Talismanic captain Atiba Hutchinson set for final appearance for Canada

Canada captain Atiba Hutchinson calls an end to his distinguished playing career Sunday. He’s looking to leave with a trophy.

The 40-year-old midfielder has already said goodbye to his longtime Turkish club team, via a social media post this week saying: “Thank you Besiktas, forever in my heart.”

He will close his Canadian chapter at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas where the 47th-ranked Canadian men take on the 13th-ranked U.S. in the CONCACAF Nations League final. The winner lifts a cup and collects a cheque worth around US$1 million.

“This is going to be my last kick at it,” said Hutchinson, who was a steadying influence after coming off the bench in the 76th minute in Thursday’s 2-0 semifinal win over No. 58 Panama.

“(Sunday) is going to be my last time putting on that shirt, representing Canada,” he added. “It’s obviously a very big game I’m going to enjoy every moment of it.”

Hutchinson was 19 when he made his senior debut for Canada in January 2003 in a 4-0 loss to the U.S. He now holds the Canadian men’s record for appearances at 104.

“It’s been 20 years of representing Canada,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed all of it, every single moment of it getting together with the boys and playing the games we’ve played, travelling to so many different countries.

“It’s just been a great journey for me. I think it will really hit me a lot more (Sunday).”

Hutchinson said he’s had discussions with John Herdman, the 10th Canadian coach he has played under, about a future role with the program, but nothing has been decided.

Hutchinson has become a talisman and a role model for the Canadian men, a classy professional with no ego.

Herdman called him “probably the greatest Canadian football player not many people know about. That was the reality up until probably this (last) World Cup and people got to see him for who he really is.”

“He’s everything for the team. He’s everything for the country, he’s everything for the people, the players,” Herdman added at Saturday at the pre-match news conference. “And nothing for him. He wants nothing else but to see this country do well. And he’s willing to sacrifice for that as well.

“So it will be a privilege to spend (Sunday) night with him. Our gift to him will be to help him put his hands on that silverware. That would be a special moment.”

Hutchinson worked his way up the ranks and through Europe, building his club career starting in Scandinavia with Osters and Helsingborg in Sweden and FC Copenhagen in Denmark. He then joined Dutch side PSV Eindhoven in 2010 before moving to Turkey in 2013.

He captained Istanbul’s Besiktas, becoming a fan favourite known as the Octopus for his spindly legs and ability to hold onto the ball.

A father of three boys, Hutchinson said he chose the CONCACAF Nations League and not the Gold Cup that follows soon after as his swansong because his wife is expecting their fourth child.

He leaves the Canadian men in a good spot, saying the team has progressed farther than he ever thought it could during his career.

“I’m just happy at where we are as a team, how the future looks for this team, how much depth there is in Canada now,” he said. “The sky’s the limit for this team. We’re playing here for a trophy (Sunday) and we believe that this is a turning point for us. We’ll be continuing to be playing for trophies, qualifying for World Cups. That’s the new standard for us.

“It’s a great time in Canadian football and I think it will just continue to get better and better and bigger.”

Hutchinson and the Canadian men are after their first trophy since the 2000 Gold Cup. They also want to build on a World Cup qualifying journey that saw them finish first in CONCACAF.

“As I keep saying to the players, it’s about bringing the future to the now,” Herdman said after the Panama win. “We’ve got our eyes on (the World Cup in) 2026 and winning big matches there but the future’s now for us. We’ve got to take some steps to keep building that trust and confidence in our own ability.”

The Americans will be without midfielder Weston McKennie and fullback Sergino Dest, both suspended after being red-carded in the chippy 3-0 win over Mexico in the semifinal. Dest, who has 26 caps for the U.S., plays his club football for Barcelona while McKennie (44 caps) spent last season on loan to England’s Leeds United from Italy’s Juventus.

Herdman has downplayed expectations, repeatedly talking about the Canadian team’s lack of preparation ahead of the final four. He also noted how the American side has a huge edge when it comes to the number of players attached to clubs in Tier 1 leagues around the world.

“The U.S. have got a massive qualitative advantage over every team in CONCACAF at the moment,” he said.

“And then there’s seven million (support) staff they have and all the resources that they can put into their program,” he added. “So they’re the big dogs in CONCACAF. And rightly so. I think ourselves and Mexico are still hunting the big dog.”

The U.S. leads the all-time series over Canada with a 16-10-12 record.

“They’re a good team. They’re a good team as a team. With structure. Well-coached,” interim U.S. coach B.J. Callaghan said of Canada. “They have some amazing individual talented players as well.”

The Canadians have had success against the U.S. in past CONCACAF Nations League play. The Canadian men won 2-0 when they met in October 2019 at BMO Field with goals from Alphonso Davies and substitute Lucas Cavallini ending a 34-year, 17-match winless run for Canada against its North American rival.

The U.S. won the return match 4-1 in Orlando the next month to advance to the Nations League finals.

The teams have gone 1-1-1 in meeting since then, with Canada winning 2-0 last time out in World Cup qualifying play in January 2022 in Hamilton.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 17, 2023.

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