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Canada’s golden generation and the quest for a World Cup

Canada head coach John Herdman, left, and David Junior Hoilett walk off the field after the first half of a CONCACAF Nations League qualifying soccer match against French Guiana in Vancouver, on Sunday March 24, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

VANCOUVER — The Concacaf Nations League match between Canada and French Guiana in front of 17,124 fans was not exactly a marquee matchup. But at the same time, it may be an important marker in Canada’s quest to finally qualify for the men’s World Cup for only the second time in history and the first time since Mexico 1986. 

For now, Qatar 2022 is still far away. Today is all about Gold Cup qualification. In order to ensure a spot at the 2019 Gold Cup, Canada needed a result they easily got by beating French Guiana 4-1. 

The victory not only qualified Canada for the Gold Cup, but also placed Canada in the Concacaf Nations League A, where it could face Mexico and the United States. 

Not in the squad Sunday was Alphonso Davies. The Bayern Munich star, who scored his first Bundesliga goal last week, was told to sit this one out by Bayern’s medical staff after suffering a minor knock in that game against Mainz. 

In the past, not having their biggest star participate would have been a problem for the boys in red. Canada’s soccer history, after all, is full of qualification debacles against smaller countries. But this Canada side is different; it is a team that has caused a bit of excitement and talk of a golden generation. 

Junior Hoilett from Cardiff City opened the scoring with a drive from just outside the penalty box in the 13th minute. He is one of the many players to watch. In great form for Cardiff City this season, Hoilett could have also played for Jamaica but opted for Canada instead.

French Guiana goalkeeper Jean-Beaunel Petit-Homme allows a goal to Canada’s Lucas Cavallini, not seen, as Canada’s Atiba Hutchinson (13) watches during a Concacaf Nations League qualifying soccer match Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Vancouver. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

Then there is goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who has excelled with Belgrade side Crvena zvezda in the Champions League this season. In midfield, Besiktas’ central midfielder Atiba Hutchinson ensured Canada was always in control. 

Hutchinson is in many ways the leader of this side. The 36-year-old has experienced many ups-and-downs in his career and is now in charge of leading this young group with an average age of 25.1 years. Hutchinson is a bit of an outlier among many teenagers just getting started with their careers. 

“Well, for me as a, you know, as a veteran in the team, one with more experience, all I can do is just, you know, try to talk to them as much as I can, try to share with them, you know, the experiences that I’ve been through, what I’ve seen. A lot of them are young players and playing with some big clubs, so the confidence and everything is there, they don’t need me to be pushing them,” Hutchinson said with a smile when asked about his role in guiding the young players.

In an era of flat hierarchies for Hutchinson, it is more about talking to the players, he said, adding, “Like I said, these these guys are, they’re so talented.”

Canada’s Atiba Hutchinson, left, gets his head on the ball in front of French Guiana’s Soleyman Auguste during the second half of a CONCACAF Nations League qualifying soccer match in Vancouver, on Sunday March 24, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

Hutchinson is certainly the silent leader and together with Borja and Hoilett forms the spine of a Canada side that, along with mega talent Davies, includes Barcelona academy player Ballou Tabia and Liverpool player Liam Miller.

Finally, there is Jonathan David. The 19-year-old has been a bit overshadowed by Davies in recent months. But playing in Belgium, David has scored eight goals and four assists in 23 games and has made it in the notebooks of several Bundesliga sides. 

In other words, this Canada team has both talent and depth — both on vivid display throughout Sunday’s game.

But following a 1-0 lead provided by Hoilett, Canada also showed it’s still a bit of a work in progress. In the 27th minute, keeper Borjan and defensive midfielder Samuel Piette gifted a goal to French Guiana captain Kevin Rimane.

The equalizer would not stand long, however. In the 39th minute, striker Lucas Cavallini, who earns his money in Mexico playing for Puebla was set up by David for a goal. And two minutes later, David scored himself to make it 3-1 with a beautiful close-range finish. 

It was a positive reaction to a minor setback.

The second half was only a few moments old when Cavallini added his second of the game to make it 4-1 in the 50th minute. From there, it was easy sailing for this talented Canada side.

David, in particular, impressed on the right wing and one can only imagine what sort of partnership he could develop with Davies up front — a partnership that could be one of the best in the entire Concacaf region if they both keep up their development. 

When asked about a potential pairing of Davies and David up front, Herdman laughed.

“Jonathan did well today; it was hard not to pick them out is as a man of the match,” Herdman said. “But I think with these youth, you do actually, you know, give them that extra credit because the kid is only at 18.

“We’ve seen Jonathan progress now as well as maturity and his defensive work, and I thought he was outstanding at that today. Or, you can all get excited about is attacking, but the big box for me was his defensive play.”

Speaking of defense: Overall, Canada is on the ascent. Herdman pointed out that his side had four clean sheets recorded going into the game against French Guiana.

At the same time, this young Canadian side has not yet been properly tested.

Those tests, however, are just around the corner this summer at the Gold Cup and then in the Concacaf Nations League A. 

“You look at teams like Jamaica and El Salvador that have actually struggled, and Canada played for nearly five clean sheets in a row,” Herdman said. “We were so close [Sunday], but all in all proud of the boys. We asked for real purpose in their intent today.”

Said Hutchinson: “It’s amazing. Everybody’s very tight, you know, everybody’s on the same page. . . . The chemistry is is very high with with this group of guys, you know, on and off the field.”

That atmosphere can only translate into more success on the pitch as Canada builds for the future, one made brighter by three Canadian MLS academies and the introduction of a new nationwide championship in the form of the Canadian Premier League, which will start this spring. 

“I think firstly, it’s just super exciting that there is a CPL competition going on. I think the country is getting excited,” Herdman concluded.

Gold Cup qualification, Concacaf Nations League A qualification, a new Canadian Premier League on the horizon and a national team that is exciting to watch — Canada Soccer seems to have all the building blocks in place to qualify not just when the nation helps to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup with the U.S. and Mexico, but perhaps as early as 2022 when Qatar hosts the tournament.

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