Herdman: “The CPL has created a foundation for players in this country to keep believing”

Canada’s squad for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar was announced on Sunday morning, as John Herdman’s 26 selections were officially revealed to the public.

Some names have been locked in for months — the likes of Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Stephen Eustaquio, and Milan Borjan, among others in that core group of players — but other choices weren’t so easy. Herdman spoke to the media after the squad was revealed, live from Doha, Qatar, where the final preparations are underway ahead of Canada’s World Cup opener against Belgium ten days later.

The most notable omissions from the team were goalkeeper Maxim Crepeau and defender Doneil Henry, who both suffered injuries in the past week or so. Herdman said that seeing Henry’s injury — a calf injury during warmups for Canada’s friendly against Bahrain on Friday — and subsequently needing to tell him that he won’t go to the World Cup, was one of the hardest things he has had to do in his career.

“It’s really sad news, he was due to captain the team against Bahrain and had a good training week,” Herdman said of Henry in his press conference on Sunday. “In the warmup he felt a bit of tightness in his calf and tried to push it a little bit further, and it maybe led to a bit of a tear in there. We’re working through the MRIs and getting all the final details, but he wasn’t able to create any explosivity out of the calf.”

Herdman did confirm that Henry, a very popular figure in the dressing room and a longtime national team veteran, would still be in Doha and in and around the squad, as well as beginning his rehab.

“He’s with us now, we’ll return him in his rehab and we have some mental performance people to help him deal with what is a really painful moment for him,” Herdman said. “He’ll work alongside me and the team to help build the brotherhood and be a sounding board through this World Cup.”

Henry’s absence from the team likely opened the spot that was filled by Joel Waterman, who had an impressive season with CF Montreal in 2022. A player familiar to fans of the Canadian Premier League, Waterman spent the inaugural 2019 season with Cavalry FC, winning both the Spring and Fall Season and qualifying for the first-ever CPL final, which they ultimately lost to Forge FC. That year Cavalry also knocked the Vancouver Whitecaps out of the Canadian Championship.

Waterman is the first ever player to be drafted out of the U Sports university system (from Trinity Western University), and then develop in the Canadian Premier League, to play in the World Cup. After spending 2019 in Calgary, Waterman moved to MLS side CF Montreal, where he’s since established himself as a key contributor under manager Wilfried Nancy.

Herdman raved about the pathway and opportunities that the CPL has provided, with Waterman the key example of someone who likely wouldn’t be playing professionally, let alone going to the World Cup, without the league.

“It sends a huge message to young Canadians that the pathway to the World Cup is non-linear, it’s a dynamic approach, you have to keep believing,” said Herdman. “The Canadian Premier League has created a foundation for players in this country to keep believing, to keep pushing.

“I think we all hope that our Premier League becomes a top, top league in years to come and decades to come, and that’s been started by a group of pioneers now that are celebrating one player whose pushed in through that pathway. In five, ten, twenty years time, we’ll be celebrating a lot more.

“The main thing is, it’s happened. That was a significant step for our country and for those who have been toiling to make sure that that league is prominent in this country.”

Waterman is one of six CF Montreal players on the Canadian roster, twice as many as second-place Toronto FC who are sending three players. Club Brugge is the other club with multiple Canadians going to Qatar, with the Bramptonian duo of Tajon Buchanan and Cyle Larin both selected as expected.

Joining Waterman from Montreal are fellow defenders Alistair Johnston and Kamal Miller, who are both undoubtedly in John Herdman’s best eleven. Also in the team are midfielders Sam Piette and Ismaël Koné, who will both likely see the pitch, along with third-string goalkeeper James Pantemis — who like Waterman spent some time in the CPL, on loan at Valour FC in 2020.

Having familiarity in the team can be a very good thing for Canada, reinforcing that idea of having a brotherhood between the players, and perhaps knowing each others’ abilities on the pitch more than someone who only plays with them on national team duty.

“I think it’s a huge advantage. These players have fought together in the club environment, they’ve grown in confidence, there’s some chemistry there and they understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” listed Herdman.

He also noted that those players — naming Johnston and Miller specifically — were part of the Canadian national team setup before signing from other clubs to play in Montreal, so they’re able to have their tight-knit Montreal group, as well as the wider brotherhood of a national team that has grown so close together in recent months and years.

CF Montreal celebrate winning the 2021 Canadian Championship. (Canada Soccer by Martin Bazyl)
CF Montreal celebrate winning the 2021 Canadian Championship. (Canada Soccer by Martin Bazyl)

Herdman was also asked about how he broke the news to the players — both the ones booking their tickets to Doha and the ones unfortunately left behind. He answered with a bit of a subdued tone, having clearly had some difficult conversations over the past few days, but also for some, the best conversations of their life.

The focus, however, was on those who didn’t crack the 26-man roster.

“I always prioritize those that didn’t make the squad, I think that’s the more important conversation,” Herdman said. “The other players, we’ve been talking for months about their roles and responsibilities, it’s more that group that are fighting for those 20-26th places.

“There’s been 39-40 guys that have contributed to this 20-game journey to qualify, people like Jayden Nelson have been in camps since right back in the Covid times. Jacob Shaffelburg… they’ve had moments where they’ve contributed on the pitch in this qualifications. Charles-Andreas Brym, Theo Corbeanu… they’ve all played their part and those conversations were the most important to me.”

Herdman, of course, has done this before. He led the Canadian women’s national team into the 2015 World Cup, as well as the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games. He is the first person ever to coach at both the men’s and women’s World Cup, and should he remain the men’s boss through 2026, will have hosted at two home World Cups as well. He also coached the New Zealand women’s national team at the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, at the 2010 U-20 Women’s World Cup, and the 2008 Olympics.

“Just pride, a lot of pride,” Herdman said when asked what it meant to him to be coaching Canada in Qatar. “Honour. I still have moments when I’m pinching myself. This will be my first World Cup with the men’s team, my fifth World Cup in total.

“It’s going to be a hell of a ride, I’m going to learn a lot. I’m going to be rubbing shoulders with world class coaches like Roberto Martinez, and for me that’s where I want to be, on that razor’s edge, letting people from Consett, County Durham know that anything is possible.”