On Tuesday, Stephen Eustaquio was announced as part of John Herdman’s 23 man squad for the upcoming Nations League clash with the USA, as the midfielder continues his return from a tough knee injury.
Back in February, Canada Soccer announced that Cruz Azul defensive midfielder and former Portugal U21 player, Stephen Eustaquio, had committed to playing for Canada internationally. Born and raised in Leamington Ontario, Eustaquio moved to Portugal to develop his footballing abilities, similarly to what Liam Miller did in England.
It was hoped that Eustaquio could have played a role for the national team earlier in the year, as he was expected to earn his first call-up in March vs French Guiana in Nations League qualifiers, but he suffered a brutal knee injury in his debut with Cruz Azul. He has now returned to full health, however, as he was announced today as part of the squad for the upcoming Canada versus USA game in a couple of weeks at BMO Field in Toronto.
This call-up is the completion of a long arc for Eustaquio, who was excited to commit to the shirt back in February. Given a chance to represent his birthplace internationally, he can’t wait to put on the shirt and continue to prove doubters wrong as he has for much of his career.
“When I was playing in the 3rd division of Portugal, no one believed I could play for Canada,” Eustaquio said in an interview with Canada Soccer back in February. “Only myself and my family, because everyone was saying that I was too skinny, everyone was saying that I was too short, but just seeing myself growing in the soccer environment and growing mentally, I knew that I could do it.”
Having climbed to the upper ranks of the Portuguese football league pyramid, Eustaquio found success last season for Primera Division club, Chaves, who sat at 6th in the league at the time of his departure. A defensive player, he has some good offensive tools in his locker, even contributing on the scoresheet with a goal in a 1-1 cup match against Porto.
“Playing in the Primera Liga of Portugal was very good for me,” Eustaquio said. “Because you start seeing these skillful players on television, every time (we played), every day, every weekend. And you could just imagine how it would be to play against them and with them, and boom in one second you’re there and you have to adapt.”
Despite being linked to clubs such as Sporting CP, Manchester City and even the mighty Barcelona, he instead opted for a return to North America, signing with Liga MX side Cruz Azul in January of this year. Many saw this as a good move, as he is a gritty midfielder who is not afraid to get stuck in for a tackle, which suits the style of the league well.
This was easily demonstrated right from the get-go in Mexico, as he was shown a red card on his debut, which VAR subsequently ruled a yellow for the new Cruz Azul man. Unfortunately for Eustaquio, it would not get any better after that, as he would also get stretchered off the pitch in the same game after only playing for about 20 minutes. He was diagnosed with a torn ACL and a ruptured Meniscus, which required surgery, delaying his debut with Canada until now.
Where does he fit?
While Eustaquio gets back to fitness, it’s unlikely he passes Samuel Piette, Mark Anthony Kaye or Atiba Hutchinson in the depth chart for now, but it is expected that the midfielder will most likely become a long-term regular for the CMNT. As Herdman said: “to have a defensive midfielder with his quality, who’s now plying his trade in the top club in Mexico, Cruz Azul, it’s exciting.”
Despite his Ontario roots, some were quick to question if his commitment to Canada was ever going to come, having already represented Portugal at the youth level. He seemingly had been waiting to see if he had a future with Portugal before deciding to represent the Great White North, but John Herdman seemed to be quite confident in the commitment of the 22-year-old, stating “He was excited about the journey”.
Herdman also expressed his hope of Eustaquio replacing the ageing Atiba Hutchinson and possibly being a big part of Canada’s 2026 squad, as he will be at the prime age of 29 years old at that point. With current starter Samuel Piette turning 32 that year, it’s not that inconceivable to imagine Eustaquio in the heart of Canada’s midfield for that tournament.
Eustaquio is not a player who brings a lot going forward, and most likely won’t contribute much to the team in terms of goals or assists, but his presence on the field could help give his teammates more room. It seems likely that Eustaquio will be gently brought into the lineup alongside Hutchinson or Piette in order to allow him to adjust to the team and give him some defensive coverage as he gets back to full-speed.
Once he has grasped the team’s tempo and ideally was able to ensure he wouldn’t make any brash decisions, a partnership alongside Scott Arfield and Mark Anthony Kaye in the middle of the lineup could relieve the skipper of some of his defensive duties, while freeing up the dangerous box-to-box presence Kaye to make more bursting runs forward.
For now, he will just be eased into the squad, as he has yet to even make his competitive return to Cruz Azul. It shows the confidence Herdman has in him by calling up, giving him a good opportunity to be a part of the fold and assimilate his tactics, so expect him to be a big part as Canada gears up for 2022.
“I have big dreams when it comes to playing for Canada,” Eustaquio said. “You see these players like Atiba Hutchinson, Junior Hoilett and Alphonso Davies, (who is) playing for FC Bayern, and you’ve seen that they have taken the country to another level, and I just want to be part of it.”
Cover Photo: Canada Soccer