This is what made Friday’s 27-man roster announcement so intriguing. The two friendlies against Qatar (Sept. 23) and Uruguay (Sept. 27), their first matches against non-Concacaf opponents since January 2020, should have major ramifications on selecting the eventual 26-man World Cup squad, especially for players on the periphery.
It’s made more challenging by a lengthy layoff from the June window, one of the most hectic in recent memory for Canada. A labor dispute forced the cancellation of the Panama friendly on June 5, leaving the Canadians with just two Concacaf Nations League matches against Curacao (4-0 win) and Honduras (2-1 loss).
Pivotal training sessions were lost. The chance to test out new tactics and players evaporated.
Three months later, the engine has to warm up again.
“We were pretty clear in June what got us here,” said Canada coach John Herdman. “The things that created our foundation of success in Concacaf and we started to identify some of the gaps between us and, now, the world stage.
“Some of those gaps won't be revealed until we actually play a team like Uruguay, a really tough test, what I describe as a Tier 1, world-class opponent.”
Standout CF Montréal duo Joel Waterman and Ismael Kone could play roles in that Uruguay match given how they’ve guided their club near the top of the Eastern Conference, already helping book an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs return. Kone received his first caps during the March window of World Cup Qualifying while Waterman is back for the first time since March 2021 as a replacement for the injured Doneil Henry (Toronto FC).
“You can see there's a real camaraderie,” said Herdman of the trio. “They understand each other. There’s definitely good chemistry there. Joel is a wonderful passer, I think he plays the game in the right way, and for him, it’s now can he handle the Alphonso Davies’, the Cyle Larin’s, the Jonathan David's in these environments? We know that there is this step up from MLS, and we're ready to have Joel in that situation."
The defense is relatively intact from the June window, apart from Waterman replacing Henry. The midfield raises some concerns with a few players either nursing injuries or lacking match fitness, in the case of Mark-Anthony Kaye.
Kaye’s clubmate, Jonathan Osorio, was surprisingly included despite dealing with “neurological dysfunction” that has kept him out of the Toronto lineup in their previous four games. Atiba Hutchinson, who would be favored to start the World Cup opener against Belgium, was not called up due to his recovery from a bone bruise.
Herdman says Hutchinson is slated to return at the end of October, with the national team’s medical staff flying out to Istanbul at the conclusion of the window to monitor the 39-year-old’s progress with Süper Lig side Beşiktaş.
This is why Kone might end up sneaking into the World Cup picture, not just as a rostered player but as a possible starter. A strong September window would significantly boost those odds.
Kone’s continued growth in his first full MLS season led to reported summer bids from Norwich City and Sheffield United in the English Championship. Neither was finalized, although it’s a sign that this isn’t just a temporary run of form from the 20-year-old.
“I had a chance to speak to a colleague of mine who works at Norwich City and they've done a real deep assessment on Ismael and feel similar to us,” Herdman said. “He's got that Tier 1 potential. He has the chance to really push on in the world game. It takes time when you're young and hopefully this can give him another opportunity to show himself and maybe stake a claim for the World Cup.”
Elsewhere, 10 forwards were named on the 27-man roster, from Espanyol youngster Luca Koleosho (Espanyol) – who is also eligible for the US men’s national team, among others – to the returning Theo Corbeanu.
On the surface, it seems excessive. However, with a lack of midfield options, Herdman might lean on a 3-4-3 formation in possession to maximize the team’s strengths on the flanks while also keeping other realities in mind.
For starters, the likes of Lucas Cavallini (Vancouver) are likely going to be inactive for several weeks without qualifying for the MLS Cup Playoffs. Then there’s Corbeanu, who recently joined Blackpool on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers and is finally settling in after six weeks. Club Brugge’s Tajon Buchanan, who is still recovering from a quad injury in July, made the cut but will have “very limited” minutes in this window.
“We've got a bit of a mixed bag in that group,” said Herdman. “There's also some players that are in flank areas that we'll also be looking at in the wingback role and looking at that tactical flexibility, that they may take a spot in this team because they show the ability to provide us with cover at wingback as well as in that wide-forward role that they would normally occupy.”
With fellow dual national Stefan Mitrovic spurning Canada in favor of Serbia, the Koleosho call-up is a comforting development for Canadian fans. The 18-year-old made two appearances for Espanyol off the bench to begin the LaLiga campaign on the back of a strong preseason before suffering a sprained ankle.
Koleosho was also called up in June and was slated to play in the Panama friendly before the labor dispute led to its cancellation. He only participated in two training sessions before heading back to Spain for Espanyol’s preseason.
“We’ll be looking to get him minutes,” Herdman stated. “If he continues to push in training and he can show what I've seen in his preseason, particularly for Espanyol and his last game that he got minutes in, he'll start to grow into that Tier 1 player and that's exciting for Canada.”
Yet another reason why this September window needs to be maximized to the fullest.