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CanMNT Notebook: Do you believe now, Canada?

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Canada finish 2021 atop the Concacaf FIFA World Cup Qualifying group and are in prime position to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Cyle Larin celebrates his second goal of the night in Canada’s historic win over Mexico.
(Canada Soccer/Beau Chevalier)

TORONTO, Canada—2026 was supposed to be the year for the Canadian men’s national team. Les Rouges were set to co-host the FIFA World Cup, an opportunity that would see them compete in the biggest competition in the world for just the second time and first since 1986.

But John Herdman’s men had different plans, and after a historic win over Mexico on Tuesday night in the frigid conditions of Edmonton, Alberta — their first over El Tri since a Gold Cup quarter-final triumph in 2000 — Canada are in prime position to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, four years sooner than originally planned, and their journey here has been nothing short of remarkable.

John Herdman’s ‘brotherhood’

Soccer: CONCACAF Gold Cup Soccer-Mexico at Canada

John Herdman transitioned a squad that was dysfunctional, to say the least, when he took the reigns in 2018. Herdman recalls one of his first camps in charge in a recent interview with Sky Sports News where the group of guys would get after each other in big scuffles.

“The Scottish lads went one way, the Hispanic lads went the other,” said Herdman. “We have Colombians, Uruguayans, Scottish, Serbian, Jamaican. All sorts. That is the beauty of Canada, that diversity. It is our greatest strength but at that moment it was our greatest weakness.

“The trust was not there. It was not a safe environment where people felt they could perform to their best. There was an internal enemy that had to be dealt with first. I went after them about it. I had to draw a line in the sand. I spoke to everyone.

“I explained that this was not me trying to create a harmonious group, this was just dysfunctional. This is why we don’t get through. When it gets tough, we split. It was about understanding that if we do not change this then we are not going to a World Cup.

“The real leaders in that group understood it and they helped to bring it all together because they knew that if we could build the culture and the team spirit, this could really go off. With the talent that we had, we could do this. It never happened again.”

Today, that narrative has changed and shifted into an all-encompassing term often used to describe the environment of the men’s national team camp: a brotherhood.

Whether it’s the squad belting out the national anthem at the top of their lungs, the never-back-down mentality fueled by camaraderie, or even Sam Adekugbe’s iconic dive into a snow bank in a subzero climate to celebrate his teammate’s goal, there’s a real sense of togetherness among the squad and that’s translated into a swagger and confidence we have never seen at the men’s national team level in our country.

How can you not like Sam Adekugbe?

Speaking of Adekugbe, a lot of players will get their praise over the coming days, but how about the emergence of the 26-year-old former Vancouver Whitecaps fullback?

Despite playing the position where Canada may just be the deepest at — competing with the likes of Alphonso Davies, Richie Laryea, Tajon Buchanan, Alistair Johnston and others for minutes — Adekugbe has defied the odds and earned the trust of Herdman.

As OneSoccer’s Oliver Platt eloquently pointed on the latest edition of Waking the Red Weekly, Adekugbe, who now plays in Turkey for Hatayspor, offers some assurance at the position as more of a natural left-back, and perhaps more importantly, allows Herdman to push Davies up the pitch into a more prominent attacking role.

And after appearing in just five games the last three years for Canada, Adekugbe has now made 12 appearances for Les Rouges in 2021, going the full 90 in each of Canada’s last two matches — arguably two of the most important games in men’s national team history.

Prime time

First off, a quick shout out to those who attended the game at ‘The Iceteca’, aka Edmonton, Alberta’s Commonwealth Stadium. You could feel the environment through our television screens and what a spectacle it must have been to attend Tuesday night’s match in person.

“I know when you have to go to Azteca and play at altitude, it’s tough, these road games are really tough, and every country uses their own uniqueness as an advantage,” said Herdman after the match. “A big thanks to the City of Edmonton. The whole time we’ve been here they’ve made it our fortress.”

Edmonton packed the stadium in back-to-back games with nearly 50,000 supporters in attendance despite temperatures feeling like -18°C at times during the Mexico match. Though as the men’s national team coach alluded to: that’s Canada and that’s our unique advantage — and everybody, from Canada Soccer, to the media, to those in attendance, bought in and made it our own.

Moreover, fans across the country are starting to take notice and the men’s national team’s push to Qatar 2022 is now mainstream.

In fact, Tuesday night’s World Cup Qualifier was the most watched event/show across the country and drew nearly double the amount of ratings as the Toronto Maple Leafs game.

Ludicrous.

What’s next for Canada?

The Canadian men’s national team end 2021 in first place in the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying table with 16 points from eight matches (4-4-0) ahead of USA (15 points), Mexico (14 points) and Panama (14 points). They are the only undefeated side in the region remaining and are well positioned to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

With six games left to play, Canada will travel to Honduras on January 27, 2022 before playing host to the United States three days later. Les Rouges will then travel to El Salvador in February before rounding out the qualifying window in March with games against Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Panama.

In order to qualify for Qatar, Canada will have to finish in one of the top three spots in the group, and while they’re not over the finish line quite yet, Herdman’s men have their three hardest matches out of the way and are sitting pretty in first place.

“We knew how important this match was and we wanted to go out there and make a statement,” said Atiba Hutchinson. “The work ethic that we’ve been putting in, it’s something special.

“I haven’t seen anything like this.”

So do you believe now, Canada? A 2022 FIFA World Cup berth is well within reach.