Maybe thankfully for fans of the Canadian Men’s National Team, the second edition of the Concacaf Nations League Finals is in the books. With the United States crowned champions again, running rampant over both Mexico and Canada, it is safe to say they are the ones who’ve reached a new plateau. But what about Canada? More specifically, what happened to the Canadian side that was bold in making waves of attack and put in a great shift at the World Cup six months ago?
I have some notes and thoughts on this mini-competition, one that does deserve more respect because the best stars play in it. There’s no lie in saying the U.S.A. has a better full-strength lineup than Canada, but the fact that Les Rouges couldn’t even go toe-to-toe was concerning. The 2-0 victory over Panama in the semifinals was much better, however there was little breathing room for much of that game.
With some extra context out of the way, let’s dive into some thoughts I had about the CanMNT.
1. The midfield five wasn’t working
John Herdman recently has stumbled into a formation that works very well for Canada: the 3-5-2. Packing the midfield with mostly offensive players side for Steven Vitoria has worked often in getting the Canucks more shots at goal. In these two games, something didn’t click. Ismael Kone was brilliant, and that can’t not be mentioned, but the rest were decidedly meh. In the second half of the final, Herdman switched things up to a 4-4-2, which – and hear me out – might have been better in the situation. Scott Kennedy needed a partner centrally to defend and Richie Laryea or Sam Adekugbe could drop back into a fullback position. Plus, there could be more service to Jonathan David or Cyle Larin through the wings and still feel safe at the back.
Anyway, the hypothetically best outcome didn’t happen. The midfield was especially prone to turning over the ball on attack. Some tiki-taka football was played but the U.S.A. did a great job of containing these players. Awful first touches and passes swiftly intercepted by the States would ensue.
My final thought on the midfield would be that they couldn’t break through the States and supply the strikers, or at least accurately. They were neutralized and stopped quickly. It could be a case of not enough creativity or the spirit of barreling forward and charging through the line not being there, but nothing seemed to work for Stephen Eustaqio and co.
2. Phonzie’s return wasn’t so glamorous
Playing in his first matches since April, Alphonso Davies could’ve been seen in two ways: A) being a fraction of what he can be, or B) making positive steps and still being full of energy.
Though both are truthful, the general population of Voyageurs would lean toward option A. Davies looked a bit out-of-touch in the final, attempting to get the ball on every play and do it all. Canada doesn’t work like this, the ‘brotherhood’ that is preached so often is their way to success. Davies would make some great runs, don’t get me wrong, I actually thought he was decent, but after all the work of getting down the pitch, the crosses he’d try to get in would be subpar. On the ground, slow, or off-target, he couldn’t finish off the play he often started.
America might have tuned into this. Face it, no one can keep up with Davies’ speed, so if they held a strong defensive shape in the middle of the park to stop David and Larin from advancing, Phonzie wouldn’t have anyone to get the ball too. Goalkeeper Matt Turner was pretty much always facing Davies.
I’d be remisce if I didn’t mention Davies’ fantastic goal in the semifinal, just nine minutes after being subbed on. That’s the instant impact he can create, but his fluctuating position doesn’t help. He should be a winger or fixed on attacking. No more switching between his Bayern position of left back and left winger. In a way, that’s what might make the 4-4-2 work, if you had Davies and Tajon Buchanan out wide in the midfield.
S. 2 Ep. 21: Canada Doing What Canada Does – FC13 Podcast
3. Scott Kennedy isn’t the same from the last window, and the backline suffered
Kennedy is similar to Victor Osimhen. That remark comes from their apparent dip in quality when they don’t wear a facemask because of recent nose breaks. Kennedy donned one for the final Nations League group stage window, and put in marvellous, unexpectedly good performances against both Curacao and Honduras as a centre-back. He didn’t start against Panama, which was somewhat a shock due to his recent exploits with Canada, but was given the nod against the U.S.A.
After Sunday night, you could see why Herdman didn’t open up the semifinal match with him.
Kennedy couldn’t keep up with the game. Folarin Balogun’s high, quick press looked like it got to him, and he had to repeatedly try to reset the play by putting a lot of trust in Milan Borjan. He even had a header that he didn’t hit just right and forced a diving stop from the Crvena Zvezda goalkeeper. As a whole, the backline was fazed by the U.S. attack. They couldn’t get rid of a corner that turned into the first goal of the night, and Balogun was always in their faces, breaking the line and eventually scoring his first for the Stars and Stripes. Alistair Johnston, coming off a treble with Celtic yet plagued by an injury, probably shouldn’t have played. Kamal Miller did really well, he was able to get upfield too in the semifinal, providing a beautiful assist to David, but lingered with his defenders in the final, likely because they were on life support dealing with the U.S.
No mask, no nothing?
4. Subs have to be made sooner
Don’t get it twisted, I think Herdman is the right man to be at the helm of Canada. But sometimes he seems to have lapses in concentration, and maybe judged situations wrong. Long story short, he should’ve subbed on players at halftime rather than waiting for the latter stages of the final. Something needed to be done deeper than switching up formations. New tactics, new attitude, fresh legs. At 2-0 down, you must try to rally, ditch defence and score a goal. Urgency was shown by players in trying to push U.S. players to the touchline when being subbed off, and that is not the right way to show desperation. Desperation has to be shown by changing things up, no matter the risk.
5. With the Gold Cup coming up, will this performance affect the mentality of that group?
16 players on the just-announced Gold Cup squad played in the Nations League Finals. There is no debate that this loss will hurt and stay firmly planted in the heads of Eustaqio, Laryea, Borjan, Osorio, Adekugbe, and the rest of the main characters. But with plenty of fresh faces who will be handed a huge opportunity they haven’t received yet for Canada – i.e. Jacob Shaffelburg, Victor Loturi, Dom Zator, Jacen Russell-Rowe, Ali Ahmed – the young stars headlining the Gold Cup for Canada will be taking things day by day, looking to break into the XI and stay there.
National pride has been hurt, and these guys will be doing their best to win it back. Nothing will come easy, but out of all the groups, Canada has been placed in one where they’ll feel confident. Throw in a home match at BMO Field and you’ve got a perfect storm.
Needless to say, this team can do much better than their showing in Sin City. As the U.S. enters what will be its greatest era, Canada has to make sure not to fall behind before this rivalry really takes flight.
One last thing: can they handle pressure? I believe so. Though time and time again they can’t finish the job. Fortunately, the tide can turn in just one week.
There’s still one more trophy to play this Summer for the CanMNT. The Gold Cup starts July 27th for Canada in Toronto against a qualifier, then they go South to play Cuba and Guatemala.
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