John Herdman: We have to earn Canadian soccer fans’ trust

Canada celebrates a goal from Jonathan David (20) against the U.S. Virgin Islands in September. (Photo: Canada Soccer)

TORONTO – There’s a lot of positive things going on with the Canadian men’s team at the moment.

From talented youngsters such as Ballou Tabla and Alessandro Busti committing to play for the Reds, to the emergence of Alphonso Davies, and the team starting to take shape under John Herdman who took over the coaching reins in January.

By all accounts, the future looks bright for a men’s side that has built some genuine momentum since Herdman took over, and has hopes of qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Still, the men’s team continues to fly under the radar with the Canadian public. Next week’s Concacaf Nations League qualifier against Dominica in Toronto is Canada’s first home game since last September. BMO Field can hold up to 30,000 people, but one Canada Soccer official told Sportsnet they’re expecting a crowd of only 10,000.

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The men’s team faces an uphill battle when it comes to making an impression in the country’s sporting conscience, in large part because the last and only time it qualified for the World Cup was in 1986. Since then, it’s been one failure after another on the pitch, a merry-go-round of coaches, countless setbacks, plenty of false dawns and just as many restarts.

None of this is lost on Herdman. He argues that while Canada Soccer has done a lot of good work off the field to raise the public profile of the men’s program, it’s still up to the team to get people excited about them – and that takes time and patience.

“For us, it’s a process. We have to keep earning the trust of the fans, we have to keep [convincing] them to want to buy tickets and turn up,” Herdman told reporters during a Friday conference call.

Herdman later added: “It’s a time thing. I don’t think we expect fans to just jump onboard because we have some new players. This is a process, to earn the trust of people and bring back or even create a new audience of people with our performances.”

Playing more meaningful games might help in that regard, which is one reason why Herdman is such a big backer of the new Concacaf Nations League tournament. Instead of playing friendlies with nothing on the line, Canada is now guaranteed to play a certain number of competitive matches each year. If it qualifies, important matches against teams such as the U.S., Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica await them.

“What Nations League is going to do for us is give us some consistency in matches that are meaningful that the fans can come and support. Nations League next year in 2019 when we [qualify] …when we make it in there, we’re going to play [top Concacaf nations]. Big games where we should be selling out stadiums, and all it takes is for us to cross that line once, Herdman said.

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Competing in the Nations League also allows Canada to play in hostile territories that haven’t been so kind to the team in the past, thus better preparing them for the next round of World Cup qualifiers.

“It feels like we’re on a journey. It feels like every game is a step towards something, and we’re able as coaches to frame that up and give players real clarity about our purpose and what role they have to play in a four-year path towards the World Cup,” Herdman offered.

Before playing the continent’s elite in the Nation League, Canada must first fight its way through a series of qualifiers against some of Concacaf’s minnows, including next Tuesday’s match versus Dominica. After that, the Reds travel to Saint Kitts and Nevis on Nov. 18, and host French Guiana next March. Canada hammered the U.S. Virgin Islands 8-0 in September in its opening qualifying match.

Canada is currently No. 79 in the FIFA world rankings. Dominica is 177th, sandwiched between Puerto Rico and Liechtenstein. It drew Suriname 0-0 in its opening Nations League qualifier in a match that was held in Guadeloupe.

These sides have met before. Three years ago, Canada beat Dominica in a pair of World Cup qualifying matches by a 6-0 aggregate score.

Herdman had a member of his staff in Guadeloupe to put together a scouting report, and discovered that Dominica is a direct, offensive team that likes to hold a high defensive live and press the opposition.

“For us, we have real clear intentions on how we want to approach the game, our objective for the game, and a strategy that will have similarities to what we implemented against [the U.S. Virgin Islands]. If we can impose ourselves on Dominica, we’ll [earn a result] in our favour,” Herdman offered.

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