It was a tactical curve ball that caught a lot of Canadian soccer pundits and fans completely off-guard.
After seeing his team open the Concacaf Gold Cup with a 4-0 win over Martinique at the Rose Bowl, coach John Herdman made six lineup changes to his starting 11 for Canada’s second match vs. Mexico, a contest the Reds went on to lose 3-1 in Denver.
Herdman switched from a 4-4-3 to a 3-4-3 formation, and instead of putting out his “A team” against top-ranked Mexico, he didn’t start captain Scott Arfield, winger Junior Hoilett and forward Jonathan David, who all scored against Martinique.
Perhaps the Canadian coach was looking ahead, believing his side could meet Mexico in the semifinals, and he didn’t want to tip his hand and keep the Mexican coach Tata Martino guessing before a possible return match. Or maybe it was as simple as Herdman rotating his squad and wanting to rely on his depth as Canada plays three group-stage matches in three cities across the United States over eight days.
Whatever the reasons, there might be more lineup changes in store for Canada on Sunday when it plays Cuba in Charlotte, N.C., in its group stage finale. And if there are, you shouldn’t be surprised, because Canada’s roster depth means that Herdman has the luxury of making changes without much of a sacrifice to the quality of the team he fields.
Jonathan Osorio is well aware of this.
The Toronto FC midfielder played a starring role in Canada’s win over Martinique, but was relegated to the bench for the Mexico game, although he did enter the match as a second-half substitute. With 25 caps to his credit, Osorio has become a key member of this Canadian squad in recent years. Before the Mexico encounter, he started in his last seven appearances for Canada, and in 11 of his previous 12 games overall.
But, when speaking to Sportsnet prior to the Gold Cup, Osorio hinted that Herdman would make major lineup changes throughout the group stage, and that even regular starters like him would not be immune.
“It’s very competitive in the team. I don’t have a [guaranteed] starting spot. I have to work for it. But, what I would say is my role is a little bigger for Canada now than what it was in the past. I always compete no matter what. I don’t go into any team expecting to start. I earn my spot. I always believe in myself and always believe I am ready to start. But nothing should ever be guaranteed on a good team, and that’s what we have we Canada at the moment,” Osorio said.
Osorio made his national team debut in 2013, and he’s played for a number of coaches in that time. The TFC midfielder believes Canada has never played with more confidence during his national team tenure than it has at this moment. Osorio gives Herdman a lot of the credit for that, as he’s helped to change the culture within the Canadian program.
“It’s not that he gave us that confidence. We have all these great players playing on great [pro clubs] now and getting a lot of minutes. He has shown us that belief. Not given it to us, but showed it to us, as if to say, ‘Look, you guys have a great team and have nothing to worry about.’ We should reach for the stars and the highest possible goals because we’re capable of that. So, John has shown us that belief,” Osorio explained.
Osorio isn’t the most veteran player on this current Canadian side, but he does have six years of national team experience under his belt. He’s seen the evolution of this side, from a squad with a defence-first mentality to a squad that can aggressively impose its will on games. It’s hard to remember a time when Canada had so many quality attacking options, what with David, Hoilett and Alphonso Davies at Herdman’s disposal.
“I’ve never played on a better Canadian team. Not from number one to 20 on the roster. I’ve played with some very good players at a really high level. But just the consistency and quality from one to 20, never,” said Osorio, who is competing in his fourth Gold Cup.
He later added: “It’s so much fun. I enjoy it being the national team. As much as I love playing for TFC and being in this city, I enjoy playing for Canada more than ever. It’s great, it’s an exciting time because now if someone goes down injured, we have people to step in and do the job, so that’s huge.”