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Confident Canadian men’s soccer team ready for marathon push toward 2022 World Cup qualification

Confident Canadian men's soccer team ready for marathon push toward 2022 World Cup qualification

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After more than two decades of eating dinner at the kids’ table, the Canadian men’s soccer team is about to join the grown ups for the main course.

Canada hosts Honduras on Thursday night (8:05 p.m. ET) at Toronto’s BMO Field as it resumes its qualifying campaign for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. The Reds then travel to Nashville to take on the United States on Sunday (8 p.m. ET), before returning home to BMO Field on Wednesday, Sept. 8 (7:30 p.m. ET) to host El Salvador.

This is uncharted territory for all 22 members of coach John Herdman’s side — the men’s team hasn’t reached the final round of the CONCACAF qualifiers since the 1998 World Cup in France.

Back then, Canada stumbled its way to a last-place finish, winning one of just 10 games and scoring just five goals along the way.

A lot has changed since then.

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Today, the men’s team boasts more genuine quality and depth than ever before, with marquee players plying their trade at top European clubs — most notably Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich) and Jonathan David (Lille OSC).

WATCH | Karina LeBlanc discusses Canada’s men’s soccer team’s path toward 2022 World Cup:

Karina LeBlanc on Canadian men’s soccer team’s ‘historic’ journey to the 2022 World Cup

Former national team goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc speaks to Anastasia Bucsis about the team’s final round of CONCACAF qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. 6:19

Midfielder Atiba Hutchinson, who is set to compete in his fifth World Cup qualifying cycle, admitted that he never thought he’d be here playing at this final stage after Canada’s four previous qualifying attempts ended in hardship.

“This time around we’ve got a team that is full of talent; a lot of players who are playing in some good places, some good clubs around the world… This time around there’s a different feeling in the squad, and for everybody involved,” Hutchinson said.

“We’re just looking forward to getting this underway, getting started and just having a good run.”

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Tough task ahead

But that could be easier said than done for a Canadian team that still has a lot to prove. Canada has yet to be seriously tested thus far in its qualifying campaign, having won all six games in the preliminary rounds against lower-ranked opponents by a combined score of 31-1.

Overall, Canada has played 27 times and racked up 21 wins with only six losses since Herdman took charge in 2018. But the overwhelming majority of those victories came against CONCACAF minnows, and only twice has Canada defeated a higher-ranked nation in the Herdman era.

Advancing to the final round of the CONCACAF qualifiers is a major achievement for Canada, one that should be celebrated and enjoyed. But let’s also not kid ourselves about the daunting task facing Canada, because the journey the team has been on is about to get far more complicated.

What lies ahead for the Reds will be a true test of their mettle, and give fans a clear indication of where Canada stands in the CONCACAF region after more than two decades of underachievement.

A 14-match marathon from September to next March in “The Octagon” against the region’s heavyweights is what’s in store for Herdman’s side. Central America is where Canada’s dreams of qualifying for past World Cups have historically died, and Herdman’s team faces difficult away trips to Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and El Salvador in the months ahead.

Earning a 7-0 win over Aruba (ranked 201st out of 210 nations by FIFA) in a neutral site game staged in Florida with no fans in attendance is one thing. Defeating Mexico at Estadio Azteca before a hostile crowd is a completely different matter. Jamaica and the U.S. won’t exactly roll out the red carpet either, to say nothing of the fact their national teams aren’t exactly soft touches.

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WATCH | Canada takes shutout victory over Aruba:

Davies scores in Canada’s blowout win over Aruba

Alphonso Davies helped push Canada to a 7-0 win over Aruba at the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers. 1:35

Canada is 59th in the current FIFA world rankings, and of the other seven teams it’s about to face, four are ranked higher: Mexico (No. 9), the U.S. (No. 10), Costa Rica (No. 44) and Jamaica (No. 50). Hot on Canada’s tail are Honduras (No. 62), El Salvador (No. 64) and Panama (No. 74).

Only the top three teams at the end of the CONCACAF qualifiers advance to the World Cup. The fourth-place team faces a challenging two-game, international playoff against a top nation from one of the world’s other confederations.

Mexico remains the kingpins of CONCACAF, and is a lock for a top-three spot. The U.S. looks revitalized under coach Gregg Berhalter and has a point to prove after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

The Americans remain a CONCACAF powerhouse, and with a team full of dynamic young players, it’s a safe bet to pencil them in for a 2022 berth, too. 

That leaves Canada to fight it out with four other nations for the last remaining automatic berth and the playoff spot.

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Reason for hope this time around

Still, there are legitimate reasons to be optimistic that Canada can qualify for the World Cup, something it’s done only one other time, in 1986 in Mexico. Canada is playing with a swagger and confidence these days that long-suffering soccer fans in this country have rarely seen from the men’s side.

This is not the same Canadian team of bygone years. There is genuine hope, fuelled by an exciting and dynamic group of attacking players the calibre of Davies, David, Cyle Larin and others.

Canadian Cyle Larin, centre, battles for the ball during the first half of the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup match against the U.S. in Kansas City. (Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

A solid run to the semifinals at this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, which included a win over Costa Rica, and impressive displays against Mexico and the U.S., showed that Canada is capable of competing against the very best nations in the region in a short tournament.

Now they have to do it on a consistent basis over the next six months.

“With this squad, there’s a lot of confidence in the team,” Hutchinson said. “We go into games with a different mentality now. We believe that we can win against any team in this region. And the recent games and past success have shown that. It’s a different feeling this time around, for sure.”

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