CanMNT Road to 2022: What to make of Canada’s midfield depth 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 2, where we move up the pitch and look at the midfielders Canada will be leaning on over the next few years. 

The defenders and goalkeepers get a lot of the praise, the forwards get a lot of the headlines, but what about the midfielders?

Despite having to play a crucial role all over the pitch, both defensively and offensively, midfielders can often be overlooked by many, with their importance sometimes downplayed due to how simple the best can make the game look. 

But don’t get it wrong, these guys are usually the most important guys on a team, and they can make a difference between a good team and a great one, with the dirty work that they do essential for a team’s overall success. 

Just ask Canada. In their biggest victory in recent memory, a 2-0 win over their bitter rivals, the US, an outfit they hadn’t beaten in over 3 decades, Canada completely overran the middle of the park, making life tough for their American counterparts. Despite shifting to a 4-4-2 with 4 central midfielders, a move that many feared could be too defensive, his team didn’t skip a beat in the new set-up, with the extra body in the midfield proving to be crucial for Canada’s success on that evening. 

And while the fact that Canada was able to put 4 quality midfielders on the park to start the game (without mentioning that a 5th, Liam Fraser, didn’t blink an eye when forced to action via an early injury, either) is exceptional on its own, the fact that those players were able to control that area of the pitch, playing through their opponents, was a far cry from the hit and hope days many have witnessed in Canada’s past. 

In a sense, it’s probably the most exciting thing about this team, as well. Yes, they have an exceptional trove of forwards, headlined by the obvious showstoppers, Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, but Canada has had stars in attack before (obviously not as bright as the two, though). 

What they haven’t had? A midfield pool that can hold their own with arguably anyone in the CONCACAF region, both in terms of talent and depth, allowing Canada to really play any way they feel fit, really. While Canada’s defence is not yet near that level, which is a concern (to be fair, as we saw in part 1 of this series, things are getting a lot better, however), having a midfield that can play on both sides of the ball gives both the defence and the attack a boost, so it’s a weakness that can certainly be mitigated. 

So much as we did with the backline (again, if you haven’t had a chance to read it, you can find it here), here is a look at who those key actors in the midfield are for Canada, and who is on the cusp of joining them. 

By breaking things down into 3 positions, defensive midfielder, central midfielder, and attacking midfielder, here is how Canada’s midfield depth chart stacks up for the next few years heading into 2022. 

So let’s dive right in.

The defensive midfielders

Samuel Piette in action for Canada against French Guiana at BC Place in March of 2019 (Keveren Guillou)

There’s arguably no position that reflects Canadian identity more than the #6, so in a sense, it’s no surprise to see Canada so well-stocked in that area of the pitch. For whatever reason, when it comes to players that can destroy and progress the ball, Canada can say they have no shortage of options, especially young ones. Can we call it the Atiba Hutchinson effect? Maybe not, but the age difference between the ‘Octopus’ and his counterparts certainly does raise some questions…

The Octopus (Atiba Hutchinson)

Speaking of Hutchinson, he still leads the way at the #6, at least until he hangs up the boots. He may be 37, but he seems to have the body of a man nearly a decade younger, as he continues to boss the Besiktas midfield despite his age. While it took a lot longer to get going this season than usual, as he took an extended break after the Gold Cup, foregoing National Team call-ups in September, October and November, he picked up steam late in 2019, returning to his usual form as the new year progressed. 

And even though he was quite clear with his plans to retire following that Gold Cup, he’s yet to make a formal announcement saying as much, and John Herdman says he’s still in his plans, once he feels comfortable to return. No way that he leaves without some sort of special celebration, so until that happens, we’ll keep waiting, and it seems only a matter of time until he’ll make that return, probably for the start of World Cup qualifiers, whenever they end up being. 

Considering that this team arguably represents the best chance at making the World Cup that he’s seen in a while, due to the talent at their disposal, along with an unusually forgiving format, Hex or no Hex, you’d figure that this is his last kick of the can, so expect him to provide valuable experience for it, both as a starter, and off the bench. 

The second in command (Samuel Piette)

But while Hutchinson has been gone, Piette has assumed the reigns quite nicely in midfield, showing that he is capable of leading this team, as well. Despite only being 25 (!), he’s got over 8 years of National Team experience, having made his debut back in 2012, making him one of the most tenured players on this squad. 

With his tenacious style of play, as he makes up for a lack of length with his relentless work effort and hard tackling, he’s become a reliable option to deploy at the #6, especially with his much-improved offensive game. We may still be waiting on his first MLS and CanMNT goal, but he’s proven to be adept at progressing the ball to his teammates, and due to that, along with his impressive leadership skills, it’s made him the guy for Canada during Hutchinson’s absence. 

The New Guy on the Block (Stephen Eustaquio)

In a sense, it’s a testament to Canada’s depth at the #6 that Eustaquio, who is plying his trade in a tough Portuguese league, could conceivably be 3rd in the depth chart. But that’s not a knock on Eustaquio in any sense, as he’s an exciting prospect for Canada, having committed to Les Rouges early in 2019, despite being eligible to play for the current European Champions, Portugal. 

Unluckily for him, however, he was robbed of his Canada debut due to a tough knee injury, one that kept him out for most of last year. Known for his tough tackling, along with his ball-playing ability and a relentless motor, he has this snarl that teams love to have in the midfield, so it was hoped that he kept that fight despite the tough injury. 

And from what we’ve seen, he still has it. He made his Canada debut back in November, where he looked really good in a late-game cameo in a 4-1 loss against the US in Orlando, and since then he went to Pacos de Ferreira in Portugal, on loan from Cruz Azul in Mexico, where he’s returned to regular match fitness in a league he knows very well, having come up through the Portuguese ranks. 

So stay tuned for more from Eustaquio, as he starts to establish himself as a Canadian regular. Only 23 years of age, he’s primed to make a difference both for 2022 and in 2026, so keep a close eye on him, as he looks to show why Canada was so excited to earn his commitment last year. 

The Canadian Kid (Liam Fraser)

It boggles the mind that Fraser, who put in an excellent 85 minutes of play for Canada in their 2-0 victory over the US at BMO Field in October, is so low on the depth chart, but much like with Eustaquio, that is not at all a knock on Fraser, who’s quickly become a trusted member of Herdman’s squad. That showed when Herdman threw Fraser, not someone like Russell Teibert or Junior Hoilett, both really good players, but players that would have forced a slight change to Herdman’s system in that game, knowing that Fraser would instead be able to fill in and do a job in the place of the injured Mark Anthony Kaye. 

With his composed ball-playing skills, along with his acute defensive awareness, he processes the game really well, often knowing when to get stuck in, or to drop back in anticipation. He’s not your typical defensive  #6, but he’s shown to be capable of making things happen on both sides of the ball, making him an asset for teams that like to push the ball forward from the back. 

In a sense, the only thing really holding back Fraser right now is his club situation in Toronto, because despite his play for Canada in October, his last appearance for TFC’s first team in a competitive match, bar the 12 minutes he played in their 2020 season opener in San Jose, came on the 21st of July last year against the Houston Dynamo

Due to the fact that he Michael Bradley ahead of him, without mentioning that Greg Vanney has seemed to prefer the likes of Marky Delgado in midfield, Fraser hasn’t yet broken through, but based on what we’ve seen, it only seems a matter of time, which for Canada, is something they’re surely waiting for with anticipation, giving them yet another solid piece to pick from at the #6. 

Honourable Mentions (Shamit Shome, Noble Okello, Will Johnson)

Usually one of Fraser or Eustaquio would drop into this category, but given Canada’s unique depth at this position, and the uncertain future of Hutchinson, they both vault up into the conversation, as we’re sure to see a lot of them over the next few years. You throw in Will Johnson, who’s always been a solid, if not unspectacular, option for Canada over the years, and there’s certainly not much to fret about at the position for them. 

Along with Shamit Shome, who stepped up huge for the Impact in 2019, quickly putting him on Herdman’s radar (he would have been at the Gold Cup had it not been for the Impact’s request to keep him to avoid depleting their depth), and it gives Canada depth that they have not had in a long time. 

But beyond them, it’ll be intriguing to see who steps up as the next options. Given how young Piette, Eustaquio, Fraser and Shome are, it’s not something to worry about, but it’s always nice to have more names in the mix. 

So far, Noble Okello has been one to watch, with the 6’4” 19-year-old earning a few caps with Canada already, as his frame obviously makes him one to watch, on top of his impressive reading of the game defensively. While it may be easy to wonder aloud if his future for Canada (and TFC) may be at centre back, he’s certainly been another name Herdman has been keeping tabs on, so who knows, as the cycle goes along, he’ll work his way into this list, but at the very least, he’s someone to keep at the back of the mind for 2026. 

The central midfielder

Mark Anthony Kaye (#14) stands for the anthem ahead of a clash against the US in November (Jeremy Reper/Canada Soccer)

Interestingly enough, Canada’s thinnest position in the midfield is probably at the #8, because beyond Mark Anthony Kaye and Russell Teibert, there’s yet to be really anyone to step up. Jay Chapman was hoped to one day fill that role, but at 26 it’s fair to wonder if that day will ever come, and it’s just way too early to see where someone like Damiano Pecile from the Whitecaps fits in. 

Given Canada’s depth at the defensive and attacking midfield positions (more on that, shortly), it’s why shifting to a midfield box (2 defensive midfielders, 2 attacking ones), or an inverted triangle (2 defensive midfielders, 1 attacking one) makes a lot of sense, as Kaye and Teibert can both play deeper, anyways. 

But when they’re in the middle of the park, wreaking havoc on both sides of the ball, it can be fun to watch, so keeping them at the #8 isn’t the worst option, either.

The two-way threat (Mark Anthony Kaye)

And that’s because of the growth shown by Kaye, arguably Canada’s most important player last year, who has quickly turned into a force to be reckoned with in the midfield. A unique combination of height (6’2”), skills and power, he’s blossomed under the tutelage of Bob Bradley at LAFC, quickly becoming one of the best midfielders in MLS. 

Able to pick out a pass, dribble forward with ease or even go up and have a crack at goal, he’s an offensive weapon worth having on the pitch, and best of all, he never sacrifices anything defensively as a result of it. Just having him on the pitch gives Canada a boost on both sides of the ball, and as an emotional leader, he often ends up setting the barometer for Canada’s tempo in the middle of the park, much as he does for LA. 

Still only 25, it only seems a matter of time before Europe comes calling, which for Canadian fans, should be an exciting prospect to ponder. It’s hard to imagine that 2 and a half years ago that Kaye was still in the USL, but it’s a testament to his growth that he’s risen the ranks so quickly, so hopefully he can leverage it into a move abroad. 

Hard work pays off (Russell Teibert)

After Kaye, comes Teibert, who’s turned into a solid MLS midfielder over his decade in the league. Having started out as a winger, before dropping into left back and finally settling in his current role in the middle, he’s continued to grow year after year, making it hard for Whitecaps coaches to keep him off the pitch. 

With his work rate, he’s always an asset to have as a starter or off the bench, but along with his improved ball skills, he can bring a boost offensively now, as he demonstrated for Canada this January. He might not bring the flash or pizazz of some #8s, but he brings the kind of effort you’d hope everyone around him lives up to, and having been in the Canadian program for so long, as long as he continues to get minutes for the Whitecaps, he’s going to continue to earn National Team call-ups, as he’s a key leader for this squad going forward. 

And at a still young 27, there is still room for growth in his game, which as we’ve seen from him so far, you wouldn’t bet against continuing to happen. 

Honourable Mentions (Jay Chapman, Noah Verhoeven)

After Kaye and Teibert, however, Canada doesn’t have as many pure #8s, but the beauty of the midfield is that there’s no exact science to how you deploy your players on the pitch, so it’s something that won’t hurt them. 

And if they do really need a #8, Chapman has proven to be solid for Canada, and at still only 26 years of age, who knows, maybe he’ll break into Inter Miami’s squad and become a regular, pushing him into the conversation more going forward. 

The real wild card, however, may be Verhoeven, the 20-year-old at Pacific FC in the CPL, who made waves when he was called up to train with Canada’s squad ahead of the 2019 Gold Cup. A talented and technically skilled #8, he trailed off at the end of 2019 after a bright start, so he’ll be hoping to put it all together this year, when and if games return. 

Who knows, one strong campaign later he could find himself making a jump up to a new league, and then all of a sudden, considering what he’s shown so far, that could easily vault him up into National Team conversation, but either way, if we don’t see him before 2022, keep a close eye on him for 2026 and beyond.

The attacking midfielders

Arfield picks out a pass in a November 2019 game against the US (Jeremy Reper/Canada Soccer)

At the #10 positions, Canada has a solid plethora of options, followed by one wild card, and some depth options. They might not have the overall depth that they do at the #6, but they’ve got a solid group of players, players that can play in between the lines and make things happen, which considering Canada’s struggles to find those kinds of players in the past, is a nice option to have. 

The steady hand (Scott Arfield)

Leading the way is Scott Arfield, who at 31, still hasn’t yet shown any sign of slowing with Rangers, where he’s blossomed under Steven Gerrard over the last 2 years. While he isn’t scoring as much this year as he did last, he’s a valuable member of their squad, continuing to earn minutes due to his relentless defensive work rate, along with his ability to pick that killer pass. 

For Canada, who are a young team, to have Arfield’s experience, combined with his abilities offensively, it’s a valuable thing to have, and there is a reason that he is officially the country captain. He’s a unique #10, as his shooting ability and defensive work rate suggest he has more of the profile of a #8, but as we’ve seen for club and country, when he gets space in between the lines, watch out. 

Heading into 2022, where a lot of Canada’s options are not sure things due to their age (even though in the case of players such as Davies and David, they pretty much are sure bets), having someone still in his prime like Arfield will be huge, and he’ll be expected to carry a big load for this team for the considerable future. 

Mr. Versatile (Jonathan Osorio)

And luckily for Canada, after Arfield, they have a very capable replacement in Osorio, who’s quickly blossomed into one of Canada’s more underrated players. Due to the fact that he plays on a TFC team that often deploys some showstoppers up front, having had stars such as the likes of Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco, Alejandro Pozuelo and Victor Vazquez carry the mail over the past few years, Osorio can blend into the background sometimes, despite being a key contributor for TFC. 

Much like Arfield, Osorio is a unique package, as he’s not your traditional #10, with his defensive work rate and his distance shooting ability suggesting more of a #8. But at the same time, due to his short and long passing ability, along with his strong finishing, he’s able to play anywhere from the #6, to the #8, to the #10, and even as a striker or as a winger, usually making an impact wherever he’s deployed. 

That’s why Herdman made room for him in the 4 man midfield against the US, and why he’s often featured for Canada over the past year, either as a starter or as a sub. He brings an x-factor to their squad, something that is going to be huge for Canada heading into 2022, as they’ll have some tough environments that Osorio is going to be key to help navigate through.  

Still only 27, he’s in his prime, as well, so keep an eye out for more of those performances, both with Canada, but also with TFC, where he’s become someone whos name often graces the teamsheet. 

Honourable Mentions (Tristan Borges, David Wotherspoon)

After Arfield and Osorio, Canada still has solid depth, as well, with Wotherspoon still proving to be a reliable option if needed, while Borges has quickly blossomed into one to watch. At 30, Wotherspoon is what he is at this point in his career, depth, but Borges has risen up the ranks over the past year, using a strong first season in the CPL to earn a move to Belgium. 

Given that his team in the second division of that circuity, OH Leuven, was on the cusp of promotion before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it was entirely possible that Borges could have started the new season in Belgium’s first tier, which would be huge for both he and Canada. Considering the success that Jonathan David and now Cyle Larin has had in that circuit, it’s one that can help him grow massively, making him a key staple in this Canada squad. 

Obviously, he has to still A) achieve that promotion, and B) break into the first team regularly, but if both of those things happen, he’ll definitely be in the mix for sure, and based on how he does, he could vault ahead of Osorio or even Arfield based on how they age over the next couple of years. 

Either way, keep close attention, because as we saw at Forge last year, Borges is on the rise. 

Looking Forward

Overall, Canada has built up a solid trove of players in the middle of the park, with several key names at each position, giving them depth that they haven’t often had in the past. 

And what’s special about this depth? A lot of it is both quality and young, giving Canada a midfield that can help them both compete now and in 4 years. 

Heading into this World Cup cycle, that is huge, because as said at the beginning, they have arguably one of the better midfields in this region, which is important, especially considering the importance that having a good midfield can have in terms of boosting a team’s success. 

It will help their defence breathe a little easier, as well as give their talented forwards more opportunities to shine, so as long as Canada continues to get better in the middle of the park, the rest of the team will prosper, as a result. 

Considering where they’re at, already, it’s an exciting prospect to monitor, and it should be an interesting position to keep an eye on, with lots of players to keep an eye on heading into 2022. 

Stay tuned for part 3 of this series, looking at the forwards, which should be released soon. 

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