Canada's long-awaited return to the FIFA World Cup is rapidly approaching.
Hype is building as the boys in red and white prepare for their tournament-opener against world No. 2 Belgium on Wednesday, signalling the nation's first (men's) World Cup appearance since 1986.
While a momentous achievement just to qualify, Canada failed to win a game — or score a goal — when it took to the pitch in Mexico 36 years ago, fizzling out in the group stage. Fans have more to look forward to this time around, though, with what is shaping up to be, over the next 5-10 years, Canada's golden era of men's soccer.
This generation of fans has big expectations for this star-studded squad after setting the standard quite high with a stellar qualifying campaign. While they find themselves in a tough Group F with European juggernauts Belgium and Croatia, and a sneaky good Moroccan side, the Canadians could force an upset or two if they stick to their strengths.
Here are Canada's keys to success if it wants any chance of achieving its greatest ever finish on soccer's biggest stage.
Speed on the counter
If there's one thing Canada can rely on, it's speed.
The squad boasts unmatched quickness on the wings, with the likes of Alphonso Davies, Tajon Buchanan, Richie Laryea and Sam Adekugbe bombing up and down the flanks all game.
With head coach John Herdman preferring to line up with five defenders — including two wing-backs — Canada focuses on defensive solidity while keeping plenty of players between the ball and their goal. But when they win back possession, Canada is dangerous on the counter-attack, with its wing-backs turning into wingers and progressing the ball forward or supporting the attack with overlapping runs.
Star striker Jonathan David is also one of the fastest players on the pitch on any given day, and made a living out of scoring on the counter in Canada's CONCACAF qualifying campaign. The 22-year-old — making a name for himself in Ligue 1 this season with nine goals and three assists with Lille — routinely gave the Canadian defence an outlet to turn to under pressure, potting some key goals after getting behind the opponent's high defensive line.
Here's an example from Canada's 2-0 win against Honduras, where David takes a beautiful first touch on a delicious pass from Liam Fraser, gets behind the Honduran defence and proceeds to secure a two-goal cushion. Enjoy Davies' hilarious commentary, courtesy of his Twitch stream, as he sat watching the game from his home in Munich while he recovered from an issue with his heart.
With talented passers in the midfield like Stephen Eustaquio and Fraser, Canada's forwards will look for any space to break into, expecting a through ball to get in on goal.
There are few answers for the type of speed Canada possesses, striking fear and causing fatigue for any defensive line. With the quality of opposition facing them in the group stage, it's likely that Canada will see little of the ball in terms of possession, so doing damage on the counter-attack will be vital to any favourable results the squad hopes to get in Qatar.
Dominate the midfield
Canada will face some of the best midfielders in the world in the group stage, testing themselves against immense talents like Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne and Croatia's Luka Modric.
Despite the challenge, Canada must bring the fight to these stars and vie for midfield supremacy if they want to control the tempo of play.
Eustaquio will be the key in this area for Canada. The Porto starlet has enjoyed a meteoric rise in Portugal. His composure on the ball and his deep-lying playmaking ability make him the centrepiece to all of Canada's moves and rhythm.
Of course, Eustaquio has to have possession of the ball in order to affect the game the way we know he can. That's where the rest of the midfield group comes in handy.
Any combination of Atiba Hutchinson, Samuel Piette and Mark-Anthony Kaye will be responsible for pressing and winning the ball back in the middle of the pitch, and all three have shown they can be effective in that role. Paired with Eustaquio's high IQ and underrated ball-winning ability, the balance in Canada's midfield should give any of their group rivals a run for their money.
Canada also has a potential x-factor in 20-year-old Ismaël Koné. The CF Montreal product has impressed in six appearances with the men's national team, even scoring his first goal for Canada in a friendly against Bahrain last week. He is a skillful ball progressor and the most athletic midfielder in Canada's corps. Whether he's trusted to start or comes on as an impact substitute, Koné can be a game-changer and is capable of turning a game on its head with a moment of brilliance.
Capitalize on set pieces
International competitions are usually littered with set-piece goals, with some of the biggest moments swung by a decisive header off a corner or free kick.
As a significant underdog in their group, and with goal-scoring chances likely to be few and far between, Canada may have to lean on set pieces to get a goal or two.
Striker Cyle Larin will play a big part for Canada, and should be the main target for any ball floated into the box. The Club Brugge player led CONCACAF qualifying in goals with 13, and is Canada's all-time leading goalscorer with 25 markers in 55 appearances.
Canada's threat in the box goes beyond Larin, though, as they boast some serious size in the back line that will come up for set pieces and attempt to get their heads on crosses. Steven Vitória (6-foot-5), Kamal Miller (6-foot), Atiba Hutchinson (6-foot-2) and Mark-Anthony Kaye (6-foot-1) will all be looking to get on the front-foot and help supply some offence off dead-ball situations.
The squad can count on accurate deliveries from Eustaquio, who has made a habit of whipping dangerous balls into the 18 from all angles. He registered two assists in 15 games in qualifying.
Games at the World Cup tend to be tense and tight affairs, with one moment of brilliance or mistake standing between a huge win or a heartbreaking loss. Canada could find itself on the right side of those moments with some well executed set pieces.
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