BMO FIELD, TORONTO – Canada was looking like they’d shaken off the bad vibes exhibited at the Nations League Finals. They finally looked cohesive and on the right path. Even if they had won, it would’ve been seen as not entirely convincing. But looking back on a 2-2 draw to open their 2023 Gold Cup with Guadeloupe, a nation not even recognized by FIFA due to its ties to the French Football Federation, it can be seen as a monumental disappointment.
However, the feeling from head coach John Herdman post-match was one of some positivity for every letdown. Tuesday night’s occasion was very much a learning game, packed with debuts and new systems. Although that is great, especially in terms of starting to put together the group for the 2026 World Cup, there was somewhat of an imbalance amongst the side on the pitch. The attacking corps was heavily revamped throughout the second half, and fresh legs combined with it being youngsters coming on equals a speedy unit, but that attribute wasn’t seen everywhere. For example, Jonathan Osorio, who’s had to deal with plenty of injuries recently, didn’t look ambitious enough even as the ball would drop near him around the box. Despite a decent match all-around with plenty of bright spots for Osorio, it’s those little moments which are key. Osorio has played a lot for club and country recently, so it’s no surprise that he’s worn out, it’s just the lack of energy coupled with not being substituted off. There are plenty of midfielders that could’ve stepped in for Osorio, but none came on.
Steven Vitória was also stranded a little bit at the back. He was left alone at times and when Guadeloupe would turn the ball over he had to deal with a lot of it on his own. It isn’t plausible for this type of situation to work out with a 36-year-old whose fixture congestion has been high. Surrendering the foul into stoppage time, which led to the equalizer, didn’t help his case. The way he conceded it just looked like desperation for it all to end: tangling himself up with Luther Archimede and ultimately shoving him down.
As much of a problem as this could become, especially looking at the rest of this group stage having to play in a boiling Houston, Herdman may have found his system with this group: a 4-3-3. With Zac McGraw dropping back to play alongside Vitória, the latter has a young and hungry partner that is excited to learn his way around the national team. “Even as a young player some years ago at the Portland Timbers, I was always just trying to be a sponge and absorb as much information from players with a lot more knowledge of the game, a lot more minutes then me,” McGraw said post-match, “and that’s the same approach I’m going to take here, obviously Richie [Laryea] was on my right, Steven was in the middle, Kamal [Miller] is on the other side, and I tell them, just talk to me and if I’m in the wrong I’m not going to say anything back, I’m just going to listen to it and try to be better in the next play.” McGraw finished with two clearances, one interception, and two tackles, according to SofaScore, and certainly made a statement as to where he stands in this roster, that being a perennial starter. The circumstances were tough considering he touched down in Toronto on Friday morning, but McGraw looked like he was well-versed with the squad.
The back four did seem to work better on balls over the top and counter-attacks. Whereas Guadeloupe’s first goal from Thierry Ambrose was created by a single deft touch inside the box to weave around Vitória and Laryea (who was lagging behind him trying to recover), there wasn’t a moment like that in the second half where Vitória was stuck in a one-on-one. Additionally, another MLS youngster, Moïse Bombito, would drop back into his normal position and help out. He did have a strong showing in midfield, a position he doesn’t typically play with the Colorado Rapids, and recorded 41 touches alongside an impressive marker of sending four long balls forward – and all were accurate.
“I think with Vitória, [Jacob] Shaffelburg, the energy management, you know with Steven what you get, which is the leadership, you get his tactical awareness,” Herdman said of blending players young and old, “the guy is playing in the Portuguese league consistently, and you want that experience, but you are balancing with fatigue. I mean, there’s no doubt players are getting fatigued at this level, and they’ll fatigued through this tournament, so, I think we’ve got centre-backs there we can rotate across these next two matches, I’m looking forward to see some of those other lads get a little more time. You’ve seen Scott Kennedy in centre against the U.S., you’ll see Zac McGraw getting an opportunity in that central position which I think we’re all excited to see, you know, big Zac playing up that central spine, so yeah, I think the energy part is a big piece of this tournament, and going into the heat of Houston, against a Guatemala team that can run for three days, we’re going to have to have rotation, that’s for sure.”
Rotation centrally is a good sign for York United alumnus Dom Zator, who collected his first minutes for Canada.
Moving over into the attacking third, Canada showed some promise. Leading an unorthodox line was Junior Hoilett, Lucas Cavallini, and Liam Millar. In a way, the three of them not featuring in the Nations League and not being poster-boy superstars could’ve been beneficial. They played as a unit even while chasing, something a superstar might not do as much, opting to do a lot on their own. Cavallini operated as a false nine and pulled the strings to orchestrate his goal. A beautiful through ball to Hoilett was slow and gave him the time to streak into the box from the centre circle. Hoilett returned the favour with a similar pass to the back post.
“I’ve been here for a lot of years at the national team, so I know my role,” Cavallini said, “having a lot of young guys around today, as a leader on the team and as a reference, one of the experienced guys I’m always trying to guide them and help them. There was a lot of positive things today, and obviously we wanted to go home with the three points, but we just have to take the one point, keep our heads up and stay positive.”
The problem wasn’t getting time on the ball and moving it around, the match concluded with Canada having 56% possession, much of it in that attacking zone compared to Guadeloupe holding on trying to break down the Canucks. Deliveries were Canada’s fatal flaw. Countless crosses weren’t placed correctly or headers were timed wrong. Hoilett had a shot on a good play engineered by Millar that went wide from afar. If Canada can fine-tune that before their next match, Cavallini will end up with a lot more than one goal on a counter-attack.
Holding onto much of the ball was Ali Ahmed. By far the most impressive of the debutants, Ahmed has bounced back incredibly from a scary head injury suffered only a few weeks ago. “The process of the recovery was faster than a lot of people thought, including myself. You know, when anybody sees something like that, you think it’s going to be a long-term thing, but I’m super thankful that I just came out with a concussion and I was back on the field and slowly getting reps in. Luckily enough, I had 2-3 weeks to get reps in with Vancouver [Whitecaps] before getting here and play football and do what you have to do.”
S. 2 Ep. 21: Canada Doing What Canada Does – FC13 Podcast
He dominated a full 90-minute performance, distributing plenty and giving Andreaw Gravillon headaches. It’s hard not to rattle off some mightily impressive stats: 40-for-45 on passing, five-for-five on successful dribbles, he was fouled five times, and made one key pass on the right wing. You can tell he is firmly a part of this group when he has the right and the confidence to bypass an open Laryea at times. This match will likely be remembered as the one in which the nation woke up to Ali Ahmed’s reign.
Nothing worth having comes easy, and no winner doesn’t have to deal with adversity at the start of a journey. Canada is in that stage, but they still made sure everyone knew that they won’t go down without a fight. After every goal, regardless of whoever scored, they seemed to take it up a notch. Guadeloupe was never going to be easy, they showed their grit in the Gold Cup preliminary rounds and have some quality players. Undoubtedly Canada would’ve thought that they could leave Toronto with all three points, but they just weren’t on their A-game.
There are still two more group stage games left, against Cuba and Guatemala. There is plenty to be proved and everything on the line. “It’s just begun, obviously it’s a big factor playing in the humidity,” added Cavallini, “but we’ve been there, and we’ve done certain things like this, so we just have to get used to it.”
Top photo by Concacaf
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