10 Canada players to watch as Concacaf Nations League returns


For the first time since a 114-day hiatus following the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the Canada men’s national team will return to action later this March.

Pivotal Concacaf Nations League matches await – first away against Curaçao (March 25 in Willemstad), then at home against Honduras (March 28 at BMO Field in Toronto). Topping the group will not only secure Canada a semifinal berth in League A, but it’ll also create momentum as the 2024 Copa America arrives next year and qualify teams for the 2023 Gold Cup.

Suffice it to say, this is a crucial window for Canada, who will likely rely on the usual suspects for these two matches.

However, there are a handful of players, both familiar and potentially new, that are worth monitoring, including a few standouts from the start of the 2023 MLS season.

Here are 10 players, including five MLS-based names, to watch ahead of the March roster announcement.

Players abroad

There’s no stopping Cyle Larin at Real Valladolid these days. The former Orlando City SC striker scored his fourth goal in seven games for the LaLiga club after joining on loan from Belgium's Club Brugge.

It proves that a lot can change in a very short time, too. Entering the World Cup, Jonathan David (Lille) was Canada’s sole in-form striker. Now with Larin firing again, both of the team’s current top scorers are entering this window with full confidence.

Larin was usually reliable for Canada even when he wasn’t playing regularly, but now that “Larinismo” is sweeping through Valladolid, he could be a menace against Curaçao and Honduras.

There was a common sentiment around Ismaël Koné when he was killing it with CF Montréal: He was a joy to watch on the ball and confidently dominated games in possession, but lacked the defensive acumen to be a trusted starter for manager John Herdman at the national-team level.

That’s no longer the case since the midfielder moved to Watford FC. Koné has made remarkable improvements defensively as a box-to-box midfielder for the EFL Championship outfit.

Kone is engaged, pressing aggressively, routinely recovering possession, timing his challenges well and reading the play excellently. Perhaps the dream double pivot of Koné and Stephen Eustáquio could become a reality sooner rather than later.

Speaking of notable improvements, another Montréal alumnus is shining overseas with Celtic FC.

Johnston is suspended for the Curaçao match after getting sent off in June’s loss to Honduras, but if he plays against Los Catrachos in Toronto, it’ll be fascinating to see if his newfound confidence in the final third will translate to the national team.

Johnston recorded his first assist for Celtic in their Scottish Cup quarterfinal victory over Hearts this weekend, and it’s safe to say the achievement was a long time coming. The 24-year-old has been a regular threat in the final third with his crossing and overall distribution. The finishing just hadn’t been there from his teammates.

If Johnston carries that into this camp, then Larin, David and the rest of the forward corps will be salivating.

Canada’s World Cup campaign left fans with several “what ifs,” from Alphonso Davies’ missed penalty vs. Belgium to their horrible luck finishing.

But out of all the setbacks, Stephen Eustáquio’s injury against Croatia might’ve been the true nail in the coffin. Once he went down, no one else was able to consistently replace his brilliance.

Having recovered from that hamstring injury, Eustáquio should provide a reminder of his sheer quality. With how he dictates games offensively and defensively, the 26-year-old midfielder is arguably Canada’s most important player.

Since Atiba Hutchinson (Beşiktaş) is lacking match fitness and the MLS-based midfielders are still shaking off rust, Eustáquio will be the key man for Canada. While his two goals and five assists for Porto highlight the offensive contribution he provides as a true box-to-box midfielder, it’s his defensive diligence that might be the most important quality on the national team, if that Croatia defeat is any evidence to go by.

To compensate for potential midfield concerns, Ross County’s Victor Loturi could receive his first call-up after an impressive season with the Scottish Premiership side.

Considering Herdman’s tendency to lean on a double pivot, Loturi could have an edge. He’s playing regularly, is defensively responsible and is so calm in possession, just like his potential partner, Eustáquio.

Loturi was handed a provisional call-up for South Sudan, so this might accelerate the process even more. Plus, Canada need extra depth with the 40-year-old Hutchinson on his last legs, so all the more reason to call up a fresh-faced 21-year-old.

MLS players

There’s just something about Columbus manager Wilfried Nancy and Canadian defenders that seems to mesh well.

Few Canadians have impressed through the first three MLS matchdays as much as Mo Farsi, and Johnston’s suspension for the Curaçao game could open the door for a call-up.

Farsi’s technical abilities combined with his surprisingly efficient defending and pressing are attributes that Canada’s other fullbacks possess as well, making for a seamless stylistic fit.

Junior Hoilett’s injury might free up a spot in attack. Depending on how Herdman wants to address that opening, Jacob Shaffelburg has a strong chance of replacing the 32-year-old Reading veteran.

Shaffelburg’s goals in the season opener and in Matchday 3 this past weekend might’ve piqued interest, but there’s one area that Herdman truly values with his wingers: defensive work rate, and Shaffelburg ticks that box as well.

He might not see the pitch in either game, but he’s received previous call-ups. Another national team camp could be a fine reward for an impressive stint with Nashville SC dating back to last season.

Yet again, there are some real issues at center back for Canada. Doneil Henry isn’t playing for Minnesota, Joel Waterman only just returned to Montréal’s lineup and Scott Kennedy hasn’t featured much with Jahn Regensburg.

For all those reasons, Kyle Hiebert could be fast-tracked into the national team picture. He’s two-footed, comfortable playing on the left or right side of the defense and just scored his first goal for St. Louis CITY SC over the weekend.

Obviously goals aren’t the be-all, end-all for a center back, but it highlights how well Hiebert has performed in three games for the expansion club. With few in-form defenders to choose from, the 25-year-old could benefit.

Midfield-wise, the answer to some depth questions can be found in MLS. It’s just a matter of who to choose from.

Mathieu Choinière could be near the top of the list. He’s positionally flexible and can play as part of a double pivot as we’ve seen in Montréal the last couple of years. Choiniere was on the periphery of the national team in 2022 but missed out on caps due to the depth of quality at the time.

Now it’s a different story, which could mean Choiniere’s moment has arrived.

Sam Adekugbe isn’t playing these days, Raheem Edwards is suspended and Alphonso Davies will probably be deployed further forward, so, suddenly, a reliable area of the team is exposed.

Luca Petrasso may not be the long-term left-back answer, but he has to at least be an option right now. The 22-year-old has the offensive qualities to fill in admirably, and he’s playing fairly regularly to begin the year with Orlando City SC. Surely that warrants some attention.