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Squizzato: With rising stars on the roster, brighter days ahead for Canada

Goodbye Unattached FC, hello FC Barcelona.

With Tuesday's announcement of its roster for an upcoming Concacaf Nations League qualifier against Dominica on Oct. 16, the Canadian national team appears to have turned the page on a dispiriting chapter in the squad’s history.

For years, Canada found itself filling out rosters with players who weren’t attached to any club at the time, prompting fans to joke that “Unattached FC” was the team’s top feeder club.

But all of a sudden, Canada finds itself flush with not just players who are gainfully employed, but youngsters attached to such clubs as Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Juventus, Olympique Lyonnais and, yes, Barcelona.

Perhaps the biggest “get” of this camp is 19-year-old Ballou Tabla, who earlier this year moved from the Montreal Impact to Barcelona B.

Despite having played for Canada at the Under-17 and Under-20 levels, there was some uncertainty about whether the Ivory Coast-born attacker would commit to Les Rouges — especially after Ivorian legend Didier Drogba joined the Impact in 2015.

But in recent months, Herdman laid out a vision to Tabla of how he sees a young core leading Canada to the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

“It’s been a tough, tough decision for Ballou,” Herdman said on a conference call Tuesday. “Those things take time and for me, it was just a case of providing him with as much information as we could, at the right time, in the right way, so as to not force anything.”

Tabla is part of a young contingent that will suit up against Dominica, a group that also includes 17-year-old Alphonso Davies (who’ll depart the Vancouver Whitecaps for Bayern Munich in January), 19-year-old Liam Millar (Liverpool U-23), 18-year-old Alessandro Busti (Juventus U-23) and 19-year-old Zachary Brault-Guillard (Olympique Lyonnais).

Add in 18-year-old Jonathan David, who scored twice in his Canada debut against the U.S. Virgin Islands last month, 20-year-old defender Derek Cornelius and 21-year-old Impact goalkeeper James Pantemis, and over a third of Herdman’s 23-man roster is 21 or younger.

But this isn’t simply a chance to run out the kids against what should be a relatively easy opponent. The roster also includes experienced players such as Junior Hoilett, Scott Arfield and Toronto FC's Jonathan Osorio.

“I’ve said this all along: we’ve got to keep one eye on the future,” said Herdman. “We can’t disrespect the shirt either. This is the highest level of football … the players have got to be earning that right [to be on the squad].”

One man who has more than earned that right is 35-year-old Atiba Hutchinson, who is joining the team against Dominica after having numerous conversations with Herdman about his future in the red and white.

While playing at Qatar 2022 might be an overly ambitious target for the Besiktas midfielder, Herdman believes the veteran has plenty to offer to the developing squad for however much time he has left with the national team.

“He’s very happy with the direction the team seems to be heading,” Herdman said. “He’s been one of those players that have been leading the way in showing that anything is possible for Canadian players on the professional side.”

And while Hutchinson will undoubtedly be a leader for the players, Herdman says his coaching team has established a “cultural framework” meant to help all players thrive in the national-team environment.

“Every group is respected,” he said. “We have our veterans, we have our next generation—which is the young players—then we have our in-between group [such as Osorio].

“There isn’t one group — for example, the veterans who have great experience — leading everything; we recognize that the young group of players bring something completely different and are as valuable as the veterans.”

While the influx of new talent has brought a new attacking swagger to the Canadian side, there are still some questions to be asked at the back end.

Against the U.S. Virgin Islands on Sept. 9, Herdman played with just two pure defenders (Cornelius and Doneil Henry), a situation that’s likely to change as the opposition becomes more intense. The exact configuration of Herdman’s preferred backline remains to be determined, but the Dominica game could provide some preliminary answers.

And in goal, the team will be without starter Milan Borjan, leaving Busti, Pantemis and Simon Thomas to compete for the role. While Thomas (with eight caps) is the only one of the three with previous senior-team experience, Herdman suggested that cap-tying Busti (who is also eligible for Italy) could be in the cards.

Whatever the team sheet against Dominica ends up reading, it’s clear that over the course of the last several years, Canada has established itself as a worthy place for promising young players to commit their futures.

As to why that is, Herdman’s description of Tabla’s decision-making process sounds like it could very easily be applied to other young players who’ve recently joined the fold — and, perhaps, others who’ll be coming onboard soon.

“There are a number of factors: 2026, 2022, the culture, the youth movement, and the fact that we’ve got meaningful games coming up,” Herdman siad. “As a country, we’ve got a chance — and I think he sees that, and he sees how he can contribute to it.”