Canada is getting reinforcements for its World Cup qualifying games against Costa Rica and Mexico in Edmonton.
Captain Atiba Hutchinson, Cyle Larin, Milan Borjan and Lucas Cavallini are back in the squad after missing the October matches. Hutchinson, Larin and Cavallini were dealing with injuries while Borjan, Canada’s No. 1 goalkeeper, was recovering from COVID-19.
And coach John Herdman has been able to add depth at forward with former England youth international Ike Ugbo joining the fold after changing his international allegiance to Canada.
“Ike’s an exciting prospect,” Herdman said. “I think we’re getting him joining us with his best years ahead of him. He was in wonderful form for Cercle Brugge last year and he got a big move to [fellow Belgian side KRC] Genk I think his star is going to keep building.”
“For Canada, it’s just more depth,” he added.
Herdman describes Ugbo as an “out-and-out No. 9″ who likes to lead the line and play between the two centre backs.
The returning veterans and Ugbo just add to the competition for places in the squad, he added.
The Canadian men, ranked 48th in the world, plays No. 45 Costa Rica on Nov. 12 and No. 9 Mexico on Nov. 16, both at Commonwealth Stadium. With home points at a premium, the November matches are crucial with just two more on home soil remaining afterwards.
Canada (2-0-4, 10 points) currently stands third in the Octagonal standings behind Mexico (4-0-2, 14 points) and the 13th-ranked U.S. (3-1-2, 11 points) Panama (2-2-2, eight points is fourth) and Costa Rica (1-3-2, five points) fifth.
The 23-year-old Ugbo, a former Chelsea youth player, adds to an attack that already includes Larin, Jonathan David, Alphonso Davies, Tajon Buchanan and Cavallini.
Ugbo, whose first name is pronounced EE-kay, is one of seven players in the Canada squad currently involved in UEFA club competitions, having already featured in three UEFA Europa League matches. The others are Borjan, David, Davies, Hutchinson, Larin and Liam Millar.
“He’s playing at one of the top clubs in Belgium and he’s got a plan in his mind about where he wants to get in his career. And Canada’s part of that plan,” Herdman said.
Born in London to Nigerian parents, Ugbo played youth soccer at Brampton East SC and Woodbridge Strikers before returning to England and joining Chelsea’s academy at the under-10 level. Herdman said a contact at Woodbridge advised them in 2018 that Ugbo could play for Canada.
At the time Chelsea said the young player was focused on England and had no interest in Canada.
“It’s just been a process of patience over a three-year period,” Herdman said. “The program’s come a long way and I think the results in recent times have made a difference. Some of the players have kept in contact with Ike as well. So from all angles we’ve just kept encouraging him to keep thinking about being part of this journey with us. It’s a special journey.”
He said he had a conversation with Ugbo recently and “it’s been for the betterment of this country.”
Missing through injury for the November window are Junior Hoilett, Scott Kennedy and Charles-Andreas Brym. Hoilett and Kennedy were also unavailable in October.
With 88 caps, the 38-year-old Hutchinson is on the verge of surpassing Julian de Guzman’s national men’s record of 89.
The spotlight will also be on Davies as he plays his first matches as a pro in his hometown. He left at 14 to join the Vancouver Whitecaps and, having turned 21 this week, is now a world star with Bayern Munich.
Herdman says while Davies has matured, he remains the same in many ways.
“He’s had some wonderful experiences that I’m sure have shaped him. But I really feel he’s just kept his identity. He’s that kid at heart. When he’s in the [Canadian team] environment he’s playful, he’s fun. When he’s on the field, I don’t think he’s changed either.
“What he’s really been able to bring is a winning mentality and to speak with level of confidence that anything is possible with this team. I haven’t seen a massive change – because you don’t want Phonzie to change. You want him to keep being him and everything that’s good about him. But he is shaping the mentality of this new Canada [team] and rightly so. He’s been there and done it at the highest levels.”
Canada is 5-8-9 against Costa Rica since 1985, including a 1-3-2 record in World Cup qualifying play. The Canadians blanked Costa Rica 2-0 in the Gold Cup quarter-final in July last time they met.
Canada then lost 2-1 to Mexico in the semi-final but held the CONCACAF powerhouse to a 1-1 tie in Mexico City on Oct. 7, improving its record against the Mexicans to 4-20-9 (1-12-8 in World Cup qualifying).
The two sides have drawn both previous meetings at Commonwealth Stadium by the same 2-2 score – in October, 1997 and October, 2008.
Canada is 11-4-2 this year with eight clean sheets and a record 52 goals scored.
The Canadian men reached the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the first time since the leadup to France 1998 after winning a first-round group that included Aruba, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and Suriname. Herdman’s team then eliminated Haiti in a two-legged second-round series.
After the two November games, Canada will play three more matches in January/February and another three in March. The top three teams will represent North and Central America and the Caribbean at Qatar 2022, with the fourth-place side taking part in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.
Proving again he leaves nothing to chance, Herdman revealed he has already spent an hour in conversation with the Commonwealth Stadium groundskeeper about preparation of the playing surface, although he did not detail what could or might be done with the artificial turf.
“I was loving it because he’s going to do everything he can to make sure the turf is going to be good for Canada,” Herdman said.
The Canada coach says the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers are also opening the doors to some of their facilities to them. Canada Soccer says close to 40,000 tickets have been sold for each game.
“When you go to Edmonton, you feel the whole city’s behind you,” Herdman said.