We continue our look at the Canadian roster and how Stephen Hart might deploy the troops. If the back four was a straight forward question due to limited options the midfield is a much bigger challenge because of all the options in this squad. The first option, and probably the most likely one, is to limit the tweaking and go with what was working for the team back in the spring.
What worked against the US, Cuba, and Honduras was a group of Julian De Guzman, Will Johnson, Atiba Hutchinson, Dwayne De Rosario and Nik Ledgerwood. Now Hutch was not involved in the US game and only came on as a late sub against Cuba as he was making his way back from a long term injury but he is coming in fit this time around and is the one player in the squad who has to be in the XI if he is available.
Working out the midfield options becomes interesting because it is where Hart has the most options to adjust his formation. Against Honduras he only went with one true forward in Olivier Occean who was being supported by De Ro and Ledgerwood for the most part, with Tosaint Ricketts, who had played wide right against USA and Cuba relegated to the bench. It meant giving up some of the punch of the attack to be able to control the middle of the park. It would not come as a shock if Hart went with a similar tactic considering he only called up three forwards on the roster while including seven true midfielders plus two others who can play in the middle of the park.
So what can Hart do with all of the midfielders that he has brought into the team?If not changing things up is the simple option the problem is that it would mean leaving a player like Patrice Bernier on the bench despite his great recent form for the Montreal Impact in MLS. It also means trying to find width from players who are best used in a central role while leaving the only natural wide players on the squad sitting on the bench.
If Canada wanted to find a way to move De Rosario central it would leave them with very little on the wings. The one option off the bench would be to bring Marcel de Jong and play him wide on the left and go with Tosaint Ricketts on the right. That would give Canada the most width in their attack but would mean having to relegate one of the central mids to the bench. In that case Ledgerwood would likely be the one being left on the bench.
The wider option does seem to be unlikely though just based on the formation that Hart played against Honduras. His best players on the team are the central midfielders and he knows that if he overloads the middle it will let Canada control the pace of the match which could be crucial against a side like Panama who are more than capable of doing damage on the counter attack.
There is a trade off to packing the middle though and that is having less players in the attack. It would be great if Canada could go out with De Ro, Occean and Ricketts all in the attack and then have Simeon Jackson come off the bench as a late injection of pace but that might not be the responsible option for the team. Finding the balance will be key though, as when Hart went with just DeRo and Occean in the attack to start against Honduras, the team lacked punch and ended up being held off the score sheet.
Canada has called up three forwards and though Hart has had a habit of playing Ricketts and Jackson out wide there is almost no chance that we see both of them start in either of these games unless one of them is at centre forward instead of Occean. Hart would be foolish to not keep one of them on the bench as an option for later in the game. I expect that Occean will get the start up front because if he does end up being isolated he is the largest target of the bunch and will stand up better against a physical Panama defense. The other two bring more pace in their games, which is why they play out wide from time to time, but are not much use as target men in a more defensive formation.
As I see it there are two basic options. The first is to pack the middle and lock things down before worrying about going forward. This formation relies on some of the players who are holding mids by trade pushing forward and pushing out wide which works fine considering Hutchinson plays on the right for his club team anyhow.
The second option is to get more of the attacking options on the field and try to stretch Panama wide and create more openings on the attack. This time you leave a bit more space in the middle of the park for Panama to exploit but you gain an improved goal scoring threat.
Both formations leave Canada with a strong bench that would include Terry Dunfield, Bernier, Jackson, Pedro Pacheco, and De Jong. Having the option on the bench to change up the way the team is playing may be key in a match like this which is likely going to be tightly contested. Hopefully though, unlike in the Honduras game, when Hart makes the changes to go for it late in the game the team is rewarded with a goal and we don't have any sort of Gold Cup repeat.
Hart is obviously going to have a lot of options when it comes to trying to fit all of these midfielders onto the pitch and what to do with his limited group of forwards. In the end I would expect to see something similar to what he did against Honduras with a number of attacking options ready to come of the bench should they be needed.