When Canada has a back four of David Edgar, Kevin McKenna, Andre Hainault, and Ante Jazic they do not give up a whole lot in the way of chances or goals. The last time that Canada allowed a goal, the friendly against Armenia, was with a back line that consisted of Edgar, McKenna, Adam Straith, and Mike Klukowski since the roster called for that friendly was almost entirely made up of European based players. When Canada gets anything close to its best roster in place the back four are a solid anchor to things which is crucial considering the fact that Canada is not exactly lethal at the other end of the field.
It has been over a year since Canada allowed a goal in a competitive match. That includes four clean sheets to wrap up the second round of World Cup qualifying last fall and then two more clean sheets to open the third round this spring. Yes, a clean sheet against Saint Kitts and Nevis, Puerto Rico, or Saint Lucia is not the most impressive feat but when you add in the fact that in the spring Canada shut out much stronger sides in Honduras and the United States (it may have been a friendly but it was clearly the A teams), it gives fans plenty of confidence in the teams defensive abilities.
The run of shutouts was not just about the defenders though. The goal keepers have also been stepping up to the task over the past year and have had to make their share of key saves to ensure the clean sheets. Milan Borjan kept a clean sheet against Honduras but before that it was Lars Hirschfeld that blanked both Cuba and the United States. Back in the fall it was mainly Hirschfeld in goal for Canada but coach Stephen Hart also found a chance to hand Kenny Stamatopoulos starts against St. Kitts and Nevis and Saint Lucia. The last keeper to allow a competitive goal was Hirschfeld who conceded in the 7th minute of the match against St. Lucia on September 2nd of last year.
It has been a very impressive run but it will be under major threat when Canada takes to the field against Panama on the 7th and 11th. The threat comes from Panama boasting a strong attack that features Blas Perez and Luis Tejada as well as the fact that Canada's defensive unit is coming in with a couple of big injury concerns.If everyone is fit and ready to play 90 minutes come Friday night then Stephen Hart will be left with very little to do in terms of deciding his defensive starters. He has his preferred five all in the roster and if they are good to go most expect to see Edgar, McKenna, Hainault, and Jazic in front of Hirschfeld. That group was a rock for Canada back in the spring and would hopefully be the same this time around if given the chance.
Problem is that both of Canada's first choice centre backs are coming in with injury concerns. McKenna had a major ankle operation over the summer and is just now starting to make his way back into the lineup for his club team. He has only made two substitute appearances so far in the 2. Bundesliga season for FC. Koln with his longest run out being just over 60 minutes. That lack of minutes and his stage in the recovery process makes him a doubt to be able to go the full 180 minutes over the next two games.
If McKenna was the biggest doubt in the squad it would not be that bad. Canada has Dejan Jakovic waiting in reserve should they need another CB option. The big problem is that in Houston's last match Andre Hainault had to be taken off at the half with what looked to be a potentially serious injury to his ankle. It looked like the defender had his achilles stepped on and was in clear pain despite trying to continue playing. If the injury is anywhere near as serious as it looked, he could well miss out on the matches against Panama leaving Hart to find another solution in the middle of the defense.
Assuming the worst case scenario is true and Canada has to go without McKenna and Hainault on Friday night where would that leave the defensive unit? It would likely mean that Edgar shifts back to CB and would be joined by Jakovic to form a still solid pair in the middle of the park. Jazic would remain out on the left with both Marcel de Jong and Ashtone Morgan more than capable of stepping into that position should they be needed. The questions would mainly be about who would then replace Edgar at right back for the side.
The simplest option would be to move Nik Ledgerwood back to his original position in the defense but that is not likely to breed much confidence among supporters. Most would agree that Ledgerwood is better used in the midfield and actually adds more to the attack when he is there because of his high work rate. Move him to right back and he suddenly becomes a bit of a liability who is often caught out of position. Moving him there would be a small trade off in the midfield but considering how many central mids Hart called out it would not be a massive blow.
The second option is probably the more controversial of the two and that would be to shift Atiba Hutchinson into the defensive line. He is Canada's most influential central midfielder and is often relied on to control the pace of the game so moving him out of that role might seem like a big loss for Canada. The thing is that with his club team PSV Eindhoven, Hutchinson is most frequently used as a right back and he has excelled there proving that he can still make an impact on the match while shutting down his opponent.
On the weekend, Hutchinson was not overly pressed by the attackers of AZ Alkmaar but when they did he looked very poised and under control. He showed strong marking and despite not being eager to throw in a challenge he did well to keep his man to the outside which is what you want from your outside backs. When PSV were going forward he was also able to get up and stay involved in the play. He was smart about when to attack and when to just stay back and support and was eventually rewarded with his second goal in as many games in his club's 5-1 win.
With his PSV performances in mind it might not be that crazy of an idea to suggest that Canada could play Hutch in the defensive line. Like moving Ledgerwood back the move is made possible by the fact that Hart has called lot of central midfielders and can afford to shift one of them out of position. If you move Hutch out of the middle you would still have Julian De Guzman, Terry Dunfield, Will Johnson, Ledgerwood, and MLS's August Player of the Month Patrice Bernier. That group should be more than able to handle the 3 spots in the middle of the park even if Canada's best midfielder is playing defense.
Hopefully in the end this discussion is all for naught and Canada has its best XI available to them. Then things are straight forward and you get keep all of the midfielders right where they belong, in the middle of the park. It also means that Canada maintains some depth in the backline other than at left back.
The injury concerns do show us one thing though and that is the fact that Canada still has not sorted out its right back situation. Since the days of Paul Stalteri no one has made that spot their own despite a variety of different players getting a chance to do so. The fact that the most recent solution and current best case scenario is playing a central defender out wide is just proof of that fact.