‘There’s a process’: Herdman relishing tough Gold Cup opposition for CanMNT

With the Canadian men’s national team wrapping up their training camp ahead of Saturday’s CONCACAF Gold Cup opener, excitement is as high as it’s been in years around CanMNT circles. Although the competition awaiting them in Group A is daunting, head coach John Herdman relishes a chance to test his squad against Martinique, Mexico, and Cuba.

Two years removed from the 2017 Gold Cup and 17 months into Herdman’s tenure as CanMNT boss, he’s delighted to see the young, talented team starting to click.

“The thing I’m most looking forward to in this tournament is to see our chemistry start to come together with players who have nearly played five or six games together,” he told the Canadian Press in a conference call.

Herdman has been at the helm for six matches now, including four in CONCACAF Nations League qualifying, and Les Rouges have won all six, conceding just one goal. Still, the opposition Canada has seen wasn’t on the level of Cuba, and certainly not that of Mexico.

“The Gold Cup gives us a chance to play tougher opposition in moment where you’re going to be tested,” Herdman said. “Any mistake puts you out of the tournament.”

The margin for error will now shrink as the pressure on Canada grows, which is good for an inexperienced side. The Gold Cup is a rapid-fire gauntlet of a tournament, with the CanMNT playing three times in eight days, and Herdman is hoping that his side will come out the other side of it as a more mature, cohesive unit.

“There’s a process game by game,” he said, “to keep growing through the tournament to get us ready for some pretty big tests as we push on towards the quarter-final, semi-final, and final stage.”

Canada has managed to maintain a fairly consistent squad in games under Herdman, with the team’s core pieces pretty well-established and committed. Several of those players — Scott Arfield, Junior Hoilett, Alphonso Davies, and so on — played major roles in the 2017 Gold Cup as well, but some of the key contributors this time around, like Jonathan David and Zachary Brault-Guillard, have never played a major international tournament at the senior level.

It’ll be a trial by fire for the young players as they’re thrown into high-pressure situations, including their group-stage clash with as daunting an opponent as CONCACAF has to offer in Mexico.

Herdman has high expectations for his squad, and he’s confident they can make a deep run in this Gold Cup. Beyond immediate results, though, he recognizes that the CanMNT’s growth fits into a bigger picture.

“This is a journey towards (2022) World Cup qualification,” he said. “That’s the most important thing on my mind as a coach.”