After years headlined by taking steps backwards, there’s hope that the team is pushing towards something better as World Cup 2026 looms large
John Herdman couldn’t help but smile. It was seemed to be a moment, in a way, he’d been waiting for. Not the moment, but a moment, one where it appeared what he was trying to build with Canada was starting to take shape.
It didn’t happen in a match or even on a field, but in a press conference room in the bowels of Bank of America Stadium as Canada prepared for the country’s third and final group stage match of the Gold Cup. They’d just lost a tight 3-1 battle to Mexico days prior.
“We lost, but we learned,” Herdman said, a familiar trope.
But it was what defender Doneil Henry said that resonated just as much, if not more, than the performances thus far this Gold Cup. It felt like it mattered just as much as the 7-0 shellacking of Cuba that soon followed or the 4-0 smashing of Martinique that preceded it.
“We end this path with respect, especially in Concacaf, changing the face of football in our country forever,” Henry sat up and stated with conviction. “My journey with the national team started at 18-19 years old when I got called into my first camp. The sense of professionalism maybe, the pressure to win [wasn’t there]. Now we have players playing at their clubs, top-level football, young signings who are exciting around the world.
“We want to really take this seriously and put our country on the map for men’s football. I know what it’s like to play in Europe, and they look at a Canadian player as less than a footballer. My job is to help our country and leave this jersey in a better place when I’m done with the national team, knowing I was a part of changing the culture here.
“One of the first conversations I had with John was about what the culture was like before, and I couldn’t tell him because we didn’t have a real mentality or anything that you would want to know about Canadian football. Right now, we know what we have here in this country and this is a great time and a great place to start showcasing what we can bring to international football.”
Moments later, Herdman responded: “I think that’s what I envisioned, that someone could speak that passionately and clearly about why they wear that jersey. I’m not sure I’ve heard that before.”
For the past several years, there wasn’t much reason to take pride in the performances of Canada’s men’s national team. They’ve been to the World Cup just once, in 1986. Since winning the Gold Cup in 2000, they’ve made it out of the group stage just four times in nine chances. Herdman’s predecessor, Octavio Zambrano, lasted less than one year on the job, leaving behind a program scrambling for some kind, any kind, of identity.
Enter Herdman, who took the job in January 2018. He’d moved on to the men’s team after a seven-year stint with Canada’s women’s squad, widely regarded as one of the top programs in the world. He was given total control, from the senior men’s team and all national youth sides from the under-14 level.
From the offset, his goal has been to build a culture, and that building process has coincided with rise of some of the top young stars in the country’s history. There’s Alphonso Davies, who made the move to Bayern Munich last year. There’s Jonathan David, who joined Lucas Cavallini in netting hat-tricks against Cuba. There are MLS stars like Mark-Anthony Kaye and Jonathan Osorio and European-based attackers like Junior Hoilett and Cyle Larin.
The players are there, and they have talent, but the idea of hosting World Cup 2026 hangs over everyone’s head. All that’s needed is a plan, and Herdman believes moments like Henry’s statement and the ongoing Gold Cup run are pieces of a big puzzle that ends with one thing: respectability.
“This isn’t just a day-by-day or tournament-by-tournament. We’re looking at 2026,” he said. “My federation made a commitment which was an eight-year contract. That’s the reality. When I signed for the project, you know as a coach that it’s fickle, and if I’m not the right man, then I’m not the right man, but I’m working my ass off and my staff are connecting this country.
“We’ve been in every MLS club, every province, I’ve worked with every U15 player in the country. We’re doing things a little bit differently where we’re connecting our country in a way so that if I eject out tomorrow, I’ll know I’ve done something a little bit different and left it a little better than I found it.”
That path continues on with the Gold Cup. Canada’s victory over Cuba sends the team to the knockout stages, where they’ll face either Costa Rica or Haiti in the quarterfinal round. It’s a match that presents a benchmark for Canada. It also presents a chance to earn another look at Mexico, and Henry says Canada will “make it right” if they get another crack at El Tri.
Knockout round success is the next step. If Canada ever hopes to catch up to the likes of the USA, Mexico or Costa Rica, or even teams like Panama and Jamaica, they’ll have to prove it in these types of situations. This is how you prepare for World Cup qualifying and this is how you earn respect on the international stage.
Is the 2019 Gold Cup too soon for Canada? Maybe. Is there more work to be done before Canada can truly count themselves as a legitimate threat in Concacaf? Almost certainly. But Herdman says there is a level of belief in this program that better days are ahead, and they may not be as far away as many think.
“I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning if I didn’t believe that was possible. We just take it every game at a time. We work back from the final, and we’ve done our planning to see the USA in Chicago. That’s what a coach has to do. I have to look that far ahead and work back from that moment. It’s just a game at a time now.”
He added: “If we are ever going to catch up or overtake Mexico or the USA, it’s got to mean more to us than them when we get into those big moments. A lot of people are clear on the meaning, and that really does galvanize the group. There have been some tough moments where we haven’t been able to cross that cavern, we just haven’t been able to cross that in the past. That’s clear, and we’ve got the talent, so there are no excuses any more.”