World Cup countdown: Who were Canada soccer’s key weekend performers?
Our new series is underway, analyzing some of Canada’s most important performers from the club soccer weekend that was – all in advance of the FIFA 2022 World Cup.
Drawn into Group F, Canada will also play two friendlies in the September window against Qatar (Sept. 23) and Uruguay (Sept. 27), both held in Austria. And a mere three months remain before 32 teams descend on the Middle East, where Les Rouges will be competing in their first World Cup since 1986.
From across Europe and in MLS, here’s a selection of the top-performing Canadian internationals across the globe this weekend. Competition is ramping up to make head coach John Herdman’s 26-man squad; players who were in previously precarious situations are now thriving and a few names are making a late push to crack the World Cup roster in November.
It was a tough day at the office for Jonathan David and Lille, who were blown out 7-1 by Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue 1’s marquee clash on Sunday.
David started up front for Les Dogues, a rarity so far with the 22-year-old shuttled to the right flank in an inside forward role vs. Auxerre and Nantes in the opening two matches, racking up two goals and two assists in the process. Even in the blowout, David was still taking on PSG’s defense, registering two shots – although neither really tested goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Regardless, a motivated and engaged David is great news for the Canadian men’s national team. Ideally, he stays in this inside forward role because David is best deployed playing behind a No. 9, or as part of a duo where he can alternate dropping deep and pushing forward.
If there were any concerns about Steven Vitoria’s potential playing time at Chaves in Portugal’s Primeira Liga, it’s been put to rest. The veteran defender picked up his third straight start in a 1-1 draw with Vizela on Saturday and was immense at the back.
The 35-year-old had three clearances, two interceptions, two blocks and won all five of his aerial duels. To top it off, Vitoria is deployed in the center of a back three when Chaves have possession. That’s precisely how he’s utilized for Canada so the more reps he earns in that role, the better for the national team when the World Cup rolls around.
Vitoria spent the last few seasons at Moreirense in Portugal, and there were concerns he’d reach a stagnation point upon leaving. That doesn’t seem to be the case at Chaves, promoted for 2022-23 from the second division.
CF Montréal have become the hotbed for Canadian internationals in MLS, especially when it comes to defenders. And having picked up a clean sheet in a 4-0 victory over the New England Revolution on Saturday night, there were several standouts.
However, none are more fascinating than Alistair Johnston. Not only has he shined at right wingback in Montréal’s 3-5-2 formation, but he’s added more offensive characteristics to his game this season.
Johnston burst forward in the 34th minute against New England and picked out Mathieu Choiniere in the box with a cutback, but Choiniere couldn’t corral the ball in time to release a shot. His set pieces were a threat, too, with Kei Kamara and Gabriele Corbo coming close to scoring off corners in the first half.
Considering Johnston has been utilized as a right-sided center back for Canada due to his defensive prowess, this could add an interesting wrinkle to the national team. Richie Laryea or Tajon Buchanan will likely be preferred on the right, but Johnston’s crossing abilities could be useful in Qatar.
Johnston, traded from Nashville SC during the offseason, has become one of the program’s most important players. He appeared in every Octagonal qualifier as Canada topped the region, finishing above both the United States and Mexico.
Two last-ditch blocks prevented Sam Adekugbe from registering two assists for Hatayspor in Turkey’s Süper Lig, which would’ve come in handy as they lost 2-1 to Gaziantep on Saturday.
It was a tremendous showing from Adekugbe, though. He regularly found space down the left flank, progressing the ball deep into the final third. To top it off, he was impenetrable defensively, winning all four of his duels and completing two interceptions.
It just reinforces Adekugbe’s strong two-way game and provided he stays fit, the 27-year-old will waltz into Qatar in top form. Now in Europe for more than a half-decade, Adekugbe’s pro career started in 2013 as a Vancouver Whitecaps FC homegrown player.
David Junior Hoilett
The week began on a high for Junior Hoilett, who scored for Reading in their 3-0 win over Blackburn before going the full 90 again in Saturday’s narrow victory against Middlesbrough.
Hoilett has started all of Reading’s games in England’s Championship (second division) at right wingback, but has the freedom to roam across the pitch, so he’ll often be seen as an attacking winger or No. 10.
That will come in handy come World Cup time because Hoilett has played across the pitch for Canada recently. The 32-year-old’s ability to maneuver through tight spaces quickly and progress the ball can be utilized in a variety of roles, whether it’s on the flanks or in midfield.
Saturday evening’s 2-1 loss to Inter Miami CF was a blow to Toronto FC’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs chances, but it further bolstered Richie Laryea’s national-team stock. He’s been dynamite since rejoining the Reds on a deadline day loan from English Premier League side Nottingham Forest.
Laryea’s dynamism in the final third, his work rate off the ball and composure on the dribble were all unleashed over the weekend – and it’s a blessing for the Les Rouges. He remained consistently effective for Canada when he rode the bench at Nottingham Forest, but one of John Herdman’s most-capped players is ideally playing regularly.
It’s also temporarily placed Laryea above Tajon Buchanan in the pecking order of right-sided players. The former New England Revolution winger hasn’t played this season for Club Brugge in Belgium due to injury and isn’t expected back until September, so Laryea will have the upper hand come the September window – maybe even for the World Cup – at this rate.
Can Canada emerge from tough Group F at Qatar 2022 World Cup?