John Herdman, the coach of the Canada national football team, has his concern on his face.
Speaking to reporters from his Slovakian hotel room last week — ahead of key friendlies against World Cup host Qatar in Vienna on Friday (1:00 p.m. ET), and Uruguay in Bratislava, Slovakia on Tuesday (1:00 p.m. ET) – he seemed pale, anxious, not his usual exuberant self.
He admitted his nights had been interrupted lately by more than just jet lag.
“There just seems to be so much happening in the last four months since June,” he said. “Some super-positive ones, and some things that, yeah, keep me up at night.”
June was a reference to Canada’s previous international window, which was a debacle from the start. After leading his team to the first World Cup in 36 years, Herdman could only watch as everything he had so carefully built around him began to fall apart.
First, Canada Soccer’s proposed friendly against Iran was canceled because it was an unforgivably bad idea; a hastily arranged stop-gap match against Panama was then sunk 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 determine whether he is able to answer one overarching question positively: can he experience the sense of joy, brotherhood recapture, and determination that brought his team to Qatar in the first place?
“I have no doubt that tough decisions are coming,” he said. “There are a lot of moving parts right now.”
VIEW | Chris Jones lists Canada’s World Cup friendlies:
Unusual World Cup Schedule
It is unusual for the World Cup to be held in winter this year to avoid Qatar’s worst heat, interrupting the European club season. That has compressed the playing schedules for Canada’s best players, including Alphonso Davies at Bayern Munich, Stephen Eustaquio at Porto and Jonathan David at Lille, raising concerns about fatigue and injuries.
Atiba Hutchinson, one of Canada’s spiritual leaders and the veteran captain of the Turkish giant Beşiktaş, will miss this diamond with a bone bruise that will keep him sidelined at least until the end of October. It would be a tragedy if he couldn’t play in the tournament he fought so hard for.
“It’s a difficult situation,” Herdman said. “I can’t hide from it. If there is anyone you want to see at a World Cup, it is Atiba Hutchinson.”
In the absence of Hutchinson, David (Junior) Hoilett will take over as captain.
Tajon Buchanan, one of Canada’s most dynamic young forwards, has also been limited to spectators so far this season. He is recovering from a quad injury sustained at Club Brugge, and while he will be present for the Uruguay portion of the window, he is unlikely to play.
“Both the club and the country are trying to wrap him up,” Herdman said.
With luck, Canada’s roster won’t be as exhausted as its European counterparts, as not so many Canadians play in the top leagues. Only France lacks a dozen players this window, including Karim Benzema, Hugo Lloris and Ngolo Kanté. Germany’s Marco Reds wept after injuring his ankle at Dortmund last week, fearing he’d lost his chance to go to Qatar.
Every country is one slip away from disaster.
Another concern for Herdman
Herdman has another, opposing concern: Some of his key players are Major League Soccer professionals, and they will face long competitive breaks before the World Cup begins. Worse, many miss the playoffs and extend their off-seasons.
At Toronto FC alone, Jonathan Osorio, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Richie Laryea and Doneil Henry (who recently suffered a hamstring injury) will be home in early October.
While a brief recovery period would have been in order, six weeks out of competition is too much of a good thing, pushing players beyond the realm of tranquility and into the kingdom of rust.
Soccer players are ridiculously fit and can lower an elevated heart rate by 50 beats in a minute, but that level of fitness requires constant maintenance.
So, crucial for Canada is the team spirit.
The Canadian men topped CONCACAF to qualify for the World Cup, partly because they are young and talented, but also because of the sense of purpose and unity Herdman instilled in them.
They literally lug around a sword, engraved in Latin: Nihil timendum est. “Nothing is to be feared.”
That’s all well and good if you have to beat Haiti. Now they are about to meet their toughest competition in decades – Canada has rarely met a team with the quality and ambition of 13th-ranked Uruguay – spending their last frenzied hours together before reuniting in Qatar to take on the world. to conquer.
No wonder John Herdman is a little sleepless.