CanMNT Road to 2022: Analyzing the Canadian attack ahead of World Cup qualifiers

Once these unprecedented times are behind us, CONCACAF World Cup qualifying will get underway, in some form or another. In this series, we look at who Canada’s best options at each position will be heading into those matches, as they try to get back to the World Cup for the first time in 30 years. Here is part 3, where we move up the pitch and look at the attackers Canada will be leaning on over the next few years. 

Much like your average pickup truck, Canada’s Men’s National Team is considered to be quite frontloaded. 

Even though that reputation isn’t maybe as merited as it once was, especially with Canada building up a good cache of defensive depth, coupled with some real star power in the midfield, many people look at this squad and tend to be attracted to the names up front. 

But there’s no doubt that with this team, a lot of their success is certainly going to be judged on the performances of those very players in attack, which tends to happen when you’ve got some of the players that you do onboard. 

With Alphonso Davies, the speedy and multi-talented winger who made waves at Bayern Munich this season, and Jonathan David, the ‘next big thing’ destined to move to a top 5 league after an outstanding 2nd season in Belgium, Canada has a pair of 2000-born attacking starlets that can give most countries a run for their money in terms of star power. 

And with the solid cache of depth that has been built up beyond them, it’s given Canada an attacking corps that is legit, as demonstrated by a lot of their recent offensive exploits, exploits that many had previously thought unimaginable for this country. 

There’s a reason that David, still less than 2 years into his Canada tenure, is already on track to wipe out Dwayne De Rosario’s all-time goalscoring record for this country by the time he is 22, with the likes of Davies and Lucas Cavallini sure to follow soon after.

After seeing David and Cavallini finish 1-2 in the 2019 Gold Cup Golden Boot race, the crown jewel offensive accomplishment of last year, a year where many of Canada Soccer’s offensive history books had to be rewritten, it’s given Canada legit star offensive power that they haven’t often had the privilege of having in the past. 

The most exciting part about all of this, as well? Most of Canada’s best attackers are 27 or younger, with Junior Hoilett the graybeard of the group at the tender age of 29, which means that there are still a lot more goals to come for this team. 

Heading into 2022 World Cup qualifiers, and beyond into 2026, it should give fans plenty to be hopeful for, with Canada’s offensive woes of program’s past seemingly behind them. 

So in part 3 of this series projecting the depth chart for those 2022 qualifiers, we’ll take a look at why this offensive group is so special, and why it can give Canada a hope of accomplishing things that were previously thought unthinkable, as they’ve already started to do so far. 

Without any further ado, let’s jump right in. 

Left wingers

Junior Hoilett tracks back against French Guiana (Keveren Guilou)

As we have done throughout this series, we are imagining Canada’s formation to be a 4-3-3, hence the presence of wingers, but it’s important to note that Canada has recently experimented with formations that don’t have them. 

But given the talent that they do have both out wide and up top, it does make a lot of sense to return to more of a 4-3-3 as a primary option, with formations such as a 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 remaining as alternate options for certain tactical matchups, if necessary. 

And a look at some of the names that Canada can bandy out wide shows us why the 4-3-3 makes so much sense, starting with their left winger prodigy, Alphonso Davies, the de-facto leader of this Canadian side. 

The Prodigy (Alphonso Davies)

Speaking of Davies, he leads the way on the wing, having already done so for Canada for over 3 years now. Still not yet 20, it’s crazy to imagine that he made his National Team debut just over 3 years ago against Curacao in a 2017 friendly, at the tender age of 16. 

Since then, he’s found a way to shine for both Canada and his club teams, first the Vancouver Whitecaps, and now Bayern Munich. A speedy winger, he has an astute technical understanding of the game, with his lightning-quick footwork and decision-making skills making him a unique winger. 

And all he’s done is improve on his game these past few years, adding a devastating shot to his locker, along with solid tackling and sharp passing ability. It’s turned him into a complete winger, which is the reason why Bayern have trusted him to become their regular left back this season, as he finds a way to influence the game on both sides of the ball. 

In a sense, one of the most painful storylines that COVID-19 has so far robbed Canadians of is the chance to watch Bayern’s potential run in the Champions League continue, as they were early favourites to claim the crown, with Davies locked in as an everyday starter for the Bavarian giants. 

With Canada, however, he’s hoping to achieve similarily grand accomplishments, at an albeit different position. There’s been a lot of debate surrounding his best fit in this Canada side, especially considering his emergence as a world-class left back, but there’s no doubt that if Canada is to succeed, they need Davies scoring goals and creating chances on the left, tracking back whenever possible to help out the defenders. 

It may give Canada less of an overall offensive punch, but there’s no doubt that having Davies high up the pitch gives them offensive juice, of which that is coming from a player who can arguably stake a claim to currently slot in above Raul Jimenez and Christian Pulisic as CONCACAF’s top player.

Still Making Noise (Junior Hoilett)

Part of the difficult conversation surrounding Davies, however, comes down to Hoilett, who’s no slouch himself, either. Having committed to Canada rather late on in his career, he’s only been in the fold since 2015, despite being the senior member of this forward group at 29. 

But luckily for Canada, he’s still shown to have a lot of juice in his tank, as he constantly performs for his country when called upon. A tricky left winger, he’s more of someone who prefers to cut inside to create space for himself, giving him a chance to use his deadly right boot for shooting opportunities whenever possible. 

While his club form has recently bounced all over the place, with Canada he’s always been quite consistent, making him a constant call-up for head coach John Herdman. Even though he’s become more of a super substitute, mostly due to the play of Davies, he can also play on the right, which allows Jonathan David to shift in and play more centrally, giving Canada more attacking options. 

As long as he can keep fighting for minutes with Cardiff, who continue to be a quality Championship side, finding themselves on the cusp of Premier League promotion once again this year, he’ll be a must-have for Canada going forward, and who knows, maybe he’ll find a rich vein of offensive form with his club again soon. At the very least, he’s trusted for his consistency, both offensively and defensively, which for a young team like Canada, is why his presence is so valuable. 

Honourable Mentions (Ballou Tabla, Jacob Shaffelburg)

After those two, there’s surprisingly not much depth at left wing, with most of Canada’s depth coming in the form of strikers and right wingers. 

That could prove to be a blessing in disguise for Ballou Tabla, Canada’s forgotten prodigy, who has fallen off quite hard since moving to Barcelona two summers ago. Since then, he’s gone from potential Barcelona material down to Barcelona B and now back to the Montreal Impact, where he’s made a permanent return to the club that he originally came up with. 

What was clear looking back is that he made the jump too soon, and that cost him, but luckily for both he and Canada, he’s still only 21, which gives him plenty of time still. He’s still a good player, he just needs to work on expanding his game to be more than just dribbling and flair, much as Davies has done. 

Given Canada’s thin depth at left wing, when Hoilett starts to age out, there’s a spot for Tabla to snatch, provided someone doesn’t come up and pass him until then. 

And at the very least, while Hoilett is still going strong, it gives Tabla an idea of the level required to break back into the Canada fold, giving something for him to strive for in the coming years. 

Beyond him, Jacob Shaffelburg is another name to keep an eye on, as he’s slowly worked his way into the Toronto FC first time set-up, even earning a run of games last season. If he can keep doing that, he’s already worked his way onto Herdman’s radar, so if Tabla stumbles, he could easily leap ahead of him on the depth chart.

Right wingers

Jonathan David in action for Canada last year (Keveren Guillou)

Shifting over to the right-hand side, things get a lot more interesting. In this current 4-3-3, it’s likely that Jonathan David slots in, allowing Canada to put a more natural target-man up front, but as mentioned earlier, Hoilett can also slot in here, allowing David to play as more of a shadow striker, giving Canada the option to experiment within their 4-3-3. 

But beyond David and Hoilett, there’s certainly room for some faces to jump ahead of the line, with Liam Millar’s uncertain club situation throwing the door wide open for some new blood to jump into the spotlight. 

Which for a pair of young faces, may prove to be a big opportunity, one they’ll try to snatch with both hands and start running with. 

Mr. Dependable (Jonathan David)

But while those young faces will have a chance to jump into the fold, they’re going to need a yeoman’s effort to supplant David at the top, as the youngster has quickly put himself onto a level that certainly isn’t that far off from the one of which Davies plays at, giving Canada an offensive 1-2 punch that they’ve never really seen before.

What makes David so unique is how cool he is for his age, as not much seems to really rattle him, hence his nickname, the “Iceman”. Like Davies, he’s a 2000-born, but despite only recently turning 20, it’s so far been hard to find much that can crack him, as his consistency of play is similar to someone who is beyond his years. 

Despite having interest from a list of clubs that would make most top professionals blush, let alone a Canadian kid who bet on himself in Europe, he’s only continued to get better game-over-game, becoming a huge cog in KAA Gent’s success this season. Be it at right wing, or out on the left, or even in the middle as a striker, a #10, and sometimes dropping as deep as a #8, David’s found a way to be consistent wherever he plays, which for Canada, has also made him valuable. 

So keep an eye out on David, as he’ll soon be at a similar level to Davies, giving Canada two big names to monitor for the next decade and beyond. There’s a reason why he’s soon going to be Canada’s all-time goalscorer, health permitting (knock on wood), and why those who haven’t yet heard of him, soon will, as there doesn’t seem to be much holding him back on his road to the top. 

The late bloomer (Theo Bair)

After David, however, the door is wide open, paving the way for some surprise faces, which for someone like Theo Bair, opens up a perfect opportunity. Having only made his National Team debut this January, scoring a goal against Barbados to open his account, it seems like he’ll get a chance to build on that in the near future. 

And it’s been told to BTS that Bair was expected to earn another senior camp call-up in the March window for games against Trinidad and Tobago, at least until COVID-19 made it impossible, so that opportunity is already starting to come. 

Given Bair’s rise over the past year with the Whitecaps, where he went from afterthought to important squad member in only a few quick months, it only seems a matter of time until the 20-year-old moves abroad, as all he’s done is take opportunities and run with them. 

A unique blend of size (6’5”) and speed, he’s not your typical winger, as his hulking body suggests more of a target forward, but he’s certainly shown to be a good wide player for Vancouver, and he can play multiple positions, making him an attractive call-up option.

For Herdman, who does like to be tactically flexible, it’s why calling him up makes sense, and why we’re going to see lots more of Bair heading into this 2022 cycle. 

Honourable Mentions (Liam Millar, Jayden Nelson)

But while we project Bair to be the guy for Canada in this 2022 depth chart, by no means is that a sure thing, with Millar and the 17-year-old Jayden Nelson sure to provide plenty of competition for Bair, which should be interesting to watch. 

For Millar, he just needs to find a suitable club situation, as it’s really hampered him over the past year, with Liverpool’s U23 set-up proving to be something he’s just too good for. Unfortunately for him, however, he can’t really jump to the first team, either, with Liverpool currently sitting as arguably the best team on the planet, leaving Millar in limbo. 

He’s still only 20, and he’s clearly a good player, he just needs the right opportunity, which hopefully comes sooner than later. 

Beyond him, Nelson is a true wild card, with the youngster yet to make his MLS debut, having only recently signed his first contract with TFC, but there’s promise there. Much like Bair, he earned his first National Team caps in January, also scoring against Barbados, and there’s no doubt from people who follow him closely that he can grow into the ‘next thing’ for Canada. 

No matter the debate, however, what’s clear is that between those 3, Bair, Millar and Nelson, it gives Canada 3 young options at right wing, which considering their similarities in age and ability, should make for an interesting battle in both the short and long term. 

Strikers

Cyle Larin in action for Canada against French Guiana last year (Keveren Guillou)

Up front, Canada’s got what can be arguably described as their tightest battle, with a pair of strikers currently duking it out for the pleasure to lead Davies and David in a front three (in the scenario that the front three is NOT Davies-David-Hoilett). 

It’s a battle that proves to get more and more interesting by the day, and hopefully it’s one we get to see develop over the coming years, with there still being lots yet to come from both of its main assailants. 

The Forgotten One (Cyle Larin)

And this may come as a surprise, especially considering that Larin’s last call-up came back in September of 2019, but it’s the former Sigma man that leads the way in our projected depth chart, as his current trajectory suggests that big things are to come for the soon to be 25-year-old. 

After bursting onto the scene as Canada’s next big thing, at least back when he was pouring in goals as a 1st overall Super draftee in Orlando, for whatever reason he’s never put it together for Canada, despite solid stints at Orlando and his current club, Zulte Waregem, with an up and down stint at Besiktas sandwiched by those two tenures. 

But it seems that it’s only a matter of time until he leads the line for Canada, especially considering his growth curve, one that gets better each year. He’s gone from a uni-dimensional target man to a striker who can play with the ball on the ground, strive with his back to goal and involve teammates in the action. 

For Canada, who play more of a modern attacking style, those previously underdeveloped aspects of his game were partly why Larin had dropped below Lucas Cavallini in the depth chart, so it’s been good to see him work at that part of his game. At the very least, it’ll give Cavallini good competition, and if all turns out as anticipated, it can give Canada a 1-2 punch at striker, with the possibility of bringing one off the bench for the other a tantalizing opportunity to have. 

Considering that Larin’s been recently linked with a move to Leeds, who are likely to be in the English Premier League next season, it’s an exciting time for the Canadian forward, who’s had a 2019-2020 to remember. 

El Tanque (Lucas Cavallini)

If anything, it’s a testament to Canada’s forward depth that Cavallini could arguably find himself as a substitute, with ‘El Tanque’ looking likely to succumb to the numbers game. 

But that doesn’t mean he won’t be able to make an impact, be it as a starter or off the bench, as he’s shown. Moments like his volley against the US in October, where he attempted to “break the net”, are an example of what he can do off the bench, and it is also important to note that he did bag 5 goals in last year’s Gold Cup as a starter. 

Either way, what we do know about Cavallini is that he’s fiercely competitive, so you can’t count him out. He came to MLS to be a star for Vancouver, he wants to do the same for Canada, and when he’s on his game, he’s hard to stop.

A unique blend of power, speed and footwork, he can play in the air, on the ground, and everywhere in between, so don’t forget about him in the coming years. 

He’s only 27 years old, and while his longer-term ceiling might not be as high as Larin’s, that doesn’t mean he won’t fight to keep it higher in the short-term, which could easily put him ahead in the fight for spots in the starting 11 in World Cup qualifiers. 

And I mean, there’s a reason that he’s so far knocked Larin out of the race at this point, so don’t be surprised if that does end up happening again. 

Honourable Mentions (Tesho Akindele, Charles-Andreas Brym, Tosaint Ricketts, Terran Campbell)

Beyond Larin and Cavallini, Canada has strong depth, as well, which is unfortunate for those who are looking to claw their way into the fold.

Akindele currently leads the way, having turned up with an excellent campaign with Orlando last year, where he bagged 10 goals for the Lions. He’s a reliable hand, and he’s always happy to fight for minutes with Canada, so as long as he’s doing well in MLS, he’ll be on the shortlist for Herdman. 

After that, it’s Ricketts, the veteran, who is always a reliable choice to lean on. He might not be someone you call in to be a starter for the National Team at this stage of his career, but he’s still someone that can make a huge difference as a super-sub, as he shows time and time again. 

Despite being in his mid-30s, he can still run, and he’s got the smarts to make a difference on both sides of the ball. 

And don’t count out Brym, either, the youngster who was called into the fold for the first time this past January. While his long-term National Team future is uncertain, due to his dual-citizenship with France, he’s a potential option to keep an eye on, especially as he continues to put his name out there in Europe. 

The wild card here, however, is Campbell, who had a standout campaign for Pacific last year. He’s only 21, and he’s only recently been converted to a striker, which could suggest that a lot more is still to come from the former Whitecaps product. 

Given that Campbell is already a unique blend of size, speed and smarts, giving him a package of attributes not too dissimilar to Cavallini’s, as long as he continues to figure out the position, don’t be surprised if he bursts his way into the National Team fold, at least when he jumps up another level. 

Looking Forward

All-in-all, what is clear is that Canada has a solid cache of attacking talent, something which they have not often been able to say in their history. 

And what’s huge, as well, is the depth that they also have in each position, which is fiercely important, especially in terms of the competition that it can generate. 

With a lot of their players being so versatile, it gives Herdman plenty to think about in both his squad call-ups and team selection, which is always a great problem to have for coaches. 

As we’ve seen over this past year, this Canadian team has offensive firepower, they just need to find a way to put together the whole package, starting at the back. They can score goals, they just need to strike that balance, which will take time, but what is clear is that they have pieces, which is often just the first part of the battle. 

Which heading into 2022, is exciting. As we’ve seen throughout this series, Canada has depth that they haven’t had before, so when their ‘Road to 2022’ is back on path, hopefully they can find a way to get their car up and running, allowing them to zoom into uncharted territory. 

(Stay tuned for future works similar to this series, including a look at how things project for 2026, how Canada lines up against potential CONCACAF opponents, and more). 

Cover Photo by: Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl

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