Four years into his tenure as coach of the men's soccer team, John Herdman is now one win away from taking Canada to the World Cup — ending a 36-year absence from the world showcase.
A Canadian tie in Costa Rica on March 23 would also do it if Panama fails to win that day. But first some well-earned shut-eye after a three-game, seven-day trek through three countries that netted nine points for the 40th-ranked Canadian men in a gruelling FIFA international window.
"I think we're all knackered," Herdman said late Wednesday after a 2-0 win in El Salvador. "This has been a big window, a challenging window."
Unbeaten Canada (7-0-4, 25 points) tops the eight-team standings in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, four points ahead of the U.S. and Mexico (both 6-2-3, 21 points) and eight ahead of Panama (5-4-2, 17 points). Costa Rica (4-3-4, 16 points) is fourth.
After each team plays its remaining three games, the top three finishers will qualify for Qatar 2022, representing North and Central America and the Caribbean. The fourth-place side will face an Oceania team in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.
After the visit to Costa Rica, the Canadians wrap up their 14-game final-round qualifying schedule March 26 at home to Jamaica and March 29 in Panama.
A win in Costa Rica would give the Canadians 28 points and guarantee a top-three finish, with Panama and Costa Rica unable to catch them. A Canadian tie in Costa Rica, coupled with a Panama loss or tie against visiting Honduras, would also mean a top-three finish.
Still Herdman has made it clear the team not only wants to qualify, it wants to be the CONCACAF leader as it heads to Qatar. He calls it "new Canada."
"For us, internally we've got some really clear goals that we're laser-focused on. And we're on track," he said. "We're on track to really set ourselves up as new Canada and, as the players said, put the world on notice."
Traditionally the qualifying mantra has been win at home and hope for ties on the road.
Herdman's initial goal was to collect all 21 points at home. The only blip so far was a 1-1 tie with Honduras last September at Toronto's BMO Field in the first game of the round. Canada has picked up 16 of a possible 18 points so far on home soil (5-0-1).
And the Canadians have more than met that target away from home (2-0-3).
Herdman switched from the Canadian women's team to the men in January 2018, a move that caught people by surprise given the success he had with the women with back-to-back Olympic bronze medals in 2012 and '16.
At the time, the Canadian men were ranked 94th in the world, sandwiched between Gabon and the Faroe Islands.
Consider that the Faroe Islands population was estimated at 51,940 last July.
Herdman says he inherited a dysfunctional team split into cliques — with two fights in training at his first camp in March 2018 in Murcia, Spain.
The Canadian men have gone 28-6-4 since and are 13-0-4 in three rounds of qualifying for Qatar, outscoring the opposition 50-6.
FIFA named Herdman's team the most improved side in 2021 with a 130.32 points gain that saw the Canadians jump to No. 40 from No. 72 in the rankings.
Herdman had to rebuild the Canadian women's program, picking up the pieces after the women finished 16th and last under Caroline Morace at the 2011 World Cup. He did it by getting the players to recall why they played the game and for whom — and with the possibility of inspiring a nation with their performance.
With the Canadian men, he inherited a team that had gone through coaches Colin Miller (twice), Tony Fonseca, Benito Floro, Michael Findlay and Octavio Zambrano — in interim or permanent roles — since Stephen Hart resigned in the wake of a humiliating 8-1 loss in Honduras in October 2012 that prevented Canada from advancing to the final round of qualifying in the region.
A coach renowned for his detailed planning and motivational talents, Herdman offered his players a unique opportunity in his first interviews with them.
Leave a legacy. Become heroes. Get to the World Cup. Become a band of brothers.
"I've said this all along. These guys are fighting for something way beyond just the three points a game and qualification for Qatar," he said. "And we have been since I took over the team. There's been a real clarity. It took time for the players to really burn it into their minds and, I think, connect around that shared purpose. And it's there now. It's so clear.
"As I say at times as a coach, you know it's going to happen. You just know."
Herdman has made believers out of his players.
"For us. it's about making this national team a force and something to be reckoned with," said fullback/wingback Richie Laryea, who recently left Toronto FC for England's Nottingham Forest.
"It's a 'we versus me' mentality' here which has been amazing to see," he added. "Everyone's in it for the bigger and greater goal … It's a challenging environment but he makes it very open and a big brotherhood for all of us."
Players now look forward to coming to camp. Winning is fun. Those with dual passports are choosing to wear the Maple Leaf. Iron sharpens iron. The country has taken notice.
The players have benefited from Canada's success in other ways.
Laryea's ability to get a work permit to play in England was facilitated by Canada's rise up the rankings. Forward Jonathan David, a human highlight reel, is expected to make a megabucks transfer to one of the world's elite clubs from France's Lille this summer.
Herdman remains a powerful motivator, helping the players keep their eye on the prize..
"Some of the speeches he has before games, in our meetings and stuff like that, you sit there and you're like 'I'm ready to play right now,'" said Laryea, throwing in an expletive for emphasis. "That's the type of speaker he is — motivational, inspirational.
"Because whenever he has those talks with us, literally you look around the room and everyone's locked in … He's been great. He's been great for this program. We are and I think the whole country is very privileged to have a guy that's come in and changed the culture like this for our national team."
It is a measure of Canada's success that the 2026 World Cup, which Canada is co-hosting with Mexico and the U.S., is barely mentioned these days. In the past, many would have seen hosting the tournament as the only way Canada would get there.
But not Herdman.
“We’re going to qualify for 2022 Qatar,” he told a news conference at BMO Field in February 2019 when Canada Soccer unveiled its 2019-21 strategic plan. “And lay the foundation for 2026.”
Not many believed him.
Herdman has had to prove more than a few people wrong, recalling he "took a lot of stick" when he was put in charge of the men's team.
Blowing a 2-0 lead to Haiti in a 3-2 quarterfinal loss in the 2019 Gold Cup did not help his cause. Herdman has not forgotten the negative reviews.
"I remember someone describing our Haiti result as the world in Canadian soccer history," he said after Wednesday's game. "Personally for me I just had to learn and it's been a great learning, just to tune it all out."
And when Canada Soccer found out the men had to start at the bottom in qualifying for Qatar while Mexico, the U.S., Jamaica, Honduras and Costa Rica got byes to the final round, Herdman saw the glass half-full despite the long road ahead.
What a story Canada could write along the way, he offered. His team has delivered.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press