On the verge of a World Cup berth, Canada on the rise

The Canadian soccer association made a surprising move in 2018 when it made women’s national team coach John Herdman the new head coach of the men’s team.

Herdman had guided the women’s team to a pair of back-to-back Olympic bronze medals, while also navigating the pressure on Canada as host of the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

Christine Sinclair, Canada’s veteran captain who has since become the highest international scorer of all time among men or women, went to Twitter with her stunned reaction to the move: “Speechless right now.”

Herdman’s leap between teams turned out to be a winning decision. Canada’s men are on the verge of going to the World Cup for the first time in 36 years.

Canada sits atop the CONCACAF standings for World Cup qualification, ahead of the United States and Mexico. Canada is undefeated in the final round with seven wins and four draws.

Along the way, the team has dramatically risen in the FIFA rankings, from No. 94 when Herdman took over in 2018 to No. 33 today.

“This team, this program, we’ve gone through a lot. We’ve had a lot of rough times and heartbreaking results,” captain Atiba Hutchinson said. “And for it to be going the way that it’s going now, we’re a fearless team and we’ve got a lot of confidence. We’re just expressing ourselves now.”

Canada was a perfect 3-0 over the previous qualifying window, with a trio of 2-0 wins over Honduras, the United States and El Salvador.

On Thursday, Canada visits Costa Rica for the first of three final qualification matches. Win, and they’ll secure a spot in Qatar. The team then hosts Jamaica in Toronto on Sunday before the last match at Panama next Wednesday.

The top three CONCACAF finishers secure World Cup berths. The fourth-place team will face a team from Oceania in an intercontinental playoff.

Herdman has labeled the team’s quest “New Canada.”

“With that mission, that there’s a number of goals that sit underneath it. You’re not New Canada unless you really do pioneer in this period of time. 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 have said, put the world on notice.”

It’s not just Canada’s men that have seen recent success. The women’s team won the gold medal last summer at the Tokyo Olympics, playing under Herdman protégé Bev Priestman.

Known as more of a hockey nation, Canada’s rise on the international soccer stage has been building for two decades.

It really started in 2002, when the nation hosted the FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship (later the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup). A young Sinclair scored five goals in a quarterfinal match against England. She generated such buzz that attendance jumped, with more than 47,000 fans at the final against the United States, still a record for the tournament.

Canada went on to host the 2007 Men’s U-20 World Cup ,which generated $259 million in economic impact. That helped pave the way for Canada’s successful bid for the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

The women’s team is now ranked sixth in the world as it prepares to qualify for the 2023 Women’s World Cup. The foundation was laid by Herdman, who was named coach in 2011.

“If you ever hear those Canadian men talk, they talk about passion and legacy and playing for the brotherhood, for one another. And that’s something that I truly believe in as well, because I was fortunate enough to play for a coach like John Herdman, who emphasize team first in all things. And now you’re seeing that success on the men’s side,” said former defender Rhian Wilkinson, now coach of the Portland Thorns in the National Women’s Soccer League.

For the men, simply making the field in Qatar isn’t the final goal.

“I’ve said this all along, but these guys are fighting for something way beyond just a three-point game and qualification for Qatar, and we have been since I took over the team,” Herdman said. “There’s been a real clarity. It took time for the players to really burn it into their minds and connect around that shared purpose. And it’s there now. It’s so clear.”

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