By Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press on January 12, 2021.
Canada soccer coach John Herdman says he has some 88 players in his extended men’s national team pool.
Of those, 45 are considered to be those Canada will pick from when push comes to shove this year.
Herdman only has some players at a camp now under way in Bradenton, Fla., with the likes of Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies and Lille’s Jonathan David absent due to the camp’s timing. But Herdman is looking forward to getting hands-on with his team after an extended layoff – and with the start of World Cup and Olympic qualifying just months away.
Because the camp does not fall during a FIFA international window, Herdman has summoned North American-based players and those out of season elsewhere for the most part.
It’s a chance to show the Canadian team environment to players like Toronto FC forward Ayo Akinola, who is still pondering his international future. And with 19 players born 1997 or later, it’s an opportunity to evaluate talent eligible for this year’s CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship and to see how they stack up against senior players.
“There’s just so many positives around this camp,” said Herdman, who has not had his squad together for a year.
A Canada Soccer video posted on social media Tuesday showed players arriving at their Florida hotel, undergoing temperature checks and COVID-19 tests. Players underwent COVID testing prior to departure and upon arrival in Florida, joining on-field sessions that started Monday when given the green light.
“This camp in the U.S., it gives us a real opportunity to keep the players safe,” Herdman added. “We’re aligning our protocols with U.S. Soccer (which is also holding a camp in Bradenton). The facility we’re at, at IMG, there’s a chance to create that bubble-type environment.
“It’s not the best for the players probably in terms of their enjoyment. But that’s our new world and what we’ve got to live in. Again this is all good preparation for March (for World Cup qualifying). So when we come together and if COVID’s still a reality and an issue for us, we understand how to bring the best out of the players in those environments.”
Herdman initially summoned 28 players for the camp that runs through Jan. 24 in a bubble at the IMG Center in Bradenton, where the WNBA returned to action. Canada Soccer subsequently added three more players in Vancouver’s Theo Bair and Toronto FC’s Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty and Jacob Shaffelburg.
The two English-based players invited have since withdrawn. Theo Corbeanu, an 18-year-old forward, is staying with Wolves’ first team while 17-year-old forward Marcelo Flores remains with Arsenal’s under-18 squad.
Corbeanu also holds Romanian citizenship and has represented Romania at the youth level – he scored on his debut for the Romanian under-16 side – but has since switched international allegiance to Canada.
Flores has already featured in the Mexican youth program thanks to his father’s bloodlines. Canada Soccer had hoped this camp would allow him to see how the other half lives. He has yet to commit to Canada.
It’s the same for Akinola, who is eligible to play for Canada, the U.S. and Nigeria.
The 20-year-old Akinola, who was born in Detroit but moved to Canada when he was one, made his debut for the U.S. senior side last month when he scored in a 6-0 win over El Salvador. He is not cap-tied, however, since the match was a friendly.
Akinola, whose Canadian-born younger brother Tom has featured in the Canadian youth setup, is eligible for Nigeria through his parents’ bloodlines.
The Canada camp is slated to include two training scrimmages against as-yet-unannounced opposition as well as an intra-squad scrimmage.
The Canadian men, currently ranked 72nd in the world, last played Jan. 15, 2019, in a 1-0 loss to Iceland in Irvine, Calif. That friendly followed a camp in California and a pair of 4-1 wins over Barbados on Jan. 7 and 10.
The pandemic subsequently grounded the Canadian program. A men’s camp planned for November in Europe was called off 10 days out on the advice of medical experts – and after several players contracted COVID-19.
“It’s just been a roller-coaster,” said Herdman.
Time is short with World Cup and CONCACAF Olympic qualifying set to start in March.
“We’re going to have to really hit the ground with the machine fully functioning and well-oiled,” said Herdman. “So that also in our mind as well, just to get all the systems and processes up running again so that in March we’re sharp.”
The Gold Cup goes in July although Herdman knows he will have to choose his spots with call-ups given the busy schedule – providing it holds. World Cup qualifying takes precedent.
Canada is scheduled to finally open its 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign March 25 at home to Bermuda, the first of a possible 20 matches if the Canadian men are to book their ticket to Qatar.
After opening Group B play against No. 169 Bermuda, the Canadians play March 28 at the 193rd-ranked Cayman Islands and June 5 at No. 200 Aruba before wrapping up first-round play June 8 at home to No. 141 Suriname.
Former Curacao national team coach Remko Bicentini is in camp with Canada as a technical assistant. Most recently he coached at Juliana ’31 in the Netherlands.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2021