Ahead of the crucial pair of games against Cuba, we catch up with both sides ahead of the first match. Canada is looking to set out some good habits after a rough end to their Gold Cup aspirations, while Cuba is looking to grow the game in their country and pick up some key results after a tough summer shellacking. It’s the beauty of the CONCACAF Nations League: each team has different things to take out of it, and there was certainly no love lost for the tournament ahead of this weekend.
The Canadian men’s national team kicks off their inaugural Nations League campaign at BMO Field this Saturday, taking on a plucky Cuban side that will be out for revenge after Canada delivered a 7-0 thumping this past summer at the Gold Cup.
For Canada, who’s high hopes for that tournament fizzled much earlier than hoped with a collapse against tricky upstarts Haiti, they will want to get their Nations League campaign off to a strong start. With a pair of stern tests against the US looming, these games will be likely used as a springboard for what is hoped to be bigger and better things.
“We worked this week on preparing for the tougher tests in areas we know we have to get better at,” coach John Herdman said to reporters ahead of the clash. “Like playing out of the high press for example, so I think it’s that simple, this team stepping up, taking more of a leadership responsibility for tactical excellence and really be clear about this game against Cuba and what it’s going to take to beat them.”
Canada, an already young team, will be without some of their wisest and most weathered players for these games, with 36-year-old captain Atiba Hutchinson and 30-year-old co-captain Scott Arfield both staying in Europe as they nurse minor injuries. This may have been a big blow to Canada in the past, as they didn’t have the depth to handle the absences of any key players, but now, with their squad looking much-improved across the board, John Herdman can sleep well at night.
So even though Canada is a younger group, they can instead use these games to start to get the next wave of players involved in the team’s leadership, and for Herdman, a couple of players in their mid-20s have already begun doing so in his eyes.
“With Scott (Arfield) and Atiba (Hutchinson) being away, it opens the door for a shift in the leadership structures so Mark Anthony (Kaye), Doneil (Henry) and Maxime (Crepeau) have been getting into the leadership groups.” Herdman said.
Despite that, Canada still has a few graybeards amongst their ranks, as they have still managed to insulate the younger players with some grizzled veterans. 32-year-old Stephen Vitoria immediately springs to mind, as he makes his return to the national team after a 2-year absence, as well as longtime midfielder Will Johnson, who has seen and experienced just about everything that North American soccer has had to offer through his time in MLS.
And that’s without mentioning star goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who after a rough end to this summer’s Gold Cup, has not missed a beat since returning to his club team Red Star Belgrade, helping them qualify to the Champions League for the second year in a row, after suffering through a 20+ year absence. Borjan, who has been the Canadian number 1 goalkeeper for over half a decade, is certainly confident in the project currently being implemented by Herdman, so you can imagine that his teammates are certainly feeling the same, with Borjan being a key leader in this squad.
And when speaking ahead of this game, he offered some key thoughts on the matter, as well as what to expect from the Cubans.
“I heard they brought in a new coach, they brought a couple of new guys,” Borjan said to btsvancity. “So we’re preparing, it all depends on us with our mentality to win and give our everything in the game.”
“We want to win it, so it all depends on us, if we listen to what the coach says, what we should do and how we should do things. But you know these guys, they listen to everything because John has a big authority on all of us, and he shows us the way, the path to be winners, so we just follow that, and whatever he says we will do that on the pitch and try to win”
The new Cuban coach, Pablo Elier Sanchez, who replaced former manager Raul Mederos, is expected to help Cuba push forwards as they continue to establish themselves as a team to watch in CONCACAF. After a rough summer tournament, with multiple factors contributing to a Gold Cup where they conceded 17 goals while scoring none themselves, they are going to be looking for a chance to jumpstart into that next wave for their program to ride out on.
And no better team to do so than Canada. Les Rouges put on a smackdown rarely seen from a Canadian team over the years, with Jonathan David and Lucas Cavallini both bagging hat tricks en route to a convincing 7-0 victory. Left on the mat, gasping for air, Cuba has had plenty of time to think of possible new tricks for a rematch, and luckily for them, that opportunity comes a lot sooner than they would have expected.
“It’s going to be very similar to the Gold Cup,” Cuban coach Sanchez said of Canada’s approach when speaking to btsvancity this week. “Everything that Canada does will be similar, so we’ll be ready for that.”
“We learned a lot, obviously the 7-0 was a big scoreline, but every mistake we made we have been working on, so we hope we can take a good result out of tomorrow’s match.
Love for the Nations League
The Nations League’ implementation has been remarkable for this continent, as it has given teams plenty of chances to play more competitive football, and in a region starved for that, it has been a big gift for many teams. For Canada, it’s especially huge, as they have not had the opportunity to play many competitive games against the best in CONCACAF, so they certainly know the importance of the experience that playing at a high level in a meaningful environment can offer.
With Canada finding themselves in a group with rivals US, the thought of a home and away with their neighbours from below the 49th parallel has certainly given his players a lot of motivation. So while Herdman prepares for the pair of Cuba games, he acknowledges that games like that are part of the beauty of what CONCACAF’s Nations League has so far had to offer.
“What CONCACAF has given us is two golden opportunities against the US,” Herdman said honestly of the group draw. “Which come along in a player’s career maybe what, maybe once every 10 years? We got these matches to look forward to, so these Cuba games, we got to take care of business.”
But Canada are not the only ones to be feeling the love for Nations League. Cuba, a team that has traditionally been really good at developing players, just unable to keep them together at a high level for various footballing and political reasons, also stands to benefit massively from these kinds of games, giving them stern tests against top opposition.
For a coach of any team, that’s a dream scenario, and it is certainly one that Cuba’s Sanchez certainly feels lucky to be a part of.
“We get to play really good teams,” Sanchez said of the format. “Like playing the US and Canada, which for us, it’s going to help us reach that level, and we’re confident we can reach it, especially with these opportunities to play them.”
Avenging the demons of the Gold Cup:
Cuba will be looking to avenge their own Gold Cup demons, as Canada’s loss certainly will have not sat well with the players that featured in that affair, but Canada will also be on track to try and redeem themselves from this summer. After blowing a 2-0 lead against Haiti in what seemed to be a very winnable quarter-final, they have had to answer to a lot of questions, especially on the defensive side of things, about if they will be able to take that next step forward in CONCACAF.
For a team that hasn’t won the Gold Cup in 19 years, and has only made 1 World Cup appearance, things are starting to look up. It was hoped that this summer would have been the big Gold Cup breakthrough, but it wasn’t, and maybe that will prove to be beneficial in the long run. Sometimes teams need to lose before they win, so for Canada, maybe that Haiti game was just the kick they needed to push themselves further down the road. So while the Cuba test seems easy on paper, ensuring that they actually ace the exam will be the first step on the path they hope to take to greatness.
“Obviously they’ll want to show us what they’re about,” defender Sam Adekugbe said when speaking of the matter. “But evidently we just have to focus on what we can control, and that’s our own performance and our own mental state going into the game, but it is a chance for us to show how well we are after the Gold Cup.”
The backline took a lot of the blame after that game, with Canada’s lead evaporating through some nervous defending, so a lot of eyeballs are pointed on that part of the pitch ahead of this one. Will Canada be tighter defensively? They sure hope so, and they have put a lot of emphasis on working that part of their game.
“I think we continue to go with our style of play, on our tactics that we’ve been working on this whole time,” Centre back Derek Cornelius said.” And then we start addressing the things that went wrong at the Gold Cup, we’re all trying to work together, not just the backline, but the team as a defending unit but also the backline helping out the attackers.”
Herdman later added to that idea of cohesion. “We went through a tough period in the Gold Cup with that bit of adversity.”
“And we’ve come through strong,” he continued. “They didn’t disconnect, they didn’t point fingers in every direction, and they came into this camp very focused, so you know that you get a sense that the foundation is strong.”
So while the result is likely to be lopsided, which is certainly to be expected given the summer’s result and considering that the game is at home for Canada, Canada will look to start building good habits in these games. Players will be playing in their preferred positions, tactics will be developed on and hard work will continue to be preached.
And no better place to start that all off than at home. Canada have used the time they have had here this week wisely, and they are eager to put some of that theory to practice. They know that many are skeptical after the way the Gold Cup ended, but as Cornelius preached, no better way to start the path to where they want to be than with a sound performance on the home turf. So for those getting tickets to BMO Field this Saturday, expect to leave with a smile.
“We’re at home, we want to win at home,” Cornelius finished. “When we’re at home we want to play with a certain style, grind a result, we want to win, we want to put out a good performance for the fans and get the country behind us.”
Cover Image provided by Canada Soccer