National team head coach, John Herdman discusses the successful joint North American bid by Canada, the U.S. and Mexico to host the 2026 World Cup at a press conference in Toronto on Wednesday, June 13, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

Canadian soccer coach John Herdman says hosting World Cup gives country clarity

TORONTO — The prospect of coaching a World Cup on home soil helped draw John Herdman to leave his New Zealand coaching job to take over the Canadian women.

“Are we the favourites for this event? No,” Herdman told a news conference in Edmonton in June 2015 on the eve of his Canadian team kicking off the Women’s World Cup. “Can we get on a roll in this tournament with our country behind us? Yes.”

Inspire the nation was the Canadian women’s mantra three years ago. Now Herdman, in charge of the Canadian men’s program, has another home soccer showcase to look forward to in the wake of Wednesday’s vote awarding the 2026 men’s World Cup to the joint North American bid of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

“It’s fantastic. It’s big moment, a huge moment,” Herdman said in an interview. “I thought the Women’s World Cup in 2015 would be sort of the pinnacle of being part of Canadian football. But this is just massive for our country. I think we all know the impact this will have both on and off the field.

“So to be part of it, to be able to contribute some way, some how, it’s a privilege and an honour.”

FIFA and CONCACAF have yet to say whether all three co-hosts will have automatic qualification for 20236 as is the norm. Given the expanded field of 48 teams — and seven slots for CONCACAF in 2026 as compared to 3 1/2 in the current smaller 32-team version — and the fact that the home teams will sell tickets, it would be a stunner if they weren’t a prominent feature.

Herdman has his eyes on another World Cup as well.

“Look, I hope I’m going to be part of the men’s one in Qatar 2022,” he said.

Herdman says his current crop of players has a “deep-burning desire” to qualify for Qatar. Canada has only made one men’s World Cup — in 1986 in Mexico when it lost three straight without scoring a goal.

But he says the successful World Cup bid “changes the landscape,” offering youth something to shoot for as well as “clarity to all of those people who are passionate about our game.”

“It gives them something to get inspired about and to unite around. I think that’s probably the most important thing that’s going to happen to this game, having seen some of that in New Zealand (where he coached the national women’s team prior to Canada) when the team qualified for the first time in 20-odd years.

“Big moments like this tend to connect countries. People pool their passion and focus their passion because they can see what they want. And what they’ll want is a Canadian team, not just to participate but to have success, to go as deep as possible, to overachieve. That’s the key word here — to go beyond expectations in these events.”

Herdman, whose women’s team finished sixth at the 2015 World Cup, says the successful bid means the Canadian men’s braintrust can now look at its young talent with a roadmap in hand.

“Whether that’s (Vancouver Whitecaps teenage star midfielder) Alphonso Davies, (Liverpool reserve forward) Liam Millar. They’re the current crop that people are projecting now for 2026. But there will other Alphonsos who are 18 in 2026 as well.

“We’re reaping the benefits of our football system. And I’m only confident that the football system will continue to improve with MLS working alongside Canada Soccer working alongside CPL (Canadian Premier League), and creating a triad there of football opportunities for players to springboard into a 2026 World Cup.

Herdman pointed to Mauro Biello, the former Montreal Impact coach now in charge of identifying Canadian under-23 talent, as a key man. A similar position for the under-20 ranks is soon to be announced.

“These people are not just coaches,” Herdman said. “They’re people who have to take care of strategy, that will deliver a team that can win games at this World Cup, not just participate or compete.”

Herdman says a men’s World Cup team would normally average between 26 and 28 years old — which would mean players who are between 18 and 20 right now. But he says talent not age will determine his team, noting a player like the 17-year-old Davies bucks all trends.

“It could be a very young team that goes into the 2026 World Cup,” Herdman said.

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