The shorter days and cooler weather serves as reminders that the September window is almost upon us. Canada’s upcoming friendlies announced earlier this summer feature matches with Qatar on September 23rd, and then Uruguay on September 27th. For the first time in over three years, Canada’s games will take place outside North America or the Caribbean with both games to be played in Vienna, Austria. These upcoming games may provide the absolute last gasp opportunity for non-core players to impress Canada head coach John Herdman in the flesh.
There is some debate whether this last window before Qatar is a sensible time to introduce new players to the squad. Ultimately, this window will be less about auditioning new players for CanMNT roles than it will be for preparing Herdman’s chosen core for the task that lies ahead in November. However, injuries to the core could open the door for some players to state their case.
There are still many CanMNT fans clamouring for several new players to be called in to the September camp to prove their worthiness for a Qatar call-up. The bottom line is that Herdman is unlikely to blood any uncapped new players and will be reluctant to bring in players on the outer fringes of the team’s orbit unless necessity demands it.
It is fairly certain that Herdman has a good idea of the team’s composition come November and will want to use the September games to further bond and prepare his team for the World Cup. For player and manager alike, the keys for any player on the fringes is to determine whether they fit the team tactically, and whether they blend with the ‘Brotherhood’. One of these factors will not be enough. It will take both factors to be in consideration. If a player can achieve both criteria, then he might earn Herdman’s trust. Without the gaffer’s trust, there will be no seat on the plane to Qatar in November.
Given Herdman’s penchant for loyalty to the long time players that got Canada to the World Cup, for any late-comers it may wind up being a case of being too late to the party. For perspective, consider that virtually every player selected by Herdman for the first window of the Octagonal in September 2021 is likely to go to Qatar. And yet, there have been many interesting developments within the CanMNT framework.
Milan Borjan, Maxime Crepeau and recent MLS All-star game MVP Dayne St. Clair continue to be locks between the pipes for Qatar. While the first two are a safe bet for a September call-up, St. Clair dislocated a finger on August 31st and then struggled in his next game, thus making him questionable for the September window if he is not fully fit by then.
Other keepers, whether by injury or performance, have not made a viable case for inclusion over the past 6 months, despite Thomas Hasal’s and Sebastian Breza’s recent MLS Team of the Week nods. Borjan is likely to play both games, but it wouldn’t be out of the question for Crepeau to see some match time as well.
Sam Adekugbe, Richie Laryea, and Alistair Johnston continue to be locks in the outside back positions. All three are positionally flexible for whatever Herdman’s tactics call for. Others who might have been seen as sure things for the national team in these positions in years past just cannot get past the aforementioned three. Zachary Brault-Guillard seldom features for his club lately, and Cristián Gutiérrez, has seemingly dropped off the face of the earth for Vancouver.
Raheem Edwards, on the other hand, had been building a case earlier this summer with his offensive contributions under Greg Vanney at LA Galaxy, but he has cooled of late. Edwards plays well on the offensive side but his defensive deficiencies are a concern, especially for the level of football found at the World Cup. Edwards could still receive a September call-up but he is facing fitness issues (hamstring) and a World Cup call is unlikely this close to Qatar without one of the triumvirate of Adekugbe, Johnston or Laryea missing. With Alphonso Davies, Tajon Buchanan, Scott Kennedy, and even Junior Hoilett able to provide cover in a pinch, there are simply no spots on this roster for another full-back.
Steven Vitoria, the Canada Soccer men’s player of the month for August, Kamal Miller, and likely Scott Kennedy, with his ability to play as a left-back or centrally in a back three, remain locks for Qatar. The current question is who will be the fourth centre-back, or even fifth centre-back within this expanded 26 player roster.
Doneil Henry, the presumed fourth centre-back, has seen little match action since returning to North America this year, first with LAFC and now Toronto FC, and could face serious questions concerning his inclusion to Qatar. High quality practice opponents within his club side are no substitute for consistent minutes on the pitch. However, Henry is trusted by Herdman, and offers something in his game few of the other centre-backs can: sand paper edginess and physicality.
The riddle of what Derek Cornelius’ relationship is with Herdman remains a mystery. Nominally a left-footer, Cornelius is equally adept with his right foot and can provide cover on either side of a back 4 or in the middle of a back 3. Based upon Cornelius’ start this season with Panetolikos, where he has gone the full 90 minutes in the first three games without conceding more than a goal each game, a September call-up is warranted. The fact the upcoming games will be in Europe may give Cornelius an advantage over the MLS based players this window where travel time will be minimal for him.
Given Henry’s lack of playing time, and his own breakout season with CF Montreal, Joel Waterman, with three goals and two assists in over 2200 minutes of action, is deserving of a look this month as well. Waterman has real potential to make the Qatar roster, at minimum as an emergency fifth centre-back. Other centre-backs in the Canadian player pool lack the requisite experience and have not convinced sufficiently for inclusion at this time.
Stephen Eustáquio, Hoilett, Samuel Piette, Mark Anthony Kaye, Jonathan Osorio, and, of course, Atiba Hutchinson, remain sure things for Canada’s midfield in Qatar provided they are healthy. Eustáquio is quickly establishing himself at new club FC Porto, while Piette is turning in a solid campaign for CF Montreal.
Hoilett has traditionally been a winger, but the veteran provides much experience as a footballing jackknife for the CanMNT. Hoilett slots in anywhere in front of the holding midfielders, and has even taken a turn as a wing back for EFL Championship side Reading.
With Kaye and Hutchinson slowly returning from injuries that may affect their September involvement if not recovered in time, their potential absence could provide an unexpected opportunity for players on the periphery of the national team to make one last impression. Osorio’s likely September absence, suspected but not confirmed to be from a concussion, would particularly be seen as a big blow for the national side.
After a long layoff, David Wotherspoon is said to be training with St Johnstone’s first team, (a remarkable achievement at this point in his recovery from ACL surgery), but the odds still remain low that he will be match fit for September for either club or country. Wotherspoon remains a long shot for inclusion to the World Cup roster.
Liam Fraser is likely to get the call this month given the previously noted midfield injuries and the fact he has much experience in many of Herdman’s teams over the past two years. Come November, Fraser may be the beneficiary of Wotherspoon’s misfortune if the latter is unable to get to match fit in time. A clean bill of health does not equate match readiness as Ayo Akinola’s sputtering return from his ACL injury attests.
The shouts for bringing Stefan Mitrovic into the fold have again been heard. Mitrovic is off to very good start with new club Red Star Belgrade. However, Mitrovic has not yet signalled his commitment to Canada, despite new club-mate Borjan’s reported efforts. It is unlikely Mitrovic will make such a commitment any time soon, barring a sudden change of heart or some fantastical promise of a 2022 World Cup roster guarantee. Accordingly, his name is best left out of the conversation for the time being.
Mathieu Choinere and Ismael Kone, based on their play with CF Montreal this season, could receive a September call-up, especially in the event either of Osorio and Kaye are not available. Had Kone’s failed deal with Sheffield United of the EFL Championship gone through last week, it might have provided him a platform to play serious minutes with a team in the promotions spots, (I know its still early), and vault himself back into contention for Qatar.
Davies, Buchanan, and Liam Millar are in the driver’s seats among the CanMNT wingers, a position of which Canada has strength in quality and depth. Davies continues to play left-back with club side Bayern Munich but will continue to play an attacking role with Canada. Buchanan has not played in over a month on account of an injury and may not get the call this month. This opens up a chance for a pair of youngsters to showcase themselves.
Both Theo Corbeanu and Luca Koleosho’s play at club level of late has brought them back into the CanMNT conversation. Given the aforementioned injury to Buchanan it would not be surprising to see either of these young stars called up. In particular, Corbeanu, as he is committed to the program and has had some success with the team last year. In addition, Corbeanu is on a tear with three goals in his last four matches with Championship side Blackpool FC.
It is far from certain whether Koleosho is ready to make his decision on his national team future. While likely to be playing with Espanyol’s B side this season, the young prospect would be an enticing invite as he has made a few appearances in La Liga this past month.
Another player hoping to not be forgotten is Jacob Shaffelburg. After a forgettable 2022 with Toronto FC that effectively nullified whatever his remote chances for Qatar had been, Shaffelburg’s play of late with new club Nashville SC playing in a familiar offensive role has turned heads. Shaffelburg’s two goals in four games while drawing two penalties since the move to Nashville may give Herdman some pause for thought. A September call-up remains a possibility depending on the status of those ahead of him on Herdman’s pecking order.
Jonathan David and Cyle Larin remain assured of their positions at the tip of the attack for both September’s window and Qatar. Despite the disappointment of not seeing a move to a better club this summer David is off to a strong start with four goals and two assists in Lille’s first six games this season. Larin, Canada’s all-time leading scorer, has not had the start to the season he wanted with new side Club Brugge, but his status on the CanMNT is not in question.
Lucas Cavallini, despite his notorious rush to the head play in his recent game vs Nashville, and Ike Ugbo will be joining David and Larin as supporting forwards. Cavallini has not covered himself in glory since joining the Vancouver Whitecaps as a designated player and is having just an average season (eight goals) this year, but he often finds another level, if not another role, when he dons the red for the CanMNT.
Ike Ugbo has begun the year with Troyes slowly but this is understandable as he was held back by previous club KRC Genk. With Genk, Ugbo hardly featured in their pre-season before securing a permanent transfer a month ago, and just recently scored his first goal for the Ligue 1 club. Canada has yet to see Ugbo at his best, but the striker undoubtedly has a higher ceiling.
The fortunes of Toronto FC striker Ayo Akinola appear to have stalled out since recovering from injury. Akinola’s initial progression returning from last year’s ACL injury looked promising in early summer, but he has gone cold ever since. Personnel turnover at Toronto FC has had its impact on other strikers as well as Akinola. Viewed in this light Herdman may feel he can work through Akinola’s struggles by providing a change of scenery, much as he did with teammates Laryea and Osorio last season. More likely, a September call-up for Akinola is now doubtful, which makes his case for inclusion as a fifth striker in Qatar precarious at best.
Next man up is likely Charles-Andreas Brym, seemingly a favourite of Herdman. After securing a transfer to Eredivisie side Sparta Rotterdam just two months ago, Brym was sent back to second division club FC Eindhoven on loan, a move that can only be described as disappointing for the young striker. However, this is where Brym found success last season and he is the most likely beneficiary should any of Canada’s top strikers not be ready to go.
It is worth mentioning again that another dual-national receiving considerable attention of late is Daniel Jebbison. Unfortunately, Jebbison is unlikely to turn on England, where he plays in their youth set-up, and commit to Canada at this early stage of his career. When he does, Canada will be waiting.
Other promising strikers, are young, but more importantly, too inexperienced at the national team level, such as Aribim Pepple, Lowell Wright, or Woobens Pacius to be a part of Herdman’s equation yet. It is more probable that Canada will pull in players from their depth at winger to supplement the attack than call in any young players for the world cup at this point in time.
The past six months has served as a good cautionary tale about how quickly form and fortunes change in football. The progression of the team and its likely composition looked fairly certain by the time World Cup Qualification games concluded in early April. Yet, the prospects for some players has seemingly dimmed while the door has yet again swung open for others whose opportunities appeared shut.
The great thing for Canadian football in this era in national team terms is that pretty well all of these players on the bubble, or decidedly on the outside looking in would have been shoo-ins for a roster spot just a few years back. The fact that Canadian footy fans are fiercely debating the merits over any roster spot from 20 to 26 would have been unfathomable a few short years ago. Fielding a competitive starting eleven was enough of a challenge in those days.