Canada coach John Herdman picks squad for crucial CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers

·7 min read

Coach John Herdman has shuffled his pack somewhat for a crucial World Cup qualifying stretch in June that could see Canada advance to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying.

With a possible four games in 15 days, starting with matches against Aruba and Suriname, Herdman anticipates "a real football adventure over the next three weeks."

With injuries, form and availability influencing his selection, Herdman has made seven changes to the roster that dispatched Bermuda 5-1 and the Cayman Islands 11-0 in late March.

While missing a few influential pieces, Herdman likes his options.

"It's an exciting group. I think we've got that flair, we've got pace, we've got power," he told a virtual news conference Saturday. "We've got experience in key parts of the field."

One notable absence is 38-year-old captain Atiba Hutchinson, who is nursing a mild hamstring injury from his last game with Turkey's Besiktas. Former skipper Scott Arfield, who won the Scottish title with Rangers this season, remains out of the picture for the time being as he takes an international break.

Goalkeeper James Pantemis, defenders Doneil Henry, Scott Kennedy and Steven Vitoria and midfielders Liam Fraser and Jonathan Osorio and forward Tajon Buchanan are added to the 24-man roster.

Dropping out are Hutchinson, Miller, Maxime Crepeau, Ricardo Ferreira, Cristian Gutierrez, Joel Waterman and Jayden Nelson.

Crepeau's partner is expecting a baby while Miller is injured.

Uncapped players on the squad include Pantemis, Kennedy, Buchanan and goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair.

Herdman plans to bring 10 more players into camp in Florida next week, to support the initial 24-man roster and to have a larger squad in the loop with the Gold Cup scheduled to begin in July.

His 24-man roster is an inexperienced squad internationally with midfielder Samuel Piette (51 caps) and goalkeeper Milan Borjan (50) the only players with 35 or more caps. There are 16 players with 15 or fewer caps, including seven with two or fewer caps.

Twelve members of the squad are aged 24 or younger.

"I think that's just the curse of Canada at the minute," Herdman said in an interview. "It's a talented team but lacks that collective experience.

"It's every national coach's prerogative to pick the best players," he added. "And if that best player is 21, 22, then they deserve to wear that red shirt in big moments."

Still the quality is undeniable with the likes of Borjan in goal and the firepower of Alphonso Davies, Jonathan Davies and Cyle Larin.

Borjan (Red Star Belgrade, Serbia), Davies (Bayern Munich, Germany), David (Lille, France) and Larin (Besiktas) are coming off league-winning seasons. David Wotherspoon helped St. Johnstone to a historic cup double in Scotland.

Herdman is looking for such players to translate their club success onto the international scene.

"I think this generation of players can be that generation that takes this game to the next level," he said.

"It is their time now. They can be that group of guys that made a difference and took it to the next level," he added.

The Canadian men have had little time together, however. Herdman estimates he has only had six training sessions in 16 months, with another four to five in the camp ahead.

First up for the 70th-ranked Canadian men are their final group B games June 5 and 8 against No. 205 Aruba and No. 136 Suriname, respectively. Only the group winner advances, with the Canada-Suriname game likely deciding that.

Both teams won their first two matches, although Canada has a plus-six edge in goal difference.

Suriname has opened the door to players with Surinamese roots, allowing them so-called sports passports to bring them into the fold without having to hand in their other citizenship, usually Dutch.

The new Suriname roster is filled with "hardened pros that have all played at the top level in Holland," according to Herdman. "They're going to test us."

Previously Canada would have looked at playing a team of Suriname-based players.

"The game have looked very different," said Herdman.

"At the same time we need these games. we need these games to test us," he added. "Like everyone has said, if you want to get to a World Cup, you have to beat these teams on the way."

The winner of Canada's group advances to face the Group E winner — likely No. 83 Haiti, No. 147 Nicaragua or No. 170 Belize — in the second-round playoffs.

Those playoffs are scheduled for June 12 and 15, making for a logistical challenge for Canadian team officials, who face having to make travel plans for three different countries in a pandemic.

Herdman cited the "stress and anxiety of living in a pandemic — and then travelling to countries where your government has identified as high-risk areas for either COVID or instability."

For a possible trip to Haiti, Canada Soccer is looking at bringing extra security and medical help.

The roster has been evolving quickly.

Herdman said a player withdrew due to injury Friday, the same day they found out that fullback Samuel Adekugbe would be available under Norway's quarantine rules.

The winners of the three second-round playoffs join five other higher-ranked teams in the final round of eight in the region, which will see the teams play each home and on the road. Mexico (No. 11), the U.S. (No. 20), Jamaica (No. 45), Costa Rica (No. 50) and Honduras (No. 67) received byes directly to the so-called Octagonal.

The top three teams will qualify for Qatar 2022, representing North and Central America and the Caribbean. The fourth-place finisher will take part in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.

The June 5 qualifier is officially a home match for Aruba but will be played at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., instead. The June 8 match against Suriname is a Canadian home match but will be played at SeatGeek Stadium, formerly known as Toyota Stadium, in Bridgeview, Ill.

Travel restrictions due to the pandemic have forced Canada and other countries to find neutral sites to stage these games. The Canadian men's first qualifier against No. 168 Bermuda took place March 26 in Orlando rather than a home venue north of the border.

The Canadians played the 194th-ranked Cayman Islands in Bradenton on March 29, romping to a record 11-0 win in what was scheduled as a home match for the Cayman Islands.

Suriname hosts Bermuda on June 4 in Paramaribo before facing Canada.

Thirty CONCACAF teams are competing in the pandemic-delayed first round of World Cup qualifying. The six group winners move on to a second round of head-to-head knockout matches.


CANADA ROSTER

Goalkeepers: Milan Borjan, Red Star Belgrade (Serbia); James Pantemis, CF Montreal (MLS); Dayne St. Clair, Minnesota United (MLS).

Centre Backs: Doneil Henry, Suwon Samsung Bluewings (South Korea); Scott Kennedy, SSV Jahn Regensburg (Germany); Frank Sturing, FC Den Bosch (the Netherlands); Steven Vitoria, Moreirense FC (Portugal).

Fullbacks: Samuel Adekugbe, Valerenga Fotball (Norway); Alphonso Davies, Bayern Munich (Germany); Alistair Johnston, Nashville SC (MLS); Richie Laryea, Toronto FC (MLS).

Midfielders: Stephen Eustaquio, FC Pacos de Ferreira (Portugal); Liam Fraser, Columbus Crew SC (MLS, on loan from Toronto); Mark-Anthony Kaye, Los Angeles FC (MLS); Jonathan Osorio, Toronto FC (MLS); Samuel Piette, CF Montreal (MLS); David Wotherspoon, St. Johnstone (Scotland).

Forwards: Tajon Buchanan, New England Revolution (MLS); Lucas Cavallini, Vancouver Whitecaps (MLS); Theo Corbeanu, Wolverhampton Wanderers (England); Jonathan David, Lille (France); David (Junior) Hoilett, Cardiff City (Wales); Cyle Larin, Besiktas (Turkey); Liam Millar, Charlton Athletic (England, on loan from Liverpool).

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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