PANAMA CITY - Canada's 20-game World Cup qualifying marathon is done. Now the real work begins.
The Canadian men wrapped up a remarkable qualifying campaign Wednesday on a losing note, beaten 1-0 by Panama, but will still go to Qatar as the top finisher in CONCACAF.
"And there's more to come,'' promised coach John Herdman.
"We've travelled thousands of miles,'' he added. ``We've played lots of minutes. We've kicked every ball. We've never quit. And we're on our way to Qatar, No. 1 in CONCACAF. I'll sleep well tonight.''
Despite the loss, the Canadians gathered on the pitch at Estadio Rommel Fernandez after the final whistle to celebrate finishing atop the final qualifying round-robin in CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean..
Herdman said it felt ``weird,'' but also right celebrating after a loss that saw a Canadian equalizer negated for offside and the Panamanians doing their bit to waste time as the clock wound down.
"That's been a hell of a journey for this group of fans, the (Canada Soccer) organization and these players,'' Herdman said. "And the work starts now, across all levels in the game. This is just the start of what we've got to do. And tonight was one of those brilliant learning experiences.
"It was a master-class from Panama in the second half, just how to take at least a quarter of the game off the clock. It was brilliant. So we've learned from that.''
There is plenty to celebrate.
Canada's qualifying road started March 25, 2021, when it opened the first round with a 5-1 victory over Bermuda in Orlando. The Canadians were ranked 73rd at the time, climbing 40 rungs in the ratings on a journey that has seen them play on the road in eight different countries.
They went 14-2-4 over three rounds in qualifying, outscoring the opposition 54-8.
The two losses came in the final international window, starting with last week's 1-0 defeat in Costa Rica with Canada having to play a man down for two-thirds of the game. The Canadians then secured World Cup qualification with Sunday's 4-0 win over Jamaica in Toronto, letting their hair down for a day of celebrations before returning to training.
The home sides all won on the final day of CONCACAF qualifying Wednesday. Costa Rica blanked the U.S. 2-0, Mexico downed El Salvador 2-0, and Jamaica beat Honduras 2-1.
The Canadian men finished tied with No. 12 Mexico on 28 points at 8-2-4 but took first spot in the eight-team round-robin by virtue of a superior goal difference. The 13th-ranked U.S. (7-3-4, 25 points) finished third on goal difference over No. 42 Costa Rica.
Costa Rica finished fourth after winning all three outings in the final international window and will face No. 111 New Zealand in an intercontinental playoff in June. The All Whites blanked the 142nd-ranked Solomon Islands 5-0 earlier Wednesday in the final of the Oceania qualifying tournament.
On Friday, Herdman's squad will learn what awaits it this November at the 32-team soccer showcase.
The 33rd-ranked Canadian men were looking to finish first in the region and earn valuable FIFA ranking points that could help in Friday's World Cup draw in Doha.
The four pots for the 32-team draw are divvied up by world ranking. Canada had hoped it could move it out of Pot 4 to Pot 3, which would allow it a more benign draw by avoiding a tier of higher-ranked countries. But it was not to be.
"I just felt we weren't quite on our game,'' said Herdman. "We've had better performances.''
It was a humid 27 C at kickoff, feeling like 30 degrees. And it was a scrappy affair with neither team on target in the first half.
The home side went ahead on a counter-attack in the 49th minute with Gabriel Torres, on his 100th appearance, volleying home a perfect cross from Jose Luis Rodriguez. The cross curled past Kamal Miller with Torres directing it home with his right foot past goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau into the top corner.
The Canadians pressed as the second half wore on with both teams finding more room on offence.
Canada thought it had equalized on substitute Cyle Larin's diving header in the 80th minute but the goal was ruled offside after video review.
With the Canadian men pressing for the equalizer, Atiba Hutchinson's backheel found Junior Hoilett and the veteran floated a cross to Larin in front of the net for what looked like his 25th goal for Canada. The Besiktas striker put a finger to his mouth to silence the crowd before kissing his badge in celebration.
But the celebrations ended when referee Jair Maruffo went to the pitchside monitor to check on offside. Canada kept coming forward during the seven minutes of stoppage time but could not get the goal, with a Larin header flashing wide off a free kick.
No. 63 Panama (6-5-3, 21 points) finishes fifth just out of qualifying contention.
The Canadians top the region in their first participation in CONCACAF's final qualifying round since the lead-up to France '98.
Herdman made seven changes to the starting 11 that secured qualification Sunday with a 4-0 win over Jamaica in Toronto.
Hutchinson returned as captain, playing at centre back instead of his normal midfield role, with Crepeau taking over in goal. Also slotting in were Miller, Alistair Johnston, Ismael Kone, Lucas Cavallini and Mark-Anthony Kaye.
The starting 11 came into the game with a combined 316 caps.
The 39-year-old Hutchinson collected cap No. 95, extending his Canadian men's record. It was a first start for the 19-year-old Kone, the CF Montreal midfielder who made his debut off the bench last week against Costa Rica.
Larin and Hoilett came in with a half-hour remaining as Canada looked for an equalizer. Hoilett and Larin almost had an immediate, combining to feed David in front of goal, only to see Panama 'keeper Luis Mejia block the ball with his body.
Crepeau made a fine diving save in the 77th to stop Edgar Barcenas' free kick from the edge of the penalty box.
Herdman's record at the men's helm now stands at 29-8-4, with the lone losses to the U.S (twice). Mexico (twice) Haiti, Iceland, Costa Rica and Panama. The men were ranked 94th in the world when Herdman took over in January 2018, moving over from the women's program.
Panama, which like Canada and El Salvador had to survive two preliminary rounds to get this far, started the final qualifying round-robin in style with a 4-2-2 record that included a win over the U.S. and draw with Mexico. But it won just one of its next five games (1-3-1) ahead of the finale against Canada.
Canada came into Wednesday's game with a 4-1-6 career record against Panama, winning 4-1 when the two met Oct. 13 at BMO Field with Alphonso Davies scoring on a memorable solo effort. The lone loss came at the same venue as Wednesday night, a 2-0 defeat in September 2012 in qualifying for Brazil 2014.