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Herdman’s Canada on the march

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Observations on the Road to Qatar (So Far)

Jonathan David and Richie Laryea celebrate a goal during Canada’s 4-1 win over Panama in World Cup Qualifying at BMO Field.
(Sean Pollock/Waking The Red)

It’s been scarcely more than three weeks since Canada thumped Panama 4-1, a game for the ages that will stick in the memories of hundreds of thousands of Canada soccer fans, especially the 26,000 in attendance at BMO Field that Wednesday night.

While getting into the stadium was a debacle, the product on the field was one of the finest moments in Canadian soccer history. This was especially the case for star man Alphonso Davies. Praise for Davies’ performance has been plentiful and well-deserved, but make no mistake, this is not a team of one. While John Herdman is correct in lauding Davies’ form as “a generational thing... something not to be missed,” this statement should very well be extended to the entire CanMNT.

Opposing teams can focus on Davies all they want, there were as many as three or four Panamanian players trying to box him in several times the final game of the October window, but they do so at their peril. This just opens up an abundance of space for the likes of Tajon Buchanan, Cyle Larin, Jonathan David, or whoever else is joining Davies on the attack. Even the games Davies has missed, such as El Salvador, or the Gold Cup, the Canadian team has fared very well. This run of good form has translated into a positive start to the final round of World Cup qualifying. Canada currently sits in third place occupying one of the three automatic spots for automatic qualification to the FIFA 2022 World Cup in Qatar next year.

As it stands, Canada sits in third place in the Octagonal table after six games sporting an undefeated 2-4-0 record, and has provided a large enough sample to make note of certain elements of their game that needs to be tightened up. It has also provided a window into elements of their performance that have stood out as significant contributing factors to their early success. Here are some observations of trends that could use some improvement, followed by some positive features of their performance to date.

Trends to clean up

(Sean Pollock/Waking The Red)

  • Conceding first. Canada has conceded the first goal in five of six games so far, with the scoreless draw with Jamaica being the exception. While Canada has shown it has the resilience and offensive prowess to recover from being down in a game it would make life easier for themselves, to say nothing of their fans, if they laid down the first marker in more games then not. As the Gold Cup game vs the USA shows, it won’t always happen that the team will overcome giving up the first goal no matter how well you play.
  • Set piece situations. So far in the Octagonal, Canada has earned 42 corners vs 23 corners conceded, yet aside from the Panama own goal, Canada has had little to show for their advantage in corners won, nor have they looked particularly threatening. It also seems every Canada free kick in the offensive side of the pitch has become the predictable lofted ball into the box which more often either lands in the keeper’s arms or simply ends as a loss of possession. Increased proficiency on set pieces, especially corners, might prove the difference between three points or a draw.
  • Proficiency inside the box. Canada has not necessarily been poor in creating scoring opportunities with perhaps the exception of the Jamaica game. There the effects of the grueling game with Mexico coupled with Jamaica’s physical playing style compounded with the horrible pitch conditions at Independence Park played a big part in inhibiting Canada’s ability to find any sustained offensive rhythm.

However, with the opportunities Canada has carved out, they have often come away with the unsatisfactory feeling they ought to have converted more of those chances. A pair of Larin chances in the USA game, those from Laryea and Buchanan in the Mexico game, and, of course, Millar’s sitter vs Jamaica come to mind. Imagine Canada’s spot in the standings if just one more scoring opportunity was converted in each or any of those games. Yet, as we move forward it is better to know that the team is creating these chances as opposed to not at all.

Trends to keep up

(Sean Pollock/Waking The Red)
  • Composure. Canada has kept its composure despite the concacafery going on all around them in during this stage of the WCQ process so far. Without VAR to keep players’ chicanery in check, considering the frequency and the ever increasing lengths to which opponents have been going to put Canada off its game (and its players off the pitch), it has been refreshing to see Canada keep its collective emotions in check both during the games and after the final whistles.

This by no means says Canada has been backing away from a fight. Canada has been learning the ways of the dark arts of this confederation as well, as some of the antics of Eustaqiuo and Henry bare witness. Past Canadian teams may not have maintained the poise and presence of mind to not retaliate in the heat of the moment.

  • Brotherhood. The sense of shared purpose to a common goal that Herdman has instilled in this team from his first camp three and half years ago has been increasingly in evidence throughout this year. This team is truly a team, a good team, where the collective sum of its parts makes them more formidable than many observers, and perhaps more telling, their opponents, have given them credit.

The brotherhood is clearly in evidence. You can see it on the pitch, where everyone has each other’s back, whether it be encouraging a teammate in a scoring slump, or joining the fray when a melee breaks out, or off the pitch celebrating a team victory at the hotel with new fan Drake.

  • Leadership. This team has multiple leaders and if this past window is any indication, the absence of one or more leaders – such as Hutchinson or Borjan, or Hoilett – is no cause for concern. Others such as veterans Vitoria, Piette, Osorio and even Davies are there to pick up the baton. At no time does one sense the team letting on-field success get themselves too high, nor poor stretches get themselves too down.

Away from the pitch Herdman has fostered the formation of a leadership council of the program’s veteran players, to ensure that everyone is on the same page and that not all is simply dictated from staff. As Herdman says, “instilling a leader-full culture” takes work, and for the veteran players having some say goes a long way to building that culture.

An incremental improvement in the first three points while maintaining their poise and comradery on and off the pitch could make Canada an even more dangerous proposition for the rest of CONCACAF. And afterall, it’s as a team that this team will continue to grow and enjoy success. With the roster set to be announced on Friday, we will have less than two weeks to wait for Canada to return to action with their next two games vs Costa Rica and Mexico in Edmonton.