'A real breakout performance': As Atiba winds down CanMNT career, Ismaël Koné earns praise
TORONTO – It felt like a passing-of-the-torch moment, of sorts.
In what could potentially have been his final game at BMO Field, long-time Canadian Men’s National Team veteran Atiba Hutchinson came onto the pitch to loud applause in Toronto on Tuesday – as he tends to do whenever he plays in Canada – with his team looking to close out a 3-0 lead against Honduras.
There, he assumed the captain’s armband, and took his spot at the heart of Canada’s midfield, tasked to sit underneath Ismaël Koné and Jonathan Osorio in a midfield trio, replacing the tireless Stephen Eustáquio as the team’s defensive anchor for the last 30 or so minutes.
It was his 103rd appearance for Canada, over a month removed from his 40th birthday, and Hutchinson went out and did what he tends to do throughout his career: He controlled the midfield on both sides of the ball, completing 36 out of 36 passes, while nabbing four recoveries and two interceptions.
As a result, Canada was able to cruise to the finish line, picking up a crucial 4-1 win, one that booked their spot at the CONCACAF Nations League finals later this year.
Yet, despite Hutchinson’s timeless performance, it was another Canadian midfielder who grabbed the attention of many on the day, however. That, of course, was the young Koné, who in just his 11th appearance for Canada, reminded many why they see him becoming a piece for Canada to build around in midfield for the next decade to come.
It was a passing-the-torch moment to see 20 y/o Ismaël Koné and 40 y/o Atiba Hutchinson share the middle for the #CanMNT v🇭🇳. Just look at the #s— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) March 29, 2023
1 key pass
A dominant force on and off the ball, Koné was just gliding everywhere on the BMO Field pitch yesterday, sauntering around with the confidence that just signified to everyone that he’d arrived for Canada, and in a big way. On a field with the likes of Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Eustáuio, Koné had essentially thrown up a sign that said “hey, look at me”, and was putting up a performance to match that confidence.
Just take Hutchinson’s word for it, as he tried to describe the ceiling of his teammate who might be exactly half his age, yet had just put up the performance of a 30-year-old veteran at one of the toughest positions in the sport.
“It’s very, very high for him,” Hutchinson professed of Koné’s ceiling. “He’s a young player with so much potential. He plays with a lot of maturity, you can see that not a lot fazes him, he's just out there playing like he's playing in his backyard. And that's great to see in footballers, to see them expressing themselves out there.”
“I think he's got a great career ahead of him, so I’m happy that I get to witness some of it as his teammate. And he's not only a really good footballer, but he's a great kid, so I’m really looking forward to seeing how far he can go.”
Yet, that’s a credit to Koné, who seems to impress every time he takes the field these days. Be it for new club Watford in the Championship, or for Canada, he just seems to find a new level every time he plays, and this game was just the latest example of that.
Because of that, it’s also easy to forget that this time last year, he was just getting his feet wet as a professional with CF Montréal in MLS. Unlike the trajectory of most youngsters of Koné’s potential, who are discovered at a young age like Alphonso Davies or Jonathan David, Koné burst onto the scene last year as an unassuming 19-year-old, one who was just eager to play professional soccer.
When he got that opportunity, however, he grabbed it with both hands - and then some - getting him to where he sits now today. No matter if it was a Montréal debut, playing at a World Cup against midfielders like Luka Modrić and Kevin De Bruyne, or transferring to a club like Watford, he attacked each of those milestones with the same mentality that he showed out on the field against Honduras - in cool, calm and collected fashion.
For Canadian head coach, John Herdman, that’s the most impressive part of this whole story, as most youngsters can be drawn into the vast highs and lows that come with a journey like the one Koné’s been on.
Instead, he’s been completely unflappable, an attribute that he believes will take him very far in this sport.
“Yeah, it was a really impressive performance from Ismaël,” Herdman enthused after the game. “That was one of the best midfield performances I’ve ever seen during the time I’ve been here. I mean that sort of level was up there with Jonathan David, Alphonso Davies, Tajon Buchanan, Cyle Larin, Stephen Eustáquio, Jonathan Osorio, those sort of high-level performances, and I thought he was (that sort of) special tonight.”
“That was a real breakout performance for Canada. I thought in the Curaçao match, he was very disciplined, professional, and then tonight, he just turned it up a notch and enjoyed his football.”
Therefore, should Koné keep attacking games with that same mentality, Herdman has no doubts that this is just the start of what is to come for the youngster, and he’s not the only one to feel that way on this team.
“He can go where he wants to if he keeps his feet on the ground,” Herdman continued. “The kid’s young, he's really young, but he’s got an old head on his shoulders. I know his mom’s a big influence in his life, and even speaking to him during his last few weeks at Watford, he's had some ups and downs, it hasn’t been easy for him, but he's handled himself really well.”
“And he’s an open kid, always seems to want to learn every time he comes into camp, he wants to sit down and look at the clips and film. I don't want to get too high on people, because at that young age they have their purple patches, But I feel that for him he’s got the right temperament to push on through that, and that's really important.”
“It’s been amazing, right, his last year?” Jonathan Osorio added on his end. “I was talking to him actually about this recently, the way he's come up and how it happened really fast, it's an amazing story, and this is a young player that's playing with a lot of confidence. He has a bright future and is just scratching the surface of what you can accomplish right now, and that’s very exciting for the future of the program.”
But while there’s no doubt that Koné has slipped into Canada’s core group of regulars, don’t sleep on what Hutchinson still has to give.
He knows the future is in safe hands with his younger teammate ready to take the reins, but Hutchinson still has some unfinished business with his team.
Namely, there’s the fact that despite making his debut just over 20 years ago, he’s never competed in a final for Canada, much less lifted a trophy, something they can now change this summer.
First at the Nations League finals, where Canada will join Panama, Mexico and the US in the final four of that tournament this June in Las Vegas, and then at the Gold Cup, where they and 15 other teams will compete for CONCACAF’s top continental honour a few weeks later, they’ve now got two clear opportunities to snap the 23-year trophy drought that has dogged them for most of this millennium.
For Hutchinson, that’s huge, because opportunities like that don’t come around often, especially not at his age, so he knows how big it’d be for he and his side to head home with one or even both of those trophies.
It was one thing for him to make his long-awaited World Cup debut last winter, after cycles of heartbreak with his team, but to lift an honour like that, with him as the captain? That’d be priceless, in his eyes.
“It’s huge, it’s something that’s missing for us, you know?” Hutchinson admitted. “Lately, we've been doing well, we've been playing well over this last cycle of qualifying for a World Cup, and we got to enjoy that moment.’
“But we need to start winning and show that we’re a dominant force here in CONCACAF, so that’s on everybody's mind right now. We're going to keep taking it one step at a time, but we're happy about where we are right now. We're going to Vegas and it's going to be everything for us, we want to get that trophy and show how good we can be in CONCACAF.”
And that’s key for Hutchinson. It’s no secret that even though he could probably still play another decade at the highest level given his commitment to maintaining his fitness, he knows that deep down, his time with Canada is coming to an end.
So as this team gets set to really reach the ascendency of their Davies, David, Koné and co. era, the one whose countless sacrifices paved the way for such success is just looking to enjoy as much of it as he still can, while ending off his prestigious career on a high.
“Yeah, I’ve got a couple more games in me, but yeah, I'm really close now to the end of it,” Hutchinson revealed Tuesday. “It’s been a great spell for me, I’ve had a good career I think, but I just want to finish off on a high note, finish off good, but yeah, this is not my announcement, but I’m proud of the career that I’ve had with the National Team, and I’m happy that I just get to be close with this team.”
On the other side of that, his teammates want nothing less for him as he prepares to make that departure. Having seen firsthand the impact that he’s had on this program for decades, they know winning a trophy would be the perfect swansong for a Canadian legend, and they’ll now fight to make his wish come true this June.
Led by this new generation, much as Koné showed on Tuesday, they’re ready to show that they’re a team that can win trophies in CONCACAF, and will now look to prove that by providing Hutchinson with the best retirement gift he could ever possibly ask for.
“That would be amazing,” Hutchinson’s longtime Canada teammate, Milan Borjan, said. “I think that would be the best present from us as teammates to give him that at the end of his career, that would be amazing and we will do anything, and I mean anything, to do that and win, just to make that last time special for him.”