After a historic June window, the Canada men’s national team hopes to add another chapter to their accomplishments in 2021.
Fittingly, they will meet a familiar foe as the story unfolds.
Exactly one month after defeating Haiti to reach the final stage of Concacaf World Cup qualifying for the first time in 24 years, Canada will face Les Grenadiers for a third time this year when they square off July 15 in the Concacaf Gold Cup at Children’s Mercy Park, the home of Sporting Kansas City. These two adversaries were drawn into Group B with Martinique – who the Canadians will open the tournament against on July 11 – and the United States, the presumptive favorite to top the group.
But Canada are hoping an upset awaits after naming a strong 23-man roster, complete with European-based names like Alphonso Davies, Cyle Larin and Stephen Eustaquio. The only marquee absence is Lille striker Jonathan David, who hasn’t fully recovered from a groin injury that he played through during June qualifiers. David and coach John Herdman agreed that proceeding with caution was the wise decision with the Octagon on the horizon.
Mix in the European arrivals with the form of New England Revolution winger Tajon Buchanan, LAFC midfield stalwart Mark-Anthony Kaye and Toronto FC forward Ayo Akinola as he formally joins Les Rouges, and there’s optimism that a deep Gold Cup run is within reach.
“On paper, we are a strong team,” Canada coach John Herdman said after announcing his Gold Cup squad. “We are up there with the Jamaicans. We're up there with the US. We are up there with the Mexicans. On paper, in areas of the field, we are stronger than other teams in Concacaf. In some areas, they are stronger than us.
“I think the mentality for us is every game, we'll continue to develop, grow, learn as a team. If that takes us to the final, which ultimately will be the ultimate mission for this team – I'm clear on that, that they'll set their targets on pushing to be one of the first [Canadian] teams to make a semifinal for a long time and then pushing all the way to the final. We can't hide that these players will have those aspirations.”
However, they’ll need to be wary of getting too carried away.
"I think you have to stay humble,” Herdman admitted. “I think that's the starting point. As I say, act poor when you're wealthy and I think for all of us, it's just the process to go with game by game.”
It’s understandably difficult for anyone in the Canadian camp to contain their excitement, especially when there’s a prime opportunity to reach their first Gold Cup semifinal since 2007. They last won the confederation championship in 2000, unable to break dominance from the United States and Mexico, with the latter entering as defending champions.
It’s always tricky to map out a potential pathway in the knockout stage, but if Canada win Group B, they’d avoid both the US and Mexico until a potential final. There are no certainties in Concacaf, although that’s surely a major motivator for every side to top the group. Finish as the runner-up, and a Costa Rica-Mexico gauntlet might await in the knockout stage.
The winning formula for Canada might lie in their recent tactical shift. The gamble to switch to a 3-5-2 paid off in World Cup qualifying victories over Suriname and Haiti, when Davies was deployed as an attack-minded left wingback. The center backs, a problem area for Canada in the past, were more sheltered in a back three and the midfield was designed to dictate the tempo, protect the defence and create chances.
The 3-5-2 is the likely primary formation for this Gold Cup, although it’s an entirely different task to usurp the US, even if head coach Gregg Berhalter hasn’t called in their top Europe-based players. The likes of Orlando City forward Daryl Dike, Atlanta United center back Miles Robinson and Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner are expected to help carry the hosts.
On the bright side for Herdman, he has some curveballs to throw. Akinola’s commitment gives Canada another option to play as an out-and-out No. 9 along with Vancouver Whitecaps FC forward Lucas Cavallini. In Toronto's 3-2 midweek win over New England, Akinola showed signs of his 2020 form.
"I'm really looking forward to working with him,” Herdman said of Akinola. “He's got talent. We've seen that. That MLS is Back Tournament and where he was last year really showed that he was one of the top strikers in the MLS and was projecting to potentially shift into the European leagues. … What I've seen in Ayo in that short period of time is that he's got that potential to stretch and hopefully in a red jersey, that provides him with that platform and that springboard to keep moving forward."
Buchanan’s hot start to the MLS season hasn’t gone unnoticed, either. After shining with the U-23s at Olympic qualifying, the 22-year-old winger has racked up three goals and three assists in 742 minutes with the Revolution. Buchanan could slot in at right wingback if a 3-5-2 is preferred by Herdman.
That tactical switch might also see Houston Dynamo FC winger Tyler Pasher, another potential debutant, settling into a defensive role. Pasher moved up to MLS this season after featuring for the USL Championship’s Indy Eleven.
"When I first started looking at him, he was being looked at as a left-back,” Herdman said of Pasher. “That was a gap that we had in our team for a period of time in 2018, and then I looked at him as a left wide forward and then he's playing left wingback and then he's playing right wide forward. I really like the versatility of Tyler. Given how adaptable our structures will become through the Gold Cup and through World Cup qualifying, I want to see what this player is about."
With his pace, dribbling and eye for goal, Pasher could be an impact substitute. He already has three goals and three assists in eight games (seven starts) this year, fitting right into head coach Tab Ramos’ project.
The 2021 Gold Cup has the potential to be another watershed moment for Canada’s generational group. Similar phrases were uttered prior to 2019 before collapsing against Haiti in the quarterfinals, of course, but given their World Cup qualification advancement in June, there’s a strong building block to work with.
Now, it’s a matter of seeing whether Canada can swim with the sharks or not – especially before the Octagonal stage of World Cup qualifying begins in September.