“We’re going to qualify”: Canada look to avoid upset against Trinidad & Tobago

Stephen Eustáquio - CanMNT

It took a simple meeting on the training pitch shortly before Canada’s most important match since the 2022 World Cup to signify the team’s transition to a new generation.

Interim head coach Mauro Biello pulled the squad aside and tipped Stephen Eustáquio to captain Les Rouges. With recent captains Milan Borjan and Atiba Hutchinson no longer with the group, Eustáquio will lead the CanMNT into Saturday’s test against Trinidad & Tobago, a one-game playoff to reach the 2024 Copa América (4 pm ET | OneSoccer, Paramount+).

The winner of the qualifier not only books a spot in the prestigious tournament held this summer across the United States, but also an opening match on June 20 against Inter Miami CF superstar Lionel Messi and Argentina at Atlanta United’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“He ticks all the boxes,” Biello explained to media about naming the FC Porto midfielder as captain. “If you look at his career and what he’s gone through, he joined Canada four or five years ago and he’s been able to grow in this team. He’s experienced a World Cup. He’s playing at the highest level in the Champions League.”

While Canada boast several top-tier players, including former Vancouver Whitecaps starlet Alphonso Davies and one of Europe’s top scorers in Lille’s Jonathan David, having Eustáquio lead the team from the midfield is a critical call, even as Davies told media he was ready to embrace a bigger leadership role.

“There’s a calmness about Steph that I like and that I think will be extremely important in a game like this,” Biello said, noting Eustáquio’s status is just for the single match for now, but could continue in the future. “He leads by example. He’s someone that has the respect of the group, he’s well-liked. … He has all the qualities to be that leader that we need.”

Eustáquio carries undoubted swagger, but Canada are entering a match where they look to avoid another chapter in a long history of disappointing performances in critical moments.

"We have to make sure that doesn't happen,” the new skipper said when asked about Trinidad & Tobago’s potential upset. “There's no room for disappointment, there's just room for improvement, and we're going to qualify tomorrow."

Despite not using the phrase exactly, the 27-year-old practically guaranteed a win to Canadian supporters, a confident tactic leaders in sport have used over generations, but also a refreshing breath of air for a Canadian team moving onto a new era.

“Canada First” mentality

When kicking off at FC Dallas’ Toyota Stadium on Saturday, it'll be nearly two years to the day since the CanMNT punched their World Cup ticket to Qatar 2022 in front of a rambunctious crowd at Toronto FC’s BMO Field.

Flash forward and longtime head coach John Herdman departed to lead Toronto FC, all while the program has weathered several twists and turns. Case in point: They need a one-game playoff after not finishing the job vs. Jamaica last November in the Concacaf Nations League quarterfinals.

But now it’s a new era for a younger Canadian squad, and their “brotherhood” mantra is replaced by putting “Canada first.”

“‘Brotherhood’ was a very strong word for us in the past. I think we really were a team that was connected well, and we still are,” Eustáquio said. “We're in a different era, and I think it's all about ‘Canada first...’ there's no individuality here. It's 'Canada first' and it's winning. I think we have the team to do that.”

Saturday’s match presents one of the most important single games in CanMNT history. With automatic 2026 World Cup qualification secured alongside fellow co-hosts United States and Mexico, Copa América 2024 offers a crucial opportunity to play competitive matches against top-tier opposition.

Suffice it to say plenty rests on Biello’s call to gather a young roster featuring no players over 30 years old – potentially dictating his chance at the full-time managerial role.

“For me, it's about a new beginning,” Biello said. “We need to detach ourselves from the past. I talked about ‘Canada first.’ That humility that we did have, it kind of fell through over the last year. It’s about getting back to that.”