Canada’s senior men’s team take on African power Ghana tonight in a friendly match at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. The friendly is an opportunity for head coach Benito Floro to get his ducks in a row ahead of crucial World Cup qualifying matches in November against Honduras and El Salvador – and Benito’s been busy.
No less than five players could make their senior debuts, a few of which observers of the national program had given up as lost causes for a variety of reasons. The five players who could earn their first cap for Canada tonight are: Junior Hoilett of Queen’s Park Rangers, Fraser Aird of Glasgow Rangers, Wandrille Lefèvre of the Montreal Impact, Marcos Bustos of the Vancouver Whitecaps and Charlie Trafford of Kuopion Palloseura. Another player who has seemingly been brought back into the fold after a protracted absence is Lucas Cavallini who plies his trade at Uruguayan club CA Fénix. Some of these recalls offer an interesting narrative.
The call up that has everyone buzzing, and which is decidedly the most divisive, is the case of David “Junior” Hoilett. Ever since he broke into the Canadian supporters consciousness while playing for Blackburn Rovers of the English Premier League, the native of Brampton has been elusive about his international intentions. Speculation abounded that his father, who was born in Jamaica, wanted his son to play for the Reggae Boyz. Another theory had Hoilett hoping to make enough of a mark in England to earn a call-up for his adoptive country. The only thing that can be factually verified is that Hoilett had been asked to represent Canada, and had turned the offer down. For a country that has been spurned by the likes of Owen Hargreaves, Jonathan de Guzman and Asmir Begovic, this kind of rejection can turn ugly in a hurry and leave residual ill feelings. Reaction to Hoilett’s sudden about-face was greeted with a variety of emotions, the dominant ones being delightful glee at acquiring a player of his caliber, guarded skepticism as to his motivations, and downright loathing because of his past rejections. This range of reactions led to many of the opinionators turning on one another. One particularly forceful example of this was Sportsnet columnist Lloyd Barker taking naysayers to task on Twitter. Even as he exposed his bias in admitting to a close personal relationship with Hoilett, Barker claimed to be taken aback at anyone being anything other than thrilled at the announcement that the player was joining the Canadian program. This showed a lack of respect to Canadian supporters, who for years had felt slighted by Hoilett at times when Canada needed players of his caliber. As the tempest of varying emotions calms, the bottom line is that a useful player has joined the Canadian team at a time of great need – there is little doubt that Junior Hoilett can contribute to Canada as it tries to qualify of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
A player with a similar yet decidedly less contentious history is Fraser Aird. The Canadian youngster, who was born in Toronto to Scottish immigrants, has spent most of his teenage years in Scotland. After having played for Canada at the U-15 level, Aird switched over to the Scottish U-17 & U-19 setup. Now 20 years old, Aird has decided to help his native land qualify for the World Cup. It’s not exactly clear just how good Aird is, as opportunities to see him in action have been few and far between. Glasgow Rangers is big club but has had its share of troubles, having been relegated to the Scottish third division in 2012, so his nine goals in 61 appearances does not give a clear picture of his true talent level. Hopefully he gets a good run out tonight so we can get a better grasp on his abilities.
Wandrille Lefèvre is a feel-good story for fans of the national team. Lefèvre came to Canada from France with his parents as a boy, and has since come through the Quebec system to become a fan-favourite for the Montreal Impact. On the eve of Canada Day this year, Lefèvre was sworn in as a Canadian citizen. By doing so, Lefèvre instantly added much needed depth to the Canadian back line, and Floro has recognized this by calling him up for the Ghana match.
Lucas Cavallini will come back into the national team fold for the first time since 2012. On that occasion, the Toronto native played 26 minutes in a match no one can recall that was played in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. So forgetful was that match that Cavallini has rebuffed subsequent invitations to join the team. All joking aside, he drew the ire of fans when a Spanish-language report came out of Uruguay in which he was quoted as having regretted ever playing for Canada. Cavallini has since claimed he was misquoted or mistranslated, and that he never said he regretted playing for Canada. It is within the realm of reason that he actually said he was embarrassed by the result in Honduras (naturally), and that was lost in translation as regret for playing for Canada. Whatever the facts may be, Cavallini has refused to play for Canada on multiple occasions since then, only to accept on this occasion. Nonetheless, with Cyle Larin the only clear-cut striking option for Canada, another centre-forward is a nice addition.
Bustos and Trafford have played for various levels of the Canadian program, but this will be their first senior call-up.
There is no question that Benito Floro deserves credit for bringing in all these new players into the fold, especially in convincing those that had seemingly turned their backs on their country. Clearly, Floro possesses a silver tongue and can be persuasive. He was surely aided by the fact that Canada has displayed a great ability to defend, and most of these new additions are attacking players who can probably see a straight line into the squad because of their particular attributes. Add to that the opportunity to join the squad as Canada undertakes an important phase of its qualifying process, and the lure must have been significant.
Floro’s greatest challenge now is to take these new players and integrate them into the system he’s been working on since his appointment in 2013. The turnaround time is tight, merely 90 minutes of match-time to assess if these players should be included in November’s qualifying matches. No matter what he decides, he’ll have a nation of armchair managers watching intently, ready to make the snap judgment for him.