Halfway There: CanMNT looking to close out 1st round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers on a high note vs Aruba and Suriname

Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team is getting set to play a pair of very important CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers against Aruba and Suriname this week. If they take care of business in those games, the 2nd round of qualifying awaits them, with a chance to make history. Here’s what to expect from them at this camp. 

Fresh off of 3 months apart, the squad is back together and ready for a jam-packed month of action. 

For Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team, this is going to be a huge next couple of weeks, as they get set to put decades of pain behind them, starting this weekend. 

As they continue their journey through Round 1 of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers, they’re looking to do something that they haven’t been able to do since the 1990s, and that’s to make it to the final round of this region’s qualifying format, which is now called the ‘Octagonal’. 

Obviously, the goal is then to make it back to the World Cup proper for the first time since 1986, but they can’t even dream of going to the big dance if they get booted out of the line to get in, making it important that they navigate these qualifiers with caution.

So far, through 2 games of Round 1, they’ve done that, beating Bermuda and the Cayman Islands by a combined score of 16-1 back in March, but stiffer tests await them in the back half of this stage. 

First, they’ll take on a plucky Aruba side, before clashing with some of CONCACAF’s brightest risers, Suriname, who have seemingly been recruiting top European players every week leading up to this camp. 

Heading into those games, Canada remains the heavy favourites to progress as the lone team to get out of their group, but they’ve got to be careful, as one loss could easily send them packing. 

Considering Canada’s struggles in these sorts of games in the past, and the unpredictability of this region, it’s important that Canada remains focused and on task, allowing them to erase their past struggles. 

3 years into John Herdman’s tenure as head coach, this Canadian team feels different, and this is a chance to prove that, allowing them to reach heights previously not reached before. 

With all of that in mind, here’s what to expect from them in this camp. 

A strong squad:

And first, it’s important to point out the group of guys tasked to take Canada to those bigger heights, as Herdman has called in a talented squad of 24 players to guide them through these games. 

Headlined by Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies and Lille’s Jonathan David, Canada’s squad has both star power and depth, making them a force to be reckoned with for these sorts of games. 

From veteran players that have seen it all such as Milan Borjan, to young up-and-coming players on the cusp of a breakout such as Theo Corbeanu, with guys hitting their prime such as Stephen Eustaquio sitting between them, this team has a good mix of guys in it. 

There are a few weaknesses in the squad, which is normal at the National Team level, but for the most part, there’s a lot to like here. 

Considering that they’re missing some of their best players for this camp, such as veterans Atiba Hutchinson and Scott Arfield, it’s a sign of their growing squad depth as a country, making it an exciting time to follow this Canadian team. 

Herdman recognizes as much, and is excited to continue to work with this team, allowing them to get more reps together as a squad, the one thing they need to do a lot more of before they start to get recognition as a top CONCACAF squad. 

“Yeah it’s a strong squad,” Herdman said during a press conference last week. “There’s faces that you would have liked to have, pieces of the puzzle that we lost either through injuries or due to where they’re at in their careers after long seasons, we haven’t been able to bring them in, but talking about the guys that are committed, the focus is there, it’s an exciting group.”

“We’ve got pace, we’ve got power, we’ve got experience in key parts of the field, with (Milan) Borjan in net, yeah, I think we’ve got a good balance across this team. We’ve got a young group, when you look at the caps, some of them may be lacking that sort of experience, but I think these games are what this team needs, it’s that growth in CONCACAF together.”

So with all that in mind, it should make this camp extra fun, as this will truly start to give this squad the sort of tough games they need to progress as a group, especially with some of the games that will be expected to lie ahead of them in the future. 

Plus, internally, battles for spots will be fierce, only adding competition to a team filled with it, which should hopefully manifest itself on the field in games. 

When considering the big picture of the guys who are either at camp or missing out, this is one of Canada’s most exciting groups of players that they’ve had in a while, and we saw a glimpse of that last camp, something they’re looking to carry over into this month’s games. 

(If you’d like a more in-depth breakdown of the squad itself, we’ve got you covered.)

What to expect from Aruba and Suriname?

And speaking of these month games, what should one expect from Aruba and Suriname? 

It’s a good question, one many are wondering about heading into these matches. 

First, there’s Aruba, who are a plucky side, one that will battle to the bitter end no matter the result. 

That’s manifested itself in their games so far this qualifying cycle, as despite 6-0 and 5-0 defeats to Suriname and Bermuda last camp, they battled hard in those games, helping avoid the sort of double-digit shellacking that Canada gave the Cayman Islands. 

Considering that they had a COVID outbreak ahead of the March window, weakening their squad ahead in those games, they did well to compete there, even though the results weren’t on their side. 

It’s important to remember that just 2 years ago, they only lost 2-0 to a Jamaica side currently ranked 3rd in CONCACAF and 45th in the world, which for a nation ranked 205th, is a pretty big accomplishment. 

With a new Technical Director and Coach in the fold, ex-Ajax player Stanley Menzo, Aruba feels like they’re on the up again, raising spirits in their camp ahead of this game.

For Herdman, it’s something he’s well aware of, as he’s making sure that his squad prepares for this match accordingly. 

“Aruba are certainly a different team to what they were in March,” Herdman explained. “Their squad has strengthened since March, they were hit by COVID, so the team we’re now looking at is similar to the team that was able to hold Jamaica to 2-0, it’s not an 11-0 Cayman Islands game, especially when you’re playing in that Florida heat.”

“The guys will have a few days to adapt to that, and that’s the context of the match, I’ll encourage the players to be ruthless, to create a mentality about setting the tone for this campaign, as we did in March, and continue on with our work.”

Plus, it’s worth noting that Aruba does head into this game on a high, having beat the Cayman Islands 3-1 on Wednesday, raising spirits in their group ahead of the Canada clash. 

But that Aruba game is just a mere appetizer for the big game everyone’s waiting for, and that’s Canada versus Suriname, which comes on Tuesday, June 8th. 

Assuming both teams take care of business in their games leading up to then, that game will be a ‘win and you’re in’ game for the 2nd round, making it one of the must-watch games of this 1st round. 

For Suriname, this match is huge, as they continue their climb up from 136th in the world, where they currently sit, to join some of the bigger players in CONCACAF, a distinction they’re starting to believe that they deserve after their recent results and player acquisitions. 

Having cruised through their first 2 games with the Cayman Islands and Aruba by winning 3-0 and 6-0, respectively, they showed that they’re the team to beat for Canada in this group, which only makes this potential showdown even more dramatic. 

And what’s amazing about Suriname’s rise is how fast it came about, as it was only 9 months ago where they were among some of the minnows in CONCACAF, trying their best to stay competitive in a tough region.  

Instead, thanks to a policy change in their countries’ politics that allows Dutch dual-nationals to hold the passports of both the Netherlands and Suriname, they’ve been able to recruit some top players, now making them a team that can one day dream of sitting among the giants of CONCACAF. 

With players such as Galatasaray’s Ryan Donk, Anderlecht’s Warner Hahn, AZ Alkmaar’s Ramon Leeuwin and Union Berlin’s Sheraldo Becker, among others, Suriname has quickly built up a squad that on paper could give a fight to nearly anyone in CONCACAF. 

One does have to wonder how cohesive they’ll be as a unit in these games, as most of their players have only played a few games together, and they only have a combined 92 caps between their whole squad (Canada’s 2 most capped players in their squad right now, Samuel Piette and Milan Borjan, have a combined 101), but in a one-off game, talent can make a difference in certain moments, and that’s something that Suriname now has in abundance. 

“Suriname are a completely different team now,” Herdman said. “They are a top 6/top 8 team in CONCACAF in terms of the quality of players, so I don’t think anyone predicted that in nine months after (the original World Cup qualifiers draw), they’d have 15 new players, all who have played at the highest levels of the Eredivisie.”

“I think with their team, it’s more about where they’re at right now than where they’ve been, because they’ve got experienced guys that have seen a lot in football, so that brings a new and exciting challenge.”

So with all that in mind, it should be a fun pair of games for Canada. 

They’ll hopefully have a chance to get some goals and get the confidence flowing against Aruba, before taking on Suriname in the sort of game that can be huge for a young team like Canada, who haven’t played many of those kinds of big games together quite yet. 

What lies ahead for Canada? 

Canada celebrates a goal in their 5-1 win over Bermuda (Jeremy Reper/Canada Soccer)

And make no mistake, those games are huge. 

If Canada does indeed take care of business and finish first in Group B, they’ll take on the winner of Group E, which will be either Haiti, Belize or Nicaragua, in a two-legged home-and-away series later in June.

From there, the winner of that series would head to the final round, the Octo, where they’d join the US, Mexico, Jamaica, Honduras, Costa Rica and 2 other teams in an 8-team group stage that begins this fall. 

There, they’d play every team in the group twice, both home and away, for a total of 14 games. 

The top 3 teams would head straight to the World Cup, while the 4th place team would head to the intercontinental playoff, where they’d play against the playoff participant from either CONMEBOL, OFC or AFC in a two-legged series, with a spot in the World Cup on the line. 

So for Canada, making the Octo is the priority right now. 

Obviously, the chance to make the World Cup is the reason why, but just playing some of those teams mentioned both home and away would be huge in terms of accruing experience, which would be invaluable ahead of the 2026 World Cup, which they’re likely to qualify automatically as co-hosts. 

Plus, by playing in these high-profile games, it’ll be able to drive up interest in the sport in this country, allowing fans to see the likes of Davies and David represent their countries in big games, only adding to their already slowly-growing popularity here. 

And if they do make the World Cup, that could be the sort of supernova burst that could permanently push the program to the next level, especially with the sort of talent that is coming through the ranks at the moment. 

But all of that cannot happen unless Canada makes the final round, making these next games huge. 

That means taking care of business against Aruba and Suriname, before doing the same against the Group E winner, making for a successful next couple of weeks. 

Anything less, and this campaign will feel like a disappointment, especially considering that Canada is the 2nd-highest ranked team participating in the first 2 rounds. 

They’ve got the talent to do it, but they’ve just got to find a way to stay concentrated on the task, allowing them to make history. 

Games to watch: 

Elsewhere, here are the games to watch from a Canadian perspective for the rest of this 1st round. 

(For reference, here’s how Group B and Group E look like as of writing)

Suriname vs Bermuda, Friday, June 4th, 2021, 15:00 PDT, 18:00 EDT

This one’s huge for Canada, because if Bermuda snatches any sort of points off of Suriname, it gives them a bit of breathing room in that last game. If not, it’ll be winner takes all on Tuesday in the Canada vs Suriname game. 

Nicaragua vs Belize, Friday, June 4th, 2021, 18:00 PDT, 21:00 EDT

Elsewhere, two of Canada’s potential 2nd round opponents duel it out on Friday, with Belize looking to keep their hopes alive in their last game, while Nicaragua will look to grab a foothold in Group E with a win. 

Turks and Caicos Islands vs Haiti, Saturday, June 5th, 2021, 12:00 PDT, 15:00 EDT

Then, on Saturday, Haiti will look to take care of business against the already eliminated Turks and Caicos Islands, allowing them to grab the reins in the race for top spot in Group E. 

Canada vs Aruba, Saturday, June 5th, 2021, 17:00 PDT, 20:00 EDT 

Later, Canada takes on Aruba, as they look to head into their match with Suriname in the driver’s seat. 

Haiti vs Nicaragua, Tuesday, June 8th, 2021, 14:00 PDT, 17:00 EDT

And then, everything gets fun on Tuesday. First, we’ve got Haiti vs Nicaragua, in what’s expected to be the group’s deciding game, assuming both teams win their games from the weekend.

Bermuda vs the Cayman Islands, Tuesday, June 8th, 2021, 17:00 PDT, 20:00 EDT

Then, Bermuda takes on the Cayman Islands, in a game that could be completely irrelevant, but also could be very important if they were to beat Suriname on Friday, as they theoretically would still be able to win the group with a blowout win, assuming that Suriname would then beat Canada. 

Canada vs Suriname, Tuesday, June 8th, 2021, 18:05 PDT, 21:05 EDT

Lastly, we’ve got the big game, Canada versus Suriname, the expected Group B decider. 

Looking Forward: 

So as we can see, there are some big games that lie ahead, not just for Canada, but some other teams in the region, which should make this a very fun week of CONCACAF action. 

In a region known for never being boring, that’s not too surprising, but with what’s on the line, there is a lot to look forward to here. 

And from a Canadian perspective, this is a huge few weeks for them, as they look to erase some of their demons of past qualifying editions. 

Having missed out on the final round 5 cycles in a row, this is a huge opportunity for them to do what many teams before them have failed to do, allowing them to take a seat with some of the big names of CONCACAF. 

Ahead of what’s hoped to be a big year for the program, these could be just the start of big games for Canada, but they’ll have to take care of business for that to be the case first, and that starts on Saturday with Aruba. 

Up Next: Canada vs Aruba, Saturday, June 5th, 2021, 17:00 PDT, 20:00 EDT (IMG Soccer Stadium, Bradenton)

Cover Photo via: Jeremy Reper/Canada Soccer

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