John Herdman toeing the tightrope ahead of Nations League in fall

But, instead of having to manage the weight of falling down to a possible death, he carries the hopes of a nation on his shoulders, with possible failure awaiting a fate some would consider worse than any fall. 

It’s a fate that Herdman, coach of the Canadian men’s national team, has had to shoulder, having been dealt a few rough hands the past couple weeks. Starting with the collapse down in Houston against Haiti in the Gold Cup quarter-finals, nothing can seem to go right for a program that was trending in the right direction before this year’s edition of the Gold Cup. They came into that tournament undefeated since last year, with new coach Herdman having seemingly steered their ship in the right direction ahead of this year’s edition of North America’s finest footballing tournament, as well as going forward into the inaugural Nations League in the fall and World Cup qualifiers next fall. 

But after the Haiti debacle, dominoes have started to fall, and not necessarily in positive directions. 

Firstly, there was the announcement of the CONCACAF qualifying system for 2022, where it was decided that the FIFA rankings in a years time would determine if your team gets a 50% chance of going (through the Hex), or a 1% chance (through a hard playoff). The format has been broken down ad nauseum, as it’s not very good, but if you want to learn more about it, we broke things down here.

Secondly, there was the release of FIFA’s post-summer tournament rankings, where teams would find out where they rank amongst the world’s best. With CONCACAF having decided on their new format, it was also a good chance for Canada to find out how they fared ahead of their Nations League matches this fall. But, despite a couple of big victories at the Gold Cup, Canada in fact lost points, as only 1 of their 2 victories counted, leaving them no better off than before. 

Lastly, there was a blow delivered Saturday, not by FIFA or any other governing organizations, but instead from coach Herdman himself, who was interviewed both on live television during Toronto FC vs Cincinnati FC, as well as by both the Canadian Press and TSN in writing later. While some of his points are very intriguing, he dropped some controversial nuggets. 

“We conceded three goals against Mexico, that’s never good enough,” Herdman said during the TFC match. “And then three goals against Haiti, you start to look at where those errors occur and what are the challenges. In those games, we’re scoring goals, so there’s a real clarity now in what we have to fix”

“Some of it is around the tactical identity and just making sure that we bring more balance to either the midfield or the frontline that can support the back 4. Because, if you put in on paper, it’s a Tier 3 back four and a Tier 1 front four in CONCACAF”

It was a strong statement from Herdman, who has faced some strong criticism since the Gold Cup exit. While he has been saying all the right things all along since his hiring, there are people who are understandably disappointed, as Canada came off the tournament with two of the top scorers, but were unable to deliver on heightened expectations. With this golden generation of attacking talent, expectations will be high as they look to avenge the mistakes of their past, where bar a 2000 Gold Cup triumph and a 1986 World Cup berth, they have fallen short of expectations too many times. 

Herdman did backtrack on his statement nearly immediately, as it was certainly a bit staunch, not because it was wrong, but because the last thing his young defenders need to hear is that they’re not up to the grade of their attacking talent. 

“I’ve got a back 4 that doesn’t get regular minutes, that are young, and haven’t really made their mark on the international stage, or even domestic stage, yet” Herdman continued. “So that takes time. We have to buy that time”

“But you don’t get time at the international level. You’ve genuinely got to now try and find some ways of protecting some of those weaknesses and making sure that we can give those younger players the opportunity that they need”

While Herdman was certainly correct in his assessment, at least in terms of how his team needs to adjust tactically, a lot of the talk seemed unnecessary. While as a coach he has media obligations to attend to, it seems a bit hollow to go on national TV and call a crucial part of his team out, especially with a lot of big games ahead.

When it comes to international football, the beauty of it all is that despite players playing at different levels all around the world, international squads are brought together around one premise, and that’s playing for the flag and the many people behind it. Unlike club football, where super teams can be bought in thanks to careful investment, international managers must organize themselves differently, attempting to compete with the pool of players available to them. 

Herdman is trying to figure out the best way to get guys like Derek Cornelius (pictured) part of a cohesive defensive unit.

What that means is that often the best managers international managers aren’t necessarily the ones that can spend the most, or assemble the best Xs and Os, but instead find a balance of tactics and man-management. Often now in club football, we see dramas, much like what is going on at Real Madrid right now between Zinedine Zidane and Gareth Bale, where teams will deem someone surplus to requirements, causing spats as clubs or players will try to force moves. 

So managers, like Herdman, must find a way to achieve that balance. While it would be great if Canada could stick Derek Cornelius into an incubator and have him instantly become the next Virgil Van Djik, that kind of change won’t happen right away. So while he grows and develops to maybe become a player of that level one day, he will still be pivotal for Canada in the present, so Herdman will have to work and make sure he and the other Canadian defenders stay on the same page and grow in time for the next competition. 

With Cuba and the US now looming in the fall and the importance of those matches seeming to ratchet up by the day, Herdman will look to grow on the lessons he’s learned from managing this team for just about a year and a half now. He knows he made a mistake with how he managed the tournament this summer, as he touched on when he spoke again on Sunday.

“Were we prepared going into the Gold Cup for those moments?” Herdman said of his team’s mentality before the Gold Cup, speaking to CP on Sunday. “I don’t think we had been in those moments enough. Those moments when genuine adversity is in your face. As a staff and a group of players, we hadn’t performed under that sort of situation.”

“These are some of the things you look back on and say ‘Was there a better way of doing it?’ In hindsight, if we knew Cuba was going to be that weak, would we have approached the Mexico game to give them that sort of that tough, tough experience to get them ready for something like Haiti?”

So while talk can always be considered cheap, to see Herdman acknowledge his wrongdoings can be a fresh of breath air. While Canada is clearly quite behind where many people expect them to be, at least considering some of the talent on board, Herdman has at least been brunt and honest with most of the process to date, giving an inside look at what he’s been thinking and tinkering around with. 

These mistakes were tough to deal with, as those kinds of experimental decisions can be, but if he can learn from them, things will be alright. This men’s program desperately lacks some of the big-game resolve and mentality playing teams like Mexico, USA and Costa Rica provide, so Herdman will know to throw his best out each time, because at this point any experience is good experience, and he and all others involved will want to avoid looking back at matches like the ones against Mexico and Haiti this Gold Cup and ponder: What could have been?

But, Gold Cup heartbreak aside, Herdman’s reign was always going to be judged on how he fares in World Cup qualifying, which technically kicks off when Nations League A gets started this fall. While it seems like a stiff task today, destiny is in their hands, now it’s just upon them to try and deliver on expectations. As he told TSN on Sunday, he knows what needs to be done, it’s just up to managing his players to get there. While a lot of what he said will be scrutinized if he fails to do so, that’s part of the tricky line he must toe. 

“We’ve re-strategized in the last two weeks,” Herdman told TSN. “We’ve re-framed the mindset from disappointment to opportunity and we’ve looked at what it’s going to take to qualify for the Hex and then ultimately for the World Cup in 2022.”

 “It’s not absolutely in our control,” he finished. “But what is in our control is what we do. The first step is to win Nations League group A.”

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