TORONTO — It’s easy to be swept up in the hype when glancing at the latest Canadian men’s national team roster. Seeing Alphonso Davies, Cyle Larin, Ballou Tabla, Junior Hoilett, Lucas Cavallini, Jonathan David and many others on the same roster is a nice sight for fans, who have seldom witnessed this level of depth in quality.
However, there is equal intrigue with the defence.
Head coach John Herdman named a mixture of youth and experience, but it’s difficult to ignore the dearth of options at full-back. Ashtone Morgan and Zachary Brault-Guillard are the only outside backs listed on the roster. The likes of Sam Adekugbe, Marcel de Jong, Michael Petrasso and Marcus Godinho weren’t called up, so there are places up for grabs.
It’s understandable for Herdman to omit some names, though. Les Rouges should comfortably defeat all of their opponents in these Concacaf Nations League qualifiers, which the coaching staff are using as a feeling-out process for the back line.
“It’s been an assessment phase,” Herdman admitted in a media conference call. “I think it’s an area that we have to strengthen. I think we got the potential there. There are areas that I can see real opportunities for growth … I think the back four for us is about creating that unit. It’s about the right men, the right fit, the right balance of talent, people’s weaknesses and the strength in the back four.
“This is the area I want to spend some time on and really challenge the group as well as be diligent in the assessment over these four matches so that when I get to the Gold Cup, I’m pretty clear I’ve got a unit there that isn’t in a bind in tough moments against certain opponents.”
Herdman said that he spoke to every member of the team over the summer and provided a squad planning overview with the positions that were “under real scrutiny.” One of those areas has to be right-back, which has been a constant issue for previous Canadian squads.
But even the centre of the defence has a strong competition for places, which the defenders have embraced in training.
“As the back line, we’re a collective unit, regardless of who’s in and who’s out,” Morgan told Sportsnet. “Just to have that competition between spots, we haven’t had that in a long time. Having a high level of competition between each spot is great for the team morale and for the team because we all want to play and we all want to get better. No matter who’s playing, we just got to keep the zero and work hard.”
Herdman has only had a few camps with the senior side, so there are a lot of areas to cover in training, especially for the defence. The back line has to learn a definitive playing style, how to defend set pieces, building chemistry on the pitch and much more.
For now, though, there is only one specific focus.
“A lot of tactics and that’s what we need,” said Doneil Henry to Sportsnet. “I find that we’re in a transition of finding our identity as a national team. That’s the beauty in it. John is a very knowledgeable guy. He brings a lot to the game. He brings a lot of passion. He’s steering the ship, so we trust him. It’s been really cool to see how he’s come in. Not knowing much about him, coming in and being a part of his team, seeing how motivating he is, it’s been sensational. We trust John, we know what he wants us to do. Clean sheets and tenacious defenders is what he wants.”
“With John, you can see that he’s very calculated and very organized,” Morgan explained. “With that, and his style of how he coaches and how he carries himself, he shows that with our back line, we’ve got to be the exact same: organized, focused and have a lot of grit and have a lot of passion. Everything starts with the back line, so we’re the backbone of the team.”
During the Benito Floro era from 2013 to 2016, Henry made a number of appearances at right-back, even though he is most comfortable at centre-back. Morgan, a left-back, also deputised in that right-sided role for Toronto FC during the MLS season. Both players said that they’d be willing to do so again if called upon.
“If I’m playing as a full-back, I’ll be playing safe,” Henry stated. “You won’t see me bombing up like most full-backs do in the modern game now. I’ll shut up shop and make sure, defensively, we’re tight as a unit and we won’t get caught out. That’s my primary job as a defender.”
There are approximately eight months until the 2019 Gold Cup kicks off, and Herdman only has a limited number of games to determine his ideal back four. Canada has two more Nations League qualifiers and, likely, a couple of friendlies before the tournament begins.
Building chemistry is more vital for defenders than anywhere else on the field. If they aren’t familiar with each other, that can lead to a disorganized back line and unnecessary mistakes. The sooner Herdman can identify his ideal back line, the more it will benefit Canada.
No matter how lethal the attack becomes, it won’t matter if the side keep leaking goals at the back end.