Uncertainty Abound: Less than 4 weeks out from start of January window, lots of uncertainty still awaits the CanMNT

With a big month looming for the CanMNT, we look at how things are trending for them right now as they get set to tackle some crucial World Cup qualifiers in just a few weeks’ time.

All of a sudden, everything is sitting right around the corner here, all laid out perfectly. 

Yet, less than 4 weeks out from the start of the January international window, and less than 3 weeks away from the CanMNT’s first game of 2022, things are also in a state of flux, with ever-changing circumstances seemingly always threatening to impact what lies ahead. 

What we do know, is that throughout this month, barring any completely unforeseen circumstances, Canada is slated to play 4 games, including 3 crucial CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, as they look to pick up where they left off in 2021, one where they were the men’s team that made the biggest improvement in the FIFA Rankings across the World.

Thanks to that, it’s left Canada to enter 2022 sitting undefeated atop the standings in the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, through 8 out of a possible 14 games, putting them closer than ever to their promised land, the World Cup, of which they’re looking to return to for the first time since 1986. 

But with just 6 games left in the Octo, Canada is about to face their biggest challenge yet over these next 2 windows. Having already navigated a tough first 8 games, which included tough away games against the US, Mexico and Jamaica, along with some good battles at home against Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico, the going might have been tough for Canada already, but it’s about to get tougher. 

With just 2 home games remaining in those final 6 games, both coming against 2 tough teams in the US and Jamaica, along with road visits to notoriously tough Central American venues in Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama, the next 2 windows are going to be brutal for Canada, who are going to be thrown into the metaphorical deep end here. 

So while they’ll feel good about themselves and the 16 points that they’ve picked up through 8 games, they’ll also know that their 2 point lead on 4th place and 7 point lead on 5th place could quickly evaporate over the next few games, only ramping up the pressure on them to succeed.

As they look to hold onto a top 3 spot that would push them straight to the World Cup, or at the very least, the 4th place spot that would put them in the intercontinental playoff, where they’d face off with the top dogs from Oceania for a ticket to Qatar, it just shows what’s at stake, and why it’s important that they keep on pushing to remain at the front of the pack.

And that’s why this upcoming window is so key. 

On paper, facing off against 2nd-place US, 7th place El Salvador and 8th place Honduras sounds pretty good prospects for a 3-game window, but when you realize that the latter 2 games are going to be on the road, sandwiching a tough home date with the Americans, it all of a sudden looks a lot harder in principle. 

Plus, when you factor in that a lot of Canadian players are currently out of form, either finding themselves out of season in MLS, or on a winter break in a lot of European leagues, it also adds to the challenges that head coach, John Herdman, will have to deal with in this window. 

The good news, however, is that they’re trying their best to combat that. To help keep certain players in form, they’ve scheduled a friendly against Guatemala in Florida on the 22nd of January, 5 days before they’ll take on Honduras, giving a chance for some players to get their legs back, while also giving an opportunity to audition for some others.

Hopefully with that, and the continued strong form of some of Canada’s best players in Europe, they’ll hope that can be enough to tackle this window as best as they possibly can. Knowing how important it could be towards their World Cup hopes, it’s positive to see, and hopefully, it ends up making the difference in the long run. 

With things coming up quickly here, every day is an important one for Canada right now, and they know that, as they look to keep the good times rolling in 2022. 

So with that in mind, here’s a look at some CanMNT-related updates as the clock continues to tick towards these important games for Canada, who will want to keep up all of the positive momentum that they started to build up in 2021. 

Guatemala match and U20 camp coming up quickly here: 

And returning to that Guatemala match, it should be intriguing to see who ends up being in that team, especially considering that game is already less than 3 weeks away. 

So seeing that, it sounds like a roster should drop sometime this week, giving a better idea of who might be in that squad in Florida for the 22nd. 

But what’s interesting about this camp, though, is that there is also supposed to be an initial Canadian U20 camp at the same time, with some suggesting that group will also be in Florida. 

Because of that, it’s going to be intriguing to see if A) the 2 camps will overlap, and B) who will be in their respective squads if they don’t. 

What we do know, is that there will be a camp for the senior players based in MLS and other leagues, such as Doneil Henry and the K-League, as well as teams in leagues where they’ve got a winter break, which includes Liam Millar (Switzerland) and Milan Borjan (Serbia), among others.

But while that was always going to happen, this potential U20 camp is more of a surprise, but a welcome one. On paper, it’s a no-brainer, especially when you remember that Canada has CONCACAF’s U20 championships coming up this summer (which holds the ticket to not only the 2023 U20 World Cup, but the 2024 Olympics), but when you realize that they often haven’t held camps like this in the past, it’s especially nice to see them hold one now here.

With an ever-growing pool of U20 players, many of which are either playing either professionally or in the youth set-ups of some very good teams, that’s grown the player pool massively in recent years, which as noted above by Galindo, consists of over 50 players now, and that’s just those who have been contacted by Canada, meaning that it’s probably bigger in reality.

So that there will also be that U20 camp to go along with the senior camp is good to see. The more games, the merrier, especially at the U20 level, where Canada has really lagged behind a lot of their peers in recent years, making camps like this crucial. 

Where things will get interesting is in that potential overlap.

One thing to note is that Canada does have a handful of really solid U20 players that are on the cusp of their senior team, but either haven’t gotten much of a chance to impress with Canada, or gotten that opportunity at all, such as the likes of Theo Corbeanu and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, among others. Because of that, an overlap could benefit players like them, as they’d be able to both compete with first-teamers, while also playing with the U20s, which is a level where you’d expect them to dominate. (Interestingly, though, despite being under 20, Corbeanu wouldn’t be eligible for the U20 Championships).

Plus, with there also being a good chunk of Canadian dual-nationals, including some like 18-year-old Daniel Jebbison (England) and 19-year-old Stefan Mitrovic (Serbia), who have already represented other countries at the youth level, that overlap could be huge, as those sorts of dual-nationals might only give Canada a shot if it’s to play with the senior team, even though they’d be eligible to play for the U20 team, and would be massive boosts to get for the summer. (There is no word yet if Jebbison might be included in this camp, but Mitrovic has been included, although much like Corbeanu, he isn’t eligible for the U20 championships.)

Because of that, it makes the idea of an overlap intriguing, as there are positives and negatives in both situations.

On one hand, if there’s an overlap, there are a lot of positives, including the fact that Herdman will get to assess a lot of potential CanMNT prospects, while driving up the competition level in the squad for this camp, all while potentially auditioning some good dual-nationals, but that comes with some negatives, as it could take away from his quest to get his senior players up to fitness, which has to be a priority given how important World Cup qualifiers are. 

On the other hand, though, if there’s no overlap, there are still positives, such as the fact that those senior players will get the much-needed fitness time that they desire, but with the negative aspect being that you might have to choose between sending some very good U20 players with their peers or give them a shot with the senior group, denying them of a shot to build chemistry ahead of the summer. 

So no matter what happens, there will be a bit of good and bad that comes with it, making it a decision worth monitoring as those squads get released over the next few weeks here.

Again, the main goal here with the senior camp is to get players fit and ready to handle the rigours of World Cup qualifiers, but with it being an out-of-window camp, without mentioning the potential of that U20 camp, it opens up the door for some new faces, and that’s always exciting to monitor.  

Injury Updates:

But to return to those already in the fold, it’s worth looking at how those already in the squad are doing as we start to reach the runway towards this January camp, and for the most part, things are looking good for Canada, at least as of now (although they’ll want to keep knocking on wood over the next few weeks). 

For reference, just looking at those who were in their 23-man squad for the November window, things look pretty good, because while 12 of those 23 players are either out of season or on a winter break ahead of the next window (James Pantemis, Maxime Crepeau, Milan Borjan, Alistair Johnston, Kamal Miller, Doneil Henry, Richie Laryea, Samuel Piette, Jonathan Osorio, Mark Anthony Kaye, Lucas Cavallini, Liam Millar), 10 of the other 12 players are healthy and expected to play at least a game ahead of then. 

Of those other two, though, one will be 100% out, and that’s David Wotherspoon, who recently suffered an ACL Injury, one that will keep him out for the rest of his 21/22 season, which is unfortunate news for Wotherspoon, who was a key depth piece on this squad. 

The other one, however, is a little more up in the air, and that’s Canada’s star man up front, Jonathan David, who was recently diagnosed with COVID. The good news, though, is that while COVID might deny him of a chance to play a game for Lille before this camp (they’ve got 4 between now and January 27th, and he’s already been ruled out of the 1st one), it shouldn’t be enough to keep him out of this camp, barring any unforeseen complications.

Otherwise, the news is a lot more positive on the injury and absences front for Canada.

Firstly, there’s the good news that after making just one 22 minute appearance since October 2nd, Junior Hoilett is back in form for Reading, scoring a brace in his 1st start in 3 months this week, putting months of injury and then COVID postponements behind him. 

For Canada, that’s huge, because while they were able to do pretty well without him in that time that he was on the sidelines, winning 3 of the 5 games that he missed, it never hurts to have more in-form attackers, and especially one like Hoilett, who was an underrated part of Canada’s success in 2021 whenever he played. 

Now, he just has to stay healthy over the next few weeks, but if he does, that would be a massive boost for Canada, who could use him.

Elsewhere, the interesting one to watch will be centre back, Scott Kennedy, who has gone the full 90 just once for Jahn Regensburg since getting injured back in September, but did play in their most recent game before the German winter break in December. 

Because of that, keep an eye on the next 2 Regensburg games, which will be on January 16th and 23rd, seeing if he ends up going the full 90 in either (or both) of those games, suggesting that his recovery is finally over.  

But other than that, things have remained pretty quiet for Canada on the injury and absences front, which is good to hear.

Again, it’s far too early to project what things will look like in a few weeks, as a lot of these players still have several crucial games to play for their clubs, and the out-of-form guys could be more prone to injuries at the pre-camp, without mentioning the rise of COVID globally, but for now, things look good, and hopefully for Canada, it’ll stay that way. (*knock on wood*). 

January window provides interesting questions:

Canada’s Milan Borjan is one of many Canadian players who will be battling for fitness ahead of the January window (Keveren Guillou)

Elsewhere, one interesting note with this January window is that while it coincides with international windows in CONMEBOL, OFC, AFC and CAF, without mentioning the African Cup of Nations, it’s worth pointing out that one of the biggest confederations in the world, UEFA, isn’t playing this window.

Usually, that would mean nothing, but with this January window being a unique creation designed to offer more windows for confederations to complete qualifiers ahead of a one-of-a-kind World Cup later this year, it will make this break a strange one. 

The good news is that it’s an official FIFA window, one that teams must release players for, but what it means is that a lot of top European leagues are choosing to play through it, which isn’t something we see that often. 

It’s not unheard of to see leagues do that, as MLS, some South American, and a lot of 2nd division European leagues might be found doing that during most windows, it’s rare to see top European flights do the same. 

Yet, a look at later this month shows that the top flights in Belgium, Scotland, Portugal, Greece and Switzerland will continue playing games through the break, which could complicate things for some Canadian players. 

Take Tajon Buchanan, as an example. Having signed for Club Brugge this winter after completing his transfer there last summer, he’s just joined his club this week, and with a brand new head coach having also just arrived at the club, that’s given him a clean slate to impress his new boss as he tries to fight for minutes.

But as an essential part of this Canadian squad, he’ll be called up for this window no matter what, and while Brugge won’t be able to say no, it’ll mean that he’ll miss several key opportunities to fight for minutes at his new club under his new coach. 

And with there being several CanMNT regulars and prospects in the Belgian (Iké Ugbo), Scottish (Scott Arfield, Harry Paton, Sondre Solholm?), Portuguese (Stephen Eustaquio, Steven Vitoria), Greek (Derek Cornelius) and Swiss (Liam Millar) leagues, Buchanan won’t be the only Canadian with that conundrum. 

Obviously, playing for Canada is the priority, especially considering how close that they are to the World Cup, and you have to imagine is what the players are thinking about, but with that double-wielding sword of club football looming, you can’t ignore it. 

So if anything, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with those on the cusp of this Canadian squad, such as say an Ugbo, Arfield, Paton or a Cornelius. Obviously, with Buchanan, Eustaquio, Vitoria and Millar all being locks for this Canadian team, their decisions are a little bit easier, but with the others, they’re not as certain to be included in the Canadian squad, and only adding to the conundrum, aren’t nailed-on starters with their clubs, either, which might make it hard for them to leave them to go sit on the bench as a 24th or a 25th man in a Canadian camp, when they could fight for more minutes at their club teams. 

Because of that, it’s going to be very, very intriguing to see how the conversations end up going for some of those players. As Scott Arfield pointed out a few weeks ago when asked, it’s going to come down to Herdman and the various club managers to hash out a solution, so hopefully they all end up finding something that works for both parties, although you do wonder if this might lead to some potentially useful Canadian depth pieces being left behind. 

But the good news is that as long as Canada has all of their stars, their depth has grown to the point where they can work out fair solutions for each of those players and still not hurt their team, which makes it way less of a problem than it might have been in the past. 

Attendance worries for the Iced Capp on the horizon:

Lastly, while these games should all be played, barring something out of this world, the ongoing pandemic could have an impact on some of the games, with the big one being Canada’s home game against the US at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton on January 30th, nicknamed the ‘Iced Capp’, which the status for remains up in the air.

As it stands, the game will happen in Hamilton, and that shouldn’t change, but what is a lot less clear is if it’ll be played in front of fans, with the health restrictions in Ontario constantly changing. 

Right now, things look okay, because while some news reports suggest that attendance for outdoor events have been halved to 50%, the Ontario government hasn’t confirmed that, and even if they did, those restrictions would currently expire a few days before the game. 

Obviously, that doesn’t mean that things won’t change, but as it stands, full capacity appears to be a go, with half-attendance (or none at all) remaining as a possibility.

So seeing that, all that’s left to do is to keep an eye on what ends up happening. The more fans in the stands, the better for Canada, who has picked up 13 of a possible 15 points at home so far this Octo, but at the very least, playing the game at home (and not at a neutral site), would be nice, even if the fan restrictions end up changing.

And the good news is, as long as the status concerning travel between countries without quarantines for athletes doesn’t change, with Canada Soccer having an exemption, the former shouldn’t be a problem. 

Hopefully, though, with the 23 000+ tickets available for this game selling out in just the pre-sale, those fans will be able to also be there, but as long as the decision is taken with safety in mind, that’s what matters. 

Until then, however, a lot remains up in the air, as the world that we live in continues to change by the day. 

Looking Forward: 

So now, the next few weeks will be more of a waiting game – waiting for squad reveals for both the pre-camp and the U20 camp, as well as the main January camp, as well as waiting for any potential injury news, and any news on what the US game might look like.

But when things do finally come around, there’s going to be a lot to follow, and that’s exciting, as Canada is going to get a chance to really kick off 2022 on a high note. 

And considering how they ended last year, that’s exciting. 

While 2021 was certainly fun to follow along, there’s a lot of unfinished business for Canada to accomplish in 2022, with the main goal being to make the World Cup. 

The work towards which started years ago, but the crunch time for that starts now, and every move towards that will be felt as Canada looks to build off a year to remember for their program. 

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