‘The foundation’s strong’: Herdman turns to new leaders as CanMNT pool widens

TORONTO – It’s no secret that the Canadian men’s national team is in a period of growth. An influx of prodigious young players has, incredibly, led fans to expect goals in spates from this side.

More than ever, though, this particular Canadian camp — centered on this set of home-and-home fixtures in the CONCACAF Nations League against Cuba — feels like a new beginning. Much of the squad has, of course, carried over from June’s Gold Cup campaign, but a number of absences loom: longtime squad leaders Atiba Hutchinson and Scott Arfield are missing, as is the side’s striker of choice, Lucas Cavallini.

On Sunday, the list of veterans shrank again, with the news that Junior Hoilett (Canada’s captain and hat-trick hero in Saturday’s 6-0 win over Cuba), Russell Teibert, and Maxime Crépeau will return to their clubs ahead of Tuesday’s game against Cuba in the Cayman Islands (7:15 p.m. ET/OneSoccer).

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Plenty of torches are set to be passed within the Canadian team, as the new guard continues to make its mark. According to coach John Herdman, his players have flooded in to fill a leadership vacuum left by the absence of some usual suspects.

“If you’re on a four-year path to a World Cup there is a transition of influence and power,” Herdman said.

“With Scott Arfield and Atiba (Hutchinson) being away it opened the door for a little bit of a shift around the leadership structure,” he added. “So it brought Mark-Anthony (Kaye), Doneil (Henry) and Max Crépeau into the leadership group.”

Jonathan David. (Canada Soccer).
Jonathan David. (Canada Soccer).

It’s only been two months since Canada’s heartbreaking loss to Haiti in the Gold Cup quarter-finals, but already the team’s attitude seems to have rebounded; the big win over Cuba at BMO Field felt like a proper return to form, in this epoch of Canadian soccer optimism.

“We went through a tough period in the Gold Cup, that bit of adversity,” Herdman admitted. “(The players) came through that strong. They didn’t disconnect, they didn’t point fingers in every direction. And they came into this camp very focused, I know you get a sense that the foundation’s strong and the players can start taking more ownership, particularly of the tactical element.”

Tuesday’s trip to the Caymans thus poses a new kind of test for Herdman’s squad, as the future of the team comes closer and closer to its present. Speculation will abound over who’ll get the armband this time ⁠— goalkeeper Milan Borjan seems an obvious choice, but what of the way Herdman speaks of Jonathan Osorio? Or Samuel Piette? Or Doneil Henry?

It seems the new way of life in this team is leadership by committee. Herdman touts Henry as a dominant, outspoken leader, while complimenting Osorio’s more reserved, tactically-minded presence.

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“We’ve enjoyed how they’re just bringing more out of the other players who are in this group,” Herdman said. “We have a range of leaders in there. You don’t always want the big voices, you want people who can reflect and have got a bit more emotional intelligence.”

He added: “Those guys have made their presence felt, and we’ve definitely let the reins off them a little bit this time through.”

With newer faces such as Kamal Miller, Richie Laryea, and even Cavalry FC’s Marco Carducci starting to enter the conversation (and even Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies, whose youth we often forget), the new wave of leaders will be pivotal if Canada is to reach the heights Herdman has laid out.

The coach has been very honest with his goals for the team: to finish first in Group A and thus advance to the final four of the CONCACAF Nations League (which means edging the United States), and to play their way into the “Hex” for 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification.

If they’re to do any of that, this team will need to show they’re now a stronger unit, mentally, than they were in the second half against Haiti. Tuesday’s away game against Cuba, without Hoilett, should be a greater barometer than Saturday’s contest at BMO Field.