Learning Moments: What to take away from Canada Men’s National Team ‘Camp Poutine’

With Canada’s Men’s National Team’s latest camp wrapping up down in California, we look back at some things we noticed from during the two weeks, as some players stepped up, lessons were learned and the path towards the 2022 World Cup took its latest winding twist. 

Results-wise, the circumstances demanded perfection, a standard which they were unable to meet. 

Besides that, it was overall a pretty successful ‘Camp Poutine’ for Canada’s Men’s National Team, who had their first January training camp since 2017. After a busy 2019 year, where they played in both Nations League and Gold Cup qualifiers, along with the Gold Cup proper and Nations League Group Stages, all jammed into 12 months of action, they wasted little time in getting things underway in 2020.

The camp got off to a roaring start for Canada, as they beat Barbados in a pair of games by identical 4-1 scorelines, before they fell to Iceland by a score of 1-0 in the last game of the camp. While the Barbados results were certainly expected, especially given the rankings gap of nearly 100 spots between them and Canada, they still looked solid in victory. Against Iceland, a team ranked nearly 30 spots ahead of them, they looked much less convincing, but they learned several important lessons, especially as they look to prepare for World Cup qualifiers in the fall. 

At the same time, the Iceland result may very well stand to impact Canada’s standing in those World Cup qualifiers, as it cost them 1.89 FIFA Ranking points, which as we saw before the camp, could prove to be fatal to their qualifying chances. With CONCACAF’s system changing to give the top 6 teams in the region by FIFA Rankings by June 2020 a direct path to the Hexagonal, the final round of qualifying in North America, Canada will need to find themselves in a top 6 position in the next 5 months. (For those still confused with how the format works, here is an explanation from July 2019, along with a November 2019 update)

Given that the alternative is a 29 team gauntlet for a coveted half-spot at the 2022 World Cup, a far cry from the 3.5 spots the 6 team Hex provides, Canada has been gunning to overtake El Salvador, who sit 15 points ahead in 6th place in the FIFA rankings. At one point, Canada held that cushy spot in the race, with a win over the US in Nations League play last October providing them with a big rankings boost, but a loss to those same Americans a month later put them back at square one. 

Yet while these recent results may prove to be costly in the long term, at least ahead of that June cutoff, this camp did provide plenty of key teaching moments, which is ultimately the main goal of a January reunion. 

Here is some of what stood out from down in California these past 2 weeks. 

Youth Movement

This recent camp was put together to amass those valuable ranking points, because even though these 3 games were played outside of the official FIFA windows, diminishing the potential point yield, they could have still potentially whittled the gap down to around 10 points.

But at the same time, this camp had several other benefits, as when games are played outside those regular windows, a lot of top players aren’t usually released, forcing teams to go with some more experimental squads. 

For Canada, who kicks off Olympic qualifying in March, it also gave them a chance to get a first look at some fresher faces, with 13 of the 26 players called in being eligible for the qualifiers, which are for players under the age of 23. With 12 out of those 23 U23 players each getting an opportunity to strut their stuff in at least one game, with the lone holdout being Montreal goalkeeper, James Pantemis, who returned to Montreal for training camp after the 2nd game, it allowed Canada to get a look at some new youngsters. 

While the ideal scenario would have been for Canada to go with their full strength squad, at least for the last game against Iceland, it allowed for some new faces to get noticed, both for the first team, as well as the U23 team. 

U23 standouts

For the U23s, French-Canadian dual-eligible Charles Andreas Brym looked solid, as the Lille loanee looked lively in his appearances with Les Rouges, making them look smart for calling him in for the first time. He may lack a bit of finished product, but he knows how to create things, which for a young striker, is always a positive. 

Elsewhere, Cercle Brugge’s product Zorhan Bassong was also excellent, putting in a strong shift at full back. A high-event player, he makes things happen on both sides of the ball, and put in a good claim to be a potential piece for the first-team, let alone the Olympic squad. With the full-back also holding Belgian citizenship, locking him up early could prove to be a good move ahead of the 2022 and 2026 World Cup cycles. 

Besides those two, Shamit Shome looked good in his Barbados cameo, showing why he took a step forward with Montreal last year in his 3rd year in MLS, while Theo Bair and Jayden Nelson pitched in with hard minutes and well-earned goals. With Bair fresh off his rookie MLS campaign, while Nelson is still only 17, yet to sign with TFC, and still eligible for the 2024 Olympics (!!), their performances certainly merited closer looks ahead of March. 

Not all the U23 players were fresh-faced, however, with Derek Cornelius, Liam Fraser and Kamal Miller all still eligible for Olympic action, even despite being first-team regulars. It’s hard to imagine any of the 3 being released from the first team for qualifiers, as both camps are going to overlap with each other, but with Canada’s midfield being solid, and the emergence of some new centre back options, Miller and Fraser are possibilities, while Cornelius is a strong maybe. 

Veteran standouts

And the auditions weren’t just limited to the young guns, as the bigger 26 man squad allowed for some veterans to get back in the mix, with the likes of Tosaint Ricketts, Tesho Akindele, Russell Teibert and Manjrekar James all returning to Canada action after various different absences. 

James was quiet, making a bad mistake in an otherwise solid first game, while Ricketts looked solid and energetic as usual, putting in a claim to be the first teams depth forward. Akindele, who had the upper hand on Ricketts after a 10 goal MLS season, looked sloppy at times in front of goal, but did show some moments of quality that help explain his breakout 2019 year. 

Teibert was rather impressive in his main cameo, a 60 or so minute spell in the 2nd game against Barbados, where he was one of Canada’s best players on the pitch. Well known as an energetic spark plug, he showed off his improving offensive game once again, pitching in with a goal and an assist, while pressing high up the field. 

Lastly, the player that may have arguably raised his stock the most, was FC Edmonton centre back Amer Didic. The first-ever Canadian Premier League player to earn National Team minutes with his start against Barbados, he was a force against both Barbados and Iceland, hoovering up long balls like a vacuum, demonstrating his pinpoint passing accuracy, while also showing a relatively calm defensive game. 

At 6’5”, and with his ability to play with the ball at his feet, he could be an intriguing starter to look at ahead of World Cup qualifiers, especially with Canada’s mixed depth at centre back. It was hoped he could use this camp to push his way up into the starting conversation, and he did just that, while also scoring a trial to the Vancouver Whitecaps in the process. If this rise continues, don’t be surprised to see him earn more starts as the year goes along.

All in all, while some players stock may have stayed equal, or even dropped a little, others did well to put their names out there, which ahead of a busy 2020 schedule, makes things interesting. As they all head back to their club teams, they now know Canada’s coaching staff is indeed watching, so now it’s to see how they react to the added pressure, with the chance to maybe factor into Olympic and World Cup qualifiers later on in this calendar year being a metaphorical dangling carrot at the end of the stick. 

Teaching Points

Samuel Piette cushions a ball against Iceland (Canada Soccer/Liza Rosales)

While the squad was young and experimental, there was a lot to derive from these games, especially from a tactical standpoint. As we looked at last week, this was a good first chance to continue instilling a couple of tactical ideas that worked well for them in 2019, such as the low-to-mid defensive block, controlling midfield play and a high press. 

And Canada did work on just that, defending deep even against the more conservative Barbados and Iceland, while continuing to play with 4 central midfielders to be able and control the middle of the park. They also pressed when they could, forcing the other teams to play long and quick, which especially with Didic on the park, was a winning strategy. 

But at the same time, there were areas where you were left wanting more. Canada did very well to control possession, especially in the midfield, but they were very stale in the final third, struggling to create any sort of consistent offence. Even against Barbados, who they mostly dominated, they looked toothless at times when the gaps opened up, as they’d find themselves forced to recycle the ball into a hopeful cross, or an ambitious ball forward. 

What’s clear is that Canada can capitalize on quick moments, but when teams set up, they need to find a way to break opponents down. Having the likes of Scott Arfield, Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Junior Hoilett and Lucas Cavallini back will help, no doubt, but there is still a slight cause for concern there.

Elsewhere, another issue, one that’s been prevalent for a while, was their penchant to fall asleep at crucial moments defensively. Against Barbados, it was a combination of James, Max Crepeau and Marcus Godinho in the 1st game, the usually reliable Derek Cornelius in the 2nd game, before the whole team fell asleep at a crucial time in the 3rd game against Iceland.

Overall, Canada’s defensive game is improved from where they were a year ago, but much like in the November US game, they are prone to these lapses in concentration, especially on set-pieces. If they can clear out those warts from their game, showing more of what they did in the October US game (even in that game Christian Pulisic missed a golden opportunity after a Steven Vitoria error, to be fair), then Canada can make some noise in World Cup qualifiers. 

Against the likes of Barbados, who are at a similar level as a lot of teams in the ‘Gauntlet’, Canada can atone for their errors, but against the top-end teams in that avenue, such as Curacao, Panama and Haiti, they might not be afforded that same luxury if they fall asleep. And even if they do somehow make the Hex, as we saw in November, or even back during the Gold Cup last year, the likes of Mexico, the US and company are all very dangerous when you leave them any opportunities, as they can be ruthless in the face of mistakes. 

What is positive about all of this is that despite all of the teaching points, these are things that can be sorted out over time. While they are important tactical deficiencies that need to be cleared out, John Herdman has shown to be able to drill other principles, such as a low line, or controlling the midfield, over his course as a coach, so it is all possible. 

In this case, a lot of the teaching will come down to needing to have more time with the players, which is why organizing more friendlies, FIFA Rankings or not, are important. With all of the players being so busy with club football, they need to use any opportunity they can get to get them drilled ahead of bigger games, in which the margins of error can be so little. 

As seen from landmark victories such as the one against the US, they have the potential for big things, but they just need to find ways to ensure their growth remains constant. Friendlies will lend a helping hand in order to do just that. 

Looking Forward

With time slowly ticking towards that June 2020 deadline, it’s unclear yet how things will turn out for Canada’s Men. They can still schedule 4 friendlies in the official windows between now and then, with countless other matches still possible outside of those windows, like they did this month, making surmounting the 15 point gap still possible, if not a bit improbable

Much like before this camp, their destiny for the Hex remains in the hands of El Salvador. Had El Salvador’s game against Iceland this month counted as an official friendly, instead of the training match they dubiously got approved for, their 1-0 loss would have put them only 13 points ahead, which isn’t much compared to the 15 it is now, but it’s at least something. 

If El Salvador continues to not play official games, Canada can overcome that gap, especially if they win their official FIFA window friendlies, while avoiding any losses or ties against lower-ranked opposition. If El Salvador does switch to official games, things could become either harder or easier, based on if they end up winning or losing, which would either open or close things up even more. 

But the main focus for Canada should be to organize these games, and at the very least, continue to build on their foundation. If they can get into the Hex, it would be excellent, but if not, they still have a real chance to make the World Cup through the gauntlet. They can without a doubt beat all 29 teams if they play at their absolute best, and can surely give the 4th place team in the Hex a run for their money in a two-legged playoff, while a potential intercontinental playoff victory would depend on if they get to play an Asian, Oceanian or South American side, so things aren’t completely off of the table quite yet. 

It’ll require perfection, either way, be it now in order to make the Hex, or later to navigate the gauntlet, so now it’ll be just about trying to do the former, while also preparing to do the latter. The format is a mockery, no doubt about it, but if they can use it to their advantage, giving them their best chance to make the World Cup in over 20 years, then maybe it can be looked back upon as a positive moment. 

So now, it’ll be interesting to continue and monitor their progress over the coming months, and even coming years, as they look to one day become the program they hope to eventually be. 

Cover Photo by: Liza Rozales/Canada Soccer

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