John Herdman inherited a men’s team ranked 94th in the world when he took over from the fired Octavio Zambrano in January 2018.
And the extent of the challenge facing him became clear at his first camp with the men, in March 2018 in Murcia, Spain, when there were two fights in training.
“I was blown away,” Herdman recalled. “And people were saying ‘Oh this is men’s football.’ And I stood against it. I told the guys it’s not men’s football. You can fight with your opponent but you don’t fight internally. I’ll never see that again.”
Herdman says he inherited a dysfunctional team split into cliques.
“I said unless you’re willing to change this, this team’s going nowhere,” he said. “And over time, you’ve seen a shift. The leaders, for me, brought the culture together. Now we can have fractious moments, where people are competing and pushing each other’s levels where it doesn’t end up in a complete split in the environment.
“And I think over time the leadership group have understood the importance of shared purpose. They’ve understood the importance of their own humility in the environment and they’ve understood the importance of connecting every man and making every man feel part of this, regardless of what their race, their religion, their ages.”
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READ MORE: Alphonso Davies returns home to Edmonton to lead Canada closer to World Cup berth
Speak to any member of the team these days and they talk of a brotherhood. And they show that on the pitch. Take on one Canadian and chances are 10 more will come your way.
“You can have as many great players as you want, but if you don’t have that chemistry, that feeling of a family, it’s difficult to perform on the field. When we go on the field, we know that the guy beside us has our back and that we have his back,” said centre back Derek Cornelius.
The next test of that bond comes Friday when 48th-ranked Canada (2-0-4, 10 points) marks the halfway point of CONCACAF’s final round of World Cup qualifying with a game against No. 45 Costa Rica (1-2-3, six points) at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium. As of Thursday afternoon, Canada Soccer said 46,000 tickets had been sold.
READ MORE: Edmonton Transit, Commonwealth Stadium prepare for big soccer crowd
Canada currently stands third in the eight-team table while Costa Rica is fifth. After Costa Rica, the Canadian men will host No. 9 Mexico (which leads the standings at 4-0-2, 14 points) on Tuesday, also at Commonwealth Stadium.
Canada has yet to play Costa Rica in the Octagonal but tied Mexico 1-1 at Azteca Stadium last month.
Despite missing some big names, Canada comfortably beat Costa Rica 2-0 the last time they met, in Gold Cup quarterfinal play in July in Arlington, Texas.
The Canadian men are 5-8-9 against Costa Rica since 1985, including 1-3-2 in World Cup qualifying games.
READ MORE: Canada aims to score first but also not worried about getting behind early in World Cup qualifiers
Come March, the top three countries in the standings will qualify for Qatar 2022, representing North and Central America and the Caribbean. The fourth-place team will take part in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.
Friday could be a milestone night for 38-year-old captain Atiba Hutchinson, who is one appearance away from tying Julian de Guzman’s Canadian men’s of 89 caps. Christine Sinclair holds the Canadian women’s record of 306 caps, and counting.
It will also be a night to remember for Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies, who will play his first game as a professional in his hometown.
“He’s got to play the game and not this big occasion,” said Herdman. “He’s going to have 50,000 behind him if he starts showing his quality.”
Forward Cyle Larin, who was sidelined Wednesday by a stomach bug, was back in training Thursday.
Herdman, a renowned motivator known for his attention to detail, is no stranger to fixing programs.
The Canadian women’s team was broken when Herdman took over in the wake of a last-place finish at the 2011 World Cup. Herdman put the squad back together again, reminding them why they played soccer and for whom they did it.
READ MORE: Veteran Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio not interested in easy road to World Cup
The women rebounded from a roller-coaster semifinal loss to the powerful U.S. at the 2012 Olympics and defeated France in stoppage time to win bronze. They won bronze again with Herdman at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Now they are Olympic champions.
Ironically Herdman was runner-up to Caroline Morace when Canada Soccer looked for a successor to Even Pellerud as women’s coach in 2008.
But in breaking the news that he didn’t get the job, general secretary Peter Montopoli told him to stay in touch.
“And he actually did, over that three-year period,” said Herdman. “And then I got the next call in 2011 from Peter which was ”We want you for the job.’ And we haven’t really looked back since.
On Wednesday, Montopoli announced he was leaving Canada Soccer at the end of the month to oversee the Canadian end of the 2026 World Cup, which is being co-hosted by the U.S. and Mexico.
Herdman said Montopoli gave him “the latitude” to lead his program, as well as “the belief that you’ve got this.”
“When he works with good people, he know how to get the best out of his talent. And he’s always given us that space to make our decisions and ultimately when we’ve needed him, he’s been there.
“It is going to be difficult to see him leave, but at the same time he’s got an amazing opportunity to bring the biggest event probably in our sporting history to this country.”
Herdman credits Jonathan Osorio, Milan Borjan, Maxime Crepeau, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Samuel Piette, Doneil Henry, Richie Laryea and Junior Hoilett as the leadership group that helped change the Canadian men’s outlook. He did not include Hutchinson, saying he hadn’t been to enough camps to be “one of those key influencers.”
“And my job has been facilitating them to understand higher levels of leadership are required.”
READ MORE: Alphonso Davies’ return to Edmonton for World Cup qualifiers ‘makes people believe’
The work continues, with Herdman collaborating with the team leaders on identifying obstacles in the way “and then taking ownership within the team to drive some of the attention onto the things that might trip us up or can be used to elevate performance.”
Herdman has already made a mark.
The Canadians ended a 34-year-winless run against the Americans with a 2-0 victory in CONCACAF Nations League play in October 2019. And this marks the first time Canada has reached the final round of World Cup qualifying in the region since the lead-up France 98.
Osorio’s goal in the 1-1 tie in Mexico City last month was Canada’s first against Mexico at Azteca in 41 years.
The Canadian men are 11-4-2 this year with eight clean sheets and a record 52 goals scored. Canada also set a record with eight consecutive wins.
“So I think we’ve pressure-tested the environment,” said Herdman. “We’ve made it more resilient to the outside forces that can impact the inside. And we’ve made the team spirit, as the players call it, the brotherhood — we’ve made it strong enough that every man believes they can bring their best.”
Herdman says players have to understand they are fighting for a bigger cause. And that they have to do it together.
“When you’ve got trust and people are clear on what they’ve got to do on the pitch, then chemistry forms,” he said. “That’s where people are willing to mask each other’s weaknesses and highlight each other’s strengths. They’re willing to do things to make you look good.
“Then you see those sort of cohesive partnerships start to form, the Johnny (David) and Alphonso (Davies) partnership, the Steven Vitoria-Alistair Johnston-Kamal Miller back three partnership. And then you throw Doneil Henry straight in there and nothing really changes. It just gels again.
“That chemistry piece, it can only form when trust is strong and when people are clear on the roles and responsibilities of the collective. It’s a formula that I used with the women’s team and it’s a formula that I’m using here.”