26-year-old Canadian captain Will Johnson will be a crucial Gold Cup figure to watch.The Gold Cup, the biannual championship of North and Central American soccer federation CONCACAF, tends to be an under-the-radar competition, but this year's edition (which starts Sunday with Canada's match against Martinique at 5:30 p.m. Eastern on Sportsnet World) could be an important moment for the Canadian men's national team. For one thing, it will be their last tournament under interim coach Colin Miller, as new full-time coach Benito Floro will take over after the tournament. This is a chance for Miller to show what he can do and perhaps pick up his first international win, and it's also a chance for the young players who comprise most of this Canadian roster to impress the new boss, who's already drawing strong reviews from veterans like Julian de Guzman. Beyond that, though, while this tournament will carry even less importance for most countries than usual thanks to the sides still involved in World Cup qualifying electing to send B-teams, that could provide the Canadians with more of a chance to make something special happen. As CBC's Nigel Reed writes, too, this should also give Floro (who will be watching closely despite not taking the team over until next month) and the young Canadian players a sense of what CONCACAF games are like, which could help in the path towards the team's ultimate goal—qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia:
The road to Russia effectively begins this weekend. It is never too early to start preparations and Canada needs all the competitive practice it can get. Floro doesn't officially start work until August 1, but his orientation with the unfamiliar world of North American soccer starts right here.
The CONCACAF Gold Cup is not a major tournament for many teams. Nations preoccupied with World Cup qualifying have bigger fish to fry and send what amounts to B squads to the regional competition. Mexico, the USA and others are understandably more focused on being in Brazil next year than winning the Gold Cup this summer.
Not so for Canada. It must play meaningful football every chance it gets. This team needs help, encouragement and experience wherever and whenever it can. It has to test itself and be tested by its international neighbours and rivals - the very teams it must clamber over if it is ever to return to the World Cup itself.
The Canadians' first match Sunday, held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, should be vital from many of these standpoints. After taking on Martinique Sunday, the tournament's group stage sees Canada face Mexico (in Seattle July 11) and Panama (in Denver July 14), and while both of those sides won't be sending their top squads to the Gold Cup, they'll present a tough challenge regardless. Mexico's currently ranked 20th in the world and first in CONCACAF, while Panama is 51st and fourth. Martinique isn't even a FIFA member, as it's an overseas region of France rather than an independent country, and its total population is just over 400,000, or less than one-sixth of the 2,615,050 people the city of Toronto had in 2011. Population alone isn't everything, but Martinique represents a substantially smaller threat than even the B teams from either Mexico or Panama.
That could provide some of Canada's young talent with an opportunity to shine Sunday. Although Miller has said he plans to introduce the eight players who haven't yet made a senior international appearance for Canada in a competitive game gradually rather than throwing them all in against Martinique, a couple of those players would seem like good bets to see at least some playing time in this match. Vancouver Whitecaps' 20-year-old winger Russell Teibert has been shining for his club lately and could use this game as a chance to show what he can provide for Canada offensively. Another one to watch is 22-year-old Toronto FC midfielder Kyle Bekker, who has demonstrated great potential with that team and the Canadian U23 side. He could impress if he gets to play Sunday.
Some of the veterans have something to prove too, though. One is Canadian captain Will Johnson, the 26-year-old Portland Timbers' midfielder and captain. He should be vital throughout this next qualification cycle, and this will give him an excellent chance to demonstrate his on-pitch leadership. On defence, a player to watch will be 26-year-old Burnley defender David Edgar, who could further solidify his position as a critical member of Canada's backline with another strong performance. Another notable name who plays in England is 24-year-old Stevenage striker Marcus Haber, who's looked like one of Canada's best young goal-scoring talents at times: a strong tournament from him could bolster his stock with the national team. The Canadian team didn't exactly shine in a July 3 warmup game against Premier Development League side Ventura County, recording just a 1-1 draw, so the team as a whole could stand to step up and turn in an impressive showing in this tournament. It's not the most meaningful competition in the world, but it could be a crucial building block to give these young Canadian players some experience as they build towards the 2018 World Cup.