Canada uses Cuba win in Nations League to right wrongs of Haiti loss

Canada defender Doneil Henry, centre left, celebrates with teammates midfielder Liam Millar (11) and midfielder Alphonso Davies (12) as he celebrates a goal during second half of CONCACAF Nations League play at BMO Field in Toronto, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. (Cole Burston/CP)

TORONTO — Sometimes a team learns more in defeat than it does in victory. Mishaps or breakdowns can often indicate an underlying concern that may not be as big of a focus after a win.

Canada head coach John Herdman will be hoping that rings true for his team after the monumental collapse to Haiti in the Concacaf Gold Cup quarterfinals this past June. There were a few concerns, mainly tactical and personnel related, following that loss.

If Canada’s 6-0 win over Cuba to begin Concacaf Nations League play is any indication of future behaviour, this Canadian side is amending those issues from that calamitous night in Houston.

Sure, a home victory over Cuba is not exactly a Herculean task. However, there were some notable tactical changes and individual performances that indicated this coaching staff is hellbent on eradicating those mistakes from the Haiti loss.

Marcus Godinho and Alphonso Davies started at right-back and left-back, respectively, in that 3-2 defeat to Haiti. On Saturday, it was Kamal Miller on the left and the debuting Richie Laryea on the right.

Miller and Laryea aren’t natural full-backs, but they have logged a fairly significant chunk of minutes in those roles and are gaining more comfort in those positions on a game-by-game basis with their MLS clubs.

Considering Sam Adekugbe — a left-back by trade — was called up to this squad, it may come as a surprise to see Miller start over Adekugbe. That’s because Herdman is thinking ahead to those final two Nations League games versus the United States.

“In simple terms, I think Richie gives you a little bit more of the offensive and Kamal allows us just to solidify,” Herdman explained in his post-match press conference. “When you look at the quality of the U.S. wingers, we are going to need people who want to defend first. But more importantly, players who are playing every week. I can’t be throwing lads in there that are picking up five minutes every three weeks. They got to be confident, feel trusted and are ready to go. Kamal is in that good rhythm at the minute.”

Defensively, Miller’s positioning was solid when Cuba had a spell of possession in the final 15 minutes of the first half. He was constantly aware of his surroundings and ensured that the defence stayed compact as he waited for support to arrive from Canada’s midfielders.

Miller occupies similar duties with Orlando City, although he’s more involved in the attacking third compared to Saturday’s match for Canada. But the MLS rookie remains reliable defensively, whether he’s deployed as a centre-back or left-back.

Miller’s heat map for Orlando City as a left-back. (via Wyscout)
Miller’s stats by position for Orlando City in 2019. (via Wyscout)

“I think what Kamal gives us is a genuine defensive instinct,” said Herdman. “He’s not the one that is going to want to get beyond the winger too often and I think that is natural if we can play people like [Alphonso Davies] and Liam Miller in front of him, those direct sort of wingers. I think it solidifies the back four. It gives us that security.”

As for Laryea, he combined well with Junior Hoilett and Mark-Anthony Kaye down the right flank when Canada had possession. The Toronto FC man was fearless going forward and should have finished the night with at least two assists, including this one below:

“We’ve been working hard all week to get on the same page,” said Hoilett. “It’s Richie’s first cap and first time with us and I thought he did magnificent. Since Day 1, he’s been willing to learn and willing to execute the game and he’s done well. You can see he’s got a lot to give and I am happy he is out there with us.”

“We worked a lot on it in training,” Kaye reiterated. “John made us understand that sometimes we need to invest on one side in order to wear a team down and then open something up on the other side. But we have good enough players that we can actually create things when we all come into the same area. It was fun, it was enjoyable and that is a bright thing to look forward to in many games to come.”

Defensively, Laryea knew he had to track back quickly and did so on Saturday. That will serve as proper match practice against the U.S., whether it’s him or Juan Cordova deployed on the right side of the defence.

“We came into camp knowing that [Miller and Laryea] had all the qualities,” said defender Doneil Henry. “We just had to get them into the structure and where we wanted to play them and where they need to be at all times.”

Perhaps the most vital contribution was Kaye’s. The LAFC midfielder covers immense ground with the runaway Supporters’ Shield leaders and it’s entirely possible that Herdman relayed similar instructions to the 24-year-old.

Kaye was running tirelessly all over the pitch, ensuring that Cuba’s attacks were broken up before they entered the penalty area and constantly attempted to progress the ball.

Kaye is among the leaders in MLS in progressive passes and passes into the final third, all while roaming across the midfield for LAFC and breaking up oncoming attacks.

Kaye’s heat map and statistical radar with LAFC in 2019. (via Wyscout)

With Samuel Piette as the No. 6, having Kaye tracking back and operating as a connector with the midfield is integral to both Canada’s defensive structure and its ability to break down stubborn defences.

Whether this translates to the matches versus the U.S. and beyond remains to be seen. But the coaching staff appears to be righting the wrongs of the Haiti debacle.

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