Preview: Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team takes on Cuba in first-ever CONCACAF Nations League game

Les Rouges takes on Cuba at BMO Field, officially kicking off their quest to be the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League Champions, as well as starting down the long qualification path to the 2022 World Cup.

Canada kicks off their Nations League campaign this weekend, as they take on a plucky Cuba side at BMO Field. Their last meeting did not come too long ago, as they faced off this past summer at the Gold Cup, with Canada coming out on top thanks to a dominant 7-0 victory. Cuba is traditionally a decent CONCACAF side, especially at home, but they struggle outside of their country, as they are often unable to bring their best players as they risk losing them to defection, making squad selection a tough task for their head coaches. 

Because of that, Canada comes into this match as heavy favourites, despite the absence of some key pieces from their squad, including striker Lucas Cavallini, attacking midfielder Scott Arfield and defensive midfielder Atiba Hutchinson. But do not expect an easy result. Canada has traditionally struggled to blow teams out in the past, and it has only been this last year and a half, with the arrival of some premier attacking talent, along with the hiring of former Canadian Women’s National team coach John Herdman, where Canada has started to put out some lofty totals on the board when playing some of CONCACAF’s minnows. 

Canada:

Possible alignment for Canada on Saturday

It is not exactly clear how Herdman will line up his squad, as he has a wealth of different options available to him. Will he select based on form? Will he select based on fit? Will he select based on trying out some newer players? Those are the kind of conundrums he must solve ahead of this match. With national team mainstays Arfield, Cavallini and Hutchinson out, he does get a little more freedom to test out some fresher faces in the squad, but he still has a good selection of players to choose from up top and in the midfield despite that. 

The big question, as has been customary with this team as of late, is what happens on the defensive side of the equation, as Canada was less than stellar at keeping balls out of their goal in big games this past Gold Cup. That can be chalked up to a myriad of reasons, such as defensive alignment, overall formation, the players available and bad luck, leaving big questions heading into the start of this Nations League campaign. Doneil Henry and Derek Cornelius both appear to be locks for this squad, as they continue to play regularly at the Vancouver Whitecaps, but after them, things remain up in the air. 

Does Herdman go to a 3 at the back, including a 3rd defender like the in-form Kamal Miller or the veteran Stephen Vitoria, allowing him to go with more attacking full-backs? Should he keep a regular back 4, and put some other players out of position at full-back to get his best players on the pitch? Or does he stick to conventional wisdom and stick two traditional full-backs, such as Sam Adekugbe and Juan Cordova, and keep a traditional back 4? Those are the questions that loom large ahead of these matches. 

Ultimately, until that side of their game is sorted out, Canada is going to have to rely on out running and gunning against oppositional sides. It can certainly backfire, as seen this past summer in their surprise loss against Haiti, but they do have the legs to score their way out of all sorts of trouble. If they get their backline down to 1 maybe 2 goals a game, if not better, watch out, as Jonathan David, Alphonso Davies, Junior Hoilett and Jonathan Osorio can all rack up goals, and that’s all without mentioning the missing Cavallini and Arfield. 

Cuba:

A big mystery cloud hangs over Cuba ahead of this match. After losing a couple of players to defection in this years Gold Cup, including now-former captain Yasmani Lopez, lots of attention will be paid to the size of the squad Cuba brings up, as well as how many people remain on it when they end up leaving. 

They are certainly reeling after the aforementioned Gold Cup, as they were put in a tough group with Canada, Mexico and Martinique, as they certainly felt the pain of that, losing all 3 games by a combined score of 17-0, leaving the US without a goal, much less a point. For them, it will be all about surviving this inaugural Nations League A, somehow finishing top 2 in this group of 3 with the US and Canada, also qualifying to the 2021 Gold Cup in the process, but that seems unlikely as of now. 

Cuba got the short end of the stick with this group, ending up with Canada and the US, two of the worst countries for them to draw. If they were drawn with some of their closer Caribbean foes, they could have had a better chance of survival, not due to the supposed talent level of the US and Canadian teams, but because more of their top players are able to travel to those countries, as there is a lesser risk of defection. 

It is truly unfortunate that Cuba must deal with all of these struggles, as they have the potential to be a top CONCACAF team. Despite their small size, they constantly churn out quality talent. We will definitely be keeping our eye out for some of their next big talents in this first game, as it will be interesting to watch some of them perform when Canada makes the visit down to the Cayman next week, as they may end up having the potential to give Canada a tough time in a tough new environment. But for now? Survival is the goal at BMO this Saturday. 

BTSVancity Player to Watch: Mark Anthony Kaye

We tip our hat to the LAFC man ahead of this one. After hyping him up all week, as his performances at the league-leading MLS side have certainly given reason to pay attention, we will be keeping a close eye on the sturdy Ontarian as he likely marshalls Herdman’s midfield on Saturday. After shuffling in and out of the lineup at the Gold Cup, sometimes out of position, a strong performance in the midfield in these 2 games will give Herdman plenty to think about before a pair of massive games vs the US in the fall. 

Prediction:

Anything other than a big multi-goal victory will be seen as a loss for Canada. Even without some of their top guys, they should be able to run rampant at home, and after doing so this Gold Cup, they will now be expected to. Herdman will certainly have drilled them on goal difference, as he has preached the importance of that in case they draw against the US, so expect a ruthless mentality from Les Rouges. 

But despite that, Canada is unable to get past the big 5 on the scoreboard, as Cuba’s defence holds strong after a poor start. Canada takes this one 5-0, with Cuba unable to beat Borjan and company at the back, while Jonathan David bags a brace, while Davies, Osorio and Kaye all add tallies. 

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