That’s the big question facing the Reds as they prepare to take on the United States on Friday in Orlando in a crucial Concacaf Nations League match.
Last month, Canada earned a historic 2-0 decision over the U.S. in Toronto, the team’s first victory over the Americans in 34 years.
Canada tops Group A of the Concacaf Nations League with nine points, ahead of the U.S. (three points) and pointless Cuba. A victory or a draw on Friday by the Canadians, who have played one extra game than the Americans, would see them win the group and advance to next summer’s Nations League finals.
If Canada is to earn the result in needs in Florida, it might come down to an individual matchup. But which one will be especially crucial to Canada’s chances for victory?
The CPL Editorial team of John Molinaro, Armen Bedakian, Marty Thompson, and Charlie O’Connor-Clarke offer their picks and analysis.
Les Rouges won that pseudo-leg 1 in Toronto with an effective high press, a tough-to-break-down midfield, and quick slice-and-dice moves from the forward line. In order to achieve the same success, Canadian coach John Herdman will need his midfield, specifically those in defensive roles, to do the same again.
Wil Trapp will likely slot in as a holding midfielder as Michael Bradley is out injured for the U.S. Objective #1 for the Americans? Win the midfield battle. Stay organized, keep the pressure on and move the ball with purpose.
In steps Canada’s Samuel Piette, Trapp’s opposite. The 24-year-old very much sets the tone for the Canada midfield by getting up and compressing the space – and he was exceptional at it last month in what may have been his best performance in a Canada shirt. His job will be to keep the American midfielders in front of him by moving and pressing – this U.S. team didn’t handle it well last time out.
Two midfield generals at odds with massive roles to play for their countries.
O’Connor-Clarke’s pick: John Herdman vs. Gregg Berhalter
Really, the reason Canada beat the United States in October was that Herdman thoroughly out-coached his opposite number. He set the Canadians up in a midfield box to ensure a numerical advantage, with Sam Piette, Scott Arfield, Jonathan Osorio, and Mark-Anthony Kaye set to stick to a rigid structure and contain the likes of Michael Bradley and Weston McKennie in the middle.
Herdman fielded an early curveball when Kaye went down to injury, and responded by taking a risk that paid off by inserting Toronto FC’s Liam Fraser for his first senior cap. Playing Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David closer together than usual, with Lucas Cavallini coming off the bench, also worked surprisingly well.
This time around, could Herdman have another trick or two up his sleeve? There may be no need to fix what isn’t broken, but the U.S. will look markedly different without Christian Pulisic and Michael Bradley in the mix. Of course, that should actually make it even harder for the Americans to play through Canada’s midfield block, But still, is the 4-2-2-2 going to be Herdman’s permanent formation of choice?
This Canada squad has a lot of defenders; might Herdman shuffle them into a back three at some point? Also worth considering is the recent run of games Davies has started at left-back for Bayern Munich. Perhaps he’ll be asked to pocket Jordan Morris as he did to Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho last weekend?
Either way, expect this to be a real tactical battle. Berhalter is under pressure to make things right in the U.S. camp after Herdman soundly beat him in round one.
I’m going to go against the grain here – everyone else will be considering on-field matchups between the Canadians and Americans. Me? I’m more interested in what’s happening on the Canadian bench. With both Amer Didic and Dominick Zator of FC Edmonton and Cavalry FC waiting in the wings, so to speak, the real battle is which one will make their way onto the field and round out a year of historic moments with a first-ever CPL to CanMNT cap.
For my money, that’s probably Zator. Herdman will likely ask Richie Laryea to do quite a job of marking, most likely, Tyler Boyd down Canada’s right-hand side. For about 75 minutes or so, you’d imagine that battle between Laryea and whoever he matches up against to be fascinating and exhausting for the Toronto FC man. So, with 15 minutes to go, and with Canada holding a precarious 4-3 lead over the U.S. (probably), Herdman ought to turn to Zator to see out the match from that right-hand side.
Or maybe Josh Sargent or Gyasi Zardes causes problems for the Canadian centre-backs, particularly in the air, with looping crosses on either end testing Milan Borjan’s goal. If that’s the case, maybe a bit more presence in the box would be the ticket, which Didic provides, in spades.
Regardless of choice, I’ll bet my hat that a CPL player makes their national team debut on Friday – and that’s the matchup I’m looking to watch.
Molinaro’s pick: Milan Borjan vs. Brad Guzan
Given the precarious nature of the U.S. team’s defence at the moment, as well as lingering questions about Canada’s back line, I think that the goalkeepers will loom large in this one, and that the game could easily be decided by one of the two men between the posts.
Milan Borjan has been outstanding for Canada during the team’s current Nations League campaign, making important saves when called upon, and expertly serving as the Reds’ last line of defence. As someone who has played in the UEFA Nations League with Red Star Belgrade, and with 48 caps to his credit (and 21 clean sheets), the 32-year-old goalkeeper’s experience has proven to be invaluable for this relatively young Canadian team.
After starting in net in last month’s game in Toronto, Zack Steffen will be unavailable on Friday due to a knee injury. With Steffen ruled out, look for Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan to start against Canada, as he’s the most experienced option. Guzan might not be as good with his feet as Sean Johnson, but given the stakes involved, and not to mention the mounting pressure on U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, the Atlanta shot stopper will more than likely get get the nod for the Americans.
Scoring chances were few and far between in Canada’s 2-0 win at BMO Field last month. I’m anticipating an equally tight contest on Friday, which few goal-scoring opportunities, which means both Borjan and Guzan will have to be especially sharp in net.