Long-suffering fans of the Canadian men’s national soccer team have waited 36 years for the side to return to the FIFA World Cup.
That fateful day is almost upon us with Canada set to kick off its World Cup campaign in Qatar on Nov. 23 vs. Belgium in Group F play. After that, the Canadians face Croatia (Nov. 27) and Morocco (Dec. 1).
Although coach John Herdman has assembled a 26-man roster, he hinted that a core group of around 16 to 17 players will eat up the majority of playing time at the World Cup.
“I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to work out who those players are,” Herdman said.
Who are the players charged with carrying Canada’s hopes in Qatar? Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of Herdman’s World Cup team that was officially unveiled on Sunday.
Milan Borjan (Red Star Belgrade), James Pantemis (CF Montreal), Dayne St. Clair (Minnesota United)
Herdman was thrown a bit of a curve ball when LAFC’s Maxime Crépeau fractured his right leg in last weekend’s MLS Cup final, an injury that has ruled him out of the World Cup. Crépeau was expected to serve as Canada’s backup in Qatar. Now that job falls to Dayne St. Clair, while James Pantemis has been called up in lieu of the injured Crépeau.
However, Milan Borjan unquestionably remains Canada’s No. 1 goalkeeper, with 32 clean sheets in 67 appearances to his credit since making his national team debut in 2017. Borjan, 35, routinely makes game-saving stops, and is one of Canada’s most important and vocal leaders both on and off the pitch. Unless he gets injured, he’ll see every minute of action in Qatar while St. Clair and Pantemis will be glued to the bench.
Missing out: Maxime Crépeau (LAFC)
Sam Adekugbe (Hatayspor), Derek Cornelius (Panetolikos), Alistair Johnston (CF Montreal), Richie Laryea (Toronto FC), Kamal Miller (CF Montreal), Steven Vitória (Chaves), Joel Waterman (CF Montreal)
Herdman switched between several tactical formations during the World Cup qualifiers. But whether he went with a three-man or a four-man defence, the three constants in the back line were Steven Vitória, Alistair Johnston and Kamal Miller.
That won’t change in Qatar, and don’t be surprised to see Herdman heavily rely on these three players as Canada slogs its way through the group stage. As always, Vitória will be looked upon to quarterback and stabilize the defence with his composure, while Johnston and Miller can effectively play the ball out from the back
Worryingly, a shoulder injury to Scott Kennedy has ruled him out of the World Cup. Fellow centre back Doneil Henry also didn’t make the cut after recently suffering a calf injury. Derek Cornelius has only made two appearances for Canada in the last two years, and Joel Waterman only earned his first cap earlier this week.
Given the lack of depth in the middle of defence, veteran midfielder Atiba Hutchinson will be the first choice to fill in if Vitória or one of the other centre backs have to be replaced. Fullback Richie Laryea will be called upon should Canada need to inject some speed, fearlessness and dynamism into its attack down the wings.
If Herdman goes with four at the back, look for Johnston to play as a right fullback and Sam Adekugbe starting at left fullback, who’ll be expected to use his pace to link up in attack with Alphonso Davies on that side of the pitch.
Missing out: Scott Kennedy (SSV Jahn Regensburg), Doneil Henry (Toronto FC), Raheem Edwards (LA Galaxy)
Stephen Eustáquio (FC Porto), Liam Fraser (KMSK Deinze), Atiba Hutchinson (Beşiktaş), Mark-Anthony Kaye (Toronto FC), Ismaël Koné (CF Montreal), Jonathan Osorio (Toronto FC), Samuel Piette (CF Montreal), David Wootherspoon (St Johnstone)
Canada can throw different looks at opponents, whether it’s a 3-4-3, a 3-5-2 or a 4-4-2 formation. No matter the setup, Stephen Eustáquio is the main cog in central midfield who is looked upon to knit things together and link together the defence with the front line. A cultured and stylish midfielder, the FC Porto star has seen his stock skyrocket this season with his performances in the UEFA Champions League, and Canada needs him to be at his very best at the World Cup, especially when it takes on Belgium and Croatia.
At 39, Atiba Hutchinson is the oldest member of the Canadian squad and is still going strong at an age when most players have already hung up their cleats. Like Eustáquio, he’s a skilled two-way player who gives Canada a commanding presence in the centre of the park. If Herdman looks to rotate Hutchinson out or play with five in the middle, Samuel Piette will most likely be the first option off the bench, but the Canadian coach also might turn to Jonathan Osorio or Mark-Anthony Kaye.
One of the young players to watch for Canada will be Ismaël Koné, a 20-year-old CF Montreal midfielder who only made his pro debut earlier this year and is already being tracked by several European clubs. Koné is a dangerous attacker, but he’s also been plagued by bouts of inconsistency and only has five caps to his credit, so it’ll be interesting to see how much he’ll be relied upon in Qatar.
Not enough pundits are talking about Sam Adekugbe, the left fullback/wingback who is full of electricity with his probing runs down the flanks before cutting into the middle, and his ability to deliver dangerous balls into the penalty area. He’ll be a regular starter for Canada whether he’s used as a fullback in a back four, or on the left side of a four- or five-man midfield.
Missing out: Mathieu Choinière (CF Montreal)
Tajon Buchanan (Club Brugge), Lucas Cavallini (Vancouver Whitecaps), Jonathan David (Lille), Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich), Junior Hoilett (Reading FC), Cyle Larin (Club Brugge), Liam Millar (Basel), Iké Ugbo (Troyes)
Herdman switched between playing with two forwards and a three-man front line during the World Cup qualifiers, with Cyle Larin and Jonathan the key reference points up top as they combined for 22 goals. Larin hasn’t played that much for Belgian outfit Club Brugge this season, but he is Canada’s all-time top scorer (with 25 goals) and has stepped up in big moments for his country by using his strength and smart runs to get in behind opposing defenders.
David is an electric player, blessed with speed and deft skills on the ball. The 22-year-old is tied for second in scoring in Ligue 1 with nine goals for Lille this season, behind only Lionel Messi and Neymar of PSG. Look for fellow forward Iké Ugbo and Lucas Cavallini to be used off the bench as replacements for either Larin or David.
If Herdman wants an extra body up front, Alphonso Davies will operate on the left side of the front three, with Larin deployed as the main striker and David playing on the right side. Davies is given the freedom by Herdman to roam anywhere he wants in order to follow his attacking instincts. But there’s no question that his best moments come down the left side of the pitch, and when he takes on opposing defenders in one-on-one situations. If Canada doesn’t play with a front three, he’ll be deployed as a wingback on the left side of a four- or five-man Canadian midfield.
Club Brugge’s Tajon Buchanan could be the breakout player for Canada at the World Cup while operating on the right side, either as a winger or wingback. He shares many of the same qualities that make Davies so special, most notably his speed on the dribble and his fearlessness in running straight at defenders. Although not as quick as Buchanan, both Liam Millar and Junior Hoilett can provide Canada with a touch of class on the right side of the attack.
Missing out: Luca Koleosho (Espanyol), Theo Corbeanu (Blackpool), Charles-Andreas Brym (FC Eindhoven)
If Herdman sets Canada up in a 4-4-2, the formation could look like this:
Borjan – Adekugbe, Miller, Vitória, Johnston – Davies, Eustáquio, Hutchinson, Buchanan – David, Larin
If he goes with a 3-4-3, Canada could line up like this:
Borjan – Miller, Vitória, Johnston – Adekugbe, Eustáquio, Hutchinson, Buchanan – David, Larin, Davies
In a 3-5-2, the Canadians could like this:
Borjan – Miller, Vitória, Johnston – Davies, Eustáquio, Hutchinson, Osorio, Buchanan – David, Larin
John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. TFC Republic can be found here.