Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team is getting set to kick off the start of the final round of World Cup qualifiers, the ‘Octagonal’, later this week. Here’s a look at the mood in the squad ahead of that one.
It’s a great time to be a Canadian soccer fan right now.
Fresh off of a summer where Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team won a historic gold medal at the Olympics, while the Men’s National Team made it to the semi-finals of the Gold Cup for the first time since 2007, it was a good soccer summer for Canada’s national teams.
But now, a huge journey awaits the Men’s team, who are getting set to kick off the start of the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers, later this week.
As they look to get back to the World Cup for the first time since 1986, they’ve already achieved the first part of their mission, which was to make it to this final stage, doing so for the first time since 1997 back in June of this year, which now gives them a shot of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup Qatar.
Joined by 7 of CONCACAF’s best sides, the US, Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Panama in a 14-game scramble, the Octo promises to be an interesting adventure for Canada, who will look to be one of the 3.5 teams that can qualify for the World Cup, either by finishing top 3 and going straight to the big dance, or finishing 4th and keeping their hopes alive with the intercontinental playoff.
Either way, for a team that hasn’t even sniffed this final round in decades, let alone the World Cup, top 4 remains the goal for this Canadian team in this round, with the ultimate goal being to reach the World Cup proper.
Led by a team of players that arguably sits among the best that Canada has ever seen, this team is ready to prove that they’re for real, and the chance to do so starts this week.
“Yeah, we’ve got a team that is full of talent,” Canada’s captain and elder statesmen, 38-year-old Atiba Hutchinson, told reports on Tuesday. “A lot of players that are playing in some good clubs around the world, and are very confident and have great ability, which could all add a lot to this team, and they’ve been doing that the last couple of years.”
“So for everybody involved, we’re just looking forward to getting this underway, getting started, and just having a good run. And hopefully, we can make everybody proud and do what we need to do to make the biggest step, which is qualifying for a World Cup.”
But to make that happen, they must be ready for the complexities that the Octo will throw at them.
From triple matchdays, to away days to tough venues in countries such as Honduras, Mexico and Panama, among others, this is going to be quite the challenge for Canada’s head coach, John Herdman, and the rest of his staff to navigate, and they’re well aware of that.
Having already dealt with some interesting logistical hurdles throughout this year, where they had to navigate the early rounds of World Cup qualifiers, along with the complexities that the Gold Cup offered, all of this is nothing new to them.
Because of that, they’re also relishing this opportunity, as this is the sort of challenge that coaches live for, and with the sort of squad that Canada has at its disposal, with names such as Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Stephen Eustaquio, Cyle Larin, Tajon Buchanan and Hutchinson, that’s given Herdman belief that he and staff can overcome the various hurdles that now await them.
“There’s a lot of complexity, but there, that’s the stuff that I love,” Herdman said last week. “That’s the things that I get out of bed for, I love being able to look at it, strategizing, and with our staff challenging ourselves to find the best way forward for this group of men. As mentioned, with the depth of the squad, we were able to assure a squad of good players for World Cup qualifying, and then assure a good squad of players in the Gold Cup.”
“And what I’ve been able to do for this camp is choose the best of these players that have helped Canada on this trajectory, and take us through these stages of qualifying. So I think you’re seeing the best of that group with the players that are not only in form, but more importantly have contributed to the success of the team.”
Considering that they’ve already started formulating a plan for these 14 games, from game 1 to 14, they’re already appearing to relish this challenge, leaving nothing to chance, because as the saying goes, failing to plan is planning to fail.
“We’ve got a campaign plan, we’ve looked at the 14 matches, we’ve worked around what we see our point totals being, and what our stretch goal is that will put the world on notice,” Herdman continued. “The minimum requirement is to qualify, we’ve looked at our margins for error, we’re aware of road victories that we’re absolutely targeting, and ultimately, we want to win every game at home, and that’s the priority.”
“We want to accumulate 21 points in Canada, fans can get behind us and create environments where we have a fortress, I think all of our fans believe we can, and all of the players believe we can.”
But while Canada’s started scheming already, and they have the top-end talent that is the envy of most teams in the region, is it realistic for them to dream of being able to make the World Cup quite yet?
And the answer is yes, without a doubt. With historic victories over the likes of the US and Costa Rica in recent years, along with some strong performances against teams like Mexico, Canada has shown to have the talent to hang with anyone in CONCACAF on their day.
Plus, their depth continues to grow, giving them the pieces to increase competition in their squad, further improving their level as a group.
5 to 10 years ago, this squad would be littered with players playing for Unattached FC, yet now they’ve got enough options to leave someone like Rangers’ midfielder Scott Arfield at home because they chose to, which would’ve been unfathomable back then.
For Hutchinson, who has been with this team for nearly 2 decades, that competition it’s raised the level in this Canadian program to a level he’s never seen, and he’s quite proud to be a part of all this as he enters the twilight of his long and successful career.
“Yeah, I think that for any successful team, you need to have competition, and players not only playing against other teams, but competing within the team,” Hutchinson explained. “And like I said, there are some players that are unfortunately not able to be here, but it just shows how much depth that we have with the national team, so I’m extremely happy to see that we’ve been growing and developing over the years.”
“It’s a great moment to play for Canada and represent the country, so these are all positive things for a team to be successful.”
So now, this Canadian team is ready to inspire a generation of players, starting with these games.
Seeing how the Women’s gold medal drove up interest in the sport this summer, this Men’s team now wants to build on that momentum, starting this camp.
Plus, to do that, they’ll have the ability to do something that neither team has done in nearly 2 years this window, and that’s play at home, becoming the first Canadian national team to play in the country since October of 2019.
In this triple matchday, they’ll play Honduras at BMO Field in Toronto on Thursday, September 2nd, before returning to Toronto to play El Salvador on Wednesday, September 8th after a quick jaunt down south to play the US on Sunday, September 5th.
After the downs of the pandemics, they have a chance to ride the high that the sport is currently on in this country, all while playing some of the biggest games that they’ve played in decades, which will be memorable on many fronts.
For Hutchinson, who was supposed to retire a few years ago, it’s something he can’t wait to participate in, and he and this squad will make sure not to take that chance for granted, hopefully giving the fans plenty to cheer about.
“It feels amazing,” Hutchinson said of the homecoming. “Just knowing that we’re going to have a game here in Toronto, and just have that feeling of coming back home and playing in front of our own crowd, in front of my family and friends again, which a couple of years ago I didn’t think would happen again. It’s exciting, I’m looking forward to it, and we’ve got a team that can be very successful and make a lot of noise.”
So with that, no matter what happens, this promises to be a special moment for Canadian soccer fans.
Just by making the Octo, they’ve guaranteed 14 games against the best, 7 of those at home, giving them a chance to showcase some of the best that this region has to offer to their fans.
For fans of this Men’s team that haven’t gotten a chance to experience anything like this in this century, this is going to be special, and this team is well aware of what this occasion will mean for those who show up, giving them support as they continue their journey towards the World Cup.
“I think they’ve started that journey by getting here,” Herdman said. “We’re guaranteed 14 matches, 14 matches that we haven’t had for 20+ years, and that’s what fans want. I’m a football fan myself, I want to watch my team play, I want to see them competing against the best in CONCACAF, more importantly, I want to be able to take my kids and be part of that whole matchday experience, singing the national anthem.”
“As I said, I’m a fan at heart, and I know what it means to people to experience this whole campaign, and I think for the players, they know the gravity of this moment for our country. It’s genuinely a turning point, but we’re not going to let that weigh on us, we’re going to enjoy it, we’re going to enjoy it with the fans, we’re going to seize the opportunity and just give everything that we’ve got.”
“You’ll see every man, every staff member, just pushing every ounce of Canadian to get us over the line,” he continued. “So what you see on the field, our commitment, will inspire people to keep pushing further, and all we want at the end of the day is to feel like we’ve connected a country and qualify for the biggest sporting event on the planet.”
And backed by that support, this special Canadian group will look to continue their quest to change the narrative surrounding this team, not only in this country, but in the footballing world.
Ahead of the 2026 World Cup, which they’ll get a chance to co-host with Mexico and the US, they’re looking to prove that they aren’t just ready to get a free pass to the big dance in 5 years, but are ready to bash down the doors and make it on merit in just over a years time.
Not long ago, this Canadian team struggled to get results against teams such as Puerto Rico, and suffered embarrassing defeats whenever they played the likes of the US, Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica.
Now, they’re competing with and beating those teams, showing their rapid growth as a team.
So make no mistake – although these games will be special as Canada marks the return of National Team soccer to home soil, this team is out for blood, at the same time.
They’ve already started doing so this year, and they’re ready to continue that quest now, so look for them to come out flying in their first game vs Honduras, and try to keep that momentum flowing into the other 13 games that await them.
“I mean, people always thought Canada was a nothing country, and that we couldn’t get results,” Hutchinson said defiantly. “And now we’re getting results in pretty much all of the games that we play, so it shows that the country is going in the right direction, taking the right step, so the conversation has changed dramatically in that sense.”
‘“Canada’s doing something very big, and now for us, the last hurdle is to qualify for a World Cup and that will really have everybody talking in a different way.”
Up Next: Canada vs Honduras, Thursday, September 2nd, 2021, 17:05 PDT, 20:00 EDT (BMO Field, Toronto)