The Canadian men’s national team finishes World Cup qualifying in less than two weeks’ time.
The March window begins with a trip to San José to face a resurgent Costa Rica (March 24), followed by the team’s final home game against Jamaica (March 27) and a visit to Panama (March 30).
Canada can qualify automatically for the Qatar 2022 World Cup with a win over Costa Rica. Even a draw or loss could be enough depending on other results in Concacaf that evening. But with the chance to earn a higher seed for the World Cup draw, the Canadians will try to claim maximum points.
The roster for this final round of qualifiers is expected to be named in the coming days. Even though coach John Herdman has been consistent with his selection throughout the Octagonal, there are some conundrums to mull over before the squad is finalized.
Here’s a full roster prediction and three burning questions for Canada in this window.
Which Country has the Ultimate Home Field Advantage? THE OCTAGON
The first two names are set in stone.
The No. 3 goalkeeper spot has rotated between Jason Leutwiler, James Pantemis (Montréal) and Dayne St. Clair (Minnesota United FC) over the past year, but Sebastian Breza is favored to claim the final slot. Breza has been CF Montréal’s No. 1 so far and literally saved Montréal in both away legs against Santos Laguna and Cruz Azul in the Concacaf Champions League. He faced a combined 5.1 expected goals (xG) yet only conceded twice.
On the fringe
- Sam Adekugbe (Hatayspor)
- Cristian Gutierrez (Vancouver Whitecaps FC)
Sam Adekugbe is suspended for the Costa Rica match, so this is a prime opportunity for Cristian Gutierrez to receive a recall to the national team and start. The alternative could be utilizing Tajon Buchanan as a left wingback, which is where he’s been deployed at Club Brugge since his January move from the New England Revolution.
Gutierrez has been called up on a handful of occasions under Herdman over the past 12 months, including the last window. He plays in a back three with Vancouver and knows this group of players, which Herdman values highly.
On the fringe
This is just as straightforward as the majority of the roster. Doneil Henry was in limbo until he joined LAFC and looked pretty sturdy in Saturday’s win over Inter Miami CF. Steven Vitoria has not played for Moreirense since the end of February when he was sent off, which could open the door for Joel Waterman (CF Montréal) or Derek Cornelius.
On the fringe
Cornelius has been reinvigorated with Greece’s Panetolikos. He’s far more comfortable progressing the ball from the back, plus his positioning and anticipation have improved as well. The issue for Cornelius is Miller and Kennedy have been called up more often and have dominated when they start. Ditto for Waterman, who is solid for Wilfried Nancy’s side though is still seeking a real breakthrough at the senior international level.
- Richie Laryea (Nottingham Forest)
- Zachary Brault-Guillard (CF Montreal)
The fact Richie Laryea has not played since he was on international duty in the previous window is a detriment. Laryea was a key player for Toronto FC before he joined Nottingham Forest, so he was a sure thing for Herdman. Now he is a risk due to his lack of playing time in England’s Championship.
Zachary Brault-Guillard is a reliable attack-minded option, especially if Herdman favors a 3-5-2 in possession. The 23-year-old has shaken the offseason rust by appearing in each of Montréal’s six games in all competitions so far this season, albeit there are only around 180 minutes in Brault-Guillard’s legs. That’s still 180 more than what Laryea has accumulated since Feb. 2, though.
If Herdman does not want to risk Laryea, that could lead to Alistair Johnston becoming the go-to right back in this window. Normally, Johnston has been deployed in a central defensive role for the national team, but he’s been used as a right-back in a 4-4-2 in recent games – it won’t be unfamiliar to the CF Montréal defender.
On the fringe
Mathieu Choiniere can play on either flank and is familiar with Herdman’s tactics, having played in a back three with Montréal since last season. But like the others on the outside looking in despite their stellar play, Choiniere hasn’t been incorporated into this squad so Herdman won’t mess with the chemistry. He’ll be another player to monitor ahead of the Nations League in June if he can earn more starts.
- Stephen Eustaquio (Porto)
- Liam Fraser (Deinze)
If Laryea’s match fitness is a concern, so too is Stephen Eustaquio’s.
Since joining Porto on loan in January, Eustaquio has only accumulated a total of 67 minutes in four appearances. The silver lining is that unlike Laryea, Canada’s midfield stalwart has played for his club since the previous window.
That should be enough to retain his place in the starting lineup, especially considering how vital he is to Canada’s midfield, not to mention Atiba Hutchinson likely not starting all three games.
Liam Fraser is a regular contributor for Deinze in the Belgian second division and continues to be a net positive with his distribution. The downside is his defensive assertiveness and general strength in 1-on-1 duels are lacking. That said, Herdman trusts Fraser and he’s generally rewarded that faith over the last few months.
On the fringe
There have been calls for Ismael Kone to be included and it’s understandable. The 19-year-old Ivorian-born midfielder has been stellar for Montréal when coach Wilfried Nancy has entrusted the youngster in marquee spots. If Toronto’s Ralph Priso was experiencing his 2021 form pre-injury, he’d have a strong case as well. He can return to those levels, but it’s too soon for March.
There was concern regarding Atiba Hutchinson’s availability after he suffered a minor thigh injury last week. Those fears were alleviated when Hutchinson returned to the Besiktas lineup for the team’s 2-1 loss to Galatasaray on Monday. At 39, the captain can’t be relied on to play all 270 minutes in this window, but 180 is doable.
Mark-Anthony Kaye and Jonathan Osorio have usually started with Eustaquio when Herdman opted for three central midfielders, although Hutchinson’s continually impressive form for the national team usually leads to one of the former two being relegated to the bench. Of course, if Hutchinson does not start at least one of these three games, Kaye and Osorio should be expected to start together if Canada sticks with a midfield three.
On the fringe
Harry Paton received a call-up to the Gold Cup squad, but COVID-19 protocols delayed his arrival to the team. He’s been in excellent form with Ross County in the Scottish Premiership and can play as a true No. 8 or hybrid No. 10, a position lacking with the retirement of Scott Arfield and injury to David Wotherspoon.
- Tajon Buchanan (Club Brugge)
- Junior Hoilett (Reading)
- Liam Millar (Basel)
These are all no-brainers. Tajon Buchanan might be a left wingback at Club Brugge, but that hasn’t stopped Alphonso Davies from playing up front for Canada over the last few months. It’s true Buchanan disappointed in the last window, though it was going to be tough to top his meteoric rise for club and country in 2021. Perhaps he returns to form this month.
Junior Hoilett often flies under the radar, yet he was one of Herdman’s most regular starters last year. Hoilett’s ability to receive the ball in tight spaces, maneuver through and progress the ball are all useful qualities for a player who can play on either wing or centrally.
As is often the case, injuries prevented Hoilett from featuring more often in World Cup qualifying. He’s stayed healthy for weeks and is a regular starter for Reading, so there is no reason why the 31-year-old won’t be called up.
Like the other two out-and-out wingers, Liam Millar’s form with Basel is extremely high. It’s yet to translate to Canada, but if he had a start with most of the team’s primary lineup, he could break through.
On the fringe
Theo Corbeanu has hit new heights at MK Dons as they push for promotion to the English Championship. The 19-year-old is a constant scoring threat and is slowly rounding into a playmaker from the right wing. With Hoilett featuring every week for Reading, coupled with Buchanan’s importance to the team, Corbeanu will likely be on the fringes again, though.
- Jonathan David (Lille)
- Cyle Larin (Besiktas)
- Ike Ugbo (Troyes)
- Lucas Cavallini (Vancouver Whitecaps FC)
For better or worse, these are the four names Herdman has trusted the most. Jonathan David’s inclusion does not need to be justified, nor does Cyle Larin’s as the team’s all-time leading scorer.
Ike Ugbo just scored his second goal for Troyes since moving on loan in January and has a propensity for clinical finishing despite notching few shots. Ugbo is unique in that no other center forward fits the poacher’s profile, someone who can stretch opposing defenses and execute runs in behind the backline. It would be a pleasant surprise if he received his first start in this window, especially with the plethora of weapons around him.
Lucas Cavallini’s inclusions in previous squads have been rightly critiqued amid a scoring slump with the Vancouver Whitecaps. He managed to open his account for the 2022 season in Vancouver’s loss to Houston Dynamo FC last Saturday, and with Brian White still injured, he’s started every game so far.
On the fringe
Richie Ennin and Charles-Andreas Brym have turned heads in Europe with Nizhny Novgorod (Russia) and FC Eindhoven (Netherlands), respectively. Brym even came off the bench in the win over Panama at BMO Field in October. Since then, he’s scored six goals in the Eerste Divisie and has grown leaps and bounds with his decision-making and incisiveness in the final third. There is so much depth up front that it might be tough to crack, but Brym’s progress will catch Herdman’s attention.
While Alphonso Davies returned to individual training for Bayern Munich, coach Julian Nagelsmann said he’s still 2-4 weeks away from returning to game action. Even then, he would be slowly worked back into shape after his long layoff due to mild myocarditis.
Davies has not played a competitive game since mid-December and he’s only just returned to training. It would be very optimistic to expect Bayern to green-light Davies traveling across the Atlantic and play for Canada when they’ve closely monitored his health since the diagnosis.
The fact he’s back on the training pitch is a very encouraging sign, though. And Les Rouges should be able to qualify without the Vancouver Whitecaps product.
Given that Canada are on the precipice of World Cup qualification, there is every chance Herdman gives one or two fresh faces an opportunity in this window.
There are several candidates on the fringes of the squad, but whether Herdman prioritizes bolstering his depth or going for all three wins to remain undefeated and improve the team’s seeding for the Qatar 2022 draw is unknown.
Based on the previous four windows, it’s easy to lean towards the latter. But if there is one certainty with Herdman, it’s that nothing is certain when it comes to squad selection.
This would have raised every Canadian eyebrow if it was asked two months ago. Now it’s a legitimate issue.
Eustaquio will likely be called up, barring a late injury, because he has played, albeit sparingly. Laryea’s nearly six-week layoff is a major concern, on the other hand. But he’s been a focal member of this Canadian team and one of the most consistent players. It would be unfathomable to not call him up, even with the rust building up.