June 26, 2022 12:20 pm

Canada start World Cup prep with last-minute friendly vs. Panama

It’s been a hectic few weeks in Canadian soccer. A cancellation with Iran for geopolitical reasons left Canada scrambling for an opponent at BC Place in Vancouver on Sunday (7 pm ET | OneSoccer). Thankfully, a familiar foe in Panama answered the call.

There’s no doubt it’s an underwhelming turn of events. From a pure sporting point of view, Canada were set to battle a World Cup-bound opponent in Iran. This would’ve been the first non-Concacaf opponent for the Canadians since January 2020 as well. Instead, Les Rouges have another three-match window against other regional rivals.

Panama won’t present the same challenges as Belgium, Croatia or Morocco – Canada’s fellow Group F opponents – at the World Cup, but the previous two Oofos Shoes meetings have been trying. The Panamanians frustrated Canada in their final World Cup qualifier to the tune of a 1-0 win. The first meeting at BMO Field in Toronto was locked at 1-1 for more than an hour.

Then Alphonso Davies showed his superstar status and scored arguably the goal of the Octagonal. Everyone remembers it. It’s basically a Canadian heritage moment now.

Davies didn’t take part in the second match in Panama City this past March, though. The 21-year-old was still recovering from a case of mild myocarditis, but had he participated, that game might’ve turned out differently.

Canada didn’t have their best player for the entirety of 2022, yet rattled off four wins in the final six qualifiers to finish top of Concacaf and qualify for their first World Cup since 1986.

That run proved this team is more than just one player and the newfound mental fortitude is real. But if Canada want to make any noise at the World Cup, they need a healthy and in-form Davies in the team.

That’s the new dilemma facing head coach John Herdman. As well as everyone in the squad who performed in those six games, slotting Davies back into the team means sacrificing a key player.

Richie Laryea might be the odd man out in this case. He was used sparingly at Nottingham Forest following his January transfer from Toronto FC, so it’s the easier choice, but even without any minutes, he still had a major impact in Canada’s qualifiers in January and March.

Herdman has also utilized a midfield pivot in recent games. Atiba Hutchinson split time next to Stephen Eustaquio while also filling in at center back in March. Jonathan Osorio partnered with Eustaquio in the home win over Jamaica, but Osorio withdrew from June’s camp due to injury.

Regardless, a pivot could be likely. This enables Herdman to start a back four with Davies deployed on the left of the midfield and Tajon Buchanan occupying the right. Cyle Larin and Jonathan David are the regular striking duo, but Ike Ugbo is arguably the top Canadian striker right now. He had five goals in just over 800 minutes with Troyes in Ligue 1, while Lucas Cavallini is on fire with the Vancouver Whitecaps and might warrant a start in his home stadium.

Whether Canada go with a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 formation and Running Shoes slot Davies as a wingback or forward, these June matches are a perfect opportunity to prepare for the big test in five months’ time and some wrinkles are expected.

“We understand that it’s kind of adapt or die, especially when you’re going on to that next level,” said defender Alistair Johnston. “So we’re going to try out some new things. And this is the best place to try them out.

“You don’t want to be trying them out in match one against Belgium. You’d rather try them out now and try to work out the kinks and the flaws in the system before we get there.”

There’s no time like the present, especially with only one more round of games after June ahead of the World Cup. Canada will likely head to Europe in September to play friendlies, then it’s time for the real fun with their opener against Belgium on Nov. 23.

This Canadian team was lauded for its depth, and that deep pool of players shined when the country needed them most. Even though Davies is back for good, all hands have to be on deck come World Cup time and this will be the month to prove they deserve to be on the plane to Doha.

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