Win vs. Honduras sets CanMNT up for next chapter of evolution on path to 2026

On Tuesday night, after the Canadian men’s national team’s 4-1 win over Honduras, Atiba Hutchinson sat in front of a microphone and openly contemplated his future.

“Couple more games to go, but I’m very close now to the end of it,” he said. “It’s been a great spell for me, a good career I think, and I just want to finish off on a high note.”

The 40-year-old captain added: “This is not my announcement, but I’m kind of just letting you guys know that I’m happy about the career I’ve had with the national team.”

Hutchinson has spent the better part of 20 years as a tireless servant for his country. He’s stuck with the program through its most painful lows en route to the highs of the past few years, with 103 international caps to show for it.

This game, though, was not about Atiba. It was about life after Atiba, and what comes next for Canada over the next four years.

However many games Hutchinson has left with Canada — whether he retires after the Nations League finals in June or carries on — it has never been clearer that this team will be just fine once the time comes for him to move on.

Until very recently, Hutchinson was still the resolute anchor of Canada’s midfield. Even as Stephen Eustáquio emerged as a world class string-puller in the middle, and Jonathan Osorio developed his presence from young sparkplug to wily veteran, the national team always looked better and more stable in the middle with Hutchinson in the team than without.

For the first time ever, that may no longer be true.

Ismaël Koné, just 20 years old, made his 11th appearance for Canada on Tuesday, and just his fourth start. His rise has been extraordinary: since making his Major League Soccer debut just over a year ago, he’s debuted for Canada, played in all three matches at the World Cup, and earned a major transfer to Watford in the English Championship.

Lining up in midfield with Eustáquio and Osorio against Honduras, Koné stated firmly and clearly that he belongs in Canada’s first-choice starting XI. John Herdman called the youngster’s outing one of the best midfield performances he’s seen since he’s been Canada coach, and Hutchinson himself expressed that it’s been a pleasure to witness Koné’s trajectory the past few months.

“Amazing, right?” Osorio added. “I was talking to him about the way he’s come up and how it happened really fast; it’s an amazing story. This is a young player that’s playing” with a lot of confidence, and he has a bright future. He’s just scratching the surface of what he can accomplish right now, and that’s very exciting for the program.”

It’s not just Koné’s performance that heralds the beginning of a new phase for the men’s national team, though. Canada’s 10 outfield players against Honduras had an average age of 24.6 — the youngest for Canada in a competitive match since the Jamaica draw in October 2021 (which featured many of the same players, who would obviously have been a year and a half younger). Seven of the 10 for Canada on Tuesday were 25 or younger.

With Steven Vitória out through suspension and Junior Hoilett injured, this match was largely one where — particularly in midfield and defence — Herdman handed the keys fully to the next generation that will lead Canada into 2026. Scott Kennedy and Derek Cornelius (both 25) started both matches in this window, and another 25-year-old in Kyle Hiebert came off the bench.

The likes of Victor Loturi and Dominick Zator didn’t get on the pitch, but add them to a growing list of players set to play a role in the next evolution of Herdman’s team.

The previous era for Canada was one of ascent — where the young superstars like Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, and plenty of others exploded onto the scene and lifted Canada to the World Cup with the help of veterans Hutchinson, Vitória, Hoilett and Milan Borjan.

The past few days have been the start of a new era. The 2022 World Cup is over; no Concacaf opponent will ever be surprised by Canada again. The new objective is to cement this team as a regional powerhouse, and to become a genuine threat on the global stage before hosting matches in 2026.

With that being the goal, beating Honduras was an absolute necessity. Canada now find themselves in the Nations League final four, where they’ll play for a trophy, but perhaps more importantly they’re now in pole position to qualify for the 2024 Copa América — the importance of which cannot be understated.

Herdman suggested as much on Tuesday after the match. When Canada begin the next World Cup, they absolutely cannot go into it with as little experience against top-tier opposition as they had entering Qatar. Knockout matches against the United States and Mexico at the Nations League or Gold Cup are solid, competitive tests, but even those pale in comparison to the prospect of an Argentina or Brazil.

“If you want to be part of Concacaf’s elite, you have to be in these final moments; you’ve got to get into these big events,” Herdman said.

He went on to add: “If this team’s not playing tier one games, getting tier one matches consistently, we are wasting our time. They have to get those experiences, because when you come up against a midfield three of [Croatia’s Marcelo] Brozović, [Mateo] Kovaćić and [Luka] Modrić, it’s another level. They can find gears, and you have to have those experiences as coaches, as players.”

Derek Cornelius and Jonathan David. (Photo: Kenny Edwards/CPL)

Tuesday’s match was not a major test for Canada, but it unlocked some. Much like the matches against Haiti in World Cup Qualifying, the Honduras win was a hurdle they had to clear en route to the true objective — the first page of a new chapter, perhaps.

Ismaël Koné’s performance at BMO Field provided a glimpse of what life may look like for the Canadian men’s national team once Atiba Hutchinson retires. In fact, Canada’s lineup — minus Kamal Miller, maybe — probably isn’t far from what it could look like two or three years from now.

As Hutchinson pondered the future of this program on Tuesday, he was asked a simple question: Will he leave the Canadian men’s national team in a better place than he found it?

“It’s in a better place for sure,” he concluded. “That’s something we’ve all wanted to do as a group, just to continue to push the limits and really make this team, this country a footballing nation.

“Every time we go out there, we go out there and show the country, the world, that we can play some really good football, and we’re extremely proud of that.”

Tuesday night, Canada — once again — took their first steps into a new phase of evolution.