Canada turned heads as it reached the final round of World Cup qualifying in the CONCACAF region. Now comes a series of next-level Tests at the World Cup, starting with no. 2 Belgium.
The Canadian men are jumping into the deep end of world soccer.
Canada coach John Herdman knows the challenge ahead. And how his players will have to rise to meet it.
“When you face the No. 2 team in the world in Belgium (on November 23), you look at it and you know there’s another level that can be found by our players,” Herdman said. “Yes, it is a bit nerve-wracking to that extent. I’m sure every coach goes through these emotions.
“It’s new, but it’s definitely a gift, not a curse I’d say thinking about this.”
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No.12 Croatia and No.22 Morocco await the 41st-seeded Canadians in Group F in Qatar.
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And while Herdman received good news ahead of the tournament about the fitness of veterans Atiba Hutchinson and Jonathan Osorio, there was huge disappointment to see goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau (broken leg) and defenders Scott Kennedy (shoulder) and Doneil Henry (calf) ruled out due to injury. .
There was better news on Alphonso Davies, whose hamstring strain is not considered major. But Herdman will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief when the Bayern Munich star takes the field for Canada.
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On the plus side, influential midfielder Stephen Eustaquio has been in a rich vein of form with Portugal’s FC Porto. Like Club Brugge’s Tajon Buchanan, he has seen plenty of elite opposition in the Champions League. Jonathan David scored for France’s Lille.
And before the latest injury, Davies was Davies.
“There are a lot of positives for Canada,” Herdman said before arriving in Qatar.
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Although Herdman is a meticulous planner, there is little he can do about the MLS schedule and the fact that the season ended on October 9 for Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps. CF Montreal, which accounts for six of the 11 MLS players on Herdman’s roster, played on until it ran into New York City FC in the Oct. 23 semifinals.
While some players may lack “match readiness for World Cup matches that are at that next level”, Herdman will prepare his players tactically. Herdman and his staff leave no stone unturned when it comes to probing the opposition, and the Canadians always have Plans B and C in their back pocket.
And if Plan D is needed, goalkeeper Milan Borjan has a history of treatment around the 20- or 30-minute mark, allowing players to head to the touchline for hydration — and a fresh dose of Herdman -wisdom.
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With the tournament allowing for an expanded roster of 26 for the first time, Herdman and his staff did their due diligence on how a bigger squad would affect everything from training to the burden on personnel. They brought in 26 players for their September camp in Europe ahead of games against Uruguay and Qatar.
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“We tested the environment in September. I think we have a great group of players with the right attitude. So that bodes well,” Herdman said. “But it’s a challenge. There is definitely the rotation of players. It’s a long tournament.”
No stranger to World Cups from his time in charge of the Canadian women and having coached the New Zealand under-20 and senior women, Herdman is well aware of the mental strain on players who don’t get on the field at tournaments. not.
“This is the biggest challenge around coaching,” Herdman said. “It’s about establishing a level of fairness in the environment, trust in decisions. And that’s the journey you’re on. It is the adventure that we have to accept as a coaching staff, as an entire staff and then as a group of players that there are going to be things that affect and test the brotherhood.
“There is no doubt that the brotherhood will be tested because when you put pressure and the expectations, scrutiny and consequences of a World Cup around this group – you know people have never been exposed to this before. And often you don’t know how people are going to react in these situations.
“Since this is our first World Cup, there will be a lot to learn, I know that for sure. This is a first for the majority of staff on the men’s side and a first for these players. So they will learn a lot about each other.”
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While the Canadian men’s 20-game trip to the World Cup also came with tests, it was against CONCACAF opposition.
A crowded qualifying schedule due to the pandemic plus the introduction of Nations League play in CONCACAF and Europe has left little room for teams to play opponents outside their confederation.
CONCACAF has just three teams (No. 13 Mexico, No. 16 USA and No. 31 Costa Rica) in the top 40 of the FIFA world rankings. In comparison, Europe has 21 (led by Belgium) and South America’s six (including No. 1 Brazil).
Herdman is realistic. He hopes others are too.
While Canada is in Qatar to compete and start a new World Cup legacy, it is also building a foundation for 2026 when it co-hosts the tournament with the USA and Mexico.
“I think the true soccer fans in Canada understand that. They understand the reality of where Canada sits at this moment in time,” Herdman said. “We have a good team. We have good players. But much of this is unfamiliar territory to us. And there will be plenty of learning experiences and learning for players and staff.
“As a coach, I’m going to learn from Day 1 until the day the tournament ends, everything is going to be new. And that is what embraces. But it’s the same for many coaches and some of the players who attend. I think the critical part is knowing that for 2026 there is a lot of organizational knowledge that will be retained through the preparation of this team, the game experiences, the tournament experience.”
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As co-host in 2026, Canada will not have to qualify (although FIFA has yet to rubber-stamp it). But it will be a desirable opponent and destination for teams before the tournament. Moreover, it will have an empty schedule.
“You should be able to play those games that you couldn’t get access to, which is critical,” Herdman said. “(It’s) critical to understand what it feels like to play against that $500 million valuation team plus the billion dollar team and teams like Brazil and England. These are real tests, next-step tests that you need to experience.
“For this World Cup, I think the football fan who really understands football and world football, they understand it. They understand for Canada to play the No. 2 team in the world, it’s a big test. And it is a real experience. Because we haven’t played a top-five ranked team in the world since I know, maybe a decade ago,” he added.
“So we have a lot to learn. But at the same time, we have the underdog opportunity — that’s what we’re going to embrace.”
Canada qualifies for its 1st Men’s World Cup in 36 years