World Cup foundation: Canada get "final"-level test vs. Uruguay

CAN celebration

If last Friday’s 2-0 win over Qatar provided a couple of lessons for the Canadian men’s national team, they’re about to receive an entire semester’s worth in Tuesday’s match against Uruguay in Slovakia’s capital city, their second-to-last World Cup tune-up match (12 pm ET | OneSoccer in Canada, FOX Deportes in US).

This will be Canada’s first encounter against a South American opponent since 2014, when they lost 1-0 to Colombia in an October friendly. Milan Borjan and Cyle Larin are the only holdovers from eight years ago, which highlights how much has changed for the program.

Uruguay are coming off a 1-0 loss to Iran, and they’ll be gunning to rectify that in their final test before Group H play arrives this November in Qatar. They’re managed by manager Diego Alonso, who led Inter Miami CF during their 2020 MLS expansion season.

"For us, it's a cup final,” Herdman said after Friday’s win. “It’s similar to playing against a Belgium or a Croatia, so there's excitement there. But we have to temper that with the reality of the quality that they have and then we've got to put the work in these next three days."

Given that Uruguay tend to use a similar 4-3-3 setup as Croatia, one of Canada’s three Group F foes this fall, it’s understandable that Herdman wants to approach this game like it’s a World Cup match. Therefore, it’s unlikely he’ll tinker too much with his lineup from Friday’s victory.

The back four of Alistair Johnston, Steven Vitoria, Kamal Miller and Sam Adekugbe should remain the same. Stephen Eustaquio and Alphonso Davies – who is fit following a brief injury scare versus Qatar – are arguably Canada’s two most important players and will be leaned on in this game. Jonathan David and Cyle Larin are coming off strong showings, so they should partner with each other up front.

The only likely changes are in midfield and on the right wing. Samuel Piette was excellent next to Eustaquio versus Qatar, but so was Ismaël Koné when he replaced his CF Montréal teammate at the hour mark.

Buchanan to return?

Junior Hoilett was equally impressive on the right flank. Tajon Buchanan’s return throws a wrench into Hoilett’s chances, though. Buchanan has been nursing a quad injury since late July and has yet to play for Club Brugge this season.

Brugge and Canada Soccer worked collaboratively on Buchanan’s recovery in order to prepare him for this camp, which involved many hurdles along the way.

“It was super hard because, honestly, I did not believe the injury was going to be that long and when you’re missing those games, it gets to you,” the former New England Revolution standout after training on Sunday. “Ever since then, it’s been an up-and-down journey. I tried to come back in training and hurt it again, so it was a tough period, but I am good now and ready to play some games.”

​​“I think Brugge have done a good job the last few weeks getting him ready to return to play,” Herdman said. “For a player, it takes time to trust your body again [after an injury]. He had some good moments [Sunday] and he fit right back into our structure.”

Herdman did state that Buchanan would receive “very limited minutes” when the roster for the international window was announced on Sept. 16. But having trained with Brugge and played in a friendly before joining the CanMNT, he’s seemingly progressed to a stage where he could see more playing time.

Buchanan has picked up four goals and six assists in 24 caps, a remarkable haul for a player who didn’t debut for the national team until June 2021. It’s a meteoric rise if there ever was one.

If Buchanan isn’t risked on Tuesday, Hoilett is a reliable veteran who can link play and provide a bit of cover in midfield if Canada stick with their double pivot. Alternatively, Richie Laryea is a dynamo on the right and can provide extra solidity at the back.

New caliber

With 58 days left until their first men’s World Cup match in 36 years, this Uruguay friendly will be the perfect barometer for how Canada will adapt to teams of this caliber.

Defeating the United States and Mexico in Concacaf World Cup Qualifying were massive feats for the program, but Uruguay are an entirely different test that this group is relishing.

And it’s only indicative of what awaits in a final preparation game Nov. 17 against Japan in Dubai, and then World Cup group-stage matches against Belgium, Croatia and Morocco. They’re different-tier challenges.

“This is the stuff we dream of,” Herdman said. “We've been playing Concacaf opponents for four years. All the players have been dreaming all their international career [of] playing teams of the stature of Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina. This is the stuff we've been waiting for.”

The wait is finally over.