Well-travelled Sam Adekugbe staking his claim to be Canada’s starting left-back ahead of 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign

With Sam Adekugbe putting up some strong performances in Norway, he continues to push to become Canada’s starting left-back ahead of the start of their 2022 World Cup Qualifying process. With Canada playing a couple of games this past week in Toronto, we caught up with the former Vancouver Whitecap, as he spoke on a couple of topics, including his time in Vancouver, his European travels and the changes around the National team. 

Since the beginning of his tenure, Canada’s Men’s national team coach John Herdman has faced plenty of lineup questions, as he continues to try and figure out his best lineup in order to maximize the talent in his squad. In an era of unprecedented top-tier depth in different areas on the pitch, it has not been an easy task, but it is certainly the kind of problem Herdman is happy to have, as Canada has traditionally not been bestowed with this kind of lineup conundrums. 

The attack gets a lot of attention, and rightfully so, as Canada can count on Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Lucas Cavallini, Scott Arfield, Junior Hoilett and more to help them both create and score goals at an elite level. You add midfielders like Mark Anthony Kaye, Jonathan Osorio, Samuel Piette, Stephen Eustaquio and Atiba Hutchinson to that equation, and Canada is set in those two areas of the pitch going forward. 

But at the back, things remain less settled, with the backline remaining a big question mark on this squad. A big part of that has been figuring out who the starting left-back is, as Herdman has been unable to find a consistent answer at the position, shuttling through a mix of natural and unnatural left-backs to try and find the guy to lead the way at that position. 

One name that has certainly staked a strong claim to be considered a part of Herdman’s crew has been Sam Adekugbe, the 24-year-old left-back currently raising his stock as part of Norweigan Eliteserien side Valerenga. He has done a good job to impress Herdman, earning a call-up to the Canadian camp this past week, where he earned his 8th Canadian cap during a September 10th away game vs Cuba. 

Despite his young age, Adekugbe made his debut with the National team all the way back in 2015, so he knows how much things have changed since then. Even despite Canada’s supposed weaker backline, the competition for places at the back is still as fierce as ever, and Adekugbe thinks it will only help spur on their defensive performances as they look to live up to their offensive counterparts. 

“Yeah, we have good (defensive) players,” Adekugbe said last week in an exclusive interview with BTSVancity. “Of course everyone knows how good our attack is, we have players playing all over the world, in Champions League football and league teams, but we still have good defenders as well.” 

“There is competition for places in the National Team,” he continued. “And that’s something that hasn’t really been there since I came to the National Team, so hopefully it can drive us forward towards more success.”

Adekugbe’s experience with Canada offers an interesting perspective on the growth of the National team over that time, as he has had the chance to be integrated as part of the process, but he can also offer an outside look from when he wasn’t called up for a period of nearly 18 months between early 2016 and late 2017. 

For him, one of the biggest things that has changed has been the mood and cohesiveness within the squad, as a lot of the younger players have risen up through similar pathways to find themselves at the top of the Canadian footballing pyramid. Even for those who didn’t take that linear pathway, they still got plenty of opportunities to grow together during various youth national team experiences, so for Adekugbe, it’s only natural that Canada that reaps the benefit of some of the things they have done so far, with this golden generation of talent only adding to its impact. 

“I think it’s changed significantly,” Adekugbe said of the mood around the team. “I think it’s different now because I wasn’t so intertwined with the National Team back then (2015), but now I think with the National Team a lot of the players have played with each other in academies, a lot of the players grew up with each other, so I think this was always going to happen eventually, and now we are seeing the fruits of it with players enjoying their football and playing at high levels, but also having a good collective identity.”

Adekugbe took a non-linear path to Norway, as he first started his professional journey back in Vancouver, signing a homegrown deal with the Vancouver Whitecaps back in 2013, joining their first-team at 18 years of age. He made his debut at the end of that season, going all 90 minutes in the season finale against Colorado, giving a look into what he could potentially offer for the Caps. 

From then on, he bounced up and down between the first-team and the Whitecaps II team, training with the main side but playing a handful of games out of UBC Thunderbird stadium with the II team. With Jordan Harvey firmly locked into the starting role as the Caps left-back, Adekugbe was expected to be the future at the position eventually, but exactly when was unsure. 

And it came a lot earlier than expected. In 2015, at the tender age of 20, he managed to take over that spot, starting in 7 of the Caps first 9 games as they kicked off their campaign with a bang, going 5W-3L-1D to start the year. With Adekugbe’s ability to get up the field, he gave the Caps a new offensive threat down the left side.

But, as his Caps tenure would soon come to be known for, he would suffer an injury at a crucial time, as he hurt his ankle during his 8th appearance of the season, a Voyageurs Cup meeting with FC Edmonton. It would eventually force him to miss the rest of spring and a good chunk of the summer, allowing Harvey to return to his starting position. Adekugbe would only end up playing 48 minutes for the first-team during the rest of 2015, and would only make 8 appearances total before being loaned out to English Championship side Brighton in fall the next year.

It would eventually spell the end of his time in Vancouver, as he would only return to be quickly loaned back out, first to Swedish Alleveskan side Goteburg in 2017, before making a permanent move to Valerenga in 2018. It was a rough end to his tenure in Vancouver, and Adekugbe wished it could have ended better, as he still hopes to return one day. 

“I guess I can just call it a learning experience,” Adekugbe said honestly of his experience. “Sometimes in football you get humbled, but Vancouver is home for me. I don’t have any bad ill towards Vancouver, it’s a place I would like to go back and play football eventually in one moment in my career.

“But I think, if anything else, it’s just another learning experience, it was a place where I was able to grow as a person and as a player, also battled some injuries but it made me a better person overall.”

It also gave him a chance to begin his foray into European football, and by going to Brighton, who that season got promoted to the English Premier League, it gave him valuable experience that he’ll never forget. Even though he only played a handful of games with the first team there, shuttling between their U23s and the main squad, it set him up well for his next loan to Goteburg, where he would play a dozen of games for their team that year.

“In England, it was a different mentality,” Adekugbe said. “Because at that moment they got promoted to the Premiership so of course, it’s a bigger club, and in Sweden, it was very similar, as Gotenburg is one of the biggest clubs in Sweden. So I think the places I’ve been able to play in Europe have been quite big clubs, so it’s been an enjoyable time.”

From there on in, Adekugbe has only continued on growing, and his move to Valerenga in early 2018 has gotten him back onto the radar for the National Team. He would play 27 league games last season, helping them finish 6th, 11 points behind the Europa League qualifying spots, but well ahead of the relegation playoffs. 

This year it’s been much of the same, as they are 7 points ahead of relegation, but only 6 points behind 4th, giving them a fighting chance to try and get into the prestigious competition for next year. Adekugbe is loving life in Norway’s capital, Oslo, and with some passionate fans backing their end of season push, he’s savouring the opportunity to play regularly in that environment.  

“It’s pretty intense, the fans are pretty passionate,” he said. “This is probably the biggest club in Norway after another team (Molde) so I enjoy it, it’s right in the capital(Oslo), so it’s a good experience.”

He would add: “Hopefully (we finish 4th), our club is in a good position, we’re 6 points away from qualifying for a Europa League spot, so hopefully we can get the wins and in get into that.”

Adekugbe’s remains focused on becoming Canada’s starting left-back (Ben Steiner)

While he now finds himself playing at a good level, his pathway in order to get there wasn’t always clear, as it took bouncing around within the Whitecaps and some loans before he was able to establish himself at a club. He was lucky to even have a Whitecaps II team when he played, as it disbanded at the end of 2017, which could have possibly influenced his development and progress as he looked for regular minutes. 

With the creation of the Canadian Premier League this past year, it has given a boost for those who weren’t as fortunate as Adekugbe to get their shot in the pro game. One such example has been his brother Elijah, who has been a standout performer this year for the inaugural CPL spring champions, Cavalry FC, after bouncing around at the PDL and University level the past couple of years. Given that it took Sam a few years to establish himself with the Caps, it could have even helped him as well, and he admits that, but he’s happy it now exists, giving those who didn’t get the opportunity that he did a new path to bigger and better things. 

“Yeah I think so,” Adekugbe said when asked if the CPL could have helped him. “I think a lot of the players that are playing there are around my age group, and maybe didn’t break into the first team like I did, so it gives them a second opportunity.”

“But I also think when we were all in the academies we didn’t really have that, there was an MLS Reserve League, there was USL League, there was a PDL League, but there was nothing very concrete like the CPL that we have now, so I think it’s obviously a good moment for Canadian soccer and it’s a good chance for players to get regular football, which is one of the most important things.”

With players such as Elijah’s teammate, goalkeeper Marco Carducci, now earning call-ups to the national team, the profile of the league has gotten bigger within Canada. With transfer rumours continuing to swirl for several members of the Cavalry squad, as well as Hamilton’s Tristan Borges, amongst others, linking them to different MLS and European clubs, the profile will only get bigger abroad as well, making the implementation so far of the league look smart for the growth of Canadian soccer. 

Another huge part of that growth is increasing the profile of the National Team. For a country of its size, Canada has underperformed massively on the global stage, with one lone appearance at the World Cup. In a confederation, CONCACAF, who’s qualifying process consists of a race to reach the Hex (a group where the 6 best teams after the first few rounds slug it out, with the top 3 reaching the World Cup), the fact that Canada has not been able to even make it that far in 20 years has not done much to boost footballing interest in this country. 

Canada’s resurgence as of late has given people hope that this could be the qualifying cycle that they finally make it that far, with this being one of the better generations they have seen since the 90s. With many of their top players between the ages of 18-27, Canada does certainly have the potential to finally accomplish some of the things they have not been able to in the past, but they just need to clean out various facets of their game, starting with continuing to build chemistry and sorting out their defensive line. 

And no better way to do that than playing together in high stakes games against high-profile opponents. The Nations League has done a great job of that, providing Les Rouges with an opportunity to play the US twice in a pair of huge games later this year, with the potential to play Mexico if they do well in those two matches. The US games have a bit too much importance for Canada’s liking, due to the new CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying process, but it also gives Canada games they have not seen in a long time, which will provide them with a great opportunity to cultivate fan interest ahead of their World Cup qualifying campaign. 

Adekugbe is happy to be a part of that opportunity, as he strives to prove himself in those big games, continuing to stake his claim to be Canada’s main left-back. He did a good job of that in the 90 minutes he played against Cuba, so if he continues to do that, both with Valerenga and whenever he puts on the Canadian shirt, it’s not hard to imagine him doing the same in the lead-up to 2022. But until then, it’s all about rising to that competitive challenge. 

“It’s an intriguing campaign,” Adekugbe said. “But I think the benefit is that there’s going to be a lot of football matches, which is good for Canadian soccer, and it’s about winning games, and it’s also making the games more competitive which is what we need to have. It’s very similar to what they have in Europe.” 

“So I think we’re looking forward to it, and hopefully winning as many games as possible and heading towards the next World Cup, that’s the goal.” he finished. 

Next up: Canada vs USA, Tuesday, October 15th, 2019, 16:30 PST (BMO Field, Toronto)

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