Former Canada coach Stephen Hart startled a few friends recently with his assessment of the current Canadian men’s team.
“I had said a few nights before with a group of friends that I thought Canada was the best team in CONCACAF, in terms of depth, in attack, in midfield,” Hart said. “They kind of looked at me with a funny look. But I honestly thought that.”
On Tuesday, before a loud, proud and cold crowd of 44,212 at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium, John Herdman’s team proved Hart right.
Canada’s 2-1 win over Mexico, coupled with the Americans’ 1-1 tie earlier in the day in Jamaica and Canada’s 1-0 victory over Costa Rica four days earlier in Edmonton, moved the unbeaten Canadians (4-0-4) into first place in the final round of World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF with six games remaining.
Come March, the top three countries will represent North and Central America and the Caribbean in Qatar next year. The fourth-place team will take part in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.
Canada’s overall record in Qatar 2022 qualifying improved to 10-0-4 with a 44-6 edge in goals. And like the Olympic champion Canadian women, the men – ranked 48th in the world and on the climb – are turning heads and inspiring support.
Tuesday’s triumph was Canada’s first over Mexico since the 2000 Gold Cup quarter-finals. The Canadian men have now taken four of a possible six points against ninth-ranked Mexico in this qualifying round, having held the CONCACAF powerhouse to a 1-1 tie last month in the hostile ground of Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium.
“After the game in Azteca, that’s what made me think this team has such a good balance,” said Hart, now coach of the Canadian Premier League’s HFX Wanderers FC. “Of course I was elated they won the game [Tuesday] but they won the game in a fairly comfortable manner, in my view of it.”
Added former Canadian international Nick Dasovic: “You’re not top of CONCACAF after eight games if you’re not quality. You can get luck at some stages but this team is the real deal. The depth is amazing.
“I mean you’d have to say the ‘86 [World Cup] team was the best [Canadian men’s] team up to now. I mean, obviously I didn’t play in that one. I was a kid  at the time. But this is by far the best group of players we’ve had assembled without any shadow of a doubt for this national program.
“And they’re all buying in. They’re all playing for the jersey. They’re all playing for the country. It’s pretty amazing.”
Still, there is work to be done, as Herdman told his team Tuesday after it celebrated going atop the standings and (according to www.transfermarkt.com) leading all teams in world football with 55 goals this calendar year. Not to mention captain Atiba Hutchinson’s record-setting 90th cap and Cyle Larin tying Dwayne De Rosario for the most international “A” goals (22) among Canadian men.
“There was a lot of celebration” Herdman told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. “But at the end of it, I had some sobering words – that we’ve got 10 weeks to stay focused, to do the right things. Because we’ve got six more battles. And there will be battles. This isn’t over.
“You’ve seen how tight it is at the top. Only three are going to go through. And it’s going to go right to the wire. So we have to stay ready – and humble. And the lads, you could see their eyes focus back in. They know we’ve got some big steps ahead to take.”
An emotionally drained Herdman – “I was absolutely knackered” – boarded a plane Wednesday morning to return to B.C. But he was still beaming.
“I just saw Milan [Borjan] in the [hotel] lobby and he just said ‘I could wake up in Canada every day,’ ” Herdman said of his starting goalkeeper, who is an icon in Serbia where he plays for Red Star Belgrade. “The feeling’s unreal for these guys. Kids are asking for autographs. And he said ‘Never has this happened before.’
“And that’s all I ever wanted. I just wanted to feel the love and get the country believing that we’re a football country.”
One can argue the Canadian men did it in the most Canadian of settings, with defender Sam Adekugbe memorably throwing himself into a snowbank during the celebrations that followed Larin’s opening goal.
Only two points separate Canada (4-0-4, 16 points) and fourth-place Panama (4-2-2, 14 points). The U.S. (4-1-3, 15 points) stands second and Mexico (4-2-2, 14 points) third. But perhaps most importantly, the top four are beginning to get separation on fifth-place Costa Rica (2-3-3, nine points).
Canada has a home game against the 13th-ranked U.S. sandwiched around visits to No. 68 Honduras and No. 65 El Salvador in late January, early February before finishing in March with games at No. 45 Costa Rica and No. 69 Panama with a home match against No. 59 Jamaica in-between.
Whatever happens, the Canadian men – like their female counterparts – are growing the sport.
“I think the country now has seen what football can do, what football is about for this country,” said Pa-Modou Kah, a former Norwegian international who coaches Pacific FC of the Canadian Premier League.
With Hutchinson and other players not available for all qualifying matches, the load fell on other players both on and off the field. Herdman credits Borjan, Jonathan Osorio, Maxime Crepeau, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Samuel Piette, Doneil Henry, Richie Laryea and Junior Hoilett as the leadership group that helped change the Canadian men’s outlook.
“You can 100 per cent see that everybody’s bought in,” said Dasovic, a Canada Soccer Hall of Famer who won 63 caps between 1992 and 2004.
Henry sent a clear message that it was going to be a difficult night for the visitors, sending Napoli winger Hirving Lozano flying through the air in a crunching aerial challenge less than a minute into Tuesday’s game.
With Canada Soccer – with the help of Mother Nature – having done what it could to make the Mexicans uncomfortable, Herdman told his players the game would come down to who could bring the intensity for the full 90 minutes.
“I thought Doneil set the tone for what was going to happen. It became a war on the benches (which both received yellow cards). It became a war on the field,” said Herdman. “And the fans came with us.”
The Canadians’ recent performances, coupled with the club success of players like Davies (Bayern Munich), Jonathan David (Lille) and Hutchinson and Larin (Besiktas), have also made wearing the Maple Leaf attractive.
Stephen Eustaquio, Steven Vitoria and Ike Ugbo were among those in Herdman’s matchday squad Tuesday that chose to wear the Maple Leaf over another crest.
“Players want to jump on this ship. They want to get involved with this country,” said Dasovic.
Herdman and Canada Soccer have also revamped the way the national teams are treated.
“When I played – most of my career as a national team player – it was what it was,” said Dasovic, who is coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps under-19 side. “You weren’t getting charter flights, you weren’t getting first-class. It happened once in a blue moon when they got us some passes. Things like that.
“You knew you were going to be sitting in seat 32B or you’re going to be trapped against the washroom or whatever.”