Major League Soccer

Copa América: refreshed Canada can play spoilers at maiden tournament

Copa América: refreshed Canada can play spoilers at maiden tournament

Alphonso Davies has scored 15 goals in 47 appearances for Canada. Photograph: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

History was made 67 seconds into Canada’s game against Croatia at the 2022 World Cup. Alphonso Davies’ leaping header was the team’s first-ever goal at the men’s tournament and set the tone for a new era of Canadian soccer – an era that Jesse Marsch will hope to accelerate at Copa América.

In May, Marsch was announced as the Canadian men’s national team head coach, replacing John Herdman, who left to join Toronto FC in MLS. Historically, coaching Canada has been tough. The organization has experienced political and financial turmoil, with the women’s national team being especially vocal about a lack of investment. Despite those concerns, Marsch, who interviewed for the USMNT job in 2022, accepted a job some would say he is overqualified for – thanks to some creative accounting from Canada’s MLS franchises.

“US Soccer had the chance to hire me,” Marsch told the Guardian in May. “They have nobody to look at but themselves. In the end, I have the freedom in my life to do what’s best for me and myself.”

What’s best for the American is a return to international football. After closing his playing career in 2010, Marsch made his coaching debut as an assistant for US Soccer before taking the top job at Montreal Impact (now CF Montréal). He went on to join the Red Bull soccer syndicate, being named MLS Coach of the Year at the company’s New York outpost, before winning by back-to-back Austrian league titles and clinching Champions League berths with Salzburg and Leipzig.

There, he built a reputation as a progressive coach, someone who fit with the Red Bull ‘model’, all high-intensity pressing and focused on player development. It’s a model Canada Soccer is hoping will knit together a talented group of young players by the time they co-host the 2026 World Cup.

This summer will be Marsch’s first time in an international dugout at a major tournament since 2010, when he worked as an assistant for Bob Bradley at the South Africa World Cup. “I feel I could take a lot of the lessons from that and apply that to what we’re doing in Canada,” Marsch said. “I’ve been trying to really get my finger on the pulse of what things do we need to keep and how do we evolve.”

There is plenty of work to do. From the highs of the Herdman era, Canada hit a new low before Marsch arrived: they drew 2-2 with Guadeloupe and labored to a 0-0 draw against Guatemala last summer.

Related: Copa América predictions: can anybody stop Messi and Argentina?

Still, the squad are in a better position today than the disappointing result at Qatar 2022, where they lost all three of their matches. From a talent perspective, Marsch has taken charge of an exciting pool. Many of Canada’s top players are relatively young – Davies (Bayern Munich, 23), Tajon Buchanan (Internazionale, 25), Jonathan David (Lille, 24) and Ismaël Koné (Watford, 22). Marsch’s 26-player squad for Copa América features just two players over 30 and 15 players under 25.

“Our end vision, our end goal is two years from now. And we’re just starting our process,” Marsch said after his first game in charge.

Building a side that peaks by 2026 is Marsch’s long-term goal. But in the short-term, Marsch will have to navigate his first big challenge – a maiden Copa América. After narrowly qualifying for the tournament with a play-in win over Trinidad and Tobago, one of the best squads in Canadian soccer history will take their first steps against the best soccer in the Americas has to offer. And they don’t come much bigger than taking on Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the tournament’s opening game on Thursday.

To prepare, Marsch had two friendlies against the Netherlands and France earlier this month, both fine-tuning for an international tournament of their own. It was an chance to experiment before Thursday’s showpiece. Did things go to plan? Kind of.

Despite losing 4-0 to the Netherlands, Canada were surprisingly strong in the first half. They showed all the hallmarks of a Marsch team: a high press and a focus on transitions. The 4-4-2 formation was similar to the setup under Herdman. Davies wore the armband at left-back, Celtic’s Alistair Johnston was on the right, with Malmö’s Derek Cornelius and Colorado Rapids’ Moïse Bombito as centre-backs (a bold choice as both youngsters only have five international caps combined). Preston’s Liam Millar, Porto’s Stephen Eustáquio, Koné and Buchanan were in midfield, with Mallorca’s Cyle Larin partnering David upfront. It was scoreless at the break, with Canada showing patience and picking their moments to trigger Marsch’s aggressive press.

After the half, things fell apart, and Ronald Koeman’s side took control of midfield. Canada got spooked and were forced into mistakes. Marsch was unfazed. “It was actually a pretty good performance,” the coach said postgame.

He was right. Despite the rough scoreline, it was one of Canada’s better performances since 2022, and proved that Marsh was willing to switch things up. No longer is he the tactically inflexible manager who struggled at Leeds. Here was a coach willing to adapt.

In the 0-0 draw against France, that versatility was on display. Ten of the team’s starting 11 were retained, with goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau replacing Dayne St Clair. But Marsch switched approaches. Instead of cranking up the press, he was happy to have his side sit in and play with patience. They were more organized, retained possession and were savvier in the final third. France edged the advanced metrics, but this was not a sit-in-and-hope performance. Canada picked their moments and were dangerous on the counterattack. In the second-half, they won the possession battle.

For Marsch, it was a glimpse of the team he’s trying to build. “It’s a draw, it’s not a win,” Marsch said. “But this will help [the players] understand more clearly and believe more in what we’re trying to establish.”

Related: Canada coach Jesse Marsch: ‘Will MLS owners dictate selection? Come on man!’

It’s tough to think up a trickier start than facing two Euro 2024 favorites within a week, but Marsch believes those matches can help speed up his team’s development. “It’s almost unfair to have to have your first match against the Dutch and your second against the French,” Marsch said after the friendlies. “But so what? We got to grow up as a team, we got to grow up as a football nation. And we’ve got to figure out ways to get better and there’s no better way to do that than playing against opponents like this.”

It’s not going to get easier. Next up, the world champions. They will then play Peru on 25 June and Chile on 29 June as they attempt to advance to the Copa knockout stages.

Expectations are low. Avoiding a repeat of the World Cup performance is the objective. Performances, as much as results, will be the measuring stick. But Canada have the potential to play spoiler in the group stage. The team have dangerous attacking talent, creative midfielders and a solid group of defenders. And in Davies, David and Koné, they have a match-winner at all three levels.

Argentina are the more experienced, technical and talented side – and it’s likely the opening game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will feel like more of a home game for Argentina than it will a neutral site. But after holding France to a draw, confidence is high that the Canadians can go toe-to-toe with the world’s best this summer.

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