Canada went on a nice run at the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, but the end of their journey was once again a little bit disappointing. Last night’s 2-1 quarter-final loss to Jamaica was a letdown in the sense that it was a winnable game.
After conceding early, Canada controlled the play for most of the match, pinning the Jamaicans back into their own half. Defensive lapses, poor finishing and world-class goalkeeping from Andre Blake cost Canada what would have been a huge victory.
In that sense, the sting of what could have been will linger for a little while with this group. But eventually, the overarching theme of the 2017 Gold Cup for the Canadian men’s national team will be that it was a step in the right direction.
During Canada’s first tournament under new manager Octavio Zambrano, the team underwent a crucial mentality switch. They finally, it seemed, had a man leading them who believed in their abilities. In turn, the team on the field looked like they backed themselves in every game of this tournament.
This belief appeared to be particularly infectious among Canada’s young players. Alphonso Davies has stolen the headlines, and should as the team’s 16-year-old leading scorer. Provided he can keep developing, he will be a cornerstone player with this team decades to come.
But this tournament was also the coming-out party for several other young Canadians. Samuel Piette has been with the senior national team since 2012, but is still just 22 and was one of Canada’s best players this summer. He has become the engine in midfield, almost never losing the ball while winning it back often.
Furthermore, Canada’s biggest hole heading into this tournament appears to have been filled. Michael Petrasso certainly wasn’t perfect at right-back, especially defensively, but at 22 has more upside than anyone else Canada has tried out in the position.
Canada also appears to have found a real gem in 24-year-old Lucas Cavallini, who was reintroduced into the national team pool. Cavallini didn’t find his scoring touch this tournament but did everything else, holding up the ball, setting up teammates and contributing defensively.
These young players surround an increasingly solid veteran core. Scott Arfield and Junior Hoilett appear fully committed to the process and are a great example for the team’s young players. In the passion department, nobody can match goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who once again had an outstanding tournament.
The national team still has plenty of flaws, and those ended up being their undoing against Jamaica. The once-strong Canadian centre-back core is now a problem area, and Canada’s lack of pace at the back was consistently exposed.
There doesn’t appear to be much coming through the pipeline on that front. At 23 years old, Manjrekar James is the most promising and fared reasonably well in his two appearances. Otherwise, Canada will have to hope either Falkirk’s Luca Gasparotto (22) or Stoke City’s Kosovar Sadiki (18) can make big strides in their development.
Canada also still struggles to break down teams who are in a set defensive shape like Jamaica was last night. Far too often, Canadian attacks ended with poor passes or players running out of ideas.
But even on that front the team is improving. Players like Hoilett, Davies and Petrasso are all able to beat defenders and create opportunities for themselves and teammates. Canada just couldn’t do it consistently enough to beat Jamaica.
Now that their Gold Cup dreams are over, Canada’s next major goal is a long way down the line: qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. That process, however, will be helped by the FIFA points Canada gains from their run at this tournament.
Continuing to move up in the world rankings needs to be a priority for this team over the next few years. Moving into the top six in CONCACAF would mean far more favourable placement in World Cup qualifying draws under the current format.
Canada has a chance to start that process in September when it takes on Jamaica in a friendly at BMO Field. After that, the CSA needs to make sure the team is playing in every FIFA window, preferably against regional opposition.
For once, the Canadian men’s national team has something to build on, and that in itself makes the tournament a success. Now the work to take the next, and even more difficult, step forward needs to start.