Balancing act for Canadian men’s soccer head coach

Herdman can only take 23 players to the tournament and therefore is trying to get the most out of his squad in the few precious occasions they are together before the World Cup tournament in November

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Canadian men’s national soccer team head coach John Herdman will have some difficult decisions to make when it comes to his roster for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

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Herdman can take only 23 players to the tournament and is therefore trying to get the most out of his squad on the few precious occasions they are together before November.

He’ll have another opportunity to evaluate the roster when Canada travel to play Honduras on Monday (10 pm ET, OneSoccer) in a Concacaf Nations League contest, closing out what has been an eventful international window for the squad.

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“As I said to the players, what got us here won’t get us there, and there are the internal goals they set for themselves,” Herdman said Sunday from Vancouver. “They know they have some prices to pay in terms of the work they have to put in to be in the squad of 23 and to get that regular playing time every player covets.”

Herdman lost some valuable preparation opportunities when the players refused to take the field for two days of training sessions and then boycotted the exhibition game against Panama on June 5, due to a contract dispute with Canada Soccer.

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But they did eventually get back on the field and looked impressive in a 4-0 win against Curacao on Thursday in Vancouver, where star winger Alphonso Davies made a triumphant return to the team and scored a pair of goals.

“I think it was a dominant performance from the boys,” Herdman said. “Everyone knows that in Concacaf nothing is given and there are no easy games. Curacao are one of the tougher teams in Concacaf, and I thought the way we approached the game, the mentality, the intensity; it was about setting a marker in the first half and I didn’t think Curacao could get any handle in the game.

“In the second half, we had a 15-minute period, which we addressed in the last few days, where we had a lack of intensity and that’s something you won’t get away with at the World Cup; if we drop our standard at any moment with the quality we’ll face there.”

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Canada earned a spot in a men’s World Cup for the first time since its only previous appearance in 1986 with an impressive qualifying campaign, where they finished a top the final Concacaf group ahead of Mexico and the United States.

In Qatar, Canada was drawn into Group F with Belgium, Croatia and Morocco. They’ll open the tournament against Belgium in Al Rayyan, Qatar on Nov. 23, then face Croatia on Nov. 27. Canada will conclude the group stage against Morocco in Doha on Dec. first.

“I think it’s a sign of how much Canadian soccer has grown where we now have a pretty competitive environment on the national team,” said defender Sam Adekugbe. “We just have to worry about focusing on the games and playing your best. If you start focusing on things outside of your control, then that can diminish your ability on the field. You want to just go out there and play the best you can, and hopefully, you’ll be chosen to go to the World Cup.”

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In its previous World Cup appearance in Mexico, Canada lost to France, Hungary and the Soviet Union without scoring a goal.

Canada has loftier goals heading into Qatar, and Herdman is looking to find the balance between playing to win in the Nations League, while focusing on having the most prepared squad possible for Qatar.

“I think the balance is more us versus us and individuals versus individuals,” Herdman said. “We talk about teams that are hunting us in Concacaf, so for many of these teams we’re playing, it’s a Cup final. They are going out there with a full intensity to beat, arguably, a team that is favoured in the (Nations League) competition.”

Honduras, Canada’s opponent on Monday, failed to qualify for Qatar and finished last in the eight-team final Concacaf qualifyings.

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Yet, it is never easy going into Central America to play, particularly in June where temperatures and the humidity can soar. The game will be a good test for Canada and will help Herdman evaluate his team for Qatar.

“The players are definitely committed to each other, so I think internally we have a real strong culture,” Herdman said. “People are willing to surrender the shirt for the right reason. And you saw that through the Octagon (qualifying), we were able to put out balanced squads throughout the games, because of the physical realities of it — the quick two-day turnarounds between games — and we had to rely on a deep squad.

“There is a transitioning moment for our team now to understand when you’re at a World Cup, those extra days of recovery and the reliance of a deep squad is not as strong. They’re at that stage where they grow and they’re understand what their roles are moving forward.”

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Unfortunately, not every player who helped Canada qualify for the World Cup will be able to go to Qatar. Those on the bubble will have to make a good impression on Herdman to be on the final 23-man roster. There is only one more international window in September prior to the World Cup.

“What I learned through this whole qualifying period is that you just never know,” Herdman said. “To go seven games in the Octagon without Alphonso Davies, you would have never predicted that. Every camp there were players injured or players suspended.

“I think for most people, it’s pretty clear which names will go up on the board, but for me, we also have to find an X-factor and we’ll have to do things a little bit differently and having that tactical adaptability is a critical part of this.”

Email: dvandist@postmedia.com

On Twitter: @DerekVanDiest

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