CanMNT Road to 2022: How does Canada’s squad project defensively ahead of World Cup qualifiers?

Once these unprecedented times are behind us, CONCACAF World Cup qualifying will get underway, in some form or another. In this series, we look at who Canada’s best options at each position will be heading into those matches, as they try to get back to the World Cup for the first time in 30 years. Here is part 1, where we kick things off with a look at the defenders and goalkeepers to watch going forward.

While this has been an unprecedented time both in the world and in global sport, it’s hoped we can refind normalcy on the other side, whenever that ends up being. 

Be it as soon as May, or as late as September, the unpredictable nature of COVID-19 has left us guessing to when that time will be, especially given the differences in its spread from country to country. 

When it does finally come to an end, however, one thing will be for sure: sports, and more specifically, football will return, and it will return with a vengeance. From U5 amateur football all the way up to the ranks of the professional game, people are awaiting a return of sports impatiently, having dealt with this unusually long break from all of them. 

And when that does happen, there will be a lot of action, especially at the professional level, where an array of domestic, continental and international competition has yet to play out as planned due to COVID-19. 

One such competition has been CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, which currently are in limbo due to ongoing issues. Given that the final round is supposed to get going this fall, with the Hexagonal and what has come to be known as the ‘Gauntlet’ both looming for CONCACAF’s 35 eligible members, the fact that teams such as Canada and El Salvador were forced to cancel potential position-altering fixtures has led to uncertainty. 

As we recently saw, if the current format sticks, Canada can fancy its chances in either bracket, but there’s no doubt that they could benefit the most from the ‘Hex’, of which they have not reached since the 1990s. While there is doubt in what the future format might now be, as there is no doubt that CONCACAF will do something in order to make up for teams currently in limbo, such as Canada, with all sorts of ideas sure to be on the table for CONCACAF to look at. 

Do we see an expansion from the ‘Hex’ to an ‘Octa’, something that may have already been overdue? Will teams on the bubble play in a playoff? Will we just see an extension of time on the current format? Due to the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, it’s hard to see which one takes the lead, but there’s no shortage of options for North America’s football governing body to choose from. 

But one thing is for sure, especially for Canada, and that is when this is all over, and we have a clearer idea of where things are headed, they’ve got a crucial qualifying campaign ahead of them. Considering they have what appears to be their best team in recent memory, many are expecting some big things from this group, and that’ll start with World Cup qualifiers, whenever they end up being. 

And as we’ve often seen from countries around the world, to do well, you need solid players, and you need a lot of those players. Top-end talent never hurts, and it can certainly mask some deficiencies that you might end up having, but a deep squad with a star or two typically does better than a squad with a couple of stars and nothing after them, so for Canada, it’s promising to see that they’re starting to build up a cache in both departments. 

In this series, we are going to look at that depth they’ll be counting on in order to help them try and achieve a goal they’ve been waiting over 30 years to make happen: make the World Cup.

Starting things at the back, before working our way up to the front, we’ll look at some of the players expected to be key actors ahead of 2022, where Canada is aiming to make a surprise appearance before the expected showcase party that will be 2026. 

So without further ado, we’ll kick things off with a look at some of the names expected to headline Canada’s efforts at the back in the ‘Road to 2022’. 

Goalkeeper: The changing of the guard

Milan Borjan and Marco Carducci deep in conversation during training (Canada Soccer)

In goal, things remain quite interesting, with the battle between current starter, Milan Borjan, and his likeliest incumbent, Max Crepeau, remaining as fierce as ever. While Borjan would likely have the edge in a game played today, Crepeau seems to improve by the day, and it seems like only a matter of time before he edges his counterpart in goal. 

The new guy? (Max Crepeau)

That’s why it seems like Crepeau may end up being ‘the guy’ for Canada this cycle, unless coach John Herdman goes for a 1A/1B platoon style solution, as Crepeau’s game has continued to grow game after game. After not playing much at the MLS level until last year, despite having success at the USL level prior to that, the Vancouver Whitecaps took a punt on the Canadian at the end of 2018, and it paid off marvellously, as Crepeau quickly became the teams MVP last season. 

And with Crepeau still only 25 years of age, there’s no doubt that there should be at least a decade of solid football left in him, which may mean that we’ll have to get used to seeing him in a Canada kit for a while now. While there is a crop of young goalkeepers that do look promising in the youth ranks, it’s a position where time is usually of the essence for development, so once Crepeau seizes the role, he may end up holding it for a long time. 

While Borjan may have the upper hand in terms of experience, especially at a high level of competition, having faced shots from some real heavyweights in his Champions League days, Crepeau does have an advantage in terms of playing style, as his sweeping keeping is quite elite.

For a Canadian team trying to play a modern brand of football, Borjan’s struggled at times with his distribution, and with the margins in other parts of their game being so fine between them, such as shot-stopping, rebound control, command of the area and reflexes, Crepeau’s ability to control the ball like a midfielder may see him jump the pecking order ahead of 2022. 

The steady old hand (Milan Borjan)

That’s not to say Borjan’s a bad keeper, far from it, but it just seems that for how Canada wants to play, they’ve got their man in Crepeau. 

But at the same time, it’s not the worse thing in the world to have a 1A/1B punch like this, either. While it’s hard to find minutes for 2 quality keepers at times in the pro game, let alone the international one, it’s nice to know that if one goes down, the other can step up, and Canada can certainly take advantage of that. 

As long as Borjan continues to play at a high level, both domestically and in the Champions League/Europa League, he’s getting experience that Crepeau has just yet been unable to receive, and that can be valuable for this young team. With some tough venues always on tap in CONCACAF’s arduous qualifying landscape, it’s never a bad thing to have a Borjan to lean on, so it’s not like his time with the National Team would fade away with a whimper. 

A possible solution? Start to work Crepeau into a starting role, but still keep Borjan in the mix, especially for tough away games and certain opponents where Canada is expected to have less of the ball. 

Having had years where Borjan was their only choice in goal, just having the ability to mix things up is huge, and it should help Canada in the future. 

Waiting in the shadows (James Pantemis)

Beyond them, it looks like James Pantemis has slowly started to work his way into the 3-hole, as the 23-year-old Montreal goalkeeper has seemingly punched his way ahead of Marco Carducci. With a loan to Valour in the CPL awaiting him after this pandemic, he has a real opportunity to solidify what was a struggling Winnipeg-based CPL side in 2019, giving him valuable playing time. 

And then after that, the path to starting for Montreal is wide open. Clement Diop is solid, if not unspectacular, while Evan Bush has shown his cracks, so as soon as Pantemis has shown to have put it together at the pro level, there seems to be a spot in goal for him with the Impact. 

Honourable mentions (Marco Carducci, Alessandro Busti)

Unfortunately for Carducci, who is currently the number #3 as of today, in my eyes, that leaves him behind in this projected depth chart, as his ascension plan isn’t quite as clear yet. After an outstanding campaign in the CPL last year, he’s returning again in 2020, with his future after that a question mark. 

Is he a more complete goalkeeper than Pantemis right now? Absolutely, but Pantemis looks likely to be that homegrown keeper for the Impact that they surely wished Crepeau should have been now, whereas Carducci doesn’t have that same benefit of being owned by a parent club that could offer him that opportunity. 

He could easily be sold on in a year, either to MLS or in Europe, rendering that point moot, but until that happens, he remains behind on the projected chart. 

Elsewhere, Busti seemed like the likely long-term #3 guy 1.5 years ago, but things change fast in this game, and him going from training with Juventus to Serie D wasn’t exactly a move that inspired confidence. He’s still uber young (19), in a position where veterans tend to thrive, but no doubt he needs to be in a better club situation to be considered for selection going forward. 

Left Back: The Door is Wide Open

Sam Adekugbe signs some autographs ahead of a clash vs the US last October (Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl)

At left back, things are a lot murkier, especially with the emergence of Alphonso Davies at Bayern Munich, where he’s done exceptional things at the position for the Bavarian giants. 

But for Canada, despite what people say, he needs to be in a more influential position, and until Canada masters some sort of 3 at the back with Davies at wing back (which with their current centre back depth situation, will be difficult to achieve), deploying him on the wing is the way to go. 

That’s not to say Canada has bad options at left back, however, with Sam Adekugbe, Kamal Miller and Zorhan Bassong all capable of filling in, with the best still also yet to come from them, as well. 

Finally his turn (Sam Adekugbe)

And there’s no doubt that Adekugbe currently has the upper hand, having played at a good level in Norway for the past few years. While his team has come frustratingly close to reaching the Europa League a couple of times now, he continues to hone his game as an attacking left back, picking up a handful of nice assists over these past 2 seasons, becoming a key player for Valerenga. 

Given his strong attacking instincts, and the chemistry he has with Davies, a left-sided partnership between the two could be fun to watch, especially considering Davies’ new defensive chops. 

With Adekugbe still only 25 years of age, he still has growth to come in his game, as well, so it seems only a matter of time until he’s starting for Canada, and no better time than the present to make it happen (when the COVID-19 situation is resolved, obviously). 

The steady but unspectacular (Kamal Miller)

After Adekugbe, it’s Miller, who’s actually been preferred by Herdman so far at left back, even despite his recent transition over from centre back. While he’s definitely more of a centre back, with his physique and technical skills more fitting of a modern centre back, instead of an attacking full back, he’s versatile enough to put a shift at left back, having done so in Canada’s October victory over the US. 

In games where Canada needs to bunker down and go with a defence-first approach, having Miller is a solid option to have, especially as he continues to grow for Orlando City in MLS. Given that Herdman can only select 23 players at a time, having guys who can play multiple positions is always a plus, so look for Miller to keep gettings call-ups, filling in both out wide and in the middle whenever possible. 

Honourable Mentions (Zorhan Bassong)

From what we’ve seen so far, however, Bassong could easily be the best of the 3, but it’s way too early to see what his potential path to the top may end up being. Given that he has yet to establish himself at Cercle Brugge in Belgium, he needs to break into their first team set up, and once that happens, he needs minutes. 

Given that he’s a Belgian dual-citizen, as well, Canada might not even get a chance to call him up in the future, but from what we’ve seen so far, Canada has the upper edge on Belgium, having called him up for their January friendlies earlier this year, so the hope should be for him to get minutes, and after that, you’d figure that the caps will follow. 

Centre Back: Who’s going to step up?

He might be young, but Derek Cornelius is already the leader of this backline (Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl)

Over at centre back, Canada’s most scrutinized position, the picture is far from clear. While it appears that Derek Cornelius has snatched a permanent place, it’s hard to see who the favourite is to play alongside him, with there being a plethora of options to deploy aside the 22-year-old. 

And while there’s a lack of younger options to choose from, Canada does have a crop of solid middle 20-somethings, which will be good for this cycle and beyond. They might not have elite-level talent at the back, especially compared to some of the guys they have up front, but they have some solid pieces, and given that defending is more of a collective task, anyways, that may play into their favour going forward. 

The fresh face (Derek Cornelius)

Leading the way is the youthful Cornelius, who broke out for Canada just under 2 years ago, making waves first in the 2018 Toulon Tournament, before breaking into their first-team set up later that year. A quiet but imposing figure, his ball skills are easily his best attribute, with his calmness and athleticism not far behind. 

He might not be the most entertaining player to watch at times, but for a defender, that can be a compliment of the highest order, because when he’s on, he calmly mops up danger likes nobodies business. 

While he’s going to be in a dogfight to win minutes for the Whitecaps, where he currently plies his trade, when it comes to Canada, he looks to be their man both now and in the future. 

The veteran (Steven Vitoria)

After Cornelius, the current favourite is the veteran, Vitoria, who fought his way back into the National Team fold last fall. The 33-year-old might be getting up there in age, but he continues to plug away at a good level in Portugal with Moreierense in the Primeira Liga, and his ability to play with the ball at his feet is certainly an asset. 

Given Cornelius’s young age, having that steady stopper beside him can be valuable, and in a sense, it was not surprising to see Canada do so well against the US in October with Cornelius and Vitoria paired together, as they complement each other very nicely. 

As long as Vitoria stays healthy, he’s a very intriguing option to choose from, and at the very least, he’ll be a good call-up to have around the squad for his experience. 

Mr. Redemption (Doneil Henry)

In Henry, Canada has probably their most nuclear option, as the soon to be 27-year-old continues to split the opinion amongst many, much as he did in his younger days. 

What is clear is that at this stage of his career, we know what Henry is, even though there is still some room for growth. Due to some of the unfortunate injuries that he’s had, he’s not as suited to the aggressive, high line, swashbuckling sort of game he played in his younger days, but he is smart enough to play in a lower line, something in which he thrived last year for the Whitecaps. 

Having headed over to South Korea this winter, having moved to a league where defenders are typically a lot more technical and positionally astute than they often are in MLS, Henry is in an environment where he can continue to hone that side of his game, which should only improve him as a player. 

Along with his strong passing ability (you can tell that he did take away a fair bit from his stint at West Ham on the technical side of his game), as long as he continues to hone his overall game, he’s an excellent shout for the National Team, especially alongside Cornelius in a deeper set-up, where they both thrived at times last year for the Whitecaps. 

Man Mountain (Amer Didic)

But while it’s clear that Cornelius, Henry and Vitoria have established themselves as the first 3 guys in Herdman’s centre back call-up list, after that, it’s not so clear. 

One name that has popped up over the last year, however, has been that of Didic, who parlayed a strong 2019 season with the CPL’s FC Edmonton into his National Team debut. Still only 25, he’s an intriguing player to monitor going forward, as his imposing height (6’5”) and quality technical skills make him a unique package, one that can bring a lot to the Canadian backline, as seen by his impressive January cameos this year. 

In a sense, it was disappointing not to see him make the Whitecaps this year, after trialling with the club, as he appears ready to make the jump up another level. Had he done that, he arguably would have jumped up to #2 on the depth chart for Canada, but having returned to Edmonton, he remains where he was a few months ago, in limbo, but still good enough to warrant call-ups, as long as he keeps up his level of play. 

Given his unique combination of size and skill, as long as he keeps improving, he’ll be an interesting long-term piece at the back for Canada. 

The Wild Card (Joel Waterman)

Last up in terms of options here is Waterman, who is arguably the most intriguing of the 5 options here, hence the ‘Wild Card’ moniker.

Having taken full advantage of what the CPL had to offer him last year, making the jump from the USports ranks to the professional game quite seamlessly, he made a huge move this offseason, becoming the first CPLer to jump up to MLS, having transferred to the Montreal Impact in January. 

And from there, he’s only continued to surprise, forced into action a lot earlier than expected due to a tidal wave of defensive injuries to Impact regulars, not looking a bit out of place in both MLS and CONCACAF Champions League action. 

Given his strong skillset as a ball-playing centre back, as long as he continues to get minutes at this level, he’ll leapfrog his way into the National Team conversation, especially considering Canada’s needs at the centre back position. Still only 24, there’s a lot more to come, as well, so he’ll definitely be a name to watch heading into this qualifying cycle, as he could easily put his name in the hat alongside Vitoria, Henry and Didic in the fight to play beside Cornelius. 

Honourable Mentions: (Kamal Miller, Manjrekar James)

Beyond them, the pool is an interesting spot, with there being a mix of veterans (Dejan Jakovic, Adam Straith, Andre Hainault, David Edgar) and youngsters (Kamal Miller) to choose from, with Manjrekar James falling somewhere in between. 

While Miller looks to be a possible long-term option, as we saw earlier, it was hoped that James would have snatched a spot by now, but given his endless struggle for minutes with FC Midtjylland, he’s yet to really push back into the National Team fold. Once he gets those minutes, be it in Denmark, or in a new situation, it’ll be a while until we see him back regularly, especially with Canada’s abundance of centre backs that are playing regularly in different set-ups.  

Right Back: Depth Like Never Before

Richie Laryea fights for a ball with Daniel Lovitz against the US (Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl)

And last but not least, to wrap up part 1 of this series, we have the right back position, where Canada finds itself surprisingly set, at least compared to out at left back. 

Gone are the years where the fight was between out-of-position players such as Nik Ledgerwood and Doneil Henry (who weren’t bad out at right back, just unfortunately pigeonholed into positions they weren’t suited to), as Canada now has depth at the position for the first time in what feels like forever. 

Ready to Run (Zachary Brault-Guillard)

And the one to lead the way, at least both now and in the long-term, is Brault-Guillard. While Richie Laryea had the upper edge for the second half of last year, Brault-Guillard, who is still only 21, snatched a starting job with the Impact to start this year, and had been playing excellently for Montreal early on. 

After an up and down 2019 where he fought for minutes with French legend Bacary Sagna at right back, he made the position his own in 2020, having permanently moved to the Impact from Lyon. An attacking stalwart, he has excellent pace combined with smart offensive decision making and quality technical skills, making him an overlapping threat going forward. 

While his defensive game needs work, as he continues to show at times (the last Impact game before the COVID-19 postponements, against CD Olimpia, demonstrated that), he is still young and growing, and it seems only a matter of time until the position is his own. 

And considering his pedigree from his time with Lyon, one of the best youth set-ups in the world, don’t be surprised if he moves back to Europe in a couple of years, which would be huge for the CanMNT. 

1-2 punch (Richie Laryea)

After Brault-Guillard, there’s far from a drop-off, as well, with Laryea easily able to contend with the Montreal full back. While Laryea doesn’t get the minutes with Toronto that one would hope he merits, he’s turned into a lethal super-sub for them, with his attacking proficiency a big reason why Greg Vanney loves throwing him in against tired defences. 

While his advanced age (25 years of age), at least compared to Brault-Guillard, is a reason why he’s below him on the longer-term depth chart, he’s still young and improving, and it’s a testament to Canada’s newfound depth that he’d be a bench option going forward. 

For a Canada team that has often struggled to find quality full backs to fill their roster, it’s nice to finally see them have options, which should make for fun competition in the long term. 

Honourable Mentions (Juan Cordova, Dominick Zator, Marcus Godinho)

And if any of the two were to be unavailable for whatever reason, Canada still has more depth at the position, with Juan Cordova, Dominick Zator and Marcus Godinho all capable options to fill in. Cordova has been nothing short of excellent in Chile with Huachapito, while Zator has proven to be a solid centre back/ right back with Cavalry, with his versatility being a big reason why Herdman called him up for the first time last fall. 

Along with Godinho, who at 22 is still growing, it gives Canada plenty of choices. While the name Godinho might bring back bad memories of the 2019 Gold Cup, he’s been quietly improving in the German third tier, an underrated level of football, so it could be only a matter of time until he pushes his name back into the National Team conversation. 

At the very least, it gives Canada excellent right back depth, which if you were to tell someone in 2015, would likely produce a reaction somewhere between shock and amusement, which shows how things have changed there. 

Looking Forward

All-in-all, Canada has got an interesting depth situation at the back, as they look quite set both in goal and at right back, while centre back and left back still looking solid, if not patchier. 

But compared to Canada squads of recent memory, it looks a lot better than what we have become accustomed to, and at the very least, there’s still a lot of room for growth across the board. 

Given that defending is a skill that is best done as a collective, not individually, as long as Canada can mould itself together as a strong defensive unit, freeing up their forwards to wreak havoc, and then they should have less to worry about going forward. 

Which as attested to by ghosts of qualifying’s past, is certainly a nice hypothetical to possibly ponder. 

Stay tuned for part 2 of this deep dive into the CanMNT depth chart, this time looking at the midfielders, which will be coming soon. 

Cover Photo by: Canada Soccer/Jeremy Reper

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