Ike Ugbo's commitment to Canada is a boost both on and off the field

Ike Ugbo of KRC Genk looks on during the UEFA Europa League Group H match between KRC Genk and Dinamo Zagreb at KRC Genk Arena on September 30, 2021 in Genk, Belgium. (Mario Hommes/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Sometimes it has nothing to do with the game itself. Sometimes, whether it’s in sales or sports, it’s about persistence paying off — especially when the odds are stacked against a player or team.

In the case of the Canadian men’s national team, three years of determination secured a commitment from 23-year-old striker Ike Ugbo for this month’s World Cup qualifiers.

Herdman and Canada Soccer were made aware of Ugbo’s potential eligibility for Canada in 2018 through a contact at Woodbridge Strikers, one of Ugbo’s former youth clubs during his younger years in Canada. The federation reached out to Chelsea where Ugbo, then 19 or 20 years old, was playing at the time to inquire about his potential interest in representing Les Rouges.

Chelsea shut down that notion without Canada Soccer ever speaking to Ugbo about the opportunity.

“They were very clear he was on a pathway with England and that Canada wasn’t an option,” said Herdman. “We had spoken to them about the potential of bringing him into one of our matches in 2018 because we were bringing in a lot of young players at the time. That was sort of stonewalled and it has just been a process of patience over a three-year period.”

That patience was rewarded on Nov. 4 when Ugbo finally opted for Canada. The K.R.C. Genk striker was eligible for England and Nigeria through his parents. The Super Eagles were supposedly the favourite to land him as recently as September, according to Goal.com.

However, the recent emergence of young Nigerian strikers might have benefited Canada. Victor Osimhen, Kelechi Iheanacho, Taiwo Awoniyi and Terem Moffi are all involved with Nigeria, are no older than 24 years old and play in top European leagues. It would have been a struggle for Ugbo to earn significant minutes.

“I spoke to [Herdman] recently,” Ugbo said in an interview with Canada Soccer. “He showed me the ambition of Canada, what he’s trying to get to in the upcoming future. He welcomed me in, he felt like it would be a good place for me, and also me, I felt like it would be a good place for the time and place for the time I am in in my career as well.”

“I know about [Davies and David] personally,” he continued. “Obviously I tracked some of the other players, and I think when I had seen them, and what the team was doing with their past results, definitely swayed my decision.”

This is where joining Canada has multiple benefits. In the current squad, he’s one of only two out-and-out No. 9s along with Lucas Cavallini. Neither Jonathan David nor Cyle Larin are traditional strikers, despite their goal-scoring exploits.

It helps that Canada is progressing as a team as Ugbo joins the fold. There’s a strong possibility that he could play at the next two World Cups, provided the Canadians qualify for next year’s tournament and are granted an automatic berth for 2026 as co-hosts.

Eight days after completing his one-time switch of nationality to Canada, Ugbo debuted for the Red and White in their 1-0 win over Costa Rica. He logged around 14 minutes and showed flashes of what fans can expect from him over the next decade.

The first noticeable trait in Ugbo’s game is his off-the-ball movement. Even though the ball never reached him in the sequence below, it’s evident how well Ugbo (No. 12, near the centre of the box at the start of the clip), can find space and get in position to score.

A few minutes later, he nearly doubled Canada’s lead with a fierce strike from distance, showing off his predatory instincts in the process.

Even in his early days at Genk, there are many examples of Ugbo’s excellent positioning and anticipation.

It may not always result in a goal, but if a striker can regularly receive these quality opportunities, at least one will go in. Ugbo’s composure should eventually improve, too, now that he is playing with one of Belgium’s biggest clubs.

Considering Ugbo only has around 320 minutes for Genk in all competitions this season, the regularity of promising opportunities he’s logging is encouraging.

“He likes to play between the two centre-backs, he likes to lead the line, he can run behind the line and stretch the line, which I like,” Herdman said. “I think that is a facet that can help complement other players and the way that we play. Often when we play with that No. 9 in Johnny [David] or Cyle [Larin], they want to be receiving in those pockets of space off the front. At times, we get left with a line that is not stretched. That space doesn’t really open up. I think Ike gives us that opportunity.”

At Cercle Brugge, Ugbo scored an impressive 16 goals in 32 appearances. His underlying numbers in the statistical radar below signify his strengths, which are all related to putting the ball in the net.

“He’s got just that real predatory instinct between the penalty spot and goal,” Herdman said. “All the goals he scores are just clever movements. He gets those positional advantages to create opportunities and that is what you want from a No. 9.”

Ugbo won’t be too involved in attacking build-up, though he’s not afraid to do so, but with David, Larin and other players who are capable creators, there’s only one primary job for the English-born forward.

Score goals.

That’s why he’s the perfect partner for a David-type forward, who likes to play off a proper No. 9. Leave the grunt work to the Lille man and let Ugbo clean up in the box.

Ugbo’s switch has many Canadian fans wondering how many other dual nationals are eligible for the national team. The likes of Daniel Jebbison, Ferdi Kadioglu, Lucas Dias and Stefan Mitrovic are just a select few who could commit, although there are other factors in play for some players.

“The reality is, if they can play for a bigger association, for many of these agents and players, it’s about the dollars first,” Herdman stated. “That is what I’m learning, it’s a short career and they have to maximize their earnings during that period of time and then when those opportunities sort of diminish, that is where you have real conversations.”

That is every player’s right.

In the case of Fikayo Tomori, who was born in Calgary and represented Canada’s U-20 team, he was raised in England for the vast majority of his life. Choosing the English national team is understandable. Arsenal youngster Marcelo Flores, eligible for Canada, England and Mexico, is under considerable pressure to represent El Tri from his father. Flores recently received a call-up to Mexico’s U-20 team and scored against Brazil over the weekend.

On the bright side for Canadians, Flores left the door open saying he “will make a decision” on his future after he’s joined a Canada camp.

Some players will ultimately turn down Canada. But the team is now a legitimate option for players with two or more passports. Ugbo’s change of heart signifies that.

The better Canada performs in qualifying, which could include a win over Mexico on Tuesday night, only bolsters its case.

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