By Matthew Gourlie
Will Johnson doesn’t expect to play at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
When you press him on the subject, the 30-year-old admits it is possible and “fun to think about.” After breaking each of your legs less than two years apart, the long-term starts to feel a lot less certain.
What Johnson wants — more than anything in his career right now — is for Canada to be at the next World Cup. He wants it whether he gets to be a part of it or not.
“In the Gold Cup we have some opportunities to give guys chances in games. Do you do that or do you want to bring your best team possible and try to win the Gold Cup? I don’t know It’s an interesting question. We want to have results, but ultimately we’ve got to get this right,” Johnson said in Montréal before Canada’s 2-1 win over Curaçao. “We’ve been stuck in a cycle of rinse and repeat, so something has to change.
“And hopefully Octavio has the answers to those questions, because that’s his job,” Johnson added with a laugh. “And hopefully he does better than we’ve done in the past.”
Johnson started in Octavio Zambrano’s first match in charge of Canada, but was not one of the 23 players named to the Canadian Gold Cup roster Tuesday. Forward Cyle Larin will sit out at least the three matches in the group stage in the wake of his DUI charge in Orlando. FC Dallas forward Tesho Akindele didn’t make the 23-man roster for Curaçao and Nik Ledgerwood from FC Edmonton is recovering from an injury and hasn’t made an appearance since May 28. Those three are all notable absences, though Zambrano can recall up to six players to the squad after the group stage is complete.
In the weeks leading up to the tournament, Johnson was aware of the club-versus-country pull and wasn’t certain whether he would take part in his fourth Gold Cup this summer.
“I haven’t heard specifically what (Canada’s) plans are or what’s required of my club,” Johnson said on June 11. “Things are tricky in Orlando because we’re a team where every point matters. so we’ll see. Obviously, there will be some sort of an agreement reached and hopefully club and country can agree and we’ll go forward.”
Canada has four players 30-or-older in the squad, including 37-year-old Patrice Bernier. Canada has failed to score in the previous two Gold Cups. Zambrano wants to establish a tone and a new mentality within the squad and would like to advance past the group stage at least.
Johnson said he and his Canadian teammates would love to taste some success at the Gold Cup after some barren outings, however, that is not the goal they are chasing.
“Yes, of course, every time you get on the field you want to compete,” Johnson said when asked about Gold Cup success. “Ultimately, I will be honest with you and tell you that every guy here wants to play in a World Cup. Hopefully you can do both, but I think if the two options were: win a Gold Cup or play in a World Cup, I think everyone would rather get us to a World Cup. That’s what puts you on the map. The Gold Cup is a nice tournament, but we have to use it in a way that prepares us in the right way for getting us to where we want to go.
There will be a number of players in the Canadian squad who have an opportunity to show Zambrano that they deserve a larger role moving forward. After playing one half during the post-Stephen Hart era, Lucas Cavallini returns to the fold. He and Anthony Jackson-Hamel will have a chance to show what they can do in Larin’s absence.
With Atiba Hutchinson taking the summer off from international play — at least — and Johnson also absent from the midfield, Sam Piette will be leaned upon. It also opens the door for Mark-Anthony Kaye, arguably the biggest surprise in the 23, to make an impression.
After a man of the match performance in the midfield in Scotland, Fraser Aird started at right back against Curaçao and seems to be the only natural fit for the position in the squad.
“What we are preparing for in the short time is the Gold Cup, but 2022 is really the litmus test. We need to come good at that time,” Zambrano said. “This Gold Cup is going to be very good for us to access some of the young players. It will be a chance to get a glimpse at their true contribution when game-time comes.”
Canada opens the tournament on July 7 against French Guiana in Harrison, N.J.
Canada’s 23-man squad for the 2017 Gold Cup:
Goalkeepers: Milan BORJAN, Korona Kielce/POL; Maxime CRÉPEAU, Montréal Impact; Jayson LEUTWILER, Shrewsbury Town/ENG.
Defenders: Sam ADEKUGBE, Brighton & Hove Albion/ENG; Fraser AIRD, Falkirk/SCO; Marcel de JONG, Vancouver Whitecaps; Dejan JAKOVIC, New York Cosmos/USA; Manjrekar JAMES, Vasas/HUN; Adam STRAITH, FC Edmonton; Steven VITORIA, Lechia Gdansk/POL
Midfielders: Scott ARFIELD, Burnley/ENG; Patrice BERNIER, Montréal Impact; Alphonso DAVIES, Vancouver Whitecaps; Raheem EDWARDS, Toronto FC; Junior HOILETT, Cardiff City/WAL; Mark-Anthony KAYE, Louisville City/USA; Jonathan OSORIO, Toronto FC; Michael PETRASSO, Queens Park Rangers/ENG; Samuel PIETTE, Izarra/ESP; Russell TEIBERT, Vancouver Whitecaps.
Forwards: Lucas CAVALLINI, Peñarol/URU; Anthony JACKSON-HAMEL, Montréal Impact; Tosaint RICKETTS, Toronto FC.