After weeks of speculation regarding friendly opponents, possible venues and everything in between, the Canadian men’s national team have a full slate of games for what could be a transformative June window.
A friendly against fellow World Cup participant Iran at BC Place on June 5 precedes Canada’s two Concacaf Nations League matches (vs. Curacao and Honduras) in Vancouver and San Pedro Sula, respectively.
With Canada coach John Herdman set to finalize his roster later next week, there are several conundrums to manage ahead of the Iran friendly.
Chief among them is whether he’ll prioritize the players who were leaned on during World Cup qualifiers for the sake of maintaining chemistry, or if he’ll hand a few opportunities to in-form players who weren’t regular starters in the Octagonal.
With all of this in mind, here are five priorities for Herdman ahead of this June window.
Priority No. 1: Rewarding in-form strikers
They will surely make the final squad, but Cyle Larin and Jonathan David are at risk of being dropped for at least one game.
That sounds like a harsh decision given that Larin was the Golden Boot winner in World Cup Qualifying, while David provided a not-too-shabby five goals and two assists. However, their club form hasn’t been anywhere near as consistent in 2022. David has three goals in the calendar year for Lille, thanks largely to his brace against Nice on May 14. Larin hasn’t fared much better, registering one goal since Dec. 23 for Besiktas in all competitions.
It’s true that both clubs are experiencing tumultuous seasons, and multiple coaching changes in Besiktas’ case. National-team form can also mitigate some of those struggles at the club level, as it has at times for both players during the European season.
Throw in Ike Ugbo’s electric play for Troyes, which largely helped the club survive relegation in Ligue 1, and there’s a strong case for Ugbo to start.
Five goals from a low number of shots, coupled with strong underlying numbers, highlights Ugbo’s poaching qualities and Canada doesn’t have another striker in his mold. The ability to stretch lines, constantly create separation with defenders and pop up in promising scoring positions are game-changers for the Canadians.
“He likes to play between the two center backs, he likes to lead the line, he can run behind the line and stretch the line, which I like,” Herdman said back in November. “I think that is a facet that can help complement other players and the way that we play. Often when we play with that No. 9 in Johnny [David] or Cyle [Larin], they want to be receiving in those pockets of space off the front. At times, we get left with a line that is not stretched. That space doesn’t really open up. I think Ike gives us that opportunity.”
Ugbo only played 53 minutes during the Octagonal across four substitute appearances. It’s clear, though, that he can be an impactful player, even off the bench, so giving him a start to build chemistry with either David or Larin would behoove everyone. If they find that connection on the pitch now, it’ll be a seamless change when Ugbo checks into a game at the World Cup.
More than anything, Ugbo deserves a shot given his strong finish to the season in his first proper run in a top-five European league. Herdman has constantly spoken about wanting his players in “Tier 1” leagues, now it’s time to reward those who transition to that environment without a hitch.
Priority No. 2: Rotating the defense
The decision to play the first two matches of the international window at BC Place was a smart decision for marketing purposes. Selling out upwards of 110,000 tickets leads to big gate revenues for Canada Soccer, who could use every dime they receive.
The downside is the artificial surface, especially for the likes of Steven Vitoria with a history of knee injuries.
Vitoria’s minutes were managed in November when Canada faced Mexico and Costa Rica at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium (a turf field), plus his usual replacement in Doneil Henry just returned to full fitness following a hamstring knock. He’s also a risk on turf with his injury history, so it’s reasonable to assume that we’ll see a fair bit of rotation at the back.
Herdman has shifted to a back four when his center back options were thin in the past, so there are a few possible tweaks we could see him make for one of the Vancouver games to rest Vitoria:
Waterman has been solid for CF Montréal on the right side of the back three, and Alistair Johnston’s form at right wingback is off the charts recently. Both players are familiar playing with each other and Waterman can be a capable rotation option regardless of the plan for Vitoria.
If Herdman prioritizes the players who’ve guided Canada to the World Cup, though, then we can expect Hutchinson at center back or a switch to a back four. Either way, it won’t be a difficult adjustment for the team.
Priority No. 3: Fitting in Alphonso Davies
Oh, right, Canada might have their best player back in the squad for the first time in seven months. Remember when they still managed to pick up 12 of a possible 18 points without Davies to close out qualifying?
Anyways, Davies’ role with Canada is intriguing because he’s been deployed in a hybrid winger role for Bayern Munich since his return in early April. He’s been afforded the freedom to drift inside more often and stay further forward, which benefits Canada.
Sam Adekugbe is a rockstar at left back, he has chemistry with Davies and it allows the Bayern star to carry more of the offensive workload without needing to worry as much about covering the entire left flank.
There is one danger in deploying Davies further forward, and that’s the constant pressure he receives when gathering possession in an advanced position. Mexico marked him touch-tight and he struggled to retain the ball and create any danger. Iran has a disciplined defensive structure, so Davies might be exposed to the same treatment.
What’s guaranteed is that Davies will be fearless no matter how tightly he’s marked, so whether he’s a left back, winger or partnering a striker up front, he should make an impact one way or the other.
Priority No. 4: Calling up Stefan Mitrovic
Marcelo Flores officially declaring to represent Mexico is a reminder that while some dual nationals will inevitably choose other countries, there are still some talented polynational players who can be cap-tied next month.
Stefan Mitrovic must be the top priority in this regard. Unlike Flores, Mitrovic is playing regular minutes in a European top-flight at Radnicki Nis in the Serbian SuperLiga. At just 19 years old, he has 10 goals and three assists from the wing and could singlehandedly guide the club to a UEFA Europa Conference League place.
Mitrovic, who has been capped by Serbia at the U-21 level recently, told the Northern Fútbol Podcast in January that he was still very open to representing Canada.
The federation shouldn’t rest despite those comments. Serbia is playing UEFA Nations League games in this window, and the senior staff has tracked Mitrovic’s progress at club level since November. It’s very possible that if the Serbians call, the 19-year-old will accept it.
Mitrovic likely has to file his one-time switch to play Nations League, but the Iran friendly could be a great opportunity for him to get integrated into the camp. That could sway him towards Canada if all goes well.
Regardless, Mitrovic is the only dual national who can make a case for the World Cup squad if he switches to Canada. His improvisation, positional flexibility and eye for goal are all weapons that the Canadians would gladly accept.
Priority No. 5: Learn to pick the lock
The loss to Panama in March served as a sobering reminder for Canada that one lackadaisical performance can cost the team. The loss guaranteed their spot in Pot 4 for the World Cup draw which resulted in them being in the tougher Group F against Belgium, Croatia and Morocco, rather than being in Pot 3 which was viewed as what would have been an easier route.
It also reminded us that Canada still have issues breaking down compact blocks. Panama’s pressing and organized defense off the ball prevented the Canadians from creating any real danger in that defeat. Iran, Curacao and Honduras should take notes from that game and use it to their advantage if they are wise.
Davies’ return might alleviate those problems since he can be a human cheat code in those situations. The more focus defenses have on the Canadian superstar, the less attention there will be on other players, which can allow them to slip between gaps and open up space that way.
This might not be a problem at the World Cup when Canada are likely going to absorb pressure and pounce on the counter, but for the long-term development of the team, they need to learn to break down these disciplined defenses.
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