In this edition of Rouges Reflections, our column covering all things Canadian Soccer, we take a look at the impending returns of the Bundesliga and KLeague, and how they should give the CanMNT a boost, before taking a look at how potential changes to the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying format could impact Canada.
After what has felt like an eternity without it, soccer is slowly returning to action in different corners of the world.
While for many leagues there are still more questions than answers, and it seems like months and years before we can dream of returning to a pre-COVID-19 footballing calendar, just having the sport return in small doses is a victory on its own, with South Korea and Germany preparing to become the first two major leagues to start anew.
For other leagues around the world, this restart is going to be huge, as it’s potential success/failure will be followed closely by other leagues still on the fence about returning, with many likely hinging their bets on how South Korea and Germany undertake this endeavour.
While each league has its different reasons for returning, with Germany’s Bundesliga return more prompted by a need to keep many of its pivotal members afloat financially, whereas South Korea’s restart is more due to the fact that they’ve been ahead of the curve for a lot of this crisis, there’s no doubt that these games are going to be huge for each league.
With people all around the world currently staying at home, following orders to help stop the spread of COVID-19, these games have the chance to be among some of the highest viewed sporting events ever, as a thirst for sport will likely spurn several fans to take interest in both leagues.
But it’s not just the clubs in the leagues that will stand to benefit, but also the players, who will have a global audience to show off their skills to. While that isn’t as much of a big deal for the Bundesliga, who already has a pretty sizable following, for South Korea’s KLeague, a relatively unknown circuit outside of Asia, this newfound exposure could be massive for players pining for a move abroad.
And luckily enough for Canadian Soccer fans, the restart of both leagues will stand to benefit two of their players, as well, with Alphonso Davies and Doneil Henry both getting set to soak up valuable minutes for their clubs, as Davies looks to continue his meteoric rise in Germany with Bayern Munich, while Henry prepares to redeem himself with his new club in South Korea with the Suwon Samsung Bluewings.
Considering that the pair of National Team mainstays are going to get set to undergo World Cup qualifiers sometime over the next year or so, COVID-19 permitting, any big experience that they undergo during this time will be huge.
With CONCACAF’s president also finally hinting that a much-awaited change to the World Cup qualifying format could be soon announced, Canada could find itself in a pole position to qualify for the first time since 1986, but to do that, they’ll need all cylinders rocking, with the play of Davies and Henry pivotal to that.
Davies and Henry thurst into the spotlight
So while it’s unclear when some of their other CanMNT teammates will join them, Davies and Henry will return to action over the next 10 days, with Henry’s Bluewings kicking off on Friday May the 8th, with Davies’ Munich doing the same around 8 days later, on May 16th.
For Henry, these games will be especially big, as he looks to establish himself as a force in South Korea, after having made a surprise move to the country this past winter. After a strong season in MLS with the Whitecaps, he was surprisingly sold on, as the club opted to sell high on the defender.
While it was a move that made sense when you scratched below the surface, it was still a shock to see the popular defender moved on, especially after he had done so well to return to form in Vancouver. After a couple of tough campaigns with a handful of clubs, he had finally hit his stride in the Blue and White, and it felt that he still had many good years ahead as a leader for the young club.
But for Henry, this move could also prove to be a blessing in disguise, as he now finds himself in one of the more underrated circuits in the world. Still only 27 years of age, he is yet to really hit his prime as a player, with centre backs usually taking longer than others to settle into their position.
With the chance to go up against some of the up and coming South Korean stars that have made the league a go-to spot for European recruiters over the last several years, Henry will get to test himself in a tough environment, one that not many Canadians have encountered. From a National Team perspective, that will be huge, as it can push him back up the pecking order at what is already a position of need for the country, allowing him to firmly entrench himself in the heart of defence once more.
And from a personal perspective, especially in light of this restart, these games could be huge, as many big clubs around the world will be sure to keep an eye on some of the intriguing names in the Korean circuit. While that might not lead to a blockbuster move for the centre back, it could potentially spark a return to the European continent, of which Henry is surely keen to go back to.
After a tough first trip abroad, as his 1st foray to Europe was marred by injuries, if he can show that all of that is behind him in Korea, as he started to do with the Whitecaps, this restart could prove to be a catalyst for a potential return to a club on the big continent, which would be huge for both him and the National Team.
Meanwhile, over in Germany, things are less uncertain for Davies, but equally as exciting, as he looks to continue to rack up minutes at left back for Bayern. After putting up stellar performance after stellar performance leading into the COVID-19 stoppage, he had quickly built up a strong reputation as a player, with many suggesting him to be a top 5 full back in the world already.
It’s meant for a fun ride for Canadian Soccer fans these past few months, as they had the chance to watch ‘Phonzy’ grow from a Canadian phenomenon to a global one. With his trademark speed, stout defending, mazy dribbling and fun-loving personality, he quickly has become one of the more recognizable stars on Bayern, which from a Canadian perspective, has been mind-boggling to see progress.
So for him, these games will only allow him to extend his global reach, with many eyes likely to be following his Bayern side closely, which in turn will only help Canadian Soccer, especially considering the likely increase in eyeballs North of the 49th parallel, as well, due to a lack of other live sporting alternatives.
Which for fans of the game in this country, it will be big, as the increased exposure will only help other young and coming Canadian stars, such as Jonathan David. For a country that has often had a disappointing soccer reputation, it feels strange to see so many take a keen interest in the country, but such is the reality when you got a global star playing at a big club.
And don’t forget the pure sporting side of the equation, as well, because any minutes Davies earns with Bayern are huge minutes for Canada, who will be happy to see the continued growth of the youngster. As long as he keeps performing at a level similar to what he was playing at before, the sky is the limit for him, as the 19-year-old continues to shine at all levels.
So all-in-all, it’s exciting to see that Davies and Henry will be gliding along the grass in their respective circuits before too long here, and hopefully they can put together some strong performances, which would be beneficial for a multitude of reasons.
CONCACAF may get set for long-awaited World Cup qualifying shift
But as big as the return of Davies and Henry are for Canada, it’s quite unsure what the future holds for the countries National Team, as CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifying process currently sits in limbo.
While it’s a problem that many confederations all over the world are currently facing, it can be argued that among the 6 governing bodies, CONCACAF has the most work to do, as they found themselves yet to kick off what was a brand-new format.
But luckily for fans, most of whom were against the new format, changes are on the horizon, at least if CONCACAF president Victor Montalgiani has anything to say about it, as he promised that there will be changes to the process, at least whenever international soccer is given the green light to return.
In an interview with Onesoccer’s Gareth Wheeler, he shared that CONCACAF has been working on alternate formats, based on the number of games and windows allocated to them ahead of the 2022 World Cup tournament, with Montagliani promising change no matter what happens.
For Canada, that can be huge, as it looks like there will be an expanded final round, as it looks likely that the ‘Hexagonal’ will be no more. After decades with the ‘Hex’, which is a 6 team final round, it looks likely that a new alternative will be on its way, probably for good, especially considering the expected expansion of the World Cup to a 48 team tournament.
Part of the issue with the current format, however, was that FIFA rankings were used to determine the ‘Hex’ this time around, a big change from the usual elimination process, as a new ‘Gauntlet’ was created to run parallel with the Hex and give every team in CONCACAF a chance to start at the same time. Unfortunately, Montagliani did say that FIFA rankings will play a part again, but that group sizes will likely have to be reworked.
Which for the Canadians, would actually be beneficial, as they find themselves 7th in the current rankings. It wasn’t good enough for the Hex, as many had painfully started to realize, but with this new reworking of a final round, which you would have to imagine includes 8 or 10 teams now, should see Canada among those teams when all is said and done.
While it would be nice to have more of a balanced format, as many of CONCACAF’s minnows could stand to use more games against good opposition in the long-term, that will be unlikely, at least for this round, especially due to the COVID-19, but for many mid-tiered teams such as Canada, this is a good solution.
CONCACAF is looking as strong as ever, with Canada, Panama, Haiti, Curacao and Trinidad and Tobago not that far off the levels of El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, the US and Costa Rica, who make up 5 of the current top 6. While Mexico is in its own class, the talent gap is arguably as tight has ever been between 2 and 11, which is why any expansion of the final round is so important.
So it’ll be interesting to see what ends up happening, as a solution is obviously still ways away, but it’s good just to see that we can expect something, and at least considering what we know, that something will at least be a format that should help give Canada as good as a shot as they have had in recent memory to reach their 2nd World Cup.
At the very least, these recent developments should give Canadian Soccer fans a lot to cheer about in both the short and long-term.
Right now, it’ll be good to keep an eye on Davies and Henry, and in the long-term, it’ll be good to know that their World Cup qualifying hopes won’t be as stark as they were a few months ago, which is a win-win on both counts.
So for now, enjoy the return of the beautiful game, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on the play of Davies and Henry, as the two Canadians carry the torch for the sport in these trying times, so that when things do return to normal, Canada can find itself in a stronger place than ever before.
Cover Photo by: Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl