Canada’s World Cup was a failure, but the future appears bright

Just before ’s final game of the , John Herdman pounded a desk emphatically to prove a point.

“We’re a football country,” said Canada’s head coach. “We’re there. You can’t deny that.”

A little over 24 hours later, many Canadians watching the men’s national team on the other side of the world likely pounded their fists way harder and made a case to the contrary.

Canada’s World Cup ended with a 2-1 loss against on Thursday, completing a depressing record: zero wins, three losses, and a -5 goal differential.

The men’s national team came into this World Cup as a candidate to surprise. Instead, the only thing preventing Canada from being the worst team in this World Cup, on par with , one of the worst teams in modern World Cup history, was a second-half own goal that came in Thursday’s loss.

Yes, Canada came oh so close to finding a tying goal with an header. The ball literally bounced off the goal line. Soccer, like so many sports, is a game of inches.

But that fine margin and compliments from others, which Canada received in spades including notably from Belgian assistant coach Thierry Henry, shouldn’t hide how wide the margin between Canada and the teams they played truly is.

Canada’s goals were clear: Be the first Canadian team to play fearless, entertaining soccer, be the first team to score a goal, be the first team to get a result and be the first team to get out of the group.

After the game, there was an understanding among players that they lacked experience on the pitch d on the sidelines and the quality (though some denied the second part) that , and Morocco had. And because of that, they didn’t achieve most of their stated objectives. That constitutes a failure.

They also agreed that this experience, as jagged a little pill as it was to swallow, will help Canada in the long run.

There is some small consolation in Canada finishing the loss against Morocco with 1.39 xG to Morocco’s 0.43. Canada owned a better xG than Belgium in their game, too.

But as revealing as the underlying statistics are, I don’t know how many people will remember Canada’s positive xG in the tournament instead of the glaring “0” beside the number of points they attained. What they will remember is the gap in quality between the Canadian team and its opponents.

Morocco’s first goal came off a horrific blunder that saw him come way too far off his line, which allowed to calmly chip home a goal from 35 yards out. But that wasn’t the only instant that raised questions about what, exactly, Canada’s plan was in this game.

In a few instances, tried to connect with but their timing was off and those passes drifted off into the ether, which makes you wonder why Davies moved to the right side when Johnston and had developed demonstrable chemistry.

Johnston, for one, was getting literally pushed over by Moroccan defenders. While Davies’ dribbling is one of his great assets, he too often tried to play hero ball (though there were times when it worked).

Watching Morocco’s dribble his way through Canada’s midfield duo of and with relative ease before Morocco flooded the box and Canada relied on a somewhat desperate clearance spoke to how questionable it was for Canada to line up with a two-man midfield.

John Herdman deserves credit for motivating his players to a point that had them believing they could hang with great teams. But some of his tactical decisions, especially against Croatia and Morocco, missed the mark.

When Canada switched from a two to a three-man midfield in the second half against Morocco, the team looked more in control of the game. didn’t miss a step, directing his teammates where to go with his passes. Even if hindsight is 20/20, Koné was known to be his type of player already. What got in the way of rolling the dice with Koné in a game where Herdman expressly wanted to play front-foot, entertaining soccer?

It’s worth noting: Canada did have a remarkably difficult group to get through. And the squad still contains so much potential. They tried to push that potential onto the world stage with an outward sense of resilience, togetherness and emotional willpower. None of those three elements could cover up for a largely flat midfield, a lack of finish from their forwards and defending that was too easy for the opposition to bypass.

It was only a sense of desperation that propelled them in the second half, which gave way to a sense of overwhelming sadness after the game. Players could only speak in hollow tones, reflecting back on how long their 20-game journey was to qualify, but now somewhat overwhelmed with the realization of how far they have to go.

“It’s experience,” told The Athletic postgame. “When we played Belgium, how many players have games and World Cup games? They have the experience to manage games and they know what the team needs at certain points. We’re not at that level yet.”

This Canadian core can no longer claim to lack experience. But still, with the talent at their disposal, to come away from the World Cup with three losses and just two goals, one of them being an own goal is a failure. It was a remarkable achievement to get through World Cup qualifying in the dominant manner they did, but accepting this tournament as anything less than that suggests Canada will be satisfied with poor results moving forward. No other “football nation” would be.

And that’s why 2026, when Canada co-hosts the World Cup is so crucial. If Canada is truly indeed going to be a football nation, as Herdman and so many players after the game stated it was, then a few things need to happen.

First, a nation of fans and critics need to not be comfortable with moral victories in the pursuit of success. The absolute minimum expectation now is qualifying for the World Cup. Scrutiny should heighten. In some ways it already has; Herdman was questioned about his tactical choices after the Morocco game in a way he hasn’t been in the past.

Those questions will continue because improvements have to follow. The qualitative gap has to be closed by Herdman becoming a far more tactically inventive manager. And with a lack of qualification games, Canadian players will need to make serious developmental strides with their club sides. More and more players need to find moves to Europe so they will be tested on their own to become more hardened in pressure-filled situations and tested in training and games so that their own technical qualities improve.

There is reason to be optimistic that these and other developments will happen.

By 2026, it feels likely Davies will be considered among the best defenders in the world, assuming he stays in a left back role for Bayern Munich. With continued technical development, maybe even becoming one of the best wide midfielders in the world is an attainable goal. As Davies goes, so too does Canada.

Buchanan epitomized the lack of fear Herdman wants his players to play with. He was daring on the ball, taking on opponents with his dribbling and serving as the X-Factor when he needed to be. He was Canada’s best player all tournament. Buchanan should be able to be the secondary game-breaker Canada need with continued development.

“I think in every game he had one of those moments that only the top, top players show,” said Herdman of Buchanan.

has his sights set on a move from Lille to a top-15 club in all of Europe. When or whether that happens remains to be seen, but if he does move, the hope is that the training requirements that come with playing for a massive club will also turn him into a player who can contribute goals and assists regularly for Canada. Still just 22, he could, if all goes well, end up playing four World Cups for Canada in his lifetime.

Kone should just be one of many more examples of Canadian stalwarts moving abroad. Alistair Johnston’s move to is done. Jonathan Osorio wants to test himself in Europe and should move this winter. The same goes for Koné. Stephen Eustaquio should be moved from Porto to a top-four league come 2026. Dayne St. Clair has European aspirations, as he should, and should battle Maxime Crepeau for the starting goalkeeper job come 2026.

There is also now infrastructure that didn’t exist in past cycles. The Canadian Premier League began play in 2019 and many of the teams in the league appear committed to providing young, local players with valuable professional experience.

The players who often drew the most questions about their play on the field were the ones who likely won’t be part of the set-up in 2026.

Whether all these reasons for optimism come to fruition remains to be seen. But there is hope.

After the game, Herdman chose not to address his group. Instead, Atiba Hutchinson did. He told them they had to be proud of what they did, but left them with a hope that the entire program is likely feeling.

“We represented our country very well,” said Hutchinson. “Unfortunately we didn’t get results, which obviously is what everybody looks at by the end of the day. But we all need to be proud. We’ll continue to get better from here.”

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