It’s the change in attitude that was one of the first things that Atiba Hutchinson noticed.
After taking a year off from international duty, Hutchinson returned to the Canadian national team fold last October when he was recalled for a Concacaf Nations League qualifier vs. Dominica.
A six-time Canadian player of the year, Hutchinson is widely regarded as this country’s best soccer export, having spent the majority of his pro career playing abroad with several big European clubs, including Turkish outfit Besiktas. The veteran midfielder has also been one of Canada’s most loyal representatives – to date, he has seven goals in 81 appearances (fourth all-time for the Reds) since making his national team debut as a 19-year-old in 2003.
The match against Dominica in Toronto was Hutchinson’s first under new coach John Herdman, and what immediately struck the native of Brampton, Ont., were the waves of positivity surging throughout the Canadian camp, and how the confidence emanating from his teammates was palpable.
In part, that’s credit to Herdman, who has worked hard at changing the culture of the Canadian men’s side since taking over the coaching reins last January. But it’s also due to the injection of so many young, talented and dangerous attacking prospects into the national team program, including Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David of Belgian club Gent.
As such, Canada carries itself with a newfound level of confidence every time it steps onto the pitch. Whereas it used to look to keep things tight defensively and try to nick a goal, Canada is now far more assertive in attack and actively looks to create scoring opportunities. It’s this new attitude that Hutchinson believes will serve the Reds well at this summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup. Canada begins play in the group stage with a match vs. Martinique on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
“I’ve been back with Canada for a year now and played a few games. I think there’s so much talent in this team. We’ve never had these types of players in attack who can create chances on their own,” Hutchinson told Sportsnet.
“There’s a lot of quality in this team and we go into every game knowing we’re going to be creating chances, whereas before we’d be playing games and have it in the back of our heads [that] we didn’t know if we’d get one or two chances. Now, we’re positive that we’re going to get a lot of chances with the way we play. There’s a different mindset in the way we approach things, a lot more confidence.”
In some ways, this Gold Cup will serve as a barometer of how far the team has come under Herdman. Canada sports a perfect 6-0-0 record and has conceded just one goal during the Herdman era. The team also comfortably qualified for Group A in the inaugural Concacaf Nations League, which kicks off in September.
But most of the victories came against teams that can be charitably described as weaker opponents – an 8-0 win over the U.S. Virgin Islands and a 5-0 win against Dominica are hardly impressive. The real test will come at the Gold Cup. Not only will this be the first time that Herdman’s side will compete in a condensed, competitive tournament (instead of friendlies and qualifiers held months apart), but the level of competition will be much stiffer for the Reds.
Hutchinson maintains that Canada is ready for the challenge, and that the team enters the tournament with the intention of winning it, not just competing and putting in a decent showing. This Gold Cup is a chance for Hutchinson and his teammates “to put Canada on the soccer map and to be the best in our region, and that’s something we’re focused on.”
“We want to be the best team here and want to make Canada known in the soccer world. That’s what we all talk about when we speak to each other one-on-one or as a group. We’re here to win the tournament. That’s the way we’re approaching it. We feel as though we can go out there and play against the best in Concacaf. We haven’t played any big opponents in the last little while, but the results have gone our way and we’ve been dominant in games,” Hutchinson said.
“At the same time, we don’t want to be naive. We have to respect these teams we’re playing, and they are not going to lie down. We have to be smart, and understand we have the ability and confidence, and we know we can play against anybody in Concacaf.”
Hutchinson will be making his sixth Gold Cup appearance this summer to tie Julian de Guzman’s national team record. Hutchinson last played in the tournament in 2011, so it’s been a while since he’s played on the biggest stage in the Concacaf region. Time hasn’t erased memories of past Gold Cup appearances, and one memory still stands out.
In the semifinals of the 2007 tournament, Canada was embroiled in a tense battle with the U.S. at Soldier Field in Chicago. With the Americans clinging to a 2-1 lead, Hutchinson appeared to have scored deep into injury time to send the game to extra time. But the linesman raised his flag for offside and the referee disallowed the goal even though replays showed Hutchinson was in an onside position at the time of teammate Patrice Bernier’s pass, and that he received the ball only after it was played back to him by American defender Oguchi Onyewu. Nevertheless, the goal didn’t stand and Canada lost.
“Every time the Gold Cup comes around, that’s the thinking that most Canadians seem to have – that it was one of those things where the ref got it all wrong. Maybe if he had the chance to call it again the result would be different, a different call would’ve been made. That moment in that game could have changed everything because we had momentum in that game. Things could have been a lot different if we possibly had won that game. Who knows. It is what it is, it happened, we have to forget about it, and move on,” Hutchinson said.
As for the future, this summer could be the final time that Hutchinson wears the Canadian jersey. Last October, Hutchinson told Sportsnet that he was looking at this Gold Cup as his swansong for Canada, and he’d retire from the national team when it’s over.
Hutchinson, who turned 36 in February, is still leaning that way, but insists no final decisions have been made regarding his national team future.
“It’s definitely still in my thoughts, but nothing is for sure right now. I’m just going to see how it goes over the next few weeks. It’s in my mind right now, but I’ll sit down with John [Herdman] and also my family and figure it out. I’m up there in age, and my body isn’t what it used to be. I’ve been thinking a lot about it and what I want to do, but now we’re here at the Gold Cup, and I’ll leave final decisions up to when it’s over,” Hutchinson explained.