Here we are, 370 days in from the start of the ‘journey’. The Octagonal is done and dusted. Canada is going to the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Yes, you are reading that correctly, Canada is in! All those many days ago when the journey began, your typical CanMNT supporter was probably praying that Canada would just make it to the Octagonal. Possibly a number of the intrepid among us dared to hope that our boys would be duking it out for that fourth, intercontinental play-off spot. Who would have wagered that Canada would punch their ticket via direct qualification, and by finishing top of the table in CONCACAF?
Now that Les Rouges have qualified for Qatar, the fan-base can fret for the next eight months over who John Herdman will invite on the plane to the Middle East. Over the past 12 months, Herdman has fielded 33 players from 38 called to the team over this period. We know injuries and current form will play their roles in shaping the World Cup roster, and that the first game is a long way off. We know Herdman places a premium on players that are familiar with his systems, as well as those who know their roles and expectations.
John Herdman and the players have repeatedly spoken of the CanMNT as being a brotherhood, and we know that Herdman values players that fit into the fraternal fold. We also know that Herdman is loyal to those players that committed early, and contributed to the team’s development and success since he was appointed Canada head coach in January 2018. His loyalty to a core of veterans has been evident throughout the Octagonal, even to a fault at times. But that’s not to say a surprise call-up for a highly rated youngster or dual national is not beyond the realm of possibility, as seen by the examples of Iké Ugbo and Ismaël Koné during the Octagonal. How far Herdman’s loyalty will extend by the time Qatar 2022 arrives is anyone’s guess.
Another important factor to consider is the size of the rosters permitted for the World Cup. It is believed that FIFA may allow World Cup squad sizes to be expanded to 26 players from the usual 23 for this year’s tournament in Qatar. This would be a continuation of the UEFA policy used during Euro 2020, and the most recent editions of the Copa America, where CONMEBOL permitted 28-player rosters. National team coaches are slated to discuss this proposal at a meeting before Friday’s World Cup draw.
Given the above, let us take a look at who makes the flight, who is in consideration, and who is likely to miss out for Canada at Qatar 2022.
Plane to Qatar: Milan Borjan, Maxime Crépeau
Milan Borjan is virtually a lock for Qatar as he is an automatic for Herdman’s game sheet, provided he is healthy. Maxime Crépeau has been Borjan’s more than capable understudy over the past year, and is his presumed heir for the next World Cup cycle. Crépeau will surely be on the flight to Qatar. Herdman has called up three other goalkeepers over the past year; Dayne St. Clair, James Pantemis and Jayson Leutwiler. Thomas Hasal and Sebastian Breza have not been invited to a camp of late but are starting for their respective clubs this season. Individual form will be important in Herdman’s selection, and if St. Clair continues to perform with Minnesota United, then he will be in given serious consideration as Les Rouges’ third-choice keeper. Hasal and Breza are long shots and will be hoping to warrant an invite to this summer’s Nation’s League camps. Pantemis, who lost his starting spot at CF Montreal to Breza, and Leutwiler, who likewise, has lost his starting role with Oldham Athletic, will likely miss out.
Plane to Qatar: Richie Laryea, Alistair Johnston, Samuel Adekugbe
The cohort of Laryea, Johnston and Adekugbe are on the flight. All three are versatile players who are able to play full-back, wing-back or centre-defence, depending on Herdman’s formation. All three played pivotal roles in the rise of the CanMNT over the past year. Still in consideration are Zachary Brault-Guillard and Cristián Gutiérrez, but their participation will almost certainly depend on whether any of the three mainstays are unable to play. Brault-Guillard was rarely called in to Canada’s squad, and Gutiérrez has yet to make his international debut. The return of a healthy Alphonso Davies also further complicates things for Brault-Guillard and Gutiérrez.
Plane to Qatar: Steven Vitoria, Scott Kennedy, Doneil Henry, Kamal Miller
The above quartet of central defenders have formed the back-bone of Canada’s stingy defence that allowed only seven goals in 14 games during the Octagonal. When healthy, they have been ever-present in Herdman’s line-up. They will be on the flight to Qatar.
Yet, some might suggest that Henry should not be considered a lock for the World Cup roster. But consider that over five games in the Octagonal, all starts, including games away to Mexico and home to the USA, Canada’s opposition has shipped exactly one goal into the net while Henry graced the field. Henry has seamlessly meshed with any combination of teammates across the back-line in either three or four man formations. It cannot go without mention other key Henry contributions, such as the jarring contact with Chucky Lozano in the Mexico game at Commonwealth Stadium, and of course, the extra-curricular disturbance at the corner flag that unsettled the Panamanian players at BMO Field.
In consideration remains Derek Cornelius, who despite not getting the nod for any of the three games this past window, put in a solid performance in the scoreless draw in Kingston, Jamaica back in October 2021. Cornelius’ participation in Qatar will likely come down to the health of the four pillars ahead of him on Herdman’s depth chart.
Plane to Qatar: Stephen Eustáquio, Atiba Hutchinson, Jonathan Osorio, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Samuel Piette
There should be little question that making the flight to Qatar will be Eustáquio, Hutchinson, Osorio, and Kaye. When healthy, these four players have formed the heart of Canada’s under-appreciated midfield. The ageless captain Hutchinson continues to lead the team with his unsurpassed work ethic. He may not play every game anymore, but with two game-winners in the Octagonal, his spot on the World Cup team is assured. Eustáquio, who has been a revelation since joining up with Canada 30 months ago, along with Osorio and Kaye, have done much of the heavy lifting, while the stars often reaped the greatest proportion of the praise.
Perhaps raising an eyebrow or two would be the inclusion of Samuel Piette to this list. While not as offensively minded as others in the squad, and hampered by an injury incurred in first game of the January window against El Salvador, Piette plays a unique role with the CanMNT. As an out-and-out destroyer, Piette is a specialized asset in Herdman’s toolbox who knows his role and plays it well. Herdman is sure to call upon Piette in a tight game or when attempting to protect a lead.
Still very much in contention for a spot on the plane is Liam Fraser. A player who seems to have been an up-and-comer for so long, Fraser plays a hybrid role between the styles of Eustáquio and Piette. While not as dynamic in the ‘6’ position as Eustáquio, or as dogged a defender as Piette, Fraser has logged some important minutes for the CanMNT, and perhaps equally as important, Herdman trusts him.
David Wotherspoon of the Scottish Premier League’s St Johnstone FC would most likely been considered for a spot on the World Cup roster, but it is doubtful he will be fully recovered from his autumn ACL knee surgery by the time the flight to Qatar takes off. With the international retirement of Scott Arfield in January, the remaining midfielders vying for a spot on the World Cup roster are a mix of young domestics and overseas dual nationals, most of whom have never participated in a Canadian national team camp, let alone played a minute for Les Rouges.
The likes of Stefan Mitrovic, Harry Paton, Mathieu Choiniere, Ralph Priso and Marcelo Flores would have to be considered as outsiders for this World Cup cycle, and in the future, will be making their cases for the 2026 World Cup. While young Arsenal U23 phenom Marcelo Flores’ name comes up often, including with John Herdman, recent rumours of Herdman offering Flores a spot on Canada’s Qatar roster if he were to make his one time switch from Mexico to Canada are fanciful to say the least.
There was much enthusiasm, possibly a bit overdone, with the recent selection of Ismaël Koné, the 19 year old rookie of CFM Montreal, for this last Octagonal window. While his short debut off the bench with the CanMNT against Costa Rica showed brief glimpses of the enormous promise he has demonstrated with his club, the start against Panama may have shown that the pressure of playing for the national team after just seven professional games may be a bit too much to ask at this juncture. However, Koné, who has the physical presence of a player beyond a typical 19 year old, has a summer of club soccer and likely a call for Nations League action, to show his worth to Herdman.
Plane to Qatar: Alphonso Davies, Tajon Buchanan, Junior Hoilett
This trio of wingers are all assured of a spot on the roster for the Qatar World Cup. The dynamic Davies is one of the top players in the world and owns and occupies the left side of the pitch when in the line-up. Tajon Buchanan, who’s been with the program for just under a year, will be rampaging down the right side. However, the versatile Hoilett, while beginning the back side of his playing career, remains an option off the bench or to fill in for either of his younger teammates. Like Davies and Buchanan, Hoilett is comfortable up front as a second striker or in the middle as a central attacking midfielder when called upon.
Remaining in contention for a spot on the roster is FC Basel’s Liam Millar. Millar is having a breakout season in the Swiss top flight, but has found minutes and a corresponding success with the CanMNT difficult to obtain. His inclusion may very well hinge on the whether FIFA agrees to an expanded 26 player roster. Another winger/wing-back enjoying a football renaissance is LA Galaxy’s Raheem Edwards, but, he too will ultimately miss out as he has not been with Herdman’s squad at all for this cycle.
Also on the outside and likely to miss out on the tournament in Qatar are young prodigies such as Theo Corbeanu and Jacob Shaffelburg. There simply isn’t any room with the cast of stars in their path. Both may be more hopeful of opportunities this summer in Nations League play with an eye on 2026.
Plane to Qatar: Jonathan David, Cyle Larin, Lucas Cavallini
A superstar just a shade below the level of teammate Alphonso Davis is Jonathan David. David’s 9 goals over the past year’s World Cup Qualifying cycle are second only to fellow lock, Cyle Larin. Larin’s 13 goal effort over the past year has vaulted him into the all-time top scorer’s place for the CanMNT with a total of 24 strikes. Meanwhile, David is nipping at his heals with 20 goals all-time. Did I mention they will be on the CanMNT plane to Qatar?
The selection of Lucas Cavallini will sure to raise some fans’ hackles. While his play, especially at club level, has been anything but impressive recently, Cavallini is a hard worker trusted by Herdman and loved by his teammates. Cavallini is well aware he is no longer an undisputed starter on the team with David and Larin ahead of him, but he has attributes, best described by his moniker El Tanque, others on the team either lack or fail to utilize. At a minimum, Cavallini will press hard up front in the latter stages of games to preserve a result.
In contention for a fourth striker spot are recently brought-to-the-fold dual nationals Iké Ugbo and Ayo Akinola. Ugbo appears to have the inside track, having been brought aboard the CanMNT journey just this past November. However, Ugbo has yet to start or see substantial minutes when coming off the bench. His club situation has improved with his recent loan transfer to ES Troyes in France’s Ligue 1.
Akinola was brought into the CanMNT by Herdman with much fanfare last summer, just in time to participate at the Gold Cup. However, he suffered a horrific knee injury requiring his own ACL surgery that has kept him sidelined to this day. However, his rehab has been coming along nicely and he may be fit to start playing games for Toronto FC within a few months. Both players will hope to impress Herdman with a call-up for Nations League duty in June.
On the outside and certain to miss out will be Daniel Jebbison and Charles-Andreas Brym. Jebbison has yet to commit to Canada and has been playing with the England youth squad for the past couple years, but is believed to be leaning towards a Canadian senior career commencing with the next World Cup cycle next year. Brym has played well of late in the Dutch second division, but has too many quality players in his path.
With all the talent at his disposal, John Herdman will have some very difficult choices to make when deciding who flies to Doha with Canada and who will be left behind. We know Herdman values unity, togetherness and players that he trusts and believes fit his systems. But at the end of the day, he will only be able to select 23 players, perhaps 26 with expanded rosters. There will be joy and elation for those selected, as well as heartache for some left out. As of today, there are 20 players that have made their case for inclusion to play for Canada at the World Cup.
Let us know your thoughts on who is in or not.