Protests loom as Canada enter Nations League: "We're just looking for transparency"

VANCOUVER – The eve of the Canadian men’s national team's opening 2022-23 Concacaf Nations League A (Group C) game against Curacao was like any other. Players trained, coaches put the team through their paces and the media covered the proceedings.

But the backdrop behind Thursday’s match at BC Place (10:30 pm ET | Paramount+, TUDN in US; OneSoccer in Canada) couldn’t be any more tense. Three days after canceling an already-rearranged friendly with Panama due to a labor dispute between the men’s team and the federation, both the players and the federation addressed the elephant in the room to the assembled press, including the players for the first time publicly.

“At the moment, as a team, we're just looking for transparency,” said captain Atiba Hutchinson. “We've been working on getting legal representation, so that's where we're at on that front. That's what we're looking to do. So from here, we'll leave that with the representatives.”

The search for legal representation continues for the players. Nonetheless, it’s an important step in the process as they ask for what they believe is their fair share of the Qatar 2022 World Cup prize money, greater transparency on the federation’s finances and more former players on the board of directors, among other issues.

But the tone from Hutchinson notably contrasted that of Earl Cochrane, Canada Soccer’s acting general secretary.

“The last couple of days have been positive, perhaps even more than positive,” Cochrane stated. “The fact that the guys were back on the field the day after, we've met a few times. They've been great. They've been really, really good. They've been asking questions, answering questions. It's just been a great couple of days.”

Negotiations tend to differ depending on who you ask, although there’s clearly still work to be done on an agreement.

Hutchinson admitted that it’s a “broader-picture” problem rather than a specific quarrel over FIFA windfalls. With all of this now in the lawyers’ hands, though, the players are focusing on sporting matters.

The team’s preparations were understandably impacted by Sunday’s cancellation, which followed a previous no-go friendly vs. Iran amid political pressure. Head coach John Herdman’s plans to experiment with different players and potentially a few tactical wrinkles were limited.

“We just got to adapt,” Herdman said.

Adapt or be left behind, as they say.

Pre-World Cup windows fading

With only two games in this window and potentially two or three in September, time is running out for Canada to hit their stride for the World Cup in November when Group F play gets underway. Simply, that’s why losing the Panama match is a blow for the team.

Luckily for the Canadians, tactics aren’t an issue. This team has the tactical flexibility to adjust in-game to any situation. As they showed by finishing atop the Concacaf final round of qualifying against talented squads from the U.S. and Mexico, the chemistry is as tight-knit as any World Cup participant. But regaining the synchronicity between players is vital upon the country’s first big-dance trip since 1986.

“We don't have that much time before the World Cup comes around,” said Hutchinson. “So every session is important for us. Obviously [Herdman] wants us on the pitch and working on everything in detail … But we've had a couple of training sessions to prepare for this game tomorrow and that's our mindset right now, just to do as best as we can.”

“I think this is a good test,” Herdman said, with Curacao coming off a 2-1 win over Honduras from Monday night. “We've seen what they did in Honduras, and I think these boys will be tested.”

There’s no doubt that unfinished business between the association, the men’s team, and the women’s squad by extension, will remain at the forefront until an agreement is reached. That reality will be hard to ignore.

To the coaching staff’s credit, they have been diligent in keeping the team’s attention on the grand task of Qatar. Later this year, group-stage matches against Belgium, Croatia and Morocco will prove telling.

“We set some internal goals for Qatar,” Herdman explained. “They want to continue pioneering. There is a big part of not becoming the hunted in Concacaf and just hunting these next-level goals that we're setting. That's been a focus, to be the most dominant Canadian team.

“These last two days, I've been bringing them back to reality, that this is going to be a tough match, a really tough game against this team. If they're not ready, a lot of hard work starts slipping away. That dominance that we want to keep stepping forward with, it starts to slip away and questions get asked.”

No stranger to pressure

Before the March window of Concacaf’s Octagonal, Canada were all but guaranteed to qualify automatically for their first World Cup in 36 years. Herdman kept the side motivated by highlighting some problem areas from January and challenged the squad to overcome them. That was after a perfect window with three wins from three games.

Now, this is the greatest obstacle of them all. How Canada perform on Thursday and Monday against Honduras in San Pedro Sula will highlight how big of a distraction these labor talks become.

It will be equally intriguing to see the attendance figure in Vancouver as well. Two cancellations and a busy news cycle involving a pay dispute won’t win over many new supporters. The hardcores, on the other hand, earn that title for a reason.

“It’s amazing the support that we've been getting,” Hutchinson said. “I know that we'll continue to get that support, and the fans will continue to be there and support us.”

All the more reason why this might be the most captivating match between Canada and Curacao we will ever witness.