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Canada - Reasons for Optimism, But No Cigar Just Yet

Canucks won’t come of age until they defeat quality opposition ...

Canada v Cuba: Group A - 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup
KAA Gent teenager Jonathan David has looked a good prospect in Canada’s Gold Cup campaign.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

While there’s much to admire about the current Canadian national team squad and how things are coming together, they ain’t achieved anything yet.

For sure John Herdman has stamped his footprint on the current group of players, you can see that, despite several outings against low quality opposition.

And despite evidence suggesting optimism is not unfounded, they really need to find a big win from somewhere before they can be considered a serious player at Confederation, never mind World, level.

But it’s baby-steps. Signs are the program is on the right track. In fact the slew of easy fixtures throughout Herdman’s reign have possibly helped the English coach get his message across. Now the big tests emerge in the last eight of the Gold Cup.

The last time I really looked forward to a Canada game was back in October 2012. Seven long years ago! That day in Tegucigalpa and still with a chance of World Cup qualification, they let the nation down, comprehensively thrashed 1-8 by Honduras. It was an absolutely pathetic display from a bunch of players on a yardstick which fluctuated from ‘disinterested’ at one end, to ‘sub-standard ability’ at the other.

In fact you could still argue that the last meaningful, positive result the national team produced was when it defeated the same Honduras (1-0) in Vancouver in a World Cup qualifier in November 2015, when Cyle Larin scored the only goal.

The old, dull, defensive Canadian style begun to change firstly under Oscar Zambrano, and now carried on by Herdman, although it will be interesting to see how the side copes with the new positive approach against more established nations.

“I think the Canadian DNA in these matches has been typically to defend,” Herdman said prior to taking on Cuba. “We’ve got a little bit more about us now, so the players are excited for this game.”

Soccer: CONCACAF Gold Cup-Canada at Cuba
John Herdman’s methods are positive and the players are buying in.
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

We didn’t learn that much from the game however, Cuba were an absolute shambles, an excuse for an international football team, at least the Canadians managed some shooting practise, but in truth they’ll face more stressful training exercises.

The thing is they look stronger up front than they do defensively - a good sign, defence is more easily coached, and there is time for improvement, for despite Gold Cup commitments, World Cup qualification needs to be the real target.

Teenager Jonathan David looks like a striker with awareness and composure beyond his years. Getting regular football, and goals (12 in 33 games last season) in the Jupiler League can only help him develop further.

And he’s right, when he says, “We have young players, good players playing at good clubs so it’s an exciting moment for Canada, and just trying to make the most of it when we can.”

His strike partner, Lucas Cavallini has learned his trade in Uruguay and maintains a record of a goal in every two games for current club Puebla in Liga MX. Maybe he shouldn’t take the penalties though.

Junior Hoilett has been doing it in England’s top two divisions for several seasons now, and of course you have Alphonso Davies, the jewell in the Canadian crown. Anyone who watched this teenager perform in MLS will not be surprised at how even a short spell at one of the world’s greatest clubs elevated his already impressive game.

Soccer: CONCACAF Gold Cup-Mexico at Canada
Alphonso Davies, Canada’s jewell in the crown, takes on Mexico’s Roberto Alvarado in Denver.
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Defensively and midfield is of greater concern and we stand to learn most about this team’s foundation should it progress deep into the current tournament. Scott Arfield brings much experience from several good years in UK football and is an effective leader on the park. International level however is a greater step up for his colleagues, and that’s where question marks remain.

Canada is probably at the level of Jamaica and a transitional Honduras at the moment, probably still slightly back from Costa Rica and Panama, and bit further away from a suspect USA and the region’s undoubted best, Mexico. But you sense that they’re on an upward trajectory, and that cannot be said currently about some of the others.

Eleven of Canada’s 23-man squad are under 24 and there’s greater depth than ever before, with players attached to better-level professional clubs than has been the norm - a comparison against the 1986 squad certainly bears this out. But world football has moved on faster than Canada Soccer in the intervening years.

Canada may just now be catching up, but it still needs THAT BIG WIN.

Success over Costa Rica in a Gold Cup quarter-final would fit the bill and represent real progress.

A nation awaits, possibly more in hope than in expectation, but there’s certainly enough optimism around to suggest the current era has a bit more substance than its predecessors.