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Five questions facing Canada ahead of this summer’s Gold Cup

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Octavio Zambrano now has a better understanding of his player pool. It’s up to him to figure out how best to use it.

Soccer: 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifyer-El Salvador at Canada Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Last night’s 2-1 victory over Curaçao in Montreal was just the first step in a long process. That was the message manager Octavio Zambrano told the media after the match, his first in charge of the team.

Getting a win was important, a boost to the confidence of his team heading into this summer’s Gold Cup. Just as important, however, was the chance the camp gave Zambrano to evaluate his talent pool ahead of the tournament.

Now, Zambrano will have some difficult decisions to make about which players he calls up for the tournament, and also how he uses them. As much as last night answered some questions regarding how the new manager wants the team to play, it created others.

Here are the biggest questions facing the men’s national team as they head into next month’s Gold Cup:

Soccer: 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifyer-El Salvador at Canada Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Would Larin have better success with a partner?

One of Zambrano’s most pressing issues is how to get the most out of Cyle Larin. The 22-year-old is undoubtedly the most talented striker in the country, but struggles to replicate his club success internationally.

Larin had another tough night last night against Curaçao, plagued by a lot of his usual problems at the international level. He doesn’t get a ton of great service, so he goes hunting for the ball and ends up in less effective positions (see chart of his touches below).

Largely due to a lack of options in the past, Canada has never tried playing Larin in a partnership. That is how he is deployed in Orlando, where he is one of MLS’ most lethal scorers.

Playing one of Lucas Cavallini, Anthony Jackson-Hamel, Tosaint Ricketts or even Tesho Akindele alongside Larin could open up space and help get him into better positions. It is worth a try, as a dangerous Larin means a dangerous Canadian attack.

Who starts at right-back?

This is a constant question for the Canadian men’s national team, and one that will again need answering this summer. Both Fraser Aird and Juan Cordova got looks in the position last night.

Aird, as is often the case, worked well going forward but struggled defensively. Cordova wasn’t really forced to defend as a late substitute, but looked capable going forward. Canada’s provisional roster also includes Nik Ledgerwood, who has played the position reasonably well in the past.

It should be noted that Will Johnson has also played the position this season for Orlando City, although is probably more effective for Canada elsewhere. Aird likely keeps the position going into the Gold Cup, but don’t count out Cordova.

Where does Scott Arfield fit?

The biggest name missing from Canada’s roster last night (not named Atiba Hutchinson, who will not be playing this summer) was Scott Arfield. The Burnley midfielder was getting married, and therefore was not in camp.

However, he will almost certainly be an integral part of this summer’s Gold Cup team. The question is: Where does Canada need him most? Arfield can play both as a central or wide midfielder depending upon the formation Canada deploys.

Based on last night, and Zambrano’s stance on Canada playing attacking soccer, central midfield looks like the best fit. Canada lacked a link between their defensive midfielders and attackers. That changed when Russell Teibert came into the game as a number 10 and made Canada far more dangerous.

Arfield has the ability to play that role even more effectively while providing the necessary defensive support as Canada commits numbers forward.

Soccer: 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifyer-El Salvador at Canada Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Who does Canada start out wide?

If there was one thing driven home last night, it was that Canada has some quality depth on the wings. Zambrano now has to make decisions about who among them should start and on which side.

Last night, Canada had the most success when Junior Hoilett was on the right side and Alphonso Davies was on the left. For some, starting a 16-year-old at the Gold Cup is questionable, but Zambrano doesn’t seem concerned about his age.

“Youth really has nothing to do with it in terms of how much you can contribute on the field,” Zambrano told media last night. “I thought [Davies] came in and made a big difference.”

That would leave players like Raheem Edwards and Kianz Froese available off the bench should Canada need an attacking spark.

Will playing an attacking style hurt Canada against better teams?

Possibly. We’ve seen how badly Canada got exposed when they tried to open up against Mexico in World Cup qualifying last year. That could happen again against teams like Honduras and Costa Rica.

But in Canada’s first match of the Gold Cup against French Guiana, why not attack? In the past Canada has played far too conservatively against lesser opposition and it has cost them.

A big win against French Guiana in the first match would not only give Canada confidence, it would allow them to play more defensively against Honduras and Costa Rica. The players would still have a license to go forward on the break.