Can Canada field a credible World Cup team in 2026?

By now, the Canadian men's soccer narrative is familiar — a series of failures, restarts and perpetual rebuilds.

The country's lone appearance in the World Cup came more than 30 years ago, in 1986 in Mexico, where Canada lost all three of its matches and didn't score a goal. Since then, it has been unable to qualify for soccer's marquee event — or even come close in recent years.

But it appears Canada's luck may change as it's part of what's regarded as a strong, three-country bid — along with the United States and Mexico — to host the 2026 World Cup.

The winning bid probably won't be decided for a few years but, as a host nation, Canada would likely receive an automatic berth in the tournament, which expands from 32 teams to 48 in 2026.

The question is, with almost a decade to prepare, can Canada field a competitive team?

Winning the tournament isn't realistic — the goal is to just be competitive. Maybe score a goal or two.

With proper talent identification, coaching and funding, it's possible.  

And there are models for Canada Soccer, the sport's governing body in the country, to follow.

It's been done

Take tiny Iceland. It followed a tightly scripted, well-planned model to build a soccer program that punched way above its weight at last year's European Championship, where it reached the quarter-finals after upsetting mighty England in the round of 16.

Here in Canada, the Own the Podium program has successfully applied this formula to the Olympic Games. Since it began identifying and funding athletes with real potential, Canada's medal yield has grown at both the Summer and Winter Games.

And on the ice, despite its relatively small population, Canada has historically dominated the sport of hockey. That success is built on a well-oiled system of talent identification and development.

But soccer has been a different story.

Leaders at the grassroots level of the game say big changes are needed or Canada's soccer woes will continue through 2026.

"Can we get there? Yes. Is the plan currently in place? Kind of," says John Hyland, the technical director for the North Toronto Soccer Club, the city's largest league.

"There's a lot of good coaches here. There's a lot of good infrastructure here — good fields, good facilities — but that's about it. There's a lot of bits and pieces."

Stuck between stations

Initially, Hyland says, Canada does a good job of developing players that can compete at an international level. 

"Our kids at 12 are as good as any kids in the world. The problem is, after that, what do they do? This is what needs to be fixed."

Hiylan says there needs to be a better way to develop the country's best.

"We are a community club and we are being charged with developing these kids for the national team," he says. "Community organizations are not properly prepared to do that."

"Those at the top one percent... need to be in an environment with the best resources, and a community club can't do that."

In Ontario, there is a league that is supposed to provide such an environment for the province's top young players. But, like in many sports, cost keeps many of the most talented kids out of the loop.

Carmine Isacco is the head coach of Vaughan Azzurri, a semipro under-23 team that is part of the Toronto area's Vaughan Soccer Club, which is home to some 6,000 players. He says the cost for teenagers to play in the province's top league is $4,000-$5,000.

"Because of that, we are eliminating a whole socio-economic group that could make a massive impact on our game," says Isacco, who is also the head coach of the York University men's team.

"They are stuck playing in the lower divisions or playing where they can afford it and they aren't getting the exposure and the development that they should be.

"We don't have proper outlets for the top five per cent of players."

Central planning

Isacco says it would make sense if each region in the country, regardless of what league a player participated in, identified a handful of top prospects.

"Now, if we brought this group together, then we would have a better competition stream," he says. "And at 13, 14, competition is important. You need to compete if we want to get the next level."

He says similar soccer minnows have done it.

"Look at Costa Rica, Panama — those two countries have passed us massively and they have centralized their development, centralized their player pool," Isacco says.

"So if you look at any under-17 Costa Rica player, he will stay with the national team from Monday to Thursday and then go to his club team on the weekend. We need centralization of the best coaches, the best players."

Both Isacco and Hyland say it will take change from the top to truly ensure Canada's best possible team is on the field in 2026.

"The World Cup announcement is fantastic," Hyland says. "It lets us say, 'Here's our goal.'

"We want to represent well and not be embarrassed."