Coming off a morale boosting draw against a strong United States line up, many Canadian fans are cautiously optimistic about their sides chances in World Cup qualifying. Every Canadian soccer fan knows that we haven’t qualified for the World Cup since 1986. Canada may not be a world power but in a region like CONCACAF and the players we possess one might expect more than one qualification which was over 20 years ago.
Indeed when you compare Canada to other CONCACAF nations on a player by player basis then you have to say they have a fairly strong squad. They contain a midfield trio of Atiba Hutchinson, a player who plays regularly for a strong European side like PSV, Julian de Guzman, a man who despite being unassuming for Toronto FC always seems to be at his best for Canada, and Will Johnson, a key player for perhaps the most fluid team in the MLS. They also possess experienced players from the Bundesliga, MLS, England, and some solid goalkeeping. So the question is, relative to other CONCACAF nations, just how good are Canada’s players and how proactive should Canada be?
There is a difference, of course, between Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Bradley. Will Johnson might be part of a side that dominates possession against the former but the latter is a big step up. No one is saying Canada should be taking the game to the United States or Mexico and against those sides it would make sense to be more reactive. In the recent friendly Canada often sat back and invited the USA to come at them, their strong and physical defense with de Guzman in front coping well with their attacks. The problem came going forward. Olivier Occean may be in great form but the American’s high defensive line rendered his skills futile. Bocanegra and Goodson weren’t concerned about Occean beating them for pace and so forced him near the half way line. Even if Occean did win the ball he had difficulty doing anything with it. When Simeon Jackson came in he immediately forced the Americans back and opened up a lot of space in midfield. This was summed up when Jackson picked the ball up some 40 yards from goal and turned towards Howard’s net. Goodson and Onyewu looked terrified as he ran at them with pace and they backed up into their own box and Jackson was given a great chance before shooting high.
That’s one of the pluses for Stephen Hart’s squad; he has different options in attack for different styles of play. Against a side like Cuba where Canada is expected to dominate and score a target like Occean makes sense. He can get on the end of crosses and help Canada create space in the box. However, against the stronger sides like Mexico and the US then maybe a player like Jackson makes sense. Since Canada will be conceding lots of possession they need a player to push the opposition defensive line back and someone who can exploit the space in behind the high defensive line and be quick on the counter.
The real debate comes when Canada plays the middle tier of teams in CONCACAF – the likes of Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, and Jamaica. Is Canada good enough to control the game against these squads or should they sit back and play reactively? Yes they have a talented midfield core and with Dwayne De Rosario coming in from the left they can overload the midfield, but there are many reasons to think that Canada would be better off sitting back and playing a more reactive brand of soccer.
First is the general phenomenon of international football; teams simply don’t have time to train and build up familiarity with each other. Canada had one friendly and a short training camp before their first matches in this round of World Cup qualifying. It is much easier to play defensive, counter attacking football when unfamiliar with your team mates. The exception in international football, the world champions Spain, only serve to prove this rule as their squad is based mainly on the Barcelona core with Real Madrid players filling out the rest of the main squad.
Secondly there are the CONCACAF specific factors. The pitch in Havana for Canada’s next match was reportedly cut with a scythe. Other pitches in Central America are notoriously poor and thus make keeping the ball in the middle of the field extremely tough. Add in tough weather conditions which makes pressing for extended periods of time difficult and the geography of the region tends to favour less proactive teams.
Another thing to consider is Canada’s back four. To keep the ball in the opposition half you need to play high up the pitch. Kevin McKenna and Andre Hainault are strong, committed defenders but neither are particularly quick. Their strengths are in physicality, aerial duels, and guarding the box. Ask them to defend high up with lots of space in behind and you get events like Hainault’s yellow card versus the States. Canada may have versatility in attack but its current defense is fairly static.
Finally, perhaps we should give the opposition more credit. Certainly player for player you could make the argument that Canada are superior to say Panama, and yet Panama outperformed Canada at the Gold Cup. If Canada comes up against a side similar in quality then perhaps we should ask them to force the issue. There’s one thing to have a confident swagger and think you’re better than the other team and it’s another to simply assume you’re better and deserve the result.
The good news for Canada is that their midfield is versatile and can play both styles. Hutchinson can be either a penetrating playmaker in the final third or a deep lying passer. Johnson can act as a possession keeping central midfielder or a tenacious box to box player. De Guzman can be a clever link between defense and midfield or a shield in front of the back line tasked with intercepting through balls and marking an opposition playmaker. Whatever Hart decides to do will be predicated on the opposition and may be heralded by his choice of striker. How Canada plays against different levels of sides and in different countries will be interesting and while they have the versatility to play both proactively and reactively choosing the right personnel and the right moment to play each style will be Hart’s key decision.