“We’re finishing strong”: Despite early World Cup qualification, the CanMNT looking to finish Octo on high note vs Panama

Fresh off of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, the CanMNT takes on Panama in the final game of the ‘Octagonal’ on Wednesday. Here is our preview ahead of that one. 

The party might’ve already happened, but the job isn’t fully done yet. 

Of course, the CanMNT had every reason to want to celebrate these past two days, as they continued to soak in the fact that they’ve now qualified for the 2022 World Cup after a 4-0 win over Jamaica on Sunday, snapping a 36-year World Cup drought in the process.

At the same time, while they completed a huge goal by taking care of business in that Jamaica game, they’re still not done progressing towards their next accomplishment here. 

And that is to finish the ‘Octagonal’, this final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, in style, which they can do with a win over Panama in Central America on Wednesday. At first glance, it might feel like this game means nothing, yes, as Panama is eliminated from World Cup contention, while Canada is already in, but at the same time, don’t be fooled by that. 

On one side, there’s this Canadian team, who despite being the first team to qualify from CONCACAF, still can finish atop the Octo as the ‘King of CONCACAF’ with at least a point on Wednesday, which is a goal for them. Plus, with how things fell into place around them globally on Tuesday, they can also now ensure that they’ll be a pot 3 team in the World Cup draw later this week with a win in this game, which would theoretically give them a better shot at making it out of their group in that tournament, which is a plus. 

So while you’d think that it’ll be hard for them to get up for this dead-rubber match given what they accomplished this weekend, part of the reason why they are where they are heading into this game – sitting atop the Octo and with a ticket to Qatar – is because of their business-like approach in these sorts of games. 

And on the other side, we can’t discount Panama, either. They might be eliminated, yes, but they were in the top 4 for most of the Octo despite being expected to finish last heading into this round, finding a way to overachieve for most of this process. 

Plus, having suffered a heavy 4-1 defeat to Canada in Toronto in the first meeting between these teams this round, a game in which there were several altercations, they’ll want to not only avenge their early elimination, but that tough result, too. 

Because of that, Canada is expecting an intense game, both due to what they have at stake, as well as what their opponents will be expected to feel after their last meeting, which they feel should ease some of the concerns that this game will look more like a friendly than a final round qualifier. 

“It’s a critical match, it’s a really critical match,” Canadian head coach, John Herdman, said on Tuesday. “The players, we gave them a day to celebrate yesterday, but the staff, they were back at it from 6:30 AM yesterday morning with scouting, putting the subs plans together, making sure that we have the right information so we can execute in Panama, and it’s clear, we’re finishing strong.”

He added: “When we came into this, we said we’d qualify, but qualifying was only one of the goals, (another) that we’ve set to really define ‘New Canada’ was finishing atop CONCACAF.”

Canada celebrates qualifying for the World Cup on Sunday (Ben Steiner)

So while it might be easy for Canada to lay off the gas pedal after all they’ve accomplished so far, they feel that they’ve made it too far not to finish all of their goals at this point. 

And given Herdman’s insistence that this team is supposed to embody a ‘New Canada’, one that operates with the mentality of a top soccer nation, there’s no better way to embody that than a strong performance in this game. 

“To really define ‘New Canada’, you’ve got to be #1, and that’s what we’re pushing for,” he noted. 

But speaking of a ‘New Canada’, it’s worth noting how important this qualification should be towards helping push forward this CanMNT team. 

Beyond just growing the interest in this side, bringing in key eyeballs (and the views, sponsors and other incentives that come with that), there are going to be huge benefits for the team itself, too.

For example, people are seeing the players on this Canadian team, and are wondering if, given Canada’s past status as a forgotten soccer country, they might be missing out on some gems. 

Of course, with top CanMNT players like Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Stephen Eustaquio, Tajon Buchanan, Cyle Larin, and Atiba Hutchinson (among others) playing at big European clubs, it’s not as if Canada is completely ignored by the big powers, but at the same time, the Canadian to Europe pipeline isn’t quite at where many would hope quite yet. 

So through this qualification, Herdman made a strong statement on Tuesday, suggesting that he feels that is going to change soon, with this qualification being a big reason why. 

Considering that a large chunk of players on his team plays in MLS or at forgotten European circuits, he thinks that won’t be for long, especially after what they’ve so far accomplished here. 

“I’m hoping to see people like Alistair Johnston, people like Kamal Miller, to take that next step to those top leagues in Europe,” Herdman boldly stated. “Because when you’re the #1 in CONCACAF, and that’s what we’re going after in this game, and when you see those American boys all playing in Champions League clubs, it’s a bit of a head scratcher when our Canadian boys are still playing in MLS”

And through that, Herdman feels that will be the next step in building his ‘New Canada’, who he doesn’t want to just make World Cups, but make some noise at them, too. 

“It’s not just about qualifying, it’s about ensuring that all of our boys are playing in the top leagues, and what I’ve learned is, and I’ve said this right in my statistics when I took over, to get out of a group stage at a World Cup, you need 6 players playing at a tier-one standard.”

And from there, he feels that the rest will fall into place, as Canada will then also attract some outside names who might not have previously considered playing for them to join the cause, while also continuing the rapid development that they’ve seen in terms of talent production within the country.

They’re already doing both of those things, of course, as Canada’s success with swaying dual nationals to their side is a big example of the former, while the latter is only going to continue to improve with the progression of the Canadian Premier League, but now, there’s no reason why that can’t hit a new level on top of that. 

“This is a global game now, and we’re going to have Canadians popping up all over the place, and this Canadian passport now has got unbelievable value.”

So through all of that, they really feel like a win over Panama will allow them to continue onto those goals. 

Of course, at the end of the day, they’ve done the main job, which is what matters, but that doesn’t mean that the overall body of work is quite done yet. 

Because of that, you can see why they’ll be looking to come out strong in this game. 

With the push towards entering the 2022 World Cup in style now beginning with this match, they can use this occasion as a chance to both close the chapter on a memorable qualifying cycle, while also opening the next chapter on their participation in the tournament proper, of which the preparation before has already begun. 

Throughout this process, it’s been all about staying focused on this journey as it’s gone along, and although the goal might’ve been changed, that doesn’t mean that they can’t keep that same mindset on Wednesday, allowing them to officially be crowned ‘Kings of CONCACAF’. 

Up Next: Canada vs Panama, Wednesday, March 30th, 2022, 18:00 PDT, 21:00 EDT (Estadio Romell Fernandez, Panama)

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