On the eve of World Cup qualifying hostilities, Canadian coach John Herdman and his U.S. counterpart Gregg Berhalter looked to kill each other with kindness.
The compliments were flying ahead of Sunday's meeting at Nashville's Nissan Stadium in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying.
"An exciting team, really exciting team," said Herdman, reeling off a string of U.S. players — Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Gio Reyna — that he likes to watch.
"As a U.S. fan base, they must be happy to watch their team," he added. "So all in all it's going to be a good match. It always is."
Berhalter called Canada "one of the most improved teams in CONCACAF."
"I've said it before, I like Canada's group," he said. "I think they have a lot of good players. It's been fun watching them develop over these last years, through MLS and now with national team. And we know it's going to be a difficult game.
"But for us, it's about playing our game, understanding we're at home and being aggressive, embracing the battle of the game. And I think we'll be fine."
Berhalter also listed players he liked, citing Canada's Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Jonathan Osorio, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Stephen Eustaquio and Tajon Buchanan as well as the backline.
"It's a good, solid roster ... a team that's on the rise."
Both teams are coming off ties Thursday in their opening games of the final round. Canada, ranked 59th in the world, drew No. 63 Honduras 1-1 at Toronto's BMO Field while the 10th-ranked Americans played a scoreless draw at No. 64 El Salvador.
The Canadians host El Salvador in Toronto next Wednesday. The U.S. plays Honduras the same night in San Pedro Sula.
Each of the eight teams in the so-called Octagonal play 14 matches. Come March, the top three finishers book their ticket to Qatar 2022 to represent North and Central America and the Caribbean. The fourth-place finisher takes part in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.
Berhalter said goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who missed the El Salvador game due to back spasms, would not be available Sunday. Matt Turner was in goal for Thursday's match.
Pulisic, the Chelsea star who tested positive for COVID last month, will be evaluated before the match.
"He's made some progress and we have to see if it's enough to actually include him in the game-day squad and play," said Berhalter.
Canadian defender Alistair Johnston, who plays his club football for Nashville SC, said he expects the Americans to be under more pressure playing at home.
"I know they're going to feel a little bit of pressure," he said. "And that's kind of going to be our game plan, is to feed off that. Can we keep this game really tight and combative for that first half, making it difficult to break down and see if we can create some nervous tension in their ranks, when they start to feel that pressure."
Canada is 9-16-11 all-time against the U.S. but holds a 6-4-3 edge when it comes to World Cup qualifying matches. The two countries have not met in World Cup qualifying play since 1997 when the U.S. won in Palo Alto, Calif., and Vancouver, both by 3-0 scores.
The Americans have won the last two meetings, 1-0 at the Gold Cup in July in Kansas City and 4-1 in CONCACAF Nations League play in November 2019 in Orlando. Canada conceded just 20 seconds into that Gold Cup game but came on strong the rest of the way.
Berhalter, speaking after the match, called it an amazing start followed by "a lot of suffering.''
Canada won the opening CONCACAF Nations League meeting 2-0 in Toronto in October 2019, ending a 34-year, 17-match (0-9-8) winless run against the U.S.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press