Canada vs USA in-depth preview part 1: Breaking down the squads, storylines and key players

In this preview series, we will be breaking things down ahead of the pivotal Canada vs USA clash in Toronto in less than 2 weeks. We will look at the squads, storylines, some key players, tactical analysis, statistical analysis, FIFA implications and more. Today, we kick things off with a look at both teams squads, their projected starting lineups, storylines and some key players to watch. 

Canada’s senior men’s national team takes on the US at BMO Field a day after Canadian Thanksgiving. In this installment of the CONCACAF Nations League, Canada will be looking to find a monumental victory over its southern neighbours, giving the home crowd something to be thankful for after a weekend filled with gratefulness. 

With both teams squads now officially announced as of this week, we now get a better idea of how these teams will line up when they take the field on that Tuesday. Here is a look at what that might look like. 

Canada:

Squad:

Projected XI:

Manager: John Herdman

Form: 

Canada enters the leadup to this match in good form, as they come off of a pair of victories in the last international window. Even though both of those results came against Cuba, a team ranked 103 spots lower in the FIFA rankings than Canada, getting the 6-0 win at home before grabbing a 1-0 victory away means that Canada heads into this game with destiny still in their hands. After a disappointing end to the Gold Cup, where they lost to Haiti in the quarter-finals, Canada has a lot to prove as they continue their push to be included in the Hex next year when the FIFA 2022 World Cup qualifiers kick off. 

Despite John Herdman having only 2 losses in nearly 2 years in charge with Canada, the pressure will be on the Canada manager to at least put up a strong effort against the US, who come into this one struggling. If despite that they come in and put the sword to Canada on their home field, it will be a step back for a Canadian side that desperately wants to show that it belongs among the giants in CONCACAF. 

Storylines: 

What will Canada’s best have to offer? So far under Herdman, Canada has only played 2 games that can either be classified as going up against a top opponent or a must-win game, losing both. They both came this past summer at the Gold Cup, where they first fell to Mexico in the group stages before succumbing to Haiti in the knockout stages, leading to an earlier than anticipated exit from North America’s marquee tournament. This will be Herdman’s third-biggest test as the men’s national team coach, and given the disappointing results of the past two, a strong performance will need to be in order to quell the rumblings of some folk. Unlike the Mexico game, where they *only* lost 3-1 despite a weakened lineup designed to hide their approach for a potential semi-final rematch, Canada will use what is their best lineup against the Americans, if not one that is very close to that. 

Given that Herdman has now had nearly 18 months to work with most of his players, showing progress in their tactical identity is paramount, and this US game will provide them with a true measuring stick opportunity to see where they find themselves ahead of their 2022 campaign. 

Can Canada continue scoring? One thing that has gone well for Herdman so far has been the offence on his team. While it is no secret that he has benefitted from some of the finest attackers that this country has seen in a while, don’t take anything away from Herdman, as he has deployed them in a way that seems to get a lot out of them offensively. The biggest part of that equation has been helped by depth, as they now have a handful of names to rely on offensively, adding consistency to their offence as many different players can now be expected to step up on any given game. With 2 of the last Gold Cup golden boot winners in tow (Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies), as well as a golden boot runner-up (Lucas Cavallini), and recent hometown hat-trick hero (Junior Hoilett), Canada has gotten themselves some players who can put the ball in the net on a consistent basis. 

Too often in big games, it has turned into a question of ifs and buts, with posts and big saves seeming to always stop Canada from tallying against big opponents. For this team that shouldn’t be a problem, but given the past struggles of this nation, it’s exercising a “seeing is believing” policy for big matches, with this game being as good of a time as ever to instill some belief in some skeptical believers. 

How will the backline hold up? Complementing the previous point, another big question will be how they hold up defensively, as their backline remains the biggest of the worries heading into October 15th. Given their offensive talent, they seem like a good bet to score at least a goal, but the big question will be if they can hold off the US long enough to A) find those goals and B) win. If the game remains 0-0 heading into the 60th minute, will the backline be able to hold on long enough for Canada to find a winner? Equally as important, if Canada finds 1 or 2 goals heading into the end of a game, can Canada hold off an onslaught as the US pushes the kitchen sink forward? 

If Canada can find a way to make the answer to those questions a resounding “yes”, they will be in good shape. For now, that will come down to a tactical approach, as Derek Cornelius and Stephen Vitoria are good defenders, the only downside being neither of them have shown to be the kind of guy to lead a backline and get things done on their own. What does that suggest? That Canada’s midfielders will have to play a big role in supporting their back 4, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, given that they are actually fairly stacked in that position. If they can keep that part of the area steady and mistake-free defensively, Canada’s backline should avoid being under too much stress, averting a lot of the pressure expected to be on them. 

Cornelius and company will have a big task at hand vs the US (Martin Bayzl)

3 key players to watch:

Jonathan David (KAA Gent)

The rise continues for the young Gent forward. Despite being older than Alphonso Davies, he has only shot up over the last year or so, as he jumped onto the scene in a big way for Gent in Belgium’s first division. He has risen to every challenge so far, establishing himself in Gent’s starting 11, while becoming arguably Canada’s most important offensive piece. With a golden boot in his first-ever Gold Cup (6 goals), a brace in his debut in the UEFA Europa League groups stage earlier this month, and not to mention 10 goals and 5 assists across 15 games in all competitions for Gent this season, he is expected to be front and centre against the US. With his good speed, strong finishing and good creative ability, without even mentioning his tactical flexibility, he will make a difference against the US. 

David figures to be a key player vs the US (Ben Steiner)

Milan Borjan (Red Star Belgrade)

Borjan continues to shine over in Serbia, starring in both league and continental play. Domestically, he has played a role in Red Star starting the year strong, as they sit tied for first with a game in hand after 9 games. In Europe, he also continues to make some noise, as they sit second place in a strong group in the UEFA Champions League, with a recent win against Olympiacos in their back pocket. Given the struggles of fellow group members Tottenham, Red Star has a strong chance to finish second in the group and progress to the knockout stages, with Borjan expected to play a big role in that quest. For Canada, he brings experience and pedigree to a side certainly lacking the former, as Herdman leans on him as one of his key veterans in a squad bereft of them. No matter how good or bad the backline plays against the US, expect Borjan to be standing strong Between The Sticks as Canada chases a result. 

Mark Anthony Kaye (LAFC)

Given the squad, there may be no man more important than the 24-year-old playing a big role in dominant MLS side LAFC, who have run rampant over their competition this season. After starting this year as a left-back under Herdman, he has established himself as the starting central midfielder, as he took his chance and ran with it, as he has done often with his clubs over the past few years. Given the dominance his midfield in LA has had over their opponents this year, it was a wise move from Herdman, so expect Kaye to play a big role against the US. With 4 goals and 8 assists, he’s an asset offensively, but he is also a defensive gem, breaking up tackles and intercepting balls at a strong rate. Against the US, look him to anchor Canada’s midfield defensively, while still getting forward and providing inch-perfect passes like the one that led to Jonathan David scoring a peach of a goal against Cuba last month. 

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USA:

Squad:

Projected XI:

Manager: Gregg Berhalter

Form: The US has not looked all that convincing over the past year, as they still assimilate the philosophy of new head coach Gregg Berhalter, all while continuing the integration of the many promising youngsters they have into the fold. They drew to Uruguay in a friendly last month, albeit in circumstances where both teams fielded heavily rotated lineups, but they did fall 3-0 to rivals Mexico a few days earlier with most of their top guns. After a disappointing loss in the Gold Cup final against that same Mexican side, which put an end to their undefeated bid from that tournament, they are looking to find a rhythm ahead of the start of World Cup qualifiers next fall. 

With Berhalter still working on his system, a system that got him a lot of success in MLS, he will want to use games such as this one to show that this US program is back on the right path after their failures of missing the World Cup last cycle. It hasn’t quite been as rosy, however, with this team looking very beatable as of late. If Canada comes in and beats them for the first time in nearly 40 years, a lot of questions will be asked of Berhalter and the program, so they’ll want to make sure they bring their A-game when they come to Hogtown. 

Storylines: 

Which US squad will show up? The US has a good squad of players, but the question will be how they will perform against a Canada squad hungry for a result. They have certainly not lacked ambition in big games, as they have put in some good efforts as of late, but there is certainly a lot to be asked. Will they show up in Toronto and play like a Gregg Berhalter side, building things nicely up from the backline, using their #6 as a creative hub and generating shots from high XG areas for their striker? Or will they be sloppy on the ball, look uninspired for ideas and struggle to cope with Canada defensively? That’s the biggest question mark with this team, and as they have shown so far, it can even vary on a half-to-half basis, so for Canada, they’ll certainly be a lot more confident than if this were, say, a 2013 US side instead.

Is the US too predictable? Another big question that has been asked of Berhalter’s system if it has become too predictable. Given that he has stuck with the same principles for a while now, despite his change in jobs, it’s fair to wonder if his tactics have hit a best-by date. He has shown to be adaptable before, and there’s no reason not to believe he won’t be going forward, but will this clash versus Canada be a game where his tactics look stale and force him into a change for the future? Given their form as of late, a lot of signs certainly point that way, but don’t count on it either. 

Managing rest: Both luckily and unluckily for the US, they play a game before they take on Canada, as they host Cuba in Washington before making the trek up to Toronto. They shouldn’t have much trouble against a weak Cuba side at home, but they’ll certainly have to balance the question of rotation. Do they put out a stronger lineup to encourage cohesion ahead of the Canada clash? Or do they just rotate to throw off Canada’s preparations? Either way, it won’t be an easy set of questions for Berhalter to answer as he prepares his team sheet for that game at Audi Field. 

3 key players to watch:

Cristian Pulisic (Chelsea FC)

A lot of eyes are going to be on Pulisic for the US, and understandably so, given that he is the face of the program. After a strong start to his career at Dortmund, things hit a roadblock, so it was hoped that his $70 million move to Chelsea could have changed things up. The early returns haven’t been so positive, however, as he has been unable to find consistent playing time, only starting in 4 of 10 games in all competitions. Despite the uproar from many south of the border, this is normal practice at many big clubs, as signings don’t often always immediately integrate into a team’s starting 11. 

Given that Pulisic was signed by a whole different manager altogether, it just means he’ll have to keep his head down and grind his way to success. At only 21, that might not be the worst thing for his career in the long-term, but given his importance to his national team, it’s not necessarily what they need right now. With all that in mind, expect Pulisic to have a lot of eyes on him when he plays Canada, as people look to see how his spell so far in Britain affects his play with his country. 

Pulisic has not had much joy yet in his English journey

Zack Steffen (Fortuna Dusseldorf)

The former Columbus man, Steffen, has avoided much of the same drama in his stint so far in Germany. One of the best in MLS while he was in North America, he was due for a move abroad, so it’s no surprise to see him putting up top performances for Dusseldorf while on loan from Manchester City. Against a strong Canadian attack, he’ll be expected to play a key role for the Americans, as he looks to continue where he has left off in Germany. A good distributor as well, look for him to jumpstart attacks when the opportunity presents itself. 

Weston McKennie (Schalke)

McKennie is one of the biggest wild cards on this US squad. He has become a regular in the Schalke lineup, commanding their midfield with his strong box-to-box presence. A comfortable passer of the ball, he combines strong footballing IQ with a good defensive work rate, making him a handful for teams to deal with. He is a very versatile player, one who can play all 3 positions in the midfield and even out the wing, making him key to this US set-up. With star midfielder Tyler Adams missing out on this clash due to injury, McKennie will be expected to fill in and make life hard for Canada’s midfielders and attack, especially to whoever plays the #10 for Canada. Don’t sleep on him offensively, either, as he has shown to be able to jump up and contribute on that end as well, and he will be expected to help the US if they are to try and overload Canada’s midfield as is expected. With Schalke in 4th in the Bundesliga this season, with McKennie having played in every game so far, look for him to carry that club form over to the stars and stripes. 

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Looking forward:

In the next installment, we will take a look at the tactical approaches of both teams respectively, before breaking down how their two set-ups will be expected to match up when deployed against each other. We will also be doing our usual breakdown of Canada’s squad by “surprise rating”, but it will be separate from this series, which will be focused on both Canada and the US. 

Up next: tactical profiles

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