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Canada enters November World Cup Qualifying window with raised expectations

John Herdman’s ‘New Canada’ has raised expectations and increased possibilities driving Canada forward

(Sean Pollock/Waking The Red)

The weather forecast for Edmonton on Friday evening for Canada’s tilt with Costa Rica is calling for -1°C with a wind chill feeling like -5. Perfect conditions for Canadian footy if you are John Herdman, who simply quips, “its Edmonton cold.” And it won’t get any better for Mexico next Tuesday. While the frosty near winter weather is a big talking point for this window’s games there are many other items of interest and importance. Before diving into the factors driving Canada’s preparation for the upcoming games, let us look at Canada’s opponents briefly and see what we might expect.

Costa Rica’s roster has been showing signs of aging and slowing down considerably since their last World Cup appearance in 2018. While Costa Rica has belatedly begun making an attempt to get younger, their roster remains dominated by veteran players on the wrong side of 30. Anyone catching highlight clips of their game against the US in October could see that speed is not Costa Rica’s friend.

But most significantly will be the last-minute absence of renowned star goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who hasn’t recovered from a knee injury incurred against the USA last window. Not only is the PSG goalie still one of the better keepers in the game, he is integral to organizing the team in front of him. After leaving the US game at the half, Costa Rica’s confidence wilted before the younger and faster US squad. While Costa Rica desperately needs points to get back into the top half of the Octagonal table they will most likely be content if they can grind out a draw in the Edmonton permafrost.

Mexico’s fixture with Canada is highly dependant on what happens in their epic contest with the US in Cincinnati Friday night. Mexico has several key players heading into the US game on yellow cards — Hirving Lozano, Héctor Moreno, Raul Jimenez, Jesús Gallardo, and Jesús Corona. To make matters more challenging to both Mexico and the US is that the officiating assignment for their game has been given to a crew led by card happy El Salvadoran referee Ivan Arcides Barton Cisneros. Canadian fans will remember him for Canada’s Gold Cup opener vs Martinique where yellows were handed out like treat bags on Halloween.

US vs Mexico games are never soft friendly affairs. Potential injury worries aside, should any number of key Mexican players pick up a second yellow and find themselves suspended for the match with Canada, it could make things that much more challenging for a Mexican squad that has shown itself to be wary of Canada’s speed and offence as the tie at the Azteca will attest. While Uriel Antuna misses out due to injury, Mexico has most of its big guns available this window.

Herdman has selected as strong a roster as Canada has ever had this window including surprise newcomer Ike Ugbo. Injuries ruled out centre back Scott Kennedy and the versatile Junior Hoilett again this window with Charles-Andreas Brym joining them on the shelf. But such is Canada’s depth now that most players on the team have capable replacements ready to jump in, as Derek Cornelious and Liam Millar have for the aforementioned Kennedy and Hoilett.

But in selecting just 23 players, less than most if not all the other CONCACAF teams this window (Costa Rica and Mexico each called up 26 players), Canada will have to carefully manage several players with yellow cards accumulated in previous games. Canadians sitting on a yellow heading into this window are Mark Anthony Kaye, Sam Piette, Stephan Eustaquio, Sam Adekugbe and the sidelined Brym. In only taking six midfielders this window, Herdman will be hoping his three midfielders with yellows can make it through the Costa Rica game unscathed. It’s also questionable how many minutes Atiba Hutchinson sees over both games on the cold artificial turf. Hopefully Herdman has Liam Fraser — who has returned to Toronto — on standby. Will any of these players take a strategic yellow to clear themselves for upcoming games in the new year, like Eustaquio did vs Haiti in the recent Gold Cup?

For Canada these games in Edmonton may be the most important for their quest to reach Qatar. Unlike the other three game windows Canada will have no travel between games, and only two games to play, allowing for more time to rest between games. Player management for fatigue or overuse is the least important in this window.

Canada is sitting in third place in the Octagonal with 10 points heading into this window’s games. Mexico is currently in first spot with 14 points and the USA is in second place with 11 points. The top three teams earn direct qualification to the 2022 World Cup. November could be where the top teams, including Canada, create some serious space between themselves and the rest of group. The size of the gap from the remaining pack could make it very difficult for the non-North American teams to grasp one of the direct qualifying spots. It will make for an interesting dog fight for the fourth spot which nets that team an inter-continental playoff with another team from the AFC, CONMEBOL or OFC qualifying groups.

Raised Expectations

There cannot be any doubt that with continued success this year there are now rising expectations of this CanMNT. The bar set by Herdman, the players, and especially the fans, continues to rise.

Many fans are of the opinion Canada should be cautious and simply aim for third place, hoping for USA and Mexico victories over the other octagonal hopefuls to help nudge Canada along. If we’ve learned anything from Herdman is that he wants his team to earn the win each and every game, and he will not let the team settle for 3rd when 2nd or 1st place are within reach. It just doesn’t fit the mentality Herdman is instilling in this team. Herdman has made it clear, if not by his words, most certainly by his actions, that he plans to build a Canada team culture of winning.

(Sean Pollock/Waking The Red)

Finishing 1st or 2nd instead of 3rd is not just a case for regional bragging rights, although that would be very nice after years of underachievement and futility.

The minimum goal at the end of every window is to finish in the top-three, but these games give us the chance to create separation between us and Costa Rica and the potential of closing the gap on the group leaders Mexico” - John Herdman

Herdman further recognizes that this window may be the most important for Canada, and the toughest for the USA and Mexico. The two regional giants face off against each other and the USA’s second game is away to a strengthening Jamaica. A USA draw with Mexico coupled with Canada taking all the spoils in both November games would place Canada atop the standings. In a such a best case scenario, and no longer a far-fetched one at that, Canada would widen the gap with the teams below them in the standings and put Canada in control of its own destiny.

Further benefits to winning the group, or at least finishing as high as possible are twofold: a higher FIFA ranking may result in Canada moving up to a higher-seeded pot when the World Cup draw is held next April. A FIFA ranking, likely in the low 30’s or better based on 2018 World Cup team rankings, would likely place Canada in Pot 3 for the World Cup draw. This would give Canada at least one lower ranked opponent from Pot 4, most likely emanating from the AFC or CAF regions. While Herdman will have his team focused on the next game there is little doubt he his keeping an eye on higher strategic objectives.

“We’ve talked internally about becoming a new Canada. A new Canada not only qualifies for the World Cup, it tops the group. It tops Concacaf.” - John Herdman

A higher ranking will also result increased opportunities for many Canadian players to acquire a GBE (Governing Body Endorsement) allowing them to make moves to play in England. The higher Canada’s FIFA ranking, the more opportunities open up for a wider number of Canadian players to play in English leagues. This is especially so for those national team players plying their trade in MLS. Players like Alistair Johnston, Richie Laryea and Mark-Anthony Kaye, would potentially be the earliest beneficiaries of gaining access to a GBE. Although Canada has already cracked the threshold of being a top 50 team (currently at 48), it is essential for Canada to maintain their top-50 ranking in order for players to benefit. Reaching the next threshold of being a top-30 team opens up even more potential opportunities for CanMNT players.

The CMNT’s minimum objective is, of course, qualification to the World Cup in Qatar next November. Just finish top three in the region and you can punch your ticket to Qatar. But making a sustained run up the FIFA rankings has always been on the mind of John Herdman in his quest to open more pathways for Canadian players to advance to higher tier leagues and strengthen the team’s quality and depth. This is crucial to Canada national team heading into the 2026 World Cup.

While recognizing all of the above and that there are eight games and 24 points available for the remainder of this qualifying tournament, the reality is in CONCACAF we are not going to win them all. It would be presumptuous to believe Canada’s qualification for Qatar is imminent. Fans and the team needs to remain grounded, and with Herdman at the helm, there is no reason to believe the team won’t be. But if Canada takes care of business and other results remain fortuitous then one foot may soon be inside the door.

You can catch the Canada vs Costa Rica on Friday Nov. 12 at 9:00 pm ET and Canada vs Mexico on Tuesday November 16 at 9:00 pm EST. Both games are streaming on One Soccer and are being broadcast on cable with Sportsnet channels SNO, SNE and SNP.