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On eve of World Cup qualification, coach John Herdman still sees room for improvement

Canada’s men’s soccer side can qualify for the 1st time since 1986 with a win over Costa Rica
Canada head coach John Herdman salutes the crowd as he leaves the pitch following a 1-1 draw against the United States in a World Cup soccer qualifier Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. Canada has one last training session before Thursday’s contest with No. 42 Costa Rica, a matchup that could send the 33rd-ranked Canadian men to the World Cup for the first time since 1986. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Canada may be on the verge of World Cup qualification but coach John Herdman is still looking for improvements.

In the lead-up to Thursday’s match against No. 42 Costa Rica, Herdman said he spoke to the team leadership group about “staying away from the occasion.” And while the 33rd-ranked Canadian men have won six straight in qualifying, which includes victories over the 12th-ranked U.S. and No. 13 Mexico — he believes there is more in the tank.

“We’ll enjoy the game together but we’ll not get carried away,” Herdman told reporters. “So (we) come back to a bit of humility in the training sessions this week where we identified some areas from January we weren’t happy with, areas where some of our stats had dropped below a line that we thought was acceptable for our team.

“So we’ve worked hard this week on the process, the process of improving. And those improvements will carry us through the game hopefully.”

But while wanting to make sure his players focus on getting better — with Herdman citing game management as a possible area of growth — rather than pondering the “enormity of an occasion,” he made it clear that this Canadian team has bigger goals than just getting to Qatar 2022.

Herdman said he showed the team a two-minute video from his first camp at the helm in Murcia, Spain, in 2018.

“(It) brought them right back to that moment where as a group we said we would qualify … and I think every man knows what’s in front of him. They’re in the front-row seat. Their hands are on the steering wheel. They can do this. They can actually do more than that just qualify. And that’s the exciting bit. And I think that’s the real motivator.”

Canada (7-0-4, 25 points) has been the surprise package in CONCACAF qualifying, topping the final round-robin table ahead of Mexico and the U.S. (both 6-2-3, 21 points) with Panama fourth (5-4-2, 17 points) and Costa Rica fifth (4-3-4, 16 points).

The top three teams at the conclusion of the current international window will represent North and Central America and the Caribbean in Qatar. The fourth-place finisher will take on a side from Oceania in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.

After Costa Rica, the Canadian men host No. 62 Jamaica on Sunday at Toronto’s BMO Field before wrapping up qualifying play March 30 against No. 63 Panama on Panama City.

“We’ve got three missions, we’ve got three separate groups of guys that are clear on this game, the game in Toronto and the game in Panama. Each one of them has massive significance for this program,” said Herdman.

The Canadians want to finish first in CONCACAF qualifying, showing they truly belong. And a continued rise up the ranking ladder — Canada was ranked 94th when Herdman took over in January 2018 — could help when it comes to the World Cup draw.

A win Thursday and Canada is in. A draw will also suffice if Panama fails to beat Honduras or Mexico wins or ties the U.S. on Thursday. Another clinching scenario would be if Panama ties or loses to Honduras and Mexico beats the U.S.

The Canadian men have qualified for just one World Cup — in 1986 in Mexico.

Herdman consistently refers to his team as “new Canada,” saying “It’s not about two or three players.”

Asked about key moments for the team, Herdman reeled off a list — beating the U.S. 2-0 in Toronto in CONCACAF Nations League play in October 2019 in Toronto, posting a 1-0 win in Haiti in a qualifying match last June, showing the squad’s depth at the Gold Cup last summer, and Alphonso Davies’ highlight-reel goal in a 4-1 qualifying win over Panama last October in Toronto.

“I think it got the country to believe that we can do this,” he said of the Davies goal, which showed off the Bayern Munich’s star’s pace, strength and determination.

As for Costa Rica, Herdman noted its domestic league has been suspended for the last two weeks to allow the national ream to prepare for Canada.

“The Costa Rica I saw in November (when Canada won 1-0 in Edmonton), I think is going to be very different to the one we’re going to experience in San Jose,” said Herdman. “And they’ve only lost one match in San Jose.”

“They’ve got a massive purpose, which is to stay alive (in qualifying),” he added. “My group of men, they know they can qualify in this game and that’s what we came to do.”

—The Canadian Press

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