John Herdman is normally a man of habit, so it was not surprising to see only two changes to the Canadian men’s national team’s 25-man roster for the March window of Concacaf World Cup qualifying.
One of those changes announced on Sunday afternoon was significant, though. Nineteen-year-old Ismael Koné, who has been a revelation in CF Montréal’s midfield to begin the 2022 season, made the cut in place of his club mate Samuel Piette, who is still nursing a foot injury he suffered during January’s qualifiers.
There were growing calls for Koné to be included despite his relative inexperience and young age, though he’s proven to be polished beyond his years.
“One thing that I have seen consistently is just a fearless mindset,” Herdman said of his newest recruit. “I think the game this weekend [versus Atlanta United], he was able to show that sort of resilience that I think is really important to be part of this team where you can make a mistake and come back and produce a performance like he did.”
The 3-3 draw with Atlanta was as scintillating as they come in MLS. It was Koné's seventh appearance and sixth start in all competitions on Saturday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and he made the most of it by being involved in all three Montréal goals in one of his most dominant performances to date.
HIGHLIGHTS: Atlanta United FC vs. CF Montréal | March 19, 2022
Kone set up Montréal’s opener with a scything through ball on the counter, scored the (at the time) go-ahead goal, then drew the penalty that made it 3-1 for the visitors.
Ultimately, Montréal coughed up the lead, but a silver lining from the draw was Koné’s majestic display. Even discounting the assists and the goal, Koné was everywhere. He hit some terrific progressive passes through Atlanta’s midfield, covered tons of ground defensively and intervened at decisive times.
Not bad for a youngster with less than 500 minutes of professional experience under his belt.
Herdman believes that the young midfielder can contribute across this three-match window in what will be a monumental week for Canadian soccer. A win over Costa Rica on Thursday guarantees Canada a spot at the 2022 World Cup, although a draw coupled with Panama failing to beat Honduras and the US men’s national team not defeating Mexico would be enough for Les Rouges to book their tickets to Qatar 2022. Even losing in San Jose to a reinvigorated Ticos side could be sufficient.
As encouraging as the Koné news is for Canada, there is still one major conundrum. Central midfielder Stephen Eustaquio and defender Richie Laryea have been everpresent for Herdman in this cycle, yet they are lacking rhythm compared to previous windows.
Luckily for Herdman, Eustaquio started in Porto’s second-leg draw with Lyon in the Europa League on Thursday and was an occasional second-half substitute before then, so the midfield maestro is less of a concern.
Laryea is the big worry. He has yet to debut for Nottingham Forest after joining from Toronto FC in January and his last appearance was for Canada in the win over El Salvador on Feb. 2. Plus, only one other out-and-out right-back was called into the squad in Alistair Johnston, who is predominantly a center back with the national team. That indicates that Laryea will be a key starter again.
"You have always got those concerns as a coach,” Herdman admitted. “But I think you don't underestimate, either, the power of the human will and the human potential. Players like that can turn it on when they need to. What we know is they might not be able to turn it on for 95, 100 minutes, but there will be a period in the game where these players will suffer a bit. But at the end of the day, they have showed a resilient mindset and if I believe the science and everything that science told us, we would not be where we are at now.”
The other newcomer of sorts is Minnesota United FC goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair, though he has been involved with past squads during qualifying. Having started Minnesota’s last two games, both wins while keeping clean sheets, surely helped St. Clair reclaim the No. 3 role for Canada when Montréal’s Sebastian Breza was knocking on the door.
If St. Clair is starting and in form, he is easily one of the three best goalkeepers in the pool. Unfortunately for the 24-year-old, he has Milan Borjan and LAFC's Maxime Crepeau ahead of him.
Watch Dayne St. Clair put on a goalkeeping clinic at Red Bull Arena
Alphonso Davies remains unavailable as he recovers from mild myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. Davies was diagnosed in mid-January but resumed individual training last week and Bayern Munich are hopeful that the Canadian sensation will be involved in the Champions League quarterfinals in early April.
"We were desperate to have him in to be part of [clinching a World Cup berth],” Herdman said. “To help him experience all of the effort he put in over these four years. But there are bigger things ahead and his health, anything around the heart is so precarious. I think all of us just want to make sure he comes back to full health and the best place for him to be is with Bayern Munich."
Canada finished the January qualifiers with maximum points without Davies. Even with questions surrounding Laryea’s and Eustaquio’s respective fitness, the mental resolve of the players has carried them this far. Another 90 minutes of determined, locked-in focus shouldn’t be too big of a chore.