Canada Soccer outlook: Key players to watch during the 2022-23 European season

The migration of multiple Canadian players to Europe over the past two years played a heavy hand in the national team’s qualification for the 2022 World Cup, the country’s first men’s World Cup appearance in 36 years.

Now with a winter tournament smack-dab in the middle of the new European season, players have three months to make or break their cases to crack the final roster.

Some Canadians abroad are solidified, if not virtual locks, for the 26-man squad. However, a handful are on the precipice and a strong spell to begin the campaign could lead to a trip to Qatar in November.

Here’s what you need to know about Canadians playing in Europe this season.

Locks for Qatar

Milan Borjan CAN
Milan Borjan
Goalkeeper · Canada

Red Star Belgrade have begun the Serbian SuperLiga season with four wins from as many games, and are also on the brink of the UEFA Champions League playoffs with Milan Borjan as the starting goalkeeper.

Borjan was linked with a move away from Belgrade last year, as MLS teams reportedly explored a potential acquisition. However, the Canadian No. 1 has since signed a new contract until 2026 and is poised for another monster year with the Serbian giants.

A terrific 2021-22 season with Hatayspor in the Turkish Super Lig catapulted Sam Adekugbe from a fringe player to a surefire starter for Canada. It even led to some of Turkey’s biggest clubs examining a possible signing this summer.

Ultimately, it appears that Adekugbe will be a Hatayspor player when the window closes but that suits him perfectly. The 27-year-old logged career highs in minutes (2934) and appearances (34) last season, showing off his dynamism on both sides of the ball.

Whether it’s with Nottingham Forest, or on loan at another European club or potentially MLS, Richie Laryea will be in the squad without any doubt.

Laryea dominated in the January window of Concacaf World Cup Qualifying without playing a competitive game since Nov. 21. However, it’s crucial that the former Toronto FC defender earns regular minutes, which will most likely be on loan from Forest.

Like Laryea, Stephen Eustaquio had to fight for his place at Porto by the end of last season. Eustaquio only had around 300 minutes in 11 appearances following a January loan from Pacos de Ferreira, but he still secured a permanent move to the Portuguese champions.

Eustaquio might be used as a rotational player this season as Porto fight on multiple fronts domestically and in Europe. That’ll suffice for the 25-year-old midfield maestro, just as long as he doesn’t rot on the bench.

Atiba Hutchinson could be the second oldest outfield player in World Cup history if he steps onto the pitch in Qatar. That appears likely with the 39-year-old signing a new one-year contract with Besiktas to prepare for the tournament.

What Hutchinson may lack in foot speed, he makes up for with his awareness and calmness on the ball. That’s what should lead to the veteran midfielder locking down a rotational place in the side this season.

Club Brugge’s season in Belgium is already two games old, but Tajon Buchanan hasn’t featured yet due to an injury he suffered in the warmups before the Belgian Super Cup on July 17.

The good news is Buchanan is due back shortly, and a full preseason combined with an upcoming Champions League debut could announce the ex-New England Revolution winger to the rest of Europe.

The 23-year-old has predominantly played at left wingback since joining Brugge in January. Still, even in a deeper role, he finds a way to torment opposing defenders on the dribble and sets up teammates on the regular. Expect more of the same this season.

Only injury can stop Alphonso Davies from boarding the flight at this point, and he’s already started the year on a flier. Bayern Munich lifted the German Super Cup last Saturday, with Davies going the full 90 minutes and providing an assist in the team’s 5-3 win over RB Leipzig. It could be a small taste of what’s to come in the Bundesliga this season.

With a possible shift to a back three looming for Bayern, Davies could bolster his assists tally as a left wingback. Coach Julian Nagelsmann utilized dynamic, attack-minded wide players at Leipzig in a similar system, so it’s entirely possible that Davies is deployed similarly in this new setup.

If anyone asked Jonathan David in December if he was going to leave Lille, he probably would’ve nodded emphatically. But a dry spell in the second half of last season has halted David’s next transfer for at least another year.

But that’s not a disappointing outcome, either. New coach Paulo Fonseca experimented with David as one of two playmakers behind a No. 9 during preseason, which is where the 22-year-old dominated Belgium with Gent. Maybe a full campaign in a familiar role can land the Canadian forward back onto the radar of Europe’s biggest clubs.

It’s easy to forget about Junior Hoilett with all of the young Canadian talent in the player pool. Yet Hoilett remains one of Canada’s most consistent players and that’s why he’s a valued member of the national team.

Another season with Reading, potentially as a right wingback in a new-look 3-5-2 formation instead of as a traditional winger, should guarantee Hoilett’s place in Qatar.

A summer move from Besiktas to Buchanan’s Club Brugge is a risk for Larin. Firstly, he hasn’t started any of the team’s three games since the Super Cup victory. Noa Lang remaining at the club is the potential explanation behind that.

But Brugge will have fixture congestion and Larin has come off the bench in each game, so the minutes should increase for Larin as the year continues. Plus, the former MLS Rookie of the Year (now known as Young Player of the Year) is comfortable in a two-striker setup and it’s a similar system to what Herdman deploys with Canada. That certainly can’t hurt.

Iké Ugbo
Forward · Canada

Ike Ugbo’s pending return to Troyes in Ligue 1 should keep his World Cup spot safe for the time being. Ugbo scored five goals in 800 minutes after joining the club on loan from Genk in January, playing a major role in Troyes’ survival in the top flight.

There’s no reason why Ugbo can’t pick up where he left off and build on that output with a full season under his belt.

Basically guaranteed … Unless…

Scott Kennedy has been relegated to the bench to start the 2. Bundesliga season with Jahn Regensburg. Even when he’s checked into a match, it’s been at left back or in midfield.

Whether there’s a transfer on the horizon or he’s simply out of favor, that might affect Kennedy’s stock for the World Cup, even though he’s been excellent in his eight caps for Canada.

There was a lot of uncertainty regarding Steven Vitoria’s future after Moreirense was relegated to the Portuguese second division last season. Vitoria’s contract also expired in June. 

That worried some Canadian fans because Vitoria’s knee injuries, especially at 35 years old, could’ve been deterrents for any potential suitors. Luckily, he landed at Chaves in the Portuguese Primeira Liga and should hold down the same backup role he had at Moreirense.

Of course, if Vitoria isn’t playing enough, that might put his starting job in question for the World Cup. But he should still be on the roster.

The glut of forwards, particularly out wide, makes it incredibly tough to whittle down the Canadian roster in that position.

Thankfully for Liam Millar, he’s an everyday starter for Basel in Switzerland after registering 10 goals and three assists in all competitions in 2021-22. That was his first consistent run in a top-flight European league at age 22, so this new campaign should be even better for the former Liverpool man.

Dark horses

If Kennedy misses out on Qatar due to a lack of playing time, Derek Cornelius is a capable replacement at left center back.

Cornelius featured in the squad for the final four windows of World Cup Qualifying but only made one start due to Kennedy’s form with Canada.

However, the ex-Whitecaps defender is a starter with Panetolikos in the Greek Super League, logging nearly 2700 minutes last year. He made tremendous strides with his distribution and defensive positioning, so there is an opportunity to crack the World Cup roster if everything lines up.

From Eustaquio and Hutchinson to Samuel Piette, there are numerous deep-lying midfielders who will be vying for a World Cup roster spot.

Liam Fraser will be one of them. He might play for Deinze in the Belgian second division, but the 24-year-old was a reliable deputy for Herdman and is a solid orchestrator in the heart of midfield. That’s why an injury could open the door for Fraser if he keeps starting every week.

David Wotherspoon would be a lock if it wasn’t for a torn ACL. He’s set to return to training with Scottish Premiership side St. Johnstone momentarily, with an eye on a September return to game action.

Whenever Wotherspoon is deemed fully fit, he’ll instantly slot into his usual wide left role for the club. Whether the next two months are enough to convince Herdman to bring him back into the fold remains to be seen.

After scoring eight goals in 24 games for Eerste Divisie club FC Eindhoven, the majority of which came in the second half of last season, Charles-Andreas Brym caught the attention of Eredivisie outfit Sparta Rotterdam.

Within a year, Brym went from the Dutch second tier to the top flight, and that effort was rewarded with a June call-up to the Canadian squad. Becoming a regular contributor for an Eredivisie club might even land the 23-year-old on the World Cup roster if there’s an opening at forward.

Theo Corbeanu was sent on another loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, but this time he’s in the English Championship with Blackpool.

Corbeanu’s 2021-22 campaign was tumultuous, to say the least. He wasn’t playing at Sheffield Wednesday in League One, then he was moved to wingback before Wolves sent him back on loan to MK Dons where he started regularly as a winger. While Corbeanu was one of League One’s top dribblers, he seldom created anything from those situations.

If Corbeanu can continue to progress the ball into the box, attempt shots and start combining with his teammates at Blackpool, it’ll be difficult for Herdman to ignore the 20-year-old.

There may not be another dual national who could impact Canada more than Stefan Mitrovic.

Mitrovic, 19, just joined Borjan at Red Star and already has four starts early in the season with a goal and an assist to his name. Despite making the gigantic step up from Radnicki Nis, the youngster is still willing to take on defenders, unsettle the backline and shoulder the attacking burden. Those are all qualities that Canada can use in Qatar.