Canada vs USA in-depth preview part 3: Key players and individual battles to watch tactically 

In the third part of our preview series ahead of Canada taking on the US in Nations League play next week, we bring the second of 2 tactical profiles on both teams. After exploring how both teams play and how they might interact with each other in the last part, we will now take a look at some of the more intriguing individual tactical profiles that will be on display at BMO Field. 

Part 1: Breaking down the squads, storylines and key players

Part 2: Analyzing both teams tactical profiles

With the clock slowly ticking towards Canada vs the US next Tuesday in Nations League play, the intrigue and mystique around an exciting clash have only continued to grow. With the US set to take on Cuba on Friday, as they take on the smaller island side in Washington, they now face their last roadblock before they can put full attention towards their northern opponents. 

After taking a look at the more team-related tactical profiles of both sides in our last part, as we broke down what both Canada and the US might be expected to do when they face off on October 15th, it appears that both teams should match up well. With a plethora of young talent playing at top clubs around the world, both sides will be ready to face off for the first time competitively in nearly 8 years, a long wait for two fierce rivals.

In a game between two teams that appear to match up closer than most would think on paper, the game will likely be shifted by the winners of the individual clashes on the field, which will provide an intriguing subplot to some already complex tactical battles. In a game contested by 2 sets of 11 players, the individuals can often shape the direction that teams take in a game, so it’ll be compelling to see which players step up within those already established tactical frameworks and grab hold of the match. With both teams chasing a positive result, especially Canada, as their quest to be top 6 in CONCACAF to boost their World Cup qualifying hopes could be given a huge lift with a result against the Americans.

With all that in mind, here are some players and tactical battles to watch out for in this game, as both teams try and find a way to get a result that will certainly send waves around the rest of the region. 

Players to Watch tactically:

When you look within both teams, there are plenty of players that appear capable of changing a game on their own. In a game that should be tight from the get-go, as Canada looks to avoid costly mistakes early, while the US looks to impose their style of play, they’re each going to need some of those big players to make a difference. 

And that difference won’t just be made by a goal, or through a big tackle, but also by the things that these players are able to do to make a system tick. For Canada, that’ll mean that they’ll need some defensive solidity within their set-up, while still finding a way to have some controlled bits of play, as well as overloading wide areas when in possession.

For the US, that’ll mean getting their #6, likely Michael Bradley, on the ball early, while finding a way to control either the middle or the wide areas, depending on how Canada’s wide 4-4-2 reacts to the US early on. Defensively, it’ll mean avoid keeping too much space behind their full-backs, as well as pressing high early, forcing Canada to feel uncomfortable whenever they try to play the ball by keeping it on the floor. 

Here are some of the lieutenants that will make sure either side is successful in their various missions:

Canada: Jonathan David, the tactical swiss-army knife

David has found a way to influence many games he has played in this year. Will this be the next big one? (Ben Steiner)

While Alphonso Davies is the big name on this squad, there may be no player more important offensively than the talented but versatile David, who continues to shine in Belgium. With all the goals and assists he’s contributed for both club and country, it’s not hard to argue about his value, but his overall importance comes down to more than just his counting stats. 

Part of what has made David so great is that he is almost a coach’s dream in a sense, as positionally he is about as flexible as they come, as he can play on both wings, as a striker, as a 10 or even as a midfielder. Able to play pretty much every offensive position on the pitch, he makes John Herdman’s life a lot easier, as the coach figures out how to best deploy his ideal 11 for the US. 

Helping David is his varied skill set, as he is a speedy runner, he has good technical skills and he is only getting stronger, allowing him to play those various positions. With around 0.7 goals per 90 minutes for Gent this season, as well as 0.3 assists, he can create and finish goals, allowing him to play in those different roles. 

For Canada, he has primarily been deployed as a right-winger, only slotting in at striker at home against Cuba with the absence of Lucas Cavallini. David’s flexibility is now going to give Herdman plenty of options, however, as David can allow him to try some different offensive looks if he wants to change something up. If he wants to stick with a front three of Alphonso Davies, Cavallini and the dangerous Junior Hoilett, David can drop and play as a 10, a role he has played a lot as of late with Gent. If Herdman prefers captain Scott Arfield to start as a 10, David can shift up to either wing or striker, based on which of the other 3 Herdman decides to drop to the bench, allowing him to thrive by pressing up onto US defenders. 

Within Canada’s system, each position has different requirements, but David can fill all of them. If he plays as a #9, he’ll have to press right onto the US defenders, making more penetrative runs, but with his speed and smarts, he can do that. If deployed on the wing, he’ll have to drop back a bit more and play off the full-back, while running into the channel between the opposing team’s centre back and full-back, something he has shown to be good at as well. If at the #10, he’ll have to press high without possession, but be comfortable enough to drop back and receive the ball in his feet, while still being able to pick out the right passes and shots, which he can also do. 

Therefore, with all that in mind, he marks himself as a player to watch, especially if one is to analyze the overall tactical framework of the game. How Herdman deploys David both as a starter, as well as within the game if he shifts positions as a substitute, will give good insight on how Herdman feels the game is going from his perspective. 

Canada: Mark Anthony Kaye, two-way gem

Like David, Kaye is a huge swiss army knife, but he’s less of a wild card than David. While David could be deployed in 4 different positions and no one would bat an eye, Kaye is a more sure bet, as it doesn’t take any gambling person to know that he’ll be plunked right into Canada’s midfield as a box-to-box man. 

And theres no reason to be doubtful of that. A key cog in record-breaking MLS side LAFC, he will play a massive role for Canada on both sides of the ball. On the offensive side of things, he can shine, as evidenced by his 4 goals and 8 assists, 1.6 key passes and 1.9 successful dribbles a game, his 84% pass percentage and his 1.2 shots per game. Defensively, he is no slouch either, helping LAFC only concede 37 goals in 34 games, thanks to his 2.2 tackles and 1.4 interceptions a game, as he also shields their back 4 quite well. 

With that kind of 2-way acumen, Kaye is going to be relied upon to do a lot for Canada in the midfield, but he can handle that. Defensively, both he and Samuel Piette will have to cover ground as part of their wide 4-4-2 when they set up to defend, while in attack he’ll be relied upon to pick some penetrative passes, as well as dribble the ball forward and overload the US midfield. Given his body of work this year in LA, no reason to doubt he won’t be able to do that for 90 minutes on Tuesday, especially after over a week of rest since his last game. 

Canada: Alphonso Davies, wide area threat

Will this game be Davies’s big moment in 2019? (Keveren Guillou)

Davies is going to garner a lot of attention in this game, as one would expect when you play your club football at one of the biggest teams in the world, and that’s understandable. A leader on this Canadian squad, it’s crazy to think that A) he only turns 19 next month and B) he made his National Team debut 2 and a half years ago, as he has now become a fixture in the squad. After a strong offensive start to his National team career, he has slowed down a bit, taking a backseat to the high scoring exploits of Cavallini, Hoilett and David, who all have hat tricks this year with their country. 

And there’s something great about that in a way, especially for Canada. Having Davies as well as these other names gives them a true “pick your poison” attack that they have never had, which only will benefit their ability to score goals. Take the pair of games against Cuba, for example. In the first game, Davies was unable to influence the game, often finding himself triple-teamed in possession, with his best chance resulting from a 1 touch shot and smart off the ball movement. In the return leg, however, Cuba gave him a little more space on the ball, and he made them pay, scoring a great goal and looking lively all night. 

It leaves Canada with a no-lose situation in a sense, because opposing teams focusing attention for Davies both opens up space for his talented teammates, and still doesn’t always take him out of the game. Despite his limited minutes in the Bundesliga, he still averages 2.2 dribbles a game, and 1 key pass a game, and that’s been a strength in his game since his MLS days: getting around people and setting up teammates. As he continues to improve upon his tendency to do too much on the ball, forcing unnecessary turnovers, watch out. With new defensive prowess under his belt from continued repetition in defensive learning situations in Germany, he’s slowly turning into a wide threat that can impact the game on both sides of the ball, something that Canada will need against the US. 

For Canada, he will use that defensive strength when dropping deep in Canada’s wide 4-4-2, as they look to eliminate space in wide areas, and offensively he’ll very happily operate in between the full-back and centre back channels. With the US unlikely to do much more than maybe double-team him, he should get some space to do what he does best, so we’ll see how on he feels when he takes the pitch Tuesday. 

USA: Michael Bradley, creative hub

There may be no player among the 46 named that will be more important to what a team does than Bradley, with an honourable mention to his backup Will Trapp. As seen in our tactical preview, US manager Gregg Berhalter lives and dies by the #6 position, one that Bradley will likely occupy against Canada, considering his seniority, as well as his familiarity with the city. 

And he will change the game for the US, either positively or negatively. A great passer of the ball, he is expected to be the creative hub for the US against Canada, as the #6 usually is for Berhalter. With the US in possession, he will drop in between the centre backs, making it tough for Canada to press him, and try to suck in players to both he and the centre backs, allowing him to play flowing diagonals to his wide players in space. 

As Canada looks to defend wide space, partly to try and nullify exactly that, it will be interesting to see who breaks the battle of wills. With the US likely teasing Canada to press into the middle in order to open up those diagonals, while Canada tries to force the US to try and overload through Kaye and Piette in the middle, it will turn up into a tactical boxing match of sorts. 

Bradley will likely dictate that, in a sense, as he will be the conductor of the US’s passing game. If they are to play those long diagonal passes, he will be the driving force behind that, and if they start playing shorter through the middle, players will be playing off him in order to do that as well.

With 1.9 tackles and 0.8 interceptions a game, as well as a 89% passing rate (around 75 passes a game), he is still a good midfield at the age of 32, so expect him to be sharp within the comfortable confines of BMO Field on Tuesday. While the US’s defensive scheme relies more on the energy of the players around him, offensively they go through him, so as Bradley goes, the US goes.

USA: Weston McKennie, midfield controller

US’s answer to Kaye, McKennie is going to play a huge role for the Americans, as he continues to get things done over in Germany. A flexible #8, he will be all over the pitch against Canada, as there is probably nothing that he can’t do from his position in the midfield. Offensively, he is a good passer, completing nearly 0.7 key passes a game as well as completing his overall passes at a 78% clip, adding nearly a shot and a successful dribble per game. Defensively, he has 1.1 tackles and 1.3 interceptions a game, as he manages to find a way to impact himself in all areas of the pitch. 

And it shows with the US, even earning starts as a winger during the Gold Cup, as he gives Berhalter a versatile option to throw around in different spots on the field. Against Canada, that will be likely right up through the middle, as he will be key if the US are to break down Canada defensively through overloads and his passing, while he will also be expected to help neutralize the threats brought on by the likes of Kaye, David and Scott Arfield through the middle. While not everything will run through him as it does with Bradley, he is a good second lieutenant to have in the midfield, as he will do a lot of the work Bradley is unable to do going both ways. 

Given his pedigree at a top-level, despite only being 21 years of age, he will be shepherding that midfield for years to come, and he’ll give a sample of that against Canada. Watch him as he brings tactical flexibility to a quite rigid Berhalter set-up, giving the US that wild card up through the middle that they may end up needing more than they’ll think. 

USA: Christian Pulisic, middle and wide danger

Offensively, he is the metaphoric baking powder that makes the bread rise, with the US’s attacking hopes largely pinning on his shoulders. Only 21 years of age, it feels like forever ago that he broke in with Dortmund at 17, tearing apart Champions League defences, but he now faces a crossroads in his career, after having had to deal with a lot of adversity the last season or so. After a dream start to his professional life, he has hit a bit of a roadblock as of late, but it will likely be one that he emerges better from, as he continues to establish himself at Chelsea after a $70 million dollar move. 

While he sorts that part of his career out, however, he still remains a huge piece for the US. Averaging around 2 dribbles and 1 key pass per game in his career, along with an approximate 75% successful pass rate, he is a unique offensive specimen. Usually, for most wingers like him, they struggle to maintain a strong pass rate, as they tend to make mistakes by losing possession and messing up crosses, generating high dribble rates through a persistent approach. Instead of that kamikaze-style method, however, Pulisic still combines high dribble rates with good passing numbers, which shows he knows how to pick his spots and make good decisions, making him a unique attacker. 

Against Canada, he has a couple of roles to play within Berhalter’s set-up, and he will likely do a good job in them. Expected to be deployed as a wide threat, unless he gets thrown out as a 10 as he sometimes has in the past, he will need to provide the US with width when in possession. If Canada remains successful in squeezing out space out wide where Pulisic might want to operate, he’ll also have to be able to cut in and create matchup nightmares for Canada, and given his dribbling and passing ability, it’s nothing he can’t do. 

With the full-backs providing most of the width offensively anyways, while the wingers roam and help create overloads, Pulisic will have the freedom to do just that, so watch out for him to have a statement game against Canada. Defensively, with his responsibilities being to press high and hard, he’ll find himself in good positions all night. Depending on how Canada defends him, it could prove to be a fruitful evening for him. 

Some matchups to watch:

The midfield promises to be a fun area of the pitch to watch against the US (Ben Steiner)

So while the individual players will make a difference within the tactical framework, do not discount the importance that certain battles will have on the field. When two teams have a chance to prepare for each other tactically, as these managers surely have, some matchups may possibly change the complexion of the outing. With that in mind, here will be the 3 top battles to watch:

  1. USA’s#6 vs Canada’s #9+10

One of the most important battles, this face-off will play a role in how comfortable the US is when in possession, which in turn will dictate the flow of the game. Canada’s #9 and #10, which looks to be a combination of Lucas Cavallini, Jonathan David and Scott Arfield, will press deep down the US’s attempts to play out of the back, with their #6 expecting to receive a good brunt of that. What will be key to monitor from this battle will be A) if Canada’s press exclusively focuses on the #6, leaving the other centre backs free and B) if Canada will be affected offensively through this, either positively through turnovers, or negatively through fatigue. Will Herdman get his front two pressing a little harder to limit US’s play out of the back, even if it means a little less juice for his team offensively? Those are the kind of implications this battle has, and why it will be fun to moniter it’s progression. 

  1. Canada’s wingers vs the US full-backs

For two wide positions, this battle has so many implications, as it will likely affect how each team’s offence ends up flowing. For the US, their full-backs play a huge role in how they look to play offensively, as they push up the field aggressively, which could leave some gaps for Canada’s speedy wingers to exploit. For Canada, their wingers play a huge role in their attack, helping create a brunt of their chances, but they are also key cogs defensively, as they will drop back to neutralize opposing chances. In this battle, the winner will be the team that finds the most offensive freedom, creating opportunities off of the other’s mistakes, while still finding a decent enough offensive balance. Given how Canada likes to play, they seem to have the upper edge, but if Berhalter’s full-backs find a way to play the way he likes them to play, it’ll be a high-reward payout for him. 

  1. Canada’s 2 man midfield vs the US

If the other two battles are the undercard, the midfield is going to be the main event, and for many reasons. With quality players such as Weston McKennie, Michael Bradley, Sebastian Lletget, Mark Anthony Kaye, Samuel Piette and Scott Arfield expected to slot in the positions through midfield, it will be a royal rumble of sorts through this area of the pitch. Defensively, offensively or a bit of both, it won’t matter what the scenario when these teams play: there’s a lot of ability to do all 3 here. 

For Canada to win the midfield battle, they’ll have to keep the US from passing their 2 man line of Kaye and Piette through their 4-4-2, generate some good scoring chances and ensure overall control over the game. For the Americans, they’ll have to overload Canada’s 2 when in possession, stop Canada’s mids from supplying the dangerous wide areas and open up space in attack. 

The team that is able to do those things best on Tuesday? You’d figure that they leave BMO Field victorious, so it’ll be really exciting to see how this territorial battle unfolds over the course of 90 minutes. 

Looking forward: 

In a game of squads and teamwork, an individual can still shape the game immensely, and this game is going to be no different. As we saw in the last part, there is a lot of tactical layers to break down for either team to be successful, and these individual players and key battles will play a role in that happening. 

During the next part of our preview, we’ll take a look at some of the implications for this game, both in terms of how it affects Canada, as well as culturally, as both teams look to reignite a rivalry. After seeing how both teams will be expected to play on the field, it’ll be a good chance to see what makes this game important on and off the pitch, as a victory for either side would have plenty of technical and symbolic value. 

Up next: Implications

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