GARETH WHEELER: 3 questions CanMNT must answer v. HON, USA and SLV
It’s hard to imagine things going any better for Canada eight games into World Cup qualifying. Top of the table in CONCACAF. The only unbeaten side. An iconic goal. Record viewership. And a famous celebratory leap into a snowbank. It’s been a special run by a special group.
Expectations have certainly changed for Canada in six short months. From under-the-radar, hopeful outsider, to a team that has convinced knowledgeable and naive fans alike in Canada’s qualifying credentials. While enthusiasm for this team comes with good reason, there is still plenty of work to be done before booking travel for Qatar. Eight points from the final six games will most certainly do the job.
This January window is particularly precarious. The Major League Soccer playing contingent in the Canada squad are out of season. Weather and stadium availability complicates matters further this time of year. Three match windows are taxing. And the Omicron variant has thrown a further curveball into the equation. Alphonso Davies is out. And midfielder Stephen Eustaquio's availability remains up in the air. Nothing here is easy, nor should it be. This is CONCACAF, after all.
Positive or negative, this has the making of a defining week for Canada. Here are three important, but still unanswered questions Canada needs to answer this window.
1 - What happens when the ‘Hunter’ becomes the ‘Hunted’?
It was a banner year for Canada. First place in CONCACAF qualifying ahead of regional powerhouses the United States and Mexico. Fifty-three goals scored in 2021; the most goals scored by any country (two more than England, three more than Germany). Jumping 32 spots in the FIFA Rankings up to 40th overall; the most improved side in the international game. The numbers are staggering, drawing global headlines and creating unprecedented hype around the Canadian contingent. Convincing November wins against traditional powers Costa Rica and Mexico gave further reason for Canada to drop the tag as underdog. Canada has deservedly transitioned into the role of contender; unfamiliar territory for soccer nation more accustomed to disappointment than on-field achievement.
Canada playing the role of favourite does come with questions. It’s a role of heightened pressure and expectation. This new Canadian reality requires a change in psychology. Opponents have already adjusted to the Canada threat. Costa Rica dropped deep and played incredibly defensive football in November; something they have never done before against a Canada side. Mexico showed the ultimate sign of respect, changing formation to deal with Canada’s strengths. Again, a completely new and different experience. Canada had the advantage of home field and favourable conditions in the last two games. Different types of challenges await this window; two games they will be ‘expected’ to win in very different conditions, and a home game against a United States side they boxed-clever against in Nashville and a team that will have benefit of less travel and a half capacity crowd in Hamilton on Sunday.
How these three opponents play Canada differently this time around? How does the increased visibility and pressure play on the psyche of the group? A commitment to the Canadian DNA is required; the blue-collar approach that served them so well last year in difficult games in Haiti has to remain, even though the the landscape has shifted.
2 - More success, more problems?
Canada’s meteoric rise comes with off-field complexities. External noise that comes with Canada in the spotlight puts more pressure on the team to produce and perform. And with the increased attention and notoriety, newfound opportunity for Canadian players can follow with unpredictable consequences..
If Canada was underrated coming into this campaign, there may be an over-inflated perception of the group now. There are no easy games in CONCACAF, and Canada still finds itself at a qualitative disadvantage against teams like the United States. Don’t get me wrong; there is a lot to like about Canada. The players continue to develop, the team is vastly improved, and there is clear star power for the present and future. But Canada plays an American team this window with a clear gap in available and established top level talent. Transfermarkt, a website providing a reasonable tool to assess player valuation, estimates well over 100m difference in squad market value between the two sides. That gap is accentuated even more when a player like Davies isn’t in the Canada squad.
In practice, the United States hasn't shown to be a more complete team, but the valuation does suggest they have more talent and depth of top-level player at their disposal. It may be a home game in Hamilton, Ont., but the quality of the US side and the good context coming in for the visitor (less travel, player availability) makes it a difficult game.
The prevailing sentiment Canada should win away games in Honduras and El Salvador may setting the expectation too high as well. El Salvador held the United States to a goalless draw at home this qualifying cycle. Honduras took an early lead at home against the U.S. before capitulating late. And while Honduras sits bottom of the table, their xG (expected goals) shows much better. Conceding too many weak goals has banished them to the basement. And remember, it took a finger-tipped save by Milan Borjan to preserve and opening match home draw for Canada against the Hondurans.
The outside noise will be difficult for Canadian players to ignore, and the hope is that it won't have a negative effect on the collective or individuals. These highly anticipated games provide real opportunity for Canadian players to find themselves in the shop window. Canada’s newfound success, an improved FIFA ranking, and global attention gives Canadian players more opportunity for potential big money moves. And the unprecedented popularity of the team can benefit a player’s individual brand. If not handled the right way, these external influences tend to turn more focus inwards, and the focus on the me ahead of the we can often times threaten squad harmony in a team setting.
By all accounts, this is a humble group of players who are laser-focused on the task at hand. There needs to remain a collective understanding that this group is in this together. Canadian unity and belief has been a real strength through turbulent and trying times. Not all players can play. Sacrifice for the greater good is essential. Is the brotherhood strong enough to block out the outside noise so the best Canada can take another step forward?
3 - Will a lack of experience be an issue as the games get bigger?
There is no doubt Canada deserves to sit atop the CONCACAF table. It's a group of good players, who are well coached with a well-organized aproach. But from a qualitative perspective, there are clear gaps when it comes to caps, age, and experience in this squad. The question needs to be answered: Does the ‘new Canada’ have the experience to go into Central America and come away with results?
Canada has played to three away draws in qualifying in games against the United States, Mexico and Jamaica. All four remaining away games in qualyfing will be played in Central America; a completely different beast and an entirely different challenge. Stories told by past Canadian players provide anecdotal evidence of how difficult these away games will be. The overwhelming sentiment by those who have played is you have no idea what it’s like until you actually play in places like Honduras and El Salvador. The pitch, the crowd, the atmosphere, the gamesmanship in the build-up; it's all next level and will prove to be baptism by fire for this young team.
Only seven players in the current squad have played games in Honduras or El Salvador. Borjan, Doneil Henry, Atiba Hutchinson, Junior Hoilett and Cyle Larin all featured in a 2-1 loss in San Pedro Sula in 2016. Hutchinson and Lucas Cavallini suffered through the 8-1 loss at Honduras in 2012. Borjan, Hutchinson, Hoilett, Larin and Samuel Piette played in San Salvador in 2015.
It’s not just Central America that has been in problem for Canada in World Cup qualifying. Away games anywhere in this region have been a real issue. In fact, Canada only has two away World Cup qualifying victories all-time when crowd size exceeds 20,000. The bigger the opponent and bigger the stadium in CONCACAF, the bigger the issues have been. Those away wins came in 1985 at Honduras and in 1993 in El Salvador. That’s it. Winning either of these upcoming away games this would be a significant achievement and provide a turning point in the history of the program. This ‘new Canada’ team has already taken steps to achieving the improbable. Will a lack of experience hurt this upstart group on this next crucial test, conquering difficult travel and conditions in CONCACAF?