Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies highlights a young Canada squad for World Cup qualifiers against Bermuda and the Cayman Islands this week.
Canada Soccer announced the roster Tuesday, delaying the announcement until all the players could arrive in camp and meet COVID-19 protocols. The games, both to be held in Florida because of pandemic-related travel restrictions, mark the oft-delayed start of World Cup qualifying in the CONCACAF region.
Assembling the roster from around the globe given the current conditions has not been easy.
"What a mission to get that roster in, what a mission," coach John Herdman said with a sigh. "It's been crazy."
Herdman said getting the players in camp involved dealing with national federations and clubs, the Canadian and U.S. Olympic Committees, Major League Soccer and embassies around the globe. Davies, for one, was on the move in Germany helping secure his own visa, he added.
"I take my hat off to these guys," Herdman told a virtual news conference. "They have families back home that are probably questioning their decisions to come halfway around the world at this time in their careers.
"It just speaks volumes to, one, the brotherhood and what they've created here and wanting to be part of something. And, two, how serious they're taking this World Cup qualification campaign. So massive respect."
The Canadians, ranked 73rd in the world, open Thursday against No. 169 Bermuda in Orlando before facing the No. 193 Cayman Islands on Sunday in Bradenton in first-round Group B play. They will have to play at least 18 more games if they are to make it to Qatar 2022.
The Canadian men have not played a competitive match since Nov. 15, 2109, when they lost 4-1 to the U.S. in CONCACAF Nations League play. The only games since then were three friendlies — two against Barbados and one against Iceland — in January 2020.
Ten of the current 24-man roster are 24 or younger, including the 20-year-old Davies. There are two teenagers in Theo Corbeanu and Jayden Nelson, both 18.
The roster has a combined 343 caps with Atiba Hutchinson (84), Milan Borjan (49), Samuel Piette (49), Cyle Larin (31) and Junior Hoilett (27) accounting for 240 of them. Davies has 17 caps.
Seven players — Corbeanu (Woverhampton Wanderers), Ricardo Ferreira (unattached), Dayne St. Clair (Minnesota United, Frank Sturing (FC Den Bosch), Joel Waterman (CF Montreal), Alistair Johnston (Nashville SC) and Cristian Gutierrez (Vancouver Whitecaps) — are uncapped.
Another seven have single-digit caps.
"The goal is always to select the best players — players playing at the highest level, players in form, and then to also look at some of the prospects," Herdman said when asked about the youthful roster.
"It is a young team and it is where we're at … There is a lack of experience in here," he added in an interview. "I mean that's normal and there's some things that we're going to have to learn together. But at the same time we've got some really experienced guys in Atiba Hutchinson and Junior Hoilett and Milan Borjan. Those guys, that sprinkling of veterans gives us that wise head and, I think, a real strong leadership core."
He pointed to Corbeanu as an example of the youth. The 18-year-old winger, who also holds Romanian citizenship, has been playing at the under-23 level for England's Wolves but has dressed for the first team.
"He's got a bright future," said Herdman. "And if being part of the national team can help that future come a bit sooner with regard to pushing into the first team at Wolves, then hopefully picking up some game time in this Canadian team will send a clear message about where we think he's at."
There are 11 MLS players including three from the Vancouver Whitecaps, three from CF Montreal and two from Toronto FC.
Lille forward Jonathan David was unavailable in the wake of French Ligue 1 clubs opting not to release foreign players summoned for international duty outside the European Union due to COVID-19 quarantine rules.
France currently requires anyone entering the country to quarantine for seven days. FIFA has allowed clubs to hold on to their players if they face a quarantine of longer than five days.
Herdman said David was "absolutely gutted" at having to miss the Canada matches. But with Lille slated to play Paris Saint-Germain in a top-of-the-table clash on April 3, David's club was unwilling to waive the rules.
In contrast, Valerenga Fotball allowed defender Samuel Adekugbe to come despite Norway also having a seven-day quarantine. Their decision was easier given Norway's season start has been pushed back to May due to the pandemic.
On the plus side, fans may well get a chance to see Davies, who starts at left back for Bayern, return to a more attacking role.
"Coming into these games I think he could be a real threat in the forward line," said Herdman. "We'll take it game by game."
Herdman said veteran midfielder Scott Arfield is not on the roster because he wanted to focus on his family and his club season with Scotland's Rangers.
"I'm hoping we see Scott back. He just needed that time to really make a commitment at club level given the amount of travel he had committed to in the previous two, three years with the national team with the national team — two Golds Cups and turning up to every Nations League (match)," said Herdman.
Toronto FC midfielder Jonathan Osorio was forced to drop out after a picking up a slight injury in his last training session before leaving for the Canada camp. He was replaced by Nelson.
The match against Bermuda is officially a Canada home game but will be played at Orlando's Exploria Stadium. The Cayman Islands opted to shift Sunday's game to Bradenton's IMG Academy for the same reason.
Both matches will be played in empty stadiums. Canada's next games are June 5 at No. 200 Aruba and June 8, officially at home, to No. 141 Suriname.
Bermuda has moved its home game Sunday against Aruba to Bradenton, where the Bermudians held a camp earlier in the month.
There are six first-round groups and only the group winners advance. The top team in Group B will face the winner of Group E (which consists of No. 84 Haiti, No. 149 Nicaragua, No. 170 Belize, No. 175 Saint Lucia and the 203rd-ranked Turks and Caicos Islands) in a home-and-away series in June.
The three teams to survive the first two rounds of qualifying advance to the final round in the region, joining Mexico (No. 9), the U.S. (No. 22), Jamaica (No. 47), Costa Rica (No. 50) and Honduras (No. 64). The eight teams in the so-called Octagon will play each other home and away, with each country playing 14 matches from September 2021 through March 2022.
The top three teams in the final round qualify automatically for Qatar 2022. The fourth team will take part in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.
The Canadian men, who are co-hosting the 2026 World Cup along with Mexico and the U.S., have only ever qualified for one World Cup — 1986 in Mexico where they exited after failing to score in losses to France, Hungary and the Soviet Union.
Goalkeepers: Milan Borjan, Red Star Belgrade (Serbia); Maxime Crepeau, Vancouver Whitecaps (MLS); Dayne St. Clair, Minnesota United (MLS).
Defenders: Samuel Adekugbe, Valerenga Fotball (Norway); Ricardo Ferreira (unattached); Cristian Gutierrez, Vancouver Whitecaps (MLS); Alistair Johnston, Nashville SC (MLS); Richie Laryea, Toronto FC (MLS); Kamal Miller, CF Montreal (MLS); Frank Sturing, FC Den Bosch (the Netherlands); Steven Vitoria, Moreirense FC (Portugal); Joel Waterman, CF Montreal (MLS)
Midfielders: Theo Corbeanu, Wolverhampton Wanderers (England); Stephen Eustaquio, FC Pacos de Ferreira (Portugal); Atiba Hutchinson, Besiktas JK (Turkey); Mark-Anthony Kaye, Los Angeles FC (MLS); Jayden Nelson, Toronto FC (MLS); Samuel Piette, CF Montreal (MLS); David Wotherspoon, St. Johnstone (Scotland).
Forwards: Lucas Cavallini, Vancouver Whitecaps (MLS); Alphonso Davies, Bayern Munich (Germany); David (Junior) Hoilett, Cardiff City (Wales); Cyle Larin, Besiktas JK (Turkey); Liam Millar, Charlton Athletic (England).
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press