Canada’s World Cup qualifiers: What we learned in wins vs. Aruba, Suriname

Canada's Jonathan David (20) celebrates after scoring on a penalty kick against Suriname during the second half of a World Cup 2022 Group B qualifying soccer match Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Bridgeview, Ill. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AP)

After months of buildup, the Canadian men’s national team concluded the first round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying the same way it began: with a pair of resounding wins.

The Canadians defeated Aruba 7-0 last Saturday before defeating Suriname 4-0 on Tuesday to top Group B with a perfect 4-0-0 record. Now a two-legged second-round matchup against Haiti awaits, with the first match set for Saturday in Port-au-Prince before “hosting” the Haitians in Chicago for the second leg on June 15.

Canada should enter these games feeling confident, especially after what was witnessed over the last few days. Here’s what we learned in Canada’s victories over Aruba and Suriname.

The Davies-David connection is alive and well

Left out of the starting XI against Aruba to prepare for Tuesday night, Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies started against Suriname and delivered the big-game performances they were expected to provide.

David had a hat trick, which moved him into a tie for sixth on the Canadian men’s national team’s all-time scoring list with 15 goals. Davies was the provider for his first two goals before the Lille striker converted a penalty for his third of the evening.

However, it was Davies who opened the scoring with David registering the assist, calming some Canadian nerves in the process.

“The combination with me and David is one of those ones that just happens I guess,” said Davies in the post-match press conference. “The only time we’ve played with each other is at the national-team level, but I think we have that connection me and him, so it was good today.”

Prior to the opener, Canada’s dynamic duo wasn’t connecting as often. With David partnering Cyle Larin up front, both strikers were crowding each other when executing runs, whilst Davies was constantly roaming inside from the left flank to open up space, to no avail.

Then David and Larin began to alternate as a second striker who’d drop into the midfield and join the buildup, with the other forward more advanced. The striker closer to the box tried to isolate either Suriname centre-back with a teammate hitting a through ball to latch onto. David earned that exact opportunity from Alistair Johnston, but couldn’t convert the chance.

It became apparent that either strategy would be Canada’s main routes to goal. Eventually, that’s what led to Davies’ opener. David dropped deeper, Davies sprinted down the flank past Suriname’s Kelvin Leerdam before finishing with aplomb.

For the second goal, the roles reversed. Davies picked up a loose ball, cut into the centre, David commenced a run between Ryan Donk and Shaquille Pinas.

The rest was straightforward.

Often times, the partnership feels telepathic, even when they aren’t clicking in a specific moment. They only completed four passes between themselves prior to the first goal, yet they were able to pounce out of nowhere.

“You just know where he is,” Davies said when asked about his connection with David. “When he wants the ball, he just makes his presence felt. Over years playing with Jonathan, we found that bond, we found that connection and that’s what we try to show every time we play.”

Davies thrives in wingback role

Lost in the hoopla of the win was coach John Herdman switching to a 3-5-2 for the game with Davies starting at left wingback.

Considering Canada played with a back three in possession during their first three qualifiers, it wasn’t an entirely foreign concept. Even Alistair Johnston, who moved from his familiar right-back role, has occasionally slotted in at right centre-back with Nashville SC in certain situations.

But the tactical switch presented its challenges early in the game. Suriname’s best spells were generated in the opening 15 minutes, with Sheraldo Becker smashing the crossbar, mere moments after Tjaronn Cherry forced a save out of Milan Borjan via a free kick.

“The first 15 minutes was us just trying to figure it out,” Davies explained. “Obviously it was a new system for us, and it was us trying to figure out the system in-game. … We just knew we had to play our game, play safe and attack at the right moment.”

Eventually, Canada weathered the storm as Suriname eased up on its high press. Davies took over from there.

The 20-year-old completed a game-high 10 of 15 dribbles, four key passes, 0.69 expected assists and had 73 touches. Only Johnston (85) and Stephen Eustaquio (88) had more.

“I like Davies at wingback,” Herdman stated. “I think it’s a really good, balanced position there for him. He’s able to contribute in the attack and the defence and as you can see, he can get closer to the box and then recover when needed.”

Canada was so left-side heavy in attack, that 83 per cent of their open-play expected goals (xG) were created on that flank.

The 3-5-2 might not be the primary formation going forward, but it allows Davies to drive forward from deeper areas while providing cover defensively. That can come in handy in select matches.

“I have no problem playing wingback,” Davies said. “It gets me an opportunity to get forward and the system we played, it was good for our wingbacks and for us to get forward to attack. That’s what we did … It was a new system to us but we are all top professional footballers and we figured it out quickly.”

Wotherspoon, Kaye prove their worth

Neither David Wotherspoon nor Mark-Anthony Kaye started against Suriname, but they were arguably Canada’s two best players against Aruba.

It took Canada 18 minutes to open the scoring, with Kaye assisting Lucas Cavallini for the first goal of the game.

That was a sign of things to come for the LAFC midfielder. Kaye completed 42 of his 52 passes, had three key passes and was responsible for several line-breaking sequences.

Even as a substitute, Kaye still managed to influence the Suriname game with a couple of fantastic through passes.

“Man of the match tonight,” Herdman said of Kaye’s performance on Saturday. “A ruthless performance. He wanted to set that tone, and I think he did tonight, particularly in the second half to watch him just keep organizing the team and back pressing, his recovery runs, he was everywhere.”

“We had to keep being persistent and trust our tactical ideas of what we wanted to do in the game,” Kaye explained when asked how the Aruba game opened up for him. “It’s not going to work every time but you need to keep hammering at it and eventually the team that is defending is going to slip up and give you an opportunity to really capitalize. I pride myself on my ability to make those passes and get guys in key areas to create for other people or score themselves.”

Not to be outdone, Wotherspoon generated two key passes of his own while seemingly covering every inch of grass. It wasn’t as flashy as Kaye’s showing, but Wotherspoon’s performance was still integral, especially with his intelligent movement off the ball.

“Spoony is Spoony,” said Herdman. “He’s just a consistent performer. … He has a really solid profile in that attacking midfield position. You know he’s going to make those clever channel runs. He will create assists and he just has a composure, a calmness in the game that I think players around him really enjoy playing with him.”

“Spoony’s a very smart player with the way he moves,” Kaye said. “He’s got a good first touch that allows him to continue these plays going forward. … I know that I can trust him on that side to organize the left side and be a threat in the box when he’s trying to figure something out on his side and vice-versa. He likes to make these deep runs when I get on the ball and I cut back inside and I try to find him every now and then. I don’t want to overdo it, but it’s just nice playing with a guy who is so humble and wants to work hard for everyone around him.”

Now Herdman has a dilemma that every coach wishes they could have: a plethora of midfield depth who can be useful in any situation.

Kennedy shines in Canada debuts

Throughout John Herdman’s tenure as coach, Canada’s centre-back depth has been identified as the weak position in the squad. It might not be perfect, but he can add another piece of the puzzle in the form of Scott Kennedy.

The 24-year-old defender from Jahn Regensburg in Germany’s 2. Bundesliga was thrown straight into the fire for his debut against Suriname in a do-or-die match and excelled under pressure. Not that it was too much of a surprise for his coach.

“That was as strong of a debut as I’ve seen for this country,” said Herdman. “Given that we’ve needed to strengthen in that defensive organization moment, I think he really helped that process tonight.”

Not only did he provide a flawless defensive performance against a speedy Surinamese attack, Kennedy was also showing off his distribution, which was an area of improvement for him after a strong campaign in Germany. Even when glancing at his statistical radar, it was evident he was going to be a force defensively, but lacking in his passing.

Kennedy was involved in the first goal, playing the initial ball to David before he set up Davies. But as seen in his pass map below, the Calgary native was hitting some fantastic outlet passes.

After a debut like this and another monumental game looming on Saturday, Kennedy might be favoured to keep his place in the lineup against Haiti.

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