Canada looks to get back on track against Cuba in CONCACAF Nations League play

TORONTO — John Herdman is the seventh coach that goalkeeper Milan Borjan has worked under since his 2011 senior debut with Canada.

The 31-year-old Red Star Belgrade ‘keeper remains an unabashed fan of the charismatic Herdman and the young team he has assembled.

“I think this is the youngest Canadian team that we’ve had — and the most talented Canadian team that we’ve had,” said Borjan, who has seen his share of coaches during a club career that has taken him to Argentina, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Turkey and Uruguay. “When John came here, he mixed an amazing group of young guys with a couple of older guys like me.”

“I think things are getting a lot better for Canadian soccer,” he continued. “(Herdman) has amazing vision and he’s bringing that to us. We believe him.”

Herdman’s task this week has been to refocus his squad in the wake of a disappointing June exit at the Gold Cup — a 3-2 loss to No. 83 Haiti that saw 78th-ranked Canada blow a 2-0 lead.

The first chance to get back on track is Saturday’s CONCACAF Nations League A game against No. 179 Cuba. The two teams play against next Tuesday in the Cayman Islands (a stadium in Havana was deemed not to meet CONCACAF standards).

The Canadian men can afford no more missteps if they are to preserve their slim hopes of joining the other big hitters in the region in taking the most direct route in 2022 World Cup qualifying.

“It’s probably going to take a perfect season for Canada, beating teams we haven’t beaten in a long time,” said Herdman. “But that’s why we’re getting out of bed. It’s exciting.”

The top six teams in CONCACAF, based on the FIFA rankings published after the June 2020 international window, will advance directly to the so-called Hex round-robin.

The top three teams after the Hex will qualify directly to the World Cup in Qatar.

Countries ranked No. 7 to No. 35 in the region, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean, will slug it out in a secondary qualifying competition. The last team standing there will take part in a playoff (against the Hex fourth-place finisher) to determine who takes part in another playoff (a FIFA intercontinental showdown) to see who else advances out of CONCACAF.

Canada currently stands eighth in CONCACAF, behind Mexico (No. 12 in the world), the U.S. (22), Costa Rica (44), Jamaica (52), Honduras (67), El Salvador (68) and Panama (74).

After the Cuba series, Canada will meet the 22nd-ranked Americans in October and November to determine the League A group winner who will advance to the Nations League final four.

“If you win the final four, I think it puts you in a good position to qualify for the Hex, but not guaranteed,” said Herdman. “We’re behind El Salvador and Panama at the minute. Destiny is in their hands. We’re playing a chase-up game which I think the players are excited for.”

It’s typical Herdman. A dose of realism sweetened with a large dollop of enthusiasm.

If the Canadian coach was driving and suffered four blowouts at the same time, he’d likely see it as an opportunity to test out a new brand of tires.

The Canadian men were 6-0-0 under Herdman going into the CONCACAF tournament with a 21-1 edge in goals. That success against lesser opposition raised expectations with the Haiti defeat putting the brakes on Canadian optimism.

Now Herdman looks to get his team moving again.

While Canada beat Cuba 7-0 in Gold Cup group play, Herdman has talked up the Cubans in recent days. He maintains the Gold Cup meeting wasn’t representative of Cuba, which had already been eliminated from the tournament and seen players defect.

Cuban manager Pablo Elier Sanchez, the team’s former conditioning coach who took over from Raul Mederos after the Gold Cup, has reportedly injected some youth into his squad for Saturday’s encounter at BMO Field.

“I think they’re coming into this game with new optimism … I think you’ll expect a stubborn and resilient Cuba team,” said Herdman. “If they score first, it could be a very tough match.”

Canada holds a 7-2-3 career record against the Cubans, outscoring them 20-9. The Canadians have never lost to Cuba on home soil in four meetings (3-0-1).

Canada is without veteran midfielders Atiba Hutchinson and Scott Arfield because of injury. Junior Hoilett and Samuel Piette will serve as co-captains in their absence.

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