It seems like the Canadian national team has been on the verge of challenging CONCACAF's established top four for some time now, but always falling just short. In the 2007 Gold Cup, Canada were almost certainly robbed of a chance to beat the United States by bad refereeing decisions. In 2010 World Cup qualifying, Canada was an embarrassment, failing to win a game and suffering a 3-0 shellacking at the hands of Jamaica. There's no question that Canada has the talent to challenge Honduras for the No. 4 spot in CONCACAF right now, but they haven't come close to putting it together.
On Wednesday night, Canada looked impressive in a friendly against Ecuador. The match ended in a 2-2 draw, but the Canadians were superior in the first half when their starting lineup was intact. Dejan Jakovic, the much maligned D.C. United central defender, actually outplayed Christian Benitez for most of the half. If you're unaware, Benitez has an unbelievable goal-scoring record in Mexico, played a season in the English Premier League, and was just purchased by Club America for $10 million. He's a good player. However, news has come out that Jakovic has injured his hamstring and will miss the start of the tournament.
That was impressive, but even more impressive was left winger Josh Simpson, who was probably the best player on the pitch. This wasn't terribly surprising, as Simpson had a very good season for Manisaspor in Turkey and has been good in a Canada shirt for a couple of years now. Along with Dwayne De Rosario, arguably the most accomplished player in MLS history, Simeon Jackson, whose lethal finishing guided Norwich City into the Premier League, Atiba Hutchinson, who plays regularly for PSV Eindhoven, and Will Johnson, whose work rate off the ball is absolutely impeccable, Canada have a very solid core of players.
The biggest shock of the night last night was Terry Dunfield, who scored an absolute screamer of a goal, set up by Simpson. Dunfield is well known as a mean, tough-tackling player who was believed to be on the fringes of the Canada squad before last night. Between his stunning goal and his great crunching tackles in midfield, it will be almost impossible for Stephen Hart to leave him out of his final team.
So this all sounds well and good, right? Well, Canada obviously has some problems. Fortunately for them, none of them actually have to do with a lack of talent, as they are arguably fourth in CONCACAF for raw talent, and certainly in the top eight. There's no reason this team shouldn't be in the knockout stages of the Gold Cup and competing to get into the hex during every cycle. Their biggest problem, currently, is that their best players are caught between two systems.
Simeon Jackson is far and away the quickest forward and best striker that Canada have, and as a result, he should probably be starting every game. He plays his best in a 4-4-2, partnered with a big man. However, Dwayne De Rosario, who should also be playing every game, plays his best in the hole behind a true No. 9. De Rosario's MLS teams have often gone with a wide 4-4-2 diamond that features him behind two strikers and just one man holding things down in the center, but this would be an absolute disaster for Canada against the likes of Costa Rica, Mexico, and the United States. Jackson and De Rosario can't both play in their preferred role at the same time for Canada, so sacrifices should be made.
For all the geniuses in the house who just thought of a narrow 4-4-2 diamond as the solution, that requires dropping Josh Simpson to the bench, and he is, at the very worst, Canada's third best attacking player. On current form, I would argue that he's actually the best. Either one of these three players has to be dropped or someone has to play out of position.
On Wednesday, Canada used Jackson as a lone striker. This system had its deficiencies, as Jackson was ineffective at winning 50-50 balls and holding it up to bring his teammates into the play. Ecuador's central defenders are probably the weakest part of their team. Against the likes of Carlos Bocanegra, Fransisco Rodriguez, Osman Chavez, Felipe Baloy and Junior Diaz, Jackson will find even less success in this department.
What Canada should to to solve this problem should probably based on their opponents and their opposition's tactical setup. Against Panama, Felipe Baloy will eat Jackson for lunch, while winning the midfield is a possibility. A 4-5-1/4-3-3 setup that drops Jackson to the bench isn't a bad idea. Against the United States, it might be worth it to go for broke and play Jackson with Rob Friend up top and a central midfield of De Rosario and Hutchinson behind them if the US stays in a 4-4-2 with two of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, and Maurice Edu. Only Stephen Hart knows what the future of his team selections holds, and it will be interesting to watch.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-1-1)
GK Milan Borjan; LB Marcel de Jong, CB Andre Hainault, CB Kevin McKenna, RB Nik Ledgerwood; LM Josh Simpson, CM Atiba Hutchinson, CM Julian de Guzman, RM Will Johnson; CAM Dwayne De Rosario; ST Simeon Jackson
Josh Simpson - The left winger is quick and a fantastic technical player. He should give problems to any right back in CONCACAF
Impact Bench Player
Ali Gerba - The Montreal Impact striker is a balanced player who can come into the game in a variety of situations, either to kill off a game by holding the ball better than Jackson or to chase a game by adding a striker up top
Canada will finish second in their group, setting up a quarterfinal match against Honduras. It will be a tough-fought match, but the Honduras will prevail narrowly in the end. A semifinal run should not be considered out of the question for the Canucks.