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Ike Ugbo’s commitment to Canada is a boost both on and off the field

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Sometimes it has nothing to do with the game itself. Sometimes, whether it’s in sales or sports, it’s about persistence paying off — especially when the odds are stacked against a player or team.

In the case of the Canadian men’s national team, three years of determination secured a commitment from 23-year-old striker Ike Ugbo for this month’s World Cup qualifiers.

Herdman and Canada Soccer were made aware of Ugbo’s potential eligibility for Canada in 2018 through a contact at Woodbridge Strikers, one of Ugbo’s former youth clubs during his younger years in Canada. The federation reached out to Chelsea where Ugbo, then 19 or 20 years old, was playing at the time to inquire about his potential interest in representing Les Rouges.

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Chelsea shut down that notion without Canada Soccer ever speaking to Ugbo about the opportunity.

“They were very clear he was on a pathway with England and that Canada wasn’t an option,” said Herdman. “We had spoken to them about the potential of bringing him into one of our matches in 2018 because we were bringing in a lot of young players at the time. That was sort of stonewalled and it has just been a process of patience over a three-year period.”

Watch Canada’s quest for a World Cup berth on Sportsnet and SN NOW
Canada hosts Mexico in a crucial World Cup qualifying match on Tuesday. Live coverage begins at 8:30 p.m. ET/ 5:30 p.m. PT on Sportsnet and SN NOW.

That patience was rewarded on Nov. 4 when Ugbo finally opted for Canada. The K.R.C. Genk striker was eligible for England and Nigeria through his parents. The Super Eagles were supposedly the favourite to land him as recently as September, according to Goal.com.

However, the recent emergence of young Nigerian strikers might have benefited Canada. Victor Osimhen, Kelechi Iheanacho, Taiwo Awoniyi and Terem Moffi are all involved with Nigeria, are no older than 24 years old and play in top European leagues. It would have been a struggle for Ugbo to earn significant minutes.

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“I spoke to [Herdman] recently,” Ugbo said in an interview with Canada Soccer. “He showed me the ambition of Canada, what he’s trying to get to in the upcoming future. He welcomed me in, he felt like it would be a good place for me, and also me, I felt like it would be a good place for the time and place for the time I am in in my career as well.”

“I know about [Davies and David] personally,” he continued. “Obviously I tracked some of the other players, and I think when I had seen them, and what the team was doing with their past results, definitely swayed my decision.”

This is where joining Canada has multiple benefits. In the current squad, he’s one of only two out-and-out No. 9s along with Lucas Cavallini. Neither Jonathan David nor Cyle Larin are traditional strikers, despite their goal-scoring exploits.

It helps that Canada is progressing as a team as Ugbo joins the fold. There’s a strong possibility that he could play at the next two World Cups, provided the Canadians qualify for next year’s tournament and are granted an automatic berth for 2026 as co-hosts.

Eight days after completing his one-time switch of nationality to Canada, Ugbo debuted for the Red and White in their 1-0 win over Costa Rica. He logged around 14 minutes and showed flashes of what fans can expect from him over the next decade.

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The first noticeable trait in Ugbo’s game is his off-the-ball movement. Even though the ball never reached him in the sequence below, it’s evident how well Ugbo (No. 12, near the centre of the box at the start of the clip), can find space and get in position to score.

A few minutes later, he nearly doubled Canada’s lead with a fierce strike from distance, showing off his predatory instincts in the process.

Even in his early days at Genk, there are many examples of Ugbo’s excellent positioning and anticipation.

It may not always result in a goal, but if a striker can regularly receive these quality opportunities, at least one will go in. Ugbo’s composure should eventually improve, too, now that he is playing with one of Belgium’s biggest clubs.

Considering Ugbo only has around 320 minutes for Genk in all competitions this season, the regularity of promising opportunities he’s logging is encouraging.

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“He likes to play between the two centre-backs, he likes to lead the line, he can run behind the line and stretch the line, which I like,” Herdman said. “I think that is a facet that can help complement other players and the way that we play. Often when we play with that No. 9 in Johnny [David] or Cyle [Larin], they want to be receiving in those pockets of space off the front. At times, we get left with a line that is not stretched. That space doesn’t really open up. I think Ike gives us that opportunity.”

At Cercle Brugge, Ugbo scored an impressive 16 goals in 32 appearances. His underlying numbers in the statistical radar below signify his strengths, which are all related to putting the ball in the net.

“He’s got just that real predatory instinct between the penalty spot and goal,” Herdman said. “All the goals he scores are just clever movements. He gets those positional advantages to create opportunities and that is what you want from a No. 9.”

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Ugbo won’t be too involved in attacking build-up, though he’s not afraid to do so, but with David, Larin and other players who are capable creators, there’s only one primary job for the English-born forward.

Score goals.

That’s why he’s the perfect partner for a David-type forward, who likes to play off a proper No. 9. Leave the grunt work to the Lille man and let Ugbo clean up in the box.

Ugbo’s switch has many Canadian fans wondering how many other dual nationals are eligible for the national team. The likes of Daniel Jebbison, Ferdi Kadioglu, Lucas Dias and Stefan Mitrovic are just a select few who could commit, although there are other factors in play for some players.

“The reality is, if they can play for a bigger association, for many of these agents and players, it’s about the dollars first,” Herdman stated. “That is what I’m learning, it’s a short career and they have to maximize their earnings during that period of time and then when those opportunities sort of diminish, that is where you have real conversations.”

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That is every player’s right.

In the case of Fikayo Tomori, who was born in Calgary and represented Canada’s U-20 team, he was raised in England for the vast majority of his life. Choosing the English national team is understandable. Arsenal youngster Marcelo Flores, eligible for Canada, England and Mexico, is under considerable pressure to represent El Tri from his father. Flores recently received a call-up to Mexico’s U-20 team and scored against Brazil over the weekend.

On the bright side for Canadians, Flores left the door open saying he “will make a decision” on his future after he’s joined a Canada camp.

Some players will ultimately turn down Canada. But the team is now a legitimate option for players with two or more passports. Ugbo’s change of heart signifies that.

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The better Canada performs in qualifying, which could include a win over Mexico on Tuesday night, only bolsters its case.





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Aaron Rodgers to the Jets? Giants' free agency options & Mike McCarthy's future with Cowboys | Ask Jay Glazer

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Jay Glazer discussed whether Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers will head to the New York Jets, the New York Giants’ free agency options, and breaks down Mike McCarthy’s future with the Dallas Cowboys.



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Super Bowl LVII: Chiefs and Eagles will meet for title in Arizona

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Patrick Mahomes finally got the best of Joe Burrow. 

All he needed was a little shove.

Harrison Butker made a 45-yard field goal with 3 seconds left — after Cincinnati’s Joseph Ossai was flagged for a 15-yard penalty for shoving Mahomes after he was out of bounds — and the Chiefs beat the Bengals 23-20 in the AFC championship game to make it back to the Super Bowl.

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Kansas City will face the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl on Feb. 12 in Glendale, Arizona. 

The Eagles opened as a 1 1/2-point favourite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

There are no shortage of storylines: Kansas City coach Andy Reid goes against his old team — which he led to Super Bowl 39 — in a game that’s also the first matchup of Black starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl with Mahomes and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts. 

On top of that, there’s a brother-against-brother showdown between Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and Philadelphia center Jason Kelce.

“Officially done being a Chiefs fan this season!! ” Jason Kelce tweeted immediately after the Chiefs won.

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The Chiefs have been making deep postseason runs on a regular basis ever since Mahomes came to town as the franchise quarterback. 

This was their fifth straight trip to the AFC title game and will be their third Super Bowl appearance in that span. They beat the 49ers for the NFL title in the 2019 season, but lost to the Bucs the following season.

The Eagles clobbered the Niners 31-7 in the NFC title game earlier Sunday. They’ve looked dominant in the playoffs so far, also beating the New York Giants 38-7 in the divisional round.

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Philadelphia is back in the Super Bowl five years after beating the New England Patriots 41-33 on Feb. 4, 2018. 

Now a mostly new generation of Eagles — led by coach Nick Sirianni and Hurts — will come to Arizona to try and win another title.

The Chiefs-Bengals game looked as if it was going to overtime before Ossai’s ill-advised play. Mahomes — who was playing on a badly sprained ankle — was running to get a first down in the final seconds as Ossai desperately tried to track him down. 

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Mahomes was out of bounds when Ossai gave him a shove, sending both players tumbling to the turf. The ensuing 15-yard penalty was enough to push Butker into field-goal range and the kick split the uprights.

A distraught Ossai sat on the bench with his head in his hands, well after the game was over.

The Bengals and Chiefs were playing for the fourth time in less than 400 days and Cincinnati had won the previous three meetings — all by three points. This one was decided by a field goal, too, and all Burrow could do was watch.

The Bengals lost to the Rams in last year’s Super Bowl and they just missed another chance at returning to the title game.

NO DRAMA IN NFC

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Oddsmakers thought fans were in for some close conference championship games. 

They’ll have to settle for a 50% success rate.

The NFC title game was a blowout. Niners rookie quarterback Brock Purdy was injured in the first quarter when Eagles linebacker Haason Reddick drilled his right arm on a play that was ruled a fumble. The Eagles recovered that fumble and the injury proved to be a game-changer.

With Purdy hurt, San Francisco turned to 36-year-old journeyman Josh Johnson, who couldn’t do much before eventually leaving with a concussion. Purdy came back into the game, but could barely throw, and the Eagles cruised to the win.

The 49ers dealt with quarterback injuries all season, losing Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo before turning to Purdy, a seventh-round draft pick out of Iowa State. Purdy stepped into a starter’s role in December and won his first seven games before Sunday’s injury. 

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Here’s a few things to know about the upcoming Super Bowl:

WHAT’S THE UPCOMING SCHEDULE?

FEB. 5

Pro Bowl flag-football game, 3 p.m. EST, ABC/ESPN

FEB. 12

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Super Bowl LVII, Philadelphia Eagles vs. Kansas City Chiefs, 6:30 p.m. EST, Fox

RIHANNA AT HALFTIME

Rihanna will take center stage as the headline act for this year’s Super Bowl halftime show.

With sales of more than 250 million records worldwide, Rihanna ranks as one of the best-selling female artists ever. Her most recent album was 2016′s “Anti.” Rihanna last performed publicly at the Grammy Awards in 2018.

The singer said she turned down a similar opportunity for the 2019 Super Bowl that was ultimately headlined by Maroon 5. At the time, many artists voiced support for Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who protested police brutality against Black people and minorities by kneeling during the national anthem in 2016.

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Country music star Chris Stapleton will sing the national anthem, while R&B legend Babyface will perform “America the Beautiful.” 

PRO BOWL MAKEOVER

The Pro Bowl is getting a major makeover this year after the NFL eliminated its full-contact all-star game and replaced it with weeklong skills competitions and a flag football game.

The flag football contest is Feb. 5 in Las Vegas at Allegiant Stadium, one week before the Super Bowl.

The Pro Bowl debuted in January 1951 in Los Angeles and stayed there for 21 seasons before the game moved to different cities from 1972-80. Hawaii hosted from 1980-2009, and the game has had several homes in the years since, including Miami, Phoenix, Orlando and Las Vegas.

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“The game was kind of silly, I guess,” Saints two-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk said back in September when the news was announced. “Guys weren’t out there playing true football. Hopefully, there’ll be a lot of interactions with the fans and guys will get their opportunity to go out there and show some skills. I could see that being a good change.”

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Ohio State hires James Laurinaitis & Tennessee extends Huepel's contract | Joel Klatt Show

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Joel Klatt discussed Ohio State Buckeyes hiring former linebacker James Laurinaitis as a defensive GA. Joel believes that Laurinaitis can help transform the defense into a powerhouse like the offense is for wide receivers. He then discussed the Tennessee Volunteers giving Josh Huepel a contract extension after their 11-win season.



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