Squizzato: Canada's Herdman renaissance takes another firm step forward

John Herdman - Canada national team - animated on the sideline

It’s been a fun few months, but now the hard work really begins for Canada.

John Herdman’s side defeated French Guiana 4-1 at Vancouver’s BC Place on Sunday to finish in second place in Concacaf Nations League qualifying with a perfect 4-0-0 record (falling just short of Haiti on total goals scored).

That ensures Canada’s entry into League A of the inaugural CNL competition this fall, as well as providing some valuable momentum ahead of this summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup.

Aside from a defensive mix-up between Milan Borjan and Samuel Piette that gifted French Guiana with their goal in the first half, it was largely one-way traffic for the home side, who looked perpetually dangerous despite the absence of Alphonso Davies and Scott Arfield.

The front three of Junior Hoilett, Lucas Cavallini and Jonathan David was simply overwhelming for the visitors, who came into Sunday’s game needing a victory in order to get back to the Gold Cup. Hoilett took delight in running at opponents, Cavallini continually found himself in great positions and David’s speed rendered French Guiana’s high defensive line a complete moot point.

Of course, Canada’s newfound swagger is largely down to the level of competition they’ve faced in a year under Herdman. No one expects Canada will immediately be as fluid and fearless against Mexico, Costa Rica and the United States as they have been against French Guiana, Dominica and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Still, for a team that has for years struggled to not only score goals, but look capable of scoring goals, the last 12 months have been a breath of extremely fresh air, featuring a developing core that’s still far, far away from reaching its prime.

Left behind

Fans were surely pleased to see Mark-Anthony Kaye of LAFC back in the Canadian lineup for the first time in a year, though perhaps a bit surprised to see where he lined up to start the game — as, supposedly, a left back. 

Now, we say “supposedly” because, as in prior CNL qualifying matches against lower-ranked opposition, Canada played much of the match with a de facto back two of Derek Cornelius and Doneil Henry, giving Kaye and right back Zachary Brault-Guillard the freedom to float way up into the team’s unrelenting attack.

Kaye did well, throwing in numerous tantalizing crosses and getting involved in the cheeky build-up to Canada’s first goal. But given the likelihood of Canada reverting to a more “traditional” defensive setup against stronger opposition in the months ahead — and of Kaye stepping back into a central midfield role in a post-Atiba Hutchinson setup — one wonders who Herdman sees as his top-choice left back.

The incumbent, Marcel de Jong, recently suffered a season-ending injury. Sam Adekugbe, a natural left back, did see the pitch against French Guiana, though only for the game’s final 20 minutes. Davies, who missed Sunday’s game with injury, has played the part in recent games, but surely can’t be the long-term solution at that position… can he?

Symbolic subs

Whether or not this was Herdman’s intent, his choice of subs on Sunday provided a fascinating microcosm of where this team have been and where they’re hopefully heading.

At the 60th minute, Russell Teibert took to the familiar turf at BC Place to replace Jonathan Osorio, a swap featuring two 26-year-old midfielders, both longtime members of a Canadian MLS club, both young veterans on the national team. Amidst all sorts of change with the national team and their individual careers, Teibert and Osorio continue to follow remarkably similar trajectories.

At the 70th minute, Adekugbe entered the game and pushed Kaye into central midfield, sending Hutchinson off the field to the cheers of home fans for possibly the last time. With 81 appearances spread over 16 years, Hutch is undoubtedly one of Canada’s best ever — but toiled in obscurity at home thanks to the national team’s lack of success.

Then, in the 78th, Cavallini got a rest thanks to Cyle Larin — yes, remember him? It was seemingly yesterday that Larin was Canada’s next savior; but since then, a move to Turkey and the abrupt rise of players like Davies and David have thrust him to the backburner in Canadians’ minds.

Still just 23, Larin has lots of time to earn back that top billing… but all of a sudden, neither he, nor any other individual, needs to do the “saving” on their own.

Ask and receive

For years, Canada received an automatic berth into the Gold Cup, ostensibly by virtue of having won the tournament back in 2000. Yet there existed an undercurrent of belief within Canadian soccer circles that being forced to work their way into the competition could actually do some good.

It may seem pre-emptive to say those suspicions have been proven correct by what we’ve seen in CNL qualifying. But hey, when has too-soon speculation ever gone wrong for Canadian soccer? (The answer is “many, many times”, but we digress.)

While again acknowledging the relatively humble level of competition that Canada’s faced in the CNL qualifying process, it’s safe to say that the team has never come into a Gold Cup tournament with this amount of hype and positive energy.

And unlike in past cycles, when Canada’s scrambled to get players released for friendlies, most of Canada’s presumptive Gold Cup roster has willingly assembled — and built connections on and off the field — during this qualification process

Also, playing more official games has given Canada the chance to cap-tie a half-dozen promising young players in recent months: Cornelius, David, Brault-Guillard, Liam Millar, Alessandro Busti and Ballou Tabla.

But then, all things considered, perhaps the days of obsessing over when and how to “lock down” talented kids are behind us, to be replaced by a strange new world in which skilled footballers actually look forward to suiting up for Canada.