The Canadian men’s national team are playing catch-up. The majority of World Cup-bound teams have played two, if not three or more games in the June window. But due to two canceled friendlies with Panama and Iran, Canada only have their 2022-23 Concacaf Nations League A matches to prepare for Qatar this month.
The campaign began with a resounding 4-0 win over Curacao in Vancouver in a match where “different things” were tested out by head coach John Herdman.
Now an entirely different experience awaits in San Pedro Sula, where they’ll face Honduras on Monday (10 pm ET | OneSoccer in Canada; Paramount+, TUDN in US). The humidity and heavier pitch will affect the performance, as Canada found out in January’s hard-fought 2-0 road victory that helped secure their finish atop Concacaf's Octagonal.
This squad will play its 27th match since March 2021. In that time, it has adapted to a few new systems, from a 3-5-2 to 3-4-3 to a 4-4-2 and everything in between. The players can seamlessly rotate in-game to overcome any obstacle in their way.
“I think that level of tactical excellence came through in the Concacaf World Cup qualifying (campaign),” said Herdman. "To go into those different environments, you need a different type of tactical blueprint here.
“We had the toughest qualifying with the 17-odd games, which meant as a group, we've learned to become very adaptable and I think that's an X factor going into this World Cup.”
That’s why testing out new wrinkles sounds peculiar. Surely, after nearly 30 games in 15 months, there’s nothing left to learn. But it’s an entirely contrasting situation when facing a top-tier opponent like Belgium compared to Concacaf opposition, even against the likes of the US men’s national team and Mexico.
These matches, even against familiar foes, are still useful in preparing for those showdowns in Qatar. Canada were clearly leaning on quick, vertical passes down the wings on the counter Thursday vs. Curacao, which might behoove them versus Belgium in Group F. The Red Devils have aging center backs and attack-minded wingbacks, so there might be space to exploit in those situations.
“There's things that we're working on internally,” Herdman explained. “There are areas Canada can exploit in each one of those opponents. Then we have a foundation, which is this team spirit, this brotherhood that we've created. We don’t fear these teams and that's a starting point, but then you have to have a tactical blueprint that allows these players to go in with that mindset. The strategy has to support the mindset and the strategy has to be aligned to the skillset of the players.”
Understandable, if not necessary. The difference in quality with Canada’s Group F opponents will be unlike anything this side has faced as a national team (Morocco and Croatia also await). But even though they have approached every game without fear, there is a line that can’t be crossed.
“It can't be about bravado when the pressure comes on,” Herdman explained. “It all just falls apart because that will undermine strategy and skillset. When you start to look at it, we’ve got some real strength in our players in wide areas, world-class strength. We have some players that I genuinely believe in the way that we are going to try and play in that World Cup.”
All signs point to Herdman making few changes to the lineup that played Curacao on Thursday. There might be a couple of tweaks, like Richie Laryea checking in for Alistair Johnston or center back Steven Vitoria being given a rest after playing 90 minutes on turf. But it will largely stay consistent.
If Canada are set on adding to their tactical arsenal for the World Cup, then they will need their best players available. Of course, depth is key as well with potential suspensions to weigh in the group stage. That’s why it was vital for Lucas Cavallini to score against Curacao.
“We have to be able to keep that intensity for 95 minutes of the game,” the Vancouver Whitecaps forward said. “Obviously, the starters put in a hell of a shift. But obviously us finishers have to go in and finish the job.”
Even Samuel Piette and Junior Hoilett showing flashes in their cameos was a positive development. Herdman prefers having every player contribute in some way, even if it’s for five or 10 minutes. Starting a game strongly is important, but so is closing it out.
“The competition makes the best out of all of us,” Cavallini continued. “I'm happy to be here and the depth we have is amazing.”
This is Canada’s last game until September when the team is expected to travel to Europe for a pair of friendlies with the dates, opponents and venues being finalized soon.