Thursday Thoughts: Navigating through a busy period for Canada Soccer 

After a busy period, with more still to come, we navigate through the Canada Soccer landscape in this edition of ‘Thursday Thoughts’. We look at the U17s tournament in Brazil, look ahead to the U23’s next year and set the table for both the Men and Women’s Senior National Team programs. 

It’s November, and it’s a busy time, at least for those who are fans of the international game. For Canada’s national teams, it’s an eventful period, as several of their teams find themselves in action. It started off in October, as the U17 Men’s National Team started their U17 World Cup campaign, and it has continued into November, with both the Women’s and Men’s Senior national teams slated to play games this month. 

With all those games going on, there’s been a lot to unpack, with a lot more still to come. As things progress, here are some things to take away from what has gone on so far, as Canada’s busy period continues:

The U17 struggles continue, is there hope on the horizon?

Canada’s U17s ahead of their match against New Zealand at the U17 World Cup (Canada Soccer)

After failing to qualify for the 2017 and 2015 editions of this tournament, it was seen as a positive step to see Canada step up and make the 2019 edition of this tournament, held in Brazil. After never winning a game in their 6 previous qualifications to this tournament, it was expected that they turn that negative record around, allowing them to progress to the knockout stages for the first time. 

Instead, their winless run continued, as they were bested by fellow group mates New Zealand, Angola and hosts Brazil, only scoring 2 goals in the process. While the 4-1 loss to Brazil in the opening match came wasn’t surprising, the losses to Angola and New Zealand certainly were, as Canada was just unable to convert their key chances in clinical moments. 

Against Angola in the 2nd game, things stayed level for most of the proceedings, but Canada was unable to grab a lead, as they snatched at a few of their chances. After VAR saved them from conceding an 85th minute Angola winner, it would be all for naught in the end, as they would concede a 95th-minute set-piece goal, allowing their CAF counterparts to leave with all 3 points. 

That meant that things came down to the last game, against New Zealand, as both sides looked to be included in the knockout stages as part of the best 3rd place winners. 

But they would be unable to best their opponents from Oceania either, as New Zealand scored around the 27th minute, and survived a Canadian wave for 75 minutes to finish 3rd. While they didn’t ultimately qualify, a fate Canada would have also met unless they won by a big margin of victory over the Kiwis, it still stung nonetheless. 

As the Senior Men’s National team endures a resurgence, it was expected that their U17 team could at least win some games, so to have them sweep the table with losses was disappointing. After there being plenty of debate on squad composition coming in the leadup to the tournament, with all but 1 of their Canadian squad coming from the 3 Canadian MLS sides academies, it will not do much to quell the notion that changes need to come in terms of how those teams are selected. 

Those changes are coming, however, starting with the creation of the Canadian Premier League this year. Aribim Pepple, a 16-year-old playing for Cavalry, nearly made it into the U17 squad, but he was one of the last 2 cuts from the roster. As the league grows, and more players forego moving to MLS academies to play professionally for their local teams in the CPL, the talent pool will diversify, giving a wealth of options for the coaches to select from. Considering that teams like Brazil had over a half-dozen players playing professionally, while Canada didn’t have a single one, the better they do on that front should aid their results in the future. 

U23s prepare for their ‘Road to Tokyo’

Will Terran Campbell get the call for the U23’s after a strong season? (Keveren Guillou)

And we should get a glimpse into how that U17 future may look like very soon, with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic’s Men’s qualifying tournament starting early next year. Classified as a U23 event with FIFA, it means only players born after January 1st, 1997, can participate in qualifiers, with the rules only changing to allow 3 overage players at the tournament proper. 

While it would be nice if Canada were to somehow get some players like Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David to play, as their two young starlets do still remain eligible, they definitely won’t come due to club commitments. That doesn’t mean Canada will be devoid of talent, however. With the MLS just starting up their season at the time of qualifiers, while the CPL finds itself in the midst of its preseason, it means that the Canadians are expected to field a lineup based mostly out of those two leagues. 

There are plenty of players in the CPL, in particular, that have been grabbing the attention of many as possible Olympic squad players. The headliners have so far been Pacific’s U23 contingent of Terran Campbell, Kadin Chung, Noah Verhoeven and Zach Verhoven, while Forge’s Tristan Borges is also an obvious candidate with his CPL Golden Boot title giving him a big boost. Along with other players such as Edmonton’s Easton Ongaro, Valour’s Tyler Attarado and more, there are plenty of names to look at in Canada’s new top flight. 

Combine that with the many U23 MLS Canadians, with Theo Bair, Georges Mukumbilwa and even Derek Cornelius in Vancouver, Shamit Shome, James Pantemis and Mathieu Choiniere in Montreal, and Liam Fraser, Jacob Shaffelburg and Noble Okello in Toronto, it gives Canada plenty of options. You also throw in players uncertain about their futures such as Zachary Brault-Guillard and Ballou Tabla, and there is certainly some depth to make some noise in qualifiers. 

Thanks to the CPL, it should deepen their U23 pool, as it gives a chance for several of those players to play consistent minutes, after having only 3 MLS clubs often limited that chance. To compete with the US, who has a solid MLS U23 pool due to the homegrown rules benefitting the many American MLS franchises, it will be a good way for Canada to compete against their southern foes. 

Speaking of the Americans, one thing that they’re doing to get a leg up ahead of next year is by playing friendlies, as they are scheduled to play in an invitational tournament with Chile, Brazil and Argentina’s U23 teams later this month. For Canada, who have many U23 players currently in offseason mode due to the conclusion of the 2019 CPL and MLS seasons, having a camp with 20 to 30 players to train and play some games could help the coaches get a better idea of what to expect next year. 

Either way, having the CPL around should boost the U23s, and hopefully that starts to extend towards the U20s and U17s in the coming years, as Canada looks to catch up to the rest of the world in those competitions. While the senior team is giving them plenty to be excited about, they need to find a way to sustain consistency in the development model towards that end goal, and giving more pathways to pro, as they have done with the CPL, can definitely help with that. 

The Women prepare for Olympic Qualifiers

Canada’s Deanne Rose jogging in Japan last month ahead of a friendly (Canada Soccer/ Gloria Ching)

On the Women’s side of things, they kicked off an invitational tournament of their own yesterday, as they took on Brazil in China. Much like Canada’s friendly opponent last month, Japan, Brazil suffered an early elimination in the World Cup this past summer. Falling 2-1 to the hosts, France, it was a tough blow for the Brazilians to take, as another opportunity with star #10 Marta still in the fold went to waste. While they hung with a very good French side, it was still a tough blow, as it was one of their last opportunities to win with an ageing squad. 

But against Canada, who face difficult questions as well as they transition to a younger squad, they (supposedly) looked much like Brazil of old, as they won 4-0. With the game not being on TV, or broadcast on any service, many were left to rely on twitter for updates to get an idea of how the game went, hence the ‘supposed’ qualifier. 

While the offence has been a concern since before the tournament, with Canada struggling to score goals throughout their 4 matches in France, the defence has now continued to pop up as a question mark as of late. After being defensively stingy in head coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller’s 4-4-2 for most of this year, a switch to a 3 at the back formation has not yielded much in terms of positive results. It was hoped that they could build off their defensive solidity, finding a way to create more offensively, but that’s now led to back-to-back 4 goal defeats. 

People could look at those results and say Japan and Brazil are top teams, and they certainly do still have that potential in them, but it’s concerning to see Canada still succumb to those scorelines. They have a lot of talent, but for whatever reason, it hasn’t come together as many people hoped as of late, especially given their run from 2012 to 2016. 

It will now be interesting to see where things go for Canada. They have their Olympic qualifying campaign starting in January, and anything less than a qualification would feel like a disaster. After their run of results, they’ll now have to decide and either stick with their 3 at the back, for better or for worse, or try and go back to the 4-4-2. Either way, with there not being much in terms of camp time after their second game this International window, they’ll be in tough, as they try to chase their third Olympic medal in a row. 

The Men await a squad announcement ahead of the US

Canada and the US lined up before their game last month (Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl)

On the men’s front, things appear to be a lot rosier, as they still ride the high of the huge victory over the US last month. Luckily (or unluckily) for them, they now get another shot to show that it was no fluke, as they now fly to Orlando next week in what’s turning out to be a massive game. 

Another victory puts them in pole position in their quest for the ‘Hexagonal’ for next year’s World Cup qualifiers, while a draw still puts them in a pretty solid position nonetheless. With both of those results also guaranteeing them passage to the CONCACAF Nations League Knockout rounds, Canada will be gunning for at least a point in Orlando. While a loss doesn’t technically eliminate them, as it would come down to goal difference, in that case, that would mean pinning their hopes on Cuba shutting down the US, and that’s unlikely given their past few months of play. 

Oddly enough, despite their now only being 8 days until the game, we still await the squad announcement, as it is expected to come tomorrow (October 8th), exactly a week from the game. While it’s not that unusual, it is a day off of their usual announcement date for away matches (the Wed/Thurs ahead of the start of international break), and it’s even weirder considering the state of the US squad. 

After the US called in nearly 20 MLS-based players for an evaluation camp, they just sent a bunch of those U23 ones for that aforementioned U23 friendly tournament, and also called in 9 foreign players today, leaving them at 24 players. The only thing is that number of 24 does not include their internationals participating in the MLS Cup Finals, who are Michael Bradley, Alex Roldan, Jordan Morris, and maybe Jozy Altidore, which would mean decisions still need to be made. They did confirm that their decision will come on Monday, meaning that they would be just finalizing the squad 4 days before a massive game, which seems unnecessarily unorganized. 

While they already probably know their squad, bar 1 or 2 players, it’s a messy picture at the surface for a program that is already under a lot of scrutiny. What was stopping them from just announcing the 23, and making adjustments based on injuries as they go, as is the usual procedure? That remains unknown. 

It makes for a confusing leadup into this game, as the impeding squad announcements loom large. 

Below that, however, it looks to be an exciting matchup. On the American side, Ajax regular Serginho Dest recently pledged his future to the stars and stripes, which has excited many residing south of the border. Add in Christian Pulisic, who is playing regularly at Chelsea (who would have thought a 21-year-old making a move to a new country would have taken some time to adjust?), and other exciting players like Weston McKennie, they are expected to bring their A-game next week. 

Against a Canadian team who’s players continue to be in form as well, with Alphonso Davies starting 4 games in a row for Bayern, Jonathan David doing his thing in Gent, while Scott Arfield, Atiba Hutchinson, Milan Borjan and company rack up minutes for their clubs, it should make for a good matchup.

As with the last clash, we’ll have plenty of preview material in the lead-up, so stay tuned for that. 

Looking Forward:

In the immediate future, Canada’s Women will wrap up their invitational tournament play this weekend, while the Men will announce their squad and convene ahead of next Friday. It is hoped the U23’s have some sort of camp, but that is unlikely, so any news on that front would be huge. 

Heading into 2020, which promises to be a huge year for soccer in this country, it’s now time to see how Canada’s two senior teams fare. With the Women looking to show that this 2019 form was just a blip in time for a huge Olympic tournament, while the Men look to continue their World Cup qualifying campaign and just be able to send a team to Tokyo for the Olympics, there’s plenty to keep an eye on. 

For those who are big fans of the international side of the sport, it’s an exciting period to follow along with.

Cover Photo Provided by: Martin Bayzl/Canada Soccer