Hit the ground running: A wishlist for the CanMNT at their 2021 ‘Camp Poutine’ in Florida

Canada’s Men’s National team recently got their 2021 ‘Camp Poutine’ underway down in Bradenton, Florida. In this, we look at 4 things that we want to see from them during this camp, in which they’ll hope to set the table for a big 2021 for the program. 

After going just under a year without convening, the Canadian Men’s National Team has gotten their ‘Camp Poutine’ underway this past weekend. 

Heading into a busy 2021, in which they’re hoping to play close to 20 competitive games, this camp is seen as a good appetizer for a very full soccer buffet, in which they’ll be all sorts of offerings of the highest standard. 

But while this January camp will feel like nothing compared to what awaits this Canada team, with the roster being much more of an experimental one, and the games essentially being training matches, there is no doubt that this camp will be crucial for this Canadian team. 

It won’t be easy to gauge this team when they’re missing players such as Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, who are among the many European-based absentees who were (understandably) not released for this camp due to it being outside of an official window, but there is still a lot that can be evaluated during these next few weeks. You can argue there are anywhere from 3 to 6 potential starters on Canada’s best lineup at this camp, so knowing that, and that there are still some new faces that we don’t know much about yet, this will prove to be a valuable viewing experience for the Canadian brass. 

With that in mind, it’s crucial that Canada uses this camp wisely, as it could pay dividends further down the road. Unlike most camps, the goal, in this case, isn’t actually to win games by any means possible, but to work on tactics, improve patterns of play and try and win games in what you believe to be ‘your way’. 

If you do that, and make some progress on some important recruitment situations (Ayo Akinola, anyone?), that will make for a successful January camp. 

So in this, we give our wishlist for what we hope Canada accomplishes during this camp, allowing them to vault into a successful 2021, one that’s hoped to be a banner year for this team.

Test out some centre backs:

Kamal Miller, one of Canada’s options at centre back, contests a header last January against Iceland (Liza Rozales/Canada Soccer)

And without a doubt, the first and most pressing need Canada has is at the centre back position, which heading into 2021, remains their biggest position of need on the roster. 

They’ve got plenty of quality talent and depth in goal, at full back, in the midfield and up front, but at centre back, they’ve yet to unearth some of the difference makers that they’ve got elsewhere in the lineup. 

That’s not the end of the world, as all National Teams typically have a weakness (unless you’re France right now), so that’s not a bad thing. 

You do have to massage your weakness, though, and that will require some creative maneuvring from John Herdman and his coaching staff, as they have to find a way to make sure that his centre backs don’t take away from the other players that he has. 

Given that most teams typically struggle with their depth at full back or in midfield, Canada is lucky to have options at both positions, and luckily for them, centre back is a position that relies the least on individual talent. That’s not to say you don’t need an elite centre back to succeed, but as long as you have at least 2 decent centre backs, you can compete. 

But at the same time, you do have to put your centre backs in positions to succeed, which is another problem Canada struggled with in 2019. At that time, Canada’s centre back pool, which pretty much just consisted of Derek Cornelius, Doneil Henry and Stephen Vitoria, all played better in a low block, yet despite that, Herdman tried them a few times, to less than ideal results, in a high line. 

Victories like the one over the US in October of 2019 does show that Canada can defend at a high level against good opposition, but too often, they ship goals at too high of a rate for a team that wants to make the World Cup. 

Luckily for Herdman, there is a fix for him, and it’s keeping his team in a lower line, so even though that doesn’t fit with the high-octane style of play he wants out of Canada, just because you defend deep defensively doesn’t mean you can’t keep possession or torch teams in transition, as Canada is good at doing. 

Even more importantly than that, Canada is starting to build up its centre back pool, and there’s no better example than this camp’s roster, in which Canada has brought in 5 centre backs, with another player, full back Zorhan Bassong, being touted as someone who could also play at the position. 

And of the 3 players we mentioned earlier, Cornelius, Henry and Vitoria, only one, Cornelius, is present at this camp, with the other 4 players joining him, Joel Waterman, Frank Sturing, Belal Halbouni and Kamal Miller, all being 25 years or younger. 

That’s huge, as Canada is doing exactly what they need to do in order to increase their centre back depth, and that’s to look at young players on the edge of making a leap forward. At a position where players tend to bloom later than most, the centre backs called up are at an age where we could see any of these players take a big step forward this year. 

But most importantly, Canada’s building depth at the position, which more than anything, is exactly what they need right now. With that, competition will come, which will then bring up the overall level of the position, further improving Canada’s depth there, and making it less of an issue. 

So starting with this camp, it’s important that Herdman gives good looks to all of the centre backs called up, while letting them know that if they do step their games up this year, they can be thrown into the battle for a starting spot on the first team, which as of today, is probably led by Cornelius and Henry. 

Find a formation: 

Up next, it’s important that Herdman finds a formation (or two) to start tinkering with ahead of qualifiers, allowing him to get the most out of his players. 

And luckily for him, he’s already got 2 solid formations in his back pocket, the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2 with a box midfield, which he’s used most since the 2019 Gold Cup. From what we’ve seen, they’ve looked pretty good in those formations, as well, so you’d expect them to continue tinkering with those two set-ups going forward. 

With that in mind, the big question is: why do they work so well? 

Typically, a manager will want to get the best out of his top players, especially in international football, where you cannot go out and purchase players to fill certain holes as you can in club football. 

For Herdman, that means relying on Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, a strategy that has worked pretty well for him so far. 

But what’s unique about Davies and David is that they’re so versatile, as David can play anywhere across the front line and even as a midfielder, while Davies can play as a full back or on either wing, with the ability to play up front as needed. 

What that means is that as long as Davies and David are deployed in a way that sees them able to impact the game as much as possible, Canada tends to do well, but with their versatility, Herdman is able to utilize that flexibility to his advantage. Knowing that he has two swiss army knives in his pair of 2000-born stars, he can look to maximize other areas of his lineup, giving Canada a tactical boost. 

So Davies and David aside, looking down the roster at Canada’s next biggest strength, one area really stands out, and that’s in midfield, where Herdman has a pretty impressive list of players to choose from. 

When you have the likes of Atiba Hutchinson, Stephen Eustaquio, Mark Anthony Kaye, Scott Arfield, Samuel Piette and Jonathan Osorio to choose from, you can arguably put out two different 3-man units in midfield and not lose much talent from one to the other. 

The problem is, when you leave too many of your best players off the field, it tends to create an imbalance elsewhere on the pitch, but at the same time, if you try to shoehorn too many of them in, that imbalance can become even more pronounced. 

Herdman struggled with that at times in 2019, as he first tried to play the likes of Kaye and Hutchinson out of position, playing them at left back and centre back respectively, to mixed results. 

Heading into that matchup against the US in fall of 2019, it wasn’t quite sure what Canada’s best lineup was, and how they could neutralize a dominant US midfield that was expected to control the game against the Canadians. 

In preparing for that, however, Herdman found the 4-4-2 box midfield, in which he deploys 4 true central midfielders, along with 2 forwards up top. Out of nowhere, the formation played a big part in Canada’s win over the US, while at the same time giving Canada an easy answer to their midfield question. 

Having experimented with variations of the 4-3-3 before, that gives Canada two good formations to work with, mostly depending on the opposition that awaits them. If needed, Canada can look to control the midfield and play the 4-4-2, but if they face a team that is weak in transition, the 4-3-3 can offer a different look, giving Herdman and his staff two solid set-ups to choose between. 

That’s why in this camp, it’s important that Canada’s staff continues to do the work they started with these two formations back in 2019. In last year’s camp Poutine, they mostly worked on the 4-4-2 box, so clearly Herdman had a plan to use it long-term at least before the pandemic hit. 

It could be tempting for Canada to try and go for some fresh new ideas after this elongated break, but seeing how well the 4-4-2 box and the 4-3-3 have worked for them in the past, hopefully they can build off of that by continuing to work on it over the next few weeks. 

Sometimes, managers can overthink these sorts of things, so knowing that he has two good things with those formations, it would seem prudent to continue working on them going forward. 

Make some progress in the recruitment department:

But while most of the important work will come on the field, as Herdman navigates the challenge of getting his regulars up to speed, while also giving youngsters a tryout of sorts, there is work to be done off of the field, with this camp also being very important from a recruitment perspective.

And there are two names in particular that Canada will need to really woo, and that’s Ayo Akinola and Marcelo Flores, two young forwards that could certainly help the National Team, both now and in the future. 

Starting with the present, with Akinola, his recruitment case is certainly a pressing one. He’s represented the US in the youth levels, and participated in a camp of theirs in December, so it’s not going to be easy to sway him, but he did grow up in Canada and plays on a Canadian team, so there’s also that to consider. 

Coming off the season he’s had for TFC, he’d be a valuable addition to a Canadian team who could use a dynamic forward like him up front, giving them extra competition at the #9 position with Lucas Cavallini and Cyle Larin. 

With competitive games coming up in March for Canada, and official games also awaiting the US as early as the summer, a decision will have to be made in the next 6 months, as you’d imagine that both federations will want him for either of their competitive matches. 

So hopefully Canada uses this camp as an opportunity to sway Akinola’s allegiances towards the north, giving them another intriguing addition to their ever-deepening pool of talent. 

As for Flores, while his case isn’t as pressing, seeing that he hasn’t broken through for Arsenal’s first team yet, it’s still good news that Canada’s gotten him into a camp this early. 

Seeing how he’s impressed in Arsenal’s youth system, it does feel like he isn’t far off breaking into the ranks there, so when that happens, Canada will want to make sure that he does so while representing the red and white, instead of the El Tri of Mexico. 

One way to set the wheels in motion for that plan? Get him to play on Canada’s Olympic qualifiers team, which as a U23 team, will see a lot of the members of this younger camp participate in. 

But either way, Olympic qualifiers or not, Flores promises to have an interesting recruitment battle surrounding his name down the road, so any work that Canada can do this camp to give them an edge in that area this camp will be seen as a bonus. 

(UPDATE:) On Tuesday morning, Canada Soccer announced due to the situation in the UK, where they’re dealing with a new strain of the virus, the UK-based players, Theo Corbeanu and Marcelo Flores, will not travel to this camp.

Don’t forget about the starters: 

Jonathan Osorio, one of Canada’s key pieces under John Herdman, in action against Iceland last January (Liza Rozales/Canada Soccer)

And lastly, while there will be a lot of chatter about youngsters such as Jakheele Marshall-Rutty, the youngest-ever call-up to the Canadian National Team, this is an important camp for the older players, as well. 

No doubt, some of these youngsters will impress, as they tend to do every year, and that’ll be a good thing, as it’ll both help the Olympic qualifying team and give the first team some good depth. 

But while the kids look to force their way into the National Team picture, Canada needs some big performances in 2021 from their regulars, starting in March, when World Cup qualifiers kick-off. 

Canada has long wanted to qualify for the World Cup, but seeing that they haven’t even reached the final round of qualifiers in this millennium, it’s important that they walk before they think about running. 

That means they need to take care of business in the first few rounds of qualifiers, where a few potential pitfalls do await them, with no game in CONCACAF ever being an easy one. 

With a decent chunk of first-team starters and key substitutes participating in this camp, it’s important that they use this camp to get back up to speed ahead of March, so when the games get started for real, they don’t need to ease themselves back in. 

While that might end up being a slight concern for the Euro-based players unable to participate in this camp, the more up-to-speed players that Canada has in their lineup versus Bermuda in March, the better. 

So even though people may pay extra attention to whichever kids make a name for themselves during the next few weeks, don’t take big performances from the veterans for granted, especially with the context of what awaits them in March factored in. 

Looking Forward:

Now, all is left to do await the start of these games, which are expected to be played in a week or so. 

And while the score might not matter as much as typical National Team games, they’ll still be important matches, for a multitude of reasons, most of which we’ve outlined above. 

With a big year awaiting Canada, it’s important that they hit the ground running this year, with this camp being a great opportunity for them to do that. 

So look for them to come out flying, both in training and in the games when they come around, giving them a boost in what’s hoped to be a big year for the Men’s program. 

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Liza Rozales

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