John Herdman expects the Cayman Islands to park the bus Sunday against Canada in World Cup qualifying play. Maybe a couple of buses.
The Cayman part-timers, who at No. 193 are ranked 120 places below Canada, may play with a back five or six in a bid to blunt the potent Canadian attack at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
The Canadians will need to be patient and look to move the ball to break down that defensive block. But as they showed Thursday in their opening 5-1 win over Bermuda, an early goal can open the floodgates.
Herdman said his team's biggest enemy will be frustration — and the heat of a 4 p.m. local time kickoff. The team's leadership group knows it's has a "huge responsibility to keep the mood right."
"We keep saying good work equals good mood," the Canada coach added "And that's an important part of their role in this game — to keep the work good."
Having dispatched No. 169 Bermuda already, Canada is expected to roll over the Caymans, No. 141 Suriname and No. 200 Aruba to complete Group B play. But there is little room for error in this first round of CONCACAF qualifying. Thirty countries are split into six pools with only the group winners advancing — and the teams are having to play during a pandemic where nothing is normal.
"I think that's part of the motivation … when you've got that sort of purpose where you can't make an error or your dreams are sort of over," said Herdman. "It becomes clear to the players that there's an intensity they have to bring.
"I think that's important for us in this moment. It's that balancing act of reminding the players that they're going to fight for their lives but, at the same time, not overburdening them with that pressure. Because at the end of the day, it's football. It's a game that you've got to enjoy playing. You've got to enjoy being in that moment. And it's finding the right buttons to press with this group given this game.
"When you look at this game, it's the conditions — playing in a pretty intense heat for a certain time of the day — against an opponent that we know will park the bus and maybe a couple of buses and make it very difficult."
The Caymans have had success under English coach Ben Pugh. But fielding a side that had no pro players and a substitute who had just turned 16, they were blanked 3-0 in Suriname on Wednesday.
Just 31, Pugh left a coaching job with Ipswich Town's academy to take over the Caymans — a group of islands with a total population of around 65,000 people, about the same as St Albert, Alta.
He says his side is more excited than worried about playing Canada.
"From our players’ point of view these are experiences that they will maybe not get again or that they will remember and treasure for the rest of their lives," Pugh told fifa.com. "Canada have a Champions League winner (Alphonso Davies) within their squad. It’s something we’re looking forward to as opposed to something we’re anxious about."
Herdman, who spoke to Pugh a few weeks ago, is expecting a motivated Caymans side.
"He made it pretty clear to us that he feels this is a chance for some of those guys to create a platform for themselves and his team to maybe see better opportunities and to pull off a big, shock result."
"It's football," he added. "I think everyone knows in football anything can happen if you don't come into these games mentally prepared and that sort of motivation to get the job done."
Canada's goal is to score early.
"Making sure the game's out of sight pretty quickly is the next mission in-game," said Herdman.
Canada will be without captain Atiba Hutchinson, who has returned to his club team Besiktas in Turkey in what appears to be a pre-arranged deal.
The Canadians bused from Orlando to Sarasota on Friday to be closer to the game venue. While officially a Cayman Islands home game, the location was changed because the Caymans, like Canada, has a 14-day quarantine requirement.
Canada in no stranger to the venue, having held a camp in Bradenton in January.
While the Caymans have never won a World Cup qualifying game, they won of four of six matches in League C in the CONCACAF Nations League in 2019, including a 3-2 victory over Barbados. The other wins were over Saint Martin and the U.S. Virgin Islands (twice).
Pugh noted the Caymans hadn’t won a game "in nearly 10 years" before the Nations League victories.
Canada has never played the Caymans at the senior level. The only time the two countries have met in international men's play was at the CONCACAF Men's Under-17 Championship in August 1992 in Cuba. Canada won 6-0.
The Canadian senior side has played in the Caymans, however. Cuba shifted a 2019 home game in the CONCACAF Nations League to George Town, the Caymans capital.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 27, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press