CANADA VS. AZERBAIJAN
Friday, June 3, 1 p.m. ET
Stadion Rohrbach an der Lafnitz, Rohrbach an der Lafnitz, Austria
In their final chance to tune up ahead of crucial World Cup qualifiers in September, the Canadian national team are headed to Austria in the hopes that history will repeat itself.
In 2014, a pair of Austria-based friendlies (1-1 draws against Bulgaria and Moldova) served as a turning point for a Canadian team that came in with a 10-game goalless streak and 14-game winless skid. A few months later, Canada finally won a game (a friendly against Jamaica) and built some legitimate momentum—thanks in large part to an influx of newcomers such as Cyle Larin, Tesho Akindele and Junior Hoilett.
Now, Benito Floro’s side is looking for another rebound in Austria, coming off a pair of tough World Cup qualifying losses to Mexico in March. For friendlies against Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan (June 7), the Canadian manager has brought virtually the same lineup as he selected for those Mexico games—which includes Larin, Akindele and Hoilett—in preparation for September.
But while Floro’s 24-man roster is dominated by European-based veterans, Azerbaijan’s 28-man squad is drawn almost entirely from their domestic league, and is full of newcomers looking to make their mark.
It’s hardly a clash of the titans, with Canada coming into the game ranked No. 95 in the world and Azerbaijan sitting at No. 133. But it’s a vital opportunity for both programs to see where they sit, with about two years left until Russia 2018.
And for Canada specifically, it’s a chance to perhaps once again use Austria as a jumping-off point for greater things to come.
Canada has never met Azerbaijan — which was part of the USSR until its dissolution in 1991 — in a senior men’s soccer match.
But the two nations did meet at the 2012 FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup, an event Azerbaijan hosted. Canada, featuring the likes of Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence, won 1-0 on a goal from Valerie Sanderson.
Les Rouges find themselves in a bit of a reverse-sandwich situation at present, with this pair of June friendlies serving as the bread between meatier pairs of World Cup qualifiers in March and September.
The March matches (both against Mexico) resulted in a 3-0 loss at Vancouver’s BC Place preceding a 2-0 defeat at Estadio Azteca. Canadians will be hoping for more from the upcoming pair — a visit to Canadian soccer’s haunted house (San Pedro Sula, Honduras) and a likely must-win against El Salvador back at BC Place.
Given that Floro has named a largely first-choice line-up for these June friendlies, the on-field product against Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan will give fans an idea of exactly how upbeat the outlook should be for this Canadian team.
A trio of friendlies against Andorra (0-0 on May 26), Macedonia (3-1 loss on May 29) and Canada is likely cold comfort for Azerbaijani soccer enthusiasts who’d dreamed of their team playing in this summer’s expanded European Championship. But a fifth-place finish in their qualifying group left Azerbaijan well short of the Euros.
The team does begin its World Cup qualifying quest this September, although things aren’t looking especially sunny on that front, either. Azerbaijan (ranked No. 133, remember) finds themselves in a group with Germany (No. 5), Northern Ireland (No. 26), the Czech Republic (No. 29) and Norway (No. 49).
But hey, at least they’ve got San Marino in their group!
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Will Johnson (Canada): After spending much of 2015 recovering from a broken leg, the 29-year-old has been revitalized since an offseason move to his hometown Toronto FC. With fellow midfield veteran Atiba Hutchinson absent from this squad, Johnson will be heavily relied upon in the middle of the park for Canada.
Dimitrij Nazarov (Azerbaijan): The 26-year-old Karlsruher midfielder is one of only three foreign-based players on the roster, and also one of the few to find the net for the national team recently. Azerbaijan players have scored only nine goals in the team’s last 18 games, dating back to mid-2014, and Nazarov has three of them.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Milan Borjan (PFK Ludogorets Razgrad/Bulgaria); Kenny Stamatopoulos (AIK Fotbol/Sweden); Simon Thomas (FK Bodø/Glimt/Norway)
DEFENDERS (8): David Edgar (Sheffield United/England); Dejan Jakovic (Shimizu S-Pulse/Japan); Manjrekar James (Diósgyöri VTK/Hungary); Doneil Henry (West Ham United/England); Marcel de Jong (Ottawa Fury); Nik Ledgerwood (FC Edmonton); Karl W. Ouimette (New York Red Bulls); Steven Vitoria (Benfica/Portugal)
MIDFIELDERS (10): Tesho Akindele (FC Dallas); Scott Arfield (Burnley/England); Julian de Guzman (Ottawa Fury FC); Junior Hoilett (QPR/England); Iain Hume (SD Ponferradina/Spain); Will Johnson (Toronto FC); Michael Petrasso (QPR/England) Samuel Piette (Deportivo la Coruna/Spain); Tosaint Ricketts (unattached); Adam Straith (Fredrikstad FK/Norway)
FORWARDS (3): Marcus Haber (Crewe Alexandra/England); Simeon Jackson (Blackburn Rovers/England); Cyle Larin (Orlando City SC)
GOALKEEPERS (3): Kamran Aghayev (Inter Baku/Azerbaijan); Anar Nazirov (Zira/Azerbaijan); Salahat Aghayev (Sumgayit/Azerbaijan)
DEFENDERS (9): Magomed Mirzabekov (Gabala/Azerbaijan); Pavlo Pashayev (Gabala/Azerbaijan); Maksim Medvedev (Qarabağ/Azerbaijan); Badavi Guseynov (Qarabağ/Azerbaijan); Rashad Sadygov (Qarabağ/Azerbaijan); Ruslan Abisov (Gabali/Azerbaijan); Tarlan Guliyev (Kapaz/Azerbaijan); Ufuk Budak (Gaziantep BB/Turkey); Adil Naghiyev (Zira/Azerbaijan)
MIDFIELDERS (12): Gara Garayev (Qarabağ/Azerbaijan); Araz Abdullayev (Neftchi Baku/Azerbaijan); Eddy Israfilov (Cordoba/Spain); Namig Alasgarov (Kapaz/Azerbaijan); Elvin Alasgarov (Zira/Azerbaijan); Dimitrij Nazarov (Karlsruher/Germany); Rahman Hajiyev (Neftchi Baku/Azerbaijan); Joshgun Diniyev (Qarabağ/Azerbaijan); Afran Ismayilov (Qarabağ/Azerbaijan); Murad Sattarli (AZAL/Azerbaijan); Vugar Mustafayev (Zira/Azerbaijan); Budag Nasirov (Kapaz/Azerbaijan)
FORWARDS (4): Ruslan Qurbanov (Neftchi Baku/Azerbaijan); Aghabala Ramazanov (Sumgayit/Azerbaijan); Rashad Eyyubov (Gabala/Azerbaijan); Amil Yunanov (Sumgayit/Azerbaijan)