'No messing around': John Herdman's Canada must be ruthless not only in word, but in action

Canadian men's national team head coach John Herdman made clear his strategy for the next three years: He will play his best players, try to win relentlessly and convincingly, and hope his team will surge into the 2026 World Cup filled with venom and self-belief. That plan may now also include insisting his best penalty taker to be the one to take those spot kicks.

Head coach hints Jonathan David will need to take meaningful penalty kicks

Two men's soccer players vie for the ball
Canadian forward Jonathan David, left, battles for the ball with Honduran defender Devron Garcia (2) during the second half of a CONCACAF Nations League soccer match in Toronto on Tuesday. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Before the Canadian men took the field against Honduras in Toronto on Tuesday, head coach John Herdman made clear his strategy not only for the match, but for the next three years: He will play his best players, try to win relentlessly and convincingly, and hope his team will surge into the 2026 World Cup filled with venom and self-belief.

"It's not, look, we're gonna test the waters, try lots of new players, experiment for two years," he said. "It's the same path, the same mindset: What can we be first at? What do we need to do to make sure that, as a group, the confidence is there to go into a World Cup and really compete at it?

"Winning things is going to be important."

The dominant 4-1 victory that followed will give Herdman's team the chance to win something: the CONCACAF Nations League finals in Las Vegas in June.

But if the Canadian men are serious about lifting a trophy—sacrificing the development of young players or new tactics in favour of hard, present-day results—then they must be ruthless not only in word, but in action. They need to be clinical.

Jonathan David, one of the most in-form strikers in the world and a penalty specialist for French side Lille, must start taking their spot kicks.

"I can't promise you anything," Herdman said after Tuesday's game, when David watched a teammate take a penalty for a third consecutive time and miss for a second. "I wish I could."

Toward the end of the first half, a Honduran handball gave the hosts a kick from the spot. David stood in brief consultation with Cyle Larin.

"I'm looking down the sideline with one eye going, Go on, Jonny, take it," Herdman said. "But at the same time, Go on, give it to Cyle."

Larin had already scored twice. He wanted his hat trick, and part of his coach wanted it for him, too. David nodded, gave his teammate an encouraging pat, and retreated once again from the box.

WATCH | Larin strikes twice to help Canada past Honduras in Toronto:

Canada advances to CONCACAF Nations League semifinals with win over Honduras

6 months ago
Duration 1:56
Cyle Larin scores two early goals and Canada goes on to defeat Honduras 4-1 in CONCACAF Nations League group play. The Canadian squad will play in the tournament's final four in Las Vegas in June.

The hat trick didn't come. Larin pushed his soft shot wide to the right.

In the game's grand scheme, the error didn't much matter. The home team was electric, overrunning an outclassed Honduras. David got his inevitable-seeming goal in the 49th minute, and Canadian soccer fans began thinking about making a summer trip to the desert.

This was Herdman's "New Canada" at the height of its powers, and the result was never in doubt.

Still: Larin's miss is the sort of haunting thing that this team can't invite upon itself anymore. In November, in the 11th minute of Canada's opening World Cup match against vaunted Belgium, the men were awarded a penalty. A goal would have been more than a dream start; it would have been historic.

David had the ball in his hands. Alphonso Davies took the kick instead.

Davies' poor effort was stopped by Thibault Courtois, who said after that he knew exactly where Davies was going to shoot—because Davies had taken two penalties in his life and put both in the same spot. Belgium went on to win, 1-0.

At the time, David had taken 12 spot kicks. He had scored nine of them. He has scored five more for Lille since, including two in the same game on March 10. He has scored seven in a row and hasn't missed since August 2022.

WATCH | David, Larin lead Canada over Curacao:

A pair of goals is all that's required as Canada defeats Curaçao

6 months ago
Duration 1:37
Jonathan David had a goal and an assist Saturday in a 2-0 win over Curaçao in CONCACAF Nations League semifinal action.

Asked on Tuesday whether he'd name a designated penalty taker going forward, Herdman said he already has: "His name is Jonathan David."

Then why isn't he taking them for Canada? Before Larin against Honduras, before Davies against Belgium, David gave up the ball to Lucas Cavallini in the final moments of a pre-World Cup friendly against Japan.

Cavallini scored at least, albeit with a Panenka that the Japanese keeper nearly saved.

"If he tries a Panenka, I'm gonna kill him," Herdman told his bench moments before Cavallini did just that.

A man wearing a black jacket gestures in jubilation.
Canadian men's national team head coach John Herdman pumps his fist during his team's match against Honduras on Tuesday in Toronto. Canada won the match 4-1. (Aaron Dutra/CBC Sports)

On that occasion, Herdman had cooled down by the time he was asked whether he'd demand that David take the next penalty.

"No," he said. "I'll let the lads sort that one out. At the end of the day, they play the game."

After Larin's miss, Herdman finally grew a little less ambivalent about David's recent streak of generosity. He even made something that sounded like a promise.

"The last time [he gave up the ball], it didn't turn out. Tonight, it didn't turn out again. I think in a Nations League final, there's no messing around. There's one man who's going to take that penalty at that time, hat tricks or no hat tricks."

Hopefully his name will be Jonathan David.


Chris Jones

Senior Contributor

Chris Jones is a journalist and screenwriter who began his career covering baseball and boxing for the National Post. He later joined Esquire magazine, where he won two National Magazine Awards for his feature writing. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine (RIP), and WIRED, and he is the author of the book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @EnswellJones

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