Canada has the talent, now Herdman has to find a balance

Canada's Jonathan David celebrates his goal against Dominica with teammate Alphonso Davies (12) during first half Concacaf Nations League qualifier soccer action in Toronto on Tuesday, October 16, 2018. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO — It was as smooth as silk watching Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, both born in the same year (2000) of the Canadian men’s national team’s last major title, connect for the opening goal.

It was that sort of precision and cutting-edge movement that allowed Canada to coast to a 5-0 victory over Dominica on a chilly Tuesday night. And while Davies technically lined up as a left-back at kickoff, he was essentially a second winger. David, meanwhile, partnered with Lucas Cavallini and caused fits for the Dominican defence all evening. Both teenagers were involved in four of the five goals for Les Rouges.

No, there aren’t many significant takeaways from a match in which Canada was expected to cruise to victory. However, as these Concacaf Nations League qualifiers go by, Canadian coach John Herdman’s selection headache grows stronger.

Canada’s formation varied throughout the 90 minutes. It went from a straight 4-3-3 to a 2-3-5 and even a 2-1-7 with Dominica parking 10 players behind the ball. Eventually, Ballou Tabla and Cyle Larin were thrown into the match, which further exemplified the team’s depth in quality.

However, Herdman won’t have the luxury of starting several attackers in the Gold Cup, Nations League and World Cup qualifiers. He’ll also need to settle on a back four, which he claims is still in an assessment period. But the English tactician knows how he’ll be able to determine his starters up front.

“I think you have to be really, really clear about the identity of the team and looking at players who will be committed to that,” Herdman explained. “Playing this type of game tonight, the options were different. We knew the type of style Dominica was going to come out with, which meant certain players – those attacking players – could go into other areas of the field. There is no way you’re going to do that against Mexico, and therefore, the competition is going to be immense.

“I’m challenging them in one-on-one meetings to keep pushing to the next level because selections are going to get tougher. Those players that can live above the line and own those moments of our identity, they’re the players who will play consistently.”

Many coaches would love to experience Herdman’s so-called dilemma. He definitely seems buoyed by the prospect of having different options with the Concacaf Gold Cup looming as well. But for now, Canada has attacking verve and bravery on the ball, two characteristics that have seldom been associated with the men’s program.

Even the veterans have noticed the changing of the team’s identity.

“The movement on the pitch, in the attacking third, the way we get into dangerous positions so quickly, our movement off the ball, our movement off the ball, everybody is locked in,” said captain Atiba Hutchinson. “That’s what we’ve been really stressing. We’re very direct in our play, and at the same time, we want to keep it patient when it’s not on so that the confidence is there … There’s just a real presence in the team. We feel good, we feel confident and there is a good mix in the group.”

“I think a lot of the guys trust each other on the team and they want to show each other that fearlessness that a lot of the young guys have,” said Larin. “Now we get a lot of guys forward and we’re not afraid to play against other teams and to just play with confidence.”

The poster boy behind this new wave of Canadian talent has been Davies, who assisted two of Canada’s five goals on the night. Larin latched onto one of the teenager’s low crosses into the box and finished with aplomb to round off the victory.

“[Davies] is a special player and to have him on our team and to play with him, it’s great,” Larin boasted. “When you get a lot of chances in the game, it’s a good for me and I like it. In the next coming games, we’ll do well and obviously we want to make the Gold Cup and I think we’ll do well there, too.”

“In my opinion, I think he’s probably going 50 per cent out there,” defender Derek Cornelius suggested when speaking about Davies. “He’s fast, he can take a guy one-on-one, he can make a pass. Even defensively, we’re seeing him playing full-back in these games, and he’s aware of the situations. A great player … Great player.”

There is an incentive for Canada to play proactively and push forward. The top six sides in the Nations League qualifiers book a spot in next summer’s Gold Cup and are drawn into League A for the main tournament, which features the likes of Mexico, Costa Rica and the United States.

Because there are only four games, goal difference becomes crucial in tie-breaking scenarios. Canada is currently second place on a plus-13 goal differential, with Curacao topping the group on plus-15. Therefore, the Canadians can’t afford to pump the breaks in the final third.

It’s easy to recall a time when most attacking players, such as Larin, were automatic starters. Now he has David, Lucas Cavallini and Tosaint Ricketts battling for the No. 9 role. Davies, Tabla, Liam Millar, Junior Hoilett and many others are fighting for places out wide.

“You can see Alphonso’s injection in the Gold Cup was a game-changer for Canada,” Herdman proclaimed. “The big x-factor for me, watching from afar, was what Alphonso brought to the team … All across the team, I wanted to add that youth. I wanted to add that spirit, that fearlessness. When you’ve got leaders like Atiba and Scott around the team, you’ve got good people. They are seasoned pros that aren’t going to try and pull the rug out from underneath these kids, and sort of beat them up and bully them mentally. They’re not those type of guys. You could see that young kids could flourish in that environment.”

Herdman definitely has the talent. Now the next step is to manage that depth heading into 2019 and beyond.

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