TORONTO — After celebrating Sunday’s World Cup qualification, it was back to business Tuesday for the Canadian men’s soccer team.
The squad trained under a bright sun at BMO Field in the morning before grabbing a quick lunch at the lakefront stadium and heading to the airport for an afternoon charter to Panama City for Wednesday’s World Cup qualifying finale.
And while the team has already secured qualification to Qatar 2022, there is more to play for.
“We have to finish strong,” said coach John Herdman. “That’s the message to these players … It’s a critical match.”
“We said we’ve come here to qualify. We have,” he added. “But we said we were here to define a New Canada and New Canada’s finishing top of CONCACAF … to really let this country celebrate.”
Canada (8-1-4, 28 points) goes into Wednesday’s finale with a three-point edge over the U.S. and Mexico (both 7-2-4, 25 points) and a six-point cushion over Costa Rica (6-3-4, 22 points). Fifth-place Panama (5-5-3, 18 points) is out of contention.
In other games Wednesday, it’s El Salvador at Mexico, Honduras at Jamaica and the U.S. at Costa Rica.
The top three teams will represent North and Central America and the Caribbean in Qatar this November-December with the fourth-place finisher taking on an Oceania side in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.
The 33rd-ranked Canadians just need a tie to finish first in CONCACAF qualifying. But they want the win, to finish with a flourish and collect as many FIFA ranking points as possible while hoping results in other regions go their way so they can crack the top 30.
The four pots in Friday’s World Cup draw in Doha are divvied up by FIFA rankings. Pot 1 will feature host Qatar and the seven highest-ranked qualified teams, going down to Pot 4 made up of the bottom-ranked qualifiers plus three placeholders representing the two winners of the intercontinental playoffs and the remaining UEFA playoff winner.
The goal is to be ranked as high as possible to lessen the chance of meeting higher-ranked teams early on at the 32-team tournament.
After Sunday’s 4-0 clinching win over Jamaica, the Canadian players had a private celebration in their dressing room before heading to a nearby sports bar/restaurant for a gathering with friends and family. Then it was off to a downtown steak house for a meal.
Rap star Drake made an appearance during the evening, rubbing shoulders with the players and their families.
The players were given Monday off, with most feted that night at the Raptors’ win over the Boston Celtics where they got a standing ovation from the crowd.
“It was a very cool 48 hours,” said wingback Richie Laryea, who spent Sunday evening with his parents, brothers and some close friends, although his wife and son were back in England where he plays for Nottingham Forest. “I think not many people get to celebrate things like that.”
“For me, at least, it hasn’t even really set in what we’ve done,” he added.
Herdman, who reckoned he had had 12 hours sleep over the last three days, said his celebration was in the private confines of the locker room
“I let it all go in the dressing room, I’ve got to be honest,” he said. “That was my moment to be a bit daft and let your hair down, let the guys see you maybe in a different light, let them tip champagne on your head and do silly things.”
The father of two called it “one of my top three moments in my life.”
“We had some fun in there, real fun,” he said.
Herdman also savoured seeing his players with their loved ones.
“I had a great time with the families,” he said. “And then I was in bed by quarter past one, up at 6:30. And my staff were ready to go.”
Herdman and his staff spent Monday going over medical reports, planning his lineup and substitutions for Panama.
The coach was trying to stay in business mode, even if his phone was trying to pull him away.
“Texts, WhatsApp (messages) all day,” he said. “From people I haven’t heard of in 30 years — people texting to apologize for what they’d said at the beginning (of his coaching tenure with the men). It was a strange moment. So you’re trying to get your work done and it was one (message) after another.”
The messages continued Tuesday as the players were at the Raptors’ training facility before heading over to BMO Field.
This time, it was Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies, back in Germany recovering from myocarditis after a bout of COVID. Herdman said Davies was asking for someone to touch the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship trophy for him.
“He’s here with us,” Herdman said of Davies.
From Panama, the players will disperse to go back to their clubs. With the timeline tight to get to Qatar in time for Friday’s draw, Herdman will return to Toronto where he will watch it from a TV studio.
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2022.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press