‘Let’s get it done’: Herdman urges Canada’s men’s soccer team to complete World Cup journey in Costa Rica

Canada’s men began their World Cup qualifying campaign a year ago this week — in an empty stadium in Florida, during one of COVID’s grim peaks, with a win over Bermuda. So much literal and psychological distance has been covered by this team since, it’s hard to remember each step along the way. But that’s how this incredible journey began: in silence, in semidarkness.

Now there is no shortage of noise and light. Canada is poised to play its 18th game in qualifying and somehow remains undefeated and on top of CONCACAF’s qualifying standings, having posted wins over the favored likes of Mexico, the United States, and Panama. A win against Costa Rica on Thursday night, and Canada will be going to Qatar, its first men’s World Cup since 1986.

One more win and another journey begins.

“I don’t think anyone wants it to end,” head coach John Herdman said Wednesday in advance of the match at Estadio Nacional, where vendors were set up beside the traffic jams, selling strings of red Costa Rican jerseys, more than 48 hours before the opening whistle. “We’ve really enjoyed the experience.”

Well, maybe not the entire experience. Those hazy early days unfolded on soccer’s less glamorous margins. After four opening-stage victories, Canada’s men had to play Haiti twice, home and away, just to earn entry into the final stage, called the Octagonal, let alone try to win it.

WATCH | Canada vs Costa Rica preview:

Canada’s chance to clinch Qatar 2022 spot in Costa Rica

The Canadian men’s national soccer team is within touching distance of clinching a World Cup berth for just the second time in the program’s history. A win or a tie under the right circumstances in Costa Rica on Thursday would seal the deal. CRC Futbol’s Eddie Mendez joins to discuss the upcoming match, as Costa Rica pushes for a top 4 spot in World Cup qualifying. 5:48

“If I you’d asked was I enjoying it as I was entering the stadium in Haiti? No,” Herdman said with a laugh. “But when you look back, there’s been some amazing moments that have shaped the team.”

Alphonso Davies’ stunning solo effort against Panama in front of a frantic Toronto crowd last October first earned a place in the national imagination. Wins over Costa Rica and Mexico on a frozen field in Edmonton in November saw this team thawing out under a far hotter spotlight. Gaining maximum points during the previous qualifying window, including a 2-0 domination of the Americans on a blue-sky January day in Hamilton, made Canada an almost certain bet to go to Qatar.

Will the men guarantee their spot with a win here? (A tie or even a loss might be enough depending on the results of other matches that night, including the United States traveling to Mexico and Panama hosting Honduras, but Herdman has made it clear to his players that their focus should be fully on their own game.)

Historically, not much has separated the two sides. Costa Rica is a challenging team to play at home, at altitude, and los ticos are still in the qualifying mix, with everything to play for. The game in Edmonton was nervy, physical, and close despite the supposed cold-weather advantage for the Canadians. The Costa Ricans put up a bitter fight before they finally had to accept a 1-0 defeat. Here, they’ll fight harder.

WATCH | Canada beats Costa Rica in Edmonton:

Meet the team that’s trying to qualify Canada for the 2022 World Cup

Brendan Dunlop introduces you to the faces who are trying to lead Canada to their first world cup qualification since 1986 3:53

But before virtually every game the Canadians have played over the course of this remarkable year, a similar case against them could be made. When a team hasn’t appeared in a World Cup in nearly four decades, there’s an easy counter to every optimistic argument. Qualifying seemed close to impossible on that long-ago night in Florida. The road ahead was so long, and the history of failure longer.

None of the past has turned out to matter. A new, happy history for Canada has been written, improbable result after improbable result.

“You start believing, anything can happen,” Herdman said. When he took over this team in 2018, he was ranked 94th in the world by FIFA, one spot above the Faroe Islands, and 10th in CONCACAF, behind even Curacao and Trinidad and Tobago. Today Canada ranks 33rd globally, its highest-ever heights, and sits several runs nearer the top when it comes to great stories in world sports.

The impossible now feels inevitable.

“We’ve got Costa Rica sitting right in front of us,” Herdman said. “Let’s get it done.”

WATCH | Meet Team Canada:

Canada beats Costa Rica in World Cup qualifier match

The Canadian men’s soccer team defeated Costa Rica in one of its most important matches for the World Cup qualifiers. For star player Alphonso Davies, this game marked a homecoming of sorts as he grew up playing soccer in Edmonton. 3:44

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