I’ve got something to say about the Canadian men’s national team, and I know it’s going to sound like a late-night text message from a desperately lovesick ex, but just hear me out.
This time, things are going to be different.
I know, I know; like I said, hear me out.
The team is top of mind again ahead of this Sunday’s CONCACAF Nations League matchup against French Guiana (Editors note: Canada would go on to win 4-1) – and, inevitably, our thoughts drift towards the qualification campaign for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Context might make you think that I’m here to make a bold pronouncement, some throwing-it-at-the-wall-to-see-if-it-sticks guarantee that Canada will indeed qualify for their first senior men’s World Cup since Mexico 1986.
But that’s not it.
What’s different are our expectations – well, mine anyway.
In late 2016, when Canada was knocked out of contention for last summer’s World Cup, some long-time followers of the team surveyed the landscape, saw a program that was at the beginning of a rebuild, and preemptively wrote off the 2022 qualification efforts, choosing instead to look further down the road at 2026.
I know, because I was one of them.
What brought me there? Surely, it had a lot to do with the repeated heartbreak I’d endured with the team in the preceding decade and a half. But you can’t really have your heart broken if you don’t come in with some abiding hope for – or even expectation of – success.
That brings us back to the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Thanks to some stellar goalkeeping, a weird competition format and (quite literally) a coin flip, Canada emerged as unlikely champions. And that triumph, to some extent, helped entrench a false belief that our men’s team’s “natural” place is among the continent’s footballing elite.
With that belief came high expectations at the start of every subsequent World Cup qualifying campaign – hitched to the latest Big Reason For Hope, be it the “best midfield in CONCACAF” or a globetrotting manager with a plan for lockdown defence.
Surely, the thinking went, this would be the time we made it back to the World Cup.
OK, this would be the time we got back to the Hex.
Fine, this would be the time we actually won in Honduras.
As the failed World Cup qualifying campaigns piled up, reality slowly sank in: the 2000 Gold Cup truly was an aberration, and the newest Big Reason For Hope wasn’t really worthwhile at all unless it was sustainable.
Now, to be fair, signs of that sustainable change have emerged in the past decade, from a revamped grassroots development system and structural change at the Canadian Soccer Association to an ongoing wave of new national-team talent and a healthier-than-ever pro scene with the launch of the Canadian Premier League.
Even so, the crusty old skeptics (i.e. me) still had trouble believing that this could all coalesce in time for Canada to be competitive in the 2022 qualifying cycle. After all, we’ve had our hearts broken before and true change takes time – where were the new impact players going to even come from?
The answer, as it turned out, is from all over the place.
The arrival of Junior Hoilett in 2015 began what would become a years-long cascade of dual nationals committing themselves to Canada, the most recent of which was 22-year-old midfielder Stephen Eustáquio (who has yet to debut for the team).
Exciting youngsters like Alphonso Davies, 18, Ballou Tabla, 19, Liam Millar, 19, and Jonathan David, 20, burst onto the scene and staked their claims to starting roles in the blink of an eye.
That allowed the manager (first Octavio Zambrano, starting at the 2017 Gold Cup, and now John Herdman) to construct a team that’s willing – and, most importantly, able – to constantly move forward, take chances and score goals.
And just beneath the surface, Canada suddenly has unprecedented depth around the field thanks to the vast number of players getting regular experience in the CPL, Major League Soccer and other leagues around the continent.
This time out, the Big Reason For Hope isn’t a one-off, some ephemeral bit of excitement set to be replaced when the next quadrennial cycle comes along. What I thought might take us to the promised land in 2026 is materializing quicker than I could have imagined.
So here’s the thing that’s really different this time – for me, anyway.
I won’t come into this cycle with unrealistic expectations, holding some mistaken belief that Canada is owed something because we’re a big, polite country. I won’t let the lingering memories of the 2000 Gold Cup trick me into thinking Canada doesn’t deserve the reputation it’s absolutely earned over the past two decades.
I won’t set myself up for heartbreak by convincing myself that this must be our time.
What I will do is come in with an open mind, with the complete and utter willingness to enjoy seeing a remarkable group of players play with pride and passion and legitimate excitement – and perhaps, earn Canada a new reputation.
I will remember that this isn’t a frail and fragile group that represents Canada’s only chance at glory; rather, it’s a hungry group that’s constantly being pushed by a diverse pool of talented players aiming for their own shot in the red and white.
And above all, I’ll remember that the games are never, ever played on paper, and that the road to a World Cup is a long, winding and profoundly unpredictable one.