VANCOUVER, BC – A year ago, it was a 7-0 thrashing of Aruba. On Sunday at BC Place, it’s another Concacaf test in Panama. Yet, the mission is very different for the World Cup-bound Canadian men’s national team.
While the past two years have been navigating a global pandemic and World Cup qualifying, Sunday provides Canada with a chance to prep for more significant challenges down the road.
Although controversy has swaddled the last month, with Canada’s match against Iran falling through and a labour dispute, a Panamanian friendly offers a familiar element, and the chance to experiment ahead of facing superpowers at the World Cup.
Canada returns to Vancouver on Sunday for the first time since defeating French Guiana in Nations League play in 2019. While the building is not expected to be sold out, it will be a special match for Vancouver’s die-hard supporters and the team’s local players and staff.
For many in Vancouver, it will be the first time to watch starlet Alphonso Davies. Former Whitecap Sam Adekugbe also returns, and Vancouver-living Alistair Johnston also gets a chance to play in his hometown.
Despite the absent allure of the Iranian team and a labour dispute between the Canadian players and Canada Soccer, it is most likely that a ball is kicked at BC Place on Sunday afternoon.
A focus on World Cup preparation
While the Panama match comes amid a difficult month for the Canadian players and Canada Soccer, the distractions, important they are, cannot take away from the footballing task of the day.
There are six matches that Canada can play before they open their World Cup campaign against Belgium. But, at the same time, there are only about 20 on-field opportunities the Canadian squad will have before they get on the plane to Qatar.
While a win against Panama would help the morale of the group, the more important factor is figuring out what Canada’s best look is and what it will take to take points off Belgium, Morocco and Croatia in Group F.
The team wil be without veteran Jonathan Osorio due to injury. Still, the Panama match allows head coach John Herdman to start ironing out his game plan for the World Cup while also looking at some of the new players in camp, including LA Galaxy winger/fullback Raheem Edwards and 17-year-old Luca Koleosho.
The final roster for the World Cup is likely to be somewhere between 23 and 26 players, and at the moment, there aren’t many of those spots up for grabs. Still, the top of the roster has to be ironed out to its best possible product, which takes priority against a stricter test like Panama rather than Nations League against Curacao and Honduras.
Re-integrate Alphonso Davies
In the last two qualifying windows, the Canadian men managed to qualify for the World Cup without Alphonso Davies, going 5-2-0. Still, success in Qatar could depend on the 21-year-old Bayern Munich star’s contributions.
Re-joining the Canadian camp for the first in 2022 after mild Mytocharditis following COVID-19, Herdman will have to find a way to bring him back that doesn’t disrupt the rest of the roster.
Discounting Davies and the similarly profiled Tajon Buchanan, there are seven forwards and three full-backs in the Canadian camp this window, creating a jam of players vying for similar positions.
Looking ahead to the World Cup, Davies helps Canada most in a more attacking role, likely as a wingback rather than a true fullback. With Richie Laryea, Alistair Johnston and Sam Adeukugbe likely playing those deeper positions, Davies’ pace and ability to beat defenders 1-on-1 will be an essential factor to re-introduce.
Additionally, allowing Davies to play in a more attacking role ensures that he has an easy link-up to Canada’s strikers, regardless of whether it is Jonathan David, Ike Gubo, Cyle Larin or Lucas Cavallini.
Still, there are many places that Herdman can slide Davies in, but the most fruitful return will likely come from a wingback role in a 4-5-1.
The last time Davies played Panama, he sent shockwaves through Concacaf with a wonder goal. Might he just be able to do that again on his old stomping grounds of BC Place?
Settling on the strikers
Canada has an abundance of attacking talent, and finding the top two for Qatar is a daunting task. While more or less can feature in one of Herdman’s many formations, the striker depth chart hasn’t been settled.
Playing Panama on home turf, Vancouver Whitecaps forward Lucas Cavallini is the one in the best form, but he is also the one with the least outright skill against elite opponents. So while his three goals in four MLS matches stand out, it might not be the best decision to play him against Canada’s most challenging test this window.
At that, it comes to a decision between David, Larin, and of course, Ugbo, who burst onto the scene this season in Ligue 1 with Troyes. With all of them offering different styles, the June window, and mainly, the Panama match will allow Herdman to figure out exactly who he’ll call to score goals in November.
If the players show up, Canada hosts Panama on Sunday at BC Place in Vancouver at 4:00 pm PT, with the match streaming live on OneSoccer.