LOS ANGELES, United States (AFP)— Canada coach John Herdman has told his team to prepare for battle as they take on the United States in a pivotal CONCACAF World Cup qualifier on Sunday.
The Canadians have emerged as the surprise package of Central America, North America and the Caribbean's qualifying competition, unbeaten in nine matches and leading the eight-team final round with 19 points.
A victory over the second-placed United States in Hamilton, Ontario, on Sunday would put clear daylight between Canada and the chasing pack.
With only four games remaining after Sunday, victory could leave 'Les Rouges' firmly on course for their first trip to the World Cup in 36 years.
Sunday's game takes place at the compact Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton.
Due to local COVID-19 regulations, capacity for the game has been halved to around 12,000, but Herdman hopes the smaller crowd will nevertheless create a hostile environment for the visitors.
"It's going to feel tight and compact. We want the US to feel that," he said.
"It's a battle. It's two teams that are desperate for three points and will do anything for it," said Herdman, the 46-year-old Englishman who took over as Canada's men's coach in 2018 after managing the women's side for seven years.
For so long the whipping boys of CONCACAF's World Cup qualifying – prior to this campaign, Canada had not reached the final round of regional qualifiers since 1998 -- Herdman has forged a close-knit group who are anything but pushovers.
They served notice of their capability in November with a 2-1 win over Mexico, and on Thursday grabbed a 2-0 win on the road over Honduras.
Herdman believes the win over Honduras on Thursday embodied his team's spirit.
"To get a 2-0 on the road was important for the team, to get our first win on the road, as well," he said.
"More than anything, it was just about three points — that's all it comes down to. We bent a little bit, but we didn't break. I think that's the story of the identity of this team," Herdman said.
"It's a special story that's unfolding. It seems like every (player) is able to contribute on the journey," he added.
"We'll keep relying on that mettle, that camaraderie, that brotherhood and we'll fight, that's what it will be in any game against the US. You've got to bring the battle, it's a cup final at home."
The US meanwhile arrive in Canada after an unconvincing 1-0 home win over El Salvador in Columbus on Thursday.
A victory over the Canadians on Sunday would give coach Gregg Berhalter's side valuable breathing space, however.
While they remain well-placed to qualify, the USA still must travel to Mexico and Costa Rica in March, traditionally awkward away games against two teams who are desperate for points.
Mexico, who needed two late goals to overcome Jamaica 2-1 on Thursday in Kingston, host Costa Rica in a vital clash at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City on Sunday.
Panama, who are fourth in the standings behind Mexico, face a home game with Jamaica while Honduras host El Salvador in Sunday's other game.