TORONTO— John Herdman was smiling ear to ear in the post match press conference. His apparent giddiness could not be contained.
For the first time in 34 years, the Canada men’s soccer team defeated its border rival United States. It was not just the history achieved that had the 44 year old Canadian soccer coach beaming with pride. Rather, it was the affirmation that Herdman’s hard work to transform the identity and culture of the men’s national team was starting to pay off.
“It’s only one step, it’s only one little drop in the ocean I’m hoping for this team. There’s more to come,” Herdman said after the match.
Herdman is no stranger to international success. Taking over the Canadian National women’s team in 2011, accolades soon followed for Herdman, including a gold medal at the 2011 Pan Am Games and bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games respectively.
While the Englishman was afforded the opportunity to coach superstar female athletes such as the decorated Christine Sinclair, it is his innate ability to make the most out of average players that has garnered a commendable reputation.
As the development coach, Herdman moulded the future talent of English football at the esteemed Sunderland Youth Academy. This translated to his tenure with the New Zealand women’s national team.
Before Herdman arrived, New Zealand had not qualified for the World Cup in three consecutive appearances. With Herdman’s fervent and passionate coaching style, the New Zealand squad qualified to World Cups in 2006 and 2011.
Leaving his coaching post at the Canadian Women’s Team to cross over to the men’s came with risks. Canada men’s team had not beaten the Americans in 34 years; their last victory in a competitive match against the United States came in 1980.
The 33 years that have separated Canada qualifying for its last World Cup have been marked by infamy and disappointed. Numerous players chose to not sport the red and white for Canadian international play, largely in part due to the inexorable state of the program.
The news of Canada co-hosting the World Cup with the United States and Mexico in 2026 brought a wave of newfound optimism for the program. But John Herdman is hungry for more. He doesn’t just want to automatically qualify for the 2026 World Cup, just because the nation is one of the hosts. He desires to qualify the legitimate, honest way through the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
“We’re going to qualify for 2022 Qatar,” Herdman said. “And lay the foundation for 2026.”
Herdman is not just a bright soccer mind, but he also plays the role of chief motivator. Said Lucas Cavallini, who sealed the Canadian victory over the Americans in the 90th minute with a goal, “I think every minute of the day he has a motivational speech.”
“Ever since John took over, he’s been focused on changing the identity of Canadian soccer,” said Canadian defender Kamal Miller. “We feel like we’re reaching new heights.”
Toronto FC forward Liam Fraser also has experienced Herdman’s hypnotic, inspirational spell. Three weeks ago, the Canadian coach and Fraser had a conversation on the steps of the training ground about his performance. In the Canada/USA matchup, the 21-year-old was substituted in for the injured Mark-Anthony Kaye, delivering a masterful performance.
“Funnily enough on the stairs three weeks ago I said ‘Son, just keep being good and the universe will bring you something. Just keep being good,” said Herdman. “And it did. He got on that field tonight and he did bloody well.”
The motivational speeches have paved the way to structured, physical play on the pitch. In the 2-0 Canadian victory against the United States, the national team generated the majority of the offensive chances, registering nine shots, five of which were on target. Alphonso Davies, who scored Canada’s first goal in the second half, continually stretched the American defense and showcased his physicality on the wing.
Nothing that Gregg Berhalter’s squad could do to slow down the Canadian attack.
“Canada was compact with their diamond in the midfield,” said Berhalter. “We got trapped and it prevented us from developing nice build ups.”
It is too early to say how this win will impact Canada Soccer. The squad is currently 75th in the FIFA world rankings and must finish in the Top 6 among CONCACAF nations in order to secure a place in the “Hex.”
But having not lost a match in the CONCACAF Nations League group, Canada is in a prime position to qualify heading into their final match against Team USA. Accelerating the belief that qualifying for the World Cup doesn’t seem like a daunting task.
In the same year as the Toronto Raptors winning an NBA Championship and Bianca Andreescu winning the US Open, Canada’s win against the United States on the pitch will be remembered in the same light. A culturally significant moment for soccer in Canada that will be remembered for a long time.
Credit John Herdman and his fervent, passionate temperament for helping shape a new generation of soccer players and fans across Canada.