When Canadian men’s national team coach John Herdman named his 23-man squad for his side’s final Concacaf Nations League qualifier against French Guiana on Tuesday, he did so with a bigger vision than the March international window.
Canada currently sit in third place in the qualification standings, one of six countries unbeaten from their first three matches.
A top six finish guarantees Canada a spot in the Nations League, along with a spot at this summer's Gold Cup. But Herdman's thoughts extend beyond those competitions to using these matches as foundations for qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
“When people look at it on paper, there’s a lot of talent there,” Herdman said of the squad on a conference call on Tuesday. “With a win we qualify for the Gold Cup, we qualify for Nations League Group A, and Canada are picking up ranking points that are important. And we’re moving towards our ultimate goal, which is 2022.”
Back in the squad is former Vancouver Whitecaps winger Alphonso Davies, who will return to BC Place for the match for the first time since his move to German giants Bayern Munich in January. He'll be joined by players currently enjoying their club soccer in England, Mexico, Scotland, Spain and Turkey, along with nine current MLS players.
It's a strong squad, one of the strongest Canadian rosters in recent years, and testament to the hard recruitment process Herdman and his team have undertaken. But with that also comes something of a headache for Herdman — fitting all of the talent into a starting line-up.
“I’ve been working with these players now for over a year, assessing them on and off the field, so I’m starting to get more clarity on which players need to be on the field for this team to tick,” Herdman said. “A big part of what we want to do is, we want to get the result but going in to the Gold Cup, we want to understand what versatility we have in certain players.
“The goal will be to have our best players on the field and I think that’s critical. There’s no point me having three world class midfielders sitting on the bench and three on there playing. We have to find a way to be able to get players on the field that can contribute, and that might be in a different position."
It all makes for a healthy competition for places, with some veterans of recent years missing out this time around, while others, like Orlando City's Will Johnson return to the fold for the first time in a while.
Johnson hasn't featured much for Canada recently, after a couple of mixed seasons in Orlando, but following an "open and frank" conversation with Herdman, he's worked hard to get back into the national team set up.
“He wants to get back in the shirt,” Herdman said. “What Will brings to the environment is that little bit of grittiness. You know what you’re going to get. It’s clear. Consistency around his performance. In Orlando, he’s pushed into that attacking space this year, which I was challenging him on and saying we want to see him playing forward more. So he’s ticked some of those boxes, but what I think it comes down to is that he’s a no nonsense sort of guy.”
His Orlando teammate Tesho Akindele is one of those to miss out, however, but Herdman highlighted the striker as the perfect example of a player who will force everyone in and around the squad to be better and to be in environments where they see playing time.
“The likes of Tesho, he adds that pressure on the coaches to select and then to have conversations with other players that look, you must be on your toes more," Herdman said. "You can’t be settling for a life of mediocrity at your club where you might be at a big club but the club are happy to keep you in a reserve position. You’ve got to be fighting every day because there’s a man here that’s banging goals in in MLS and is knocking on the door.”