Four questions facing the Canadian men's team ahead of September's friendlies

Four questions facing the Canadian men’s team ahead of September’s friendlies

Canada’s preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup shifted into high gear this month with a pair of important exhibition matches abroad.

Idle since June, the Canadian men’s team returns to action when it takes on Qatar in the first of two international friendlies in Vienna on Friday. The Reds will also meet Uruguay in Bratislava, Slovakia on September 27.

Like Canada, which is ranked No. 43 in the current FIFA world rankings, both Qatar (No. 49) and Uruguay (No. 13) will compete in the World Cup.

Coach John Herdman is using the pair of games as a tune-up ahead of the World Cup, giving him a chance to test things ahead of the team’s trip to Qatar. After this international window, Canada will play its final practice match against Japan on November 17 in Dubai.

Here are four important questions facing Canada heading into its two shows this month.

Can Canada compete against non-CONCACAF nations?

Uruguay have a very talented roster that includes Liverpool’s Darwin Nunes, pictured left. (Matilde Campodonico/AP)

John Herdman’s first game as coach was on March 24, 2018, when the Canadian men’s team defeated New Zealand 1–0 in a friendly in Spain. This is the last time Canada played outside of North America. The Reds’ previous game against a non-CONCACAF nation was a 1-0 loss to Iceland on January 15, 2020 in California.

Aside from those two tournaments, Canada has only faced CONCACAF teams in the past four and a half years. Undoubtedly, Canada went on a magical run in the final round of World Cup qualifiers, getting the better of traditional CONCACAF heavyweights such as Mexico, the United States, Costa Rica and Honduras, to punch their ticket to Qatar.

However, Canada has not tested itself outside its territory since Herdman took over. As a result, we don’t really know how this Canadian team fits into the larger world of soccer. Beating CONCACAF teams is one thing. But beating sides from other regions is another matter entirely.

In assessing the Uruguay squad, Herdman valued his roster – which includes Liverpool’s Darwin Nunes, Real Madrid’s Federico Valverde and Tottenham’s Rodrigo Bentancor – at more than $400m. There is no doubt that Uruguay will be the most talented side Canada will face during Herdman’s tenure.

How will Canada cope without Atiba Hutchinson?

Canadian men’s national soccer team midfielder Atiba Hutchinson runs during a training session. (Daryl Dick/CP)

A pre-season hamstring injury has sidelined Atiba Hutchinson for Besiktas’ first seven games of the 2022-23 Turkish League season, ruling him out of this international window.

Herdman said Canada’s national team medical staff will fly to see Hutchinson after these two friendlies to check on his condition in the hope that he will be ready to return to action by late October. One has to think that if his condition had not improved by then he would not be on the plane to Qatar.

“It’s a tough situation for him. Because I think for all of us, he just means a lot to the team,” Herdman said. “If [there is] Anyone you want to see at the World Cup is Atiba Hutchinson.

Canada’s all-time men’s cap leader with 97, Hutchinson is also the longest-serving member of the current team, having played internationally since 2003.

Hutchinson, 39, has not slowed down with age, as the veteran midfielder has been a key figure for both club and country, providing valuable leadership for Canada as it plows its way through World Cup qualifiers.

Hutchinson’s absence will be keenly felt during this two-match series, especially against top-ranked Uruguay who boast many players who have plied their trade at Europe’s top clubs. What will be interesting to see is how Herdman makes up for the loss of Hutchinson in central midfield, and who will step up in the Canadian captain’s absence.

Will injury issues and out-of-form players hurt Canada?

Toronto FC midfielder Jonathan Osorio salutes the fans after defeating Pacific FC in the semi-finals of the Canadian Championship. (Evan Buhler/CP)

In addition to Hutchinson’s absence, Canada will also be without defender Donnell Henry, and midfielders Jonathan Osorio and David Wotherspoon due to injury for those two games.

Losing Osorio is a big blow for Canada. The Toronto FC midfielder played in 13 of the team’s 14 games (eight as a starter) in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, highlighting his importance to Herdman’s side.

Fellow influential midfielder Marc-Anthony Kaye has been called up by Herdman for this window, but he has only just returned from a lower-body injury that forced him to miss eight straight games for TFC.

Winger Tajon Buchanan, one of Canada’s most dynamic forwards, has yet to play for Belgian club Brugge this season due to a quad injury. Buchanan was called up by Herdman this month, but he will only be available for the Uruguay game.

“His minutes will be very limited as both club and country try to wrap him in cotton wool,” Herdman said.

Meanwhile, forward Ciel Lauren, Buchanan’s teammate at Brugge, has not seen as much game time so far this season. Likewise, centre-back Scott Kennedy hasn’t featured much with SSV Jan Regensburg in Germany’s second division, while winger Liam Miller has been in and out of FC Basel’s lineup in the Swiss league.

Will new players and youngsters be given a chance to play?

Columbus Crew’s Luis Diaz, left, and CF Montreal’s Joel Waterman chase the ball during the first half of an MLS soccer match. (Jay LaPrete/AP)

Included in John Herdman’s 27-man squad this month is 18-year-old winger Luca Collosho, who plays for Spanish club Espanyol. Kolesho was previously invited by Canada, but has yet to make his senior team.

Born in the United States, Koleosho has played for his country at youth level and has not shut the door on the senior team. With that in mind, you have to believe that Herdman is willing to give Colossus playing time this month.

CF Montreal defender Joel Waterman has also been called up for the September window. Like Koleosho, Waterman has already been invited to camp, though he has not earned a cap for Canada. Waterman is enjoying a breakout MLS season with Monreal, and if he gets significant playing time against Qatar and Uruguay, he has a good chance of going to the World Cup.

Twenty-year-olds Ismail Kone (CF Montreal) and Theo Corbiano (Blackpool) have impressed with their clubs this season, but have just eight caps between them. Will Herdman show some confidence and use it in this crucial World Cup game? Or will he give minutes to players who will likely be the most visible for Canada at the World Cup?

John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. TFC Republic can be found over here.

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