you go to Edmonton, you genuinely feel as though the whole city is behind you … Everyone is trying to find a way to help the team. Getting into that stadium, and potentially feeling 50,000 people at your back…" He trailed off, unable to find the right words to describe the ecstasy.

WATCH | What to expect when Canada takes on Mexico in World Cup qualifying:

Edmonton offers a further enticement for Canada Soccer these happy days: It's home for Alphonso Davies, this team's undisputed star, and he was clearly buzzing to play in front of hundreds of family and friends for the first time in his international career.

"It means a lot," Davies said in advance of last Friday's 1-0 win here over Costa Rica. "I'm just excited for the occasion. I'm excited to play in front of my hometown."

His hometown was obviously excited, too. The crowd for the Costa Rican game — nearly 49,000 strong, the third-largest home crowd in men's national team history — was loud, happy, and decked out, almost certainly breaking the record for the most hockey sweaters worn to a single soccer game.

WATCH | Views from the fans in Edmonton:

Not many of the Canadian men have experienced anything close to that atmosphere; none of them has while wearing the Maple Leaf. There were moments when their breath turned solid in the cold and the night felt, in the best way, like a dream.

"Years ago, this would never happen, where Canada would come to Edmonton and be almost selling out the stadium," said Atiba Hutchinson, Canada's 38-year-old midfielder and institutional memory. "It's really amazing to see … Everything that's coming together right now, it's something that we've been waiting to see for many, many years."

WATCH | Canada continues undefeated streak in qualifying with win over Costa Rica:

The Mexicans will no doubt be less enamoured with their surroundings, having been CONCACAF'd in back-to-back matches. When they played the United States last Friday — the same night Canada shivered the Costa Ricans into submission — El Tri were beckoned to delightful Cincinnati. Not coincidentally, of the 22 American cities that have Major League Soccer franchises, Cincinnati ranks last in the percentage of its population that claims Mexican ancestry, and the ticket lottery was openly rigged against Mexican supporters.

Jason Franson/Canadian Press
Jason Franson/Canadian Press

Bracing for Edmonton weather

Edmonton remains more of a two-sided sword. The Canadians might be more accustomed to the cold than their southern visitors, but they aren't immune to it, and Commonwealth Stadium's artificial turf can be just as slippery for them when it gets frosty. (The forecast for Tuesday calls for light snow and temperatures around minus-10C. Quite frosty.)

Several key members of the team also play professionally in Europe, and Edmonton is that much more of a haul for them, too. Hutchinson estimated his trip from Istanbul, where he plays his club soccer, took him 18 seriously jet-lagged hours.

That leaves Canada Soccer's choice of venue a function of sometimes ruthless calculus: In the pursuit of every possible edge, it can make sense to sacrifice the comfort of its own players in exchange for leaving opponents with a deeper wound. Even Davies, the local hero, expressed alarm at Tuesday's forecast — "Whoa," he said when he first heard it before he regained his resolve. "I mean, minus-10 is not easy on anybody," he said. "That's going to be a little bit tough. But, you know, we're Canadian. We're built for this weather."

After Tuesday's icy match, Canadian soccer officials will once again take out their ledgers, every game another audition for its host to hold another one. Will Canada's emergent Azteca see more national team action in the future? No doubt. Will it be during this unprecedented qualifying campaign? Probably not. The next home game for Canada, against the United States, is on Jan. 30th.

Even by CONCACAF's standards for poor hospitality, that might prove too cold a reception.

WATCH | Bring It In panel discusses latest in CONCACAF WC qualifiers:

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