Rouges Reflections: No shortage of movement in the Canadian Men’s National Team landscape

In this edition of ‘Rouges Reflections’, a new column for anything Canada Soccer related, we take a look at a busy past week for the Men, who have a lot to look forward to in 2020. From the Olympics to World Cup qualifiers, along with a look at Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, here is how it’s all going down in CanMNT land. 

After it appeared that we hit a lull for news, it hasn’t stopped coming in over this past week.

With the March international window rapidly approaching, there has been an abundance of Canadian Men’s soccer news as of late, especially in the wake of the historic announcement of their upcoming games at Westhills Stadium in Victoria

From the latest update in their quest for the ‘Hexagonal’, which got a slight boost with the recent rumours about El Salvador’s March schedule, to news surrounding some of their star players, such as Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, it’s been a busy time for the Men’s program, who have a big year ahead of them.

Given that 2022 CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers kick off in the fall, and that the 2020 Olympic qualifying process gets underway just under a month from now, there will be plenty of games to both watch and dissect over the next year, as Canada looks to take advantage of what appears to be a strong generation of players.

As they look to avenge their many footballing demons, they have a pretty clean slate to work with this year, giving them a chance to make amends for past results. While not all is rosy, in most cases, they control their destiny, and after achieving a couple of historic results over these past 2 years, they’ll want to keep adding and rewriting the Canadian soccer archives.

Big year for the Men

Only having made the World Cup once, all the way back in 1986, Canada’s men are looking to cut that drought at 36 years by making the 2022 tournament, giving the program a boost ahead of the 2026 edition, which they’ll co-host, likely guaranteeing them entry for that edition. For 2022, however, it won’t be easy, as they haven’t even sniffed the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, the Hexagonal (‘Hex’ for short), since the 1998 cycle, but as it currently stands, they have a strong chance to do so this time around.

In a controversial decision to change the qualifying format , aspiring Hex participants must now find themselves in a top 6 position in the CONCACAF FIFA rankings by the end of June, with the other 29 North American nations entering a knockout tournament that is commonly referred to as a ‘repechage’ or ‘gauntlet’. With the Hex providing 3.5 spots to the 2022 World Cup, a sharp contrast to the gauntlet’s measly 0.5 total, Canada’s been gunning at full throttle to make it into the top 6 over the next 4 months.

As we saw back in November, there are only two teams really left in the hunt, Canada and El Salvador, with the Central American side currently holding onto the spot with a 14 point advantage, which is down from the 30 points it was at the start. This upcoming window could prove to make or break this final race towards that last spot, because depending on how both teams do in the pair of upcoming matches, we could either see Canada completely eliminated, or just ahead of El Salvador on points.

With Olympic qualifying also coming up, giving Canada a chance to reach a competition they last saw in 1984, this could prove to be a massive year for the program. World Cup qualifiers should see a competitive Canadian side, but the Olympics are a little more in flux, with the qualifiers overlapping with the first team’s crucial March friendlies, potentially denying an already stretched roster of what could have been some useful players.

Along with the fact that the Olympic qualifying tournament is an Under 23 event, further limiting Canada’s pool, and that they’ll likely be without first-team regulars such as Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Derek Cornelius, to name a few, and they’ll be in tough for the pre-Olympic tournament down in Mexico.

If they do make it to Tokyo, things do look a little more up, with 3 over 23 spots opening up for the tournament, which runs from late-July to early-August, which should give some of their European-based under and over 23 stars a chance to participate.

But while their depth for the qualifying tournament is stretched, they do find themselves in a favourable position compared to past editions, especially with the creation of the Canadian Premier League, which has given several Canadian U23 talents a chance to play regularly in a good circuit. 

With players such as Joel Waterman and Tristan Borges already moving onto stronger leagues, while the likes of Amer Didic and Aboubacar Sissoko still find themselves trialling in MLS with 8 days before kick-off, it’s clear that some of these CPL players can compete at a good level, which should boost the Canadian Olympic squad’s depth.

Making the World Cup is the priority, no doubt, but making the Olympics could be a good way to jumpstart some more interest around soccer in this country. As they women’s side has shown with their back-to-back Olympic bronzes, the country will rally around their teams in the Olympics, which is why it’s tantalizing to imagine the men potentially joining the women’s team at this year’s tournament, with the latter already having punched their tickets to Japan.

After having missed out on both tournaments so often in the past, just having the potential of reaching either is exciting, and while the Olympic qualifiers could easily take a turn for the worse, the World Cup qualifiers will be good, Hex or no Hex. 

Canada has shown the glimpses of a team that can be a top 3 team in CONCACAF, so no matter if they make the final six, or find themselves stuck in the gauntlet, they can be competitive against every team that they play, which at the very least, should mean for some exciting games in the future.

El Salvador putting it on the line… for now

Giving Canada a big boost for the WCQ is the recent friendly announcements emerging from El Salvador, the team that Les Rouges are continuing to viciously chase in their race towards the ‘Hex’.

El Salvador had made things a lot harder in January, as they opted to make their match with Iceland last month a FIFA ‘B’ training match, removing the risk of losing points, much to the chagrin of Canadians. 

But this time, the Central American country is jumping into the next window head first, as they confirmed a friendly against 2018 World Cup participants, Panama, with further reports suggesting that a matchup against Costa Rica also appears to be in the cards.

For Canada, who’s already confirmed two official games against Trinidad and Tobago in that same window, it should have them quite excited. As we explored last week, Canada can gain around 7 to 8 points with two victories, which would put them 7 points behind El Salvador.

Given that El Salvador is now likely going to be playing 2 games, which could cost them up to 9 points if they were to lose both, it now means that there is a chance that Canada finishes the March Window back in 6th place, provided that all these results do go their way. While El Salvador could also win both games, pretty much sealing their spot in the Hex no matter how Canada does, even them splitting the pair of games keeps things open heading into June, the final window for both teams to gain points.

There are still many moving parts to confirm here, as it’s equally as possible that this rumoured Costa Rica game becomes another ‘training match’, denying Canada of the potential to gain points, but at the very least, the Panama match appears to be official, which can keep Canada alive.

While their destiny is yet to return to their hands, as long as they win both of their games, things will remain wide open. With El Salvador struggling against all types of opposition over this past year, where they had an underwhelming Gold Cup, mixed in with some surprising Nations League results, them losing 1 or 2 of these games isn’t that far-fetched of an idea, especially against a plucky Panama and a consistent Costa Rica, who were two of CONCACAF’s 3 participants in the 2018 World Cup.

That’s not to say it’ll be a cakewalk for both Panama and Costa Rica, who have dealt with the pains of ageing squads over the past 2 years, but they have both showed to still have some firepower in them, which at the very least, will make the games tight and interesting.

On the positive side, no matter how El Salvador does, it shows that they’re still going for it, which is positive. Instead of staying dormant, or playing weakened opposition, they realize that no matter what, World Cup qualifiers get underway in the fall, meaning that preparation will be key. After some of their results last year, these tests will be very important, as they look to return to their pre-2015 form.

And for Canada, who continue their chase, it gives them a chance to still play meaningful games, while also testing their best players in adverse situations, which come September, will be huge, no matter what arduous path they get the chance to go down.

Davies and David

Davies at his best: with the field ahead of him (Martin Bayzl/Canada Soccer)

Two of Canada’s best players, the aforementioned Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, have been busy these past few weeks, as they continue to shine over at their European clubs. 

Davies has been getting a lot of the spotlight, and rightly so, as his emergence for Bayern Munich has been impressive, especially considering that it’s come as a left back. Despite being a talented winger, he’s found a way to adapt to the defensive nuances of the full back position, quickly becoming one of the best wide defenders in all of Germany. 

Meanwhile, David has quietly put together a marvellous season over in Belgium, as he consistently has found a way to rack up goals and assists. For a Gent side currently 2nd in the Belgian league with 3 games to go before the start of the last round, while also finding themselves in the round of 32 in the Europa League, his contributions have not gone unnoticed, with clubs around Europe starting to take stock of the Canadian. 

He’s recently jumped into a tie in the Belgian Golden Boot race, thanks to his 15 goals, which to go along with his 8 assists, has given him a goal contribution nearly every league game (23 in 24). Along with his contributions in Europa League qualifiers (2 goals and 2 assists in 6 games), and group stage (2 goals in 6 games), and it shows the kind of offensive impact that he can have on a team. 

As expected, certainly aided by the recent rise of Davies at Bayern, the suitors have started to come in fast and furious for David, who will surely be sporting a club’s new colours by the fall, at this rate. A recent news report sent Canadian soccer fans into a frenzy, as it was suggested that big Premier League sides Arsenal, Leicester City and Everton had joined the race for the 20-year-old Canadian, adding some more big clubs to a list that had already included Lazio, Lyon, RB Leipzig and Napoli. 

You throw in some of the earlier rumours that had swirled around David, with clubs such as Porto, Benfica, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund also being supposedly interested, and it should make for an exciting transfer story to follow. With a lot of these clubs being among the best at signing and developing talent, turning them from fledging youngsters to straight-up stars, it should be excited to see where David ends up. 

And considering that he’ll likely get Champions League football, along with a strong domestic title contender status (in most cases), it should allow him to keep on growing and improving as a player, which should only help Canada’s Men’s team get better. 

As seen by investments such as the one that saw Tristan Borges go to OH Leuven, the 2019-2020 Belgian B league phase 1 winner (which guarantees them a two-legged playoff to promote to division A, where David and fellow Canadian international, Cyle Larin, currently play), European clubs are taking note of these Canadians, which should be good news for young talent emerging in the country. 

It should be especially fruitful for the National Team, who have already reaped some of the rewards from these young talents, with David and Davies already being arguably the team’s two best players. With the 2022 World Cup qualifiers getting underway, along with the upcoming 2026 World Cup (of which Davies would be 25 for, David 26), Canada has set themselves up to be a breakout team in CONCACAF, with David and Davies providing them with 2/3rds of what can be the best front 3 in the region. 

While the rest of the team is very much a work-in-progress, with a core of under-26 talent that includes GK Max Crepeau, MF Mark-Anthony Kaye, MF Stephen Eustaquio, FW Cyle Larin, CB Derek Cornelius and MF Samuel Piette, amongst others, they have some good pieces to build around. 

If they can just sort out the defensive side of the game, either tactically, through moulding Derek Cornelius and Amer Didic/Doneil Henry to play a specific style, or recruiting, by going and getting someone like Martin Amuz, the 22-year-old Canadian dual-national playing in Uruguay, then there are some potential big victories to be imagined in this teams future. 

So now, it’ll just be about continuing to watch these players grow and move on to bigger and better things, and when they do come to camp, as they all will next month, making sure that they continue to build a cohesive Canadian identity, allowing for an entertaining and fruitful qualifying run, no matter the format. 

Lead by Davies and David, the pair of 2000-borns supposedly scared of nothing, it makes it harder to put a ceiling on this team, which is why it makes these upcoming cycles exciting. 

Looking Forward

All of this could prove to be fruitless, no doubt, but it does seem that there is a potential for this program not seen in the past, which should make for an interesting 2020 year. It’s not the first time Canada has had a solid team (Canadian fans from the early-to-mid 90s can tell you that), but it feels that a team like this, which is both good but still young, is quite unprecedented. 

There are perks to that, as the October US victory showed, but there are also growing pains, as the 2019 Haiti and November US losses revealed. 

And no matter what you think of the personnel, tactical and whatever decisions that all factored into the losses, it should be fun to see this team push through towards their ceiling. Maybe we’ll look back, and realize that this team was held back by external factors, but so far, their setbacks have been blips, not crashes, on the route towards some of their goals (World Cup qualification, Gold Cup supremacy), which has made them more manageable. 

A day may come where the little stomach pains bloat into one big disaster, but that day still seems a bit away, so while they still have a chance for the ‘Hex’, along with the potential for being the top seed in the ‘gauntlet’ if not (there’s also a 2021 Gold Cup!), why not go for it and see what happens. 

Just as long as see no more Alphonso Davies at full back for the National Team (more on that in the next edition of this piece…), and high lines against fast opposition, this team can do damage in the region, so hopefully we get to see them unleashed and thrown to the races. 

And if 2022 comes around, and we look back and realize this team fell comically short, and then it’ll be time to make some decisions about the program, especially given the importance of 2026. 

But with so much coming up in the short-term, especially 2020, bring on this busy slate of the games. 

Cover Photo: Martin Bayzl/Canada Soccer

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