Wayback Wednesday is a series where we take a look at past transactions for the Vancouver Whitecaps, taking a look at how the move worked out for both sides and the impact it had in the immediate future. With the MLS currently on a break for international play, in this edition we will take a look at something that impacted the Canadian Men’s National Team, which was the commitment of Scott Arfield to the program in early 2016.
As Canada attempted to qualify for the World Cup for the second time in their history, they were provided with a big boost when it was announced that Scottish-born Scott Arfield would be committing to the program, giving them a strong boost in the midfield and providing some top-level European experience to a team that certainly was in a position to benefit from it. In the midst of what had been a strong qualifying campaign to date, a 27-year-old midfielder pulling the strings for a top level championship club falling into their lap seemed almost too good to be true, as their quest for Russia 2018 continued. 3 years later, his rise has continued to be meteoric, as he is coming off an electric season for Glasgow Rangers in Scotland, where he was one of the best players on a team that made it’s best run at the title in years, falling just short but achieving Europa League qualification in the process. Now the captain of the National Team, he is expected to be a key player for Canada as they look to erase some Gold Cup demons and lift CONCACAF’s most coveted trophy for the first time in 19 years.
As mentioned, Canada was in the midst of a positive qualifying campaign for their squad, looking to return to the last stage of CONCACAF qualifying, known as the “Hex” (due to it being a six-team group for the final round) for the first time in nearly 20 years. To get there, they needed to finish top two in a group of 4, as they had made it to the 4th stage of qualifying, in which 12 teams were split into groups of 4. They had no slouch of a group, either, with perennial CONCACAF contenders Mexico, the plucky El Salvador and the famed Honduras standing in their way, giving them a stiff challenge to get to the “Hex”.
To get where they were, they had gotten some key victories in their first two rounds, dispatching Dominica in the 2nd round (Canada entered at this point due to ranking), and then knocking out Belize with a 4-1 aggregate result in the next one. They continued their good vein of form into the start of the 4th round, kicking off the group with a crucial 1-0 home victory against Honduras before travelling down to El Salvador and picking up a draw there. With 4 points already in the bank, they had plenty of confidence heading into the last 4 matches of the qualification cycle.
Heading into a pair of crucial matches against Mexico, the boost of Arfield’s commitment was huge, as all hands on deck would be needed if they were to topple the mighty El Tri. The top team in CONCACAF, any points taken from them would be immense as they chased second place in the group. So, starting with a pivotal match at home, the matches were much-hyped as Canada looked to pull off the unthinkable, with Arfield now in tow.
But it was not meant to be on the night, as Canada fell 3-0 to the CONCACAF giants, unable to capitalize on the momentum provided by a sellout crowd of 55 000 at BC Place, missing chances to go up early, falling as Mexico ended up being extremely clinical, with El Tri converting all of their opportunities. While Arfield did not start, he came on at halftime and immediately added his quality to the pitch, helping Canada as they attempted to stage a comeback bid. It was not all rosy for the new Canadian midfielder, however, as he was forced to leave at the end of the match with an injury, appearing to pick up a knock in extra time.
He would end up missing the next match, which was the return leg in Mexico as Canada went to the famed Azteca to chase a result. Once again, they seemed overwhelmed by the occasion, falling 2-0 in the Cathedral of Mexican Soccer. With Honduras picking up a draw and a victory from their two games against El Salvador, Canada headed into the last two matches tied with the plucky Central American outfit, making their road match the next international break a huge one.
But, after seeming to turn a corner with their improved play this cycle, their Honduran demons struck once again, with the Hondurans making a comeback from down 1-0 at home after Canada scored on an early goal, winning 2-1 and making the last day a must-win for Canada.
And they did just that, beating El Salvador 3-1, but sadly they were eliminated as Honduras picked up a pivotal point away to Mexico, ensuring that no matter Canada’s result that Honduras would go through to the Hex. It was a heartbreaking result for the Canadian program, as the Hex would have allowed them 5 competitive home and away fixtures, great for growing the game in the country, as well as building chemistry in intense environments.
Instead, they were left to ponder the questions that come up every cycle, as people continued to wonder what Canada could do better to ensure better qualification cycles as they attempt to get that second World Cup berth. They had started to pick up a decent assortment of talent, but they needed to figure some things out both on and off the field to ensure the success. With their coach of 3 years (Benito Floro) stepping down, they had a chance to just that, as well as the recent commitments of players such as Arfield and defender Steven Vitoria.
This is where the biggest impact of the Scott Arfield commitment can be felt, as he opened the floodgates for talent commiting to the Canadian fold, with Alphonso Davies commiting a year after, bolstering the National Team and providing it with a shining young star, as he broke out during the Gold Cup in 2017, winning the tournaments Golden Boot despite Canada’s early elimination in the Quarter-Finals.
And he was just the beginning of a young wave, with Zachary Brault Guillard, Ballou Tabla, Alessandro Busti and Stephen Eustaquio, who were all high-profile, young talents all playing in Europe at the time, committing to the Canadian fold despite interest from other countries. While Canada being announced as co-hosts of the 2026 World Cup certainly being a huge factor, Arfield was a trailblazer for top European talent eschewing their European allegiances to put on the red and white, unlike famous snubs such as Asmir Begovic and Owen Hargreaves.
Now, the Canadian Men’s National Team is in as good as a position as it has been the last 20 or so years, with their impressive array of young talent, a committed manager in John Herdman (after 8 months of Octavio Zambrano) and some solid veteran talent to give them a good mix on and off the pitch. While the grassroots development in the country could be a lot better (Canada missing out on the U20 World Cup currently going on in Poland being a good example why), the first-team seems to be in good shape as they look to consistently compete for the Gold Cup and qualify for the 2022 World Cup, as well as future iterations.
Scott Arfield’s commitment seemed to be the first wave of this big tidal wave of positive change for Canada, so it is only fitting that he has been tasked to lead this wave as Captain. While the impact of his past decision will be felt positively in this country for years to come, he still has a lot of potential to impact it on the pitch, coming into this tournament in scorching form, playing a big role in a successful season for Rangers FC. Look for him to have a great tournament as Canada pushes for that pivotal second Gold Cup.
Even though this wasn’t a conventional Wayback Wednesday, we usually give a rating for the transaction, which we will do down below, as usual.
Verdict: 9/10 (Great move for past, present and future)