PLATT: Why Atiba Hutchinson's absence is becoming a major concern for Canada
Canada’s final camp before the 2022 World Cup is not, John Herdman insisted, “do or die” for players bidding to book their ticket to Qatar.
On the contrary, Herdman made a point of stressing the need for perspective.
“For us, it’s about enjoyment of the moment,” he said.
“It’s about recognizing that we’re the first Canadians in a long time to go into this new terrain — and to embrace that experience and not to feel like the sands of time are running out and we’ve got to overcommit or overproduce.
“It’s just trusting a process, taking it step by step, and closing certain gaps.”
Herdman also acknowledged that injuries, fitness concerns, and club situations will play into his thinking regardless of what the upcoming matches against Qatar and Uruguay hold.
But with those caveats stated, there are some important takeaways that emerged from his latest squad selection and press conference on Friday. Here are three that stand out.
1. Midfield is a major concern
Herdman offered clarification on the status of Atiba Hutchinson, who has not played for Besiktas this season.
It was not especially reassuring.
“It’s a tough situation,” Herdman admitted. “I can’t hide from it.”
Hutchinson suffered a “very, very painful” bone bruise in preseason that has made it difficult for him to bear weight and, therefore, maintain his fitness while he recovers. He is targeting a return at the end of October. Besiktas’ last game before the Turkish league breaks for the World Cup is on November 13, leaving Hutchinson with a limited window to regain match sharpness.
Fully healthy, the 39-year-old remains a nailed-on starter for Canada. And direct replacements are not obvious.
We’ll start with the good news: Stephen Eustaquio, Hutchinson’s typical partner, is starting regularly for Porto and Samuel Piette, who started only twice during the Octagonal, has looked rejuvenated in recent months at CF Montreal.
David Wotherspoon will not travel this month but is nearing a return from his long-term ACL injury and should have time to prove his fitness.
Elsewhere, question marks abound.
Mark-Anthony Kaye’s trade from LAFC to Colorado did not work out as hoped. A return home to Toronto FC appeared a good opportunity to rebuild his stock, but he has been blighted by injury. Kaye logged 340 minutes in the first half of the Octagonal and just 162 in the second half. He featured for only 31 minutes across two games in June.
Jonathan Osorio, meanwhile, has been struggling with what he has labelled a “neurological dysfunction” since July. Both players’ situations will be further complicated if — as now looks almost certain — Toronto misses the MLS playoffs, bringing their club seasons to an end on October 9.
Then there is Ismael Kone. The 20-year-old is hugely exciting but it would be pushing it to suggest he could contend to step in for Hutchinson in the starting XI at this stage.
A year ago, Kaye had established himself as third in the pecking order after a superb Gold Cup. Now, that picture is not so clear.
2. Waterman gets his chance
It will be a remarkable story if Joel Waterman can turn a professional opportunity handed to him through the Canadian Premier League’s U-Sports Draft in 2019 into a place at the World Cup in 2022.
His inclusion on Herdman’s latest roster was a big step towards that goal.
At this point, there is little doubt that Steven Vitoria and Kamal Miller will start at centre-back for Canada, with Alistair Johnston tucking in if Herdman wishes to deploy a back three.
But Herdman will need to prepare for injuries. If Miller is unavailable, Scott Kennedy and Derek Cornelius are established left-sided alternatives.
If Vitoria was to miss any time, the direct replacement is not so obvious. Throughout qualification, it was Doneil Henry — but Henry has played just 327 minutes of club football in 2022 and suffered a hamstring injury on Thursday that has ruled him out of this camp.
That’s where a door could open for Waterman.
Herdman praised the 26-year-old as a “wonderful passer” who has established chemistry with fellow Montreal defenders Johnston and Miller. What he will need to be convinced of is Waterman’s defensive prowess.
“We know that there is a step up from MLS,” Herdman said of training opposite the likes of Alphonso Davies. “We’re ready to have Joel in that situation to be tested.”
3. Herdman’s focus is clear
Herdman named 27 players to his squad on Friday. You could probably come up with another 27 supporters have been clamouring to see given an opportunity to stake their claim since Canada qualified for Qatar.
This is, of course, a good thing: Canada has never had depth like this before.
But in reality, a lot of it is just noise — at least for now. And where Herdman’s focus lies in terms of integrating new players has been clear.
Yes, a player like Waterman can rise up the depth chart to come into contention for one of the final spots on the roster.
For the most part, though, Herdman continues to talk about “tier one” — the highest levels of the European game and the players who are there or have the potential to get there.
Ike Ugbo fit that description and so do Kone, Luca Koleosho and Theo Corbeanu. Daniel Jebbison, too, is clearly of interest.
While 26 players can be selected for Qatar, the likelihood is that only a much slimmer group will actually see the field. And that, for the time being, is the group Herdman appears to be focused on impacting with new recruits.