Coach John Herdman faces Canada roster questions ahead of World Cup qualifying

Canada faces three stiff challenges in World Cup qualifying this month with question-marks over several key players.

Canada stands second in the Octagonal round-robin standings

Canada goalkeeper Milan Borjan (18) bumps fists with midfielder Jonathan Osorio (21) as they leave the pitch following a 1-1 draw with the United States in a World Cup soccer qualifier Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Humphrey/AP Photo)

Canada faces three stiff challenges in World Cup qualifying this month with question-marks over several key players.

Coach John Herdman has called up captain Atiba Hutchinson, veteran goalkeeper Milan Borjan and striker Cyle Larin but admits he's not sure of their availability for matches in Mexico and Jamaica and at home to Panama due to injury and health issues.

"Their recovery, their return-to-play plan is progressing and there is a chance that the three of them may see some time during this 10-day window," he told a virtual availability Friday.

"We've still got a little bit more time, right up until that last game against Panama," he added. "So they're on our roster. They're certainly not healthy at the moment ... It's a complex window, this one."

Canada (1-0-2) stands second in the Octagonal round-robin standings on goal difference with five points, after defeating El Salvador and tying Honduras and the U.S.

The 51st-ranked Canadian men play at No. 9 Mexico (2-0-1) on Oct. 7 and at No. 59 Jamaica (0-2-1) on Oct. 10 before hosting No. 68 Panama (1-0-2) at Toronto's BMO Field on Oct. 13.

Herdman said Borjan is recovering from COVID. Hutchinson and Larin have been nursing knocks. Vancouver Whitecaps forward Lucas Cavallini is also in the squad, despite a recent knee injury.

With 88 caps, the 38-year-old Hutchinson is one away from tying Julian de Guzman's Canadian men's record.

Defender Scott Kennedy is unavailable through injury, however.

The Canadian men are also dealing with five yellow cards, knowing players picking up a second yellow face a one-game suspension.

'Big opportunities' on horizon for players

Adding to the complications are travel restrictions affecting Junior Hoilett for the Mexico end of the trip, Herdman said without elaborating.

Despite injury and other concerns, Herdman says the Canadian squad has plenty to offer.

"I'm really looking forward to this (international) window because I think ... there's some big opportunities for players to take a claim to future involvement in this journey," he said. "So anyone coming in, it's an absolute opportunity to get yourself in the thinking for that World Cup squad in the future."

Herdman can call upon young players like 21-year-old Jacob Shaffelburg (Toronto FC) and 22-year-old Tajon Buchanan (New England), and Liam Millar (FC Basel) who have been in a rich vein of form recently.

And the 27-man Canadian roster is full of weapons and creativity with Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich), Jonathan David (Lille) and Stephen Eustaquio (FC Pacos de Ferreira).

Canada head coach John Herdman salutes the crowd as he leaves the pitch following a 1-1 draw against the United States in a World Cup soccer qualifier Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Humphrey/AP Photo)

Shaffelburg, a pacey winger who likes to take on defenders, scored one goal and set up the other two in Toronto's 3-2 comeback win over FC Cincinnati on Wednesday. He has two goals and four assists in his last four games for Toronto.

Shaffelburg, who has one senior cap to his credit, joins 23-year-old Derek Cornelius (13 caps) and Charles-Andreas Brym (three caps) as first-time call-ups during this World Cup qualifying cycle.

Cornelius is currently with Greece's Panetolikos, on loan from the Whitecaps. Brym plays for FC Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

Toronto FC's Jacob Shaffelburg, right, joins the 27-man Canadian squad. (Leopoldo Smith/Getty Images/File)

Herdman also pointed to the form of CF Montreal defender Zachary Brault-Guillard.

"I'm excited. It's a window where we're going to suffer a little bit — and that's normal, it was going to happen — but it's a real opportunity for us to show the quality of our depth and t strengthen this group, add more people to the depth of this Canadian squad."

Should Borjan not be ready, Herdman can go with Vancouver 'keeper Maxime Crepeau, who has been in fine form.

Winless record in Mexico

It's a challenging schedule for Canada.

The Canadian men have never won in Mexico and their history at Azteca Stadium includes losses of 8-0 (1993), 4-0 (1997 and 1993), 2-0 (2016 and 2000), 2-1 (1972) and 1-0 (1971), along with a 1-1 draw (1980).

Herdman says Canada will see a different, stronger Jamaica than shown in its first few games in this round, as more players rejoin the team including in-form West Ham striker Michail Antonio.

"They were the hardest hit of any team by some of the pandemic realities," he said.

Panama, meanwhile, has been one of the surprises of the round, winning 3-0 in Jamaica and tying visiting Costa Rica and Mexico.

Each of the eight teams still in World Cup contention in CONCACAF plays 14 matches in the final round of qualifying, with the top three representing North and Central America and the Caribbean at Qatar 2022, The fourth-place team will take part in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.

It's the first time the Canadian men have reached the final round of CONCACAF qualifying since the leadup to France '98.

Canada won its first-round group, defeating Aruba, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and Suriname, before dispatching Haiti in a two-legged second round.

Canada Soccer says its two November home matches — Nov. 12 against No. 44 Costa Rica (0-1-2) and Mexico on Nov. 16 — will be played at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium.

UK eases restrictions on Premier League players

Premier League players who are fully vaccinated will be allowed to travel to countries on the UK's red list during the international break and will be allowed to train or play when they quarantine on return, the government said on Friday.

Many clubs refused to release players to 'red list' countries such as Brazil and Argentina last month and the Premier League is looking to avoid a similar situation which angered national federations.

The strict COVID-19 quarantine rules require those who return to England from a red list country to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days, but players will now be quarantined at "bespoke facilities" and will be allowed to train or play.

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