John Herdman is clearly an adherent to the idea that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
After his Canada side’s momentous 2-0 home win over the United States in Concacaf Nations League play on Oct. 15, his squad for the “return leg” in Orlando this Friday (7 pm ET | ESPN2, UniMás, TUDN in US; OneSoccer.ca in Canada) features just two changes: David Wotherspoon for Russell Teibert, and Dominick Zator for Juan Cordova.
Neither are likely to feature heavily, especially since the stakes in this game (with top spot in CNL Group A and Canada’s likely path in 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification on the line) don’t dictate a dramatic departure from what worked well a month ago at BMO Field. Even so, Herdman does have some key decisions to make.
First, who lines up alongside Derek Cornelius in central defense?
Given that Doneil Henry was included on the squad for last month’s CNL match despite being ineligible to play due to suspension, one would assume he’s poised to reclaim his spot alongside his Vancouver Whitecaps teammate.
However, in Henry’s absence, Cornelius did combine well with veteran Steven Vitoria to keep the US off the score sheet a month ago at BMO Field. Vitoria has stayed in fine form with Portuguese side Moreirense since then, even scoring a late equalizer in a wild 3-3 draw this past weekend.
Henry, meanwhile, hasn’t played since the Whitecaps’ season finale on Oct. 6. So, is there something broken and in need of fixing here, or not?
Speaking of breaks, Les Rouges caught a lucky one when it became clear that Mark-Anthony Kaye (who left only a few minutes into Canada’s last game with a leg injury) would be eligible for selection. He was back in action, albeit as a substitute, for LAFC in the Western Conference Final on Oct. 29, and is part of Canada’s roster this week.
But when Kaye went down early in Toronto, hometown boy Liam Fraser stepped up and put in a massive performance, providing an assist on what proved to be the game-winning goal. Does Kaye get his job back, or does 21-year-old Fraser get another nod? Much depends, of course, on how close Kaye is to 100% health.
Fraser wasn’t Canada’s only pleasant surprise last month; Orlando City’s Kamal Miller started at left fullback and put in his first full-90 performance for Canada. His steadiness freed up Herdman to use Alphonso Davies in a full-on attacking role, and the 19-year-old responded with his fifth national-team goal.
But suddenly, at Bayern Munich, Davies is in a rhythm at the left back position, where he’s featured for Canada numerous times before. So, what now?
Does Herdman stick with a similar lineup and plan to the one that worked against the Americans just a few short weeks ago? Or does Davies return to the left-back role, with Junior Hoilett stepping in as a starting winger rather than a supersub?
And how does the Americans’ own brokenness at the moment—injuries have kept Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic and Jozy Altidore out of their 23-man squad—affect what sort of risks Herdman might be willing to take?
Such decisions present the Canada manager with the sort of dilemma that few of his predecessors have faced: a surplus of ready-to-go talent who seem to be clicking on both individual and collective fronts at precisely the right time.
And while no one predicted the extent to which the pieces would fall into place in relatively short order over the last few years, we are where we are now largely because of the confluence of two important events in the last dozen years.
One is the process of grassroots structural reform that’s been ongoing throughout Canada for the better part of a decade. The other has been the spike in professional training and playing environments available to Canadians since the arrival of Canada’s first MLS club, Toronto FC, back in 2007.
Suffice to say, Canadian players have never had clearer or more accessible paths to playing professional soccer than they do today – and, surely not coincidentally, the men’s national team is on the precipice of an unprecedented breakthrough, both in terms of public perception and on-field performance.
While Canada have produced individual stars in the past, gone are the days where the remainder of the national-team roster would be a scraped-together assortment of the marginally employed and largely anonymous. Instead, Canada go into battle this week in one of its most important games in a decade knowing that, if push came to shove, meaningful contributions could come from any of the 23 available men.
That’s not to say fans should get complacent about the big picture. Canada just departed the FIFA U-17 World Cup with three losses from three games, and the Ottawa Fury’s recent decision to cease operations is a troubling development.
Still, for a program trending in the right direction, this is Canada’s best chance in a generation to take advantage of a vulnerable continental heavyweight and stake a claim in the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying for the first time since 1997.
Whether they can do it might come down to what Herdman does, and doesn’t, believe is in need of fixing.