VANCOUVER, B.C. – With qualification to the 2019 Gold Cup secured after Canada's 4-1 victory over French Guiana on Sunday afternoon, a fuller reflection on Les Rouge's performance in Group A of the Concacaf Nations League comes into view.
While Canada finished their qualifying campaign unbeaten through four matches, giving up just one goal, they played lower-ranked Concacaf nations.
For all the buzz about Canada becoming a presence in international soccer, the reality is they haven't been truly tested yet during head coach John Herdman's tenure. This summer's Gold Cup will bring about a big step up in opponents' quality.
"When you talk about the step up in class, you look at what French Guiana did at that last Gold Cup, they were very competitive," Herdman told reporters after Sunday's match. "There is the reality check that these teams we're playing are not that far away. But on the other side, there is a step up coming. We know that."
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Knowing it and being prepared are two different things, and Herdman now has three short months to prepare his squad for the tougher challenges ahead. He said solely focusing on this Nations League qualifying campaign alone is not a fair reflection of where Canada stands.
"They were at a Gold Cup in 2017 and were able to take their chances and defended very resiliently," Herdman said. "It's not like a ground-zero starting point for this team. We've just been adding news aspects to it and blooding some young players in games that we can. These guys know what it's going to take."
As exciting as young attacking core of ex-MLSers Cyle Larin, Alphonso Davies and Ballou Tabla might be, it's not all sun and roses in the Canadian camp. There are serious questions that need to be asked around the strength and depth defensively.
That was highlighted by French Guiana on Sunday, not only with their goal, but with other chances the minnows carved out over the 90 minutes.
"We're still growing as a team, that's part of it," Herdman said. "We know there's room for improvement. When [French Guiana] stepped that high press, we didn't really react to that as well as I'd want to see. But at the same time, we haven't worked on it. We've been dealing with teams that have thrown out a low block and that's the Concacaf Nations League. That's the format of that tournament."
With the top nations in North America coming up fast, Herdman said Canada will need to compete and adjust accordingly.
"We've had a lot of work on those teams that will defend deep and allow you the possession," Herdman said. "That next stage of our work is coming. We'll have some tough matches hopefully in preparation for the Gold Cup and then at the Gold Cup, we'll hit the ground running because we have to. So yeah, some work to do."
But Herdman fully believes that Canada compete – and beat – the best Concacaf has to offer. If aspects of his squad aren't ready for that sterner challenge, he's confident they'll get there in due time.
"Can that defense be a defense that can hold up in a Gold Cup in a step up in class?," Herdman pondered. "We'll get them there and they're ready to go there. And if you ask them the question, they're going to say 'hell yeah'. That simple. We'll keep pushing."