World Cup preparations will begin for Canada on Sunday with a friendly at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver against Panama. Los Canaleros were added as last-minute replacements for this encounter after Canada Soccer cancelled the originally scheduled fixture versus Iran due to growing concerns about the history between both nations. Canada will come to Qatar full of hope that they can make a splash on the international scene in their second-ever appearance at the finals. Manager John Herdman has some difficult decisions to make about whom to choose ahead of the World Cup, and the goal for this upcoming international window will be to see who is the right fit for this team come November.
Since the Newcastle-born coach transitioned from the Canadian women’s team to the men’s program, he has got the most out of his players, who earned points in 12 of their 14 qualifying matches in the Octagon, finishing on top of the standings. Throughout qualifying, the Canucks proved to be fast learners, capable of playing in a variety of different formations, adapting to what opponents were showing them more often than not. Traditionally, Canada like to build out from the back in a 3+1 shape, relying on the beautiful vision and game management of Stephen Eustaquio, who has been an excellent link between the midfield and attack, with a wonderful ability to switch play quickly.
Given their speed and skill on the wing, it is no surprise that they like to stretch the field and do their damage in transition, as they have players who can burn you in one-versus-one situations, along with some of the most potent strikers in CONCACAF. One of the main issues which plagued them in qualifying was that they invited a lot of sustained pressure into their third of the field, which is something that they will want to improve on before the World Cup when they face three quality sides in Belgium, Croatia and Morocco. Canada like to throw numbers forward in the final third, and they have a solid base in the midfield who can break up counterattacks effectively.
A qualification campaign which began with so much promise for Thomas Christiansen and the Panamanians ended in disappointment, as they wound up in fifth in the Octagon. An inability to be consistently creative plus timid defending on the road did them in as they lost five of their seven matches away from home and were outscored 12-2 in those defeats. When playing in Central America, this team can be a lot stingier on the defensive side, posting back-to-back clean sheets at home and conceding just a single shot on target in those victories over Canada (1-0) and Costa Rica (2-0).
As good as this team are in their set-up, they seem to fall apart after suffering a setback, allowing four unanswered goals to the Canucks in a 4-1 defeat last year and conceding five to the United States before scoring a late consolation goal in their second to last qualifier. Christiansen will want his players to be more aggressive defensively in this encounter against a formidable Canadian attack, who caused all sorts of problems in the final third for opposing teams in CONCACAF qualifying. Panama embody what Christiansen has always preached as a coach, a focus on maintaining possession for long stretches, while building up superiorities in different areas of the pitch.
While this program has come a long way since the former Leeds United boss took over, he has admitted that there is a lack of grassroots footballing knowledge that needs improvement. La Marea Roja are physically strong, technically fit and athletic, and their short-term goal will be to have a strong showing at the CONCACAF Nations League which began earlier this week. After missing all of their qualifiers this year with a case of myocarditis, Alphonso Davies is back on the Canada squad for this international window, and he scored a breathtaking winner the last time they hosted Panama in October of last year.
Milan Borjan, who had six clean sheets in the Octagon, can move beyond Nick Dasovic and Kevin McKenna for ninth in all-time caps for the national team if he plays on Sunday, though he still has a ways to go if he wants to catch Atiba Hutchinson for the most ever, with the Canadian skipper appearing 95 times for Les Rouges. Cyle Larin was the top goalscorer in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, tallying six times, Jonathan David led Lille in scoring this past season in Ligue 1 with 15 goals, while Lucas Cavallini is first for the Vancouver Whitecaps domestically in that department, needing one more strike for the national team to draw even with his club teammate Tosaint Ricketts for fifth.
Luca Koleosho received his first call-up for the Canadians, Dayne St. Clair has been arguably the best goalkeeper in Major League Soccer, stealing numerous games between the sticks for Minnesota United this year, and Richie Laryea will be playing in the Premier League next season after his side, Nottingham Forest, were promoted thanks to a playoff victory over Huddersfield Town. On Thursday, goals from Ismael Diaz and Cecilio Waterman gave Panama a 2-0 win over Costa Rica in their opening fixture at the CONCACAF Nations League. Gabriel Torres had the only goal in their shutout victory over Canada on the final day of qualifying thanks to a nice set-up from Jose Luis Rodriguez.
Alberto Quintero surpassed Armando Cooper for third in international caps for Panama on Thursday, while Anibal Godoy and Freddy Gondola came on as substitutes. Los Canaleros have a relatively inexperienced backline for this international window, as Cesar Blackman, Jiovany Ramos and Samir Ramirez each have fewer than 10 caps with the senior squad.
Canada possible starting lineup:
St. Clair; Kennedy, Vitoria, Laryea; Edwards, Piette, Hutchinson, Buchanan; Davies; Larin, Cavallini
Panama possible starting lineup:
Mosquera; Blackman, Escobar, Ramos, Davis; Godoy, Carrasquilla; Barcenas, Rodriguez, Gondola; Blackburn