Despite a veteran-heavy team with loads of CONCACAF experience, Canada crashed out of the Gold Cup on Tuesday night after giving up a late goal to draw Panama 1-1 in the final game of the group stage.
The early exit represents Canada’s worst showing at the continental championship since 2005, a stunning outcome for a side full of optimism heading into this year’s tournament.
With the Canadians’ lackluster performance in the books, a number of questions come to mind ahead of World Cup qualification, which begins for the Canucks in September of this year.
Where are the goals going to come from?
Stephen Hart’s side only managed two goals in their three matches at the Gold Cup, and both of those were from the penalty spot.
Canada have never been known as a high-scoring team, but in the past they’ve had players step up and take on the responsibility. In this year’s tournament, the Canadians found themselves with plenty of the ball — especially in the latter two matches against Guadeloupe and Panama — yet they collectively seemed afraid to pull the trigger in front of the goal.
Dwayne De Rosario increased his national team tally to 17 goals with his two converted penalties, but from the run of play he only really had one good chance all tournament — a curling shot from 25 yards that just missed Tim Howard’s net in the opener against the United States.
If Canada are going to do anything in World Cup qualifying, De Rosario — along with underperforming attackers Simeon Jackson, Rob Friend and Ali Gerba — will need to find (or rediscover) a goalscorer’s touch.
Who are Canada’s defenders?
The central defender pairing of Kevin McKenna and Andre Hainault performed admirably for Canada, and with Dejan Jakovic and Burnley’s David Edgar prepared to step in, the middle of defense seems in decent shape for the time being.
Unfortunately for the Canucks, they were continually exposed on the flanks, the result of razor-thin depth among the ranks at outside back.
With Marcel de Jong and Mike Klukowski battling for a starting spot, the left side is under control. De Jong was a major part of FC Augsburg’s run to the Bundesliga, while Klukowski — who just completed a move to fellow Canuck leftie Josh Simpson’s club Manisaspor — is among the better left backs in Turkey.
The right side is the biggest question mark, with Nik Ledgerwood and Jaime Peters the top contenders for the job. Neither featured a lot for their clubs this past season, and neither have come close to filling former captain Paul Stalteri’s boots when given the call.
Who starts in net?
In the run-up to the Gold Cup, Hart made it well known that the number one shirt was up for grabs between longtime servant Lars Hirschfeld and newcomer Milan Borjan. And while neither had a stellar tournament, Hart eventually favored the 23-year-old Borjan as his go-to goalkeeper, especially after a poor performance by Hirschfeld in his start against the Americans.
Borjan had his troubles, specifically in deciding when to chase down crosses, but on the whole, he showed enough promise to earn another nod from the coach.
With Greg Sutton now playing regularly in New York for the Red Bulls — and playing well — perhaps the two-horse race in goal will see a third challenger in the near future.
How does Hart get his players to translate club form to the national team?
Here’s the the never-ending conundrum for the Canadian coaching staff.
Individually, the players have more than enough talent to cause problems for just about every team in CONCACAF, yet collectively they seemed to play below their potential. Players like the aforementioned Jackson and Friend — who helped lead their clubs to promotion to the top flight in England and Germany, respectively — simply can’t seem to get it going on the same level for the national team.
The same could be said for Simpson, who just came off a monster year at the club level in the Turkish SuperLig, yet looked lost at times at the Gold Cup.
Perhaps Hart’s biggest task will be finding a way to coax the talent out of his players in time for the important games in the fall.
Who are the youth coming up?
A key concern for Hart and his coaching staff has to be the fact that many of the leading players on the Canadian side are getting up there in age.
De Rosario, de Guzman, McKenna, Klukowski and Friend are all in their early 30’s, while other major contributors like Simpson, Gerba, Atiba Hutchinson and Terry Dunfield are all within a year or two of their 30th birthday.
The World Cup qualification campaign is — optimistically, anyway — a marathon, and the Canadians will need to unearth some younger players to bring some new energy to the national program.
De Jong, Jakovic, Jackson, Hainault and Will Johnson are all solid players in their prime, but they’ll need a few more running mates of a similar age (or younger) to step up over the next few years as Canada’s core ages.
How does Canada recruit lost talent?
Again, another huge problem plaguing the Canadian program.
Imagine if Canada had Real Mallorca’s Jonathan de Guzman — younger brother to Julian — running the midfield at the Gold Cup as he does in Spain. Now also imagine Blackburn Rovers star David "Junior" Holiett terrorizing defenders while wearing the Canadian shirt.
All of a sudden, Canada’s attack doesn’t look so anemic, and maybe they are still alive in the tournament today.
The list of Canadian defectors is long, but the younger de Guzman (who played for Holland in the 2008 Olympics) and Hoilett are both still eligible to represent their birth nation, and each would give a massive boost to a team in desperate need of some new attacking talent.