The Canadian men’s team returns to action this week when it hosts Dominica in a Concacaf Nations League qualifier.
Here’s what you need to know about Tuesday evening’s match at Toronto’s BMO Field.
THE TASK AT HAND
Can Dominica offer Canada any kind of serious competition? That’s one of the questions in the buildup up to this game after Canada hammered the U.S. Virgin Islands 8-0 last month in its opening qualifier for the Nations League.
Canada is currently No. 79 in the FIFA world rankings. Dominica is 177th, sandwiched between Puerto Rico and Liechtenstein, and it drew Suriname 0-0 in its opening Nations League qualifier in a game that was held in Guadeloupe.
Canadian coach John Herdman had a member of his staff in Guadeloupe to put together a scouting report, and discovered that Dominica is a direct, offensive team that likes to hold a high defensive line and press the opposition.
On paper, Tuesday’s affair is a mismatch, but Herdman insists he isn’t overlooking Dominica, and that he expects the visitors to be physically aggressive in an attempt to frustrate his team.
“These [smaller Concacaf] teams always have a chance, [they] always have a puncher’s chance, and we’re mindful of that. If they get a result against Canada they’ll make history. So, this has to mean as much to us as it does to them,” Herdman offered.
These sides have met before. Three years ago, Canada beat Dominica in a pair of World Cup qualifying matches by a 6-0 aggregate score, including a 4-0 win at BMO Field.
POTENTIAL CANADIAN DEBUTS
Four players could earn their first caps for Canada on Tuesday, but Herdman wouldn’t tip his hand as to whether any of them will make their debuts.
“There’s so many factors that play into it …. The cohesion and the consistency of certain partnerships we’re trying to build. We’re also assessing in certain positions,” Herdman said.
“Some players have shown a real loyalty to this country when they could be pushed somewhere else, but I want to make sure that I’m loyal to those players who have been loyal to us.”
Still, you have to think Herdman will hand out at least one cap to his crop of newcomers, and the leading candidate is Ballou Tabla. A 19-year-old midfielder who plays with Barcelona’s B team, Tabla recently decided to pledge his allegiance to Canada, turning down advances to play for Ivory Coast, his birth nation.
Tabla was considered one of the hottest young products in MLS while with the Montreal Impact, and he was being tracked by several big clubs in Europe, including Premier League champions Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City. Eventually, the Impact came to terms with Barcelona B on a transfer earlier this year.
Herdman calls Tabla a dynamic attacking player, and someone who is capable of playing anywhere across the front line.
Alessandro Busti, an 18-year-old goalkeeper with the Juventus youth team, could also debut for Canada on Tuesday.
Born in Toronto but raised in Turin, Italy, Busti told Sportsnet he received a call from earlier this year from Herdman, who wanted to gauge his interest in playing international soccer for his birth country. Even though he’s spent little time in Canada – he moved to Italy with his parents when he was only six months old – Busti jumped at the opportunity to represent the Reds, even though he was previously called by Italy’s under-18 team.
Goalkeeper James Pantemis, a 21-year-old with the Montreal Impact, and Lyon defender Zachary Brault-Guillard (19), have also yet to be capped by Canada.
Canadian captain Scott Arfield picked up a hamstring injury during Sunday’s team practice. The Glasgow Rangers midfielder was kept out of Monday’s training session as a precaution, and had a medical scan. He is considered questionable for the Dominica match.
“If we don’t need to play him in this match, we won’t. … It’s all precautionary for him. He doesn’t need to go put himself on the line at this stage,” Herdman confirmed.
Aside from Arfield, Canada has no other injuries ahead of Tuesday’s game.
HUTCHINSON RETURNS HOME
After taking a year off from international duty, Atiba Hutchinson is back with the Canadian national team, as he has been recalled for this game.
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. The veteran midfielder has also been one of Canada’s most loyal servants, with six goals in 78 appearances since making his national team debut as a 19-year-old in 2003.
Hutchinson, now 35, last turned out for Canada in a friendly against Jamaica in Toronto on Sept. 2, 2017 at BMO Field. If he plays on Tuesday, it will be one of his last games on Canadian soil, with Hutchinson telling Sportsnet he plans to retire from the national team after next summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup.
“Playing in the Gold Cup would be a good time for me, and then probably after that I’ll call it a day with the national team,” Hutchinson said.
“That’s the way I’m looking at and we’re looking at it, to play in one last tournament. Hopefully we can achieve some success with the country at the Gold Cup, something I’ve pretty much missed my entire career.”
HERDMAN’S HOME DEBUT
Tuesday’s tilt is Herdman’s third game in charge, but it’s his first on Canadian soil. He previously coached Canada’s women’s team from 2011 until January when took over the men’s program that same month.
Aside from the road game against the U.S. Virgin Islands, Canada earned a 1-0 win over New Zealand in an friendly played in Spain back in March in Herdman’s first game in charge.
“It’ll be a proud moment singing the national anthem with those men,” Herdman said of making his home debut.
It’ll also be Alphonso Davies’ last game with the national team on home soil before moving abroad. Davies, a 17-year-old prospect with the Vancouver Whitecaps, signed with Bayern Munich over the summer, and will join the German club in January.
After the Dominica match, the Reds travel to Saint Kitts and Nevis on Nov. 18, and then host French Guiana next March – a host city has yet to be determined.
The inaugural 2019-20 Concacaf Nations League kicks off next September, after the Gold Cup earlier in the summer.