MLS rookies Amhed, Bombito inspire in Canada's Gold Cup opener

Gold Cup - Canada - 6.28.23

TORONTO – Canadian men’s national team players hung their heads after a disappointing 2-2 draw with Guadeloupe to open their 2023 Concacaf Gold Cup slate.

Despite the result, head coach John Herdman couldn’t have been more pleased with a pair of MLS youngsters.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC midfielder Ali Ahmed and Colorado Rapids defender Moïse Bombito made their CanMNT debuts Tuesday at BMO Field, and while the latter started in his normal center back position, they both thrived through unexpected positional opportunities.

“With [Bombito] and [Ahmed] in the midfield, I was smiling on the side of the pitch because I was just thinking about how you can give these young kids chances like the Gold Cup,” Herdman said after the Group D fixture.

“For Stephen Eustáquio, the [2021] Gold Cup was the tournament he told Canada that he was the man. Not to put too much pressure on these young lads, but this could be a big moment for them.”

Ahmed and Bombito were two of five debutants in the draw, joining Portland Timbers defender Zac McGraw, Columbus Crew striker Jacen Russell-Rowe and defender Dominick Zator, who became the first former Canadian Premier League player to play in a competitive match for Canada.

The Canadians struggled to settle into the match and trailed Guadeloupe 1-0 at halftime before fighting back to take a 2-1 lead ahead of a 93rd-minute tying own goal from Russell-Rowe to split the spoils on home turf.

“Home field, first game, it's gotta be a win... maybe once the results leave my head, I'll have the time to think about it. It's a special day to play at home for Canada,” Ahmed said. “If you asked me two years ago if I was going to be here, I would not think so. Just enjoying the journey, man.”

Starting as a holding midfielder, Ahmed was a shining light for Canada, dropping into pockets to receive passes before attacking empty spaces.

The 22-year-old finished the night with 67 touches while winning five free kicks and passing at an 89% clip. He also contributed a key pass as Canada were pushing to work their way back into the match.

“I like playing the midfield,” Ahmed said, having moved more centrally after starting his MLS career as a left back. “That's where I grew up playing, so it’s almost like the old Ali is coming back.”

Meanwhile, Bombito played as a No. 6 at the base of midfield, rather than his usual backline spot he’s thrived in with the Rapids. Although there were apparent growing pains, he kept his composure and grew into a role both Colorado and Canada see in his future.

“He’s got great feet and great physical presence and speed, and speaking to [assistant coach] Neil Emblen at Colorado, they see that midfield potential, and we're missing that type of profile,” Herdman said.

New group adapting to identity

Like their American counterparts, Canada didn’t send their top team to the Gold Cup. Instead, they’re turning the page in the lead-up to World Cup 2026 and sent a roster that aims to not only be competitive, but to unearth future national team regulars.

For Ahmed, Bombito and others, the possibilities are endless as they hope to establish themselves as staples in the Canadian player pool. Yet, the lack of familiarity with teammates, system and environment ultimately troubled Les Rouges on Tuesday.

With such a novice group at the Gold Cup, nearly a week of preparation has been a welcome addition for Herdman and staff, bringing the inexperienced group up to speed with Canada’s burgeoning identity.

“When you've got these players that are young and hungry, they want the extra work; they just want to be learning, and there's a little bit of insecurity there where they'll do the extra work,” Herdman said, bringing the new faces up to speed.

“You can spend a little longer in those tactical sessions...I’m seeing an absolute commitment to the work, and that’s been refreshing.”

Canada’s preparation began to show in Tuesday’s second half, yet they will hope to develop even more as they attempt to top Group D with matches against Guatemala (July 1) and Cuba (July 4).

While there has been preparation time, integrating new profiles into the CanMNT has proved a challenge, albeit one that's yielded improvements, headlined by Ahmed and Bombito and their ability to lift the rest of the group.

Even as the night ended with a sour taste for the CanMNT, there were clear steps toward the future as young players began integrating into the new environment.

“Bombito's head didn't go down, Ali Ahmed just kept going, and I think that was quite inspiring for our leaders,” Herdman said. “The last goal, I don't think we needed to concede a set piece at that moment... but it's football.”