After more than 16 months without a competitive match, Canada’s men’s national team finally shook off the rust with a pair of victories in World Cup qualifying.
The Canadians opened their campaign last Thursday with a 5-1 win over Bermuda before thrashing the Cayman Islands 11-0 on Monday in record-setting fashion as the attention shifts to a busy June.
While this first round in qualifying is low risk, it’s worth keeping an eye on these games to see if any trends emerge for future matches.
Here’s what we learned in Canada’s opening two contests.
In-form players shine
Yes, it’s a shorthanded Bermuda and Cayman Islands, but after more than a year without playing together, it was encouraging for the squad to see its in-form players shine.
Alphonso Davies recorded three assists in the Bermuda victory before converting a pair of penalties versus the Cayman Islands. Davies, who was deployed as a winger and full-back in each game, respectively, completed 17 of 22 dribbles in those matches, highlighting his threat on the ball.
Cyle Larin was the beneficiary of those three Davies assists against Bermuda before following that up with a goal against the Cayman Islands. Having started as an inside forward with freedom to roam before being deployed as a No. 9 in the latter match. In fact, he wasn’t the only Canadian attacker to produce tremendous expected goals and other underlying numbers in these games.
Underlying numbers and stats for Canadian forwards in both March qualifiers. (data via MLSSoccer.com and Wyscout)
Tactical tweaks incoming?
One benefit to playing these games is gaining match practice whilst perfecting new tactics. Canada might be doing exactly that.
A significant chunk of the European contingent called up for these games, but with only one-and-a-half training sessions in the buildup to these games, head coach John Herdman didn’t have a lot of time to fine tune the tactical framework.
Despite that, there was a trend in both victories. It appeared Canada was set up in a fluid, asymmetrical 3-4-3 in possession and the average positioning from both games backs that up.
Against Bermuda (left, above), three defenders sat back, the midfield partnership of Stephen Eustaquio (No. 7) and Atiba Hutchinson (No. 13) formed a block of four with Alphonso Davies (No. 19) along with Richie Laryea (No. 22). Then the three forwards had freedom to roam, as did Davies and Laryea.
The same occurred against the Cayman Islands. This time it was the centre-backs and Samuel Piette (No. 6) sitting deep with midfielders Mark-Anthony Kaye (No. 14) and David Wotherspoon (No. 8) with the full-backs (Davies and Alistair Johnston).
“We started with a 4-3-3 and then that evolves with the movement and exchanges on that side of the field,” said Herdman. “We knew [Cayman Islands] were going to park the bus with a 5-4-1 and that opportunity to keep penetrating that inside channel was something we targeted. Those runs from behind, two behind, to break the deep block.”
Should Canada maintain this shape in future games, it would have several advantages for the side. Chief among them is the numerical advantage in defence to protect against counter-attacks, which was an issue in the 2019 Gold Cup quarterfinals against Haiti and in the loss to the U.S. in November 2019.
There will be wrinkles to iron out, especially without a number of centre-backs available in this window. But with the European season wrapping up as Canada resumes World Cup qualifying, Herdman should have more time to work with his players.
“This team is becoming flexible,” Herdman stated. “We may use that as a principle or a philosophy to develop our tactical blueprints. But my feeling is, I’ll get more time with my European players in the buildup to those fixtures given that they’ll be off-season. Hopefully I can get more time and we can work more cohesively around tactical plans that clearly fit the game.”
Deepening player pool
Five years ago, a player of Jonathan David’s calibre missing an international window would’ve been devastating. Add injuries to Jonathan Osorio, Doneil Henry and Scott Kennedy, that could’ve rendered a roster thin.
Now, the quality of opposition helps, but it speaks to Canada’s growing player pool that it is able to call-up four readymade replacements in their places.
Defenders Alistair Johnston, Frank Sturing and Ricardo Ferreira all made their national-team debuts. Johnston and Sturing even scored their first goals in the Cayman Islands win. Eighteen-year-old forward Theo Corbeanu accomplished the same feats in this window, getting off the mark versus Bermuda.
— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) March 26, 2021
Even the likes of David Wotherspoon, fresh off a Scottish League Cup triumph with St. Johnstone, proved their worth. Wotherspoon had three assists and a goal on Sunday against the Cayman Islands, but it wasn’t just the offensive contributions that caught the eye. He was covering ground defensively and executing smart runs to the inside of the Cayman defence to attempt a shot or set up a chance.
“Johnston, Wotherspoon, they did that all night,” Herdman said. “They were brilliant at just stretching that back line. Even when it didn’t feel like there was any depth there, they would keep making those runs.”
With at least two World Cup qualifiers (four if they win Group B) in June and a Gold Cup the following month, players like Wotherspoon are needed to fill both rosters. The fact they’re playing leading roles in games only supports their cases.
Eustaquio marks his territory
Of all the players who saw minutes in these games, few bolstered their stocks as much as Stephen Eustaquio.
Earning just his second cap in the win over Bermuda, Eustaquio displayed why he was one of the Canadian players to watch entering 2021.
Eustaquio was routinely breaking through Bermuda’s and Cayman Islands’ blocks with his passes, a trait that drastically alters the complexion of this team.
Throw in the ability to read games defensively at a high level, and Canada finally has its replacement for Atiba Hutchinson, who coincidentally started next to Eustaquio on Thursday.
“Eustaquio was really looking forward to actually playing with Atiba,” said Herdman. “He called us the week prior and was talking about the tactics and how he could work off Atiba. He’d been watching his games in Turkey.”
Even though he has just three caps, Eustaquio needs to be a fixture in this Canadian side. He’s producing majestic performances for Pacos de Ferreira every week, as noted in his statistical radar below.
“I think Stephen just has this instinct to be in the right space at the right time defensively,” said Herdman. “He’ll run all day. As the game went on, you started to see [Eustaquio and Hutchinson] find each other and move off each other at the angles.”
Should a transfer to a bigger club materialize, all the more reason to include Eustaquio in future lineups.
Boston Bruins Add Offense With Solid Taylor Hall Trade – Boston Hockey Now
The Boston Bruins clearly understood they had serious deficiencies on their NHL roster this season and credit them for going and doing something about it.
The B’s finished off their Sunday night fireworks ahead of the NHL trade deadline by sending a second round pick and Anders Bjork to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for top-6 winger Taylor Hall and bottom-6 forward Curtis Lazar. TSN’s Darren Dreger, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and ESPN’s John Buccigross were the first to report about the completed deal between the Bruins and Buffalo Sabres in the hours following the B’s getting stomped by the Washington Capitals, 8-1, at TD Garden.
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) April 12, 2021
The Buffalo Sabres retained half of the $8 million salary that Hall signed for prior to the start of the 2021 hockey season.
After acquiring Hall @ 50% & Lazar for Bjork, the #NHLBruins added $772K Cap Hit for remainder of year.
They have $24K of Projected Cap Space; $100K Annual Cap Hit that can be added, w/ 24 Active on Roster. Sending players to taxi would create more room.https://t.co/2o0hsHzUIy https://t.co/rXiRKKk3lt pic.twitter.com/I7ZRUSmSQp
— PuckPedia (@PuckPedia) April 12, 2021
The 29-year-old Hall is having a terrible season in Buffalo with just two goals and 19 points in 37 games along with a minus-21 rating after he chose to sign a one-year deal with the Sabres during the offseason. But he brings legitimate offensive talent as a former No. 1 overall pick and Hart Trophy winner to a Boston Bruins team that’s ranked in the bottom third of the NHL offensively all season.
The Bruins were one of the suitors for Hall prior to him choosing the Sabres months ago, and now they get him for a deep discount while keeping their own first round picks after making their deadline deals.
Holding onto their own first round pick was a priority for Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney after spending first rounders at the deadline in two of the last three deadlines in trades for damaged goods Rick Nash and Ondrej Kase.
The 26-year-old Lazar has five goals and 11 points in 33 games as a bottom-6 forward for the Sabres this season and is signed for $800,000 for next season. It seemed clear that something was going on with the 24-year-old Anders Bjork over the last couple of weeks as he was a healthy scratch for five straight games, including Sunday night against Washington, and heads to Buffalo hoping to further develop a game built on speed and skill level that hasn’t translated into offense as of yet.
Hall should fit right into the top-6 with the Bruins as a skilled winger for playmaking center David Krejci, but it remains to be seen how he’s going to fit as another left winger on a team with Nick Ritchie and Jake DeBrusk.
Either Ritchie or DeBrusk is going to have to play the off wing with a Krejci/Hall combo, but that’s a problem that Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy will gladly figure out after being forced to piece together lineups all season due to injuries and offensive inconsistency. With the acquisition of Hall, Lazar and left-handed defenseman Mike Reilly on Sunday night, it would appear the Boston Bruins are largely done with deals ahead of Monday’s NHL trade deadline.
Interestingly enough, the Boston Bruins are set to play the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night at TD Garden.
Drouin must return to mentality that’s led to success this season – Sportsnet.ca
It was something Dominique Ducharme said after his Montreal Canadiens played an abysmal game against the Ottawa Senators last week, something that only truly resonated after they lost 3-2 to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday — a game that emboldened the struggle Jonathan Drouin’s currently enduring.
“Ninety per cent of the mistakes we made were mental, and the rest of it was above our shoulders.” the coach said after the 6-3 loss to Ottawa last Saturday, somewhat channelling New York Yankees legend Yogi Berra with this bit of wit and wisdom.
It was hard not to think of those words watching Drouin play the way he did on Wednesday. For much of this season, the talented left winger has played a primary role in Montreal’s success. He’s led them with 19 assists, been tenacious on the forecheck, physically engaged all over the ice, cerebral as always in his execution and, as he’s said on several occasions, relatively unconcerned by whether or not his name has been featured on the scoresheet.
But it seemed clear, after watching Drouin dump a breakaway into Jack Campbell’s chest with one of 32 shots the Maple Leafs goaltender turned aside to set a franchise record with his 10th consecutive win, he had diverted from that. And that affected the way he played the rest of the game.
It was Drouin’s fifth in a row without a point, his 18th without a goal, and he’d have to be a robot not to be suffering the mental wear of not seeing the puck go in more than twice since the season started, the torment of seeing only three per cent of his shots hit the back of the net through 36 games after 10 per cent of them resulted in goals through the first 348 games of his career.
“It is weighing on me where, when I have a chance and miss the goal, I might be trying to score too much,” Drouin said. “It’s something I obviously think about — every player would — and I’ve just gotta put it past me and just keep shooting pucks.”
Ideally, the 26-year-old wouldn’t be thinking about any of this. These are thoughts that weigh a player down and right now the Canadiens are in tough without Brendan Gallagher for the rest of the season and Drouin needs to be light and free to help account for that loss. And in order for him to do that, he needs to focus on what he does best.
Because the reality is that even though Drouin can score more, scoring isn’t what he needs to do in order to be at his best and really help this team.
“When his feet are moving and he’s making plays, Drou’s a pass-first guy,” explained Jake Allen, who made 29 saves in Carey Price’s absence. “When his feet are moving, his head’s always in it. When his feet are moving, he’s controlling the play, controlling the puck. He’s a guy who really can control the play for a whole line. You want the puck on that guy’s stick and let the other guys do the dirty work and he’ll find them.”
But when Drouin’s feet aren’t moving, there just isn’t enough of that other stuff happening.
When Drouin’s feet weren’t moving, he lost a battle for the puck in the offensive zone and allowed the NHL’s leading goal scorer to start the rush that resulted in the winning play of Wednesday’s game.
Auston Matthews to Mitch Marner, back to Matthews, off Allen and slammed into Montreal’s net by Zach Hyman with 9:39 remaining in the third period, with Drouin watching from just inside his own blue line.
“You give a 3-on-2 to the Matthews line and it’s the kind of play they’re going to make you pay on,” said Ducharme.
Was Drouin still thinking about that shot he didn’t bury in the second period?
It’s understandable if he was, but those are the kind of thoughts he needs to shake right now.
“He wants to do well, and I’m sure it’s getting a little bit in his head,” said Ducharme. “I think the best remedy for him is to be scoring that goal or making that big play, and I think he’s going to be energized by that and less thinking, more acting.
“It is a fine line. Those kind of thoughts is not something that you want to happen. But when you receive that puck and you see the opening and stuff, (the slump) comes back to (your mind). That’s why the mental part of the game is something that’s very tricky. It’s not his will to be thinking that way. Every player who’s going through a time like that will have that thought and scoring that goal will take him to a different level. At those kind of times you need to make it even simpler and being even more inside going at the net and finding a garbage (goal) right there and you put it in and sometimes you go on a little run. It might be that kind of goal that he needs to get that monkey off his back.”
It’s the kind of goal Corey Perry scored twice to give the Canadiens a chance in this game.
But Drouin isn’t Perry, who rightly pointed out after the game he’s made a career of scoring goals that way. And even if Drouin can borrow from what Perry does next time he has a chance like the one Brett Kulak set him up with for that breakaway, there are other ways he can positively impact the game.
You can appreciate that Drouin said he’s putting pressure on himself to score more and help make up for the goals the team will be missing with Gallagher sidelined, but that might not get him to where he needs to be mentally to contribute as much as he already has this season.
What would, though, is a sharp turn towards the mentality he described just days ago. The one that’s enabled him to be a much more consistent player this season than he has in seasons past.
“When I was younger, I’d stay on one game or stay on one play for too long and wouldn’t be able to let it go for a bit or a couple of days,” Drouin said. “But I think for me now it’s can I look at myself in the mirror after a game and did I give my good effort? Was I a part of this game? Was I doing something right in a lot of areas?
“That’s what I do now. I think points are there, goals are there, assists are there, but it’s just about playing that real game and playing to help your team win.”
Drouin’s done a lot of that this season and has a chance to get right back to it when the Winnipeg Jets visit the Bell Centre Thursday.
Scioscia to lead U.S. baseball bid for spot at Tokyo Olympics
(Reuters) – Mike Scioscia, who won World Series both as a player and manager, was named manager of the U.S. men’s national baseball team on Tuesday, as they seek a spot at the Tokyo Olympics.
After 19 seasons as manager of the Anaheim Angels, guiding them to their only World Series win in 2002, Scioscia will make his international coaching debut in June when the United States hosts the Baseball Americas Qualifier in Florida.
For the tournament the U.S. will be grouped with the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Nicaragua in Pool A while Canada, Colombia, Cuba, and Venezuela will make up Pool B.
The top two teams from each pool will advance to the Super Round, where the country with the best overall record will earn a spot in the Tokyo Olympic tournament.
Second and third-place finishers will advance to a final qualifier, joining Australia, China, Taiwan, and the Netherlands.
“Mike’s tenure with the Angels’ franchise was nothing short of spectacular, creating and celebrating a culture of success with six division titles, an American League pennant, and its first-ever World Series title,” said USA Baseball Executive Director/CEO Paul Seiler in a statement. “More impactfully, his leadership, integrity, and character are unparalleled in our game, making him the perfect fit for the USA Baseball family.”
The Olympic tournament will take place from July 28-Aug. 7 in Fukushima City and Yokohama.
Hosts Japan, Israel, South Korea, and Mexico have already secured a berth in the six-team field.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis)