Speak to any member of the Canadian men’s team and they will rave about the endless quality of attacking options.
However, one glance at the 23-man squad for this summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup reveals there is a noticeable lack of defensive depth.
Canada has conceded just one goal in six matches, which includes a 2-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago in a behind-closed doors friendly. However, the back line will face its first litmus tests at the Gold Cup against the likes of Mexico, and potentially Costa Rica in the knockout stage if Canada qualifies out of Group A.
It is obviously a much greater challenge facing Mexico’s attack – with Raul Jimenez and Rodolfo Pizarro, among others – as opposed to Saint Kitts and Nevis or Dominica, two teams Canada recently defeated.
With only six primary defenders called up, coach John Herdman has indicated that some players could be asked to fill in as defenders. Mark-Anthony Kaye, Atiba Hutchinson, Samuel Piette and Will Johnson are the likeliest candidates at this stage. Alphonso Davies and Liam Millar also saw time at fullback during the Concacaf Nations League qualifiers, plus Davies played at left back with Bayern Munich this past season.
Canada has three group-stage matches in eight days, so Herdman has to be wary of potential suspensions and injuries.
“It’s a long tournament,” centre back Doneil Henry told Sportsnet. “I know John is a very knowledgeable man. He will be the one who deals with it as it comes. I am sure we have a plan to how we will play and we will go into games with different tactics. Guys understand that we are here to play smart. As a defensive core unit, we know that we have to keep clean sheets and defend well and give our team the best chance of winning.”
At this stage, Herdman has some headaches. Henry is recovering from a hamstring injury that he suffered in the Vancouver Whitecaps’ 1-1 draw with Sporting Kansas City back on May 18. Despite his near month-long absence, the Brampton native says that he feels mentally sharp and has no concerns with his knock.
Then there is Derek Cornelius, who replaced Henry in the Whitecaps’ lineup over the past month. Cornelius has been solid, as has Montreal Impact right back Zachary Brault-Guillard whenever he’s started over Bacary Sagna.
However, fullbacks Marcus Godinho and Ashtone Morgan, and uncapped centre back Kamal Miller have been fairly inactive ahead of the tournament.
There are risks, but that comes with the territory when placing faith in young players.
“The young defenders on this team, they’re here for a reason,” Henry stated emphatically. “With young defenders, you need experience and you need more games. The only time you are going to get experience is through playing. I feel like John has full confidence in the guys that he brings and as a defender, I have full confidence in the guys that I play beside.
“I am going to help guide them, help protect them when they need it and I am looking forward to helping them get the experience that they need.”
If all goes according to plan, Herdman could rest a few defenders for the opening game against Martinique at the Rose Bowl and then slot them into the lineup versus Mexico in the following match on June 19 in Denver.
Tactically, these opening three games will be intriguing for Canada. Les Rouges will be expected to be in full control versus Martinique and Cuba, yet the Mexico matchup may require a 180-degree shift. The midfield setup is crucial in this regard. If the midfielders are comfortable in possession and occupy the half spaces while defending, that alleviates pressure on the back line.
“I think that nowadays in modern football, you have to be flexible and be able to adapt to whatever the game gives you,” Kaye told Sportsnet. “I think we have that here. It will be interesting and exciting to see how we use it in certain situations. In that sense, I think we’re good.”
“Regardless of what is going on, I know that if guys are asked to do a job, they will get it done,” Henry said. “We talked about players and playing their roles and doing stuff for their team, we are ready to do what it takes to win games.”
One pillar of Herdman’s system is ball-playing centre backs. Henry is already familiar with such a role under Marc Dos Santos in Vancouver and early results show that he’s growing more comfortable on the ball.
Henry has performed well in possession for Canada, particularly in the final pair of Nations League qualifiers versus Saint Kitts and French Guiana. He was key to the build-up from the back and it provided another deep-lying playmaker of sorts.
“As a defender I know that my job is to defend first,” Henry said. “I think that it takes time and experience to understand when is the time to play it out and when it is not. I think that we have an understanding of when is the right time. As a centre back, I have been very comfortable in this system.”
More than anything else, chemistry is absolutely vital for defenders. A lack of synergy can lead to mistakes at the back, so the more these defenders play together, the more they understand one another.
Henry, Cornelius, Morgan and Brault-Guillard have been regular call-ups under Herdman so they should be familiar with each other. The former two play together with the Whitecaps as well, which is an added benefit.
“We have had six camps and in every camp we have just added another layer,” Herdman said in his pre-Gold Cup conference call. “I think that is crucial to any team being successful.
“I think the growth in the team’s spirit and the growth in tactics is excellent, but the thing I am most looking forward to is to just see that chemistry that is starting to come together through players playing five or six games together. There is a greater fluidity and our distances are better.”
We will find out just how far that has progressed beginning this Saturday when Canada takes on Martinique at the Rose Bowl.