TORONTO — With the clock ticking, coach John Herdman offered a glimpse Friday into the player puzzle he is trying to assemble ahead of the Canadian men taking part in the World Cup for the first time in 36 years.
Canada, ranked 43rd in the world, takes on No. 48 Qatar on Sept. 23 in Vienna, and No. 13 Uruguay on Sept. 27 in Bratislava, Slovakia, during the final FIFA international window ahead of the World Cup in Qatar.
Herdman said it's been a "real roller-coaster" the last four months watching his talent pool, with some taking steps forward and others falling back a step. Foremost among his concerns are the health and form of his players and their playing times at club level.
"There seems to be a lot of things going on," Herdman said Friday in a virtual availability from Bratislava.
"There's things happening here that have been super-positive and some things that, yeah, are keeping me up at night," he added. "But at the same time, this window, it can't be a be-all and end-all … There’s a lot of football to be played or not played by some players in the next month that will come into my thinking when I select that final roster."
The Canadian men will play one final warm-up, against No. 24 Japan on No. 17 at Dubai's Al Maktoum Stadium, before the World Cup kicks off Nov. 20.
Canada opens Group F play on Nov. 23 against No. 2 Belgium before facing No. 15 Croatia on Nov. 27 and No. 23 Morocco on Dec. 1.
Herdman did not minimize the challenge that awaits in Qatar.
"It's an underdog story for us in those games. It's just real excitement and an opportunity to go out and be brave, be courageous, test ourselves and take a step forward for Canada in building respect and credibility as a football nation … It's a sobering process when you get into the deep scouting looking at these teams.
"But again the reality for Canada is we don't have a great amount of expectation from the world on this team. We have our own expectations, so we have good internal motivators. And we're not clouded by the external motivations or the external noise that surrounds I guess our opponents."
His team heads to the World Cup "with a degree of confidence that we can close the gap."
"Like any tournament football, on any given day anyone can beat anyone." he added. "So that's the spirit we'll be playing with."
Atop the list of injury concerns is talismanic captain Atiba Hutchinson, who will miss the Qatar and Uruguay games.
A bone bruise suffered in the pre-season has sidelined the 39-year-old Besiktas midfielder, Canada's all-time men's cap leader with 97. Herdman says his medical staff will be flying out to see Hutchinson in Turkey after the two friendlies to check on his injury comeback with the hope that he will be ready by the end of October.
As Canada's longest-serving active player, Hutchinson has waited a long time for the World Cup stage. Hutchinson appeared in his first World Cup qualifier in June 2004.
"It's a tough situation for him. Because I think for all of us he just means so much to the team," said Herdman. If (there's) anyone you want to see at a World Cup, it's Atiba Hutchinson."
Hutchinson has been working on maintaining his fitness while not being able to put weight on the leg. "It's taking a long to progress," Herdman said.
Toronto defender Doneil Henry (hamstring) and midfielder David Wotherspoon (knee) of Scotland's St. Johnstone are also unavailable for the September matches,
CF Montreal defender Joel Waterman and Blackpool FC forward Theo Corbeanu get their first senior call-ups. Teenage winger Luca Koleosho of RCD Espanyol de Barcelona, got his first Canadian senior call-up in June but has yet to see action, is the youngest player in the squad at 18.
Forward Liam Millar returns to the lineup after missing the last Canada camp in June with a broken arm.
Toronto midfielders Mark Anthony-Kaye and Jonathan Osorio have been summoned despite recent injury woes. Kaye is back in action now after a lingering lower body issue while Osorio, who has been dealing with what he called a "neurological dysfunction" after taking an elbow to the head, is nearing a return.
Henry left TFC practice early Thursday after feeling his hamstring.
With Toronto and Vancouver on the verge of elimination from playoff contention in Major League Soccer, Herdman also has players who will likely be idle after the Oct. 9 regular-season finale.
Herdman said his staff has been designing an off-field training regimen for those who miss the playoffs "as a worst-case scenario."
While Tajon Buchanan has been sidelined by injury at Belgium's Club Brugge, the speedy winger will be in the Canada camp just for the Uruguay game.
"His minutes will be very limited as both club and country are trying to wrap him in cotton wool." said Herdman, calling it "a really delicate situation."
Forward Cyle Larin, Buchanan's teammate with Brugge, has not seen much playing time of late.
The positives include Koleosho getting playing time in Spain's top tier and 20-year-old Corbeanu, who is doing well at England's Blackpool on loan from Wolves. Waterman has also impressed at Montreal.
Red Star Belgrade goalkeeper Milan Borjan is the most experienced international player on the 27-man September squad with 65 caps. The roster also features Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Stephen Eustaquio
The other goalkeepers are Maxime Crepeau and Dayne St. Clair, two of 11 MLS players on the roster.
The MLS talent includes defenders Waterman, Kamal Miller and Alistair Johnston and midfielders Samuel Piette and Ismael Kone from CF Montreal, fullback Richie Laryea and midfielders Kaye and Osorio from Toronto, and forward Lucas Cavallini from the Whitecaps.
The September camp for Canada is the first since June, when the players boycotted a planned friendly against Panama in Vancouver due to a pay dispute. The team did subsequently play a CONCACAF Nations League game in Honduras, losing 2-1.
With talks continuing on the contract front, Herdman said his squad can now "fully focus on the football side."
The Canadian men are 5-3-0 to date this year.
Canada lost 3-1 to Uruguay in their lone previous meeting, in February 1986 at Miami's Orange Bowl in a warm-up for the 1986 World Cup. The Canadians last faced a South American foe in October 2014, losing 1-0 to Colombia.
The Canadian men have never faced Qatar, the reigning AFC Asian Cup champions and have not played an Asian opponent since November 2016, when they were beaten 2-0 by South Korea.
Japan won both previous meetings with Canada, 2-1 in Doha in 2013 and 3-0 in Niigata during the 2001 Confederations Cup.
Herdman said the congested, pandemic-rearranged schedule meant European teams were not available to play Canada ahead of the World Cup. Canada is also still fighting for respect when it comes to finding opponents, he suggested.
But he called the date with Uruguay, whose roster value he put at $400 million-plus, a "massive coup."
"Our guys, we can't wait," he said of the matchup against a Uruguay team that features talent from Liverpool, Manchester United and Atletico Madrid. "It's pretty exciting,."
Also Friday, Canadian-born Daniel Jebbison was named to England's under-20 squad for games against Chile, Morocco and Australia. The 18-year-old Sheffield United forward is the youngest of three brothers (along with Micah and Jonathan) who came up through the ANB Futbol academy in King City, Ont. before the family left Milton, Ont., for England to pursue the boys’ football dream.
Herdman said there have been "ongoing conversations" with Jebbison, who previously played for England's U-18 and U-19 teams.
Canada Roster For Upcoming Friendlies
Goalkeepers: Milan Borjan, Red Star Belgrade (Serbia); Maxime Crepeau, Los Angeles FC (MLS); Dayne St. Clair, Minnesota United (MLS).
Defenders: Samuel Adekugbe, Hatayspor FC (Turkey); Derek Cornelius, Panetolikos FC (Greece); Alphonso Davies, Bayern Munich (Germany); Alistair Johnston, CF Montreal (MLS); Scott Kennedy, SSV Jahn Regensburg (Germany); Richie Laryea, Toronto FC (MLS); Kamal Miller, CF Montreal (MLS); Steven Vitoria, GD Chaves (Portugal); Joel Waterman, CF Montreal (MLS).
Midfielders: Stephen Eustaquio, FC Porto (Portugal); Mark-Anthony Kaye, Toronto FC (MLS); Ismael Kone, CF Montreal; Jonathan Osorio, Toronto FC (MLS); Samuel Piette, CF Montreal (MLS).
Forwards: Charles-Andreas Brym, FC Eindhoven (Netherlands); Tajon Buchanan, Club Brugge KV (Belgium); Lucas Cavallini, Vancouver Whitecaps (MLS); Theo Corbeanu, Blackpool FC (England); Jonathan David, Lille OSC (France); David (Junior) Hoilett, Reading FC (England); Luca Koleosho, RCD Espanyol (Spain); Cyle Larin, Club Brugge (Belgium); Liam Millar, FC Basel (Switzerland); Ike Ugbo, ES Troyes AC (France).
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 16, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press