There are several catalysts behind building a football institution, it could be a club, player or even an event. In Canada’s case, all three of these factors are essential to their growth. They have the event on their hands and even a standout player, but they’re currently missing the last piece of the puzzle. However, that last element might just be amongst their ranks.
Having already won joint hosting rights for the 2026 World Cup and an up-and-coming star in the form of Alphonso Davies who is soon to be on the move to Bayern Munich in Germany, the third element could be John Herdman, the manager from Consett who has mostly been working with the women’s teams in the country.
Despite being assigned this year, the 2026 World Cup was a major topic because it will be the first with 48 teams. Leaving aside the logistic effort requested from a tournament like that – which will eventually limit the countries capable of hosting such a World Cup – the United States of America were really determined in having a shot at that.
Morocco were the United bid’s biggest contenders, but their lack of appeal compared to the North America, despite winning a few big voters, lost them the contest.
The North African nation tried to put up a challenge, but the huge grasp of North America – USA were supported by Mexico and Canada – hogged the contest (134-65, even if big countries – like Brazil or China – voted for Morocco’s bid). It was made clear that the before the final result that the USA would host the final, semi-finals and quarter-finals, thus almost monopolising the World Cup. Mexico were granted a paltry 10 matches; however, they have a piece of history as they will now become the very first country to host three separate editions of football’s greatest tournament.
And Canada? Just like Mexico, they will host 10 games, but most of all they locked up a place for Canada’s national team, even if – when asked about it some weeks ago – FIFA President Gianni Infantino didn’t clarify if Canada, Mexico and USA will automatically qualify for the final phase. But if the governing body to follow those likely odds, Canada will take part in the finals for only the second time and for the first time since 1986, unless of course, they make it to the next World Cup in Qatar. The participation in 1986 came under the tutelage of Tony Waiters, the English manager that’s well revered across the Atlantic.
But just how has Canadian football changed in the 32 years since their last appearance at the finals? Well, for one, they’ve hardly tested their opposition in making another showing at the World Cup. CONCACAF qualification rounds see several levels and the last one is the famous hexagonal round, a round-robin group with six teams. The Canadian national team hasn’t reached the final stage since 1998, despite having several renowned names since such as Thomas Radzinski, Randy Samuel, Atiba Hutchinson, Carlo Corazzin or Paul Peschisolido.
Things aren’t going better in the continental stage. Canada won the Gold Cup just once – in 2000 – and they’re the only side to have broken the duopoly of Mexico and in USA, but – in the nine editions after that win – they reached last four just twice (in 2002 and 2007), while five out of those nine times they didn’t even pass the group stage. Their worst moment came probably in the 2014 World Cup-cycle, when Canada achieved the worst ranking of their history (92 in the ELO format and 122 in the FIFA rankings) and they offered poor performances. In October 2012, they lost 8-1 to Honduras, their second biggest-ever defeat and this was a wake-up call.
Certain events in recent years have shown that just hosting a tournament doesn’t guarantee success, but despite recent failures, Canada can be optimistic by the time their turn to face the spotlight comes around in 2026.
Canada’s decision to field some clubs in the USA-dominated Major League Soccer has worked. As of today, Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto feature and there’s also a Canadian Championship however, that isn’t as competitive as Major League Soccer. The clubs improved and they achieved a lot: Montreal Impact reached the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League final, losing to América while Toronto reached the same stage and lost in 2018, however they have an MLS Cup from 2017 to boast about.
It was the first time MLS’ trophy ended up in Canadian hands, but Canada isn’t done surprising everyone. It took a Vancouver Whitecaps’ player to establish new records and reaching new heights: Alphonso Davies, a Ghana-born and Liberian-rooted player, took the citizenship in June 2017 after being noticed by Vancouver’s scouts. They brought him in early 2016 and two-and-a-half years later, the kid is on his way to Munich.
He first shot to fame in the 2017 Gold Cup, where he was the youngest player of the tournament and he even starred in the opening game against French Guiana and winger scored twice, becoming the youngest goal scorer in Gold Cup history. He’s still raw and needs to polish his game, but you could see that Davies has impressive potential. European clubs noted it and just a year after that fine day in Harrison, he sealed a move to Bayern Munich for a record fee for the MLS.
However, Davies isn’t the only Canadian that is set to feature in Europe. Atiba Hutchinson and Cyle Larin are both playing for Beşiktaş, while Scott Arfield chose to represent Canada and he’s now with Rangers in Scotland; Junior Hoilett is still playing in Championship, Milan Borjan even featured in Champions League and young Liam Miller has been noticed by Liverpool in 2016. As mentioned earlier though, there needs to be a greater Canadian influence in Europe for the scene to change.
You need also a good manager to close the chain and Canadian Soccer Association might have just aced the choice. Instead of opting for foreign experience, they went local, or local to them, by bringing in John Herdman, the former head coach of the Canadian women. The association also went for Mauro Biello to assist him, another respected figure in Canadian football having had a significant impact while at the helm of the Montreal Impact, having achieved an Eastern Conference final appearance. with him at one time.
Herdman is a well-travelled figure. He was chosen to guide New Zealand women’s football team in 2006 after coming to the country in 2003 and achieved immediate success by bringing the Ferns to their first World Cup since 1991. They lost all matches, but Herdman achieved qualification for World Cup four years later, where New Zealand didn’t pass the group stage, but finally snatched a point. A whole generation of women faced the international sternness thanks to his work and in addition to the two major tournaments, they also made an appearance in the Beijing Olympic Games of 2008.
While New Zealand grew slowly, Canada were drowning. At the 2011 Women’s World Cup, Canada lost all three games and they sacked Carolina Morace. Shortly after that, Herdman left Auckland and he signed to coach Canada women’s football team. It’s not easy to change everything, but with this move, the football federation hoped for a better future. And this change manifested itself almost instantly: at the 2012 Olympic Games – which took place in London – the Canadians surprised many.
Canada finished third in the women’s football event – an unexpected feat considering how much disarray they were in a mere 18 months ago. Along the way, they had a tough start, merely making it past the group stages, but got better as the tournament went on, beating the hosts, Great Britain, in the quarter-finals and nearly overcoming gold-medallists USA in the semi-finals. Despite the sucker-punch of a defeat, they still impressed and Herdman’s stock only grew.
Canada didn’t stop there, also because the nation had the huge chance of hosting the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2015. Despite criticism about artificial turf-fields and the high temperatures, the competition was well-run. And even if USA stormed Japan in the final, Canada had another solid run, reaching quarter-finals before getting knocked out by an improving squad like England.
John Herdman put Canada on the footballing map by attaining another bronze medal one year later, this time in Rio de Janeiro. While the USA were knocked out by Sweden, Canada beat against Germany in the group stages and France, before losing the semi-final against Germany and overcoming Brazil in the bronze medal-game.
Not only the results were encouraging, though, because Christine Sinclair applauded the process of getting younger stars by Herdman: while committing to Canada for 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympics (when Sinclair will be 37 years old), the striker stressed on Herman’s influence on the side: “the young players coming into this Olympic squad have brought an energy and passion to our team and they have risen the bar”. The younger players have even had significant career moves with 22-year-old defender Kadeisha Buchanan being the greatest example, playing at Lyon in France and even being nominated for the Best Young Player at the last World Cup.
Seeing his CV, it was inevitable to think of Herdman as the right man to change the situation even for men’s national team. The English manager is only 43-years-old, but he already has a huge amount of experience. And if the women’s side will be fine with Kenneth Heiner-Møller (who was already on the staff at Rio 2016), Canada may finally face an era of glory under Herdman. Their biggest objective will be to make the hexagonal qualification stage and trouble the USA and Mexico duopoly.
With Canadian clubs doing reasonably well in Major League Soccer and Alphonso Davies flying to Munich at the beginning of 2019, Herdman seems the final piece to give Canada new hope in football. The initial reaction to his appointement was welcoming with former members of the Canadian women’s team Christine Sinclair and Diana Matheson welcoming the move. Having been tipped to coach the English Lionesses at one time, this could just be a huge move for the Canadian men.
Herdman said it best, explaining his decision and his new job (he’ll be in charge also of all men’s sides from U-14): “I’ve done seven years with the [women’s] team and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it with the group. But I’m a builder, I’m a developer. With Canada Soccer and the rest of the crew we sort of built that program back up from scratch, build the high-performance system, build the talent development system, bring the right people in. It’s an exciting time for the men’s game and I think that’s where my skill sets come in as a strategic thinker, a person detailed with planning who can look towards 2026 but also keep one eye on 2022 and then driving the changes through, getting the right people around the team to make the changes”.
Can Canada build a miracle towards 2026 World Cup, becoming a solid team and actually achieving something along the way? With all the pieces in the right place, there might be a real chance to grow in a decade.