Canadian men prepare for Argentina and Copa opener with one eye on 2026 World Cup

Canada steps onto the world soccer stage again Thursday with new leadership and a new plan.

But while top-ranked Argentina and Lionel Messi loom large in Thursday's Copa America opener in Atlanta, new Canada coach Jesse Marsch has his eye firmly set on 2026.

Marsch, who took over the 49th-ranked Canadian men on May 13, has made no secret that Copa America challenges like World Cup champion Argentina, No. 32 Chile and No. 42 Peru, while special in themselves, are steps along the road to the 2026 World Cup, which Canada is co-hosting.

In behind-the-scenes snippets of his interactions with the Canadian team, shown in Canada Soccer videos, Marsch references 2026 again and again.

That is reflected in his squad selection.

With veteran winger Junior Hoilett a late injury withdrawal, Marsch's 26-man squad features just two players aged 30 or over — goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau (30) and midfielder Jonathan Osorio (32). Fifteen players are 25 or younger continuing a youth trend started by former interim coach Mauro Biello, now a member of Marsch's coaching staff.

Twelve players have yet to reach double digits in Canada caps.

While it is early days under Marsch, the 50-year-old American has been clear on how he wants Canada to play.

Marsch, whose coaching resume includes Leeds United, RB Leipzig, Red Bull Salzburg, New York Red Bulls and the Montreal Impact (now CF Montreal), wants his team to be aggressive, to go after opponents.

And whatever happens, to "go down swinging."

"As good as the team has been, I still think there's a lot of room for growth," said Marsch. "One of the things that I evaluated is there was a team that was committed a lot to possession football. And I want to try and take it to a team that is a little bit more dynamic, that's better in transition, that uses a lot of the weapons that we have and team speed that we have to really push the way we can play the game at the highest level and against the best opponents."

For Osorio, Marsch's aggressive, high-intensity style of play — forged in the Red Bulls global system — revolves around the premise that "you can be just as or more dangerous without the ball than you are with the ball."

"From the start, he was instilling his ideas and how he sees us playing and how he wants us to play … I think guys caught on pretty quickly," Osorio said.

"I think it's been good for this new group. It's kind of a new era and guys are responding really well," he added.

"A very experienced guy," added Inter Milan winger Tajon Buchanan. "He's coached big clubs in big leagues. He's here to push us and take Canada Soccer to the next level."

Marsch has made Bayern Munich fullback Alphonso Davies his captain with FC Porto midfielder Stephen Eustaquio vice-captain. In doing so, he has entrusted the keys to the team to its biggest star and most influential player.

The Canadians, who had to beat No. 98 Trinidad and Tobago in a playoff to make the tournament field, are one of six CONCACAF guest teams at the 16-country South American championship. The others are the 11th-ranked U.S., No. 14 Mexico, No. 45 Panama, No. 52 Costa Rica, and No. 55 Jamaica.

Canada has played Argentina just once before at the senior level, losing 5-0 in 2010 before 66,000 fans in Buenos Aires, before the Argentines left for the World Cup in South Africa.

For players like Osorio, the World Cup experience in Qatar in 2022 is a plus going into Copa America.

"Playing elite-level teams and just the whole logistics and feeling of what it is to be in a big tournament, we have that," he said. "I think that's going to really help us, honestly … More than anything, I think we're ready to go into this tournament."

The Canadians are buoyed by holding No. 2 France to a scoreless draw in its final warm-up, after losing 4-0 to the seventh-ranked Netherlands.

" I thought it was a great performance," Osorio said of the France game.

"They had their chances but so did we," added the Toronto FC captain. "That game could have gone either way, really. We held our ground really well. We showed our level."

And while the Canadian squad has been infused with youth, Osorio says the players share a common goal whatever their age or experience.

"We're all living the same dream. That really connects us," he said.

It's Canada's first-ever trip to Copa America. The Canadian men were slated to take part in the 2001 edition as a reward for winning the 2000 Gold Cup but never made it there due to security concerns that prompted organizers to call off the event and then reinstate it.


Follow @NeilMDavidson on X platform, formerly known as Twitter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 18, 2024

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press