Canada's World Cup Fate Was Decided In Panama Back in March
Now that Canada's World Cup journey has ended and the team's players have headed back to their respective homes after their experience in Qatar, I reflect on what could have been...
Point 1 - Canada has completed their trip to the FIFA World Cup in Qatar after losing all three of their group stage matches against Belgium, Croatia and Morocco. Given the strong teams in Group F, everyone knew that it was not going to be easy for Canada to make it out and into the Round of 16, but optimism was high due to the strong showing Canada had in their qualifying campaign and the young talent they had assembled. However, it was not to be - the three teams Canada played were ranked much higher in the FIFA rankings than Canada and showed why, even though Canada had stretches in those games where they actually dominated their opponent. By going up against three strong teams, it played out to its logical conclusion and Canada goes home after nine days. It didn't have to be. Canada had chances to stick around and play more games had they taken their final World Cup qualification match a bit more seriously. Their fate was sealed back on March 30, 2022, when they lost 1-0 to Panama. Canada has already qualified days before and this last game was meaningless - except for their FIFA rankings. At the time, Canada were ranked 35th in the world, just behind 34th ranked Tunisia, who had finished their qualifying matches and could gain no more FIFA ranking points prior to the World Cup draws. A win against Panama and the FIFA ranking points gained would have them switch places with Tunisia and a spot in Pot 3, which means any group they were put in should have at least one team that was behind them in the FIFA rankings (Wales was the only team ranked higher than Canada who was in Pot 4, due to their late qualifying status). That meant Canada would have had one group stage game where they were most likely the favourite to win and a chance to gain a coveted result in World Cup. A win against Panama was not to be. With all the talk from coach John Herdman on wanting to finish strong, his lineup selection did not reflect that. Instead of putting his strongest team on the pitch to try to gain those important FIFA ranking points - when you start Lucas Cavallini at striker and play goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau over Milan Borjan (who had started all games where he was healthy, except this one), that sends the message you aren't trying to win the game and, instead, just rewarding the backups with some game time. Canada lost the game 1-0 to Panama, got put into Pot 4 for the World Cup draw and dropped into a very tough group - a group that they were unable to take any points off of. It didn't have to be this way.
Point 2 - Milan Borjan's mistakes cost Canada a chance at points. As I had written about in an earlier post, one of my fears was that goalkeeper Milan Borjan would commit some of the boneheaded mistakes he was making for his club team, Red Star Belgrade, during Champions League and Europa League games - you can read about it here:
He didn't look so bad against Belgium or Croatia. The goals he let in were of decent quality, but he also didn't stand on his head like he did during World Cup qualifying either. Against Morocco, was a whole different story. Very early in the game, after taking a weak back pass from Steven Vittoria, Borjan should have just put the boot to it and drill it into the fifth-row seats. I'm not sure what he was thinking, but he put a light touch on the ball, it went straight to Morocco's brilliant Hakim Ziyech, who chipped it right back over Borjan's head and into goal.
The next goal he gave up was not better. Morocco has studied Canada's weakness in the backline for giving up long, direct passes resulting in goals. They saw Uruguay do it. Japan did it, too. Belgium won their game by doing it. Even though Croatia tried the same thing a few times, their goals were scored off other types of open play. Now it was Morocco's turn. Instead of going right down the middle, the defenders played the attacker to their left side. Borjan moved over to cover the post, but Youssef El Nesyri's shot got below him and into goal. Getting beat on the near post should never happen with a keeper of his experience. Without those two goals, and with Canada scoring one off a Morocco own goal and nearly a second when Atiba Hutchinson's header hit the bottom part of the crossbar and landed straight down onto the goal line and inches from going all the way over, Canada could have won the game or at the very least earned the draw.
Point 3 - Canada now knows where their weaknesses are and have 3-1/2 years to prepare for it. After playing against world class teams over the last two months, it is clear where Canada have their problems:
Centre backs - Vittoria showed he was too slow and too nervy when pressed by defenders and serving up poor passes that put his team at risk. Kamal Miller showed courage and strong tackles against Belgium, but also showed he was too slow and ineffective against Croatia and Morocco. How good would Fikayo Tomori have looked on that back line for Canada, instead of sitting at home in England? Canada does have some young players that could show potential - Justin Smith (Nice - Ligue 1), Joel Waterman (FC Montreal - MLS), Scott Kennedy (Jahn Regensburg, Bundesliga 2).
Central Midfield - This is Atiba Hutchinson's last bit of international duty for Canada. While it was great that he finally got to play in his first World Cup at 39 years of age, he also showed why he should be hanging it up. Against Croatia, he sadly struggled to keep up with play. He had a few moments against Morocco coming off the bench but that was it. Thanks, Atiba, for all you have done for Canada soccer, but it is time to move on to some younger talent like Ismael Kone and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty.
Goalkeeping - At this level, you cannot afford to gift wrap goals to the opposition, which is what Borjan has done at Champions League, Europa League and now the World Cup. At 35 years old, he possibly could still make it to the 2026 World Cup, but here is hoping Crepeau or Dayne St. Clair start getting time at keeper.
Finishing - Canada has great strikers in Cyle Larin and Jonathan David, but they did nothing at this World Cup. David was especially disappointing. He seemed uncharacteristically rattled and not his usual "Ice Man" persona. He took an extra touch, wild shots, didn't look to pass. You kind of wonder if not taking the penalty against Belgium affected his psyche and threw him off the rest of the tournament. In any case, other teams make the most of limited chances and put the ball in the back of the net - Canada still do not have the quality to do that yet.