Canadian men's 36-year World Cup drought should officially end this week
Could come as early as Thursday with game in Costa Rica
The Canadian men's team is almost there.
Barring an unprecedented collapse in qualifying, Canada's 36-year World Cup drought will end this week when coach John Herdman's side punches its ticket for this year's tournament in Qatar, Nov. 21-Dec. 18.
With three games remaining, Canada tops the table in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying with a 7-0-4 record, and with 25 points enjoys an eight-point advantage over fourth-place Panama's 17. The United States and Mexico are tied for second place with 21, while Costa Rica is fifth with 16 points. The top three in the eight-team group automatically qualify for Qatar.
Canada's remaining schedule:
- March 24: at Costa Rica, 10 p.m. ET
- March 27: vs. Jamaica in Toronto, 4 p.m. ET
- March 30: at Panama, 9 p.m. ET
A win against Costa Rica would clinch a World Cup berth for Canada and send it back to the tournament for the first time since 1986 in Mexico, Canada's only previous World Cup appearance. Even if Canada doesn't win in Costa Rica, it could still clinch on Thursday if other results go its way, most notably a Panama loss.
As it stands, it would be harder for the undefeated Canadians to fail to qualify, so it appears inevitable they are going to book their spot at the World Cup. It's just a matter of when it will happen during this international window.
The historic sense of the occasion is not lost on the Canadian players.
"We're aware of how close we are. It's exciting," midfielder Jonathan Osorio said.
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Still, there is an overwhelming sense inside the Canadian camp that the team can't allow itself to get swept up in the excitement, or take its eye off the ball for a single second. They need to show the same singular focus in dispatching the region's top nations (including wins over higher-ranked Mexico and the U.S.) to get to this point in order to cross the finish line.
"It's tough because there's so much you hear, so much from the outside. Even my own family members: 'Oh my God, you're almost there.' It's tough to ignore," said Osorio, who plays professionally for Toronto FC of the Major Soccer League. "But at the same time, I try to keep my feet on the ground. It still hasn't happened yet. We have to make it happen."
'We're not finished'
It's a sentiment echoed by teammate Mark-Anthony Kaye, who said the Canadian team is staying in the moment.
"We pride ourselves on being humble," Kaye said. "At the same time, we know we've done a good job, but we haven't really done anything yet. We haven't gotten to our goal. I think the humble part is keeping us on task … It allows us to hold each other accountable because we know that there's a bigger goal at the end, and we're not there yet."
Fellow midfielder Liam Fraser added: "It's definitely a time where people can get ahead of themselves ... The mindset here [of] players coming into camp is at the end of the day the job hasn't been completed yet, we're not finished.
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"Until we cross the 't's' and dot the 'i's' everyone's mindset is we have to go into this first game, and second game and third game with the mentality we have to win."
Canada finds itself in this advantageous position after a hugely successful January window that saw it record wins over Honduras, the U.S. and El Salvador to keep alive its unbeaten streak in the CONCACAF qualifiers.
Like they did two months ago, the Canadians are slated to play three games in three different countries over a seven-day period. It's a gruelling schedule, but the stakes are much higher this time.
"It's going to be a very similar window with the amount of travel, and I think these games will be a little bit more intense just because we are getting to the end of qualifying, and two of the teams [Costa Rica and Panama] are fighting for the last two spots of qualifying. They're big games," Osorio said.
A quick look at Herdman's 25-man roster reveals one notable absence, that of star Alphonso Davies.
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Davies, 21, has been sidelined for both his pro club, Bayern Munich, and Canada's team since January when he was diagnosed with myocarditis, a mild heart condition, following a bout of COVID. He returned to training last week, but Bayern manager Julian Nagelsmann said Davies is at least three weeks away from returning, which ruled him out for Canada's upcoming matches.
Ordinarily, the loss of Davies would be a big blow for the Canadians, as the Bayern Munich star is widely regarded as one of the best left fullbacks in the world. He's also been a key contributor to Canada's attack, with five goals during these CONCACAF qualifiers, and 10 goals and 15 assists in 30 appearances (26 starts) since making his international debut in 2017.
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But Canada proved it can more than get by without its top star, posting three huge wins in January's international window when Davies was also ruled out.
This qualifying campaign has been a grind for Canada, but it's also been a magical ride for the team, one that Herdman will be sad to see come to a conclusion next week in Panama.
"I don't think anyone wants it to end. We've really enjoyed the experience," Herdman said. "When you look back there's been some amazing moments that have shaped the team. As a coach, as a staff, as a player group we've grown. We've grown massively through this period."