Canada at Gold Cup: 6 players who can seize their opportunity

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Shortly after losing their first final appearance in 23 years, Canada released their 2023 Concacaf Gold Cup roster with hopes of pursuing another trophy.

While the Nations League ended with a 2-0 defeat to the United States, head coach John Herdman turned to an experienced, star-studded roster for the brief two-match window. For the Gold Cup, Canada send a younger squad featuring 10 MLS players.

Les Rouges are in Group D, hoping to clinch the title on July 16 at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.

Canada games: Gold Cup, Group D

  • June 27 vs. TBD - 7:00 pm ET (OneSoccer in Canada, FS1 in United States) | BMO Field (Toronto, Canada)
  • July 1 vs. Guatemala - 9:30 pm ET (OneSoccer in Canada, FS1 in United States) | Shell Energy Stadium (Houston, Texas)
  • July 4 vs. Cuba - 6:30 pm ET (OneSoccer in Canada, FS1 in United States) | Shell Energy Stadium (Houston, Texas)

Sixteen players from the Nations League roster remain with the squad, including midfielder Stephen Eustáquio, goalkeeper Milan Borjan and other key figures in the CanMNT’s rise.

There’s an impetus to developing winning habits, all while turning the page towards the co-hosted 2026 FIFA World Cup. Canada have won the Gold Cup twice, lifting the trophy in 1985 and 2000.

Here are six players, including five MLS-based names, that could use this window to push into more opportunities.

One of three players earning his first CanMNT call-up, Portland Timbers center back Zac McGraw has a golden opportunity in front of him. The 26-year-old has not previously participated in Herdman’s system or Canadian youth camps, yet his recent play shows that he could play a critical role.

While the regular 3-5-2 misses Alistair Johnston, McGraw could step into the side as a third right-footed defender, alongside either Steven Vitoria or Scott Kennedy in the heart of the back three, with Kamal Miller on the left. Alternatively, he could play in the heart of a back four as he has with the Timbers, potentially partnering with one of Vitoria, Kennedy, Moïse Bombito or Dominick Zator.

McGraw has been among the top central defenders in MLS this season, winning 1.78 tackles per 90 minutes while averaging 6.33 clearances a match, per FBRef. Portland are tied for third in MLS with six clean sheets.

Not only is it an opportunity with the Canadian team, but a victory for Canada Soccer as well, getting the Canadian-American dual national to commit to Herdman’s squad after missing out on Columbus Crew midfielder Aidan Morris (USA), who also was eligible for the CanMNT.

Bombito’s development in his rookie season with the Colorado Rapids has been nothing short of exceptional. Now, the Rapids' No. 3 overall pick in the 2023 MLS SuperDraft presented by adidas gets his second national team call, sticking with the squad from the Nations League roster.

The 23-year-old has risen from the junior college ranks to become an MLS regular and likely contributor for the national team all within the last 20 months.

Working to his advantage is his age and ability to play various positions, as he’s showcased with Colorado this season. With Canada often switching backline setups, versatile players are key to Herdman’s system, and Bombito fits that plan, having played center back, right back, left back and wingback at points this season.

Although he’s not likely to start many matches at the tournament, Bombito will have a chance to impress as the squad builds towards the 2024 Copa América and 2026 World Cup.

Dayne St. Clair might not have a more significant opportunity to establish himself as Canada’s starting option between the sticks moving forward. With Borjan, 35, leaving Red Star Belgrade for Slovan Bratislava next season and looking a step slower with the CanMNT, the Gold Cup is the perfect time to start a new chapter in goal.

The 26-year-old could be the starter at the tournament, having put together several strong MLS seasons while making 38 saves through 16 appearances in 2023, regularly giving Minnesota a chance despite their attacking struggles.

He ranks in the 82nd percentile among MLS goalkeepers in post-shot expected goals per 90, with 1.03, per FBRef. Although he has struggled at points, the Ontario native has generally been reliable for the Loons.

While he has been a regular squad member for Canada, St. Clair has only two starts to his name. Still, he is a potential starting option in 2026 should Herdman tip him in favor of Borjan and Brighton and Hove Albion youngster Tom McGill.

The 2023 MLS season has been a coming-out party for Ali Ahmed, fully establishing himself as a regular in the Vancouver Whitecaps' first team after impressing in the academy and MLS NEXT Pro. While he enters the Gold Cup coming off a frightening concussion suffered in the Canadian Championship semifinal, he does so amid a strong campaign.

He has started nine of his 14 appearances across all competitions this season, scoring twice and adding an assist after becoming the first Whitecaps FC 2 MLS NEXT Pro player to sign with the club’s first team last November.

Shifting between left back, left wingback and holding midfield, Ahmed has tenacity on the ball while also finding a way to elude defenders, creating pockets of space for himself to take on passes. Without Ismaël Koné at the Gold Cup, Ahmed’s qualities in holding midfield could find him a spot there.

It only takes one glance at Canada’s Gold Cup attackers to see a clear opportunity for Jacob Shaffelburg. Without stalwart attackers, there’s a tremendous opportunity for any of the six listed forwards to establish themselves within the 2026 plans.

For Shaffelburg, the opportunity couldn’t come at a better time, with the lone Nova Scotia-born player on the roster having scored three goals in 17 matches with Nashville this season. Through his 844 minutes of MLS play, he also has 11 key passes, and seven successful crosses, making him a potential breakout player as a wide forward with Canada.

Playing under Herdman, wingers tend to require more responsibility on both sides of the ball. Shaffelburg’s defensive work rate ranks him highly in those characteristics, which should give him more opportunities moving forward.

Victor Loturi
Ross County FC | Midfielder

With only five true midfielders called up for the Gold Cup, Ross County’s Victor Loturi has a tremendous chance to have a strong tournament while also establishing himself in the future plans of the CanMNT. With Atiba Hutchinson retiring from the national team and several other midfield options absent from the Gold Cup, the 22-year-old is poised for a breakout tournament. 

Often used as part of a midfield pivot, Loturi fits right into Herdman’s system and could play centrally alongside Eustáquio, providing a defensive outlook while also opening up space for his midfield counterpart to push the ball into the attack. He’s played regularly since making his pro debut in the Canadian Premier League and is calm in possession, with his defensive responsibility putting him into the potential group for 2026. 

While Loturi was called up for the March Nations League camp, he did not receive his first official cap, making the Gold Cup the tournament that officially ties him to Canada after he received a provisional call-up for South Sudan.