TORONTO – Even the longest journey begins with a single step.
The Canadian men's national team will play their second competitive match under John Herdman on Tuesday night when Dominica comes to BMO Field for matchday 2 of Concacaf Nations League Qualification.
The qualifying stage for the new competition, to be played over four games, will see the top six teams move into Group A, where they will join the six sides who reached the Hex in the qualification process for 2018 to vie for one of the four spots in the 2020 Concacaf Nations League Final Championship. The top ten in qualifying will earn a berth in the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup next summer.
An 8-0 win over U.S. Virgin Islands in step one got Canada off to a strong start, but with three matches left, much soccer remains to be played. Beyond lie even more steps, though Toronto FC's Jonathan Osorio has a clear goal in mind.
“[The FIFA World Cup in] 2022 is all we talk about here. That's the main objective; why everybody comes to camp. This is a step in the direction of that goal,” said Osorio on a conference call on Monday. “That is the main goal: the World Cup. This is no other way around it; it would be stupid for any team to not think they have a chance.”
“For us, we believe it's very realistic with the players we have coming in,” continued Osorio. “We're working towards that. We're very excited. We're going to concentrate on each step, which right now is Dominica in front of us, but we know this step is just one closer to qualifying for that World Cup.”
Alongside Osorio, three other TFC players – Tosaint Ricketts, Ashtone Morgan, and Jay Chapman – will represent Canada.
The squad selected by Herdman is a nice mix of faces new and old.
In addition to a flurry of exciting teenagers – Bayern Munich-bound Alphonso Davies, Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla of Barcelona B, and Liverpool's Liam Millar – there is plenty of other youthful energy in the new side, including forward Jonathan David, who is tearing it up in Belgium, defender David Cornelius who plays in Serbia, Olympique Lyonnais full-back Zachary Brault-Guillard, and Juventus U-23 goalkeeper, Alessandro Busti.
“It was nice, made me realize I'm not young no more,” smiled Osorio of no longer being the newcomer to the national stage before departing for camp. “They're fearless, they're hungry; confident. We haven't had young stars like this in a long time.”
“They come in and perform,” continued Osorio. “They're very talented; it's exciting. When 2022 comes, these are the guys that will be playing, they won't be young per se, they'll be mature footballers. It's good to get them in now, start integrating a core, so that building up we have good chemistry.”
Added Morgan: “It's great, positive energy, a lot of youth in the squad, and a lot of excitement to start this new cycle.”
Alongside are familiar faces: Atiba Hutchinson, makes his return to the squad, his teammate at Turkish club Besiktas, Cyle Larin, will be there as well. So too is Lucas Cavallini, a native of Mississauga, who plies his trade with Liga MX side, Puebla FC, and is set to play his first match in front of a hometown crowd.
Scott Arfield and Junior Hoilett, of Glasgow Rangers and Cardiff City, respectively, will be there too. As will a plethora of familiar faces from MLS: Davies, Russell Teibert, and Doneil Henry of Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Samuel Piette and James Pantemis from the Montreal Impact. David Edgar, who moved to Ottawa Fury FC recently, was recalled as well.
Morgan is excited for the reunion, especially with his old buddy from the TFC Academy: “A lot of new faces, some old faces. Especially happy to see Doneil back in the mix. One of my best friends in life, so happy to see him again.”
But the undoubted headline grabber is the return of Hutchinson to the squad, as well as the news that the legendary 35-year-old midfielder from Brampton will retire from international play at the end of the 2019 Gold Cup.
“He's the greatest ever; a guy that all of us look up to,” said Osorio. “The way he has built his career, started from the bottom and worked all the way to the top. He's played in the biggest games that you can play in as a player.”
“He has a lot of experience. He brings all of that. He's one to more lead by example, but his voice is always listened to by all of us,” added Osorio. “He's the greatest Canadian.”
As well as the four representatives of TFC, a healthy percentage of the squad has ties to Toronto and Southern Ontario.
Hutchinson, Larin, Millar, Henry, and Hoilett all hail from Brampton; Cavallini from Mississauga, Cornelius from Ajax, Manjrekar James from North York, Teibert from Niagara Falls, Edgar from Kitchener, and Jonathan David from Ottawa. Busti was born in Toronto, but has spent the majority of his 18 years in Italy.
“There are a lot of guys from Toronto [that] don't get to play here a lot,” noted Osorio. “The guys are excited to play at home, in front of family and friends. Excited to play a home game finally after so long.”
Canada last played in Toronto last September, defeating Jamaican 2-0 on goals from Osorio and Anthony Jackson-Hamel.
That was a fun match, but this is a new Canada. Though many steps remain to the ultimate goals, these first ones are exciting.
“More than anything, we want to put on a good performance; want to win game, are going to win the game. That's how we're going in,” explained Osorio. “Along with winning, we want to play good, attractive football, that the fans will open their eyes and say, 'Wow, this Canada team has come a long way. It's a different flavour, a different quality to this team.'”
“Guys want to prove that,” added Osorio. “We know the quality is better, it's about showing. More than that, a dominating performance. [One] that makes everybody proud and excited.”