“We’ve got a mission here” Test vs US big roadblock in long highway as Canada looks to return to World Cup 

John Herdman spoke to reporters on Wednesday, as his team is in the midst of a week-long camp, one that culminates with a huge clash against CONCACAF giants and their neighbours, the US. 

After what has felt like a journey down a long, winding road these past few months, Canada’s Men’s National Team are now only a few days away from taking on the US, shooting straight down an expressway towards one of their biggest footballing dates in recent memory. With plenty at stake for Canada, as their World Cup qualification hopes could be influenced massively by a positive result, they’re more than eager to now just get out on the field and get a job done. 

With 17 crucial FIFA Ranking points on the line if they win, valuable points that should push them into the top six in CONCACAF, the implications are clear for Canada. With the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying process now hinging on the accumulation of these arbitrary points, a victory would be monumental for Canada, as they look to leapfrog some teams into a top-six spot ahead of next summer. 

It’s not an ideal process to embark on in their journey towards the pinnacle of men’s soccer, but that’s been beaten ad nauseam, so let’s focus on the positives. Thanks to some fortunate results from the teams around them in the battle for 6th, as rivals El Salvador and Panama dropped some games that inflicted heavy FIFA point losses, Canada has a clear opportunity to get where they want to be thanks to a victory against the US. There is a clear path to where they need to be, and now they’re ready to push right up to that point, as they try to drive themselves back to the World Cup for the first time since 1986. 

“It’s been a question of the will, you know it’s going to come down to the will to get the job done, I think this group have got the belief, I think they feel that they’ve got the talent there to get a result, put a performance on, but that’ll come down to that will, and the will to get the job done,” Manager John Herdman said to reporters on Wednesday. 

He added: “I think it’ll come down to who wants it more, and I got a good feeling that our boys will just leave it all out there. There’s nothing better than a football match like that where it’s just all out on the field.”

Ahead of this game, Herdman has got the majority of his top players into camp, with the only big absentee being longtime leader Atiba Hutchinson, who returns to form after some minor injuries. But besides that, they have their full collection of talent, and they’re all ready to get a piece of the US. 

And for one of those players, midfielder Stephen Eustaquio, it’s his first-ever time with the national team, as he continues his return from injury. A talented defensive midfielder, the 22-year-old’s commitment to his country of birth came earlier this year, but it was delayed due to his recovery from an ACL injury, as he left his first game with his club Cruz Azul due to the lower-body blow. 

“Stephen Eustaquio is returning from an ACL,” Herdman said. “So you know part of the camp here (for him) is immersion and familiarization, as well as just making sure that we can keep him prepped for the future, so he’s coming in a place where we just got to manage his load and intensity, everyone else is just raring to go.”

While Eustaquio’s much-awaited debut will have to wait, Canada will have 21 other players ready to hit the pitch against the US, as many of them get a chance to face off against their southern foes for the first time. With everyone else in the squad, bar the suspended Doneil Henry, all fit and at the peak of their games at their various clubs, it promises to be a solid affair. 

After two tough games against stronger opposition at the Gold Cup, where they learned some valuable lessons in their first high-intensity matches under Herdman, they now head into this one ready to put some of those demons behind them. While they weren’t easy results to stomach, often a team needs to lose to learn how to win, so Canada will hope that experience lends them well against the Americans. 

“We played Mexico in the Gold Cup, they’re a solid team, and we know where the US stands in relation to Mexico,” Herdman said. “They’re up there with the best we’ve played. We’ve only played Mexico and Haiti that really challenged us, so this is building on those learnings, this is an opportunity where you say: ‘alright, what did we learn from those two matches’.”

“From Mexico, where we went to our identity and we changed how we wanted to play, and put certain players on the field together and we really tested them, and we scored against them, first time in over a decade. And then, against Haiti, 2-0 up, against a good team, and then the lessons from that the boys have taken and they will be carried into these games, so I think all I’d say is that we’re battle-hardened coming into this, we’ve got a few more scars, and you need those things.”

Canada hopes to bring valuable lessons from the Gold Cup to the US game (Canada Soccer, Martin Bayzl)

This is an opportunity where you say: ‘alright, what did we learn from those two matches’.

Canada’s Men’s National team John Herdman on what he learned from losses against Haiti and Mexico at the Gold Cup

As we’ve seen this week, this game should provide an intriguing tactical framework, as the way that both teams play should match up well on the field. The US, especially, are a well-organized ship in the waters of the CONCACAF sea, as they build up their attacking play quite impressively with a strong and collective back-to-front approach. 

“Well I think the style is, if anyone has watched them, is that they’re hard to break down,” Herdman said of their foes. “There is no team, outside of Curacao, that caused the US the trouble in their build-up play. The Uruguayans, they struggled, the Mexicans, they struggled.”

For a Canada backline that has seen its fair share of critics, as their centre backs haven’t quite gotten the praise nor recognition that the frontmen do, it provides them with a stiff test. The expected starting centre backs, Derek Cornelius and Stephen Vitoria, are both solid talents, but nothing that ignites the same confidence that the Jonathan Davids and Alphonso Davies do in fans. 

While they that’s not necessarily fair, as Vitoria plays in a good Portuguese league, while Cornelius had a strong season on an underperforming Whitecaps side, they will need to have a statement performance to shift the ledger in their favour. 

On the offensive side of things, Canada will be under less scrutiny, primarily due to their accumulation of top talent, but they’ll want to prove that they can perform against the best of the region. With the US being one of the most relentless defensive teams in North America, they have a true test at their hands, so they’ll want to ensure a solid stream of goals in Toronto. 

“Defensively, they’re one of the best in CONCACAF,” Herdman said, praising the US. “And that aligns with the US’s athleticism, they fight for every ball, they’re able to cover ground, they’re quicker than most players, and they’ll do that for 90 minutes. So for us, there’s an awareness of that, that you’re going to be pressed, they’re going to hurry you, they’re going to be on every touch, so some of the principles around the training this week is around that.”

So credit to Gregg Berhalter on the US, who’s system in MLS has appeared to so far translate over to the Americans, bar two tough results against Mexico. Canada will have to prepare themselves to dismantle one of the best-organized sides in the region, a task that appears to be daunting, no matter how strong this Canada side appears. If this generation is going to separate itself from generations of Canada’s past, results against the likes of the US machine will do that, no matter how arduous it may seem. 

And while Herdman isn’t quite tipping his cap on how he plans on setting up his side to do that, he does think that his team has the talent and the will, they just now need to put it all together for a full 90 minutes of play. 

“They’re like a well-oiled machine, everything works off of a trigger, off of a cue, and if you’re able to disrupt that rhythm, then the team struggles,” Herdman said honestly. “And I think the team that they’ve struggled against the most defensively in their attack has been Mexico, who’s just unsettled them, but Mexico are just underpinned by this will, that they will not let the USA beat them, that’s the difference, they will never let the USA beat them, and that’s something that I’m sure that the US will be saying about Canada, but I’m hoping that our will to want to beat them, and what it’ll do for the country will be a lot stronger.”

Canada’s got the talent, can they now get a result? (Canada Soccer, Martin Bayzl)

They’re like a well-oiled machine

Herdman on the US

It’s an exciting time to be a soccer fan in this country, with plenty of young talent plying their trades at various top clubs abroad, but now it’s time for the National Team to start capitalizing on some of that hype. For all the questions and debates about attendance for this game supposedly being poor, with Toronto looking to suffer from “National Team fatigue”, a victory against this US side might just reignite some of that hype both in Toronto and coast-to-coast, as well as ensure bigger games come to the country in the future. 

With nearly 20 years since their last participation in the “Hex”, and nearly 40 since their last World Cup appearance, Canada needs to find a way to build their way up to some of those heights. While a World Cup appearance will likely be in the cards in 2026, thanks to Canada co-hosting that year’s edition of the world’s biggest footballing party, making it for real in 2022 would send a big message: we’re not going to be just a pity host. 

And while the young talent are making all the headlines in Europe, it’s easy to forget that Canada has some veterans that will want to desperately taste success with their country, as the likes of Junior Hoilett, Scott Arfield, Milan Borjan and Atiba Hutchinson certainly aren’t getting any younger. They all still play at a good level in Europe, but at the ages of 29, 30, 31 and 36, respectively, their clock is ticking to make some noise at the international level. With Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David making headlines at 18 and 19 years of age, while the likes of Lucas Cavallini, Mark Anthony Kaye, Doneil Henry, Jonathan Osorio, Samuel Piette and Stephen Eustaquio are all at or entering their primes, this journey to 2022 is going to be a huge endeavour. 

The ceiling is a lot higher with this group than teams of recent past, so now it’s time for them to punch towards their goals. For some teams before in this program, this US game might have been the highest pinnacle of football they’d ever reach, and this team wants to avoid that, especially for the veterans, who’s time with the program sadly slowly ticks down towards the end. That makes mission 2022 the big task at hand, and with the US the big roadblock in the way at the moment, they’ll look to give them their best. 

“We’ve got a mission here, it’s to take this country to the World Cup in 2022,” Herdman said. “The US is a rival there, and that’s good, that’s great, but they’re standing in the way of getting this group, and you can imagine Junior (Hoilett) and Scotty (Arfield), they know that their time is not coming back again, there isn’t another World Cup for those guys, and I think underneath all of that for us is process.”

“We have said we’re just going to get better every camp, and getting better every camp is playing these teams, and beating these teams.”

Canada vs USA, Tuesday, October 15th, 2019, 16:30 PST, 19:30 EST (BMO Field, Toronto)

Cover photo: Canada Soccer, Martin Bayzl

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