Chemistry, belief have Canada feeling bullish about Gold Cup: "Bring it on"

LOS ANGELES – John Herdman is constructing something that might turn out to be quite special, and although the work is still in its early stages, don't count Canada out in this year’s Gold Cup.

The Canadians have an incredibly promising group of young talent – all over the field, but especially up front – and an uncommon chemistry borne from Herdman's toil toward creating a winning culture since he took charge 17 months ago.

Exceeding expectations others have set for them in the biennial championship, in how they play and what they achieve, is the chief aim, and that would require a final-four performance.

“I'm challenging them every game to grow, and the tournament will take care of [itself],” said Herdman, who was behind the rise of Canada's women's national team among the game's elite in the past eight years. “I don't want them focused on that outcome. As long as they believe they can get there, the job is to take every game, and I show them where they've grown and how they're moving, and they challenge each other to get better every game.

“So it's game by game. But they believe it, and I think that's the most important thing. They believe it.”

Canada reached the Gold Cup quarterfinals two years ago, losing to eventual finalists Jamaica, after a last-minute elimination from group play in 2011 and failure to win a game or score a goal in 2013 and 2015.

That was then, he says, not now.

“We've spent some time now with the group on the culture,” said Herdman ahead of Saturday's Gold Cup openers at the Rose Bowl. “I think that is the most important thing for this group, to connect them in a way they've never connected before. I think we've got enough talent that if they trust each other and they believe in what we're doing, we can do OK against good teams. And I think you just got to listen to the boys now. The conversations are, they believe they're here to compete, not participate.”

Indeed, they are.

“We want to win it,” LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye said following Canada's training session Thursday afternoon at UCLA. “I think everyone here knows our talent and what we can do, so it comes down to game-time decisions and on-the-field play.”

The path to the July 7 final at Soldier Field in Chicago is thorny. Canada, who play Martinique in the first game of Saturday's doubleheader, are expected to join Mexico from Group A in the quarterfinals, where Costa Rica likely await. Win that, and – thanks to a format designed to prevent a United States-Mexico showdown before the championship game – it's probably another fight with El Tri.

Herdman's good with that.

“Love it. Bring it on. Bring it on,” he said. “This is the challenge they want. And I think that's exciting, because through the whole [Concacaf] Nations League [qualifiers], we've been the overdog, and you've had that, the pressure of the slip-up. But there's no pressure coming into the Mexico game. These guys have got everything to gain, and [Mexico has] got everything to lose.

“Mexico twice, if that's what it takes. Then we'll learn the first game and maybe surprise them in the second game. That semifinal match, that's what we're imagining. That semifinal game, where hopefully we can just let loose.”

He's got eight players 21 or younger, including Vancouver Whitecaps product Alphonso Davies, now at Bayern Munich, and four of the 12 MLS players on the roster: Montreal Impact defender Zachary Brault-Guillard, Vancouver defender Derek Cornelius, Orlando City defender Kamal Miller and Toronto FC midfielder Noble Okello, the latter two uncapped.

There's a lot of buzz surrounding Brault-Guillard, 20, who could start at right back, and 19-year-old Gent forward Jonathan David, who can play in any of the attacking positions. Target man Lucas Cavallini, from Puebla, scored six goals in four Nations League qualifiers.

Montreal's Samuel Piette, TFC's Jonathan Osorio and Rangers' Scott Arfield are the midfield trio, and Cornelius and Vancouver's Doneil Henry could anchor the backline in front of Red Star Belgrade goalkeeper Milan Borjan.

“I think we've increased the fluidity in the attacking organization,” Herdman, who is 5W-0L-0D as Canada coach (including a 2-0 closed-door-scrimmage victory Monday over Trinidad & Tobago at Cal State Fullerton), said. “There's some very deliberate partnerships that we've been developing, [such as] our left side with Alfonso and Jonathan Osorio.

“Canada's got more depth, and I think with that depth, we can just bring something different. And we haven't been able to do that in the past. It's been very much the same old, same old plan A, no plan B, and I think we've got a plan B and C with this group.”