At last, Canada’s final squad for the upcoming Concacaf Olympic qualifiers was released on Wednesday, with 20 under-23 players earning the call to represent their country later this month at the tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Included in the roster were CPLers Thomas Meilleur-Giguère (Pacific FC) and David Norman Jr. (Cavalry FC), as well as a host of other familiar faces from around the world of Canadian soccer, such as 2020 Valour FC goalkeeper James Pantemis.
How does this roster stack up, though? Canada’s margin for error at the qualifying tournament will be slim; they need to come in the top two of their group of El Salvador, Haiti, and Honduras (all on OneSoccer), and then they’ll have to win a semifinal to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics this summer.
With Mauro Biello’s squad now set, the coach can now set about deciding how best to deploy this group for what’s sure to be a handful of high-stakes games in quite a short period of time. Here’s how Canada’s squad breaks down, position by position.
This is an area of real strength for Canada. Pantemis was solid for Valour on loan during The Island Games last summer and since made three appearances for Montreal in MLS. Nogueira is a highly-touted 22-year-old, having done quite well in recent years for the reserve side of Portuguese top-flight club Maritimo.
Breza, meanwhile, has been playing professional games in Italy’s third tier for the past couple years with Potenza, before securing a move to Serie A’s Bologna. He might have the highest ceiling of the three keepers in this squad, although Pantemis is likely to get the upper hand when it comes to minutes because he’s played games far more recently than either of the other two.
Regardless, Canada has some real strength between the pipes.
Derek Cornelius (Vancouver Whitecaps FC), Thomas Meilleur-Giguère (Pacific FC), Callum Montgomery (Minnesota United FC)
It would be fair to expect Cornelius to be the captain of this under-23 side, having already made 13 appearances for the senior national team in just a couple of years. He’s been a starter for both the Canadian men’s team and the Whitecaps for a while now, and it’s possible he’ll be the most experienced defender at this Olympic qualifying tournament.
As for who lines up next to Cornelius, Canada has good options. Meilleur-Giguère is coming off a sparkling run of form in the CPL last August, and he was consistently starting for the Ottawa Fury in the prior two seasons. The Pacific FC centre-back may have the better odds of starting big games for this Canadian squad, particularly given his recent form.
Montgomery, however, has a good pedigree as well. He was traded to Minnesota from FC Dallas in December, after playing nine times in 2020 for San Antonio FC, the MLS side’s USL Championship affiliate. Either defender would be a strong option; Meilleur-Giguère does have slightly more experience representing Canada (primarily at the 2017 Concacaf U-20 Championship).
Canada has serious pace up the flanks with, possibly, an all-Montreal fullback pairing. Brault-Guillard is an obvious choice to start at right-back, with his four senior national team caps and consistent form for his club. Players who have performed consistently at the MLS level are likely to be difference-makers at this tournament, and Brault-Guillard fits the bill there.
Bassong caught the eye of a lot of fans at last January’s national team camp, where he could be spotted flying up and down the left touchline while earning his first two senior caps. If part of the goal for Canada’s youth sides is to create some consistency in the way Canadian teams play all the way up to the senior men, then you’d think that speedy fullbacks will be a major part of the equation.
Godinho actually has the most professional experience of this fullback group, from his stints at Heart of Midlothian, Berwick Rangers, and now FSV Zwickau. He’s played full 90-minute matches as recently as February 20, although his two recent games came on the tail end of a long-term ligament injury; his health may not be assured. Still, not many players on this team (if any) will have played more recently than Godinho, who also has five national team caps.
Godinho may also deserve the start, although that might mean shifting either him or Brault-Guillard to left-back. Whether that’s a risk Biello wants to take will have to be seen.
Michael Baldisimo (Vancouver Whitecaps FC), David Norman Jr. (Cavalry FC), Aidan Daniels (Oklahoma City Energy), Ryan Raposo (Vancouver Whitecaps FC), Patrick Metcalfe (Vancouver Whitecaps FC), Lucas Dias (Sporting CP)
The midfield is likely to be centred around Baldisimo, who was fantastic in a debut season for Vancouver this past season. He played under Biello before at the U-23 level, at the 2018 Toulon Tournament, and he’s sure to be a key part of this team. Baldisimo as a number eight pulling the strings and connecting defence to attack could be a real recipe for success for Canada.
Baldisimo’s Whitecaps teammates, Metcalfe and Raposo, could have roles in this side as well. Both played significant minutes for the Whitecaps this past year, with Raposo in particular drawing attention for his attacking prowess. Of course, this team is quite deep at the wing positions, so Raposo may be tasked with playing the understudy to Lucas Dias in the number 10 role. Metcalfe offers a good defensive presence in the middle of the park, so if Canada needs to clog up a game he might be their guy.
Daniels, also a key part of that Toulon Tournament team and a longtime regular of the youth national teams, had a solid 2020 in the USL Championship with the Colorado Springs Switchbacks (three goals in 16 games) before his move to Oklahoma City. The Toronto FC academy product has been on the radar for a while, so this tournament might be a chance for him to fully demonstrate his abilities. He may also compete with Dias for the main attacking midfield spot, but he might get the nod by virtue of his age and experience.
Getting Dias involved was very positive news for Canada Soccer, who will be looking to get the dual-international to commit fully to Les Rouges at the senior level eventually. The 18-year-old, who has been playing consistently good attacking football for Sporting CP’s under-23 team the past few months, has a very high ceiling, and he’s a player fans should be excited about. Dias has buckets of natural talent, and he’s been putting it to good use in Portugal. The question may be how much pressure Biello is willing to put on a player who hasn’t yet donned a Canada jersey, and who will be four to five years younger than most of his opponents and teammates.
The wildcard in this midfield group is David Norman Jr. The recent Cavalry signing has had a tough go of it at the club level recently, with injuries ultimately leaving him on the outside looking in at MLS side Inter Miami. He’s always looked good when given an opportunity, though. Norman is one of the better two-way midfielders in this player pool, who seems to be able to play in any role he’s plugged into. Biello will have some options with how to deploy him, but a lack of match sharpness could be a problem.
Tajon Buchanan (New England Revolution), Charles-Andreas Brym (Royal Mouscron), Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla (CF Montréal), Theo Bair (Vancouver Whitecaps FC), Kris Twardek (Jagiellonia Białystok)
No shortage of talent on offer here. All five of these attackers have been called up to the senior national team at least once (Buchanan for the first time this past January), and they’re all quite exciting prospects.
One thing that does stand out is that most of these players are primarily wingers, although Brym and Bair were part of the Canada squad last January that had success with a two-forward system that allowed them to cover a lot of ground toward the edges. Those two players stood out at that camp in games against Barbados and Iceland, each of them scoring a goal. Neither has played since late 2020, but the talent is there.
Buchanan’s inclusion is exciting, given his 28 appearances at the MLS level this past season with New England. He scored for the Revs in a playoff game and played all four matches for the club during their run to the Eastern Conference Final. That was a few months ago now, but Buchanan’s most recent work was top-notch.
Tabla has had a bit of a drop in fortunes the past year or so, but he’s been one of Canada’s most highly-touted prospects since before his move to FC Barcelona B in 2018. He hasn’t been involved with any Canada Soccer squads since March 2019 (before his move back to Montreal), but Tabla is an obviously talented player who could be one of the tournament’s best if he hits his stride.
The fact that Canada has managed to secure Twardek’s participation is significant; he’s been in-season for several months now, and he’s been playing regularly in the Polish top flight. He’ll be one of the most experienced players at the Olympic qualifiers, with around 100 professional appearances already, plus he’ll be match fit. Twardek may just be Canada’s in-form attacking catalyst at the moment.