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It is a run of fixtures that would be daunting to any team in the world.

The Netherlands, France, Argentina.

Between them they have won five World Cups, three European Championships and 15 Copa Americas; they are ranked seventh, second and first in the world respectively.

Which intrepid nation will face them consecutively in the space of just 16 days? Canada, of course. Yeah, remember Canada? They got everyone excited that they might be getting good at football/soccer when qualifying for the 2022 World Cup amid national euphoria, John Herdman in the dugout and Alphonso Davies on the pitch. Then they lost all three games in Qatar and, well, things have got worse since.

Herdman has gone, results have been poor. Canada couldn’t beat Guadeloupe or Guatemala last summer, then lost to Jamaica and confidence has pretty much hit rock bottom.

After a nine-month search for Herdman’s replacement, the man charged with rejuvenating a nation with plenty of talented footballers but still very much finding its feet in international football is Jesse Marsch, by far the most high-profile managerial appointment in the country’s history.

It’s Marsch’s first job since being sacked by Leeds United and he couldn’t have picked a more, well, opportune moment to start, with friendlies against the Dutch and the French in Europe before Canada play in their first ever Copa America in the U.S. later this month, kicking off against Argentina on June 20 (June 21, 1am BST).

So how does Marsch, in his first international management job, plan to repair and refresh a team that very much has one eye on the 2026 World Cup, which they will co-host with the U.S. and Mexico?

The Athletic followed Marsch and Canada to Rotterdam and Bordeaux to find out.


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Half an hour into their game against the Dutch, if you didn’t know which teams were in front of you, you’d be excused for thinking you were watching Leeds from 18 months ago.

It isn’t Canada’s white away kit that gives that impression, it is the number of textbook Marsch principles which are on show. Fast start? Check. High counter-pressing? Yep. Aggression? Absolutely. Swarming in search of possession? For sure. Vertical football? Oh goodness, yes.

Given Marsch has only had the players for a few days, it’s impressive, albeit against a seriously laboured Dutch side trying not to exert much energy, or trying to avoid injury, 10 days before their Euro 2024 opener against Poland.


Stephen Eustaquio pressures Georginio Wijnaldum (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Porto midfielder Stephen Eustaquio later says the first half “felt amazing”. In terms of pace, intent, pressing, it’s all Canada for the opening stages. They create the game’s best chance when Cyle Larin fires wide from six yards and, while the Dutch end the half of top, it’s an undeniably positive start for Marsch’s reign.

“Canada just don’t play like this; they’re intense, aggressive, it’s exciting,” a seasoned observer of the side says in the media room at half time.

But then in the second half, some of the negative traits from Marsch’s time at Leeds are on show. They are flaky, brittle and soft, conceding three times in 13 minutes before a late goal from Virgil van Dijk ends the night on a humbling, sobering low, making you wonder what all the running was ultimately for.

It’s June, many players are at the end of their club seasons, and they look tired mentally and physically. A game of two halves, then, just like Marsch’s managerial career to date. It began with New York Red Bulls where he was named MLS coach of the year in 2015, then moved to Red Bull Salzburg to preside over a double-double in 2020 and 2021, winning the Austrian league and cup in successive seasons.

Thereafter, not so good. Marsch lasted just a few months at RB Leipzig, losing six of 17 matches, then after an initial promising start at Leeds when he led them to Premier League survival following the departure of Marcelo Bielsa, he was sacked in February last year with the team in 17th, and later relegated.

In the 15 months he has been out of the game, Marsch has taken time to choose his next job. There were discussions with Southampton, Leicester and South Korea, but it wasn’t until the Canada job came up that the American saw an opportunity to do something notable.

It’s a huge two years for them and Marsch sees the potential to replenish his reputation; this summer Canada, with little expectation, will play in the Copa America for the first time, facing Argentina, Chile and Peru in the group stage. Then there are two years to build to a second successive World Cup in 2026, this time partly on home soil (Canada host 13 of the 104 matches).

He does so with the title not of head coach, or manager, but as MLS Canada Men’s National Team Head Coach, a label bestowed on him as his wages are being subsidised by MLS’ three Canadian clubs, Montreal Impact, Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps.

When asked if the owners of those clubs will dictate selection, Marsch replied: “Come on, man!”

That means no, but it is certainly an unusual arrangement, one which the 50-year-old, in his first job in international management, is enthused about. He looks completely re-energised from the beaten man who departed Elland Road amid no little scorn from fans and media last year (much of it justified).


Jesse Marsch started to struggle at Leeds United in the 2022-23 English Premier League season (George Wood/Getty Images)

Out of the frying pan and into the fire of a brutally tough first three matches and a huge international tournament.

Marsch said if he was a club manager, he would have lined up a couple of light pre-season games to stroll through with a few goals for confidence, more San Marino and the Cook Islands instead of the Dutch and the French.

“We’re really far from where we want to be,” he says after the second half hiding from Netherlands.

“There’s a long way to go.”

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There is generally incessant positivity and enthusiasm from Marsch whenever he speaks, mixed in with a lot of jargon (some of his answers sound like a paragraph from the UEFA Pro Licence handbook).

At Leeds, he was backed in the transfer market and good results didn’t follow. With Canada, he can’t even go out and sign anyone; the pool is limited.

At Leeds, the players lost belief in the tactical model he enlisted. With Canada, he won’t have nearly as much time on the training ground to even start to implement those methods.

What, then, will his approach be given those constraints?

Well, for a start, Canada do have a number of talented players to build a team around.

Davies is the star who recently scored one of the most high-profile goals by a Canadian in, well, forever, when he put Bayern Munich ahead against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the Champions League semi-finals.

Jonathan David scored 26 goals in all competitions for the second season in a row at Lille and helped them reach the Champions League qualifiers next season.

Tajon Buchanan has become the first Canadian to play in Serie A, for Inter Milan.

Eustaquio is a Champions League regular for Porto.

Twenty-one-year-old Watford midfielder Ismael Kone looks destined for a higher level (Roma are reportedly interested).

Even someone like Jacob Shaffelburg, of Nashville, excelled against the Dutch with an enterprising left-wing cameo off the bench.

The talent is there, but that’s not enough when it comes to building a team. Just ask Norway, who, with Erling Haaland and Martin Odegaard, two of the best players in the Premier League, can’t qualify for a 24-team European Championship.


Canada face Argentina in their Copa America opener (Koen van Weel/ANP/AFP/Getty Images)

Tactically, Marsch expects the players to adapt and will continue with his tried-and-trusted methods, but the players believing and trusting in Marsch, and buying into those instructions, will be crucial and he knows it.

To that end, he spent much of his first weeks in the job challenging the players individually and collectively.

He flew out to Munich to see Davies, to Milan to see Buchanan, to Lille to see David and to Mallorca to see Larin, meeting with his senior players (he also had phone conversations with most of the players in and around the squad) and asking them what they wanted from him, but also what could they offer.

“He asked me two or three times what it means to be Canadian,” Davies said. “The first time I told him my answer, but then he asked me again and I had to really sit down and think about it.”

Marsch has tried to empower the players, asking them how they can raise the standards of the team and what they can aim for. He has asked them to think about how professional they can be, how fit and strong they can be, and what they’re seeing and feeling when they’re on the pitch.

He has queried whether they think the tactics fit, or work, and if they feel empowered, weakened or challenged by what he is asking them to do. “They have contributed a lot to the clues to how we move forward,” Marsch said. “It’s a collective project. It’s just not me telling them what to do.”

Training, video sessions and team meetings are defined by energy levels. It’s all-encompassing and there are attempts to enforce belief at every turn via short, concise messages and statements.

He has slightly adapted how he works compared to club football. Before accepting the job, he spoke to a number of international managers — many whom, like Marsch, were once club coaches — asking how they adapted to not having as much time with their squad.

He asked for advice on the things they prioritised, particularly in terms of communication and not overloading the players with too much information. One of those he spoke to was Ralf Rangnick, whom Marsch was assistant to at RB Leipzig and has now moved into international management too with Austria.

During Canada’s 10-day European training camp, complete with the two matches, the players weren’t given a single day off, even allowing for many of them being at the end of a long season in European football (players from MLS went out for a week). One player described training sessions as a “physical battle”.

Marsch hopes to see the benefit, not just at the Copa America, but over the next two years leading up to the 2026 World Cup. “He’s got a way of playing he wants to implement and that means getting every last drop out of us,” Celtic defender Alistair Johnston tells The Athletic.

“There are also physical demands and time constraints, so it’s difficult. He probably pushed us as hard as he probably could to get the most out of it.”

Marsch was encouraged by the response from the players in their desire to improve Canada’s standing in the world game and to adhere to his tactical demands.

Even in defeat against the Dutch the signs were there, but would another tonking from the French chip away at that belief, what with Argentina next up in the Copa?

“It’s about us growing and not being boys,” Eustaquio says. “Start to be men. That comes with personality, with maturity and to be stronger.”

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Canada are 14/1 to beat France, the World Cup finalists and pre-Euros favourites.

Marsch describes in his pre-match press conference how France will challenge his team “in every single way of anything we want to do on the pitch”. He calls for them to stay strong and organised.

“What a challenge but what a great opportunity,” he says. “I expect our players to be up for it.”

In the dressing room before the game he tells them how much he is enjoying coaching them.

It looks like they’re enjoying playing for him, too. A 0-0 draw in Bordeaux feels big. In contrast to the dynamic, up-and-down pressing game against the Dutch before they physically wilted, Canada show maturity and composure which bely the fact they are in the very early stages of a new era.

Over 90 minutes, they play more passes than France, they hit the bar through Preston’s Liam Millar, they create a number of excellent openings which are only one precise pass away from a likely goal, they are a William Saliba block away from a tap in.

France have their chances too, but either fluff their lines or find keeper Maxime Crepeau in excellent form, particularly in the latter stages when he twice foils Kylian Mbappe, who comes on as a substitute.

It’s a completely different performance to just three days earlier and one which generates, friendly or not, one of the most notable results in Canada’s history.


Liam Millar alongside France’s N’Golo Kante (Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images)

“That’s got to be one of the best results we’ve ever had,” a beaming Johnston says. “I thought when I came off the pitch… we’re a good team. This is the same group of players that we’ve had – it is about buying in and committing to the system.”

If they fell physically short against Netherlands, how can they look so much stronger against France, even pushing forward in added time for a winner with four or five players forward despite the fact France had an extra day’s rest before the game? The relentless training clearly worked.

“Any extra day is exponentially beneficial,” Johnston says. “I think we showed that today, we went from a 35-minute (against Netherlands) performance to a 90-minute performance. It’s impressive.”


Their Copa opener against Argentina is next Friday, June 21, and the players will now have three days off to return home to their families before meeting back up in Atlanta.

Not that Marsch wants them to have time off. The break was planned before he was appointed, but he would prefer to use the days for extra fitness work and is unhappy with the scheduling.

The players are grateful. It’s been tough going and family time will be appreciated, then they will be straight back into intense fitness sessions, with Marsch pledging to “ramp things up; physically, mentally and tactically”.

He is realistic too, particularly about what to expect at Copa America, but the early signs are promising. “There has been progression,” Johnston says of the previous 10 days. “It passes the eye test, let alone the actual result.

“We hunted in a pack, doing exactly what he wanted. It breeds confidence in the group because realise what we’re doing will work. That increases the buy-in from every single player and it increases the confidence we have in him.

“We’re still a long way away from the fully evolved version of what the gaffer wants us to get to. It’s exciting. We can see the blueprint and see that it works.”

The beleaguered team has needed positivity. It’s a good starting point.

Marsch says: “We’re happy, but it doesn’t mean anything, this was a friendly and about fine tuning.”

But then he adds: “This has been a lot of fun. They’ve been really great to work with, it gives me great cause for optimism.”

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(Top photo: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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