Lingering World Cup questions for Canada to be answered in September window

Team Canada MNT head coach John Herdman discusses the monumental challenge that lies in front of Canada at the World Cup group stage, stating that scouting the teams has been a 'sobering process' but believes the team has great internal motivation.

Sixty-eight days from now, the Canadian men's national team will face Belgium in its first World Cup match in 36 years.

Yet Canada only has three matches to prepare for the big dance. The first two will be against World Cup hosts Qatar on Sept. 23, followed by Uruguay on Sept. 27. These will be the first non-Concacaf opponents since January 2020 for Les Rouges.

All the more reason why Friday's roster unveiling was so highly anticipated. In the end, 27 players were called up with a few intriguing names making the cut.

Most of the regulars on defence are back in the fold, with one exception in Joel Waterman, who replaced the injured Doneil Henry. Waterman has turned heads with CF Montreal this season as part of a back line that also features fellow internationals Kamal Miller and Alistair Johnston.

Waterman's distribution, positional flexibility — he can play on the left or right side of a back three — and comfort in a system already utilized by Canada coach John Herdman makes him an ideal call-up for this window. The 26-year-old's xGBuildup and passing accuracy, as reflected in his statistical radar below, back up these claims.

However, Waterman is prone to the odd hiccup defensively. When he's pushed high up the pitch with Montreal, it has left the team exposed in transition.

Watch No. 16 in the video below.

But the distribution is a massive weapon in Canada's favour. Montreal's buildup from the back is breathtaking to watch and could aid them against opponents who will pressure Canada's defenders high up the pitch.

"He plays the game in the right way," Herdman said. "For him, it's now can he handle the Alphonso Davies', the Cyle Larin's, the Jonathan David's in these environments?

"We know that there is this step up from MLS, and we're ready to have Joel in that situation to be tested."

Like Waterman, fellow Montreal call-up Ismael Kone was added to the midfield group due to injury. Captain Atiba Hutchinson is recovering from a pre-season bone bruise and is slated for a late October return. National team medical staff plan to fly to Istanbul, where Hutchinson plays his club football with Besiktas, to monitor his progress.

In the meantime, Kone could benefit. Jonathan Osorio is dealing with "neurological dysfunction" dating back to a concussion that he suffered in mid-July. Mark-Anthony Kaye is still building match fitness as well, so the 20-year-old midfielder could be the next man up.

Then 19 and with a handful of professional appearances to his name, Kone shined in his Canada debut in March's loss to Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying. He's now logged about 2,000 pro minutes and looks far more polished.

Kone's breakthrough led to reported bids from English Championship clubs Norwich City and Sheffield United. Neither move materialized but the potential is apparent.

"I had a chance to speak to a colleague of mine who works at Norwich City and they've done a real deep assessment on Ismael and feel similar to us," Herdman said. "He's got that Tier 1 potential. He has the chance to really push on in the world game.

"I think he's shown, again, some good form for [Montreal]. His club is on a real high at the minute and you can see it's difficult to get into that midfield group with Samuel Piette and [Victor] Wanyama in there."

Kone's box-to-box ability, particularly how he shuttles the ball up and down the pitch, could be an asset at the World Cup, provided he bosses these friendlies.

As thin as the midfield is, the forward corps is as loaded as ever. Ten wingers and strikers were called up, including 18-year-old Espanyol youngster Luca Koleosho, who was part of the June camp that was ultimately shortened due to the labour dispute.

Koleosho had just debuted for Espanyol in La Liga as a 17-year-old, which fast-tracked his progression to the senior side. The fact he's also eligible for the U.S., Nigeria and Italy only thickened the plot earlier this summer.

But despite receiving only two training sessions during a hectic week, the group made an impact on Koleosho.

"He enjoyed the environment," Herdman said. "I think Alphonso is his favourite player and he made some good relationships with Jonathan David and some of the young players and, certainly, he connected well with the staff. There was never really a doubt that he wasn't going to come back in."

Because Koleosho is eligible for four different countries, appearing in these friendlies won't cap-tie the teenager to Canada. He would have to play in a competitive match to lock him into the red and white.

Theo Corbeanu, who is in sensational form with Blackpool, is also returning with Tajon Buchanan nursing a quad injury. Herdman says Buchanan will receive "very limited minutes" in these friendlies as a result.

Injuries, combined with players potentially lacking rhythm come World Cup time all contributed to the high number of forwards, although Herdman said he might test out a few of them at wingback.

It all leads to a fascinating tactical question surrounding the formation. A lineup of five midfielders and 10 forwards surely indicates Herdman will stick to a 3-4-3 in possession, which will morph into a 4-4-2 off the ball. Whether that's the correct strategy considering how Belgium, Croatia and Morocco could approach the group-stage matches is another matter.

Then again, these friendlies — and November's World Cup tuneup vs. Japan — should prepare the squad for what awaits in Doha.

"I think there's some similarities with styles of play with at least one of our opponents that will play to a key group stage opponent," Herdman said.

Uruguay tends to deploy a trio centrally, usually composed of Real Madrid's Federico Valverde, Tottenham's Rodrigo Bentancur and Lucas Torreira at Galatasaray. Manuel Ugarte (Sporting CP) and Matías Vecino (Lazio) are just two of the reserves in a loaded midfield, which Canada's World Cup opponents will also boast.

"I have to say the game against Uruguay, that was a massive coup for Canada to pull that one off in Europe," Herdman said. "That's going to be a real test and it's not necessarily a tactical test. This will be the first time you play a team of $400-million value. When you think you play the U.S., and they're at that 250-mark, you double that now when you are playing Uruguay. You play Valverde playing at Real Madrid, you're playing a [Edinson] Cavani, you're playing [Darwin] Núñez playing at Liverpool.

"It's just another level. We can't wait. It's pretty exciting."

NOTES: Daniel Jebbison, one of the highly coveted dual nationals, was called up by England's U-20 squad for this window. Herdman said, "he's proud of his Canadian heritage, he sees himself as Canadian, identifies as a Canadian and at some point wants to play for Canada," and is engaging in ongoing conversations with the 19-year-old, although agent and commercial influences are delaying the process. ... Herdman also ruled out the potential recruitment of 22-year-old centre-back Tom Holmes, who has a Canadian-born grandmother. However, a 2009 amendment to Canadian law stipulates that Holmes, who has no other connection to Canada after his grandmother, is ineligible to represent the national team despite FIFA laws allowing it.

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