This is what the last few years, and specifically 2021, have been all about for the Canadian men’s national team.

Participating in the highest-pressure matches that Concacaf can offer – a 14-match gauntlet to determine who will qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar – against the top teams in the region is exactly what Canada craved.

Unlike previous qualifying campaigns, this group has been battle-tested in some marquee games. Advancing past Haiti in a home-and-away series in the previous round showed the team’s mettle to manage a tricky road match and grind out a result. Overcoming a rocky start against the United States in the Gold Cup group stage proved they won’t just wilt. Ditto with the loss to Mexico in the semifinals, in which Canada valiantly fought to the end.

These 23 players have been through the wringer over the summer, and the Octagonal is just getting underway.

"I think they've been together [and] they've been through it,” said Canada head coach John Herdman. “In previous times, some guys had said it just never felt like we would connect around a deeper purpose. … When you put all of this together, there's been a core group of men that have experienced that together and it's that togetherness that is a foundation of their success."

Veteran midfielder Atiba Hutchinson is back in the squad and has sensed the same.

“Just seeing how the team has improved over the years and the confidence that we have in the team going into all the games that we've been playing,” the 38-year-old said. “No matter who we're going up against, the team is fearless, which before you wouldn't see too often. In a lot of the games, we'd kind of go into shells and that's not the case anymore.

"We’ve got a team that's full of talent. A lot of players that are playing in some good places, some good clubs around the world. Very confident and great abilities and can add a lot to the team and have been doing that over the past couple of years. This time around, there's a different feeling in the squad and for everybody involved."

It's fitting, then, that Hutchinson – playing in his fifth World Cup qualifying cycle for Canada – and the squad open their campaign against Honduras, a team that’s haunted Les Rouges for nearly a decade. They’ll meet Thursday at Toronto FC’s BMO Field (8:05 pm ET | OneSoccer, Paramount+), starting their three-match window.

Unlike in June, Canada will play at home in front of their supporters, where 15,000 fans (the maximum allowable due to government restrictions) are expected to attend. That alone could buoy the players in what should be a hotly contested game.

The likes of Hutchinson, Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Milan Borjan were absent in July for some of Canada’s transformative moments. They were, however, present for the first few qualifiers to help the team reach this final stage for the first time since 1997. They’re joined by some names who made a humongous impact at this summer's Gold Cup, including New England Revolution star Tajon Buchanan.

Buchanan, who’s set to join Belgian side Club Brugge after the 2021 MLS season for a club-record fee, picked up where Davies left off in many ways. He scored against Mexico in the semifinals and tormented opponents in the group stage at left wingback. Now with the Bayern Munich star back in the fold, there’s potential for a dynamic duo on the wings.

Herdman mentioned that the coaching staff experimented with a Davies-Buchanan pairing at wingback before the Vancouver Whitecaps FC academy product suffered an ankle injury ahead of the Gold Cup. That could be one intriguing wrinkle for these three matches, which include a Sept. 5 road date with the USMNT in Nashville and a home match versus El Salvador on Sept. 8.

Make no mistake, though, Buchanan will be heavily involved in this window and he epitomizes the newfound mentality that could invigorate Canada in the months ahead.

"It has been an ascent,” Herdman quipped. “But that ascent is born out of if you go right back to what he's experienced as a young man, growing up very quickly. He's a very mature individual that seems, to me, laser-focused on reaching the highest heights. That's what I've experienced when he's worked in the environment.

“I've set some tests when he's had to defend against Alphonso and he sees that there's another level when Phonzie wants to turn up a gear, he has to try and match that gear and he's always reflected on those training sessions that he sees where he wants to get there. There's a mentality there that underpins that ascent.”

Even the veterans have been astonished by what they’ve witnessed from the 22-year-old in a handful of national team caps.

"I watched [Buchanan] over the Gold Cup and what he's been doing in a short period of time for Canada has been great to see," said Hutchinson. "He's a player that, you can see, just enjoys the game. It doesn't matter the occasion, and that's great to see, especially in the younger players to be fearless and to just go out and express themselves and that's exactly what he does every time when he goes out onto the pitch. I think he's got an extremely bright future."

With short turnarounds, travel and club commitments to manage over the next six months, this will be a grind for every team involved in the Octagonal. However, for Canada, that’s just another chance to rise to the occasion and make history – and possibly their first World Cup since 1986.