Usually, each January fans of the National Men's Program can look forward to a game or two against a small island state, some not even independent nations, and a string of defeats. However, on the heels of an outstanding (by Canadian standards) 2015 season, many Canadian fans are optimistic about our chances for success in 2016. Myself included.
Hindsight: The 2015 Season
Our national team played a total of 12 competitive FIFA-sanctioned matches in 2015 (excluding friendlies), and only lost a single game. Our lone defeat came at the hands of a speedy Jamaican team in Gold Cup play. The 1-0 defeat ruined an undefeated streak for a Canadian side that is aiming to qualify for its first World Cup since the 1986. While we were undefeated up to that point, it should be noted that Canada's attack was anemic during the Gold Cup - where we failed to score a goal.
However, in World Cup Qualification, Canada gave fans reason to hope in 2015, with two wins over tiny Dominica, a 4-1 aggregate win over Belize, and a 1-0 victory over Honduras. For many fans of les rouges, the highlight of 2015 came in Central America, when Canada went 0-0 against Guatemala, an historic rival that has eliminated Canada from World Cup qualification several times before, in San Salvador. Canada has historically struggled to earn a result in Central America, and many fans breathed a sigh of relief at the scoreless draw.
The 2016 Schedule
Canada has 4 FIFA-Sanctioned matches planned for 2016, along with a friendly against the United States in Los Angeles. The four FIFA-Sanctioned games are all World Cup Qualifiers, and are against tough opponents. 2 games will be played against regional superpower Mexico, and one more against Honduras and Guatemala respectively. Canada plays the first of those games against Mexico in Vancouver in March, and has already sold 30,000 tickets to the event. The team's performance in that game will be a litmus test for many, as a good result (or any result, actually) will probably secure Canada's position in the Hex, and put us one step closer to the World Cup.
Oh, and TSN has picked up the English-language rights to the game. The match will be broadcast nationally, which will give the national team reach it has not had in several years. Being able to turn on the TV and see your own country playing will be a refreshing change for many Canadian fans.
Familiar Faces and New Recruits
The list of Canadian dual-nationals that have gone on to play for other nations is long and distinguished. 2015 marked the beginning of the end of the talent-drain to other nations ranked higher up the FIFA food chain, and saw several well established players sign for Canada. Firstly, Junior Hoilett, a veteran of the English Premier League decided to join the National Team. This followed Fraser Aird, a Canadian playing in the Scottish League, suit up for Canada. Closer to home, Wandrille Lèfevre of l'Impact de Montréal, obtained Canadian citizenship and was quickly called into the National Team. Lastly, Steven Vitoria, a Canadian who played in the Portuguese youth system has declared his allegiance to Canada, and will play in upcoming games. Furthermore, the Canadian Soccer Association revealed that Vancouver Whitecaps winger Kofi Sarkodie ***
Kekuta Manneh will have his citizenship process expedited, so that he can play for Canada in the upcoming World Cup Qualifiers.
None of the above mentioned players are all-stars who will single handily carry the team to a victory, especially against tough opposition like Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. But the presence of distinguished players with international experience and pedigree is a far cry from the Canadian teams of the last two decades.
Each will hopefully compliment established veterans with international experience like Atiba Hutchison, Will Johnson and Marcel De Jong in creating a more competitive Canadian program.
Camp Poutine: More Gravy, Less Cheese, Still Delicious
Head Coach Benito Floro has started 2015 with a training camp designed to bring new faces into the Canadian Men's Team for their international friendly against the United States. The match is during the MLS and NASL off-season, which means that most of the Canadians playing overseas have not been called into camp. However, some notable exceptions will be present, including former Impact midfielder Issey Nakajima-Ferran and Iain Hume, who most recently was playing in the Indian Super League.
Three players from the Montréal Impact, Kyle Bekker, Wandrille Lefèvre and Maxime Crépeau all were called up by coach Benito Floro. Additionally, one former academy player, Karl Ouimette, will also feature in the squad.
Given the inclusion of amateur and NASL level goalkeeping in the squad, it looks like FC Montréal keeper Maxime Crépeau will be starting between the pipes for Canada in the match against the United States. However, the inclusion of amateur and NASL level talent, while excellent at identifying new talent and getting new players familiarized with the national program, has left many Canadian fans pondering: where are our MLS veterans?
MLS is presently enjoying an off-season, which means veteran left-back and occasional left-winger Maxim Tissot, and veteran midfielder Jonathan Osorio are more than capable of playing in the friendly. Neither were included in the line-up. This is made even more perplexing by the addition of amateur level players to the full-back and midfield positions. One would naturally assume that a player like Tissot, who played 11 games in the MLS (10 shots, 1 goal) would be further ahead on the depth-chart than a player from the NASL or a US College. Jonathan Osorio, who played 29 games (7 assists, 1 goal) is an even bigger oversight. He was an instrumental part of Toronto FC's attack in the 2015 season, and intimately understands several key players on the American roster, notably teammates Michael Bradley and Josy Altidore.
Perhaps Benito Floro has bigger plans for these two players. Perhaps they both have issues they need to work out with the coach. In any case, many fans are hoping they are both called into camp for the World Cup Qualifiers against Mexico in March. Also, a lot of NASL players have stepped up and played very well for Canada. Our captain is presently playing in the NASL as well. We will have to wait and see where these new additions fit into our system.
2016 Outlook: Rosy-ish
My outlook on the National Team in 2016 is positive. I do not think Canada is putting its best team forward for the match against the United States, at least if the players in training camp are any indication. Maybe that is the point. After all, the American match is just a friendly, and Mexico will be the bigger, more important challenge.
I don't know if Canada will qualify for the Hex. I have no idea if we'll qualify for a World Cup. But I do know one thing, with new additions to the Canadian line-up, and the deepest roster we have had in at least two decades, Canada has never been in a better position to do both.
Canada plays the United States on February 5th in Los Angeles.
They will play Mexico in World Cup Qualifying in Vancouver on March 25th. The match in Vancouver will be broadcast on TSN.
**** Edit: It would appear that Manneh will be applying for US Citizenship, and not Canadian. He would therefore be ineligible to play for the Canadian National Team.