Junior Hoilett was 25 when he committed to play for Canada. Now 31, the attacking midfielder has become a fan favourite and important part of John Herdman's team.
Hoilett helped turn the tide in Thursday's 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw with 63rd-ranked Honduras, introduced at halftime with Canada down 1-0. The veteran from Brampton, Ont., after a rapid-fire surge down the field featuring goalkeeper Milan Borjan, Richie Laryea and Alphonso Davies, drew the penalty that led to Cyle Larin's game-tying penalty kick in the 66th minute.
"We made some tactical adjustments with Hoilett coming in," Herdman said after the match. "You could just sense we needed that extra player to overload their two midfield screens who just found it too easy to match up against Johnny (Jonathan David) and Cyle and Phonzie (Davies)."
Hoilett, in his 37th appearance for Canada, helped provide that spark — with a large contingent of family and friends in the BMO Field stands.
"I think you got to see the real potential of this team in the second half," said Herdman.
The Canadian men, ranked 59th in the world, take on the 10th-ranked U.S. on Sunday in Nashville in the second of 14 games in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Canada will then return home to host No. 64 El Salvador on Wednesday in Toronto.
There are three more games next month, away to No. 9 Mexico and No. 50 Jamaica, and at home to No. 74 Panama, also at BMO Field. Eight more matches follow before the eight-team round-robin wraps up next March, with the top three finishers booking their ticket to Qatar 2022. The fourth-place side will take part in an intercontinental playoff to see how joins them.
Hoilett committed his international future to Canada in September 2015.
"I can't wait to play, put on the Canada jersey for the first time, and help the team achieve better things and progress as a nation," he said at the time.
He was also eligible to play for Jamaica by virtue of his parents. England was also a possibility because of his time spent there.
Hoilett, who signed with Reading of England's second-tier Championship in August, has consistently proved to be a difference-maker for Canada. He has played in 10 of Canada's 12 games this year, scoring four goals, adding four assists and consistently popping up in the right place to help compromise opposition defences.
In 2019, Hoilett recorded four goals and six assists in seven games. The Canadians have gone 12-1-4 the last two years when he featured.
Hoilett says he feels the love from supporters.
"I was just saying the other day you could actually feel the belief and support from the fans that we haven't felt in previous years," Hoilett said. "Even walking down the street you could see fans noticing us and really supporting us and really behind us as a team.
"It's great knowing that the country's behind us and rooting for us and really supporting our every step on this journey."
He captained Canada against Mexico in the Gold Cup semifinal in July and scored a sweet goal in the quarterfinal, chipping Costa Rican goalkeeper Esteban Alvarado for his 13th international goal. He also has 14 assists.
This marks Canada's first foray into the final round of qualifying in the region covering North and Central America and the Caribbean since the leadup to France '98. Hoilett has high hopes.
"It's frightening the amount of talent we have in this squad. It's frightening what we could achieve with this squad. There's a lot more to come," he said.
"It's good to be involved and good to help out the young talent as much as I can. To see them grow is also inspiring, for not only me but the young generation coming through. It's a great blessing we have here. I can't wait to see what more we can give."
Hoilett previously played his club soccer for Cardiff City, Queens Park Rangers and Blackburn Rovers with loan stints at Germany's Paderborn and St. Pauli. He has twice won promotion to the Premier League, with QPR and Cardiff City.
His current team, Reading, is led by former Chicago Fire manager Veljko Paunovic. The move there has worked out well off the field as well, with his family already based in London. Hoilett, who shares his unused first name David with his father, has a five-year-old son.
The Americans opened their qualifying campaign Thursday with a scoreless draw in El Salvador.
"It's going to be a tough one," said Hoilett. "They know our strengths and we know their strengths … Everybody has to go out and put in a performance to get the result."
It's the first World Cup qualifying meeting between the two North American rivals since November 1997 when the U.S. won 3-0 in Vancouver.
While Canada has only ever qualified for one World Cup (in 1986) and the U.S. seven of the last eight FIFA showcases, surprisingly the Canadian men lead the overall World Cup qualifying series with a 6-4-3 record.
Canada's overall record against the U.S. is 9-16-11.
The Americans have the edge at home, however, with a 3-1-2 record and are unbeaten in five qualifying games (3-0-2) on U.S. soil since dropping their first home qualifier to Canada in 1957 — a 3-2 decision in St. Louis.
Herdman's team scored a landmark 2-0 victory in October 2019 in CONCACAF Nations League play in Toronto, ending a 34-year, 17-match winless run against the Americans. The U.S. has won the two meetings since — 4-1 in Orlando in the Nations League rematch in November 2019 and 1-0 at the Gold Cup in Kansas City in July.
The Americans scored 20 seconds into that Gold Cup preliminary-round game and then held on for the win despite taking it from the chin from Canada the rest of the game.
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter called it an amazing start followed by "a lot of suffering.''
Hoilett's younger brother, Janiel, also played soccer, spending time at Blackburn's academy before playing in Germany and a short spell in MLS (FC Dallas). He now runs his own soccer school, the JJD Futbol Academy in Brampton.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2021