Mountain to Climb: As the absences mount, the CanMNT ready to face stiffest ‘Octo’ test yet with this January window

Just days out from a massive window for the CanMNT, the challenges have started to pile up for John Herdman’s side as they get set to tackle some crucial World Cup qualifiers later this month. In this, we look at what lies ahead of them now as they continue their journey towards the World Cup next week.

All of a sudden, we’re just days away from a make-or-break window for many CONCACAF teams. 

Yet, despite that, uncertainty continues to swirl around all 8 of the participants in the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, who are all getting set to kick off a pivotal 3-game window just next week. 

Plus, with a lot of uncertainty surrounding ongoing health restrictions in the face of the current pandemic situation, this window has all sorts of question marks hovering over it as January 27th starts to come up quickly here. 

And for the CanMNT, that’s no exception. Having found themselves atop the Octo standings, sitting with 16 points through 8 out of a possible 14 games, they have a chance to all but cement their 2022 World Cup aspirations with a strong window, yet they enter this camp with more questions than answers in terms of their expectations over the next few weeks. 

Having already cancelled a crucial preparatory camp, leaving a good chunk of their team, including several starters, out of match fitness, and already short the best player on their team (and best player in CONCACAF) due to a health concern, the worries have continued to pile up as we near the start of the window, and will probably continue to do so until the window is actually over. 

At the same time, this poses a great challenge for a Canadian team, one who has been no stranger to dealing with them. They faced many tough scenarios in 2021, yet they didn’t wilt, so while it might feel reasonable for them to enter this camp with the hopes of just surviving without too much damage, you just know that they won’t do that.

And there’s no reason for them to believe otherwise. There’s a reason why they sit atop the Octo right now, having already dealt with a few injury crises along the way, and that’s because they’ve managed to stay strong in the face of all adversity that has come their way so far. 

So now, with a spot in the World Cup sitting closer than ever, they’ll look to keep that same mentality as they tackle this 3-game set with Honduras (away), US (home) and El Salvador (away), knowing that they can take a tantalizing step towards their goals with a couple of wins. 

It won’t be easy, but it never is in this sport, let alone in this particular region, and Canada will be well aware of that. 

Get better Phonzy: 

And as mentioned, the big blow for Canada will be that they will be short their best player and key emotional sparkplug, Alphonso Davies, who was ruled out of this camp after being diagnosed with myocarditis, which is an inflammation of the heart that came from Davies’s recent bout with COVID-19. 

From a personal level, it’s big news, as cardiovascular health is a scary topic on its own, so while it’s unfortunate to see Davies forced to take a break from what he loves, it’s first and foremost fantastic news that Bayern’s doctors were able to detect the issue before anything serious could’ve happened to Davies.

But for Canada, it unfortunately now leaves them without their star man for 3 crucial games, and that’s not ideal, especially given that Davies has been in excellent form for Bayern this year, and Canada is banking on its fit European-based players to carry most of the load this camp. 

With 5 goals and 8 assists in 13 games for Canada in 2021, including 1 goal and 3 assists in 7 Octo games, Davies is a key creative hub on this team, doing all sorts of damage from both the left wing back and left wing positions. 

The good news, however, is that Canada can handle this. It feels bold to put that out there, but in the one game that Davies missed this Octo, which was in September against El Salvador, Canada won 3-0, and while that’s as much of a reflection on El Salvador’s struggles this Octo (they currently sit 2nd from bottom), it was a good sign of Canada’s depth that they won so easily. 

Plus, in their last window, one of their hardest (and most crucial) ones, despite two of Davies’s more quiet performances in a Canadian shirt in 2021, they managed to pick up 2 key wins over Costa Rica and Mexico at home in Edmonton. 

So while they’ll certainly miss him on the pitch, as even at his worst you know that he’ll attract attention from defenders and is always good for a few moments of magic, Canada has proven to be a team that’s deep enough to step up in his absence. 

It’s going to take a committee effort, one that will require several players to fill the hole that Davies not playing leaves behind, but Canada has the options at their disposal, and that wasn’t always the case in the past. 

Be it Sam Adekugbe at left wing back, who was one of Canada’s breakout stars for both club and country in 2021, or Liam Millar at left wing, who looks due for more National Team minutes after an explosive start to the 21/22 season for FC Basel, or even youngster, Theo Corbeanu, who is rolling in EFL League 1 right now, there are options. 

And that doesn’t even take into account someone like Tajon Buchanan, the newly minted Club Brugge man who had some big moments at right wing for Canada in 2021, but can play on the left, as with Canadian striker, Cyle Larin, who was Canada’s leading scorer in 2021, but has also done some damage on the left wing for his club. 

So even if it takes some combination of all of those players to fill the Davies hole, it can be filled, and Canada will look to bank on that this window. 

In the meantime, that’ll give Davies the chance to take the time he needs to recover, and hopefully he’ll be back to his best in no time, with no complications or worry, allowing him to create more memorable moments for Canada, such as his famous run against Panama in October. 

Hamstring woes continue for Hoilett: 

But one name who could’ve also helped fill the Davies hole is Junior Hoilett, and while he’s still in contention for this camp, at least as of writing, it is worrying to see that after finally dealing with a long-term hamstring issue, it appears that it has cropped back up again this week. 

It’s hard to tell if this is precautionary, or a long-term problem, so it’s too early to sound the panic alarm, but it’s certainly enough of a worry to at least hover by the button. 

And for Hoilett, it would be a tough blow, as he had such a solid March to September for Canada, consistently showing up and putting up some key performances even despite dealing with some uncertainty at the club level, showing his commitment to his country.

So when he signed at Reading in the fall, it was exciting to finally see him join a club that looked eager to have (and play) him, especially after how things ended at Cardiff, where he was frozen out before becoming a free agent. 

But since then, it’s just been misfortune after misfortune for Hoilett, who missed Canada’s October and November windows with the hamstring issue, and then missed a good chunk of December as his team dealt with a COVID outbreak. 

The good news, though, has been that he’s been very solid whenever he’s played for Reading, sitting with 3 goals in 11 games, including a clutch brace just a few weeks back to kick off the new year, so if he is indeed fit for this window, it’ll be a big boost for Canada.

So while with this latest development, it might be hard to imagine him suiting up for Canada this window, but if you’re John Herdman, you’ll keep your fingers crossed, as it would be nice to compensate for losing Davies by bringing back Hoilett, especially given that aforementioned need for fit players currently in-season. 

The moves pile up for CanMNT regulars: 

At the same time, while there’s a lot of woes in CanMNT land, there is also a lot of good, especially for Herdman, whose player pool is seemingly getting deeper by the day. 

And that’s become clear this month, where we’ve seen several Canadians make promising moves to new clubs, including:

  • In terms of players who got a regular sniff for Canada last year, first there was Alistair Johnston, who got traded from Nashville SC to CF Montreal, where he’ll look to play a big role in the Canadian’s club foray back into the Champions League, as well as their push to return to the MLS Playoffs and defend the Canadian Championship. Plus, the good news is that there, he’ll be able to build chemistry with fellow Canadian teammate, Kamal Miller, who became a very key player for Montreal last year. And, not to be outdone, it looks like Montreal will play a hybrid formation that will sometimes use a back 5, and sometimes use a back 4, in which Johnston will play as an outside centre back (in the back 5) and as a right back (in the back 4), which is exactly the role he plays for Canada, too. So while he did get to do that for parts of last season with Nashville, the fact that he now gets to do that alongside some Canadian teammates (defenders Zachary Brault-Guillard, Joel Waterman, Mathieu Choiniere and Karifa Yao are all CanMNT shouts, as are goalkeepers James Pantemis, Sebastian Breza and Jonathan Sirois), in a Canadian city, is a nice bonus. 
  • Otherwise, continuing on the theme of transfers for Canadian starters, one big move was that of Tajon Buchanan, who finally completed the transfer from the New England Revolution to Club Brugge that was made official last summer, allowing him to join the Belgian giants. After a big MLS season, one where he seemed to score and create goals at will, it was a big move, and one that many looked on at with great interest. And so far, those who have followed along will be excited about how it’s progressing for Buchanan, who has quickly been thrown into the fire with his new club, who despite being in a mid-season title race, used their winter training camp to help Buchanan get integrated, allowing him to start in their first game back after the break. So not only is he now at a club that has Belgian title and European aspirations, but he’s expected to play a big role for them, making this a key move for the CanMNT, where Buchanan quickly went from prospect to key starter in the span of just a year. 
  • But then, on a similar MLS to Europe move for a key Canadian starter, we then saw a surprising but very welcome transfer, and that was Richie Laryea’s move to Nottingham Forest in the Championship, allowing the Toronto FC right back to join a club with realistic ambitions of returning to the Premier League. They might not do so this year, but they’re in a tight playoff hunt, and even if they don’t make it right away, the Championship is a very good level to play at. So for Laryea, it was a move that made too much sense, especially since Forest have a shortage of wing backs (they also play a back 5), meaning that once he settles in, he should become a regular starter on the team. He’s yet to feature due to a visa issue, but that has just been resolved, so that’ll be good news for Canada to see him get a game or two before this window, as Laryea was one of the team’s minute leaders in 2021, and will probably hold a similar role in 2022.  
  • Elsewhere, the last notable transfer that has so far gone through this window (a key distinction) was that of Theo Corbeanu, who might’ve not seen much change, as he went from on loan to an EFL League 1 club pushing for promotion to on loan to an EFL League 1 club pushing for promotion, but having gone from Sheffield Wednesday to MK Dons has already made a world of difference for Corbeanu. Before, at Wednesday, he was doing very well, having put up 2 goals and 3 assists in his first season as a professional, but there was one issue – he was doing so from wing back. And for Wolves, his parent club, who view him as a winger long-term, that obviously didn’t sit well with them, as immediately Corbeanu has slotted into a winger position for MK Dons, even scoring a memorable goal in just his 2nd game for the club, giving an idea of why this move was made. And for Canada, it’s one they won’t mind, as while his form at Sheffield was good, they need winger depth more than they need wing back depth, making this a key move for them. Because of that, if he keeps this run of form up, expect him to not only slot into the Canadian squad more going forward, but also open up doors at the club level, not only with Wolves, but elsewhere, as teams will take notice of his form. For example, one thing worth noting? A certain Canadian by the name of Liam Millar, who as mentioned before, has been excellent for a really good Basel side, actually caught the attention of clubs last year on loan in League 1, where he put up 3 goals and 6 assists for Charlton. For reference, Corbeanu, who is 3 years younger than Millar was at the time, already has 3 goals and 3 assists, and we’re only in January, giving an idea of what could lie ahead for him if he keeps up this run of form. 

And as mentioned, those are just those who have actually put pen to paper on deals with their new clubs. For example, Stephen Eustaquio (finally) looks closer than ever to joining Portuguese giants and Champions League regulars Porto, while Jonathan David and Cyle Larin haven’t been able to dodge rumours to all sorts of big clubs, either. 

Along with a potential move for Milan Borjan to MLS, and an official move for Liam Fraser, who is headed to the 2nd Belgium division to a team with a good shot at promotion, and the movement feels non-stop for Canadians right now, who are obviously being seen in a new light internationally. 

So all of this to say, this has been a big window for Canadians, and is just the start of what’s to come, be it in the rest of this month, or in the summer, where the floodgates should really open. 

One of the bonuses of the CanMNT becoming a top 40 team in the FIFA Rankings (along with UK work permit help) was that the added notoriety was going to help their players enhance their reputations worldwide, and we’ve just seen the tip of that iceberg, with a prime example being the rumours surrounding Canadian hopefuls such as Jahkeele Marshall Rutty and Stefan Mitrovic. 

Safe to say, there’s been a lot of uncharted waters with Canadians and transfers this window, but one thing is for sure, and this is that we’re going to have to get used to seeing more moves like these from Les Rouges going forward. 

Camp challenges: 

Canada celebrates a win over Panama in October (Keveren Guillou)

And the added bonus of those transfers? The pool of Canadians in Europe has grown even more, which will really come in handy this window. 

That’s going to be key for Canada, who are going to have all sorts of questions to navigate as they get set to head down to Honduras in just over a week’s time. 

Because of that, it’s going to be interesting to see how Herdman handles this upcoming challenge. Originally, the plan was to hold a camp in Florida to help get those out-of-season (and some who are on a winter break), to get fitness, but as we know, that was cancelled a few weeks ago due to COVID concerns. 

Now, that’ll mean that several Canadian regulars, including 7 that saw the field at some point in their last camp in Edmonton, will enter this camp having last played a game either in December or November, which was why the camp in Florida (which included a friendly against Guatemala), would’ve been pivotal. 

So seeing that, it’ll be interesting how Herdman approaches all of this. Usually, the easy answer would be to just call up all of those in form, but of that 7, it’s important to remember that several of them (Milan Borjan, Alistair Johnston, Kamal Miller) are starters in a Canadian defence that leads the Octo in goals against, making it hard to consider dropping them. 

(Luckily, that number could’ve been higher, but Laryea’s transfer to England helps him in that regard). 

Does he compensate by calling in a bigger squad, giving more of a chance for players to battle for spots? Possibly, as the last time he faced a window like this, which is to say a window where fitness for several players was an issue and Canada had to deal with 2 away games, which was in October, Herdman did call up a slightly bigger squad than usual, so there is precedent for that. 

If not, though, could we just see something where the out-of-form players see more of a super-sub role to start, and see their minutes grow from there to peak by the end of camp? That’s also a possibility, you have to imagine. 

Ultimately, you have to imagine the solution is somewhere in between. 2 key things worth noting are that A) Canada uses a lot of sports science in their camps, and B) aren’t shy in having intrasquad scrimmages in camps, so you have to imagine that they take those 2 things to build and assess fitness, bring in a bigger squad, and then use science to help decide who is good to go, and who isn’t. 

It’s going to be a challenge, no doubt, but having gotten a taste of these sorts of challenges in that aforementioned October window, one where Canada was missing over a half-dozen regulars, this isn’t their first rodeo with these sorts of challenges. 

Arfield’s surprise retirement: 

Lastly, though, one player who won’t be called in to help the cause is midfielder Scott Arfield, who despite having last played for Canada in 2019, looked poised to return to the squad this window based on his excellent form in Scotland. 

But in a surprise announcement on the weekend, the former Canadian captain actually revealed that he’d be retiring from the National Team, which was a twist that many weren’t expecting from him. 

Heading into this window, that’s a tough blow for Canada, who could’ve used someone in Arfield’s form, especially now, but at the same time, it’s nice to finally have some clarity on Arfield’s future. 

Getting up there in age, the grind of heading to North America all the time for games had clearly gotten to him, as former Rangers manager Steven Gerrard once shared back in the day, so the writing had been on the wall for a while, but at the same time, it felt like Arfield was surely going to at least give helping make the World Cup a shot. 

Instead, now, he’ll get to cheer along from home, and for Canada, that’s a tough blow, as Arfield still has a lot of quality to bring, and was one of the first of many dual-nationals to commit to the program back in the day, kickstarting a new wave of Canadian soccer. 

Despite that, though, this is also a sign of the new Canada, in a good way. Thanks to their growing depth, they can stomach an absence like this without much of a worry (something they already did in 2021, to be fair), and can instead focus on those who are ready to commit to Canada. 

So ultimately, it just feels nice to have some clarity on this story, with Arfield now being retired, instead of always wondering when he’d return. 

His absence will certainly be felt this window, no doubt, but this Canadian team is built to handle those sorts of gaps, and will look to prove that once again this camp, and going forward, as they continue their push towards the World Cup. 

Looking Forward: 

Now, Canada will continue their preparations for this upcoming window, with their roster set to be revealed later this week, ahead of the start of camp at the beginning of next week. 

It’s almost snuck up on us here, but these are some big games, and will give Canada a great shot at continuing their push towards the World Cup. 

After a busy few weeks for the team, mixed with good and bad news, they’ll be excited just to get out on the field, and do what they can now to make it happen. 

No doubt that before then we’ll see some more surprises, starting with that squad, but once that’s done, and the first whistle is blown, it’ll be business time, and based on what we’ve seen from Canada so far this Octo, that’s exciting.

Will they keep their unbeaten run? Who knows, but that they’ve still got that mantle intact this far into qualifiers gives an idea of the sort of form they’ve been on so far, and while this window will present arguably the biggest challenge to that crown, they have what it takes to overcome that. 

Up Next: Canada vs Honduras, Thursday, January 27th, 2022, 17:05 PDT, 20:05 EDT (Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano, San Pedro Sula)

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