Concacaf League

Copa América: are Canada now the best team in North America?

Copa América: are Canada now the best team in North America?

Jesse Marsh, Alphonso Davies and Ismaël Koné.Composite: Guardian Picture Desk

The same country that finished on top of the qualifying table in Concacaf for the 2022 World Cup is the same one with a spot in the semi-finals of the 2024 Copa América. They’re the only nation from North and Central America whose flame is still burning at this point in the tournament. It’s not the US. It’s not Mexico, either.

It’s Canada.

Though the World Cup in Qatar ended for Canada in the group stage, that tournament – and the qualifying campaign that preceded it – was the equivalent of the US’ northern neighbors pulling their chair up to the table of legitimate soccer countries and sitting themselves down.

Now at Copa América, their roster shines. They have the best player in Concacaf in Alphonso Davies. Their midfield features Porto’s Stephen Eustáquio and Ismaël Koné, who will move from Watford to Marseille this summer. Jonathan David and Cyle Larin form a dangerous forward partnership at the top of manager Jesse Marsch’s customary 4-2-2-2 shape.

Marsch’s influence on this Canada team is unmistakable, despite having only been hired in May. The American manager has coached just six games in his new post, leading the charge in two pre-Copa friendlies against the Netherlands and France before his team’s group stage began with a 2-0 loss to Argentina. Canada couldn’t hold on in that match with the reigning world champions, but they were impressive for 45 minutes. They equaled Argentina’s shot count and went into the break tied at 0-0 before fading in the second half.

There’s no shame in coming up short against Argentina, of course. More than the obvious gap in quality between the two teams and more than the loss itself, there was a crucial takeaway from the tournament opener: Canada came to play.

After the final whistle blew in Atlanta, Canada began a series of three positive, if fortunate, results. They topped 10-man Peru 1-0 to secure three points in their next match before drawing with another team that finished with 10 men, Chile, to secure second-place in Group A and a spot in the quarter-finals.

They didn’t light the group stage on fire. But they were given a fortunate draw, facing the weakest of the group winners, Venezuela, in the quarter-finals.

Canada were well prepared for the quarter-final. They were the better team in a match that ended in a penalty shootout win over Venezuela. They conceded an unfortunate equalizer in the second half, but the vast majority of the game’s best chances? Those belonged to Canada. They jumped ahead with an early goal from Jacob Shaffelburg. The goal sequence featured a dead ball in the form of a throw-in and plenty of vertical, hard running in the final third – hallmarks of Marsch’s high-octane tactical approach.

Crucially, there appears to be real buy-in from Canada’s players when it comes to accepting and applying their manager’s vision.

Just a few months ago, it wasn’t clear who would be guiding Canada from the sidelines. John Herdman left his post in the aftermath of his team’s defeat to the US in the 2023 Concacaf Nations League final. In his place, Mauro Biello held down the role for the better part of a year as an interim. Before departing for a job with Toronto FC, Herdman took care to admonish his own federation.

“I think it’s not a secret the organization has been suffering financially even through the World Cup qualification,” Herdman said. “You had coaches raising money to make sure we’ve got charter flights, security on those charter flights.”

Canada Soccer, the governing body for the sport in Canada, has been in relative financial turmoil for years now. Many of the problems stem from the federation’s decision to sign over a chunk of their sponsorship rights in a deal that could run through the late 2030s. With success on the pitch, for the men and women’s teams, operational costs have boomed – and the federation is tied into a long-term deal that is stuck on $3m a year.

That things have been messy behind the scenes only adds to the spectacle of Canada’s Copa América run. The stars have aligned for them with a relatively straightforward group and a favorable quarter-final opponent. But Mexico and US were drawn in groups they should probably have got out of, and duly failed to do so.

With a set of top-tier players and clear belief in Marsch’s combative tactical approach, Canada can’t be overlooked any more. In the absence of their regional rivals, they get to soak up the full Concacaf spotlight at this stage of the tournament. Argentina are up next. Pull off the upset, and we can start to seriously contemplate whether the North American baton has been passed as the Canadians plan for a home World Cup in 2026.

  • This is an extract from Soccer with Jonathan Wilson, a weekly look from the Guardian US at the game in Europe and beyond. With Jonathan out in Germany enjoying Euro 2024, he’s entrusted a series of guest writers to guide you through Copa América. He will return on 15 July to look back at both tournaments.

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