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News

Jesse Marsch Leads Canada to Copa America Quarterfinals with a Newfound Confidence

Canada head coach Jesse Marsch instructs play during a timeout in the game between Canada and Argentina at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on June 20, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia (Photo by Perry McIntyre/ISI Photos/Getty Images).

Jesse Marsch couldn’t help but chuckle.

READ: Dramatic Showdowns Urawa Red Diamonds Unfold in International Club Football! From Shocking Dismissals to Last-Minute Heroics

Jesse Marsch

After Canada’s grinding 0-0 draw with Chile in their third and final Copa America group game, the new head coach still had to deal with a curveball.

Marsch is a worldly man, fluent in multiple languages, with the former USMNT midfielder having previously coached in Germany and Austria. Yet when a question about what the result meant to Canadian soccer history came to him in French, one of the two official languages of his new country, he was caught out of his depth.

He started fine en Français, in fairness, before struggling to find the word for ‘belief’.

“‘Quoi’?,” he asked, after receiving help, his grin growing wider. “Our quoi is strong.”

Welcome to Canada under Marsch, where the national team has embraced whatever comes their way, dealt with it with a newfound sense of ‘quoi,’ er, internal belief, and surprised onlookers almost every step of the way.

Six CONCACAF nations — Canada, the United States, Mexico, Jamaica, Panama, and Costa Rica — were added to this Copa America to expand the field past the 10 members of CONMEBOL, the South American federation whose championship this competition is. To the shock of many, Canada made it out of a group containing Copa America finalists from the previous three tournaments, while CONCACAF’s twin powers Mexico and hosts United States have been eliminated.

How did this happen?

How did a team that finished ranked 31st out of 32 teams at the World Cup 18 months ago (only hosts Qatar had a worse group-stage record) and looked broken this year make it to the quarterfinals?

“Mexico and the United States could have done better. At the same time, they were under more pressure to get results,” Canada midfielder Stephen Eustaquio tells The Athletic. “If we finished third (in the group), it wouldn’t be as much of a shock as if that happened to the U.S. or Mexico.”

Eustaquio, 27, speaks as one of the more experienced members of Canada’s national team and as a player who has seen how pressure can make players bend or break in the Champions League with leading Portuguese club Porto.

“We can go to the past as well,” he added. “Mexico and the U.S. have so many more accomplishments than we do. They have to live up to that. And we don’t. We’re history-breakers.”

Under Marsch, appointed less than two months ago, Canada looks liberated but not unfocused. How many players does that apply to on the U.S. or Mexico rosters? How many of their starting players had standout tournaments this summer? Perhaps the pressure of being considered to have an outside chance of winning the tournament created mental hurdles for some players.

With Canada, however, it’s easy to see how the absence of pressure is allowing the team’s better players to play with freedom.

Jonathan David has Jesse Marsch scored Canada’s lone, crucial goal in their three matches. Even with reports swirling that his future lies away from Lille, his club in France’s top division, he’s moving the ball dynamically and never hesitating to get into the most dangerous spaces. Fellow forward Cyle Larin looks like a leader with newfound verbal direction and impressive defensive tactics. Eustaquio himself has been as reliable as ever in the middle of the park. In goal, Maxime Crepeau is making a case for being on the all-tournament team with his shot-stopping abilities.

For years under Jesse Marsch predecessor John Herdman, loyalty was a priority in team selection. Canada’s previous coach wanted to stick with veteran players who had toiled with the national team for years in the hope of building an improved culture in the squad, which he did. But results suffered.

Now, Canada is playing with a relatively untested central defensive duo in Derek Cornelius, a 26-year-old who plays for Malmo in Sweden, and Moise Bombito, 24, of Colorado Rapids in MLS — a partnership with just 11 caps at center-back between them since 2021.

When Jesse Marsch arrived in May, he was warned from within the camp that some of his defenders were too young and required slow ushering into the team. Jesse Marsch didn’t want to hear any of it. He understood that the real pressure for Canada to perform might come in 2026 when the nation co-hosts the World Cup with the U.S. and Mexico. This Copa America was an opportunity to see what he had in his arsenal.

A fresh set of eyes appears to have uncovered genuine talent in Canada’s pipeline. Jesse Marsch has trusted his young players to play, and they have rewarded him.

“Both (Bombito and Cornelius) really fit the gaffer’s style,” says their fellow defender Alistair Johnston, who plays for Scottish champions Celtic. “They’re very much front-foot defenders, they want to get into a tackle. They’re stepping through and taking risks to go win the ball.”

It doesn’t end there.

Jesse Marsch has not been afraid to bring new players, such as Jacob Shaffelburg, into the mix. The fearless winger from MLS side Nashville finally worked his way into the starting line-up against Chile after just 262 minutes for Canada spread out over 12 late-game substitute appearances in the previous four years.

Jesse Marsch There were more experienced players than Shaffelburg on the bench on Sunday night in Orlando, Florida, but Jesse Marsch propensity to reward players for their strong performances and drop presumed starters for uneven ones represents a sea change. He has been upfront with players about raising the expectations around them and he hasn’t been afraid to back up his words with actions, especially by cutting off playing time. That’s created an onus on Canadian players themselves. And that’s the kind of pressure that might differ from other CONCACAF teams, but that they still appreciate.

“(Pressure on Canada) is Jesse Marsch not coming from the media. And the president of Canada Soccer doesn’t come to us saying, ‘You guys have to make it out the group stage’,” says Eustaquio. “The pressure that we have is the pressure that we put on ourselves, saying, ‘It’s time to accomplish some things’. That’s something that stays internal.

“Back home, we’re being supported, not pressured. And in Mexico and the U.S., it’s different.”

Players have also been impressed by how Marsch came in with a plan to maximize the team’s strength — their outlandish pace.

If the preconceived notion was that Marsch, largely raised in the Red Bull stable of clubs’ school of thought, would make his players use that speed to try to press opposition teams into submission, it took one poor half against the Netherlands (a 4-0 away defeat last month in his first match in charge, which had been 0-0 at halftime) to do otherwise.

Instead, Jesse Marsch is asking his players to master selective pressing and then show their speed and aggressiveness in a way he didn’t believe they did in the past: on 50-50 balls and in physical battles. Jesse Marsch has implored them to stop thinking, quite literally, like the nice Canadians they are often stereotyped to be. He’s asked them to grow up and get mean.

Jesse Marsch) is doing a very good job in identifying where we are better, speed and strength, and putting that in our game, so we can fight South American teams — big teams like Argentina,” Eustaquio says. “And we’re closing the gap. I’m not saying we’re better than them during the game, because there are waves when we’re better and when we’re not, but we’re more consistent.

“In training, you can really feel and you can see that what (Jesse Marsch) is doing makes sense, and the results are there. There are no chats, he’s not that type of guy to bring motivational videos. The motivation that he brings is just the work that he does. And we can see on the gameday that it makes sense.”

Late in that crucial game against Chile, as the temperature rose, Eustaquio said his team had never felt more prepared for the unknown. Marsch told them Chile would send long balls over the top to try to disrupt their shape and had drilled Canada on how to respond by keeping a compact shape.

According to Eustaquio, Marsch’s training sessions are designed to mimic game situations in a way Canada’s were not under other coaches. “I didn’t feel (Chile) were going to damage us,” the midfielder says.

Yet even with the evident confidence around the camp, they have hills to climb.

Canada has hardly been clinical with their chances in front of goal, with an expected goals (xG) number of 4.0 but just that one goal through the three games. That’s not a recipe for sustainable success — more precise touches from Larin and Alphonso Davies are needed, especially in their quarterfinal against Venezuela, one of the highest-scoring teams in the tournament (only nine-goal Uruguay have more than their six).

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