With the Canadian national team coming agonizingly close to scoring their first ever points at the FIFA World Cup, they’ll be leaving Qatar empty-handed. Despite scoring for the first time at a men’s World Cup, three losses, a -5 goal differential, and last place in Group F will be the main takeaways from their first crack at the tournament since 1986.
The task at hand now is to look forward. With a squad full of young talent, the 2026 World Cup is an incredible opportunity that will see key players at the peak of their powers playing in front of a home crowd. However, with this opportunity comes increased pressure to deliver more than just two goals and some good vibes. From this moment on, nobody will be under more pressure than head coach John Herdman.
Herdman has been a staple of Canadian soccer for more than a decade. He coached the women’s team to its first hardware in 2012 when they collected the bronze medal at the London Olympics and repeated that feat in Rio in 2016. Under his command, the team also qualified for the knockout stages of the 2015 Women’s World Cup for the first time since 2003 and helped usher in a squad that is now among the best in the world.
After taking over the men’s team, Herdman set his eyes on ending that 36-year drought and accomplished just that. Canada dominated in qualifying, winning 46 of a potential 60 points in the octagon and beating out Concacaf giants Mexico and the United States. Once there, Herdman put together a tactical masterclass in their first game against an ageing Belgium. His emphasis on width and pace was simply too much for the second ranked team in the world, and both Herdman and the team were rightfully given their flowers despite the loss.
The issue now lies with Herdman’s adaptability—something that caused minor headaches during the qualification process as well. Before the second game against Croatia, he turned into a motivational symbol for Canada’s opponent when he claimed they would “F Croatia”, taking the focus off the game and onto this distraction. On the field, the tactics proved to be an even greater blunder than his comments. Lining up with two midfield pivots, Canada ceded possession to arguably one of the best midfield trios in the tournament who proceeded to slice open the Canadian defence at will.
While Canada seemed composed, motivated, and focused on a specific gameplan against Belgium, they appeared lost against Croatia. Their press was disorganized and they couldn’t keep possession for long if they did win the ball. The substitutions did little to affect the game as they were not addressing the massive gulf of possession in the midfield.
Their third game against Morocco was seemingly an improvement on that front. After another poor first half that saw Canada go 2-0 down just 23 minutes in, three substitutions at the hour-mark helped Canada control the pace and nearly find an equalizer. Atiba Hutchinson came off the bench and seemed like his old self—proving again that his biggest impact is in the later stages of a game where experience and composure are vital.
With their tournament wrapped, Canada Soccer has some thinking to do in the coming months. Herdman displayed the finer points of his managerial style and his outside-the-box approach to coaching has earned the support of his players. However, this upcoming World Cup that will take place in Canada, the United States, and Mexico is an opportunity that must be taken advantage of. It will be a crucial tournament for Canada to see any sort of return on what is by far the most promising generation of Canadian talent in the history of the men’s soccer program.
There are two major tournaments—three if Canada partakes in the 2024 Copa América—before 2026, so the pressure will be on Herdman to prove that he is the right man for the job and that this World Cup is but a blip on the radar.
This is not to say that I think Herdman is anywhere near losing his job, nor should he be. But the next step for a program like Canada’s should be to ensure that an exit like this never happens again. The onus is now on him to prove that he an integral piece to that process.
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