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Copa America presents ‘massive’ test for Canadian men’s soccer team

For the Canadian men’s soccer team, desperate to prove itself on the international stage, the road to credibility begins with a major hurdle: Lionel Messi, one of the greatest players of all time.

Canada kicks off its inaugural appearance in the Copa America tournament next Thursday in Atlanta against Messi’s Argentina, the World Cup champions. The South American championship, which runs June 20-July 14 and features 16 teams, is being played at various stadiums across the United States.

Like the Euros, which kicked off on Friday, it’s one of the most important events on the global soccer calendar.

“It’s a massive tournament. It is the South American equivalent of the Euros. You’re talking about nations of the calibre of Brazil and Argentina who’ve won, you know, the World Cup multiple times between them,” said John Molinaro, founder of the website TFC Republic and who has covered Canada’s national team for decades. “This is a chance for Canada to sort of rub shoulders with some of the best teams in the world.”

Canada, which is 49th in the FIFA world rankings, is one of six qualifiers from CONCACAF (the region comprised of North and Central America and the Caribbean) that were invited to the event. Mexico and the U.S. also qualified.

Canada will play ‘best’ in the world

With the exception of a few tweaks, the Canadian roster will look much like the one that played at the World Cup. Familiar faces include international stars like Alphonso Davies (who plays club soccer for Bayern Munich), Jonathan David (Lille) and Tajon Buchanan (Inter Milan).

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After playing world No. 1-ranked Argentina, Canada will play Peru (No. 32) on June 25 in Kansas City and Chile (No. 42) on June 29 in Orlando to close out the group stage.

Molinaro says the tournament offers Canada a unique test as it gears up to co-host the 2026 World Cup.

“This is a great opportunity for them to sort of go up against the best teams in the world and possibly set themselves up for success in 2026,” Molinaro said.

Jesse Marsch, seen during his time as manager of Leeds United, will coach the Canadian men’s soccer team through July 2026. (Rui Vieira/The Associated Press)

Copa America is also the first international tournament for new Canadian head coach Jesse Marsch, who replaced John Herdman, who left in October to take over as head coach for Toronto FC after leading Canada to its first World Cup berth since 1986.

Marsch came to the job after coaching at the club level in Europe, and was immediately put to the test. Earlier this month, Canada played a pair of friendlies against two of the best sides in the world. Canada lost 4-0 to sixth-ranked Netherlands but were able to rebound days later with a shocking 0-0 draw against second-ranked France.

“To go up against the No. 2 team in the world and earn a draw in Bordeaux…. Considering Jesse Marsch has only been in charge for not even a month, I think it was an impressive result,” Molinaro said.

New coach ‘thinks differently’

Brendan Dunlop, the co-founder of the website Canadian Soccer Daily who will also call Canada’s Copa America games on the radio, says Marsch has already provided reason for optimism going forward.

“They have someone that is a real tactician, someone that connects with players, that thinks differently about the game,” Dunlop said. “He has already shown he can adapt on the fly, which is something that the Canadian national teams have been criticized for. I think you’re going to see this team become even more exciting.” 

Of course, the Copa America games will be anything but friendly. On the tournament’s opening night, Canada will play against Argentina and Messi, one of the game’s all-time greats, in what’s thought to be his final international tournament. 

“He does seem truly as motivated as ever,” Dunlop said. “I think everyone else is chasing and trying to match Argentina. So, it would be incredible for his legacy.”

Lionel Messi
Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi, who plays national soccer for Argentina, plays a pass during MLS soccer action against CF Montreal on May 11, 2024. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Dunlop says Argentina and Brazil are the clear favourites to win the cup, but he says Uruguay and Colombia could also make some noise.

For Canada, the goals are far less lofty. After qualifying for its first World Cup in almost 40 years, Canada bowed out quietly in Qatar, losing all three of its games and scoring only one goal. Dunlop says he expects better results at Copa America.

He doubts they’ll win against Argentina but will be competitive and could beat either Chile or Peru and possibly advance beyond the group stage.

“They’ll go and they’ll make the country proud. It’s definitely, definitely going to be a team worth watching and listening to.”

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