Platt: Five things we learned from Nations League qualifying

TORONTO — John Herdman is five for five.

OK, the opposition Canada’s men’s national team has faced in securing its spot in Concacaf Nations League A and this summer’s Gold Cup has not exactly been world-class.

But it’s nevertheless been a positive start for the Englishman and, more importantly, has enabled him to assess a large part of his player pool both in camps and in match action.

As Canada exits Nations League qualifying with a 4-1 win over French Guiana, here are five things we have learned about the team through the Herdman era so far.

1. Kaye could make left-back spot his own

The big winner at BC Place on Sunday: Mark-Anthony Kaye.

With Pacific FC’s Marcel de Jong out injured and Herdman indicating Alphonso Davies will primarily be used further forward (more on that in a moment), it’s hard to imagine anyone making a stronger case to take the left-back role full-time than Kaye did here.

The LAFC man is naturally a midfielder but that seemed more of a strength than a weakness — as well as providing width and crossing (including the delivery for Lucas Cavallini’s second goal), he was able to step inside and thread some promising passes through the middle of the pitch.

Kaye’s emergence in Los Angeles — injury aside — was one of the most positive individual stories in the Canadian men’s pool in 2018, and Herdman will be very happy to have found a way to get him in the lineup outside of a crowded midfield.

2. Still defensive questions to answer

The rest of the back four? That’s still up in the air.

The commitment of Stephen Eustaquio will surely not hurt any effort to recruit Mississauga-born centre-back Ricardo Ferreira, who has only appeared in a friendly for Portugal and could still make a one-time switch.

But with no news there for now, attempting to mould Vancouver Whitecaps teammates Derek Cornelius and Doneil Henry into a first-choice partnership seems the best option available to Herdman. Those two and right-back Zachary Brault-Guillard were mostly fine against French Guiana, but none are guaranteed starters for their clubs.

In Herdman’s first game in charge, against New Zealand, his back four was Petrasso-Jakovic-James-Morgan. That illustrates how unsettled an area of the team the defence remains and how quickly things can change.

Canada’s Derek Cornelius. (Canada Soccer)

3. Davies still at his best in attack

Given Canada’s sudden glut of wingers, the deployment of Davies at left-back in the first three games of Nations League qualifying led some to speculate whether that position could become his long-term home.

Not according to Herdman.

Speaking to Sportsnet’s John Molinaro, the coach explained: “In games where we expected teams to defend deep, knowing there wouldn’t be much space in behind, we wanted him coming from deep and arriving onto things and on switches of play… I think in the future in tougher matches, he’ll be deployed as a forward, and that’s his best position.”

That makes sense. Dominica and the U.S. Virgin Islands require a completely different game plan to the United States and Mexico; when those tougher matches come around, expect to see Davies and Junior Hoilett flanking a lone striker.

4. Centre-forward job is Cavallini’s to lose

Speaking of strikers, it seems safe to conclude at this point that Cavallini is Herdman’s preferred No. 9.

The 26-year-old has now started four games in a row over Cyle Larin and that should not come as much of a surprise. Herdman prizes intensity and hunger and while Larin might be more of a pure goalscorer, Cavallini gets through so much work on and off the ball.

Cavallini does not always produce the cleanest finishes or appear the most composed in the box, and there was an element of fortune to both of his goals against French Guiana. But when you’re constantly and fearlessly attacking service into the goalmouth like he does, you earn your luck.

Perhaps more of a threat to him than Larin, at this point? The very talented Jonathan David, who is doing just fine out on the wing for now but may end up through the middle.

Lucas Cavallini during a Nations League qualifier in St. Kitts. (Canada Soccer)
Lucas Cavallini during a Nations League qualifier in St. Kitts. (Canada Soccer)

5. This team is ready to compete right now

The men’s national team remains a work in progress. There’s no disputing that.

But in the five games that Herdman has had to shape this side — and even stretching back to Octavio Zambrano’s short-lived reign — the potential in certain areas has become clear. The midfield group, with Eustaquio still to be added to the mix, is the deepest in memory. Herdman is spoilt for choice on the wings and there is healthy competition up front.

No one is suggesting Canada is going to strut into Mexico City and teach El Tri a lesson any time soon. But Honduras, Panama and Jamaica? There is no reason this squad should fear those sides.

So as exciting as it is, let’s kick the home World Cup in 2026 down the road for a minute. Because there’s one in Qatar to qualify for first, and a Gold Cup to play before that.