Out of the Gates: Reviewing a solid September window for the CanMNT to kick off final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers

Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team kicked off the Octagonal, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, earlier this month. In this, we look back at what we learned about them in their first 3 games of this 14 game odyssey that they’re hoping ends with them punching a ticket to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. 

All in all, it was a pretty good start. 

For Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team, it might have not been their dream debut in their return to the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, but it was still a pretty good one, as they escaped the first round of games sitting in a relatively good position. 

With 5 points out of a possible 9 from their first 3 games, it wasn’t the 7 out of 9 that they set themselves as a target heading into this September window, but it was still quite good, nonetheless, especially considering that some of their other rivals dropped some key points in their games.

As they continue their journey to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, they’ve set a good pace for themselves if they’re indeed to be one of the 3.5 CONCACAF qualifiers to make it to Qatar, but now the hard work will truly begin in their upcoming windows, where they’ll have to maintain this solid start into their remaining 11 games that await them at this stage.

Seeing that the games are going to only get harder from here on in, with some daunting away trips to some of the most feared venues in North America still awaiting them, Canada has just gotten a small taste of what’s still to come for them, and they’re ready for that.  

But the good news is that this Canadian side only got better in each game in this September window, which indicates that they’re on a path that should see them peak at the right time in this qualifying cycle, giving them what they need to make it to Qatar. 

Chasing their first World Cup qualification since 1986, which was their first and only participation at the big dance, many are anointing this side as the best they’ve seen out of Canada ever, and although there can be some debate to that claim, this Canadian side is doing a pretty good job of confirming the validity of such a statement with each passing match.

They’ve now got to prove themselves in some tough environments, including away trips to the likes of Mexico, Jamaica, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama and Costa Rica, of which they’ll have to overcome at points across their remaining 11 games in the Octo, but having done well to pick up a point away against a tough United States side this window, they’ve shown that they’ve got a bit of a ‘road warrior’ mentality to themselves already. 

So although they began this 14-game odyssey on a bit of a low note at the beginning of this September window, drawing their first game 1-1 at home against a Honduran side they were heavily favoured to beat, that they recovered nicely to draw the US 1-1 away before beating El Salvador 3-0 back at home to close out the window shows their strong character, which should lend itself well to what lies ahead for this Canadian side. 

Now, heading into their next window, which comes in October, where they’ll take on Mexico and Jamaica away, before closing out the 3-game window with a game at home against Panama, they’ll need to build off of what they showed here, though, which is the next big step. 

So with all of that in mind, here’s a look back at what we learned about Canada during this September window, and what they should take forward into October. 

A 3 game rollercoaster:

And to start, it’s important to highlight how much of a rollercoaster these 3 games were for Canada, as in a span of 6 days, the mood surrounding the team swung between pessimistic and optimistic like a yo-yo. 

Heading into their first game against Honduras at home, optimism about this Canadian side was quite high, as they were favoured to beat a Honduran side that was without their best player, Alberth Elis, especially considering that Canada would be playing at home. 

But in their first game at home with fans in almost 2 years, the occasion would get to Canada, as they came out slow, unable to match the intensity of the Hondurans, falling down 1-0 before halftime via a penalty.

They’d pull back a goal in the 2nd half, and probably should’ve won the game based on some of the chances that they created once they went down, but they were instead forced to share the spoils with their guests, who taught them an important lesson – there will be no easy games in the Octo for Canada, no matter how good they think they are. 

But having dealt with what they themselves termed a ‘holy s— moment’ in that Honduras game, that set the table quite nicely for their 2nd game, a clash against the US in Nashville, where they would take on an American team reeling after a tough 0-0 draw away to El Salvador in their opening match. 

And there they managed to recover quite nicely from their opening game draw, as they played a fantastic road game against the talented Americans, rescuing a key 1-1 draw out of a game that they honestly could’ve won.  

They’d lament that fact after the game, of course, as they probably should have had 6 points at that point, but you can never turn your nose down at an away point in CONCACAF, so with that, the optimism in the group started to go up again. 

Then, though, they’d suffer a big blow ahead of their last matchup, that home game with El Salvador, as their star player, Alphonso Davies, returned to Germany to his club, Bayern Munich, who wanted to evaluate him after he picked up a knock against the US. 

Given that since then, he managed to train fully with Bayern, and then go 90 in their first game back, the knock clearly wasn’t that bad, but Bayern didn’t know that at the time, and that would keep Davies out of the El Salvador game, much to the worry of the Canadian fans heading into that one. 

Those thoughts would quickly be quelled, though, as Canada showed that they’ve got a lot of talent beyond Davies, cruising to a commanding 3-0 win over El Salvador, giving themselves a big confidence-boosting win to close out the window. 

Thanks to one of their most complete performances of the year, they managed to end this camp on a high note, setting the table quite nicely for what lies ahead in the coming windows. 

Plus, thanks to some favourable results elsewhere, which we’ll dive a bit deeper into in a bit, they also find themselves in a good position in the Octo table, too, so even if they’ll feel like they could’ve gotten 9 points out of 9 this window, the 5 that they did get has them sitting pretty nicely despite that feeling of having missed a chance to do even better than that. 

But ultimately, that was just the reality of this first window, which gave this Canadian team about as good of a taste of the chaotic nature of CONCACAF as they’ll get this year. In this confederation, you have to be ready for anything, and just take things one game at a time, even if the sky sometimes feels like it’s falling. 

Canada did just that, and came out pretty well for themselves, and they’ll need to keep that good mentality into their future matches. 

Canada’s Jonathan David fights for a loose ball against El Salvador (Keveren Guillou)

Canadian side learns some key tactical lessons:

Otherwise, shifting our attention to the tactical side of things, it was a pretty interesting camp for Canada on the ‘Xs and Os’ side of things, as they ended up learning quite a lot about themselves over these 3 games. 

We’ll have a more in-depth look at some of those things before the start of the October window, so if that’s your thing, stay tuned for that, but before then, here are some of the key lessons that Canada learned about themselves tactically in September. 

Canada needs 3 midfielders on the park at all times:

To start, the most important takeaway, and the one that Canada will want to absolutely carry over to October, is that they need to keep at least 3 midfielders on the park at all times. 

Having done pretty well for themselves through the first 2 rounds of World Cup qualifiers and the Gold Cup by mostly using a 3-man midfield, they swayed away from that in their first 2 games of this September window, and it cost them. 

Against Honduras, they went for more of a 3-4-2-1, and they struggled to play through the middle, as their opponents were able to contain them quite easily just by sitting in more of a deep block. 

Because of that, it ended up giving Honduras the midfield advantage, while also nullifying Canada in that area, which considering how important it is to how this side plays, had a big impact on that game. 

Then, the same thing would happen in the US game, as Canada slightly shifted their approach by going to a 5-4-1 from their 3-4-2-1, sticking with the 2-man midfield, with the main adjustments being to deploy their wing backs and wingers slightly deeper. 

As a result, despite playing a US side missing the likes of Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah and Gio Reyna in midfield, Canada didn’t really get much going in that area of the field, electing to stay in wide areas. 

So when Canada finally went back to the 3-5-2 against El Salvador, it was a big game-changer, as they were dominant in the middle of the park, decimating their opponents with some strong play on both sides of the ball. 

Although El Salvador isn’t as blessed in the midfield as some of the other teams in the Octo, it was a commanding performance from Canada, and it showed why they need to keep 3 players on the park at all times. 

It’s no coincidence that Canada scraped out 2 draws in their first 2 games where they just had a double-pivot, before playing their best game when they finally added a 3rd body in, and that should be a key lesson for their head coach, John Herdman, to carry over in October.

On paper, Canada might just have the best midfield group in CONCACAF, if not one of the best, so they need to recognize that when they play, and the main way to do that is by ensuring that they’ve enough of a presence to help that supposed midfield superiority shine through in all of their games. 

The defence is pretty good:

Moving on, the other takeaway that Canada can bring out of these games is that their defence is a lot better than people give them credit for, and a big part of that has come down to their approach to how they defend. 

Despite having what many deemed to be a weak spot at the back, Canada has quietly turned into one of the best defensive teams in CONCACAF, and that was on full display this window. 

Thanks to a team-first approach, they pester teams all over the field, close down space in the midfield, and keep a good defensive line, making it hard to play through them.

And what’s impressive is how coherent that approach has remained despite which players are playing, and in what formation they’re playing in, as Canada has managed to keep a strong defensive record despite being quite experimental with the formations that they’ve used recently. 

They’ll have some tweaks here and there, such as how high their defensive line of engagement will be, and how many players that they press with, but otherwise, what’s so impressive about their defensive play is how simple the concepts they use are. 

But that’s the beauty of a good defence. Typically, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to be a force defensively, and Canada has shown that, and there’s a reason why they’ve only conceded 8 goals in 14 games so far in 2021, keeping an impressive 7 clean sheets along the way, all while only giving up more than 1 goal in a game just once.

So for Canada, it’s imperative that they continue to tactically work on little tweaks in their formation, while also remaining committed to a team-first defensive approach, because if they do so, there’s no reason why they can’t continue on defending as they have in 2021.  

Wing play is a mixed bag: 

But while Canada has started to carve out an identity as a team with a good team-first defensive approach, one that can beat you down through the midfield, there is still one piece of the puzzle that they need to keep working on, and that’s their play in wide areas. 

Specifically, they need to keep working towards becoming a team that offers more of a consistent threat in those wide areas, as they can run really hot and cold out there, and that shows in games. 

When they’re flowing, it’s hard to stop them, as they showed in their win over El Salvador, but when they struggle, they tend to struggle hard, as the game against Honduras showed, where it felt like every time Canada was out wide, they’d get tackled or whip in a poor ball. 

Individually, Canada has no shortage of options out wide, as Alphonso Davies, Tajon Buchanan, Richie Laryea and Sam Adekugbe are but a few of the many options Canada could trot out into wide areas, but where things need to get better is in Canada’s execution in those areas. 

Too often, Canada has a tendency to really force the ball out wide and try to make things happen when they’re not on, which can become frustrating in games where that just isn’t working. 

Sometimes, having a Davies or a Buchanan on the pitch there helps them overcome that, as they can make something out of nothing, but at the same time, you could get even more out of them by providing them more space to work with. 

So because of that, Canada needs to start being more patient in how they engage their wide players, because while they obviously will want to feed them the ball constantly throughout a game, you need to be careful in how you do that. 

With that in mind, one way for them to start making more things happen out wide? Using the midfield more. 

It’s no coincidence that Canada’s best game in terms of service in wide areas came in that El Salvador game, where they were also dominant in the middle of the park. 

The more that a team dominates the midfield, the more that space opens up in other areas of the park, such as out wide, and Canada saw that first-hand in that 3rd game, demonstrating the sort of blueprint that they’ll need to start threatening more in those wide areas. 

Again, it’s not a huge problem, because as long as you’ve got a Davies, Buchanan or Laryea on the pitch, you’ve got a threat in wide areas, but at the same time, you want to play in a way that allows them to best express their talent against all opponents. 

Canada’s Tajon Buchanan runs at an El Salvador defender with the ball earlier this month (Keveren Guillou)

Standout performers:

But while Canada will have plenty to ponder about their team play from this window, both good and bad, there was also plenty to chat about from an individual standpoint, as there were quite a few players that made a name for themselves throughout the 3 games. 

We can’t highlight them all, of course, but here are some that really stood out, in particular, helping play a role in making this a pretty solid camp for Canada. 

Player of the Camp: Stephen Eustaquio

And to start with our player of the camp, Eustaquio is the name that jumps to the front of the page, as he played 260 minutes out of a possible 270 across 3 games for Canada this window, and barely set a foot wrong in that time that he was on the field, showing why he’s such a key part of Canada’s midfield. 

After a breakout performance at the Gold Cup, where he combined his usually reliable defensive play with a surprising offensive outburst that saw him score 3 goals and pick up 1 assist in 4 games, he continued where he left off here, just playing some solid soccer. 

He didn’t have the same offensive numbers this time around, but he remained a defensive force, and continues to impress with his ability to play the ball forward, helping Canada get going on transition. 

Plus, he continues to impress by being so consistent in his ability to do those things no matter when he’s on the pitch, seemingly never impacted by weather, fatigue, travel or any of the other factors that could make someone’s level drop. 

Because of that, it’s going to make him so key for Canada going forward, as these games can be so soul-sapping for players, with 3 games in 6 days combined with intense travel, all coming in the middle of a congested club scene, and he showed why in this camp. 

Thanks to his strong two-way play on both sides of the ball, he’s quickly proving to be an indispensable part of the way that Canada wants to play, so expect to see a lot more of him going forward. 

Honourable Mention: Cyle Larin

Breakout Player: Alistair Johnston

Moving on to the breakout player of this camp, it feels important to highlight the play of Johnston, who was one of 3 Canadian players to play all 270 minutes in this window, playing a big role in his team’s success. 

Deployed both as a wide centre back in a back 3, as well as a full back in a back 4, Johnston has quickly shown to be one of Canada’s most important defenders, because no matter where you put him on the pitch, he tends to put in a shift. 

That was evident across all 3 games. Against Honduras, he was arguably Canada’s man of the match, saving them a few goals with his interventions, and he maintained that form into the US and El Salvador matches, just playing some overall, no-nonsense defensive football. 

Along with the fact that he’s a very underrated passer of the ball, which helped Canada in their ability to play out of the back in controlled possession, he’s proven to be quite the defensive package for Canada, and at just 22 years of age, you have to imagine that he’s someone we’re going to be seeing a lot of in the coming years. 

Having had his coming out party with some massive games in these big World Cup qualifiers, he doesn’t seem to be someone that will be fazed by anything, and because of that, he’s quickly become one of Canada’s most important and reliable defenders this year. 

Not bad for someone who didn’t get his first National Team cap at any level until earlier this year, but that shows how impressive his ride to the top is, and based on what we’ve seen from him here, bigger things still loom for him on the horizon. 

Honourable Mention: Tajon Buchanan

Unsung Player: Richie Laryea

To end things off, shifting to the unsung player of this camp, we’ve then got Laryea, who despite being one of the 3 Canadian players that played every minute this camp (along with Johnston and goalkeeper Milan Borjan), didn’t necessarily get the same chatter that some of his teammates were receiving. 

But that’s Laryea for you. There’s a reason why he went from an MLS free agent uncertain of his future at the start of 2019 to an indispensable starter for both club and country a few years later, and that’s because he’s just such a solid player. 

From his strong defensive ability, to his speed, along with his tricky feet and adept IQ, he’s proven to be a perfect wing back for Canada in their 3 at the back system, helping cover a lot of ground at both ends of the pitch. 

That was in full display at this camp, and there might be no better example of that than his play in the El Salvador game, one where he picked up a fantastic assist on the eventual winner in the first half, but also made a game-changing last-ditch block when the game was still just 2-0 and the visitors were picking up momentum. 

Plus, when you factor in the edge that he has to his game, one that seems tailor-made for CONCACAF, he’s also proven to be a key emotional sparkplug on this team, helping them handle the beast that can be playing in this region. 

So although he might not be getting talked about as much as some of the other players, keep an eye on him, because you’re going to be seeing a lot more of him with Canada, and at this rate, a move to Europe might beckon for him soon. 

Honourable Menton: Sam Adekugbe

The road to 21:

Lastly, to round off this camp review, it’s important to track how Canada is doing in terms of their quest towards World Cup qualification, giving an idea of where they stand relative to other teams in the Octo. 

And considering that they sit 2nd out of 8 teams with their 5 points, only finding themselves behind CONCACAF powerhouse, Mexico, who have 7 points, Canada is in a pretty good position after this first window. 

They’re tied for 2nd with 2 other teams, the US and Panama, but they sit ahead of both thanks to goal difference and head-to-head away goals, giving them a slight edge there. 

On the road to 21 points, which appears to be the magic number that teams will need to finish in the top 4 this Octo, Canada is tracking quite nicely towards that number at the moment, as they’re currently sitting at 1.66 points per game, slightly ahead of the 1.5 points per game pace that would be required across 14 games to get to that bar of 21 points. 

In terms of the road to 25, which will probably be the bar to reach if a team wants to finish in the top 3 and qualify directly for Qatar, instead of finishing 4th and going into the intercontinental playoff, Canada is slightly off the 1.78 points per game pace that is required to get to 25, but considering that they’re currently 2nd, that’s not a bad thing. 

Thanks to some favourable results elsewhere, including a staggering 7 draws out of the 12 games played so far in the Octo, that line might end up slightly lower, anyways, especially if teams continue to share points as they have in the first 3 matchdays. 

So for Canada, things are looking pretty good, all things considered. 

Although they dropped points at home in that first game, which goes against the common formula many have been preaching for this Octo, which is to win your home games and draw your away ones, it’s worth noting that with their win over El Salvador in their other home game, they became one of just 2 teams to win a home game this window, joining Mexico in doing so. 

Considering that everyone else has played at least 1 home game, yet didn’t pick up a single home victory, that’s good news for Canada, as that should bode well for them in the long term. 

On the other hand, the fact that the US, Mexico and Panama all have a road victory isn’t ideal, as teams that pick up away victories will have a massive advantage in terms of qualifying for the World Cup, but at the same time, the US and Mexico doing well as the favourites is actually good for Canada, as they’ll just steal points off the teams Canada is competing with for a top 4 spot. 

Obviously, that makes that Panama away win quite significant, but the good news is that with there being 4 spots to fight for, it’s not catastrophic for Panama to do well, provided that Canada takes care of business against them when the two sides do play. 

So all-in-all, Canada sits in a pretty good position after this window, all things considered. Going forward, they need to keep winning at home, and try to sneak out wins and draws away, but seeing how some of their rivals have slipped up already, they sit in a pretty good position heading into the next window. 

But at the same time, Canada has to be careful with what lies ahead. This isn’t a be-all, end-all determiner of how these games are, but based on Elo ratings, Canada has already played 2 out of their 4 easiest games of the Octo, and although the US away game was their 2nd-hardest game, that Honduras game still looms as a big missed opportunity, even if it looks like it won’t impact Canada as much as first thought. 

In the next window, Canada will face their hardest away game, versus Mexico, their easiest away game, versus Jamaica, and a tricky home game, versus Panama, and will need to find at least 6 points if they want to put themselves in a great position. 

That means that in October they’ll need to try and steal points off of a Mexico side that hasn’t played all that well yet sits first, beat a struggling Jamaica side away, and then win against a Panama side in arguably the best form of any team in the Octo, which won’t be an easy task. 

With some tough away games awaiting them in the back-half of this Octo, as 4 of their last 6 games will be away from home, the more points that Canada can pick up early on, the better, as it’ll give them a bit of breathing room heading into those games, which could be huge. 

So far, they’ve done a pretty good job of that, but if they can really make a statement in October, it could go a long way towards helping them potentially book a ticket to Qatar, allowing them to end their lengthy absence away from the World Cup. 

Miscellaneous:

To end things off, here are some other key pieces of information from the first few games of the Octo. 

Overall Octo standings: 

Home standings: 

Away standings:

Golden Boot Race: 

Octo: 

Cyle Larin, Canada (2 goals)

Shamar Nicholson, Jamaica (2 goals)

Rolando Blackburn, Panama (2 goals)

Brendan Aaronson, United States (2 goals)

Overall:

Cyle Larin, Canada (9 goals)

Canada’s Expected Goals: 

xG for: 5.61

xG against: 3.41

xG difference: 2.2

Looking Forward:

So now, Canada’s players have returned to their clubs for the next few weeks, before they’ll reconvene again in October for the next window. 

After a decent start to the Octo, they’ll want to carry that over into club play, as some have already done, allowing them to be ready for the next set of games that awaits them next month. 

As mentioned earlier, although Canada did well to pick up points as they did in this window, the going is only going to get tougher from here on in, so they’ll want to bring their A+ game into October and beyond, putting the rest of the Octo on notice. 

If they can do that, you have to fancy their chances at making the World Cup, putting eyeballs around the world on this team. 

They’ve got the roster to do it, but they now need to find the mentality to actually make it happen, and while they started to do that this camp, a lot of work still remains to be done for this Canadian side, with October their next opportunity to put their nose back on the grindstone. 

Up Next: Canada vs Mexico, Thursday, October 7th, 2021, 18:40 PDT, 21:40 EDT (Estadio Azteca, Mexico City)

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