SANDOR: Shutouts a must for Canada vs. Cuba in Nations League

Before the multi-platinum band strolls onto the stage for its show packed with pyrotechnics and power, there’s the opening act. The warm-up band. The group that has space for one t-shirt at the merch booth and gets maybe a half-hour set.

Make no mistake. Cuba is the opening act. The United States is the headliner.

When Canada faces Cuba Saturday in Toronto, then in the Caribbean next week, it’s imperative to get six points in CONCACAF Nations League Group A play, and earn FIFA rankings points that help on the World Cup qualifying road. But, maybe even more important for Canada, it’s also a training ground ahead of two massive autumn matches against the U.S.

The Cuba games give coach John Herdman and his team the chance to correct their path after being stunned at this summer’s Gold Cup by Haiti. Yes, it’s always dangerous to look past an opponent, but these games against Cuba have to be played with an eye on the Americans.

What should Canada’s priorities be for the Cuba contests? In a word, shutouts. Sure, we want the team to score goals, we want Jonathan David to continue his push to become Canada’s all-time leading goal scorer before he even hits the prime of his career. But it’s far more important for this team to record a couple of clean sheets.

That’s right; it doesn’t matter if Canada scores one or eight, as long as the other side of the scoreline is a zero.

After the Haiti debacle of the Gold Cup, where Canada’s makeshift backline surrendered a two-goal lead, Herdman has to emphasize some defensive steel. In the Gold Cup, an experiment to make Alphonso Davies a left fullback didn’t bear fruit. Marcus Godinho, who missed most of the Scottish Premier League season, was exposed at right back and veteran Atiba Hutchinson was pressed into service as an emergency centre back.

The roster has since changed. Godinho and Hutchinson aren’t with Canada this time. Davies is listed as a forward (fingers crossed). Veterans Steven Vitoria and Adam Straith, who have long been in orbit of the national side, have earned recalls. The Whitecaps defensive duo of Derek Cornelius and Doneil Henry are in camp. Juan Cordova, Samuel Adekugbe, Kamal Miller and Richie Laryea could help address the fullback mess.

Herdman addressed the rejig on the back line, and his comments in the run-up to the Cuba game hint that there are jobs out there to be won.

Derek Cornelius fights for the ball against Haiti at the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup. (Frantzdy Pierrot/Canada Soccer).
Derek Cornelius fights for the ball against Haiti at the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup. (Frantzdy Pierrot/Canada Soccer).

“Coming out of the Gold Cup, the fullbacks that we monitored during that period of time, and used, hadn’t accumulated a great amount of playing time,” Herdman said.

“So, it was great to see Richie turning out for TFC consistently… He’s shown a lot of confidence and he’s had a big impact on TFC’s turn of form and you can see he has the athleticism to play that role, but he also has the composure on the ball, whether he’s in front of the midfield line or behind the midfield line.”

Herdman pointed out that Cornelius and Henry are playing regularly, which is not a luxury he had when picking defenders for the Gold Cup.

“We’ve got a full compilation of left backs to choose from,” Herdman said. “Sam Adekugbe is now fit and playing consistently again, which he wasn’t prior to the Gold Cup, he was recovering from an MCL, and you’ve got Kamal Miller at left back, who, coming out of the Gold Cup, has played four matches for Orlando and put in some real good performances where he’s been able to keep his position.”

Laryea and Cordova will look to improve the team’s defence on the right and Herdman is bullish that Vitoria will make an impact in the middle.

“Only four months ago, Steven was struggling to get game time in the Polish top league, and now he’s picking up a game every week at centre back, keeping clean sheets, in the top league in Portugal,” Herdman explained.

So, Herdman keeps hammering home the point: He didn’t have a lot to choose from ahead of the Gold Cup. Many of his first-choice defenders either weren’t getting playing time with their clubs or were hurt. Those circumstances have changed and now he can build something with the pieces he’s got.

The thing is, he’s only got two games to make it all work — because you don’t want to have to play the Americans in October and November with a back line still in the “under construction” phase. Because the Americans will pack the pyro and the power.