The USA and Canada are each other's oldest rivals in Concacaf, having met 37 times in a series that dates back to 1925.
Until the last three years when Gregg Berhalter and John Herdman took charge of the USA and Canada, respectively, it wasn't much of a rivalry. Canada had not played in the Hexagonal since 1997.
But before that, Canada dominated the series. The USA and Canada met 11 times in World Cup qualifying from 1957-80, and the Americans won twice.
The low point came in 1976.
The USSF hired its first full-time national team coach in Walt Chyzowych and poured money into the national team program like it had never before. The USA tied Canada, 1-1 in Vancouver, and won, 2-0, at Seattle's Kingdome before 17,675 fans on goals by Hungarian-born Juli Veee (the former caretaker at the Spahn Movie Ranch, better known as the home of Charles Manson's family) and Czech-born teenager Miro Rys (who died tragically in 1977 in a car accident while training at Borussia Dortmund). The Americans looked to be headed to the final round of Concacaf qualifying along with Mexico from the three-team North America group. But the Canadians pulled a shocker, holding Mexico scoreless in Toluca and forcing a one-game playoff game in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, three days before Christmas.
No U.S. team had ever been prepared for a game like Chyzowych's team was for the match against Canada -- with a budget of $17,500 -- yet it lost, 3-0. Canada coach Eckhard Krautzun admitted afterward that he had three or four players who weren't match fit, and he had to substitute star midfielder John Kerr in the first half. The USA had a history of disciplinary problems -- Chyzowych was ejected in three games in three months leading up to the playoff game -- and lost Steve Pecher to a red card in the 70th minute. Canada led only 1-0 but later added two goals to eliminate the USA.
Sunday's Canada-USA match in Hamilton, Ontario, will be the fifth in the last 27 months. Canada ended a 34-year winless streak against the USA when it won, 2-0, in Toronto in the Concacaf Nations League. The USA captured the rematch, 4-1, and went on to win the new Concacaf competition.
But the first game in Toronto set the tone for the renewed rivalry. Canada, with a young team featuring the likes of Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, gained confidence that it could hold its own against the USA. It showed in the last two meetings. The USA won their group match at the 2021 Gold Cup — both teams were already through to the quarterfinals — scoring the game's only goal from Shaq Moore after 20 seconds, but it was all-Canada for the last 70 minutes. In the first World Cup 2022 qualifier, Canada held the USA to a 1-1 tie in Nashville, limiting the Americans to just a handful of chances.
"Our country, it's took us awhile to get there," Herdman said. "I still think U.S. are a few years ahead in how they've been able to build their talent pool, deepen rosters with players in Europe across every position, but Canada are coming."
Like the USA, Canada has a mix of players who grew up in MLS, moved to Europe at a young age to pursue soccer careers or grew up in Europe and benefited from Canadian citizenship to play for the national team.
“They have a young player pool, highly talented players when you think of Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David and Cyle Larin and all the guys, Tajon Buchanan and Jonathan Osorio. They have a talented group of players, make no mistake about it."
The USA played poorly in the 2-0 loss in Toronto, but Berhalter said then that Canada was a good team.
"I didn't think that team was given enough credit," he said. "And here they go, a couple years later at the top of the table after nine games. They’re a well-coached team. They know how to play, they have a clear philosophy and they deserve to be where they are right now.”
Davies, who stars for Bayern Munich, isn't with the Canadian team — he was diagnosed with a mild heart condition triggered after contracting Covid-19 — but it didn't miss him on Thursday, taking all three points in a 2-0 win at Honduras.
"The biggest thing I saw tonight was that next-man-up strategy," Herdman said afterward.
The 2-0 defeat to Canada in Toronto in October of 2019, coming 10 months into his tenure as U.S. national team coach, was a low point for Berhalter's national team.
“That first Canada away game in the Nations League is where we really fell flat from a competitive standpoint,” he said on Saturday. “That’s the emphasis in this game. We know that they’re going to be fired up. We know they’re playing in front of their home fans and we know they’re going to be confident. It’s going to be a competitive game. If we can embrace that, we’ll be OK. It’s a good opportunity for us to move up in the standings.”
The USA took the lead in the Octagonal standings from Mexico in November when it beat El Tri, 2-0, in Cincinnati. Three days later, Canada leaped over both the USA and Mexico when it also beat El Tri, 2-1, in Edmonton and the USA was held to a 1-1 tie by Jamaica. On Thursday, Canada, the USA and Mexico all won, so they remain 1-2-3 in the World Cup qualifying standings with five games to play.
“It's a fight for the top of the table,” Herdman said. “That's all I need to say in terms of what this means to us now. It’s World Cup qualifying — massive game. It’s not a friendly game. I mean, you’re playing your biggest rival, USA.”