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Interim coach Mauro Biello looks to "cultural reset" with Canadian men's soccer team

If not a changing of the guard, interim coach Mauro Biello is overseeing what he calls a "cultural reset" ahead of Canada's crucial Copa America qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago later this month.
Mauro Biello signals during the second half of Montreal Impact's MLS soccer match against the Philadelphia Union on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, in Chester, Pa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michael Perez

If not a changing of the guard, interim coach Mauro Biello is overseeing what he calls a "cultural reset" ahead of Canada's crucial Copa America qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago later this month.

The 23-man squad for the March 23 game against the 96th-ranked Soca Warriors in Frisco, Texas, is filled with youth. 

"If I had to analyze the squad, it's kind of slipped over the last year, post-World Cup (in late 2022 in Qatar)," Biello told a virtual availability Tuesday. "And for me, It's about reigniting that passion and bringing the young players that are in form. These are players that are going to be hungry. These are players that are going to want to be part of this journey. And I think, for sure, that is the mindset that I want coming into this camp."

Canada Soccer calls the roster the youngest men's squad since 2019, with all but one player (31-year-old midfielder Jonathan Osorio of Toronto FC) under the age of 30. Six are 23 or younger.

Eleven players are from Major League Soccer, including four from CF Montreal (goalkeeper Jonathan Sirois, defender Joel Waterman and midfielders Mathieu Choiniere and Samuel Piette) and one from Toronto (Osorio).

There are 10 players on the roster with less than 10 caps including the uncapped Sirois and Fulham defender Luc de Fougerolles. Four other players — Choiniere, Nashville winger Jacob Shaffelburg and forwards Jacen Russell-Rowe of Columbus and Theo Bair of Scotland's Motherwell — have been capped but have yet to start for Canada.

Osorio is the most-capped player with 71 appearances, followed by Piette's 67 and Cyle Larin's 65.

Veteran goalkeeper Milan Borjan, a 36-year-old with 80 caps, is not on the roster. Neither is 37-year-old centre back Steven Vitoria (46 caps).

"At the end of the day I need to evaluate and make decisions," Biello said of the decision to bring in youth.

It's a bold move for Biello, who is a candidate for the permanent coaching position. And it comes before a high-stakes game for the 50th-ranked Canadian men.

A win over Trinidad and Canada slots into Group A alongside top-ranked Argentina, No. 33 Peru and No. 42 Chile at this summer's Copa America. Canada is looking to face that kind of elite opposition as it prepares to co-host the 2026 World Cup. And Canada Soccer has a list of yet-to-be-announced friendlies that likely depend on the result.

Biello declined to name his captain.

"That's something that I'll decide in camp," he said. "And obviously for me it'll be a reset, a cultural reset with the group,"

Asked about the need for the reset, Biello cited "political distractions," a seeming reference to the ongoing labour dispute, as well as the coaching change with John Herdman stepping down, among other "things happening" at Canada Soccer, which has gone through several leadership changes.

"I think when these distractions start to multiply, things start to slip a little," Biello said.

Canada was forced into the playoff after losing the CONCACAF Nations League quarterfinal in November to No. 57 Jamaica on the away goals rule with the two-legged series knotted at 4-4.

Borjan called the result "unacceptable," 

"I'm very, very angry," he said after the second leg. "As a captain, I'm sorry to the nation that we didn't go to the (Nations League) semis but we have another chance in March for the Copa America and we'll try to do everything to bounce back and try to make our nation happy."

The 13th-ranked U.S., No. 15 Mexico, No. 44 Panama and Jamaica — the four quarterfinal winners — have already booked their ticket as CONCACAF guest teams at the 16-team Copa America that runs June 20 to July 14 across 14 U.S. cities.

No. 54 Costa Rica takes on No. 78 Honduras in the other play-in match March 23.

The Canadian squad includes star fullback Alphonso Davies, who needed dental work after taking a boot to the face on the weekend for Bayern Munich.

The European contingent also includes defender Alistair Johnston (Celtic, Scotland), midfielders Stephen Eustaquio (Porto), winger/wingback Tajon Buchanan (Inter Milan, Italy) and forwards Jonathan David (Lille, France) and Larin (Mallorca, Spain).

Sirois is joined by fellow 'keepers Maxime Crepeau and Dayne St. Clair. 

Biello has also clearly picked on form in choosing Choiniere, Shaffelburg, Russell-Rowe and Bair, among others.

Russell-Rowe, who came off the bench to score in Columbus' 2-1 win over Chicago on Saturday, was named to the MLS team of the week Monday while Choiniere was on the weekly all-star bench.

Shaffelburg scored twice in Nashville's 2-2 tie with Inter Miami in CONCACAF Champions Cup play last week. Bair is tied for fifth in Scottish Premiership scoring with 11 goals in 29 outings. David, usually one of the first names on the Canada team sheet, is second in France's Ligue 1 scoring with 14 goals, second only to Kylian Mbappe's 21 for Paris Saint-Germain.

Richie Laryea, Sam Adekugbe and Ali Ahmed are injured or not 100 per cent fit.

Earlier Tuesday, Canada announced a Sept. 10 friendly against No. 15 Mexico at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.


Canada Roster

Goalkeeper: Maxime Crepeau, Portland Timbers (MLS); Jonathan Sirois, CF Montreal (MLS); Dayne St. Clair, Minnesota United (MLS).

Defenders: Moise Bombito, Colorado Rapids (MLS); Derek Cornelius, Malmö FF (Sweden); Luc de Fougerolles, Fulham (England); Alistair Johnston, Celtic (Scotland); Kamal Miller, Portland Timbers (MLS); Joel Waterman, CF Montreal (MLS). 

Midfielders: Mathieu Choiniere, CF Montreal; Stephen Eustaquio, FC Porto (Portugal); Ismael Kone, Watford (England); Jonathan Osorio, Toronto FC (MLS); Samuel Piette, CF Montreal (MLS). 

Fullback/Forwards: Tajon Buchanan, Inter Milan (Italy); Alphonso Davies, Bayern Munich (Germany); Liam Millar, Preston North End (England); Jacob Shaffelburg, Nashville SC (MLS).

Forwards: Theo Bair, Motherwell (Scotland); Jonathan David, Lille (France); Cyle Larin, RCD Mallorca (Spain); Jacen Russell-Rowe, Columbus Crew (MLS); Ike Ugbo, Sheffield Wednesday (England). 


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2024

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. Removes reference of Sirois having been in camp before