Welcome back to Thoughts and Musings, a column in which I take a look at topics surrounding the Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada Soccer. In the first edition, we took a look at Canada’s elimination from the FIFA Women’s World Cup, while in the second we took a look at the Ali Adnan signing for Vancouver. In today’s edition, we take a look back at the Gold Cup, and what it taught us about Canada’s men’s program.
While it has been nearly two weeks since Canada’s Gold Cup campaign came crashing to a halt, it is still hard to process just exactly how it happened. Cruising 2-0 at half-time against minnows Haiti, Canada seemed to have everything right where they wanted it, and they still found a way to throw it away. It was another heartbreaking performance for the men’s program, who has seen enough of them over the years, and it has once again opened up many questions for Canada Soccer to answer.
But, luckily for them, they get a chance to bounce back pretty quickly, with some Nations League Group A games around the corner. While it still won’t eliminate the sting of this elimination, they continue to test themselves under top CONCACAF opposition, giving them a chance to grow and test themselves against good-calibre teams, instead of being forced to wait until the start of World Cup qualifiers.
Until then, we are left to ponder what could have been, so let’s jump into some thoughts.
What did we learn about the squad?
Canada did accomplish a fair amount, despite the overall result, so it’s not like all hope was lost this tournament. While it would have been nice had they gone for it against Mexico, it was understandable considering the circumstances, so that gets a pass. The lone dark moment, really, was the second half against Haiti, where a couple of bad moments really kicked off a capitulation for the team that frankly shouldn’t be happening if Canada has hopes to get where they want to be as a footballing nation.
It is really unfortunate as well, as many people will forget the offensive greatness Canada showed this Gold Cup as well because beating Martinique 4-0, scoring against Mexico, beating Cuba 7-0 and scoring 2 first-half goals in the quarter-final against Haiti were all remarkable offensive feats. For a country that is well-known for being offensively inept, they broke a lot of records this Gold Cup, with some players really stepping up big-time for them.
What will ultimately be remembered, however, was Canada’s defence falling apart at the wrong time. While that was one of the biggest question marks heading into the tournament, it was hoped that Canada would figure things out as the tournament went along, doing enough to let their vaunted offence have a good chance to control games, but that did not end up being the case in the end, as mistakes proved costly.
From the first game, against Martinique, where they gave up way too much space and too many chances, despite the clean sheet, it never seemed like Canada was settled defensively all Gold Cup. While they had moments where they looked alright, it was not enough, as they would give up way too much space and time to opposing teams, inviting them to attack. When Cuba, a team that got completely outmatched in all facets of the game this tournament, got chances against Canada’s defence, it was certainly concerning heading into the knockout rounds.
But what could that be chalked up to? Is it a lack of options? Is it a lack of cohesion? Was it rust?
The answer is somewhere likely between all three, as they all seemed to play a factor in Canada’s struggles.
Firstly, it was rust, as the injury to Doneil Henry back in May came at a bad time, as it forced him to have to be rehabbing right up to the start of the Gold Cup, which in turn made him have to get back up to speed by getting thrown into tournament play.
Which leads into the second point, which was that Canada was limited by a lack of options defensively. What’s tough about that? It’s that Canada seemingly made things hard on themselves for no reason. From only bringing 3 centre backs in (two of them under-22), to having only one natural left-back (Ashtone Morgan) who barely plays in MLS, it seemed like Vancouver was shorthanded from the get-go. While some guys that they called up the last few windows were unable to attend, such as LB Sam Adekugbe (Injury), CB David Edgar (Injury), LB Marcel De Jong (Injury), they still could have called on names such as Manjrekar James, Adam Straith, Dejan Jakovic and Brett Levis, to at least provide depth if anything. Herdman willingly went with a shortage of defenders, so when his experiments like Atiba Hutchinson at centre back or Alphonso Davies went wrong at certain points in matches, he was self-limited in his rescue plans.
Lastly, the cohesion of the backline appeared to be an issue, as they never really appeared to get comfortable with each other all tournament. It was quite surprising, as Henry and Derek Cornelius both play their club football together, but the insertion of Hutchinson in their backline at times as well as playing with Davies and Marcus Godinho certainly had an impact on them, as it would lead to a lot of questionable individual errors, like the comedy of them Godinho had against Haiti.
While there were many questions about the lineup that were expecting to be resolved, a lot of them remain even with the tournament wrapped-up. How do you fit all of Canada’s best players into the team? How do you make sure the defence is still good, while keeping a balanced attack?
It comes down to a few things. One, there are some players that must start all the time. At this current moment, it appears that they are Jonathan David, Lucas Cavallini, Scott Arfield and Alphonso Davies, with the rest of the pieces around them changing. The biggest problem, however, is that Junior Hoilett, who is a great player, gets left out, as Davies fills the same position as him, rendering him surplus to requirements. One solution has been to put Davies at left-back, which is a viable option, but Davies still has miles to go before he is competent enough defensively to occupy that position. Seeing moments like on the third goal against Mexico, or on the winning goal from Haiti, where he was caught napping, are big reasons why it is a bit of a stretch to see him as a left-back quite yet.
So what are your options? It appears the 4-3-3 best suits Canada’s needs, as they can put a front three of David, Davies and Cavallini, a midfield of Sam Piette (with Hutchinson’s imminent retirement, as well as Stephen Eustaquio recovering from injury for now), Scott Arfield and Mark Anthony Kaye, and a back 4 of Zachary Brault Guillard, Doneil Henry, Derek Cornelius and Sam Adekugbe. It gives them solid options off the bench, such as Cyle Larin, Liam Millar, Jonathan Osorio, Hoilett and Ballou Tabla if he is called up, giving them great attacking depth.
If not, Canada could also be wise by moving to a 3-5-2, allowing them to gain some more defensive solidity on the pitch. They would put 3 centre backs on, play Davies and Brault Guillard as wing-backs (allows for slightly easier defensive responsibilities for Davies, as well as more running, which he thrives with) and they pair Kaye and Piette in the middle, with Arfield, David and Cavallini all ahead of them. While it leaves out Hoilett, he would be deadly off the bench, and if Herdman really wanted to load up offensively, he could insert Hoilett in Arfield’s position, dropping Arfield down to where Kaye is. While it would be bold to move to a formation like this, it could be one that allows them to use some of their star players better, so it can definitely be a good alternative to the 4-3-3, should they need.
If the Haiti game proved anything (besides that Godinho should not be starting over Brault Guillard for the next while), is that the goalkeeping situation is completely up in the air. While Borjan is still a great goalkeeper, an in-form Max Crepeau has certainly opened up the debate. Mistakes like the one Borjan made back against French Guiana and the hesitancy he showed on the mix-up between him and Godinho on the first goal against Haiti were both hairy moments that will be hard to stomach for Canadian Soccer fans. Crepeau is excellent with his feet, and having his calm presence, as well as his great keeping ability, may end up being Canada’s best option going forward.
It’s too bad for Borjan, who has been world-class over the years for Canada, but it may be time to make way for the next generation. While he still has some magic left in him, at the very least Crepeau should be integrated so he and Borjan can start to split starts. With Alessandro Busti potentially knocking on the door in the near future, Canada’s future Between The Sticks (™) appears to be in a great spot, now it’s up to the coaching staff to ensure that it is handled properly.
While there are still going to be a lot of questions asked of this team, and rightfully so, they have a lot of growing still to do, as it is a very young assembly of players. Attacking-wise, they appear to be in great hands, so now it’s up to them to work on the defensive part of their game, as well as getting that big-game mentality that important competitions like the Gold Cup and World Cup Qualifying will require in the future. This team isn’t quite where we expected them to be at, but the foundation is there. Up to them now to deliver on it, so we can look back on what can be a golden generation, instead of lamenting lost chance after lost chance, much like we have in the past. The future remains bright, now time to wait and see how bright it will exactly end up being.
Editor’s Note: The CONCACAF qualifying scheme was released after this article was written. We will have a piece up on that soon.