Canada Soccer's John Herdman searches for silver lining amid COVID-19 cloud

John Herdman had planned to be coaching the Canadian men's soccer team against Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday in Langford, B.C. Instead he was in his Vancouver-area home, working on a weekend coaching webinar and other duties.

Men's head coach says team, like rest of world, in holding pattern currently

Canada head coach John Herdman raises his fist to the crowd after beating Cuba 6-0 in 2019. Herdman had planned to be coaching the Canadian men's soccer team against Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday in Langford, B.C. Instead he was in his Vancouver-area home, working on a coaching webinar and other duties. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

John Herdman had planned to be coaching the Canadian men's soccer team against Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday in Langford, B.C.

Instead he was in his Vancouver-area home, working on a weekend coaching webinar and other duties.

"It's a strange feeling ... Just another layer of [the] reality of what we're dealing with now," he said. "When football stops, you know there must be a crisis in the world. There's nothing much that seems to stop football anywhere.

"But to actually think that we've had to forget about football and start focusing on our health, to collectively fight against something, you just never imagined it would be in your lifetime."

In typical Herdman fashion, he looks for the silver lining in the dark COVID-19 cloud currently above all of us.

"I keep saying to the staff ... we've got to keep looking for the opportunities and there's been some real opportunities to dig in," he said.

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On the football front, that has included strategic planning, statistical analysis and tactical reviews as well as starting scouting possible World Cup qualifying opponents.

With the world understandably preoccupied with the pandemic, there has been no word on whether the CONCACAF qualifying path has changed with the ongoing schedule disruptions.

"Who knows? Everything is up in the air," said Herdman.

The Canadian men, currently ranked 73rd in the world and seventh in CONCACAF, are chasing El Salvador (No. 69 in the world and sixth in CONCACAF) in a bid to move past the Central Americans in the ratings. That's because the top six CONCACAF teams after the June international window will advance to the so-called Hex, the most direct route of World Cup qualifying out of the region.

The top three teams in the Hex will book their ticket to Qatar 2022.

Teams ranked seventh through 35th in CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean, face a more convoluted route. The last team standing will face the fourth-place finisher in the Hex to determine the CONCACAF representative in an intercontinental playoff.

Waiting on next steps

Canada planned March 27 and 31 games against No. 105 Trinidad in a bid to gain needed ranking points and close the 14-point gap on El Salvador. With the March matches cancelled and the June international window possibly coming and going without competition, Canada Soccer awaits word on what's next.

"We haven't been officially informed of anything yet," said Herdman. "And I think everyone is just giving each other the grace to focus probably on themselves and their families and then to look at some of the bigger impacts that the virus is having on the game.

"So I think those decisions will be made by FIFA and CONCACAF and at the right time will be passed down the line to us. But we'll be ready. That's the catchcry internally."

Herdman expects a congested schedule when soccer returns, so being prepared is key given time may be short.

Most of Canada's overseas players remain abroad, either penned in by travel restrictions or opting to stay near their teams given the certainty of when soccer may resume. But later seems to have replaced sooner.

"I would say people are now realizing it's going to be prolonged," said Herdman, who believes the pandemic will "affect the game massively."

A Canada Soccer committee is looking at short-, medium- and long-term scenarios, as well as "best and worse scenarios" on when the sport returns. It's not easy in an ever-changing landscape.

"Every week it's like a new reality for people — and then a new layer of discussion and understanding about what the impacts could be," said Herdman. "So I think for all us, we're just hoping for that good news that the country has been able to stabilize ... and we can start really looking to plan for the future."

'People are coming together'

As is his wont, the 44-year-old English native sees some good in the situation. And he hopes, with the right attitude, the game could emerge stronger.

"What's been uplifting, and I think the opportunity or the silver lining you see, is people are coming together," he said. "It's been like a reset button for a lot of people, where you've had to think about other people, you've had to think about the organization.

"I think collectively it's just great to see that a moment like this is bringing people together. I just hope long may it last as all of us prepare for this to be a prolonged experience."

With his players scattered around the globe, Herdman is accustomed to working remotely. He says those systems and structures have helped in the current situation.

Players on the national team's leadership group met remotely last Friday. One-on-one "connects" with the players are coming up. Work continues at the younger age levels.

Ensconced at home with wife Claire and their 10-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son, Herdman is enjoying family time as well.

"It's been an interesting journey, because the staying at home has really brought the family together," he said. "My wife and I were talking recently, just saying it's been great watching my teenage son sort of nurturing my daughter. They don't usually spend this time together.

"So these are the silver linings ... It's brought us together. And I think there'll be a lot of families feeling the same."

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