Canada’s long-awaited return to the FIFA World Cup draws ever closer.
The hype is building as the boys in red and white prepare for their tournament opener against world No. 2 Belgium on Wednesday, signaling the nation’s first (men’s) World Cup appearance since 1986.
Canada were 36 years ago when they took the field in Mexico 36 years ago, not winning a game – or scoring – and failing in the group stage. This time, however, fans have more to look forward to in what will become Canada’s golden era of men’s football over the next 5 to 10 years.
This generation of fans has high expectations for this star-studded side, having set the bar quite high with an outstanding qualifying campaign. Finding themselves in a difficult Group F with European heavyweights Belgium and Croatia and a sneakily good Moroccan side, the Canadians could force an upset or two if they stick to their strengths.
Here are Canada’s keys to success if they want a chance to achieve their all-time best result on football’s greatest stage.
speed on the counter
If there’s one thing Canada can count on, it’s speed.
The squad boasts unmatched speed on the wings, with Alphonso Davies, Tajon Buchanan, Richie Laryea and Sam Adekugbe bombing up and down the flanks all game.
With head coach John Herdman preferring to play with five defenders – including two full-backs – Canada are focusing on solid defense while keeping many players between the ball and goal. But when they regain the ball, Canada are dangerous on the counterattack as their full-backs become wingers and bring the ball forward or support the attack with overlapping runs.
Star striker Jonathan David is also one of the fastest players on the pitch every day and made his living scoring goals in Canada’s CONCACAF qualifying campaign. The 22-year-old, who has made his mark in Ligue 1 this season with nine goals and three assists for Lille, regularly gave Canada’s defense an outlet to put themselves under pressure and scored some key goals after he got behind the opponent’s strong defense line.
Here’s an example from Canada’s 2-0 win over Honduras, where David has a nice first touch after a delicious pass from Liam Fraser, getting behind the Honduran defense and securing a two-goal lead. Enjoy Davies’ hilarious comment, courtesy of his Twitch stream, as he watched the game from his home in Munich while recovering from a heart problem.
With talented midfield passers like Stephen Eustaquio and Fraser, Canada’s forwards will look for any space they can penetrate and expect a through ball to hit goal.
There are few answers to the kind of speed that Canada possesses that instills fear and tires any line of defense. Given the quality of their opponents in the group stage, it’s likely that Canada will see little of the ball in terms of possession. Therefore, dealing damage on counterattacks will be crucial to get all the good results the team is hoping for in Qatar.
Dominate the midfield
Canada will face some of the best midfielders in the world in the group stage, and face the likes of Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne and Croatia’s Luka Modric.
Despite the challenge, Canada must take the fight to these stars and fight for midfield dominance if they are to control the pace of the game.
Eustaquio will be key for Canada in this area. The Porto starlet has enjoyed a meteoric rise in Portugal. His composure on the ball and keen playmaking skills put him at the heart of all Canadian movement and rhythm.
Of course, Eustaquio needs to have possession to be able to influence the game as we know it. That’s where the rest of the midfield group comes in.
Each combination of Atiba Hutchinson, Samuel Piette and Mark-Anthony Kaye will be responsible for pressing and recovering the ball down the center of the pitch and all three have shown they can be effective in that role. Coupled with Eustaquio’s high IQ and underappreciated ball-capturing ability, Canada’s midfield balance should rival any of his group rivals.
Canada also has a potential X-Factor in 20-year-old Ismaël Koné. The CF Montreal product has impressed in six games with the men’s national team and even scored its first goal for Canada in a friendly against Bahrain last week. A skilled ball progressor, he is the most athletic midfielder in the Canadian Corps. Whether trusted from the start or coming on as a substitute, Koné can be a game changer and turn a game upside down with a brilliant moment.
Take advantage of set pieces
International competitions are usually littered with set-piece goals, with some of the greatest moments thwarted by a crucial header from a corner or a free-kick.
As a significant underdog in their group and likely to have few scoring chances, Canada may need to rely on set pieces to score a goal or two.
Striker Cyle Larin will play a huge role for Canada and should be the main target for any ball floating into the box. The Club Brugge player led CONCACAF qualifying with 13 goals and is Canada’s all-time leading scorer with 25 goals in 55 appearances.
However, Canada’s threat in the box goes beyond Larin as they have considerable size in defence, who will come up for set pieces and try to get their heads on crosses. Steven Vitória (6-foot-5), Kamal Miller (6-foot), Atiba Hutchinson (6-foot-2) and Mark-Anthony Kaye (6-foot-1) will all try to get on the front foot and help , to deliver some offensive from dead ball situations.
The side can count on precise deliveries from Eustaquio, who has developed a habit of whipping dangerous balls into the 18 from all angles. He had two assists in 15 qualifying games.
Games at the World Cup are typically tense and close, with a brilliant moment or mistake standing between a big win or a heartbreaking loss. Canada could find themselves on the right flank in those moments with some well-executed set pieces.
More from Yahoo Sports