Tajon Buchanan personifies the Canadian men’s national team’s rise over the past 18 months.
Buchanan hadn’t been capped at senior level until June 2021, yet the potential was apparent from the moment he was drafted into MLS in 2019. The same could be said of the men’s program. They just hadn’t had their breakthrough moment.
It’s been nothing but breakthroughs for Buchanan and his countrymen ever since.
After adapting quickly at Club Brugge in January and helping Canada qualify for the World Cup, Buchanan was set to go full supernova in his first full European season, complete with a UEFA Champions League debut.
Then his quad flared up during the warmups for the Belgian Super Cup in July. A frustrating road to recovery began.
“It was super hard because, honestly, I did not believe the injury was going to be that long and when you’re missing those games, it gets to you,” Buchanan said after a Canadian training session on Sept. 25. “Ever since then, it’s been an up-and-down journey. I tried to come back in training and hurt it again, so it was a tough period.”
Eventually, Buchanan returned to the pitch in Canada’s 2-0 loss to Uruguay on Sept. 27. It was his first appearance for club or country since June, logging around 15 minutes in the defeat.
A few days later, Buchanan received about 35 minutes for Brugge in its 3-0 win over Mechelen. The Brampton, Ont., native even scored the team’s third goal via a looping header.
Crucially, Buchanan was no longer starting as a left wingback, where he spent the majority of his first six months at the club. Instead, coach Carl Hoefkens slotted the Canadian international in his preferred right-wing position and he looked incredibly lively.
He also had a goal called back for offside after a brilliant run.
The impressive cameo led to Buchanan’s first start in nearly four months, in the Champions League against Atlético Madrid, of all teams. It was a huge call from Hoefkens but Buchanan repaid the faith immediately with a solid debut.
Buchanan’s excellent hold-up play led to Brugge’s second goal in a massive victory over Atlético to stay top of Group B entering Matchday 4 this week.
Most surprising of all, though, was the confidence of the Canadian forward. Normally, when a player misses significant time, it’ll take a few games to regain anticipation on the dribble in one-on-one duels or incisiveness with decision-making. Even Alphonso Davies needed a settling-in period after his return in April.
Not Buchanan, apparently.
“I think Brugge have done a good job the last few weeks getting him ready to return to play,” said Canada coach Herdman before the Uruguay defeat. “For a player, it takes time to trust your body again [after an injury]. He had some good moments [in training] and he fit right back into our structure.”
It’s astounding how quickly Buchanan has adapted, and those efforts should lead to another start in Madrid this Wednesday.
It should also lead to a front three of Davies, Buchanan and Jonathan David for the World Cup. What a tantalizing prospect.
OTHER UPDATES AND ANALYSIS
• Saturday’s Der Klassiker between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund lived up to its name, but it ended early for Alphonso Davies after taking Jude Bellingham’s boot to the face right before halftime. Davies was substituted as a precaution and looked visibly dazed following the incident.
The 21-year-old has since been diagnosed with a bruised skull. There is no timeline for his return but he has been ruled out of Wednesday’s Champions League game against Viktoria Plzen.
• Make that seven goals in 10 games for Jonathan David at Lille this season. The Canadian striker converted a penalty in the 44th minute as Les Dogues defeated rivals Lens 1-0 in the Derby du Nord on Sunday.
In reality, David (No. 9 below) could’ve finished with a brace.
His off-the-ball movement coupled with Lille’s incisiveness around the box led to David setting up a few quality chances for teammates, too.
• Most Canadian strikers are experiencing differing issues entering the World Cup. For Ike Ugbo, he’s gone from a starter trying to regain match sharpness at Troyes to fighting for scraps off the bench.
Perhaps Sunday’s cameo will lead to more minutes, though. Ugbo came off the bench in the 77th minute against Nice and picked up an assist in stoppage time.
• We saw two different sides of Stephen Eustaquio over the past week. The defensively astute version of Eustaquio (No. 46) dominated in a 2-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League last Tuesday as he shut down several Leverkusen counters to preserve the clean sheet.
Four days later in the 2-0 win over Portimonense in the Primeira Liga, Eustaquio was heavily involved in the final third again. The amount of quality passes on display were breathtaking.
I still have doubts about Canada’s double pivot against marquee opponents, and I’ve explained the benefits of a midfield trio for TFC Republic (subscription required), but regardless of the system coach John Herdman uses, Eustaquio will be key. The two-way abilities he possesses will make the difference at the World Cup.
• Steven Vitoria will be equally vital in Qatar. Given Canada’s susceptibility to aerials, the six-foot-five centre-back will have to be on high alert.
Good thing he’s getting some valuable reps with Chaves. Vitoria (No. 19) was immense in the air as he helped guide his club to a monumental 1-0 win over Braga while outdoing multiple forwards in duels.
However, some of Vitoria’s frailties from the Uruguay friendly were exposed against Braga. For starters, 35-year-old was under duress whenever he was pressured by the opposition. That led to 57 per cent passing accuracy on 14 attempts.
He was beaten for pace when isolated one-on-one with a forward.
Plus, this two-footed tackle in the box could’ve gone extremely wrong for Vitoria if he didn’t go to ground as quickly as he did.
All the more reason to utilize a midfield trio for ample cover so Vitoria’s weaknesses are masked as often as possible.
• With fixture congestion piling up, Cyle Larin received around 25 minutes for Club Brugge in Saturday’s 2-0 defeat to Westerlo. Larin (No. 11) had a couple decent, if not frustrating, moments during that span.
It’s further proof that Larin requires consistent minutes to gain his sharpness on the ball and with his decision-making. Otherwise, that extra touch or moment of hesitation costs him dearly.
• It’s the same story with Liam Fraser at Deinze. Because he plays in the Belgian second division in a role with lots of depth within the national team, Fraser will likely miss out on the World Cup barring injury.
That being said, Fraser (No. 4 below) is still 24 and has the potential to play in a top-flight European league. His on-the-ball qualities are as good as any other Canadian midfielder and his defensive anticipation is growing by the week, as evidenced in Saturday’s win over Lommel.
• There was a welcome sight for Canadian fans with Atiba Hutchinson returning to full training with Besiktas earlier this week. He could be back in the matchday squad as early as this weekend against Trabzonspor, which means there’d be a maximum of five games for the 39-year-old to gain match fitness before the World Cup.
• Sam Adekugbe logged 13 minutes for Hatayspor in a 1-0 win against Alanyaspor. Volkan Demirel was recently hired as the coach, and this was Adekugbe’s first appearance under the new boss since returning from international duty.
Adekugbe has been a consistent starter since he signed for Hatayspor last summer. Now he’s facing a potential battle for his job with the World Cup on the horizon. Hopefully he ends up reclaiming it for Canada’s sake.
• It was a busy week in the Championship with a full slate of midweek games. Junior Hoilett started both matches, finishing the full 90 for Reading in the 1-1 draw with Norwich City on Tuesday and lasted around 58 minutes in Friday’s loss to Queens Park Rangers.
As he has all season, Hoilett (No. 23) was a main driver in the final third, producing chance after chance for Reading.
Even at 32, Hoilett continues to produce consistently in the final third for club and country. The national team may have Tajon Buchanan, Theo Corbeanu (more on him shortly) and Luca Koleosho, but there’s a reason why Hoilett is always in contention for starts with Canada.
• Corbeanu is one of the Championship’s “carry” (dribbling) leaders. His 10 shot-ending carries are among the best outputs in the league this season and he’s played around half as often as the other players in the top 20.
The last two games against Sunderland and Watford showcased why he’s so lethal in those situations. Crucially, Corbeanu (No. 25) is now utilizing his teammates more often, although there is still the occasional moment of selfishness on the dribble. That’ll surely lessen over time for the 20-year-old.
• Two months after his last appearance for Sheffield United, Daniel Jebbison played 22 minutes in a 3-1 loss to Stoke City. The long layoff was apparent as the 19-year-old wasn’t too active on the ball, all the more reason why he needs regular playing time in order to hone his craft.
• A couple months ago, I analyzed 19-year-old forward Amir Batyrev at Russian Premier League club FC Sochi. Since then, Batyrev has received about 150 more minutes of first-team action across multiple domestic competitions.
Batyrev (No. 28) even scored his first goal for the club in a 3-1 loss to fellow RPL side Torpedo Moscow in the Russian Cup on Sept. 14.
After shining in his 45 minutes, Batyrev earned a 12-minute cameo in a 4-1 loss on Oct. 1. However, the former Vancouver Whitecap managed to parlay that into a start against Russian giants Lokomotiv Moscow on Saturday.
There were some encouraging sequences, and it’s clear that Batyrev can handle himself physically as he was able to shake off a few hard challenges. But the inconsistent minutes might affect his anticipation in one-on-one duels and overall decision-making.
At 19, Batyrev earning occasional minutes in a solid European league is a major step. Surely he’ll only keep progressing from here.
• Liam Millar was an unused substitute for Basel over the weekend, likely in preparation for Thursday’s Europa Conference League matchup with Slovan Bratislava.
Last Thursday’s loss to Bratislava was a positive performance for Millar. He spent time on both flanks and created a couple solid opportunities for himself and his teammates.
• Over in Serbia, Milan Borjan started in Red Star Belgrade’s 4-1 win over Ferencvaros in the Europa League last Thursday before earning a clean sheet in Sunday’s league victory against Spartak Subotica. The former was a routine performance, although he had to react quickly to stop this header below and preserve the shutout.
• Don’t get it twisted. Scott Kennedy starting every week is fantastic for him and for Canada. That doesn’t mean he can’t improve in some areas, though.
For example, when Kennedy faces a shifty forward in open space, he can be slow on the turn and it leaves him in the dust…
… Unless he’s touch-tight to the forward right from the start or gets overly physical.
This is partially due to a lack of hip mobility, and that’s integral to several movements on the pitch. It’s also why Kennedy’s passing might not be as crisp as Alistair Johnston’s or even Kamal Miller’s, who is admittedly slow on the turn but is a solid distributor.
Kennedy’s lack of composure under pressure also hinders his passing. There were occasions in the 2-2 draw with Greuther Furth when he could’ve retained possession by passing back to the goalkeeper or turning around and dribbling away from the press.
Again, though, sometimes the hips don’t lie.
• Meanwhile, Derek Cornelius went the full 90 in Panetolikos’ 3-2 loss to Volos on Saturday and had a glorious opportunity to snatch the victory.
Cornelius (No. 13 below) was noticeably struggling on loose-ball duels, though. He mistimed two tackles, one of which directly led to Volos’ opening goal.
With so much competition at left-sided centre-back, Cornelius can’t afford these lapses in concentration. The advantage he has over Kennedy is his distribution, although it’s the Jahn Regensburg defender who’s the squad regular, which will likely make the difference when Herdman unveils his 26-man roster for the World Cup.
• The international break clearly buoyed Theo Bair. He shined in the friendlies during the window and that translated to competitive action with St. Johnstone.
It started in a midweek loss to Kilmarnock as Bair scored his first league goal after checking into the game for 20 minutes.
Three days later, Bair (No. 17) came on against Celtic in the 75th minute and caused a bit of a ruckus. He won a few aerial duels, pressed aggressively from the front and pulled off a nice sequence or two.
Maybe this will lead to some starts for the 23-year-old striker.
• David Wotherspoon was back in the matchday squad for St. Johnstone for the first time in 11 months following his ACL tear. Wotherspoon didn’t appear in either match but surely he’s ready for some minutes this coming week. That’ll be a welcome sight considering the state of Canada’s midfield depth.
• Decision Day in MLS provided some dramatic results. But Maxime Crepeau and LAFC could relax knowing they already had the Supporters’ Shield and the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference wrapped up ahead of the post-season.
Crepeau started the regular-season finale in a 1-0 loss against Nashville, who they might end up facing in the playoffs.
• If you’re a Vancouver Whitecaps fan, you’ll take no pride in Dayne St. Clair’s heroics for Minnesota United en route a 2-0 victory over Vancouver to end its playoff hopes.
St. Clair was tested early with a double save in the sixth minute to keep the match scoreless.
St. Clair then shut the door on Pedro Vite in the second half.
Then he saved the best for last.
Minnesota can thank its No. 1 for preserving its playoff status. St. Clair finished the regular season with a 3.4 goals saved above expected, per FBRef.com, tied for eighth among all MLS goalkeepers. As long as the 25-year-old is available, United can steal a game or two in the post-season.
• The L.A. Galaxy’s come-from-behind 3-1 win lifted them into the No. 4 spot in the Western Conference, setting up a first-round date with Nashville. That means more opportunities to watch Raheem Edwards (No. 44) progress the ball like this.
It’s a shame that there’s adequate depth out wide, otherwise Edwards would be an ideal backup for Sam Adekugbe at the World Cup.
• When Jacob Shaffelburg was loaned from Toronto FC to Nashville SC, it was tough to picture Shaffelburg earning regular starts on a team with strong depth up front. That was the reason he left Toronto, after all.
But Shaffelburg capitalized on his early opportunities. He scored twice in his first three games and started Nashville’s final five matches as it wrapped up fifth place in the West after edging LAFC 1-0 on Decision Day.
Shaffelburg had 77 minutes and really rose to the occasion in the second half. The first half was a showcase of the 22-year-old’s frustrating decision-making or hesitancy around the box, but he eventually grew more confidence as the match continued.
The fact Shaffelburg is tenacious off the ball is another reason why he should start in the playoffs in Nashville’s new-look 4-4-2. It frees MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar from his defensive responsibilities and unlocks space for Shaffelburg. It’s a win-win.
• Columbus Crew II are the champions of the inaugural MLS Next PRO season, thanks largely to the play of Golden Boot winner and MVP Jacen Russell-Rowe.
Russell-Rowe, a native of the Canadian soccer factory in Brampton, scored in the MLS Next PRO Cup as Columbus beat St. Louis 4-1 on Saturday. It was his 22nd goal in the league in just 20 games.
The 20-year-old signed a first-team contract earlier this season and logged around 250 minutes with the Crew in MLS play, which included two assists against former club Toronto FC. Playing time was hard to come by after Cucho Hernández’s arrival but surely with this statistical output, Russell-Rowe will be a squad regular in 2023.
• In the Dutch second division, Charles-Andreas Brym went the full 90 for FC Eindhoven in its narrow 1-0 loss to ADO Den Haag. Brym had three shots as he searches for his first goal of the season. He had eight tallies in 2021-22 with Eindhoven last year.
• There’s another dual national to track in the form of 18-year-old Celtic winger Bruno Davidson. Davidson, who was born in Singapore to Scottish and Canadian parents, is eligible for all three countries but according to sources within Canada Soccer, he’s more keen on representing Canada than Scotland.
Despite shining for Celtic’s B team and the U-19s in UEFA Youth League, Davidson hasn’t received any interest from Scotland’s U-19s. Canada won’t have any official U-20 competitions until the 2024 Concacaf U-20 Championship, although youth camps could still be held in 2023 as they prepare for the tournament.
Here are some snippets of Davidson in action with Celtic’s U-19s against Shakhtar Donetsk in UEFA Youth League.
About the author: Peter Galindo is one of Canada’s leading soccer journalists, having covered the sport for several outlets, including Sportsnet, MLS and Bleacher Report. He also co-hosts the Northern Fútbol Podcast, which focuses on all things Canadian soccer. You can subscribe to the show on Apple, Spotify or anywhere else you get your podcasts.