As the Canadian men’s national team dusts off the confetti from their shoulders and looks ahead to their final World Cup qualifier at Panama on Wednesday evening (9:05 pm ET | OneSoccer in Canada, Paramount + in US), many would assume that this is a meaningless encounter.
That is far from the case. Sure, Canada secured a historic World Cup berth after Sunday’s 4-0 win over Jamaica. Yes, the players celebrated and earned a well-deserved day off by watching the NBA's Toronto Raptors beat the Boston Celtics at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. But the work continued behind the scenes.
“The staff were back at it from 6:30 a.m. yesterday morning,” Canada coach John Herdman said. “They were scouting, were putting the subs plan together, were making sure we got the right information so we can execute in Panama.”
No rest for the weary, as they say.
While Canada are on top of the Concacaf table, they want to solidify their World Cup positioning on Matchday 14. Doing so would be a bold proclamation that this Canadian team is a force to be reckoned with going forward.
“We are finishing strong,” Herdman stated. “We said we would qualify, but qualifying was only one of the goals that we had set. To really define a new Canada was to finish top of Concacaf. What we know is the US, they score five against Panama, they could score five against Costa Rica and top us. We are not letting that happen."
A victory could also lead to improved seeding for this Friday’s World Cup draw in Qatar, but that is the cherry on top of an already delicious cake for Canada.
Panama are out of contention for the World Cup entering this match after Costa Rica’s strong start to the March window, with a shot at automatically qualifying itself. There is an opportunity for Canada to capitalize and close out this campaign with a victory.
Considering the obvious goal of winning the match, Herdman’s lineup might not see too many changes. Atiba Hutchinson might check into the lineup after he was moved to the bench for the Jamaica match, as could Mark-Anthony Kaye who will return from his one-match suspension.
Other than the midfield and potentially the center backs, the team should be relatively straightforward again.
That lineup should include forwards Cyle Larin and Jonathan David again, the region’s top-two goalscorers in World Cup qualifying. Larin, who scored the opening goal in Sunday’s historic victory, would claim the Golden Boot, but would surely enjoy adding to his total, with six tallies coming in the Octagonal.
It’s been a remarkable transformation for Larin, who was on the outskirts of the national team as recently as 2019. However, a positional tweak at Turkey's Beşiktaş last season reinvigorated the 26-year-old forward and he has not looked back since.
There were other factors at play, though, like becoming a father and gaining a new outlook.
“I think that changes people,” Herdman said of the former Orlando City SC star. “It gives you a different perspective on life. I am a dad and I know how those moments do change you.”
Building trust and confidence were also key for Larin, who is practically unstoppable when he’s in form and playing regularly.
“He has a group of guys here who he can work with, who he can gel with,” Herdman continued. “He has got great chemistry with Jonathan David and Junior Hoilett. I think, thirdly, he knows he has the ability to bring this country to another level. He just had to be in the right circumstances, the right environment. We care about him, we spend time with him, I talk to him, we talk to him and we make him feel valued here. I think he just plays with a freedom.”
Those efforts converted Larin into the national team’s all-time leading scorer, on the brink of a Golden Boot in World Cup qualifying and led to a ticket to Qatar this November.
The same can be said for a number of players, from CF Montréal teammates Alistair Johnston and Kamal Miller to Sam Adekugbe. All three players are now fixtures on a Canadian backline that began qualifying with many unanswered questions about their abilities to keep clean sheets.
Nineteen qualifiers and 12 clean sheets later, they have alleviated those concerns and will be hoping to add to that tally in the 20th and final match of this grueling cycle.