TORONTO – Canada Soccer made a bold move last January when it hired John Herdman as coach of the Canadian men’s team.
Herdman previously took charge of the Canadian women’s side, leading the Reds to back-to-back bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. But Herdman had never before coached a men’s team, and the Englishman’s appointment caught a lot of people off-guard.
In hiring Herdman, Canada Soccer hoped he would be the proverbial shot in the arm for a program that has flattered to deceive over the past three decades. The last and only time the men’s team has qualified for the World Cup was in 1986 in Mexico.
Thus far, Canadian soccer’s governing body has to be pleased with the results, even though it’s a small sample size. The men’s side won all four of its games under Herdman in 2018, and the team is on the brink of qualifying for “League A” of the 2019-20 Concacaf Nations League tournament. Herdman has also expanded the player pool by getting players with other options to pledge their international allegiance to Canada (Ballou Tabla being the most notable example) and he’s given a handful of exciting young prospects their first caps.
More than anything else, Herdman has helped to change the defeatist culture that has long enveloped the program. When Herdman speaks about the future of the men’s team, he does so with an unflinching confidence and self-belief.
Such was the case Monday afternoon at BMO Field where Canada Soccer unveiled its strategic plan for 2019-2021, a roadmap that it says “will lead the organization to the next phase of unprecedented growth for the game in our country.” The strategic plan promises to “align the nation’s soccer resources to strive for best-ever [team] performances at all major international competitions,” including the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and the qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Canada Soccer president Steven Reed, general secretary Peter Montopoli and director of development Jason de Vos were among the many speakers who outlined the plan during Monday’s press event. The star of the show, though, was Herdman.
The diminutive Englishman speaks with a passion and zeal that would be the envy of any professional motivational speaker. He talks loud and proud – one could argue too loud and proud when you consider the track record of the Canadian men’s program. But he makes no apologies for that. Nor does he shy away from making bold predictions, like he did on Monday when he said Canada will qualify for the 2022 World Cup, and that it will be competitive when the nation co-hosts the tournament in 2026 with Mexico and the United States.
According to Herdman, this new strategic plan (if you want the specifics, you can read all about it HERE) has provided a much-needed clarity to Canada Soccer as the country prepares to stage and compete in the biggest sporting event on the planet in seven years.
“The 2026 World Cup has brought an acute focus for this organization to do everything in its power to ensure that Canada can compete at that World Cup,” Herdman told reporters after Monday’s formal presentation.
Beyond the strategic plan, what makes Herdman so confident that Canada can be in Qatar in 2022 when the qualifying campaign hasn’t even begun? And what makes him so sure Canada can be competitive in 2026?
For starters, he doesn’t think Canada’s World Cup drought is an accurate reflection of the team’s historical standing in the Concacaf region.
“We’ve looked at the talent pool of players, and Canada have typically been in the top five in the last 20 years in comparison to their Concacaf competitors. That means players playing at the highest levels and the highest leagues … When we’ve looked at that statistical analysis, Canada should have competed more often for [a] world cup berth,” Herdman offered.
“With some generations, and with some of the key leaders in teams, they should have qualified based on the talent they had in their team. What’s been missing at times has been a commitment to a high-performance culture.”
Herdman insists “the culture is evolving” and that the talent level is there for the Canadian men’s team to make good on his promises.
“We don’t have excuses. I don’t want to be that guy making them. At the end of the day if we don’t qualify for , it’ll be a disappointment. To put that level of expectations on the team is critical. The team wants that, they’re ready for it. They know it’s now or never for many of them,” Herdman said.
“So, when you say, ‘how do you know it’s going to happen?’, we have to make it happen. But more importantly, we have to believe, and I think that belief is there from the men who are going to be leading the charge.”
Herdman’s confidence in making bold proclamations seems to have rubbed off on Kenneth Heiner-Møller, the man who succeeded him as coach of Canada’s women’s team. Having previously served as an assistant to Herdman when he was in charge of the women’s side, Heiner-Møller is now gearing up for this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.
Canada’s best showing at the women’s tournament came in 2003 when it finished in fourth place. In 2015, the Reds bowed out in the quarterfinals when the competition was held in Canada.
Canada is currently No. 5 in the FIFA world rankings, but it has struggled to defeat the truly elite nations in the women’s game. Canada and the United States have met 58 times in international play, with the Americans holding a 48-3-7 advantage in the series. Canada hasn’t beaten the U.S. since the 2001 Algarve Cup final. Positive results against Germany have also been hard to come by – Canada has lost 15 of 16 matches against the Germans.
The U.S. and Germany are No. 1 and 2 in the current FIFA world rankings, and are considered among the top favorites ahead of this summer’s World Cup. But Heiner-Møller believes Canada will enter the tournament as one of the favourites, too.
“There are six, maybe seven teams, that can go [to France] to win it. We’re one of them,” Heiner-Møller stated.
“What we’ve shown is that there’s no team in the world that we can’t beat. When we are at [our] best, we can win every single match. There’s no team that we can’t go on the pitch with and say ‘we can’t win this one.”