Battles Brewing: 3 CanMNT positional battles to keep an eye on ahead of busy summer of action

Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team has a busy summer of games ahead of them, thanks to the combination of World Cup qualifiers and the Gold Cup. In this, we look at 3 positional battles to keep an eye on ahead of those camps. 

It’s going to be a busy summer. 

Over the next 2 months, Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team will get set to play some very big games, thanks to a jam-packed schedule that will see them play some World Cup qualifiers in June, as well as the 2021 Gold Cup in July. 

In an ideal world, they’d send their best lineups to both camps, giving them the best chance of victory possible, but based on how things are looking, that might not be possible at the moment.

Based on comments from head coach John Herdman, Canada’s priority right now is to make the World Cup at all cost, meaning that their focus is on sending their best squad forward during the 2 games that await them in June against Aruba and Suriname. 

If they get through those games, two more games against Haiti, Nicaragua or Belize await them a few days later, meaning that they could play up to 4 games in June. 

Canada will pick as strong a squad as possible for those games, similar to what they did in March, where they called in as many of their top players as they could in order to beat Bermuda 5-1 and the Cayman Islands 11-0. 

No surprises there. 

Making the World Cup is the obvious goal for a Canadian team who hasn’t made the big dance in 35 years, but even just making the final round, the ‘Octo’, for the first time since the 1990s would be equally as big, giving Canada a chance to play home-and-away with the likes of the US, Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica and Costa Rica in an uber-competitive setting. 

But then there’s the Gold Cup, which comes in July. 

Usually, in most years, Canada tends to send a strong squad to the Gold Cup, but with World Cup qualifiers the month before, their hand might be forced in that regard.

Why so? 

The European-based players. 

After an extra busy domestic season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, players are more tired than ever, which has led to a rash of injuries at the top level. 

As a result, the last thing that club teams will want is for their players to play 4 games in June, and then a further 3-6 in July, before heading back into preseason in late July or early August having not rested much as they could’ve after an already gruelling season. 

Theoretically, with World Cup qualifiers and the Gold Cup both being sanctioned ‘A’ level FIFA competition, team’s can’t say no to Canada if their players are called up, but despite that, they’ll negotiate with Herdman to try and limit some of the damage they pick up during the offseason. 

For most Canadian players in Europe, that’ll mean picking between World Cup qualifiers or the Gold Cup, limiting the strain on their bodies. 

Obviously, Canada’s priority is the World Cup, so they’ll pick their strongest squad for then, and then pick more of a domestic team for the Gold Cup, which makes sense as MLS (and hopefully the Canadian Premier League) is in midseason then. 

It might not be something we’ve seen from Canada all too often, but that’s been standard practice for teams such as the US or Mexico in past editions, so it’s not like it’s a new concept. 

So with all that in mind, there will be some tough lineup decisions to make for Herdman, who may have to make some tough decisions at certain positions, knowing that he’ll have to consider both competitions when he makes his final call. 

Here are some of the toughest decisions that he’ll have to make, as we look at 3 positions where things are starting to look especially spicy in the battle for spots. 

Centre back:

Ricardo Ferreira in action for Canada in March (Canada Soccer/Douglas DeFelice)

To start, we’ll dive into everyone’s favourite position, centre back, which continues to remain the most interesting battle from a Canadian perspective. 

In a dream world, Fikayo Tomori, who was just left out of England’s squad for the Euros, would be spearheading this group, but having been cap-tied to England back in 2019, it very much leaves the door wide-open for spots in this group. 

And by wide-open, we mean wide-open. 

There is literally no spot that is safe in this group, as there are a bunch of guys all playing at a similar level, meaning that whoever is picked usually comes down to form. 

That’s why through 2 camps this year, Canada’s called up 8 centre backs, and that’s not including the likes of Doneil Henry and Scott Kennedy, showing that the competition for spots could stretch to double-digits. 

While that’s theoretically the case at all positions, there’s no position where the margin between #1 and #8 is so small, making centre back the most interesting battle to keep an eye on ahead of the summer. 

So unlike at other positions, what happens here might actually come down more to circumstance than form, as we could see two very different CB groups at World Cup qualifiers and the Gold Cup, allowing Herdman to get a good look at as much as the positional pool for now. 

With Canada hoping to be in the Octo in September, he’ll want to have a better idea of who his best group is ahead of then, meaning that the next 2 months will be vital for all Canadian centre backs. 

It’s something he’s quietly been doing since January’s ‘Camp Poutine’, which is why he’s called up so many CB’s already this year, but you have to imagine he’d still want some more looks, and this summer is a perfect opportunity for that. 

But while he might want to do that, how will he actually go about doing it? 

Anyone’s guess, really, but just for a bit of context, here is how the pool looks like at the moment: 

(Those called up this year are marked with a *)

Abroad: Scott Kennedy**, Steven Vitoria*, Doneil Henry, Frank Sturing*, Ricardo Ferreira*, Belal Halbouni*

Domestic: Kamal Miller*, Derek Cornelius*, Joel Waterman*, Amer Didic*, Dominick Zator, Thomas Meilleur-Giguere, David Norman Jr

**Kennedy was called up to March’s camp but was injured. He is also called up to June’s camp, despite the roster not being released until Thursday, May 27th. 

That’s obviously not the full pool, as guys like Dominick Zator, Thomas Meiller-Giguere and David Norman Jr could all vault themselves into the conversation by the end of the summer, but for sake of brevity, the names highlighted before are the likeliest candidates to earn nods. 

Based on that, though, here’s how Canada’s group might be split up for the summer.

(We split both groups into 4, as most managers only take 4 CBs in their 23 man squads).  

World Cup qualifiers: Scott Kennedy, Kamal Miller, Steven Vitoria, Doneil Henry

First, there’s the World Cup qualifying squad. 

Here, there is more of an overseas influence, which based on what we mentioned earlier, makes sense. 

Kennedy is fresh off a very strong campaign in the 2.Bundesliga in Germany, while Vitoria had another Vitoria-esque season in Portugal, so there’d be no surprises with them. 

Where things get interesting will be with Henry and Miller. 

Henry’s a well-known favourite of Herdman, as he’s a key leader on this young Canadian team, but he missed out in March due to injury. 

He’s back fit again, though, and has been doing quite well in South Korea, so it makes sense that he’d return to the fold, before missing out on the Gold Cup to help Suwon push up the table since they’d still be in season. 

Miller’s the interesting one, though, because as one of the domestic-based players, he’s an easy shout for the Gold Cup squad, but his strong form has vaulted him into the World Cup qualifiers discussion. 

As seen earlier, Canada’s priority is to pick their best squad for World Cup qualifiers, and based on what we’ve seen, that makes Miller the shout to be the 4th guy selected here, as his blistering form at CB for Montreal has been hard to ignore. 

Gold Cup: Derek Cornelius, Frank Sturing, Joel Waterman, Ricardo Ferreira/Amer Didic

But while Miller’s selection wouldn’t be much of a surprise, especially after the shift that he put up for Canada against Bermuda, it does come at the cost of one Derek Cornelius, which is where the discussion gets interesting. 

Cornelius might be struggling for minutes at the club level, but he’s arguably been Canada’s best defender since the start of 2019 when it comes to games actually repping the Maple Leaf, and he’s fresh off of a monstrous performance for Canada’s U23s at Olympic qualifiers in March. 

So it’s entirely possible that Cornelius is in that World Cup qualifiers squad, either as a 5th CB or in for Kamal Miller as the 4th guy, but in this piece, he is in the Gold Cup squad, but that just shows how tight the battle at this position is. 

Elsewhere, there are an intriguing group of guys just fighting to stay on the radar, making this Gold Cup an interesting tournament. 

There’s Sturing, who had a decent season in the second Dutch division this year, and did well in his debut for Canada in March, keeping a clean sheet and scoring against the Cayman Islands. The level of opposition might have been doubtful, but he put up a good account of himself, all things considered. 

As a European-based player, you do wonder if his club would want him to stay with them heading into preseason, but lower-division clubs are typically more lenient with players going on international duty, so it’s unlikely that proves to be much of a problem. 

Afterwards, there’s Waterman, who is a wildcard, because when he plays for Montreal, he usually is pretty good, but minutes have been hard to come by for him. As a ball-playing CB with decent movement, he’d fit nicely into the Canadian backline, but his playing time is what’s mostly holding him back. 

But then there’s the true x-factor, and that’s Ricardo Ferreira. 

3 years ago, when he was playing regularly in Portugal, he’d be a lock to be Canada’s #1, but Canada’s commit from earlier this year is at a bit of an interesting crossroads right now, as he still remains without a club after being released from Farense earlier this year. 

It feels a bit strange to call in a guy who isn’t playing club football right now, but there’s a reason why Herdman called him up to camp in March even though his predicament was the same back then, and that’s because he’s an x-factor, one that Canada wanted to keep an eye on for when he finds a club. 

Until he finds a club, it’ll be hard for him to be in Canada’s squad for games in, say, September, but that’s why the Gold Cup is perfect, as it could allow him a chance to showcase himself, both to Herdman but also to potential clubs, which is why he could be in here. 

If not, Amer Didic (or any of the other names mentioned earlier) slots in easily, but their status mostly will depend on what ends up happening with the CPL season, as players such as Didic, Zator, Meilleur-Giguere and Norman Jr haven’t played much over the past year (except Zator, who is currently on loan to Sweden, giving him a slight leg up, to be fair). 

So all-in-all, there’s a lot happening at this position, making it the most interesting one to watch for when Canada actually releases their squad for World Cup qualifiers (expected to be Thursday, May 27th), as well as their Gold Cup group. 

Right back:

Richie Laryea in action for Canada in March (Canada Soccer/Jeremy Reper)

Then, moving elsewhere defensively, the next big positional battle to watch will be at right back, where there’s currently a very interesting battle brewing between a few names as we speak. 

And unlike the CB position, the 3 big names currently leading the race all play in MLS, making the battle even more interesting, as it won’t be easy for Herdman to decide what to do going forward. 

Just to get an idea, here’s how the battle is looking at the moment. 

Abroad: Juan Cordova, Marcus Godinho 

Domestic: Richie Laryea*, Alistair Johnston*, Zachary Brault-Guillard*

And it’s those 3 names at the bottom who present the most intrigue. 

Laryea is a lock to be #1, as he’s arguably been MLS’s best right back over the past year or so, but it’s after him where things get really interesting. 

A year ago, Brault-Guillard was a lock at #2, but Johnston’s emergence for Nashville has quickly changed that. 

In his first year as a pro, Johnston played a big role in Nashville’s iron-clad defence, and has continued to do so in 2021, continuing his strong start to life in MLS. 

He might not be as electric as Brault-Guillard, who is lethal running up the pitch, but he’s more of a defensive force, and he did show plenty of offensive chaps for Canada in March, scoring a goal and adding an assist against the Cayman Islands. 

Because of that, he gives a bit of a different look at the position for Herdman, knowing that he has Laryea’s offence and Johnston’s defence to rely on if he were to pick both. But in that case, it’d be hard to leave out Brault-Guillard, who has been running riot for Montreal to start the year. 

And that’s without even opening the discussion about Juan Cordova, who has quietly crawled back onto the radar with some strong performances for Huachipato at the domestic and continental level so far in 2021, making this positional battle such an interesting one. 

So with that in mind, here’s how things might look this summer. 

World Cup qualifiers: Richie Laryea, Alistair Johnston

Again, it’s hard to leave Brault-Guillard and Cordova out for World Cup qualifiers, but based on Laryea and Johnston’s club form, and how good they looked at last camp, expect Herdman to stick with them for now. 

Gold Cup: Zachary Brault-Guillard, Juan Cordova

But thanks to the Gold Cup, Brault-Guillard and Cordova can gain some ground on their counterparts, which is why it’d make sense to give them both a run at this tournament. 

As domestic-based players, Laryea and Johnston could easily also be in this squad, but given their importance to Toronto and Nashville, Canada could build a bit of goodwill by leaving them with their clubs during the Gold Cup, especially considering the MLS season won’t be on pause in July, as it will be in June for the international break. 

So due to both of those factors, it’d make sense to run with this group at the Gold Cup. On paper, Johnston, Brault-Guillard and Cordova are all at a similar level, so they could all use any opportunity available to audition for that spot behind Laryea.

At the moment, Johnston is in pole position, but Brault-Guillard and Cordova are on his heels, and could easily pass him in the right scenario, making this such an intriguing duel.


Junior Hoilett in action for Canada in March (Canada Soccer/Douglas DeFelice)

Lastly, we have what might be the most interesting battle, and that’s the winger position, which remains quite tight at the moment, mostly due to the fact that there are a bunch of young players on the precipice of breaking out. 

For the last battle, we were torn between choosing the central midfielders or wingers, but with the central midfield group being pretty settled, the winger group felt like the position with a lot more volatility. 

Just to get an idea, here’s how things are looking. 

Abroad: Alphonso Davies*, Junior Hoilett*, Liam Millar*, Theo Corbeanu*, Charles Andreas-Brym, Stefan Mitrovic, Ferdi Kadioglu***

Domestic: Tajon Buchanan*, Jayden Nelson*, Jacob Shaffelburg*, Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty*, Kamron Habibullah, Tyler Pasher

***Not committed to Canada

Obviously, there’s one name that stands out, and that’s Alphonso Davies, who despite being one of the best left backs in the world for Bayern, plays higher up the pitch as a wide midfielder/winger for Canada

But after that, things are wide-open. 

2 years ago, Canada didn’t have all that much winger depth, but that’s quickly changed. 

At the end of 2019, Herdman only called up 3 wingers to Canada’s camps for games against Canada and the US, but he ended up calling up 5 to their latest camp in March of this year, showing how much things are changing. 

And what’s interesting is how young this group is. 

There’s obviously Junior Hoilett, who has played at the highest level in England and still has plenty of game in his legs at 30 despite a tough season, but afterwards, pretty much all the names we listed are 23 or younger. 

First, you’ve got Millar, the Liverpool product fresh off of a good loan to EFL League 1’s Charlton, and Theo Corbeanu, Canada’s young star who broke out for Wolves U23 team this year, making his Premier League debut earlier this month, who both played big roles for Canada in March. 

Then, rounding off the European group is Brym, who is an intriguing #9/winger who just needs more minutes, and the young Mitrovic, who quietly had a solid year over in Serbia as an 18-year-old. 

They’re both certainly on the cusp, but they’ve got a bit of work to do in order to push into the discussion, making them potential names to watch for the Gold Cup. 

Lastly, there’s Kadioglu, who’d be a lock, but his future remains murky, as he’s eligible for Turkey, the Netherlands and Canada, something he needs to still decide on going forward. 

Moving domestically, there’s Buchanan, who has been tearing it up for New England over the past year and a half, earning interest from some of Europe’s biggest clubs, showing his quickly rising stock.

Afterwards, there’s a trio of intriguing Toronto FC youngsters, Nelson, Shaffelburg and Marshall-Rutty, who are all at very different stages of their development. 

Shaffelburg is the most mature and well-rounded, Nelson appears to have the biggest floor, and the 16-year-old Marshall-Rutty has the biggest ceiling, making it interesting to see how they progress for their club going forward.

Also sitting in the discussion is Tyler Pasher, who has gotten off to a hot start to 2021 over with Houston, quickly hopping on the radar with his play.

And then lastly, there’s Habibullah, who is still very green as a pro, but is one to keep an eye out for if he starts to play regularly, as he’s shown some very good flashes across 2 games as a 17-year-old for the Vancouver Whitecaps. 

So with that in mind, here’s how things might look. 

World Cup qualifiers: Alphonso Davies, Junior Hoilett, Liam Millar, Theo Corbeanu/Tajon Buchanan

For World Cup qualifiers, expect pretty much the same group as we saw in March, but with Buchanan possibly slotting in for Nelson, who was a last-minute injury replacement then. 

One does wonder if Herdman will bring 5 wingers again, hence the slash instead of the comma, so in an ideal world all 5 of these guys are on the squad, but if not, things get really interesting. 

At this stage, Davies, Hoillet and Millar are all locks, so the discussion would come down to Corbeanu and Buchanan, Canada’s two rising stars at the moment. 

Logically, Buchanan would be the safer pick, but given what Corbeanu has done for Wolves this year, and how good he looked for Canada last camp, that also gives him a bit of an edge. 

A possible solution, however? 

Dropping Hoilett, who only played 3 out of a possible 25 games for Cardiff since the start of the year, as he is currently looking for a new club after a tough season. 

It’d be hard to drop someone who’s an important leader for Canada, but it could really come down to that, showing how tight this battle is. 

Gold Cup: Tajon Buchanan, Liam Millar, Theo Corbeanu, Tyler Pasher/Jayden Nelson/Jacob Shaffelburg/Jahkeel-Marshall-Rutty/Junior Hoilett

And depending on what happens there, that could open up a spot for Hoilett to captain Canada’s Gold Cup squad, so it’s not as if he’d disappear off the face of the earth, either. 

But otherwise, this would be expected to be the Buchanan, Millar and Corbeanu show for Canada, giving them a chance to show what they can do in a starring role, with one of Pasher, Hoilett or the TFC trio rounding off the group.

This discussion could quickly change by July, but assuming Buchanan, Corbeanu and Millar are all cleared to play by their clubs, this will be their show. 

If not, though, there’s plenty of depth for Canada to turn to, as well. 

Looking Forward: 

With all that in mind, it’s going to be a fun few months for Herdman and Canada, as they try to navigate the busy period of games that await them. 

As a result, it’s going to create some intriguing positional battles, which as seen here, could result in some very interesting personnel decisions. 

Ahead of World Cup qualifiers in the fall (assuming Canada makes it that far), they need to get a better idea of who their best 23 guys are, and with how things are looking, that makes the next 2 months immensely valuable for audition purposes. 

The goal, of course, is to win as many games as possible, but within that objective, a chance to evaluate the talent best suited to do that task remains. 

So keep a close eye on some of these battles going forward, as they could play a big role in Canada’s objective of winning, giving them dual importance. 

Of course, the more competition in the National Team, the better, so it’s good that these are just a few of many battles brewing on this Canadian squad, and hopefully this allows them to accomplish some of their goals going forward, such as making the World Cup and qualifying for the Gold Cup. 

That road started a few months ago, and it’ll continue on into the fall, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on everything as it unfolds. 

Up Next: Canada vs Aruba, Saturday, June 5th, 2021, 17:00 PDT, 20:00 EDT (IMG Soccer Stadium, Bradenton)

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Douglas DeFelice

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