Canada coach John Herdman is renowned for his meticulous planning, with almost every eventuality taken into consideration.
During his time in charge of the Canadian women’s team, that included everything from how long it took to drive from the team hotel to the stadium to strategies if his team had a player sent off or went down by a goal with 20 minutes remaining.
Now at the helm of the Canadian men, Herdman’s preparations are being tested by COVID-19 and a congested World Cup qualifying schedule. But, as usual, the 45-year-old Herdman and his staff have a plan facing as many as four crucial qualifiers in 11 days.
First up for the 70th-ranked Canadians is No. 205 Aruba on Saturday in Bradenton, Fla. Then it’s off to Bridgeview, Ill., for a match Tuesday against No. 136 Suriname that will likely decide which team advances from Group B in the first round of qualifying in CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
With just two days between the Aruba and Suriname matches, there is little time to recover. So Herdman brought 24 players into camp in the Orlando area, with another 11 joining later as a sort of taxi squad.
“We’ve done things differently in how we’ve managed our squads,” Herdman said in an interview Friday. “Groups have been training with different missions. Players have been brought in to support that process.”
That included the Montverde Academy, a private school in Florida renowned for its soccer academy. Herdman had the Montverde team play his Aruba lineup on Thursday. On Friday, his side for the Suriname match played against members of the extended Canadian squad.
“It’s been very specific and deliberate,” Herdman said of his preparations.
“Both sets of players have bought into that and are supporting each other,” he added. “And at the same time, constantly being ready for the chaos of injuries or COVID realities, where we’ll have to adapt on the fly as well. So we’ve covered a few bases and angles and then obviously when you know that to go all the way, it’s going to be four games in a two-week window. We’ve been working back from that last (away) game wherever it will be — Haiti or Nicaragua or Belize, one of those countries we’ll end up in and then be back to Chicago (SeatGeek Stadium in suburban Bridgeview).”
Canada is 2-0-0 in Group B after dispatching No. 168 Bermuda 5-1 and the 194th-ranked Cayman Islands 11-0 in late March.
Suriname improved to 3-0-0 after a 6-0 win over Bermuda in Paramaribo on Friday night with Nigel Hasselbaink, the nephew of former English Premier League star Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, scoring a hat-trick. But Canada can regain top spot in Group B with a win over Aruba.
The schedule, however, gives Suriname an extra day to prepare for Canada.
That adds more fuel to a team bolstered by the addition of players with Suriname roots brought on board via so-called sports passports that allow them to wear Suriname colours without giving up their other passport, usually Dutch.
Aruba (1-2-0) is coming off a 3-1 win over Bermuda on Wednesday. Aruba, population 120,000, opened qualifying with a 6-0 loss to Suriname before being blanked 5-0 by Bermuda.
The Group B winner will advance to a second-round playoff against the Group E winner, likely No. 83 Haiti, No. 147 Nicaragua or No. 170 Belize, in a home-and-away playoff June 12 and 15 to determine who advances to the eight-team final round of qualifying.
Asked if all his players would be available for all four games, Herdman replied: “My experience (is) it’s a rarity that the team you plan shows up in the fourth game, either through injuries, suspension, fatigue, home. There’s always a lot of issues or challenges that you’re going to have to overcome. So the adaptability is looking at your Plan A, B, C and D, across these matches. And then working through what we need based on the different types of opposition.
“It’s going to be an exciting adventure as I keep saying to the players,” he added. “It is a bit of an adventure. And on these adventures, they’re never straightforward. There’s ups, there’s downs. But we’ve got to get through it.”
The winners of the three second-round playoffs join five other higher-ranked teams in the final round, which will see the teams play each other at home and on the road. Mexico (No. 11), the U.S. (No. 20), Jamaica (No. 45), Costa Rica (No. 50) and Honduras (No. 67) received byes directly to the so-called Octagonal.
The top three teams will qualify for Qatar 2022. The fourth-place finisher will take part in an intercontinental home-and-away playoff to see who joins them.
Canada has never played Aruba before at this level. The Canadian men beat Suriname 2-1 in their only previous international “A” level meeting, a 1977 World Cup qualifier.
Canada has not qualified for the final qualifying round since 1996-97 ahead of the 1998 World Cup in France. The Canadians finished sixth and last in that final round with a 1-6-3 record.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press