John Herdman spoke to media on Wednesday, answering questions ahead of Canada’s biggest game in recent memory.
With the important Nations League clash against the US now coming up in less than 3 weeks, Canada’s Men’s National Team coach, John Herdman, stood court for the media on Wednesday. In Toronto for the Canadian Championship final between Montreal and Toronto, he answered questions from the media for the first time since Canada returned from a trip to the Cayman Islands earlier this month.
The US game is turning out to be a huge match for his team, as they take on their neighbours from below the 49th parallel in a competitive setting for the first time in 8 years. With Canada’s last win against their southern foes coming in 1985, they are hungry to change the narrative that this is a one-sided rivalry.
“Look, if you ask us about will, and you ask us about desire and hunger, I think we want it as bad as them if not even more,” Herdman said Wednesday. “For us, the game is going to mean a lot more in terms of our qualification into the Hex. So if you see how we stack up there motivationally, then I’d say we may be ahead of the curve there.”
Toronto was selected as the location for this crucial venture, with BMO Field opening its doors to the public on October 15th. It was a controversial decision, with Toronto getting the majority of Canadian National team games over the last few years, and with their game against Cuba last month barely scraping 10 000 people, there’s a genuine worry that they won’t be able to get close to the 30 000 or so people that it can hold.
“Look, I think it’s crucial,” Herdman said when asked about fans coming out for this one. “But it’s more for the fans to come along and be a part of something really meaningful. I mean it’s not a friendly match, it’s not something where we’re just rocking up together, US and Canada and playing six subs and it means nothing at the end of it. This means a lot to our country, it means a lot to football in our country.”
Canada has US demons to exorcise
As their quest towards World Cup qualification continues in full force, this game will be as big as it comes for this program. With FIFA ranking points now becoming a buzzword among fans of the program, as the accumulation of them now determines the qualification to the Hexagonal, countries now live and die by their presence. For Canada, this match represents a chance at 17 points, which would leapfrog Canada over rivals El Salvador into 6th in CONCACAF.
Canada has not qualified for the World Cup since 1986, and to the Hex since the late 90s, so to say these games are huge is an understatement. A game, vs rivals, to put their team in pole position ahead of World Cup qualifying? Herdman stresses it’s as good a reason the Toronto fans will have to rock up. With Vancouver’s BC Place able to hold 55 000 and putting up good attendance numbers whenever Canada visits, Toronto will want to show that BMO Field is more than Canada’s B option for when they play Barbados or Guyana.
“The 17 points we could take from this game could really push us into the Hexagonal,” Herdman said. “If we get into that, we bring more meaningful and top quality games back to Canada and test these boys even more. So your fans are everything. Every time we go away, you feel it, you’re going to St Kitt’s and they’re doing everything they can to make sure that Canada feels uncomfortable, and their team is given that chance, that extra whatever it is the fans will bring.”
The math equation continues
This game has been one that has surely been circled on the calendar of Canadian Soccer fans since the day it was announced, especially when the new CONCACAF World Cup qualifying process was revealed. While the game is still a must-win affair for Canada, they now have some breathing room, as they only sit 5 points behind El Salvador, who are in that vital 6th place spot. They still need to leapfrog them before sitting pretty, but given that the gap was 29 points a month ago, Canada must feel a little more optimistic about their chances.
With El Salvador and Panama slipping up, Canada now have the chance to put themselves in pole position heading into November. As they know from when they avoided a catastrophic result down in Cuba this month, this confederation can deliver up surprises at any moment, so they’ll keep their heads up despite their precarious position. What will they do instead? Stay focused on what they can control: their own performances. If any other luck comes, then so be it.
“When I heard the changes it was all sort of doom and gloom,” Herdman said honestly. “We’d embarked on a Nations League path where we originally thought it was going to be Nations League ranking, and then it shifted to FIFA’s. And when you see yourself 29 points behind El Salvador, and you look at their game schedule, and you look at ours yeah it looked a little bit like this could have been a Mission Impossible.”
He would also add: “But I’ve said this to people time and time again, it is tough. When you go to the Caribbean and play in CONCACAF, it is tough. I think we underestimate when we see a country’s name and we say ah there’s a population of x, and how can you not beat that team? Well, Panama and El Salvador both tripped up in this round. So it’s not easy. And immediately after that game, the Cuba match away, we were able to show the players the points and what had happened to Panama and El Salvador in that period.”
And even if they lose, this game provides them with something they have not seen much under Herdman: big-game experience. With 30 000 fans expected to show up, a good number of which are expected to be American, it’s exactly what this team needs.
It’s clear that this crop of players is a special generation for Canada, but they have yet to win anything, much like many of the other generations before them. With many people questioning if Herdman can coach at this level, he and his crew will want to set themselves apart in Canadian lore, and beating the US at home is a pretty good opportunity to do that.
The Gold Cup this summer was supposed to be one of those moments, but with Canada losing to both Mexico and Haiti, they fell short of their lofty expectations. It was not an easy result to stomach, as Canada had a clear path to the semi-finals, but it could also be positive for the program. Sometimes teams need to lose before they win, as the experience of being in a tough environment can often provide crucial lessons, so Herdman is ready for his squad to bring on another big test.
“I think that big-game experience is what this group needs,” Herdman said. “I’ve said that the pros and cons of Nations League where the pros were it was meaningful, every game you could cap players, but the cons were that we never really played a meaningful game. A test, a real tester, until we met the Mexicans in the Gold Cup. And at that point, we were rotating players in that game, rightly or wrongly. And then moving into the Haiti game, it was another big, tough game.”
He added. “So we’re at that stage now where we’re going to go US, US, and if we make that final four, you’re going to play the best teams in CONCACAF consistently. And if we make the Hex, it’s a tough game every window, so this is what this team is ready for. It’s what we want. That’s what the players want, to get on a plane and travel 16 hours to play top teams. So I think we’re really looking forward to it.”
Fikayo Tomori Watch:
For now, that journey will be without Fikayo Tomori, the young defender turning heads at Chelsea FC. Born in Calgary, Tomori has represented Canada at the U20 level, even captaining the side when they famously beat an England side in a huge upset. It is certainly ironic that Tomori is now eschewing his birthplace for England’s ranks, as he follows the famous adage of “when you beat them….you join them?”. It’s unsure yet where he stands in the depth chart for the Three Lions, with plenty of English centre backs playing at a good level across England, but he prefers to wait and see if he’s in the plans of England manager Gareth Southgate.
With Canada’s biggest question mark on the squad being at the centre back position, it’s not hard to drool at the thought of Tomori suiting up in red. A left-footed defender, he put Mohammed Salah in his pocket last weekend, standing out despite a 2-0 loss to Liverpool. At 21, he could be the backbone of the defence for a decade, and with Canada hosting the World Cup in 2026, he would be a huge asset to have around.
While it would seem like a no-brainer to represent the 4th ranked England, Canada does have a great chance to make the Hex, especially if they were to beat the US, so it’s too bad Tomori has not yet decided to don a Canadian shirt. He could be a star for this team, but for now he remains committed to being a bit-player for England, and while it’s not hard to imagine him becoming a star for them at his current trajectory, he could certainly be part of a crop of youngsters making a mark for Les Rouges.
When Herdman was asked about the status of the defender, he left the door open if Tomori ever does want to come, but he knows that Canada is not in the plans of the 21-year-old, at least not for now.
“Well, look, I think with Fikayo we’ve been tracking him since I came into the role, I’ve spoken with him and I’ve spoken with his representatives,” Herdman said honestly. “And they’ve got a very clear plan for Fikayo that doesn’t involve Canada at this stage. It’s very clear what his ambitions are and who he wants to play for internationally, and you find this with players, if there’s a squad that gets announced for another country, all of a sudden, then it’s probably not even him, maybe it’s the people that work with him (that could approach us). But what I’m clear on is that he has a plan and when that plan changes, he will speak to us.”
Stay tuned for more Canada vs US coverage ahead of October 15th
All images courtesy of: Canada Soccer and Martin Bayzl