Canadian men’s national team players and coaches have been speaking for months about their growing depth.
Wednesday night’s World Cup Qualifier against El Salvador at Toronto’s BMO Field will be their time to prove it (7:30 pm ET | Paramount+, OneSoccer).
Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies has been ruled out against La Selecta after being injured in the second half of last Sunday’s 1-1 draw with the United States. The Vancouver Whitecaps FC product has returned to Germany and won’t be available for selection. He also missed the team’s 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup run, when they made the semifinals to continue their regional ascent.
“Right at the core of all of our commitments when you sign up as a coach is the health of players,” head coach John Herdman said before Davies’ absence was confirmed Tuesday night. “You can never put that at risk and that’s the starting point.”
The new Octagonal format with three games in most international windows will reward Concacaf's deepest squads. With all but one of the windows cramming fixtures into a short timeframe as Qatar 2022 nears, squad variety will be essential to success.
Davies’ absence aside, players like Cyle Larin, Alistair Johnston and Richie Laryea have started both games and put in long shifts. Tajon Buchanan started against Honduras and shook off an apparent ankle injury to come off the bench against the USMNT.
“I think it’s critical to have a roster that’s completely focused, committed so that when they’re called on, they’re ready to go,” said Herdman. “Behind the scenes, they’re just committed to everything that’s required – the high-performance processes, the tactical meetings. There’s not disappearing out. These boys are dialed in. The squad is focused."
Canada are bound to make changes, with forward Jonathan David possibly in line for another start after subbing on against the USMNT. Central midfield could see rotation, too, with Stephen Eustáquio piling up minutes stemming back to their opening 1-1 draw with Honduras.
It’s up to Herdman to determine the balancing act, deploying his best players while being mindful of not risking injuries – knowing an October qualifying window is less than a month away. Les Rouges will start that trio of matches Oct. 7 at Mexico, arguably their toughest fixture of the Octagonal.
“This is a war with 14 battles with two down and a few more to go,” Herdman said. “We’ve go to manage this group of lads. We’re learning a lot.”
El Salvador enter perhaps a little more rested than the Canadians. The majority of their squad plays club soccer domestically and they’re coming off back-to-back home draws by 0-0 scorelines. The flight north is the only trip they’ve had to make during the window, compared to far more frequent flyer miles Herdman's squad accumulated as they convened.
The bottom line, though, is Canada know they’ll be favored at home and three points are essential. The first draw against Honduras was a disappointment. The second draw against the USMNT was encouraging. Dropped points again at home will mean Canada will have to go chasing points on the road, and they'd rather not tempt fate.
“Every game is pressure. We know the importance of performing and getting points, especially at home,” said center back Doneil Henry. “Of course we would have loved to win the first game against Honduras.”
“We’d be satisfied with nothing less than a win,” he added.
This isn’t the same El Salvador side Canada tied away in San Salvador and beat 3-1 at home in the last cycle.
Head coach Hugo Perez has improved his side since taking over last year. They kept the Americans off the board and tied Honduras in the second game of September's Octagonal openers. Combined with a draw against Costa Rica in a friendly last month, El Salvador have held a clean sheet in three straight games.
“The key is to stay together,” forward Junior Hoilett said. “I think we showed that in the US game, it was a tight unit. Everybody played a shift for each other. We’ve made progress over the first two games. We’ve got to keep progressing and end this international window with a victory and give us major confidence going into October’s window.”
Canada’s performances have been on an upward trajectory. They started with a sputtering first half against Honduras and improved in the second half against Los Catrachos, all before a better overall showing against the USMNT.
They’re hoping that trend continues and leads to their first three points against El Salvador – though overcoming Davies’ injury absence won’t be easy.
“This is a confident group,” said Henry. “When I say confident, not overly confident and walk in and think we’re getting three points. We’re a team that knows what it takes to win. A team that knows that it’s going to take sacrifice on both ends of the pitch. We’re looking forward to it.