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The CanMNT Returns to World Cup Qualifying

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Roster considerations, challenges and team expectations for the upcoming world cup qualifiers

Jonathan David scored Canada’s fourth goal against Panama 13 October 2021
Sean Pollock / Waking the Red

If the cancellation of the January Preparatory Camp (aka “Camp Poutine’) 10 days ago wasn’t bad enough news, Canada Soccer announced Friday that Alphonso Davies would miss the entire upcoming World Cup Qualifying window. Bayern Munich club physicians revealed that the Canada talisman was experiencing “mild myocarditis” after his recent bout of Covid-19. While we all wish Phonzie the best with a swift and full recovery, CanMNT will need to prepare for this window without their number one star’s presence.

Indeed, the Omicron wave has been playing havoc with football plans and schedules everywhere, with games once again held without fans in many nations, and club games being postponed as shorthanded teams find themselves unable to field competitive lineups. Plus, national team camps are getting cancelled altogether. However, there is next to no chance that the upcoming CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers scheduled from 27 January to 2 February will be postponed. The FIFA calendar leading to Qatar 2022 has run out of wiggle room and all games in all federations are expected to proceed as scheduled.

As in previous qualifying windows, the CanMNT will face several challenges when assembling their roster for the upcoming games. The three recurring themes impacting who is available and who is selected include; player injuries, yellow card accumulation, and quarantine rules pertaining to Covid 19. However, this window includes an additional challenge to contend with: players out of season and not match fit.

This latter issue mostly impacts the CanMNT cohort from MLS, but also includes players on extended winter breaks or possibly out of contract (aka “Unattached FC”). Luckily for Canada, there are an increasing number of Canadians, including the recently transferred Tajon Buchanan and Richie Laryea, actively playing in Europe at this time.

Who might expect Herdman’s Call

Given the aforementioned challenges, we will explore the roster considerations available to John Herdman for this upcoming WCQ window. In doing so, one must keep in mind that the best laid plans of today can be washed way tomorrow. Unlike his Octagonal coaching counterparts, John Herdman has shown a reticence to calling upon more than the usual 23 player roster. It is hoped that for this window Herdman will break from this and draw upon the growing depth available to him and call for a wider talent pool. This is the WCQ window where Canada must consider bringing along a taxi-squad to deal with any contingencies that may arise.

The goalkeepers will once again include Red Star Belgrade’s Milan Borjan and Whitecaps FC’s Maxime Crepeau as virtual locks for a call, with Sebastian Breza or Dayne St. Clair rounding out the numbers. As was noted in my earlier review for the recently cancelled Camp Poutine, Borjan’s vaccination status may inhibit his ability to enter Canada without the mandatory 14 day quarantine.

In addition, reports last week out of Serbia indicate Borjan recently contracted Covid-19 a second time. Should he be unavailable the reliable Crepeau will undoubtedly move to number 1. Although Crepeau has been out of season for two months, neither of the other options in net will have seen game action in over seven weeks by the time of the game in Honduras. The saving grace here may lie in the perception that goalkeepers are less impacted by a lack of match fitness than their out-field teammates.

Richie Laryea’s recent move from Toronto FC to Nottingham Forest FC adds another fullback playing in Europe to the CanMNT pool. Although he has yet to see match action, he has returned to training and will be counted upon to see significant minutes on the right side along with Sam Adekugbe on the left. However, both Laryea and Adekugbe enter this window’s qualifiers with yellow cards.

It is incumbent upon Herdman to carry extra fullbacks into this window in the event either Laryea or Adekugbe is suspended. New CF Montreal defender Alistair Johnston will be sure to see minutes as well. Although, like all MLS players, Johnston is not match fit, it is a boost to the CanMNT that their CF Montreal contingent has returned to training early ahead of this upcoming MLS season to prepare for CONCACAF Champions League matches in mid February. Right back Zachary Brault-Guillard, also of CF Montreal, along with Vancouver Whitecaps left back Cristián Gutiérrez should be brought into camp to provide cover.

The usual crew of centre-backs, Steven Vitoria, Kamal Miller and Doneil Henry will be expecting the call to the team. The seemingly ageless Vitoria has been in fine form with Morreirense but he cannot be counted on to play three games in this compressed window. Veteran Doneil Henry is usually called upon for one start each window but he is out of season and possibly out of contract as well.

Suriname v Canada
Scott Kennedy in action against Suriname 8 June 2021
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With both Vitoria and Henry carrying yellow cards ,it would be prudent to bring along another right-sided centre-back. Could this be the return to the fold of Manjrekar James? James has been playing regularly with Danish first division side Velje Boldklub, but has not been called to the national team since early in Herdman’s tenure. CF Montreal’s Joel Waterman is another possibility although, unlike James, he is much less experienced playing in the middle of a back three.

Derek Cornelius, on loan at Greek side Panetolikos, should be expected to receive a call-up to provide cover as Miller has only just resumed training with CFM, and Jahn Regensburg’s Scott Kennedy has only recently returned to full fitness after missing out on the two previous windows due to injury. Given Miller’s lack of match fitness, the left side centre-back roles may belong to Kennedy and Cornelius for the upcoming games.

The makeup of Canada’s midfield for this cycle is very intriguing and concerning at the same time. As John Herdman surely does, we will pencil in Stephen Eustáquio. As one of the few match fit Europe based players, Eustáquio will be called upon for the CanMNT as he has never been before. Rumoured to be headed from current Club Pacos Ferreira to Portuguese heavyweight Porto FC, he will be the fulcrum from which rest of the team pivots.

Veteran captain Atiba Hutchinson, as another midfielder who’s team is in action throughout the winter months, is also among the names who should be listed on the team sheet first. However, there are questions about Atiba’s fitness, after having missed the last two Beşiktaş games. Hutchinson is believed to have come down with Covid 19 in early January. His presence will be sorely missed if he is unable to recover in time.

The usual group of MLS stalwarts, Jonathan Osorio, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Samuel Piette are expected to get the call, despite being out of season. As another CFM player, Piette has resumed pre-season training recently, and Kaye has also resumed club training early as his Colorado Rapids team is also participating in the CONCACAF Champions League next month. Osorio begins training with TFC in California this week and may see limited action for the first few games in this window as a result.

One midfielder John Herdman will not be able to call upon is St Johnstone’s David Wotherspoon, who is out long term with an ACL knee injury. The timing of the injury, within a year of Qatar 2022, could not have come at a worse time for Wotherspoon. His misfortune was widely expected to revive the fortunes of fellow midfielder Scott Arfield.

Scott Arfield Retires from Canada

However, in an unexpected announcement, Canada fans learned Sunday afternoon of the international retirement of veteran and one-time captain Scott Arfield. There was much anticipation that he would return to the national team set up this window, so the timing of his retirement comes as a bit of a shock. Whether he was informed by Herdman that he was no longer in his plans, or whether there were other professional considerations related to club team Rangers FC can only be speculated on at this time. However, Arfield’s exit from the CanMNT picture may open the path for younger and newer personnel.

This development could very well be the precursor for the introduction of 19 year old attacking midfielder Stefan Mitrovic to the national team. A young, dynamic dual national born and raised in Hamilton, where Canada hosts the USA on January 30th, the timing for his ascent to the CanMNT could not be better. Currently with Serbian side Radnicki Nis Mitrovic is rumoured to be headed to a number of clubs throughout Europe, including Italy and Belgium during this transfer window.

Harry Paton of Scottish premiership side Ross County FC is another young player who may find himself called into the team. While his club has struggled much of this season, Harry Paton has been a mainstay for the team playing largely in the 8 role. However, he too, may be find that his club may be putting up road blocks ahead of his CanMNT ambitions. Although this month’s games fall within an official FIFA window, most UEFA federations, including Scotland, are not observing it as such and have games scheduled throughout the end of the month.

Other midfielders who may be called upon to at least play a taxi-squad role include the currently unsigned Liam Fraser, and CFM’s Mathieu Choiniere. With Kaye, Piette, and Eustáquio carrying yellow cards it would be prudent to bring cover should any pick up a suspension. Fraser has been in and around the CanMNT frequently over the past few years but Choiniere would be making his CanMNT debut. Choiniere has nominally been a central attacking midfielder, but over the past year CFM has mainly deployed him down either flank as winger or wingback.

On the wing, Canada’s experience and star power has taken a hit with the aforementioned health set-back to Alphonso Davies. Compounding Herdman’s predicament, the versatile veteran Junior Hoilett came off injured in his last club match for Reading FC and may be a doubt for the upcoming games. Once again, Canada’s new found depth may be coming to the rescue with Basel FC’s in form Liam Millar, new Club Brugges transfer Tajon Buchanan, and re-assigned MK Dons loanee Theo Corbeanu ready to play next man up. TFC’s own Jacob Shaffelburg should also be in consideration for at least a spot in a taxi-squad.

There’s no understating what Alphonso Davies’ absence this window means to the CanMNT but never has the national team been better prepared to deal with the situation. Recent games sans Davies including last summer’s Gold Cup and the 3-0 victory over El Salvador in the first WCQ window show Canada can manage without him when necessary. While adjusted tactical considerations will vary according to the opposition and who Herdman ultimately selects for his match day squad, the ‘Brotherhood’ will carry on.

El Salvador v Canada: 2022 World Cup Qualifying
Tajon Buchanan celebrates his goal against El Salvador 8 September 2021
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Canada received a boost this week with the return to action of Lille OSC’s Jonathan David after he experienced a bout of Covid 19 a couple weeks back. With Alphonso unable to play Canada will be relying upon Jonathon David to carry the water for this window. Much will also be expected from the star of November’s Mexico victory, Cyle Larin. How much the two see the field together remains to be seen. The two will be joined up front by the recently CanMNT capped Iké Ugbo and the veteran Lucas Cavallini.

The cancellation of this month’s Camp Poutine hurt Canada’s preparation for the upcoming WCQ matches, but it did not hamstring the team either. Opponents Honduras and El Salvador largely draw upon players plying their trade in their domestic leagues, other central American leagues or MLS. All these leagues have been on a winter hiatus and the central American domestic leagues have only just started up their next season this past week.

While the games against Honduras and El Salvador take place in the historically hostile environs of central America, the vast majority of Canada’s roster have not taken part in the debacles of yesteryear. Without belabouring cliches, this is a new Canada, and the old fears of previous, less talented versions of the CanMNT will not apply.

The home match against the USA, sandwiched between the central American games, brings its own challenges. Aside from stadium attendance issues brought about by the current state of the pandemic, the USA is still one of the two regional heavyweights and will be looking to prove Canada’s tie in Nashville last September was a fluke.

The USMNT will also have key players absent for this round with the USA’s Timothy Weah and Gio Reyna expected to miss out due to injury. However, the USMNT has sufficient depth to make up for the missing players and is expected to give Canada a battle in Hamilton.

This will be Canada’s opportunity to demonstrate that it too has the depth to overcome the absences of key personnel. To do so, Canada will need to draw in more than the usual 23 man squad for this camp. After-all, it would appear wasteful to build up such depth without taking full advantage of it against lesser Octagonal opposition. A taxi-squad of six or more players should be considered for the compressed three game schedule.

Other Considerations

Canada currently sits atop the eight team Octagonal, undefeated with 16 points from eight games. While CanMNT would like to maintain their undefeated form the reality is that acquiring four to five points from this window will largely maintain the status quo and keep Canada on target for reaching Qatar 2022. Anything more would continue Canada’s bold statement of intent on the international stage. As difficult as these upcoming matches are for Canada the window is even more challenging for other Octagonal competitors with the exception of Mexico.

A haul of four to five points will ensure Canada retains its coveted top 50 FIFA ranking for a few more months. Maintaining this ranking, or improving on it, could prove to be beneficial for CanMNT players seeking to acquire Governing Body Endorsements (GBEs) from the English FA as early as this summer’s transfer window.

And finally, the pursuit of gaining sufficient FIFA points to be ranked in Pot 3 for the world cup draw may be out of reach. Aside from likely requiring Canada to be perfect for the remainder of the qualifiers, Canada will also be dependant upon the results going their way from too many teams still above them in the rankings. Many of these teams ahead of Canada are also still in the hunt for world cup qualification within their respective confederations. As advantageous as it may be, the aim for Pot 3 is a minor concern for Canada compared to the primary objective of reaching the first world cup in 36 years.