Facing Messi, Argentina at Copa América a transformative opportunity for CanMNT

You can breathe a sigh of relief Canada.

After four painful months of waiting following a crushing second-leg loss to Jamaica at BMO Field in November, the Canadian men’s national team has booked its ticket to the 2024 Copa América.

It wasn’t an especially inspiring performance in a 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday in the 2024 Copa América play-off that got them there. It was, however, one of the most monumental results in the program’s history.

As they continue preparations for a game-changing home World Cup in 2026, the Canadian men’s national team will now get the opportunity to play at one of the biggest international soccer tournaments in the world, against some of the best nations in the sport. It is the kind of test that the Canadian men’s national team could not afford to miss, so the initial reaction for many will be relief. Over the next couple of months, that relief should turn to excitement for an irreplaceable experience for Canada at the Copa América.

The national team can schedule all the friendlies they want, against the Dutch, Mexico, or whomever else and it won’t be the same calibre of test as this tournament. Even if the 2025 edition of the Gold Cup, which is rumoured to be inviting top teams from other confederations, features an expanded field those countries won’t have that same motivation to win. This is especially true as Canada won’t have to compete in World Cup qualifying in the lead-up to 2026.

The Copa América, on the other hand, is the oldest still-running continental competition on the planet. This is Canada taking on Argentina, the defending World Cup champions, in what could be Lionel Messi’s last major international tournament and one that he will desperately want to win. This means playing a Chile side who despite a downturn of recent form, won the competition in back-to-back years in 2015 and 2016 and will undoubtedly be looking to use this competition as a platform to get back to that level.

Canada celebrate against Trinidad and Tobago (Photo: Concacaf)

The game against Argentina, which is the opening match of the 2024 Copa América on June 20, has already been sold out and will be played in front of 71,000 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. Outside of a World Cup year, the lights do not get brighter and there is perhaps no bigger test of platform for this team to evaluate its level. Five years ago even playing in a match like this was a faraway dream for this national team.

These are also the kinds of tests, experiences and opponents that have the potential to take this Canadian team to the next level. The team has talked at length about how eye-opening the 2022 World Cup group stage was in terms of the calibre of opposition that they faced. Qualifying for Copa América ensures that when Canada step onto home soil in 2026, they will be battle-tested and ready to host the top countries in the world.

A match like this is huge for the Canadian players as well. While many, like Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Stephen Eustáquio and Tajon Buchanan already compete at the highest level, this is an opportunity for some of Canada’s other young and up-and-coming talents to show that they can do the same. The more Canadian players reaching those heights consistently before 2026, the better.

If Canada makes history at the 2026 World Cup, getting the country’s first result, or, dare to dream, even advancing to the knockout stage for the first time, it will in part be because of the lessons they learned this summer. That is just how important the Copa América can be for Canada, and why qualifying for it is a massive momentum shift for the program.