CanMNT Summer preview: Herdman & co. to be tested more than ever in ‘make-or-break’ two-month run

Fasten your seatbelts, folks.

The Canadian men’s national team is about two weeks away from embarking on perhaps its busiest summer campaign ever, if all goes to plan. June and July of 2021 have been circled in bright red pen for months, but until now they’ve felt more like nebulous future events constantly situated on the distant horizon.

Not anymore. Two weeks from now, Canada will be back for World Cup qualifying action against Aruba, to officially set sail on a few months that could dictate the course of this national team program for years.

If things go as ideally as possible (unlikely, but we can dream), Canada could play 10 highly competitive games between now and August 1. Of course, that’s contingent on a deep Gold Cup run, but it’s not at all out of the question. If things go really well for Canada, they’ll have an incredibly busy autumn as well.

In all, this is just how busy the next couple months could really get for Canada (matches not guaranteed are marked with a *):

  • June 5: Canada vs. Aruba, World Cup Qualifying First Round
  • June 8: Canada vs. Suriname, World Cup Qualifying First Round
  • *June 12: Canada vs. Group E Winner, World Cup Qualifying Second Round (Leg 1)
  • *June 15: Canada vs. Group E Winner, World Cup Qualifying Second Round (Leg 2)
  • July 11: Canada vs. Martinique, Gold Cup Group Stage
  • July 15: Canada vs. preliminary match 7 winner, Gold Cup Group Stage
  • July 18: Canada vs. USA, Gold Cup Group Stage
  • *July 24/25: Gold Cup quarter-final
  • *July 29: Gold Cup semi-final
  • *August 1: Gold Cup final

All those games to be broadcast on OneSoccer, of course.

We certainly cannot assume Canada will be in the Gold Cup final, but the bare minimum for expectations around this talented Canadian team should, realistically, be to get to that two-legged World Cup qualifying tie in mid-June, as well as the Gold Cup quarter-final (at least).

For anybody who’s forgotten how this year’s World Cup qualifying works: Canada, drawn into the first round by virtue of being outside the top five Concacaf sides based on FIFA world rankings, is in Group B alongside Suriname, Aruba, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands. The group winner will take on the winner of Group E (Haiti, Nicaragua, Belize, and Turks and Caicos) in mid-June in a home-and-away tie.

The winner of that tie — theoretically Canada versus Haiti, on the balance of probability — would qualify directly to the “Octagonal” stage of World Cup qualifying. There, Canada would play each of Mexico, the United States, Honduras, Jamaica, Costa Rica, and two other teams both home and away to try and get to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. That final stage is a good way down the road (first matches would be next September), but it’s yet another busy stretch on the horizon, if Canada manages to get there.

Concacaf Gold Cup 23 June 2019 - Charlotte, NC, USA Canada Soccer by Mexsport Jonathan David goal celebration
Jonathan David celebrates a goal at the Concacaf Gold Cup. (Photo: Canada Soccer by Mexsport)

Then, of course, there’s the Gold Cup this summer.

Canada’s draw in Group B isn’t as bad as it could be — Mexico, El Salvador, and Curacao in Group A is a tough proposition — but it’ll by no means be easy. Canada will have to take on Martinique and the United States, plus another team from the preliminary qualification round.

Who might that third team be? You guessed it: Haiti. They’re heavy favourites to beat out Bermuda, Barbados, and Saint Vincent, and the Grenadines for that last spot in the group. We all remember what happened when Canada played Haiti at the last Gold Cup, right? So, definitely not an easy matchup.

Canada will probably have to play Haiti in three massive competitive games within just over a month, all of which could have massive implications for the future of this national team.

John Herdman’s squad selection over the next couple months will be fascinating. How does Canada juggle all those fixtures, managing which players can be called into camp and when? Herdman has noted leading up to this summer that World Cup qualifying is, unequivocally, the priority, but just how much will the Gold Cup team be rotated or undermanned?

The roster for the Aruba and Suriname games will surely come out soon — possibly within the next week. Canada should have the pick of the litter for this camp; European league seasons wrap up this weekend, meaning the likes of Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, and Cyle Larin should all be available and fit. Scott Arfield will, unfortunately, not be part of the squad, but perhaps Atiba Hutchinson is up for another few games after his long club season?

Among other players that missed the last camp in March, Jonathan Osorio will probably draw back in, and perhaps Liam Fraser or Doneil Henry get the call, but don’t expect much to be different from the lineup that defeated Bermuda.

This next camp will not be one for experimentation or cap-tying; opportunities for youngsters like Tajon Buchanan, or dual-internationals like Lucas Dias (and maybe even Daniel Jebbison), might be in the Gold Cup — a possible exception being Theo Corbeanu, who may well already deserve a regular bench spot with the full-strength squad. Canada may not call up all their regulars from MLS clubs from that tournament, and some of the Europe-based players might be due some rest.

That’s not to say Canada would punt on the Gold Cup, of course. Competitive games against top opponents are always valuable, and with an actual trophy on the line, Canada will be desperate for a chance like this to redeem themselves for the disappointing 2019 campaign.

Regardless of who exactly ends up playing for Les Rouges in these contests, one thing is sure: The next 10 weeks might well be make-or-break for this version of the men’s national team. That’s probably too bold a statement for a team whose young core should be around for years to come, but nonetheless we are about to learn a lot about whether this side is ready to compete with the top nations in Concacaf.

This run of matches could well be the breakthrough moment Canada has been waiting for, with the Davies and David-led generation taking full control and making this the dynamic, exciting side it has the potential to be.

We’ll know soon enough.