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Midfielder Stephen Eustaquio showing star quality at Gold Cup with Canada

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Stephen Eustaquio will see more than a few familiar faces Thursday when Canada lines up against CONCACAF heavyweight Mexico at the Gold Cup semifinal in Houston.

The 24-year-old Eustaquio joined Mexico's Cruz Azul in a big move from Portugal's Chaves in January 2019. But his debut later that month proved painfully short.

Coming off the bench in the 56th minute against Tijuana at Azteca Stadium, he was red-carded for a tackle within two minutes — which was downgraded to a yellow after video review. Then, trying to avoid a challenge, his left leg bucked awkwardly as he put his foot down. He was taken off on a stretcher in the 81st minute, hands holding his head.

Knee surgery followed to repair his anterior cruciate ligament.

"It was a very difficult day," he recalled. "I think I was 21 at the time so I felt like I had a lot to give, to the team and to the country.

"One day I go to play Tijuana and everything happens. But it happened for a reason. I could have got my red card and just left the game, Where would I be now? And I love the place (where) I am now. It's hard to say but thank God I had that injury, thank God everything went that way because I'm a much better person and player now.

"I'm so grateful to (be able to) help Canada at this Gold Cup."

Canada is happy to have the former Portuguese under-21 international in the fold.

Technically gifted, Eustaquio is an excellent distributor of the ball and a player who can see and find space on the field.

Canada is 7-0-0 when Eustaquio starts and he is 8-1-0 in Canadian colours. The lone loss came in a 4-1 setback at the hands of the U.S. in CONCACAF Nations League play in Orlando in November 2019 on his debut.

The 70th-ranked Canadian men look to take another step forward Thursday against No. 11 Mexico at NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans. It will likely be a hostile crowd cheering on the Mexicans.

"It's getting harder every time so it's going to be a very good test against Mexico," said Eustaquio. "But here we are. We're going to try to make the country proud."

Canada last downed the CONCACAF powerhouse in February 2000, a 2-1 decision in San Diego, and its record against the Mexicans over the last 20 years is 1-11-3 with the Canadians outscored 40-10.

The teams will meet again in the final round of World Cup qualifying in the region that covers North and Central America and the Caribbean. 

Canada, Mexico, the U.S., Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica, Panama and El Salvador in the final CONCACAF will battle for berths in the 2022 World Cup starting this September.

Eustaquio returned from his knee injury later in 2019, starting his comeback with Cruz Azul's under-23 side. In January 2020 he joined Portugal's FC Pacos de Ferreira, making the move permanent this January.

Eustaquio has already shared his injury comeback story with forward Ayo Akinola, who injured his anterior cruciate ligament in Canada's loss to the U.S. at the Gold Cup.

"I just told him 'Take it day by day. Don't think this is going to put you back. It's going to put you forward. You just have to be patient. Look at my case. I had my injury two years ago and here I am, with everybody. I'm fit, I'm feeling very good. I think I'm at a level that I've never been before. So you can be that guy.'"

Eustaquio says Cruz Azul provided everything he needed to rehab his knee. But a coaching change around his return meant he never really got a shot to play.

"So I just had to go out and make my own path," he said.

That led him to Pacos de Ferreira.

The club was struggling to avoid relegation when he arrived, with Eustaquio helping it stay in the top tier and finishing fifth last season, opening the door for European competition. And he is enjoying life with his girlfriend in the Portuguese city, located 340 kilometres north of Lisbon and a 20-minute drive from the ocean.

"Everything is going well. I love the club," he said.

He now makes his home some 240 kilometres north of Nazare where his parents, who are from Portugal but came to Canada, settled after returning home.

His older brother Mauro, a former Calvary FC midfielder, was born in Nazare, located on the Portuguese coast between Porto and Lisbon. Stephen was born in Leamington, Ont.

He grew up speaking English while his mother started teaching him Portuguese when they decided the family was moving back home. Stephen was seven when he left Canada for Portugal.

Eustaquio started with local clubs, first in the youth system of Leiria and then with a local club, GD Nazarenos, at the age of 17. Six months later he switched to Torreense and spent three years with the third-division club.

That led to a move to second-division Leixoes and then, six months later, to top-tier Chaves. He spent a year with Chaves, which was relegated five months after he joined Cruz Azul.

At the time, the Mexican giant was coached by Portugal's Pedro Caixinha, who had noticed him playing for the Portuguese under-21 side.

His past Canadian history was short.

In 2012, he attended a Canadian under-17 camp in Spain. Eustaquio was a late addition, so he arrived on short notice and looking back, say he probably wasn't ready.

Canada coach John Herdman called Eustaquio's February 2019 decision to switch international allegiance a "massive message."

He sold Eustaquio on "what he could do for this country to help pioneer us into a new generation" and of playing in a home World Cup in 2026 while in his prime.

"He was excited about a journey, a journey of changing this country forever," Herdman said at the time.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press