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USA vs. Canada: A most historic and unimportant rivalry

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You might not know it just by looking, but USA vs. Canada is secretly one of the oldest rivalries in international soccer.

Toronto Raptors Victory Parade & Rally Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/NBAE/Getty Images

O Canada. That land of maple syrup and ice hockey. The Great White North. From the shores of Newfoundland to the mountains of British Columbia to the wilds of the Northwest Territory, Canada is a massive expanse. The second-largest nation on earth, it’s a place once renowned for her wilderness and her abundance of highly-polite people who frequently say “eh”. Of course, we Americans know Canada quite well. She is North North Dakota, America’s Tophat. It’s the place that keeps sending us musicians we didn’t ask for, like Justin Beiber, Drake, Celine Dion, Avril Lavigne, and... well, there’s many more but, at this point, I’m just getting myself upset.

Anyway, the United States and Canada have a long and close relationship. The nations share the longest land border in the world. The nations are exceedingly close, sharing military information, trade deals, even the Niagara Falls (though it’s better on the Canada side). There are plenty of nations with deep rivalries: France and Germany, India and Pakistan, and even the United States and Mexico. But USA-Canada is not one of them.

So, that makes today’s match between the two nations a little...tepid. The fact that it’s the Nations League, a tournament with literally no consequences for the USMNT now that both have thrashed Cuba (with Canada also beating them by a more normal 1-0 scoreline in the Cayman Islands). While Canada need this game in order to jump into the top 6 in the region and qualify for the Hexagonal stage of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, the USMNT is basically already sitting pretty with a score so high that they essentially automatically qualified.

And then there’s the proximity. In a lot of cases, proximity helps develop some teeth to a rivalry. But Canada and the United States are so close, they share a league, with three clubs in MLS. BMO Field, the Toronto field where the match is set to play (a mere few hours drive from Buffalo, NY) is, in fact, the same field that Michael Bradley, the most senior player on the team, plays with his club team, Toronto FC. A trip up past the northern border is basically the second-closest thing to a home game for the USMNT. Actually, considering how many immigrants come to root for the opposition each game, it’s maybe just about even.

So, when some people tried to gin up a little bit of aggression for this game, it was hard to take it seriously. For instance, when Samuel Piette of the Montreal Impact said this, the natural reaction was to wonder how many times he felt the need to apologize afterwards.

The hate that we have toward the Americans is just natural – even if you don’t like soccer.

Sure, buddy. Sure. We all know the truth: Canadians don’t actually hate the United States...except in women’s soccer. Yeah, those Canadians really hate the USWNT. Actually, are Canadians even capable of hate? Is that an impossible extreme for such a gosh-darn nice collection of people? Anyway, I digress. This is not a raucous and spiteful rivalry. It’s just not.

But there’s a secret lurking underneath all that friendliness. The USA-Canada rivalry is one of the absolute oldest in soccer. It’s older than Italy versus Germany or Argentina versus England. It’s even older than famous club rivalries like Boca Juniors-River Plate, Real Madrid-Barcelona, or even Rangers FC-Celtic FC. USA-Canada dates all the way back to the very founding of American soccer, in the very primordial days of the sport, even before the establishment of the modern offside rule. In 1885, the United States played their first international match, the first international match played outside the dreary confines of the United Kingdom, against Canada in Newark, New Jersey. The Canadians actually won that outing 1-0, though FIFA refuses to recognize it and the match preceded the founding of the U.S. Soccer Federation by several decades. The fixture was actually repeated the next year, with the Americans winning by the same scoreline. But after that? Well, it sort of just fell off the map.

What happened? How did a most historic rivalry become such an unimportant one?

Well, soccer basically died in the United States and Canada following the Great Depression and World War II. The organized leagues collapsed, other sports were invented and gained popularity, and people generally stopped playing the sport. And, when soccer reestablished itself starting in the 1960s and 1970s, the national teams lagged behind. Canada wouldn’t qualify for the World Cup until 1986, the only time they’ve gone to the biggest stage. The United States didn’t make it back until 1990. And, while the United States has generally been a stable presence in international soccer since 1990, Canada hasn’t. While Canada did manage to somehow squeak out a triumph in the 2000 Gold Cup (they only advanced out of the group on a coin toss tie-breaker), they haven’t so much as made the Hexagonal in World Cup qualifying since 1998. As a result, the teams have barely played against each other in competitive fixtures, the last time being the 2011 Gold Cup where the U.S. beat Canada 2–0. When they have, Canada has been too weak to really make a note of it, though they’ve been game for most every match, defending with some self-respect.

But, that might now be changing. While the USMNT is rebuilding after missing the 2018 World Cup, Canada is putting through something of a golden generation. They have a slew of solid players based mostly in the Canadian clubs in MLS, as well as a smattering of players in Europe. Perhaps most prominently, there’s the teenager Alphonso Davies, who was sold from the Vancouver Whitecaps to Bayern Munich for a transfer fee of up to $22 million (with performance based bonuses). On top of that, this match matters a great deal for the Canadians. Once again, while there’s nothing at stake for the Americans beyond pride, the Canadians essentially need to win for a chance to qualify for the Hex. As a result, they’ll need to be fired up for this one. So, this time match carries some stakes, at least for the home team. And this might mean that the rivalry will have a chance to heat up in the coming years. If that happens, we might finally see this most historic rivalry become an important one.