After making the World Cup for the first time in 36 years, the Canadian men are looking to lift trophies this year, according to coach John Herdman.
But Herdman also signalled several times in Wednesday’s virtual availability that Canada’s ability to compete is being challenged by a lack of resources.
The hunt for hardware starts next week when 47th-ranked Canada takes on No. 58 Panama in the CONCACAF Nations League semi-final in Las Vegas. The 13th-ranked United States takes on No. 15 Mexico in the other June 15 semi-final at Allegiant Stadium.
The final and third-place game go June 18.
“Our country’s been waiting for a trophy for a period of time,” Herdman said. “When we finished top of CONCACAF you don’t have that sort of trophy celebration for World Cup qualifying. I think going to the World Cup was the trophy.
“These player have certainly earned the right to be two games away. Those Nations League games are tough and they’ve worked hard. For some of these players, this is groundbreaking. We talked about this [at Nations League matches] in March. This year is about pushing to lift a trophy, pushing to allow our fans to feel that experience with us. And we are very close, two games away, from doing something pretty special for Canada.”
While labour talks continue with the men’s and women’s teams, Herdman made a point of noting that his side, unlike Panama or other countries, will not have the benefit of a warm-up game or extended camp in advance of the Nations League semi-final.
“Unfortunately our budget constraints, they’re pushing us in with a four-day prep window to play massive games.” he said. “But this is our reality. And we’ve got to live this reality until better solutions are found. As a coach and the player group, we just keep looking at a glass half-full.
“We’ve done four-day preps before and been successful. So we’ll be hitting the ground running when we hit Vegas.”
Herdman’s team will shift its attention to the Gold Cup after the Nations League. Canada opens Group D play against a yet-to-be-determined qualifier in Toronto on June 27 before heading to Houston to play No. 116 Guatemala and No. 165 Cuba.
Herdman’s 23-man Nations League roster features 19 players – including 40-year-old captain Atiba Hutchinson – who were part of the 26-man World Cup squad in Qatar. The additions are goalkeeper Tom McGill, defenders Scott Kennedy (who missed the World Cup through injury) and Dominick Zator and midfielder Victor Loturi.
The uncapped McGill, Zator and Loturi were also called into camp by Herdman for the March games against Honduras and in Curacao (a 2-0 Canada win) but did not see action.
The March matches were the first for the Canadian men since Qatar. Canada Soccer, which has already submitted a 56-man preliminary roster, is expected to name its Gold Cup squad after Nations League play.
Some of Herdman’s players will arrive in Vegas on the back of club triumphs.
Fullback/wingback Alistair Johnston won the treble in Scotland with Celtic while midfielder Stephen Eustaquio lifted a cup in Portugal with FC Porto. Alphonso Davies, while watching from the sidelines as he recovered from injury, claimed another Bundesliga title with Bayern Munich.
“A huge step,” said Herdman.
“To have that experience and to know what it takes to win, to feel winning,” he added. “And then it becomes a drug. You want more of it. You sense that with players like Stephen Eustaquio, Cyle Larin etc. They just understand there’s a different focus in this period of time. I’ve already sensed it with conversations I’ve had. They are players that are so dialled in. They want that trophy.”
Sharpening the team’s finishing will be key to that after the World Cup performance. Canada was outscored 7-2 in losses to Belgium, Croatia and Morocco.
“We underperformed in the (penalty) box,” said Herdman. “We had strong XG (expected goals) but we weren’t capitalizing from those moments. And sometimes that was just either a lack of numbers or not having the composure in the moment to actually finish the chances that we got.”
He said his team also conceded more goals than it should have in Qatar.
“The big World Cup learnings were what happened in the [penalty] boxes wasn’t good enough,” Herdman said.
Herdman is awaiting word on the health of defender Derek Cornelius, who injured his hamstring in a recent game with Swedish club Malmo.
“I’m not overly optimistic about his situation but the fingers are crossed,” he said.
Asked about Aidan Morris, who was named to both the Canadian and U.S. preliminary Gold Cup rosters, Herdman said the 21-year-old Columbus Crew midfielder appears committed to the U.S.
Morris was born in the U.S., has represented the country at youth level and already won two senior caps although he has yet to be cup-tied and remains eligible for Canada through his father.
Herdman suggested resources are an issue again.
“Aidan spoke very eloquently about his experience with the U.S. from the age of 15. And he was on our radar But again the U.S. have been able to create a great opportunity system for their players, albeit they’ve got different budgets and economies of scale to Canada. But we’ve got to start competing in this area.”
The Canadian men are 4-2-6 all-time against Panama, which won 1-0 the last time the two teams met in March 2022 in Panama City in Canada’s final World Cup qualifying game. Canada had already booked its ticket to Qatar by then.
The Nations League features 41 teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean split into three tiers: League A (12 teams), B (16) and C (13). The four group winners in League A advanced to the final four.
Canada (3-1-0) finished atop Group C. Mexico (2-0-2) topped in Group A, while Panama (3-0-1) and the U.S. (3-0-1) won Group B and D, respectively.
The U.S. is seeded first in the final four, based on its group stage performance. Panama is No. 2, followed by Canada and Mexico.
The Americans won the first edition of the CONCACAF Nations League in 2021, defeating Mexico 3-2. Honduras was third and Costa Rica fourth.
Canada missed out on the inaugural final four, finishing runner-up to the U.S. in its group on goal difference.