Canada was riding high going into the 2022 FIFA World Cup, but a lot of the shine has worn off the men’s team since its first-round exit in Qatar.
The Canadians reached the finals of the Concacaf Nations League in June only to squander their chance to claim their first major trophy in 23 years with a timid display in a 2-0 loss to the United States. Later in the summer, Canada bowed out of the Gold Cup in the quarterfinals following another defeat to the Americans.
After being idle during the September international window due to Canada Soccer’s financial constraints, the Canadian men finally return to action on Friday with a marquee friendly against Japan in Niigata. The match serves as preparation for next month’s quarterfinals of the 2023-24 Nations League, which also doubles as qualifying for Concacaf nations looking to compete at the 2024 Copa America. But it also gives the Canadians a chance to regain some respect in the international game following its post-World Cup comedown.
Canada has a major point to prove, according to Vancouver Whitecaps fullback Richie Laryea, who was part of the squads that competed at the World Cup and both of this year’s Concacaf tournaments.
“We’re at that stage where we need to start adding wins against top teams in the world like Japan, adding trophies within the Concacaf region. These are things we’re going to have to start gunning for and they have to be the new normal for this national team with the talent pool and depth we have. That’s the next step,” Laryea told Sportsnet.
“Everyone always wants respect when they play, but more so this Japan game for us is about showing people what we can do. People have seen that on different scales between the last four to five years, but these games are pretty big statement games for us.”
Friday’s game is Canada’s first under Mauro Biello, who was appointed the team’s interim coach after John Herdman tendered his resignation in the summer to take charge of MLS club Toronto FC. Biello served as an assistant under Herdman and has let it be known that he views this international window as a job interview of sorts when it comes to having the interim tag removed from his title and being appointed the team’s full-time head coach.
As such, it’ll be interesting to watch how Biello balances maintaining continuity in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Herdman era, while at the same time introducing his ideas to the players and getting them to buy in.
“My mindset is the same whether I’m interim or I get confirmed as head coach, I’m looking at this the same way. For me there’s this short-term focus of building this team and getting the cohesion that we need to get to that next level, and then with a lens on what’s coming up in the future. There is qualification for Copa America; that is a very big tournament where we’ll be matched up with very good teams,” Biello recently told reporters.
“For me, I’m looking to gain answers here in the short term, and at the same time trying to slowly plan out what comes in the future.”
Even though Canada defeated Japan 2-1 in Dubai last November in its final World Cup tune-up match, Friday’s match is an entirely different matter. For starters, a sellout crowd of 43,000 fans is expected to cheer on the Japanese inside Denka Big Swan Stadium. Unlike Canada, the Asian giants enjoyed success at the World Cup, winning their group stage games against Spain and Germany before losing to eventual third-place finisher Croatia in the round of 16. The Samurai Blue have also won their last four games in international play.
“In terms of playing style, they’re pretty much the same team. They’re a well-oiled machine and have a very good structure in what they do. Obviously, since we’ve played them, they have a couple of guys that have made some pretty big strides and are playing really well at their pro clubs in La Liga [Real Sociedad’s Takefusa Kubo] and Scotland [Celtic’s Daizen Maeda]. So, there’s a lot of them doing really well right now. Japan also picked up some massive results at the World Cup since then, so it’s going to be a tough game, a really good game to test ourselves against them,” Laryea said.
Japan is 19th in the current FIFA world rankings (compared to 44th for Canada) and is noted for its proficient skills in possession, its quick ball movement and ability to grind opponents into the ground with its endless running.
Biello could counter that by going to a four-man back line and shifting away from the 3-5-2 formation that Herdman preferred. If he does move to four in defence, look for Alphonso Davies to slot in at the left fullback slot (his normal position at Bayern Munich), rather than playing him in a more advanced wingback or forward like Herdman did.
“I think as we all know he’s one of the best left backs and left-sided players in the world. For me, that’s important to continue to bring that continuity with him, also with the national team. So, we’re looking to play him in a position where he’s comfortable, where he sees things every week at his club,” Biello said.
“But at the same time for me, it’s about adjusting tactically, how we can maximize him on that left-hand side so he could bring his potential to the team.”
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While the bulk of the 23-man squad have international experience, there are a trio of newcomers who are looking to make their senior team debuts: midfielders Mathieu Choinière (CF Montreal) and Harry Paton (Motherwell FC), and 18-year-old Luc de Fougerolles, an English-born defender with Premier League club Fulham.
Choinière is in the middle of a breakout 2023 season for Montreal in which he’s firmly established himself as a starter and was named an MLS all-star. So, if any of the newcomers are to earn their first cap on Friday, it’ll likely be Choinière, although whether Biello will be brave enough to make such a bold move remains to be seen.
“Every time you look at the Montreal game sheet, he’s there playing 90 minutes,” Biello said of Choinière.
“He’s been their most consistent player, and I think he merits this call-up based on his performances in Montreal. He’s a player I know well, and he understands the game well, he knows how to exploit space, and his decision-making is very good, so now it’s up to him to see how he integrates into the group and is able to perform at those levels here.”