VANCOUVER, BC – To put it lightly, the last month has not been easy for Canadian soccer.
From a cancelled friendly against Iran to a player strike forcing another cancelled friendly against Panama, the Canadian Men’s National Team may have set a record for most cancelled matches on the same date at the same venue amid a tough few weeks.
Still, with the weight of labour negotiations over pay equity and World Cup prize money hanging in the balance, there is a soccer match to play on Thursday as Canada kick-off their Concacaf Nations League campaign against Curacao in Vancouver.
While the 2019-20 inaugural CNL campaign saw Canada beat the USA for the first time in 34 years, the goal is more straightforward, albeit daunting, this time around — win the tournament.
In a group with Curacao and Honduras, Canada is favoured to come out as the top seed after home and away matches against the two nations. Advancing would place them in a four-team bracket and give them a shot at winning Canada’s first men’s trophy since the 2000 Concacaf Gold Cup.
“We were going to experiment with some new faces,” Herdman said of the missed Panama game on Wednesday, having likely aimed at getting minutes for 17-year-old Luca Koleosho and National Team returnee Raheem Edwards. “We will just have to adapt; we went a year without playing a match [in the pandemic].”
With only two matches now in the window, expect Herdman to trot out a first-choice, or close to it, lineup against Curacao and Honduras. Playing the best personnel and treating these matches as critical in World Cup qualifying is the best way to prepare for much tougher competition against Belgium, Croatia and Morocco.
“It’s important for us, and I think they will give us a good test,” Herdman said. “You know, this wasn’t how we expected to go this week, but there’s a couple of them [players] coming in a bit fatigued, and we’re not going to allow that to be an excuse.”
One of the critical factors for Canada on Thursday will be to re-integrate Alphonso Davies back into the team after he missed the last two World Cup qualifying windows due to a mild heart condition. In the final two qualifying windows, the Canadian men managed to qualify for the World Cup without him, going 5-2-0. Still, success in Qatar could depend on the 21-year-old Bayern Munich star’s contributions.
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 element to re-introduce.
More than Davies
However, it is not just Davies that Canada needs to look for, but a continuation in finding the best possible lineup for Qatar. Looking at a potential 4-4-2, Canada’s best backline likely consists of, from left to right: Sam Adekugbe, Kamal Miller, Steven Vitoria and Alistair Johnston.
Meanwhile, the midfielder four will support Stephen Eustáquio, who could play as a middle pivot alongside Atiba Hutchinson, a duo that worked well in World Cup qualifying. Integrating Davies and Tajon Buchanan on their respective wings gives Canada pace to attack in wide areas and the ability to shift to a 5-4-1 depending on which side the ball is on.
The forward position is the difficult choice for Thursday. While the default of Jonathan David and Cyle Larin could be Herdman’s preferred lineup, there is a solid case to give the start to an in-form Lucas Cavallini playing in front of his home fans. Additionally, Ike Ugbo deserves a start based on his five goals in14 games with Troyes in Ligue 1.
While there is an abundance of ways, Herdman could go with his forwards, expect minimal change and maybe just one of Cavallini or Ugbo to earn a start.
The Nations League matches are competitive, so Herdman can’t be all loose as he could have been in a friendly. Still, any pre-World Cup matches are invaluable preparation.
Who are Curacao?
Curacao has only been a FIFA member since 2011 and is not a marquee opponent, yet, they will provide a good test for Canada, with several players playing in the Dutch 1st division. However, they will be missing six regular players due to Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements.
Riding good form of Columbus SC goalkeeper Eloy Room, Curacao has played two games in their Concacaf Nations League campaign, beating Honduras away 2-1 while losing on home soil.
The 79th ranked team in the world, and 8th in Concacaf, also feature former English Premier League players Vurnon Anita, Cuco Martina and Leandro Bacuna, all players that will test Canada.
Last time out in 2017, Canada took down Curacao 2-1 at Stade Saputo in Montreal, with Manjrekar James and Anthony Jackson-Hamel scoring for Canada. Yet from that day, only eight Canadians and neither goalscorer are back on the National Team roster for Thursday.
Canada kicks off their Concacaf Nations League Campaign against Curacao on Thursday night at BC Place at 7:30 pm PT, streaming live on OneSoccer.ca/watch