TORONTO — The Canadian men reconvene next week for the first time since Qatar as coach John Herdman starts the road to the 2026 World Cup.
There is plenty to do before the men's soccer showcase kicks off 39 months from now in Canada, Mexico and the U.S.
Herdman knows there will be transition in his roster, with some of the veterans moving on. And after seeing his team beaten 2-1 in its World Cup swansong by a Morocco team full of players plying their trade in top European leagues, he hopes more of his players can make the move to Tier 1 clubs.
But there is immediate business with CONCACAF Nations League games in Curacao on March 25 and against Honduras on March 28 at Toronto's BMO Field, with a berth in this summer's Gold Cup on the line.
No. 53 Canada, No. 81 Honduras and No. 86 Curacao make up Group C, one of four pools in League A. Honduras (2-0-0) tops the group ahead of Canada (1-1-0) and Curacao (1-2-0).
With the top two teams in each of the League A groups qualifying for the Gold Cup, the Canadians just need a point in Curacao to book their ticket to the CONCACAF championship.
There is also CONCACAF Nations League honours to be decided. The four group winners from League A will meet in June in a knockout format, featuring semifinals, third-place match and final.
Herdman also knows success on the field brings ranking points. They carry special weight going into the 2023-24 edition of the Nations League, which is set to start in September and will determine CONCACAF's six entries in the 2024 Copa America.
The top four teams in the region, based on the CONCACAF rankings after the March games, will qualify directly to the 2023-24 Nations League quarterfinals with the four quarterfinal winners securing a Copa America berth.
"There is so much to play for in March," Herdman said.
"We have to pick up from where we left off," he added. "We created a good foundation, I think, in the last quadrennial to give us a lot to build on moving forward. So (team) selection was more about winning matches. It was more about who's fit and not injured and who's playing at the levels required to compete against tough opponents; like Curacao and Honduras."
With Samuel Piette, Lucas Cavallini and Junior Hoilett unavailable through injury, Herdman has three uncapped players in his 23-man squad, which will open camp Monday in Miami before leaving for Curacao later in the week.
The three are goalkeeper Tom McGill, defender Dominick Zator and midfielder Victor Loturi.
The 22-year-old McGill, who was born in Belleville, Ont., but grew up in England, plays for Brighton's under-21 side. McGill, who joined Brighton at the age of 14, has represented England at under-17 level.
Zator signed with Korona Kielce in Poland in December, after spending time with York United and Cavalry FC in the Canadian Premier League. The 28-year-old from Calgary was a nominee for the CPL Defender of the Year award in 2019.
Loturi, 21, left his hometown Cavalry FC last June to join Scotland's Ross County.
Familiar faces in the Canada squad include Atiba Hutchinson, Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Cyle Larin, Jonathan Osorio, Stephen Eustaquio, Steven Vitoria and Milan Borjan.
Six members of the Canadian roster ply their trade in MLS, with four from Toronto FC (Ayo Akinola, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Richie Laryea and Osorio) one from CF Montreal (Kamal Miller) and one from Minnesota United (Dayne St. Clair). Herdman said Miller will likely arrive late in camp in order to finish off some injury rehab.
Herdman and fullback/wingback Alistair Johnston will have to sit out the Curacao game after being red-carded last June in a chaotic ending to a 2-1 loss in Honduras.
This month's home match against Honduras comes a year and a day after the history-making 4-0 win over Jamaica at the lakefront stadium that sealed World Cup qualification.
The Canadian men opened League A play last June, blanking Curacao 4-0 in Vancouver before losing in Honduras. Those matches came amid turmoil in the Canada camp, with players refusing to take part in a planned July 5 friendly against Panama over ongoing labour talks.
Both the Canadian men's and women's teams are still embroiled in the labour dispute with Canada Soccer.
"There's no doubt that what's happening behind the scenes has taken an emotional toll," said Herdman, referencing both the players and Canada Soccer.
"It should be a really celebratory time in our football history," he added. "But ultimately it's becoming a time of provocation and change. And that's important too. As a leader, I don't think you can just ignore these things. I think you have to ensure you fully understand what's happening in that environment and how people feel and what they’re really trying to say with their actions.
"But at the same time we're here to inspire through our performances as much as what's happening off the pitch. That's what I have to focus on now and try to bring this group of players and the organization's attention to winning two very important matches which give us a chance to maybe go off and push for our first trophy in a long time."
While the Canadians have not played since going 0-3-0 against elite opposition in Qatar in their return to the World Cup, Herdman says the process of reconnecting off the field has been going on for some time behind the scenes.
Having topped the final round of World Cup qualifying in North and Central America and the Caribbean, Canada can't be complacent in the months ahead, said Herdman.
"We're the hunted now, not the hunters in many ways," he said. "So there's a lot of added motivation for this group. But right at the core of it, they want to experience lifting a trophy for Canada. They want to experience winning and pushing up the rankings at the world level."
Goalkeepers: Milan Borjan, Red Star Belgrade (Serbia); Tom McGill, Brighton & Hove Albion U-21 (England); Dayne St. Clair, Minnesota United (MLS).
Defenders: Samuel Adekugbe, Galatasaray SK (Turkey); Derek Cornelius, Malmo FF (Sweden); Alistair Johnston, Celtic FC (Scotland); Scott Kennedy, SSV Jahn Regensburg (Germany); Richie Laryea Toronto FC (MLS); Kamal Miller, CF Montreal (MLS); Steven Vitoria, GD Chaves (Portugal); Dominick Zator, Korona Kielce (Poland).
Midfielders: Stephen Eustaquio, FC Porto (Portugal); Atiba Hutchinson, Besiktas JK (Turkey); Mark-Anthony Kaye, Toronto FC (MLS); Ismaël Kone, Watford FC (England); Victor Loturi, Ross County FC (Scotland); Jonathan Osorio, Toronto FC (MLS);
Forwards: Ayo Akinola, Toronto FC (MLS); Charles-Andreas Brym, FC Eindhoven (the Netherlands); Tajon Buchanan, Club Brugge KV (Belgium); Jonathan David, Lille OSC (France); Alphonso Davies, Bayern Munich (Germany); Cyle Larin, Real Valladolid CF (Spain).
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press