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Marsch likes what he sees in first camp in charge of Canadian men

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Jesse Marsch likes what he's seen at his first camp in charge of the Canadian men's soccer team.

"All the things that I felt about the team and the optimism I have had has been exceeded by the work that's been done," Marsch said Wednesday in Rotterdam. "And I think a lot of that comes down to not just the quality and the talent in the team but the quality of the character."

Marsch cited the players' selflessness and "drive to be successful as a group."

The 50-year-old American makes his debut as coach of the 49th-ranked Canadians on Thursday in a high-profile friendly with the seventh-ranked Dutch at Stadion Feijenoord before facing No. 2 France in Bordeaux on Sunday.

The games are warm-ups for Canada's Copa America campaign, which opens June 20 against World Cup champion Argentina. The Netherlands and France are preparing for Euro 2024, which kicks off June 14 in Germany.

"Everyone's excited. Everyone is buzzing about these two games and the competitions that are coming up," said Canadian star Alphonso Davies.

"We know it's a big step for us." he added. "We know we have to come out here and perform … They're a good team, one of the best in Europe, and we're going to see how we match up against them."

Davies noted Marsch's experience coaching in Europe and around the world and playing resume — 14 seasons in MLS and two caps for the United States.

"Having those two qualities definitely excites the team," he said.

Having Davies flank Marsch for his first availability at camp was a statement in its own right.

Canadian reporters at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar had to press Canada Soccer officials to make the Bayern Munich fullback available. Marsch had him front and centre before his first game at the helm.

Marsch talked up his 23-year-old star, citing his "big experiences" in life and football.

"What I'm challenging him to do now is to be a good leader, not just a great player but a good leader in this team and someone who takes care of the group and knows how to keep everyone on track … And he's done a really good job on that.

"You can see that he's really excited about the future of this team and the possibilities. And I think he wants to be a big part of the leadership moving into 2026."

Off the pitch, Davies says Marsch has posed "some difficult questions that I don't really think of every day."

"It's a challenge with those questions, putting me in a position where I'm not really comfortable in. But I know that it's part of life. You have to rise to the occasion. And I'm willing to do that. And learning from him. And not just him, also the boys on the team as well."

Those questions included what it means to be a Canadian.

"The first time I told him my answer. But then he really asked me and I had to sit down and really think about it."

Considering Davies spoke on the topic at the FIFA Congress in June 2018, opening Canada's presentation in its successful bid to co-host the 2026 World Cup, Marsch's questioning must have been challenging.

Davies said he was also asked how he would carry himself if he wore the captain's armband. "That's not a question I really get every day."

Canada has been without a permanent captain since Atiba Hutchinson retired from international soccer last summer. Midfielder Stephen Eustaquio led Canada last time out.

Canada and the Netherlands have met just once before, with the Dutch winning 3-0 at Toronto's Varsity Stadium in June 1994 in the run-up to the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the U.S. Frank Rijkaard, Marc Overmars and Dennis Bergkamp scored that day.

"We know we're in for a very difficult match but I think there's a level of excitement for that as well," said Marsch.

The Dutch squad for Euro 2024 includes Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk and forward Cody Gakpo, Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong and Atletico Madrid forward Memphis Depay.

The June friendlies represent Canada's highest-ranked opponents since the 2022 World Cup when the Canadian men lost 1-0 to then-second-ranked Belgium.

The Canadian men have faced France just once before, in their first-ever game at the FIFA World Cup in 1986 in Mexico. A star-studded French side needed a 79th-minute goal by Jean-Pierre Papin to win 1-0.

Canada also faces No. 32 Peru and No. 42 Chile in Group A play at Copa America.

After Copa America, the Canadians are set to face No. 14 Mexico during the September international window at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2024.