Canada captain Julian de Guzman has one thing on his mind: Goals. And he is not the only one. “It’s what everyone’s talking about up here,” he told FIFA.com in a hushed tone. “No goals at the Gold Cup. It was our downfall.”
In three games at CONCACAF’s recent cup of nations, Canada failed to find the back of the net. Nearly 300 minutes of football without a goal had media and fans hissing. The team – CONCACAF champions in 2000 – tumbled out in the first round with two points from a pair of draws and a loss. “We created chances," De Guzman said. “But we weren’t decisive enough.”
It is not traditionally De Guzman’s job to get the goals they need. He covers every blade of grass from one box to the other. Spring-loaded and low to the ground, he is a tireless worker in midfield. He wins balls. He harries opponents. His energy, even at 34, is bottomless.
That kind of graft brought him to Europe while still in his teens. He was the first Canadian to play in Germany’s Bundesliga before breaking the same ground in Spain. In four seasons with Deportivo La Coruna, he became a favourite at the Estadio Riazor. He was named the club’s player of the year for the 2007/8 season, a time when he was firmly in the conversation when discussing CONCACAF’s top player.
De Guzman even managed a famous goal in a win over a Real Madrid side packed with Galactico legends Zinedine Zidane, Raul and David Beckham. It was ten years ago, but his only goal in 95 appearances remains vivid.
“Everything went silent,” he said, his voice drifting into the nostalgia of a treasured memory. “Fans jumped up and down. They were screaming, but all I could hear was the blood in my ears. It was a dream.”
If that moment was the dream, this summer was a nightmare. Canada’s frustrations at the Gold Cup were obvious. De Guzman stalked the midfield, trying to force the issue. But the goal only got smaller for strikers Cyle Larin and Simeon Jackson. When the final whistle blew against Costa Rica in their third game, the Canadians slumped off the pitch. All they needed was one goal to reach the knockout stages.
When we get one or two, the floodgates can open. Then we can do things that no one is expecting.
Lost in the media feeding frenzy that followed was the fact that Canada’s defence was outstanding. They conceded just once, against runners-up Jamaica, ending a streak of 500 minutes of clean sheets.
“We have to put away at least half of our chances,” said De Guzman, who has four goals in nearly 100 caps for Canada. “Our defence is so strong, but we need to make it a habit of scoring. When we get one or two, the floodgates can open. Then we can do things that no one is expecting.”
The skipper admits to a drought in Canada’s fortunes in recent years, and his own prospects have dimmed a bit at club level too. After returning from Europe, he failed to inspire as a big-money signing at hometown Toronto FC of MLS and eventually joined Ottawa Fury in the NASL, North America’s second professional tier.
But his earlier experience at the highest level is invaluable to Canada coach Benito Floro, a Spaniard who has introduced new notions and styles. He is preaching a gospel that is less direct, with more ball possession. The one piece missing from the puzzle is the most elusive: goals.
Road to Russia
Canada scored six times over two legs against Dominica to start 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying. But De Guzman was not impressed.
“We should have scored more; maybe we were at 30 per cent,” he said, admitting that Belize will be a far sterner test in the third round this weekend.
De Guzman, the consummate professional, cannot help but admit to a personal motive in this, his fourth World Cup qualifying cycle. He was in the side that lost 8-1 to Honduras in the Brazil 2014 qualifiers. “It was a humiliation,” he said, the kind of deep dark hole that can haunt a professional competitor.
“The lowest point,” he said. He remembers goal after goal falling. The taunts of the crowd are still fresh. It all lingers. “We have the chance to maybe meet them again down there. It’s a chance to erase that memory, which was horrible.”
The game of football is, at its core, about scoring goals. If the Canadians can score a few more, keep keeping them out at the other end, then De Guzman might just have his chance to erase the eight he suffered in San Pedro Sula. And if all comes together like he thinks it could, he might reach what he calls the “ultimate goal,” a spot at the World Cup.