Rouges Reflections: CanMNT players ramping up for busy summer of play, movement abroad

All over the world, football has begun its return, starting with South Korea and Germany, with Portugal set to soon join them. Luckily for Canadian Soccer fans, that will put a lot of Canadian content on display, something that won’t change anytime soon, especially with the flood of players set to join those who are already there.

After a lengthy hiatus, football is starting to return. 

Starting with the Korean K-League nearly 3 weeks ago, before Germany’s Bundesliga followed suit last week, some major footballing leagues have been throwing themselves back into the game, giving starved fans something to enjoy once again. 

While this COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t look to be over for the time being, with some countries doing a lot worse than others, some are managing to find a new normal that includes football, albeit behind closed doors, which after 2 months of nearly nothing, surely feels like salvation for avid watchers. 

So unless you’ve been among the select few who’ve become avid watchers of the Belarussian or Faroe Islands leagues (if you are, I tip my cap to you), chances are that these past few weeks have felt like a small return to normalcy, a nod back to the days where live football felt readily available on TV. 

As a result, some other leagues have started to prepare grounds for their returns, as well, with Portugal’s Liga NOS expected to restart in early June, while England’s Premier League, Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s La Liga teams have all restarted training, paving the grounds for their potential returns. 

Along with MLS, who seem ready to push through with the hub solution that’s been buzzing around during these past few weeks, it’ll give football fans a diverse palette of sport to choose from once again, with a smattering of offerings on display from some very unique leagues. 

And if you’re a Canadian soccer fan, this time should be especially exciting to you. After taking in National Team defender, Doneil Henry, in his new home in Korea, along with winger/defender Alphonso Davies at Bayern Munich, a smattering of other National Team players will also join them and return to the field during those aforementioned restarts. 

Starting with defender Steven Vitoria and midfielder Stephen Eustaquio, who both play in Portugal’s Liga NOS, to the smattering of players in MLS, including stalwarts midfielder Mark Anthony Kaye, goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, midfielder Jonathan Osorio, striker Lucas Cavallini, midfielder Samuel Piette and many more, it’ll give Canadian footy fans a chance to check in with several of their most important players. 

Combined with the increase of eyeballs from all of the world, it’ll especially huge for some of those players, because as we saw a couple of weeks ago, the increased exposure could pave the way for some big transfers, which for some, would be immensely beneficial. 

So it’ll be a big couple of months for Canadian players, both from a personal standpoint, as they can really use this time to set the table for next season, as well as from a national team perspective, as it’ll get several of Canada’s best players in form. 

While we don’t know when and how international football is going to return, when it does happen, Canada’s men will be prepared, with several of their key players expected to shine when things do get back to normal.

Doneil Henry adapting to life in South Korea

But before we languish in hypotheticals for too long, there are some players who have already set foot on the field, one of those being Doneil Henry, who’s played two games (as of writing) with the Suwon Samsung Bluewings in South Korea. 

And so far, chalk it up as a learning experience for the 27-year-old Canadian defender, who first excelled in the season opener, a 1-0 loss to the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, before looking a bit off the mark in a 3-2 loss against the early title favourites, Ulsan Hyundai. 

In the first match, Henry found a way to make best use of his most important attributes, which are his strength, awareness and timing, in order to make life tough for Jeonbuk’s attackers, of which he mostly kept at bay during the 90 minutes. 

Bar a tough mistake from fellow centre back Daewon Park on a corner, one that made both he and Henry look foolish as South Korean living legend Dong-gook Lee nodded home at the near post, Suwon kept things tidy at the back, marshalled by their main man, Henry. 

Deployed as the central option in a back 3, Henry was able to act as sort of a hybrid #6/CB, allowing him to roam around in search of trouble, something which he does excellently. Along with his distribution skills, which he often doesn’t get enough credit for, it allowed him to make good use of his best attributes, of which he doesn’t always get to take advantage of in other defensive systems. 

Knowing that he had the safety net of Park and Jong-Seong Lee as the right and left centre backs, respectively, they were able to close down the middle as soon as any Jeonbuk attackers entered the final third, making it hard for them to find any goals from open play. Even despite a 75th-minute red card, one that made life really difficult for them, the back 3 still held strong, putting in a good account of themselves over the course of the 90. 

But after reaping plaudits for their performance in the 1st game, things fell apart in the 2nd, as they fell 3-2 to Ulsan, in a match that is surely an early game of the season contender. With the pain of the 1st game behind them, Suwon first lived up to their Bluewings moniker, flying out of the gate with 2 goals, which appeared to all but give them their first 3 points of the season, over some tough opposition to boot. 

But then, Ulsan showed the class that they demonstrated during a 4-0 week 1 victory over Sangju Sangmu, as they roared back in the 2nd half, scoring 3 goals in a 35-minute span after the 54th minute to complete the ‘remontada’. 

And even more painful than the result for Suwon? Their vaunted week 1 defence looked more paper, than iron, as they committed a couple of schoolboy errors on the first 2 tallies, allowing Ulsan to poach two sloppy goals. 

Along with a calamitous goalkeeping error on the winner, as Dong-geon No was horribly wrong-footed on a slow but deflected driven free-kick from nearly 30 yards out in the 89th minute, it made for a rough day for Suwon, who looked nothing like the title contenders many hoped them to be. 

For Canadian fans, fret not, however, as it’s these kinds of lessons that will only help Henry grow as a centre back. After looking so composed in the first game, he made several rash lunges in the second, as he was exposed to the tricky footwork that makes South Korean attackers so dangerous. 

It also showed him the danger of making tackles vertically, instead of catching players from more of a side angle, as smart attackers will find a way to dance around you when lunged at head-on, something Henry does have a tendency to do at times. 

If he can keep his game more horizontal, using his awareness to shade players into areas that allow him to make the tackles that we saw more of in the first game, that would be hugely beneficial for Canada, who could absolutely use that sort of skillset from Henry.

Considering that Canada could really stand to try out a 3-5-2 formation, due to the positive attributes that potential full back options Alphonso Davies, Sam Adekugbe, Zachary Brault-Guillard and Richie Laryea have shown, having Henry grow into a composed central pivot with Suwon would be huge. 

So for now, it’ll be interesting to see how Henry progresses, as he looks to push both for regular National Team minutes and a potential move back to Europe. It’s been a mixed start so far, but it’ll be good to see how he progresses once he adjusts, as he still has the potential to be a key piece in World Cup qualifiers, whenever those do end up happening. 

Alphonso Davies jumps back into the heart of things

Alphonso Davies chases a loose ball versus Cuba last September (Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl)

But when those do happen, one player who we know will be making an impact is the aforementioned Alphonso Davies, who returned to action with Bayern Munich this past weekend, making a team-leading 22nd start under manager Hansi Flick, who took over in late 2019. 

And boy, is it a sign of how far he’s come that when his performance on Sunday against Union Berlin, which included 1 interception, 2 clearances and 3 key passes, felt only average, as both he and his Bayern teammates looked very much a side who were feeling their way back from a lengthy break. 

So if he’s doing all of that in an average performance, it’ll be exciting to see him return to top form, of which we probably got our closest glimpse of in Bayern’s pre-COVID-19 rout of Chelsea in the Champions League, where Davies had the game of his life on both sides of the ball for Bayern. 

There’s a reason that he’s already considered the 2nd-best left back in the world, arguably only behind Liverpool’s Andy Robertson, despite only having really taken up the position last year, aside from a few forrays into it with Canada and with the Whitecaps. 

Thanks to his speed when both going forward and tracking back, along with his acute decision making in the final third and stifling tackling ability, he’s turned into a machine for Bayern, giving Canadian football fans a star to behold. 

The sky’s the limit for Davies, so keep a close eye on him in Germany, as he continues to grow into a player that fans are starting to recognize all over the world. 

While the great ‘Davies position debate’ is far from over in Canada, at least in terms of where he sits in the National Team fold, until we see a path towards international football returning, all there is to do is revel in his club performances, and then we’ll see from there. 

At the very least, if this is to teach us anything, there will be options for John Herdman and company, who will have a lot to ponder when qualifiers do get going. 

Will Davies be best suited as a winger in a 4-3-3? A full back in a 3-5-2? A forward in a 4-4-2? 

There are lots of arguments for all 3, but if anything is for sure, based on how he’s played with Bayern so far, there will be no bad option for him, personally, it’ll just be about finding one that benefits the team, which is where the tough choices will be made. 

In the Mixer:

In a sense, it’s perfect that the Portuguese league is the next circuit to return, as two players that could really use some minutes are Steven Vitoria and Stephen Eustaquio. 

For Vitoria, it’ll hopefully give him a chance to return into the starting 11 for Moreirense, after a tough start to 2020. Despite a strong end to 2019, where he established himself as a rock in the heart of their defence, racking up goals and helping the team pick up points, an injury at the start of 2020 put him on the sideline, as he struggled to return to match fitness.

Now, with everyone coming back on a level playing field after this break, it’ll give him a chance to re-establish himself in the pecking order among defenders. For someone who only recently clawed back into the Canadian National Team fold, the last thing he needs is to lose his spot at his club, especially considering his age (33), making this a crucial period for him going forward. 

As for Eustaquio, his situation is less precarious, but still an important one, as the 23-year-old looks to continue and rack up minutes for Pacos de Ferreira, where he remains on loan from Cruz Azul. Unlike Vitoria, who’s Moreirense sits firmly midtable, Pacos is in the relegation zone, 2 points off safety, making these games huge for them. 

Considering that Eustaquio’s time at Cruz Azul is likely written on the wall, putting a good couple of performances here to close out the season would be huge for him, allowing him to open up the possibility of a permanent move to a new club, one that can allow him to finally work his way into the National Team fold. 

So it’ll be good to keep an eye on the pair of Canadians, who will be busy in the coming weeks. Canada can certainly use Vitoria’s experience and poise, and would definitely also love to have the chance to see some of the pre-knee injury Eustaquio, which is why they are 2 of the Canadians that will stand to benefit the most from their league making a return to close out this 19/20 season, making this a crucial period for the pair of them. 

One European-based player that won’t be returning to play until next season, however, is Jonathan David, who’s Belgian League made the decision to cancel the rest of this season a couple of weeks ago. 

For David, it’s a tough way to end a breakout season, one in which he and Gent defied expectations en route to 2nd in the Jupiler League, along with a round of 32 finish in the Europa League. As a result of their league play, they should earn Champions League football, however, which is a nice consolation for them. 

But don’t expect David to make his debut in Europe’s famed competition for them, though, as he has a list of suitors as long as the list of teams he victimized this year with Gent, as he’s quickly become one of the youngsters to watch globally in the sport. 

While it’s a running gag among Canadian fans that every week a new ‘big’ team joins the race to sign him, what is no joke is that David is about to get a platform to perform on not too dissimilar to the one Alphonso Davies currently has, with a move to a top 5 European League looking quite likely. 

There’s nothing new to report on where that’ll be yet, but it seems only a matter of when, not if, to when we see David at a new club. Obviously COVID-19 has changed the financial landscape of the sport, which may reduce the inflation of transfer fees across the board, but David is a talent you pay for, no matter the asking price, and it sounds like that there are teams willing to meet it. 

So stay tuned. Davies vs David, either in the Bundesliga, or in the Champions League, is a very real possibility for 2020/2021, which would give Canada a footballing boost many surely would not believe to be possible, especially 10 years ago.

And while that fictional Davies/David clash is yet to happen, the Davies/David Canadian reputation boost has been very much at play this year, starting with the Tristan Borges transfer earlier this year, and it may impact the futures of some other players, including Cyle Larin and Mark Anthony Kaye.

While Kaye is more of a distant possibility based on rumours from earlier this year, there is definitely fire surrounding Larin, who shined with Zulte Waregem this season. As a result, he’s picked up suitors from Greece, England and even back at his parent club in Turkey, Besiktas, who would consider keeping him, as well.

The big rumour has been Leeds, in England, who are on the cusp of returning to the Premier League, which would mark a big move for the 25-year-old Canadian forward. In terms of exposure, and level, the EPL would be a huge move for him, one that would benefit both he and the National Team massively. 

It’ll be interesting to see how a deal with them plays out, because as reported by Turkish journalist Safak Malatya, things are going to be complicated due to COVID-19, but if he does make a move, it could be the latest bit of big news concerning Canadians playing abroad.

As for Kaye, there may be no player more interesting to monitor from a Canadian perspective this summer, as the 25-year-old midfielder finds himself at an interesting crossroads. He’s clearly established himself as a top MLS player during these past few years, but due to injuries and now this COVID-19 situation, he’s been unable to play a full season yet, which has been disruptive on many fronts. 

Despite that, when he has played for Canada, he’s already established himself as arguably their most important midfielder, due to the influence he wields on both sides of the ball. Thanks to what he’s learned at LAFC, he’s become a cultured box-to-box midfielder, the kind of player who can impact a team on both sides of the field. 

So based on his developmental curve, it only seems a matter of time until he moves abroad. There have already been some soft links to Belgium, as well as some rumours that Sheffield United in England’s Premier League could also be interested, which along with some clubs that are surely still to throw their hat in, could make for an interesting transfer battle.

He’s stated his ambition to move abroad, he seems ready to move abroad, it seems a matter of if, not when, until Kaye joins the likes of Davies and Larin as another Canadian MLS player who moved to Europe, which considering his importance to Canada’s midfield, would be another key move for Canadian football.

Looking Forward

Either way, it’ll be an interesting summer for Canadian Soccer, on a multitude of fronts, as their players will be keeping busy in different ways. 

Be it on the pitch, with Henry, Davies, Eustaquio and Vitoria, as well as the MLS players, or off of it, with the potential transfers of David, Larin or even Kaye, the men’s National Team landscape will be a busy one this summer, making for some exciting months ahead. That means when things do return, at least from an international standpoint, Canada will certainly be better off for it, which is why this is all so crucial.

If they want to make some noise and reach the 2022 World Cup, they will have a host of things to do, such as fight the demons that have plagued them in qualifying, but a big step towards doing that is having players ply their trade at a high level abroad, which more and more players are starting to do. 

So for now, sit back, and take it all in, starting this weekend with Henry’s and Davies’s next games, and then continuing onwards with everyone else’s. 

And then when international football is back, hopefully Canada can be better off for it, allowing them to pursue some lofty goals, such as finally returning to the world’s biggest footballing party. 

Cover Photo by: Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl

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