It’s almost here, Canada.
After the country’s 36-year absence from the greatest sporting event in the world, head coach John Herdman’s team will soon step foot in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup.
Les Rouges have a difficult draw in Group F: Belgium (Nov. 23), Croatia (Nov. 27) and Morocco (Dec. 1). But after topping the Concacaf Octagonal, it’s not like they’re squeaking into the tournament. If the chips fall right, this Canada squad could make some noise in the weeks ahead.
The big question on everyone’s mind is who Herdman will call in. So I’ve put on my manager hat and predicted 26 roster spots.
Now, the awkward part about this World Cup is the fall/winter timing. Injuries are front and center for everyone, so a few guys on the bubble might work their way in by necessity. And Canada still have two more friendlies, this Friday against Bahrain and on Nov. 17 against Japan. Fingers crossed they get through those unscathed.
Enough scene-setting: Here is my 26-man CanMNT roster before Sunday’s big announcement.
- Milan Borjan (Red Star Belgrade)
- James Pantemis (CF Montréal)
- Dayne St. Clair (Minnesota United FC)
This group seemed all but locked in, then LAFC’s Maxime Crépeau suffered a broken leg in MLS Cup last weekend. I see Pantemis now stepping into the equation, and don’t forget he was the third goalkeeper until last winter. That leaves St. Clair, who’s coming off a strong season with Minnesota, as the No. 2 and Pantemis in the No. 3 spot.
Make no mistake: The No. 1 shirt belongs to Borjan. The last few years, especially since Herdman took over, you can see his focus and concentration have reached new heights. The quality was there, it was simply there more consistently.
You saw in the World Cup qualifiers, especially against the U.S. and Mexico, Borjan made key saves that helped Canada get results. He was focused to make the one or two game-changing plays needed to keep the confidence in the group. I expect the same in a tough Group F.
MISSED THE CUT
- Thomas Hasal (Vancouver Whitecaps FC)
- Sam Adekugbe (Hatayspor)
- Derek Cornelius (Panetolikos)
- Doneil Henry (Unattached)
- Alistair Johnston (CF Montréal)
- Richie Laryea (Toronto FC)
- Kamal Miller (CF Montréal)
- Steven Vitoria (Chaves)
- Joel Waterman (CF Montréal)
Especially if Herdman sticks with a band of three, it’s Johnston, Vitoria and Miller. They've been mainstays for this team. They've played the majority of the qualifiers and in September, too. They're not just on the roster, but the three starters based on what Herdman wants to do tactically.
Scott Kennedy's long-term injury absence opens an interesting situation. Waterman, for me, is the one who should slot into that center-back position. He was probably an outsider looking in, but now he's more sure of being on that final roster.
Henry has been part of the group, and Herdman has mentioned that he possesses a physically dominant and athletic profile – it’s something different than others in the pool. Even if this past season wasn't the greatest for him for both LAFC and Toronto, Herdman can count on Henry to demonstrate leadership, too, even though he's not a regular starter.
Then at fullback, it's an interesting position not with the players as much, but the way Herdman wants to go about things. Maybe sometimes it's more offensive-minded or having the top talent out there – pulling someone like Tajon Buchanan and Alphonso Davies a bit deeper depending on matchups.
Either way, Adekugbe is the mainstay who's written in pen into that XI. He’s been so good at left back in Turkey’s top flight.
Laryea, if you talked about one year ago, he was a no-brainer. I would have told you for sure Richie is there because he was playing very well at TFC, he played significant minutes in qualifiers. But in the last year, having gone to Nottingham Forest and back, he got fewer minutes and then returned to Toronto on loan. I believe he makes the team, definitely. But is he in the starting XI like in the past? It's not as clear.
MISSED THE CUT
- Zachary Brault-Guillard (CF Montréal)
- Raheem Edwards (LA Galaxy)
- Lucas MacNaughton (Toronto FC)
Last year was great for Brault-Guillard, but his minutes diminishing have caused him to probably lose a roster spot for Qatar. He's an outsider looking in, despite getting called in before during the cycle.
Edwards was probably my last cut. It came down to him or another winger, and I think the versatility of others – Johnston, Davies, etc. – makes him narrowly miss out on a ticket to Qatar.
- Stephen Eustaquio (Porto)
- Atiba Hutchinson (Beşiktaş)
- Mark-Anthony Kaye (Toronto FC)
- Ismaël Koné (CF Montréal)
- Jonathan Osorio (Toronto FC)
- Samuel Piette (CF Montréal)
Ideally, Hutchinson and Eustaqiuo are the two starters. And then others slot in depending on if Herdman wants to use two or three central midfielders.
Let’s talk about Atiba, who’s back in the Beşiktaş mix after a long injury layoff. He's played over 500 club games in his career and he's three games away from reaching the 100-cap milestone for Canada. So if he's fit, he's there – and also ready to play, not just along for the ride. Unless something major happens, the 39-year-old captain might even be the first name on the roster. Atiba can slot in at center back, too.
Eustaquio’s rise has been really impressive. Herdman has mentioned a lot how if you have players playing at the highest level, the more it brings that experience to the national team. Now Eustaquio’s in Champions League games, he's playing at a top premier club in Porto. The level of competition he has day in and day out, the level of games he's playing in raises his game to another tier – and there’s a trickle-down effect.
Koné’s the wild card, to some degree. He was an amateur player a year ago and now had a full first professional season, becoming an absolute revelation not just for Montréal but across MLS. He has genuine European interest. He's won this roster spot and proved he more than deserves to be there. Yes, he's young and has less experience. But sometimes in these tournament formats you want players like that, ones who are just at the beginning of their potential. Koné's going to be such a key piece for the national team long-term.
Osorio and Kaye, at the end of the season, were both injured and we'll see how they do without getting much significant playing time for a couple of months now. But they were important pieces during qualifying, so Herdman may be thinking that even if they're not 90-minutes fit right away, they can still have an impact. I don't see them being left off the roster because they were so constant during the Octagonal. Herdman will want to keep his guys.
MISSED THE CUT
- Liam Fraser (Deinze)
- David Wotherspoon (St Johnstone)
Wotherspoon is in competition with Koné for a spot, and the kid was a revelation this year. He has the edge. And for Fraser, I don't see him making it.
- Tajon Buchanan (Club Brugge)
- Lucas Cavallini (Vancouver Whitecaps FC)
- Theo Corbeanu (Blackpool)
- Jonathan David (Lille)
- Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich)
- Junior Hoilett (Reading)
- Cyle Larin (Club Brugge)
- Liam Millar (Basel)
- Ike Ugbo (Troyes)
The core group, you’ve got so much talent to work with. A front three of Buchanan wide right, David central and Davies wide left can cause a lot of problems in Qatar. Maybe Herdman opts for two strikers up top instead, and then it’s about working in Larin. Remember, he was Canada’s top scorer in qualifying for a reason – that doesn’t just go away even if his form in Belgium isn’t there.
For other strikers, Cavallini is more of a power forward and Ugbo brings something a little different. Out wide, Hoilett is more crafty and Millar was part of the qualifiers (Herdman seems to trust him) and Corbeanu is still young and is fighting for his spot.
But I might be burying the lede: It’s about what fitness levels Davies has after a hamstring scare with Bayern. If it’s less severe than it seems, he’ll always be one of the premier players on the pitch. That was a scary moment for the whole country.
MISSED THE CUT
- Charles-Andreas Brym (FC Eindhoven)
- Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC)
- Luca Koleosho (RCD Espanyol)
- Jacob Shaffleburg (Nashville SC)
Akinola had some injuries, but he's come back. We know what he could bring if push comes to shove. The other really interesting one is Koleosho. He just turned 18 and is fighting for LaLiga minutes. But I’m not sure he’s ready to commit to Canada and this cycle may be too soon given others who are a bit more established.
Here is my full 2022 CanMNT World Cup squad, all 26 guys.
- Goalkeepers (3): Borjan, Pantemis, St. Clair
- Defenders (8): Adekugbe, Cornelius, Henry, Johnston, Laryea, Miller, Vitoria, Waterman
- Midfielders (6): Eustaquio, Hutchinson, Kaye, Kone, Osorio, Piette
- Forwards (8): Buchanan, Cavallini, Corbeanu, David, Davies, Hoilett, Larin, Millar, Ugbo