CF Montreal’s exit from the Major League Soccer playoffs on Sunday was more than a local concern. At least four probable members of the Canadian men’s national team, including certain starter Alistair Johnston and rising midfielder Ismael Koné, are now idled with nearly a month to go before their first game in November’s World Cup in Qatar.
Montreal’s 3-1 loss to NYCFC means that Canadian reserve goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau is the only national team member still active in MLS, after his LAFC beat the LA Galaxy in a 3-2 thriller last week.
With World Cup organizers trying to avoid the worst of Qatar’s heat, this year’s winter edition will see most higher-level players arriving in midseason form. Belgium and Croatia, two of Canada’s group-stage opponents, will feature the likes of Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric at peak match fitness.
Canada’s roster is divided fairly evenly by the Atlantic Ocean, and head coach John Herdman will need to get his MLS players up to European speed.
Even before Montreal’s defeat, Herdman had been worried enough about his squad’s relative rust — particularly those members who failed to make the MLS playoffs, including Mark-Anthony Kaye, Richie Laryea, and others at Toronto FC— to organize a friendly against Bahrain on Nov. 11.
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Canada had already scheduled a friendly against Japan in Dubai for Nov. 17, only three days before the World Cup begins.
It’s a gamble to play international fixtures so close to the tournament itself, raising the risk of injury after final rosters have been set. (They must be submitted to FIFA on Nov. 14.) The Americans, for instance, have chosen not to play any more exhibitions.
Herdman, who is fanatical in his preparation, appears wise rather than reckless following Montreal’s elimination. Concerns about late-stage injury are now pretty clearly outweighed by the need to reclaim the team spirit and momentum that propelled the Canadian men to their first World Cup since 1986.
The news has been more positive on the European side of Canada’s ledgers.
Alphonso Davies, who suffered a cranial bruise and apparent concussion after being kicked in the face in a game earlier this month, has returned to action at Bayern Munich and not lost a step. (He was blazing in his first game back, hitting a top speed of 36 km/h.)
Tajon Buchanan is also playing full minutes at Club Brugge after recovering from a worrying quad injury. And 39-year-old Atiba Hutchinson, who might have missed his first and last opportunity to play in a World Cup with a bone bruise, instead looks poised to lead Turkish giants Besiktas in as many as four games before his arrival in Qatar.
Other Canadians have longer been in form, most notably Jonathan David, who has been terrific for Lille. He sits second among Ligue 1 scorers with nine, one behind French superstar Kylian Mbappé and tied with Brazil’s Neymar, making him a good bet to become the first Canadian man to score a World Cup goal.
And Stephen Eustaquio continues to be a revelation at Porto, where last week he was named Liga Portugal’s Midfielder of the Month.
Unfortunately, significant off-field concerns remain, looming over the near-horizon like storm clouds. Canada Soccer has been in contract negotiations with its players for months, after the men boycotted a June friendly against Panama to protest their World Cup bonuses and other insufficiencies, from ticket allotments to jersey royalties.
A deal still hasn’t been reached. Worse, some of Canada’s top players have started openly feuding with their own federation.
Nick Huoseh, a player agent who represents Davies, told TSN last week that he’s warned Canada Soccer to stop selling jerseys with his client’s name on them. Huoseh has also rejected ads from team sponsor Gatorade, asserting that players have the right to their own image and likeness.
There is another battle of wills unfolding on the apparel front. Canada Soccer is sponsored by Nike. With official jerseys in maddeningly short supply, rival Adidas has put out a line of generic “Canada” hoodies and T-shirts, using several national team players as models — Johnston and Kaye among them.
Absent a last-minute agreement, Canada won’t be the first side in World Cup history trying to settle scores on two fronts. In 2014, Ghana’s men threatened not to play until their federation made good on its promises by delivering a planeload of cash.
But with so much having gone right for this special group of players — and with Canadian soccer fans buzzing to watch their men take on the world’s best for the first time in 36 years — it will be a lasting, national shame if their incredible run ends with the wrong kind of fireworks.