Canadian men’s World Cup journey is about to get real

John Herdman, the coach of Canada’s men’s national soccer team, wears his worry on his face.

Speaking to reporters from his Slovakian hotel room last week — ahead of all-important friendlies against World Cup-host Qatar in Vienna on Friday (1 pm ET), and Uruguay in Bratislava, Slovakia on Tuesday (noon ET) — he appeared wan, anxious, not his usual exuberant self.

He admitted that lately his nights have been interrupted by more than jet lag.

“These last four months since June, there just seems to be so much happening,” he said. “Some super positive, and some things that, yeah, are keeping me up at night.”

June was a reference to Canada’s previous international window, which was a debacle from the start. After guiding his team to its first World Cup in 36 years, Herdman could only watch when everything he’d so carefully built began falling apart around him.

First, Canada Soccer’s proposed Vancouver friendly against Iran was canceled because it was an unforgivably bad idea; a hastily arranged stop-gap match against Panama was then scuttled by a player strike over their World Cup wages.

That dispute remains unresolved. And now, just two months from Canada’s World Cup opener against vaunted Belgium on Nov. 23, Herdman’s navigation of a litany of other dilemmas will dictate whether he’s able to answer, positively, one overarching question: can he recapture the sense of joy, brotherhood, and predetermination that got his team to Qatar in the first place?

“I’ve got no doubt difficult decisions are coming,” he said. “There are a lot of moving parts at this point.”

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Unusual World Cup schedule

Unusually, this year’s World Cup will be held in the winter to avoid the worst of Qatar’s heat, interrupting the European club season. That’s compressed the fixture schedules for Canada’s best players, including Alphonso Davies at Bayern Munich, Stephen Eustáquio at Porto, and Jonathan David at Lille, raising concerns of fatigue and injury.

Atiba Hutchinson, one of Canada’s spiritual leaders and the veteran captain of Turkish giant Beşiktaş, will miss this window with a bone bruise that will sideline him at least until the end of October. It would be something like a tragedy if he can’t play in the tournament he fought so hard to reach.

“It’s a tough situation,” Herdman said. “I can’t hide from it. If there’s anyone you want to see at a World Cup, it’s Atiba Hutchinson.”

In Hutchinson’s absence, David (Junior) Hoilett will take over as captain.

Tajon Buchanan, one of Canada’s most dynamic young attackers, has also been reduced to spectating so far this season. He’s recovering from a quad injury he suffered with Club Brugge, and although he’ll be present for the Uruguay portion of the window, he’s unlikely to play.

“Both club and country are trying to wrap him in cotton wool,” Herdman said.

With any luck, Canada’s roster won’t prove as injury-depleted as its European counterparts, because not as many Canadians play in the top leagues. France alone is missing a dozen players this window, including Karim Benzema, Hugo Lloris, and Ngolo Kanté. Germany’s Marco Reds wept after injuring his ankle playing for Dortmund last week, fearing he had lost his chance to go to Qatar.

Every country is a slip away from disaster.

Star Alphonso Davies will be expected to lead Canada’s offense. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Another concern for Herdman

Herdman has another, opposite concern: Several of his key players are Major League Soccer professionals, and they’ll face long competitive breaks before the World Cup kicks off. Worse, many are missing the playoffs, extending their off-seasons.

On Toronto FC alone, Jonathan Osorio, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Richie Laryea, and Doneil Henry (who recently suffered a hamstring injury) will be home by early October.

While a short recovery period might have been in order, six weeks out of competition is too much of a good thing, pushing players past the realm of rest and into the kingdom of rust.

Soccer players are ridiculously fit, able to drop an elevated heart rate by 50 beats in a minute, but that level of conditioning requires constant maintenance.

So, crucially for Canada, does team spirit.

The Canadian men topped CONCACAF to qualify for the World Cup in part because they are young and talented, but also because of the sense of purpose and unity Herdman has instilled in them.

They lugged a literal sword around, inscribed in Latin: Nihil timendum est. “Nothing should be feared.”

That’s all well and good when you have to beat the likes of Haiti. Now they’re about to meet their stiffest competition in decades — Canada has rarely faced a team with the quality and ambition of 13th-ranked Uruguay — spending their last frenzied hours together before they reunite once again in Qatar to take on the world.

No wonder John Herdman is a little sleepless.

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