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OPINION: Canada’s 26 for Qatar

With FIFA officially confirming expanded rosters for Qatar, Herdman’s choices should be clear

The CanMNT in a training session 7 June 2022

While it was not unexpected, on June 23rd the FIFA Bureau - the highest decision making body within FIFA - which includes the presidents of the six global confederations, officially approved new regulations expanding World Cup rosters to 26 players. They also made official the permanent change to five substitutions over three windows per game.

This move to a larger squad is in keeping with recent pandemic relief rules in place at last year’s UEFA Championship, which used 26 man squads, and the 28 man squads in place for the recent African Cup of Nations and the the South American Copa America held last year. The larger 26 man squad will be available for each game and need not be pared down to 23 players as seen in the various qualifying tournaments leading to the World Cup.

Aside from the ability to better deal with virus outbreaks and injuries, the extra flexibility this offers team managers will also be welcome. However, there is a drawback to this year’s tournament. Due it being held in November in the midst of the European club season, there will only be a single week for teams to prepare ahead of their first match instead of the customary two weeks.

Now that the roster size is known and another international window is in the books, Canada’s expected roster for Qatar 2022 can be better predicted. The 20 players previously selected as virtual locks for the team have not changed from early April. Knowing that he can carry six more players instead of just three should make John Herdman’s choices easier to make.

Dayne St Clair is certain to be Canada’s third keeper at Qatar 2022.
Matt Krohn / USA Today Sports

Here’s what can be reasonably expected to be Canada’s 26 man roster come November 2022. The 20 players previously identified are shown in regular font.

The next three players expected to be play a part in Herdman’s plans in Qatar are in bold,

The final three choices, further distinguished with italics, are best described as insurance policies in the event of an injury or a positive Covid test to anyone in the main squad.

Goalkeepers (3)

Milan Borjan (Red Star Belgrade), Maxime Crepeau (L.A. FC), Dayne St Clair (Minnesota United)

Centre-backs (5)

Steven Vitoria (Morreirense), Scott Kennedy (Jahn Regensburg) , Kamal Miller (CF Montreal), Doneil Henry (L.A. FC), Derek Cornelius (Panetolikos)

Fullbacks (3)

Samuel Adekugbe (Hatayspor), Ritchie Laryea (Nottingham Forest FC), Alistair Johnston (CF Montreal)

Midfielders (6)

Atiba Hutchinson (Besiktas JK), Stephen Eustaquio (Porto FC), Jonathan Osorio (Toronto FC), Mark-Anthony Kaye (Colorado Rapids), Samuel Piette (CF Montreal), Liam Fraser (KMSK Deinze)

Wingers (4)

Alphonso Davies (FC Bayern Munich), Tajon Buchanan (Club Brugge), Junior Hoilett (Reading FC), Liam Millar (FC Basel)

Forwards (5)

Jonathan David (Lille OSC), Cyle Larin (Besiktas JK), Lucas Cavallini (Vancouver Whitecaps FC), Ike Ugbo (Troyes AC), Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC)

As I have previously reviewed the core of 20 players and their reasons for selection the focus here will be on the six players that will round out Canada’s world cup roster.

El Salvador vs Canada - Qatar World Cup Qualifiers
Liam Millar controls the ball in world cup qualifying action in San Salvador, El Salvador 2 February 2022
Alex Pena / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Next Three

Dayne St Clair has had a fantastic season at club level and has kept his Minnesota United side in more games then they deserved given how little offensive support he gets. St Clair’s xG +/- is 3.8, which is third in the league behind Sean Johnson and Alex Bono. Crucially, St Clair understands his role is to be the third keeper in the team and accepts that his time to truly compete for the number one spot beings next year in preparation for 2026.

Liam Millar has been playing extremely well for one of the best clubs in Switzerland and competes in Europe as well. Competition is stiff for Canada’s winger positions and he has been left on the outside looking in more than he would like. However, Millar is versatile and can also play as a left sided midfielder or anywhere across the front line if called upon.

Curacao v Canada - CONCACAF Nations League Group C
Ike Ugbo at BC Place Vancouver on 9 June 2022
Matthew Ashton / AMA/Getty Images

Ike Ugbo has excelled since his loan to Troyes in Ligue 1 in France. Despite much fanfare surrounding his Canada debut, Ugbo has seen few minutes and only one start since last November. A strong and direct forward, Ugbo is more about power and providing his team with a target up field, and less about finesse inside the box. With attacking attributes dissimilar to the other strikers available to Herdman Ugbo should easily make this squad.

Derek Cornelius wins the ball against French Guyana 24 March 2019
Bob Frid / Canada Soccer

The Final Three

Derek Cornelius’ situation with the national team is somewhat difficult to ascertain. He has had international success captaining last year’s U-23 team and has been enjoying success with club side Panetolikos in the Greek first division. Yet, Cornelius was seemingly ignored by Herdman in the last world cup qualifying window when Herdman chose to start midfielder Hutchinson at centre-back in place of injured regular centre-backs Vitoria and Henry, He is currently the best and most experienced Canadian centre-back not named Vitoria, Henry, Miller or Kennedy. Cornelius’ role would only be to serve as insurance in the event several of the players ahead of him were to be incapacitated during the tournament.

United States v Canada: 2022 World Cup Qualifying
Liam Fraser battles for the ball with the USA’s Weston McKennie at Tim Hortons Field 30 January 2022
Vaughn Ridley / Getty Images

Liam Fraser is a player that often appears to be on the periphery of the national team, yet he has often been called upon to play important roles off the bench. Such was the case in Fraser’s national team debut in the October 2019 Nations League victory over the United States at BMO field, or in the January 2022 window where he played the long pass to send Jonathan David away on to a crucial break-away goal against Honduras. Fraser knows his role as a depth piece on the national team squad, and has Herdman’s trust when called upon.

Ayo Akinola missed the better part of a year recovering from a gruesome ACL injury suffered on national team duty in last year’s Gold Cup. Based on his recent form and quality of play with club TFC it would appear Akinola has removed the rust and is once again match fit. Seemingly leaner and faster than he was pre-injury, Akinola will be one of the players to benefit most from FIFA’s decision to expand team rosters. Akinola’s inclusion in the squad may prove to be more than just as a depth piece and he will likely see time off the bench.

SOCCER: JUL 18 Concacaf Gold Cup - USA v Canada
Ayo Akinola in action against the United States at the 2021 Gold Cup 18 July 2021
Robin Alam / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Missing the Cut

Joel Waterman hasn’t been selected for any squads over the past qualifying cycle and there is little reason to believe he would make it now. As noted earlier, when the opportunity to deploy a fifth centre-back presented itself when both Henry and Vitoria were injured in the last window, Herdman still chose a midfielder instead of a fit and in form Cornelius. Waterman’s best hope for national team duty will fall in the next world cup cycle beginning next year.

Cristián Gutiérrez has seemingly been destined to be Adekugbe’s competitor if not understudy at left back. However, a variety of circumstances over the past 18 months prevented Gutiérrez from either making the squad or seeing any time on the pitch. Given Laryea’s versatility and the fact Alphonso Davies could slot in as a fullback if necessary, there just is no room for a fourth fullback on this team.

Raheem Edwards entered the picture too late for this qualifying cycle, and given the unfortunate circumstances happening in the June window, he was unable to see any game action to state his case. As a winger Edwards might have made a case for himself, but that position is stacked for Canada. Additionally, questions persist around Edward’s defensive abilities in a full back role. Edwards is also caught in the fullback numbers game noted previously in describing Gutiérrez’s situation.

David Wotherspoon in action with Canada vs Bermuda, 25 March 2021
The Canadian Press

David Wotherspoon is in an unfortunate situation. Despite reportedly making good progress in recovering from the ACL injury incurred last autumn, time is not on Wotherspoon’s side for achieving match fitness ahead of Qatar. Wotherspoon will not have had sufficient time or opportunity to prove himself recovered and match fit ahead of November. A healthy and fit Wotherspoon would have been a lock for the team but given his fitness concerns in recovering from the ACL surgery he is likely to miss out. Even with the expanded roster size, Herdman cannot allow himself to take this risk. Junior Hoilett also has the versatility to play as an attacking midfielder, thus mitigating Wotherspoon’s absence.

Justin Smith has opened many eyes to his abilities, but despite his promising showing during the current U20 championships, where he captains the team, he has yet to make any senior professional appearances. Capable at defensive midfield or centreback, at 19 years of age, Smith is still very young and his time to make inroads on the senior team will begin with the next cycle after this world cup. As with many other young Canadians, committed yet or not, his future with the national team lies in the near future.

Theo Corbeanu is another dynamic young player more familiar to Canadian footy fans. Corbeanu was selected several times since his debut in March 2021, and has shown flashes of exciting attacking football. However, as has been stated before, Corbeanu is a young player, just 20 years of age, who’s time with the Canadian national team will most certainly begin in earnest with the next world cup cycle beginning next year.

Charle Andeas Brym in a friendly match with Barbados 10 January 2020
Liza Rosales / Canada Soccer

Charles Andreas Brym is apparently a favourite of Herdman in spite of his limited call-ups and appearances for Canada. Brym had a good club season in the Dutch second division and has now found himself a transfer to the first division with Sparta Rotterdam. However, Brym is caught in a numbers game at forward where the inclusion of Ike Ugbo and the resurgence of Ayo Akinola has rendered Brym surplus at this time. Should any of the forwards ahead of him on the charts be unable to go then Brym will be back in consideration.

Since March 2021 John Herdman has selected 40 players of which 35 players saw time on the pitch, across 27 competitive matches played in that time. From all these players the 26 to make the cut will have earned their spots. The team will feature 16 players hailing from European clubs and 10 players from Major League Soccer. Barring any surprises prior to Herdman announcing his squad the 26 men on this list will be on the flight to Qatar. And this squad will, undoubtedly, be the best Canadian national soccer team ever assembled.