Canada's rebuild needs a signature win. Can they take down the U.S.?
In Canada, Tuesday's CONCACAF Nations League clash with the U.S. in Toronto is being billed as "A Rivalry Renewed." In a purely soccer context, and even accounting for the fact that it's the Canada Soccer Association's job to hype up the game, it seems like an absurd statement.
The last time the Canada men's national team defeated the U.S. was a 2-0 friendly win in 1985. In terms of competitive fixtures, you have to go back to 1980, when Canada prevailed, 2-1, in a World Cup qualifier. There have been some near misses, including the 2007 Gold Cup semifinal when Atiba Hutchinson's late equalizer was disallowed due to a phantom offside call. That said, the U.S. unbeaten streak against their neighbors to the north stands at 17 games.
Yet for the first time, perhaps in decades, there is considerable momentum surrounding the Canadian men's program. Manager John Herdman's crew is blessed with attacking options, so much so that Cyle Larin -- on loan to Belgian side Zulte Waregem from Turkish powerhouse Besiktas -- was left off the roster entirely, with Gent's Jonathan David and Cardiff City's Junior Hoilett preferred instead.
With talents like Bayern Munich's Alphonso Davies, LAFC's Mark-Anthony Kaye and Toronto FC's Jonathan Osorio also on the roster, combined with the fact that the U.S. is at a low ebb at the moment, there's optimism in the Canadian camp that the streak could come to an end.
The boost in Canada's fortunes is coming along at the perfect time as well. The revamped World Cup qualifying format in CONCACAF sees the top six ranked teams progress directly to the Hexagonal, while the rest are forced into a mad scramble for one qualifying spot. With Canada ranked seventh, a win over the U.S. could see it move into the coveted sixth position.
"It's very exciting. I've never been around so many young players that are so fearless, courageous and talented," said Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada defender Doneil Henry, who is suspended for Tuesday's match. "I think [Herdman] has done a really good job of identifying the players and getting them involved and giving them confidence to play. Everybody has a role to play and they're doing really good."
Henry's suspension cuts deep because while the attacking side of the Canada team looks to be in good hands, Herdman's options in the back aren't nearly as robust. That weakness was laid bare in last summer's Gold Cup quarterfinal against Haiti, when Canada squandered a 2-0 lead only to lose 3-2. That reality has put the brakes on some of the talk that Canada might be entering a new era.
"I think we always tend to get a little bit ahead of ourselves," said former Canada national team manager Stephen Hart, who is now managing HFX Wanderers in the Canadian Premier League. "The team has played some very good games. They haven't really come up against tested opposition."
Yet producing attacking players is usually the most difficult part of the player development puzzle, one that the U.S. can appreciate given that outside of Christian Pulisic, the U.S. side is relatively short of attacking options at the moment.
So how does one explain the growth in Canadian talent? As in most cases, there's no one reason but rather a welcome confluence of factors. Canada has long been something of a sleeping giant within CONCACAF. According to a CSA spokesperson, there are more than 865,000 registered players, giving it the highest participation rate of any other sport in the country -- yes, even bigger than hockey.
"I think every country seems to have its purple patch, and that's normal in international football," said Herdman. "You see countries that are able to have generations of young players come through. We've seen that in CONCACAF, in Europe, all over the world. That's a normal factor that you will have these generations."
But Herdman adds that now there are more pathways available to Canadian players than in the past, and this is reflected by the performers on the current roster.
The likes of David and Hoilett have spent the entirety of their careers in Europe. Davies and Osorio are products of MLS academies from Vancouver and Toronto, respectively. Kaye flamed out at TFC but resurfaced in the USL with Louisville City and parleyed success there to LAFC, where he's a regular. Samuel Piette spent the early part of his career in Europe, but returned to Canada and has now has made 76 league and cup appearances for the Montreal Impact.
The advent of MLS academies through Toronto FC, the Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps, as well as private academies like Toronto-based Sigma FC, has also established a better foundation. For former Canadian internationals like Patrice Bernier, who is now an assistant with the Impact, the difference between now and when he broke in during the early-2000s is stark.
"A lot of us went to USL or Europe, and it was like jumping into the wild," he said. "At youth level, there was no real professional environment in training, even though we were with the provincial teams, or the high-performance centers. It wasn't on a daily basis. Now kids at 13, 14, are training every day to better their craft, to realize their dream of being professionals. I didn't have the same [tools]."
Starting in 2011, through the efforts of technical director Tony Fonseca, there was also a commitment made for Canada's youth national teams to play more of a possession game and take less of a direct/defend-for-your-lives approach.
"We wanted to go away from the stereotype of old Canadian soccer and not just be athletic and competitive just to qualify, but to try to give more opportunities to young players at regional development camps at 15, and better environments, and work in tandem with those professional clubs and building those relationships," said former Canada U20 coach and current manager of CPL side Valour FC Rob Gale.
Canadian teams certainly took their lumps during the transition. The U20s haven't played in a World Cup since 2007, when Canada hosted. But the payoff is clear: Canada's U15s finished in the top four in CONCACAF in the past two cycles. The U17s are headed to next month's World Cup.
Herdman took over as national team manager in 2018. Some of his efforts have paid immediate dividends in terms of creating camaraderie within the group.
"I think since Herdman arrived, I can't call it a new belief but a new mentality to representing Canada, making the national team jersey mean as much as the one for your club, if not more," said Bernier.
Yet Herdman has an eye on the future as well, especially with Canada set to co-host the 2026 World Cup alongside the U.S. and Mexico. When he was coaching the Canada women's national team, he instituted what he called the EXCEL program, which laid down an infrastructure that linked the work being done with the national team to the various stakeholders underneath. Herdman has now set up a similar structure on the men's side.
"I felt like the country had a lot of positives. But the negatives were that we're a big country and we're detached," said Herdman. "Our football system could be connecting all the dots into a really efficient football machine, a player development machine, a system that could really bring a lot of this talent that we've got to the right options to be able to hopefully promote them into better systems."
Herman is intent on making sure the roots run deep. He's actually worked with the country's U15s and U17s at the provincial level so that "the Canadian badge is put in front of those players early." For a program with a history of losing dual nationals like Owen Hargreaves and Asmir Begovic, that kind of connection can pay dividends.
"It connects a lot of the cultural and tactical framework together, and they get to see that the national team coach actually cares about what's happening at this level, and gets to see any future potential at that point," said Herdman. "That's a big part of what we are trying to build in this country, that there are more touch points at a younger level for our younger players with the Canadian national team and this flag."
It's still early days in terms of what Herdman is implementing but there's optimism. The advent of the CPL provides a foundation for expanding the player pool. All that's missing at present is a signature win.
"I think with any major shift, until the national team has one of those big moments ... it was the same on the women's team, you win a medal for the first time ever, then the guards drop," he said. "People who don't necessarily trust the football system because it hasn't necessarily been producing, they start to feel part of it, and start to feel trust and want to help the system. Our national team is a big part of really expediting the success of what's happening underneath if we want to make lasting change."
Tuesday is Canada's next big chance.