Watching the Canadian men’s national team in 2019 was like having flashbacks to middle school.
That’s not just because some of the players are young enough to have actually been in middle school earlier this decade. Rather, it’s that the program is in an awkward, gangly, transitional phase, featuring moments of sparking potential interspersed with maddening but all-too-predictable breakdowns.
Ironically enough, despite the ebbs and flows, the team does seem as cohesive and drama-free as ever. Whether that can be attributed to John Herdman’s renowned emphasis on sports psychology depends largely on one’s opinion of the head coach — and there are plenty of strong opinions to go around.
Either way, no teacher’s efforts are ever entirely responsible for student outcomes. So, as 2019 winds down, let’s present Les Rouges with their report card spelling out the great, the not-so-great, the breakout performers and some takeaways from the year that was.
Areas of Strength
- That Night in Toronto: On Oct. 15 at BMO Field, Canada put in a near-perfect performance in a 2-0 win over the United States, likely the team’s most thorough thrashing of a favored opponent ever. The high wore off a month later but, for a bit, jaded Canada supporters got a whiff of what could be.
- The Deep End: MLS continued to be well-represented on Herdman’s rosters, with Kamal Miller, Liam Fraser and Richie Laryea the latest trio to step up. The new Canadian Premier League bolstered Canada’s depth further, while Herdman also called upon active contributors from notable clubs in Germany, Belgium, Mexico, Scotland and Turkey, to name a few. This year made it clear: the player pool is deeper than ever.
- Fawning Over Fonzie: While it’s been a solid year for a number of Canadians, special kudos go to Alphonso Davies for, at 19, entrenching himself in the first team at a super-heavyweight club like Bayern Munich. It’s unprecedented territory for a youngster who’s committed himself to Canada, and a promising portent for the program.
Room For Improvement
- You Haiti To See It: A promising Gold Cup group stage culminated in Canada blowing a 2-0 halftime in the quarterfinals and losing 3-2 to Haiti. With due respect to a talented Haitian side, the meltdown had some supporters ready to dispose of the babies, the bathwater and the whole bathtub. Nevertheless, they persisted.
- Orlando Non-Magic: Speaking of giving up three goals in short succession, Canada seemed intent on frittering away any goodwill garnered from their memorable October win over the US with an all-time stinker of a first half against the same team exactly one month later, en route to a deflating 4-1 loss in Florida.
- BFFs (Book Frequent Friendlies): This past decade (2010-19), Canada played 44 friendlies, only eight of which were at home and none of which came in 2019. While the Concacaf Nations League ensured three home matches this year, this was yet another year where the long-running promise to maximize every international window didn’t come to fruition.
Given that MLS fans have known Davies is special since around 2016, we won’t consider this a “breakout” year for him. Similarly, although Mark-Anthony Kaye fully rounded into form as a stalwart for Supporters’ Shield winners LAFC this year, the 25-year-old’s real breakthrough came two years ago.
So, who truly broke out in 2019? Top marks go to 19-year-old Jonathan David who, in his first full calendar year with the senior national team, got halfway to being its all-time top scorer (yes, really), thanks in large part to his Golden Boot performance at the Gold Cup.
Derek Cornelius appeared in all nine of Canada’s games and, at 22, provided some solidity along an often-shaky backline. And while Milan Borjan will be extremely difficult to dislodge as Canada’s No. 1 goalkeeper, Maxime Crepeau staked his claim with a standout year for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
With high school (that is, FIFA World Cup qualifying) on the horizon, this team spent their final year of middle school posing as many questions as they answered.
The wicked goalscoring potential of Jonathan David and Lucas Cavallini was confirmed, as was the leadership capacity of Scott Arfield and Junior Hoilett. And though the Gold Cup was a presumptive swan song for Atiba Hutchinson, Kaye and Samuel Piette proved the holding midfielder role is in good hands.
But speaking of Hutchinson, his deployment as a central defender at the aforementioned continental competition highlights Herdman’s main quandary: what to do defensively… and moreover, what to do with Davies. He’s been a standout so far at left back for Bayern Munich, but it’s not clear yet whether that’s his best spot for the national team.
On the whole, this year showcased Canada as a team that have lofty aspirations about their own identity, but are still struggling to bring those ideas fully into form.
In other words, a middle-school student.