Analyzing what potential new CanMNT recruit, Sondre Solholm, could bring to Canada going forward
On Thursday, news emerged that 26 y/o Norweigan centre back, Sondre Solholm Johansen, is eligible for the CanMNT. In this, I see what the Motherwell CB could bring to Canada if he were to commit.
Their depth continues to grow.
After a year to remember for the CanMNT, who made their deepest run in the Gold Cup in 14 years, and currently sit atop the standings in the Octagonal, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, through 8 out of 14 games, the good news has continued to roll in for the team as the new year approaches here.
Armed with the deepest team they’ve arguably ever had, from front to back, they’ve so far been the team to watch in World Cup qualifiers, and that now has them closer than ever to qualifying for the big dance, which they’re trying to do for the first time since 1986.
And that depth continues to grow, seemingly by the day at times. As we saw throughout 2021, Canada has made all sorts of inroads with dual-nationals as of late, swaying the likes of Theo Corbeanu, Cristian Gutierrez and Ike Ugbo, among others, to join the Canadian squad this year, alone.
With some very talented dual-nationals still on the radar, too, such as Stefan Mitrovic, Daniel Jebbison, Lucas Dias, and the ever-elusive, Marcelo Flores, it’s given Canada hope that they can sway more to join their cause, too, something that has already begun considering that Mitrovic will be joining Canada’s out-of-window camp in January.
But despite all of the hype behind the new players, they’ve all had one common theme - 90% of them have been attacking players. That’s not a problem, as you can’t have too many quality attackers, but when you compare Canada’s attack to their defence, the imbalance in depth is quite clear.
In terms of quality, there isn’t much of a chasm, as it’s actually been Canada’s defence, not their offence, that has them atop the Octo right now, but what it’s meant is that Canada is always 1 or 2 injuries away from a calamity at the back, something they don’t have to worry about in attack.
So when news emerged on Thursday that Canada could be potentially getting a new centre back soon, it’s safe to say that some folks were excited.
It isn’t official yet, but thanks to a key find from Canucks Abroad and one of their followers, it was revealed that 26-year-old Norweigan defender, Sondre Solholm, is eligible to play for the Canadian National Team.
Motherwell FC @MotherwellFCMeet Sol. @SondreSolholm https://t.co/Pg2JqKIJVB
Canucks Abroad @Canucks_Abroad📰 | NEWS Could Canada's centreback 'problem' be on the mend by way of Norway via Scotland? @SondreSolholm: "and I found out recently that I'm eligible to play for the Canadian national team because of my roots." #CanMNT #ForCanada | @AlexGangueRuzic @CanNT_Focus @coachherdman https://t.co/HpsMU1lQGx
In an interview with his club, Motherwell, Solholm was quite forthcoming on the subject, too, stating: “I recently found out that I’m eligible to play for the Canadian National Team, because of my roots, so if that were to be an option, if they were ever to look my direction, and I was able to go down that road, that’d be amazing and open a lot of doors.”
And it all checks out. As per the video, his grandmother on his mom’s side is Canadian, which would make him eligible to don the red and white, even despite representing Norway at the U18 level in the past.
That doesn’t mean all that much, because it’s one thing to find out that you’re Canadian, as you’d still need to actually be called up, but considering that he only recently found out that he’s eligible, if you read between the lines, that’d suggest that conversations might’ve already been had with Canada, where they discussed what that could mean.
So now, it’s yet to be seen if he’ll go on and represent Canada, but just the fact that he’s eligible is exciting, as at the very least it will continue to improve the overall depth and competition in the centre back pool, and at most, it could give Canada another potential starter at the position down the road.
But seeing all of that, though, the question has to be tabled - if Solhom were to come into the system at the next camp, what would he bring to the table? Where would he fit in?
In this, I dive into his profile to find out more.
Solholm poses with his new Motherwell kit after signing for the club (Motherwell FC)
What could he bring to the fold?
And to start, it’s important to dive into the basics with Solhom, though, especially for those who are unfamiliar with him.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that the 26-year-old Norweigan-born Solholm is a physical specimen, sitting at an impressive 6’3”, and because of that, he’s played almost exclusively as a centre back throughout the years, playing 137 out of a possible 140 games (he’s played 8 more games where his position wasn’t defined) at centre back since he turned professional.
Plus, despite his relatively young age for a centre back, who tend to peak later, he’s got a pretty good wealth of experience to his name, too having played 75 games in the Norweigan top flight, the Eliteserien, and a further 49 games in the 2nd division, the Obos-ligaen.
Along with 7 games in the Scottish Premiership, which he’s amassed after moving to Motherwell this past summer, that’s given him a very solid portfolio of experience, with his 148 professional appearances making him the 3rd-most experienced centre back among those who have gotten a Canada call-up in the past 6 months, just behind Steven Vitoria and Doneil Henry.
So not only would he bring experience to a position where Canada could certainly use some, he still finds himself in that prime age range of between 20 and 28 that most of this team sits in between, which is expected to allow them to grow together ahead of the next 2 World Cup cycles.
As for his career path, though, he’s taken quite the interesting but straightforward road to get to where he is, one that mostly has gone through Norway, which makes sense given that he’s from the country.
First, he made his professional debut back in 2016 as a 21-year-old for Strømsgodset, playing a grand total of 1 minute in the 2016 season in a cup match, although he appeared on the bench several times in both the league and the Europa League for the Eliteserien club. Things didn’t go as planned for them in either competition, as they flamed out of the Europa League in the 3rd qualifying round, and finished 7th in the league, but they did make a nice run to the semi-finals in the cup.
But next year, his age 22 season, Solholm really took a step forward, as Strømsgodset sent him on loan to Mjøndalen in the 2nd division, and he flourished there, playing 20 games in the league, helping them finish 3rd in the Obos-Ligaen, along with a further 4 games in the cup, where they made a nice run to the quarter-finals, even beating Strømsgodset along the way.
Unfortunately, though, things didn’t end the way they would’ve hoped in the league, as they fell just short of promotion in the playoffs, losing in the final, which would’ve given them a chance to play the 14th placed team in the Eliteserien for a spot in the top division in 2018.
The good news for Solholm, however, was that Mjøndalen saw enough in him to bring him back permanently for that 2018 season, and in that next year, his age 23 season, they took care of business, finishing 2nd in the table, missing out on the title by 1 point, but earning automatic promotion to the Eliteserien in the process. Solholm played a big part in that, too, playing 29 out of 30 league games for the club, scoring 5 goals and helping them keep the best defensive record in the division.
They weren’t able to go on a good run in the cup, as they lost in the Round of 16 on penalties, but it was overall a strong season for Solholm and the club, who were ready to tackle the top flight in 2019.
And there, in his age 24 season, Solholm didn’t really miss a beat, playing 29 out of a possible 30 league games once again (in both years, he only missed those 2 games due to yellow card accumulation), helping Mjøndalen avoid relegation, which they only did by goal difference. But thanks to Solholm’s big contributions, which included an impressive 4 goals, he showed his value at both ends throughout the year, helping make that possible.
That was quite clear in the cup, too, where Mjøndalen once again made a run to the quarter-finals, boosted by a run of 3 games in a row where Solholm scored a goal, giving him 7 goals on the season in all competitions, which isn’t a bad haul at all for a central defender, especially one in his first year in the Norweigan top flight.
So heading into his age 25 season, big things were expected of Solholm, who had shown that he had what it takes to hang around at the top level.
But then, 2020 would prove to be a tough year for Mjøndalen, who only avoided relegation by winning the playoff against the winner of the Obos-ligaen playoffs, 3-2, in a narrow game. Despite that, Solholm had a solid year, playing in 31 out of a possible 31 games (the cup was cancelled due to COVID-19), but he was unable to score a goal, although he did pick up a crucial assist in the playoff, which was not a bad time for him to pick up his first and only goal contribution of the year.
And all of that leads us to his most recent year, the age 26 season, which Mjøndalen began with hopes of just not getting relegated. And unfortunately for them, that quest proved to be futile, as they went straight down after finishing last in the Eliteserien, but the good news for Solholm was that his performances in the first 16 games of the season caught the attention of Scottish side, Motherwell, who purchased him at the end of July, allowing him to join the club at the start of the Scottish season, although it meant leaving Mjøndalen halfway through the Norweigan calendar.
So now, Motherwell is where he finds himself these days, having played 7 out of a possible 14 games he was available for so far in 21/22 (he came 4 games into the season), missing the rest due to some small knocks and injuries.
When he’s been fit, though, he’s played a big role for his new club, playing in 4 out of their 7 wins, which considering 2 of them in the 4 games before he was in the squad, isn’t bad at all. Thanks to that, it’s allowed Motherwell to sit tied for 4th with 25 points through 18 games, keeping them in the hunt for European soccer, with a spot in the Conference League up for grabs for those who finish 3rd and 4th in the league.
Now, his goal will just be to get back in the squad, as he’s currently out with a knock, but when he’s played, he’s been pretty solid, as his radar, provided by Sportsnet’s Peter Galindo, shows.
As seen above, he’s quite proficient at winning aerials duels, making interceptions, getting stuck into tackles and pressuring attackers, which is exactly what you want to see from a centre back. He lags behind in terms of his ability to play the ball out of the back, which is a bit of a worry, but that can also be as much about the system that he’s in as him, so that’s always worth noting.
Plus, as we know from his time in Norway, he’s a pretty good set-piece threat, so he has that going from him, too, which is certainly a bonus.
So overall, when looking at all of this, the best way to describe Solholm at this stage is a traditional, no-nonsense centre-back, one that can get involved offensively on set pieces, but does his best work on the defensive side of things, which is pretty much everything that you’d want in a centre back.
Where would he fit in?
But seeing all of that, then, the next question is an intriguing one - where would Solholm fit in among current Canadian centre backs?
And that’s the harder thing to project. In terms of fit, the lack of ball-playing ability that he’s shown is a worry, as Canada does like to play out of the back, but at the same time, it has to be seen if that’s a Motherwell thing, or a Solholm thing, so more research would be required there.
Otherwise, though, he ticks off all the boxes that you’d want from a centre back, and does appear to fit in both a back 4 and a back 3, which is good considering Canada has experimented with both of them this year.
As for the level that he’s currently at, he actually plays in a pretty good league, as Scotland is ranked 9th in UEFA’s country coefficients, and while that’s historically boosted by the performances of Rangers and Celtic, it shows that Scotland is rated quite decently among European leagues.
Considering that he was a good player in the Norweigan league, sitting 21st in those coefficient rankings, that’s a pretty good sign, especially considering that someone like Sam Adekugbe, who used to also play in the Norweigan league, was a solid producer for Canada while he was in that circuit.
Plus, with Canada having a pretty good crop of players playing in Scotland, such as David Wotherspoon, Scott Arfield and Harry Paton, who have all been solid for Canada when they’ve played (Paton technically hasn’t, but has impressed Canada before), they rate the level there quite well.
So when seeing that, there’s no doubt that he’s already playing at a good enough level to earn a shout for selection with Canada, and that’s without considering their centre back depth.
And when looking at that, Solholm does actually have one advantage that could get him in.
On paper, with just considering the level that each player is at, Solholm is probably only behind Steven Vitoria and maybe Scott Kennedy in terms of the level that he’s playing at, and in terms of ability, he’s probably somewhere behind Vitoria and Kamal Miller in that Kennedy, Doneil Henry and Derek Cornelius range, but what he has that not many Canadian centre backs do right now is a right foot.
Other than Vitoria and Henry, in fact, they don’t really have any proper right-footed centre backs among those they’ve been calling up as of late, which is why they’ve converted Alistair Johnston to a hybrid centre back, showing their need for someone for right-footed defenders who can play in a back 3.
That’s not to say that there aren’t other options, as for example, Manjrekar James is right-footed and can play in a back 3, but he hasn’t earned a call-up all year, and considering that he’s playing on a relegation side in the 19th highest-rated league in Europe, in Denmark, Solholm would probably slide ahead of him right now.
Plus, seeing that he’s relatively mobile, as this highlight clip also provided by Peter Galindo shows, that also gives him an edge over James, who doesn’t have a clear mobility advantage over Solholm.
Because of that, if one had to project Canada’s top 6 centre backs right now, Solholm would probably be in there, behind the likes of Vitoria, Miller and Johnston in that starting tier, but in there with Derek Cornelius, Scott Kennedy and Doneil Henry in that second tier.
And that’s perfect for Canada right now. When their usual back 3 of Miller, Vitoria and Johnston are healthy, they’ve been very solid, but what they need is more depth in case one of them goes down, which Solholm would certainly help.
Along with the competition that adding another body to the mix would add, making the fight for spots more intense, that will only raise the overall level of the position for Canada, too, which is always a bonus.
So while Solholm might not project as a starting centre back on Canada right now, he most certainly would help their depth, especially in an area of need, and with him still being young, there’s certainly a chance he could become a starter down the road, too, especially with Vitoria getting up there in age.
Because of that, it’d make sense to give him a call if you’re Canada, as it’d certainly be a move that could not only help them now, but especially so in the future, too.
What’s next for the CanMNT:
And looking ahead now for Canada, they’ve got a pretty good chance at doing so now, as their next camp is in January, which will prove to be an interesting window for them considering that a good chunk of their squad currently either plays in MLS, in leagues where the calendar is spring-to-winter , or in leagues where there are winter breaks, putting a good chunk of their roster out of form for that window.
Because of that, it gives guys playing in fall-to-spring leagues a leg up for that window, which could allow Solholm to get a shout.
But where things get interesting is in the fact that Canada is all-but-confirmed to hold a pre-camp in Florida before that window, where they’ll play Guatemala in an out-of-window friendly, giving a chance for those out-of-season players to get their legs.
For Solholm, it’d be ideally good to see him at least get a chance to get a chance in that camp before getting a call-up for that January window, which we have to remember consists of 3 crucial World Cup qualifiers, which isn’t always the best way for someone to get introduced to their new National Team.
And seeing that he expressed interest in wanting to play for Canada, maybe he, Motherwell and Canada will work on something to make that possible, giving him a chance to get that first taste of action for the country.
So now, it’ll be interesting to see if he does get a call for that camp, because if not, it’d be very surprising to see him on the main January camp, unless head coach John Herdman chooses to bring 26 players, which to be fair, is a very realistic possibility given the burden that window is expected to provide.
Either way, though, Solholm should be on Herdman’s radar, be it for these games coming up now, or maybe the Nations League in June (or in March should they have qualification all but secured by then), as he certainly could help the centre back pool as it stands, as seen above.
Again, he won’t come in and be a saviour (and despite what some might think, Canada doesn’t need a saviour at CB right now, anyway), but he can most certainly help things, and as Canada continues their quest towards the World Cup, all help is welcome at this stage.
So overall, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with Solholm now. He’s expressed the interest, and Canada could certainly use him, but now it’s just going to be about finding a solution that makes sense for both sides.
But at minimum, what this shows is that Canada’s player pool is growing by the day, and with their continued success, more and more players are taking note of what this team is doing.
Because of that, it’s going to make them a fun team to watch going forward, especially considering the level of some of the other dual-nationals out there that could still play for the country, and based on how Canada is playing, might be tempted to now do so.
Solholm just happens to be the latest of such, and he’ll most certainly not be the last, as Canada continues their impressive growth in the world’s game, one that other countries are starting to take notice of, and for good reason.
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