John Herdman inherited a men’s team ranked 94th in the world when he replaced fired Octavio Zambrano in January 2018.
And the scope of the challenge he faces was evident in his first camp with the men, in March 2018 in Murcia, Spain, when there were two fights in training.
“I was impressed,” Herdman recalls. “And people were like, ‘Oh, this is men’s soccer.’ And I objected to that. I told the guys it’s not men’s soccer. You can fight your opponent but you don’t fight internally. I’ll never see that again. “
Herdman says he inherited a dysfunctional team divided into cliques.
“I said unless you’re willing to change this, this team is going nowhere,” he said. “And over time, you have seen a change. The leaders, for me, brought the culture together. Now we can have conflicting moments, where people compete and push each other’s levels where it does not end in a complete division in the environment.
“And I think that over time the leadership group has understood the importance of shared purpose. They have understood the importance of their own humility in the environment and have understood the importance of connecting all men and making everyone feel part of this, regardless of their race, their religion, their ages. “
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Talk to any member of the team these days and they talk about brotherhood. And they show it in the field. Take on a Canadian and you will likely be presented with 10 more.
“You can have as many great players as you want, but if you don’t have that chemistry, that feeling of family, it’s difficult to perform on the field. When we go out on the pitch, we know that the guy next to us has our back and that we have our back, ”said central defender Derek Cornelius.
The next proof of that link comes Friday when Canada, ranked 48th (2-0-4, 10 points), marks the midpoint of the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualification with a game against No. 45 Costa Rica (1-2-3, six points) at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. As of Thursday afternoon, Canada Soccer said 46,000 tickets had been sold.
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Canada currently ranks third in the eight-team table, while Costa Rica is fifth. After Costa Rica, the Canadians will host No. 9 Mexico (leading the standings 4-0-2, 14 points) on Tuesday, also at Commonwealth Stadium.
Canada has yet to face Costa Rica at the Octagonal, but drew 1-1 with Mexico at Estadio Azteca last month.
Despite losing some big names, Canada comfortably beat Costa Rica 2-0 the last time they met, in the July Gold Cup quarterfinal in Arlington, Texas.
The Canadians are 5-8-9 against Costa Rica since 1985, including 1-3-2 in World Cup qualifying matches.
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In March, the top three countries in the rankings will qualify for Qatar 2022, representing North, Central America and the Caribbean. The fourth-place team will participate in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.
Friday could be an important night for captain Atiba Hutchinson, 38, who is one appearance away from tying Julian de Guzman’s 89 Canadian men’s international matches. Christine Sinclair holds the Canadian women’s record of 306 caps and counting.
It will also be an unforgettable night for Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies, who will play his first professional game in his hometown.
“He has to play the game and not on this big occasion,” Herdman said. “He’s going to have 50,000 behind him if he starts to show his quality.”
Forward Cyle Larin, who was sidelined Wednesday with a stomach problem, returned to training on Thursday.
Herdman, a renowned motivator known for his attention to detail, is no stranger to fixing shows.
The Canadian women’s team was broken when Herdman took over after a final finish at the 2011 World Cup. Herdman reassembled the team, reminding them why they played soccer and who they played soccer for.
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The women rebounded from a rollercoaster semi-final loss to the mighty United States at the 2012 Olympics and defeated France in injury time to win bronze. They won bronze again with Herdman at the Rio 2016 Olympics. They are now Olympic champions.
Ironically, Herdman was runner-up to Caroline Morace when Canada Soccer sought a successor to Even Pellerud as the women’s coach in 2008.
But when he broke the news that he didn’t get the job, Secretary General Peter Montopoli told him to stay in touch.
“And he actually did, during that three-year period,” Herdman said. “And then I got the next call in 2011 from Peter, which was ‘We want you for work.’ And we really haven’t looked back since.
On Wednesday, Montopoli announced that he would be leaving Canada Soccer at the end of the month to oversee the Canadian final of the 2026 World Cup, which will be co-sponsored by the United States and Mexico.
Herdman said Montopoli gave him “the freedom” to run his show, as well as “the belief that you have this.”
“When you work with good people, you know how to make the best of your talent. And it has always given us that space to make our decisions and, ultimately, when we have needed it, it has been there.
“It’s going to be tough to watch him go, but at the same time he has an incredible opportunity to bring probably the biggest event in our sporting history to this country.”
Herdman credits Jonathan Osorio, Milan Borjan, Maxime Crepeau, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Samuel Piette, Doneil Henry, Richie Laryea, and Junior Hoilett as the leadership group that helped change the perspective of Canadian men. He did not include Hutchinson, saying he hadn’t been to enough camps to be “one of those key influencers.”
“And my job has been to make it easier for them to understand that higher levels of leadership are required.”
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The work continues, with Herdman collaborating with team leaders in identifying roadblocks “and then taking responsibility within the team to direct some of the attention to things that could trip us up or that can be used to elevate performance. “.
Herdman has already made a mark.
The Canadians ended a 34-year winless streak against the Americans with a 2-0 victory in the CONCACAF Nations League in October 2019. And this is the first time that Canada has reached the final round of playoffs for the World Cup in the region from the leadership. -up France 98.
Osorio’s goal in a 1-1 draw in Mexico City last month was Canada’s first against Mexico at Azteca in 41 years.
The Canadians are 11-4-2 this year with eight clean sheets and a record 52 goals scored. Canada also set a record with eight consecutive victories.
“So I think we have tested the environment,” Herdman said. “We have made it more resistant to external forces that can impact the interior. And we have created the team spirit, as the players call it, the brotherhood; We have made it strong enough for everyone to believe that they can do their best ”.
Herdman says players need to understand that they are fighting for a greater cause. And that they have to do it together.
“When you have confidence and people are clear about what they have to do on the field, then the chemistry is formed,” he said. “That’s where people are willing to mask the weaknesses of others and highlight the strengths of others. They are willing to do things to make you look good.
“So you see those kinds of cohesive partnerships starting to form, the Johnny (David) and Alphonso (Davies) partnership, the Steven Vitoria-Alistair Johnston-Kamal Miller partnership supports three partnerships. And then you throw Doneil Henry right there and nothing really changes. It just re-gels.
“That piece of chemistry can only be formed when trust is strong and when people are clear about the roles and responsibilities of the group. It is a formula that I used with the women’s team and it is a formula that I am using here ”.
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