The last time Alphonso Davies stepped foot on the turf at BC Place, he bid farewell to Vancouver Whitecaps FC with a brace in his final game for the club ahead of his transfer to Bundesliga powerhouse side Bayern Munich.
Nearly four years later, Davies was back on that same field following a seven-month absence from the national team due to mild myocarditis (COVID-related heart issue). Fittingly, he marked his return to the squad, and to Vancouver, with another brace against the same nation he faced in his Canada debut in 2017.
It was a nostalgic spectacle. Davies weaved his way through Curacao’s defense all evening until he was withdrawn in the 75th minute to a standing ovation. It was his trademark reception in Vancouver during his three seasons with the Whitecaps.
“I felt good,” Davies said of his return to his old stadium. “Coming back to the stadium for training … I was excited. I just got back all the memories from the last game [in 2018] with the Whitecaps and I’m just grateful for the support today.”
But Davies’ performance served as a reminder that this team performed seamlessly without him for six consecutive games to close out World Cup qualifying. Canada won four of those matches to top Concacaf’s Octagonal over Mexico and the United States, with several players stepping up in his absence. However, there’s no doubt that the Canadians will need the Bayern star in top form at the Qatar 2022 World Cup come November, where Group F matches against Belgium, Croatia and Morocco await.
In fact, Davies’ role and the lineup as a whole have been a hot-button issue. Sam Adekugbe’s play justified his place in the team, while Tajon Buchanan has been deployed at wingback since arriving at Club Brugge and was dominant in that role. Plus, strikers Cyle Larin and Jonathan David have gained chemistry as a partnership, creating serious questions about where Davies would slide in.
“We did try some different things,” said Canada head coach John Herdman. “We've been training hard for the last couple of days and right at the beginning of the week to just bring a new level of intensity to our pressing, our sets, so players can get ready for what's coming in Qatar.”
It appears that will be in a slightly advanced position in a 4-4-2 formation with Adekugbe at left back, providing the freedom to roam across the pitch. Davies has spent time at striker, on the right and as an out-and-out winger on the left, so he’ll have a flexible role regardless.
“Every time I put on the jersey for my country I give it my all wherever the coach wants to play me,” said Davies. “I’m happy and willing to play in that position whether it’s up the field or behind.”
The last time all four of Davies, Buchanan, Larin and David started together was the opening game of the final round of World Cup qualifying on Sept. 2 vs. Honduras. Due to injuries, suspensions or tactical alterations, it took 14 more games for Canada’s “Big Four” to start a match together.
Davies had two goals, Buchanan was a livewire down the right with CF Montréal's Alistair Johnston on the overlap, and while neither Larin nor David ended up on the scoresheet, they registered a combined 0.57 expected goals on seven shots, only to show some hesitation in the final third.
This was the first match for the national team in nearly three months and neither striker was in particularly scintillating form to close out their club seasons. David’s a possible outgoing transfer from Ligue 1’s Lille, while Larin could depart Turkish Süper Lig side Beşiktaş.
It will be intriguing to see them in Monday’s Nations League A Group C match at Honduras in San Pedro Sula, especially if Buchanan and Davies also receive starts.
Don’t expect this to be a trend at the World Cup, though. The fact that all four have sparingly started together isn’t entirely coincidental. A third midfielder might be necessary to combat Belgium, Croatia and Morocco, which likely means sacrificing one of the attackers.
Given all of the hoopla since the weekend and the major PR backlash towards Canada Soccer, the attendance figure was going to be a major talking point.
In the end, the announced crowd was 17,216 at BC Place – not bad for a match against a mid-tier Concacaf opponent after the week that put the federation under potentially unprecedented negative scrutiny.
The Canadian players were on radio silence for most of the window during their ongoing labor dispute with Canada Soccer. Other than public statements and Atiba Hutchinson’s comments after training on Wednesday, no one on the squad was willing to chat.
It was for good reason, though. The players are finalizing an agreement with legal representation to continue their negotiations with the federation and have left it in their hands, allowing them to focus on the task at hand.
“It’s what we do for a living,” Johnston said. “There’s nothing better than putting on the jersey, representing your country. It was great to get back out there and those fans deserved it. We put them through a bit of a ringer this week, we know how difficult that is, we’re all soccer fans, too, at the same time. We know that getting two canceled matches is not ideal. So getting out there and finally being able to play in front of that crowd is something that really meant a lot to us.
“As soon as [seeking representation] was taken care of, for the moment, you’re just back in business training, back to what we like to do,” said Montréal midfielder Samuel Piette. “That’s what we’re good at, being on a pitch.”
No agreement has been reached between the association and players yet. Acting general secretary Earl Cochrane told the assembled media on Wednesday that he’s hopeful it will be settled before the World Cup, so this dispute still isn’t over.
How that affects World Cup preparation remains to be seen. Until that deal is signed, there will be that sense of uncertainty lingering around the periphery.
But, as is often the case with this group, they aren’t even letting this affect their play.
“No excuses,” said Johnston. “It’s been a difficult week, but the same time, we were prepared, we’re ready, we had a couple days of training leading into this. So we’re ready to go. And we want to make a statement, not come out flat. And I think we did that.”