'Talent needs opportunity': Canada's growing CB depth coming through at perfect time
It might not yet be a position of strength, but the Canadian Men’s National Team’s growing centre-back pool is really starting to prove its worth for Canada in key moments.
That was proven in March, where, despite injuries and suspensions to some key regulars, Canada was able to roll through the punches defensively, conceding just one goal on eight shots and a hair over 0.5 xG across two crucial Concacaf Nations League games against Curaçao and Honduras.
Plus, with the lone goal coming off a perfect set piece versus Honduras - who capitalized on Canada being disorganized in their zonal marking scheme after a quadruple substitution - the end result was that Canada gave up no goals in open play. Given that they missed Kamal Miller for both games with an injury, while Steven Vitória and Alistair Johnston missed a game apiece with suspensions, it makes those numbers doubly impressive, as those were the only Canadian centre-backs to see the field at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
In their stead, Derek Cornelius and Scott Kennedy slotted in for both matches, while newcomer Kyle Hiebert got a look in the last 30 minutes of the Honduras clash. They didn't look out of place, either. Far from it.
Scott Kennedy is very fast, and he's shown that skill off a few times now— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) March 29, 2023
It's been a big asset for Canada, as Honduras has had some good looks in transition. Definitely a big weapon for the #CanMNT to have at the back, that's for sure
It's a credit to the growing level of quality within John Herdman's group. While the backline might not boast a statement player like Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David or Stephen Eustaquio, make no mistake - it’s a group that’s growing quickly, according to veteran goalkeeper Milan Borjan.
“It’s very, very important,” Borjan said when asked of that growth of quality in the backline. “I mean, we’ve always had problems with centre-backs. I've been with the program for 12, 13 years, and we’ve had problems throughout, but now we're getting guys who've been playing regularly and this is very important for us. It's very important for our team to have guys to get to play regularly in Europe or MLS, to get those sorts of games, because with those games, you get experience.”
In years past, injuries to key Canadian centre-back would’ve caused panic. Now? There’s confidence in the group that Canada has built.
More and more Canadian centre-backs have been able to go out and test themselves in new environments these days, too. It’s not as if these names are falling out of the sky, either, as someone like Cornelius plays for a huge club in Sweden with Malmö, while Kennedy is a 2. Bundesliga regular with Jahn Regensburg - a club who have played (and shone) against Bundesliga clubs in the past. Meanwhile, Hiebert has been a huge part of a red-hot St.Louis side in MLS.
Sometimes, depth can be just as important as star power. While it’s nice to have 11 Davies-calibre players across the pitch, that’s just not realistic, especially for a growing soccer country like Canada.
Good depth can also help push the overall level of the group, and that’s been seen across these past two years. Given that many of Canada’s centre-back options have really only broken through since the start of 2021, such as Johnston, Miller, Kennedy, Cornelius, Hiebert, Joel Waterman and more, it should be then no surprise to see that the level has really taken a big jump since then, as just having that competition can go a long way toward improving the overall level at a position.
“We have such a good young group of guys coming through that are hungry and that want to prove themselves,” Johnston explained earlier this week. “And I think we saw that in the last match against Curaçao, Kamal (Miller) wasn’t there, I was suspended, I think you could see that Scott Kennedy played unbelievably well, Derek Cornelius was one of the best players on the pitch.”
“So there's that talent there, it's just about giving them the opportunity, and again, that’s something that as a player, we get excited by what you see with the depth and the quality in our player pool, it's constantly pushing each other to be better, which means you can’t take your minutes for granted.”
Now, there’s a clear level that’s required to play centre-back for Canada, one that will only continue to rise with more moves like Cornelius’s, with the likes of Miller and Waterman being linked to European moves recently, where they’d join the likes of Kennedy, Johnston and Vitória.
“It's great to have competition in each position, and that it's growing at the back as well," Kennedy noted. "That's great for the team."
“Hopefully it just keeps improving,” Hiebert added. “As we've got a lot of guys there that John Herdman can pull from ... and hopefully my name sticks around in that list!”
While Herdman might lament not having a true star to build around at the back quite yet, he’s still quite happy with what he’s got.
Even if it’s the thinnest area on his team’s depth chart - at least relative to the endless wealth of forwards and full backs that he has, for example - he has a good group of players that he can rely on to both step up and push each other.
From there, he’ll hope for a big name to fall out of the sky, the same way a Buchanan, Koné or Eustáquio did for him elsewhere on the pitch, but even if that player doesn’t come, he knows that this group can hold their own, and they proved that this camp.
“I think we've just got to keep that group competitive, hopefully our youth system keeps pushing new players through, too,” Herdman said. “We've seen players drop out of the sky in other positions like Tajon Buchanan and Alistair Johnston, so I think we will need some similar support in that area with new players coming through. In the depth charts, there's not a big well of centre-backs, we've got a lot of forwards, wide players and midfielders coming through, but the centre-back area is a little bit sparse.”
“So we're going to rely on the guys that are there, and then in the opportunities that they get in these games, hopefully that will springboard them to that next level.”