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Herdman happy with qualifying play so far but says much work still left to do

The nexus of the Canadian men’s national soccer team, much as with the national basketball team, has shifted from a strong B.C. and Island presence in the 1980s to being dominated by Ontario.
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Canada’s Alphonso Davies, left, goes down under Harold Cummings’ challenge after rounding Panama goalkeeper Luis Mejia in their World Cup qualifying game in Toronto on Wednesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS

The nexus of the Canadian men’s national soccer team, much as with the national basketball team, has shifted from a strong B.C. and Island presence in the 1980s to being dominated by Ontario.

But when Sidney Crosby scored the golden goal in hockey at Vancouver 2010, nobody cared that he was from Coal Harbour, Nova Scotia, and played club for a team in Pittsburgh.

The only thing that mattered that day was that his jersey had a Maple Leaf on it.

John Herdman has similarly likened the quest to qualify for the 2022 World Cup of soccer as a national project.

Looking ahead to the next qualifying games — Nov. 12 against Costa Rica and Nov. 16 versus Mexico — at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium, Herdman said: “The majority of the players are Ontario-born and are excited to come to Edmonton to an historic stadium.

“It’s an opportunity to bring the team east to west. It’s important the country gets to feel the team at the right time.”

Pundits are already saying Alphonso Davies’ extraordinary winning goal Wednesday against Panama at a raucous BMO Field in Toronto is the most important for Canadian soccer since George Pakos of Victoria scored two of the four goals in the final round of qualifying that got Canada into the 1986 World Cup for the first and only time.

“It is a generational thing,” Herdman during a call with the Canadian sports media.

In Bayern Munich’s Davies, Canadian soccer finally has its Crosby and Connor McDavid rolled into one.

“Alphonso Davies is a special, special player and those players have to grow up in big moments,” said Herdman.

It didn’t get any bigger than his goal against Panama. It will be long remembered, especially if Canada qualifies for Qatar 2022 to end its long World Cup drought.

Canada sits third in CONCACAF final-round World Cup qualifying. The top three advance to Qatar and the fourth to a world at-large final qualifier. But nothing is guaranteed yet, Herdman warned.

“Confidence is brittle and fragile,” he said.

“It’s ephemeral. It could be gone. In any qualifying window you are one loss away from fighting for your life. It’s a battle. It’s one game at a time.”

Canada will be using the Edmonton weather as an ally against Mexico and Costa Rica, as it did in abandoning its then-usual home sites — Royal Athletic Park in Victoria and Swangard Stadium in Burnaby — in November 1985, by hosting the deciding qualifying game for the 1986 World Cup against Honduras in St. John’s.

“Sixty to 70 per cent of our players play for clubs in Europe, but they all grew up in Canada playing in the cold on artificial turf when it can feel like your lungs are frozen,” said Herdman. “We are gritty as Canadians. We will welcome and adapt to the conditions. History has shown, it’s not easy for [Latin American] opponents. You want to put the other teams in environments where they have to struggle to play.”

Just like the Latin American teams do in scheduling many of their home games against Canada under the sapping midday sun. As the saying goes, turnabout is fair play.

“Whenever we’re at home, we have to win,” said Herdman.

CORNER KICKS: Starlight Stadium in Langford has been identified as a site for early-round Canada qualifying games, and those against CONCACAF minnows, such as the two last year against Trinidad and Tobago which were cancelled due to the pandemic. In the final round, however, it is only the big venues, such as BMO Field and Commonwealth Stadium, that will host games. Island fans will still likely get to see Canada play live with speculation the home game Jan. 30 against the United States will be held at B.C. Place.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com