How Canada can build on World Cup run ahead of 2026 cycle

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AL RAYYAN, Qatar – The Canadian men’s national team made history, just not enough of it.

As breathtaking as the team’s performances were in various stages, Canada still suffered defeat in all three games. It’s difficult to draw sweeping conclusions based on small sample sizes in tournament settings, let alone in a nation’s first men’s World Cup in 36 years.

The underlying numbers highlight Canada’s misfortune – it had the best expected goal (xG) difference in Group F, per FBRef.com. Therein lies the fun of a three-game group stage in a high-variance sport.

There were still plenty of valuable lessons for Canada despite the losses, though, and Les Rouges can apply those “learnings” – as coach John Herdman refers to them – when the country co-hosts the 2026 World Cup.

Canada will be expected to show significant progression in three-and-a-half years. In order for that to occur, there are a few factors to consider.

Here is how Canada can build on this World Cup run to bounce back in 2026:

HAVE MORE “TIER 1” PLAYERS

Back in 2019, Herdman received backlash for referring to his defence as “Tier 3” in a live television interview.

“If you put (the squad) on paper, it’s a Tier 3 back four, and a Tier 1 front four in Concacaf,” Herdman said at the time. “I’ve got a back four that doesn’t get regular minutes, that are young and haven’t really made their mark on the international, or even national, domestic stage.”

In hindsight, those weren’t outlandish comments. Canada’s defence was among the best in World Cup qualifying. But it also overachieved its xG conceded by five goals, mainly due to stellar goalkeeping from Milan Borjan.

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Once Canada faced top opposition (more on that later), it was punished for every little mistake, from Borjan’s blunders or the defence’s aerial weaknesses against Morocco to not tracking runners in the 4-1 defeat to Croatia.

Croatia has 19 “Tier 1” players who are either playing in Europe’s top-five leagues or for big Portuguese, Dutch or Belgian clubs that are regular participants in the UEFA Champions League. Belgium has 21. Morocco, the Group F winners, has 14.

Canada has six. Only seven nations have fewer at this World Cup and only one – Australia – advanced to the round of 16.

“That’s one of the big questions that we’ve got to keep answering as a country,” Herdman said, when asked if the national team needs more top-tier players. “Now, our players have been seen.

“We know that people around the world are looking at this country saying, ‘Wow, they’ve got some good, young, talented players.’”

When Morocco qualified for the 2018 World Cup, it was its first appearance at the tournament since 1998. The North Africans were placed in Pot 4 and drew Spain, Portugal and Iran. They put up a good fight but ultimately finished bottom of Group B.

Morocco had eight Tier 1 players at that time, yet it paled in comparison to Spain and Portugal.

But four years later, Morocco has made steady progress in the African Cup of Nations, recruited more dual nationals and boast a squad with 14 Tier 1 players at this tournament. It topped the group over Croatia and Belgium to set up its first knockout-stage match in 36 years.

Canada’s strength is its diversity. There are countless dual nationals who are in some of Europe’s biggest academies who may want to represent Canada. The Canadian Premier League and Major League Soccer offer two new pathways that didn’t exist three years ago (in the CPL’s case).

Alistair Johnston is about to join Scottish giants Celtic, where the pressure to perform is immense. He’ll play in the Champions League. Ismael Kone will likely join him in Europe with several clubs reportedly pursuing the 20-year-old midfielder.

Playing in those settings will help the players prepare for high-pressure environments in the future.

FACE MARQUEE OPPONENTS

Canada was achieving firsts before the World Cup. The Uruguay friendly in September was the first South American opponent for the men’s team in eight years.

The Canadians hadn’t even squared off with a non-Concacaf opponent in four years – Iceland’s B team in January 2020 aside – until meeting Qatar a few days before the Uruguay match.

Such is life in Concacaf.

Belgium was the first time Canada faced a top-10 team in the FIFA rankings in more than a decade. Nations League makes it tougher to arrange friendlies with those countries, but this is where reaching the World Cup unlocks new possibilities.

“Now teams will want to play Canada and teams will invite Canada,” Herdman stated.

The star power of Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, coupled by Canada’s eye-catching performances will surely lead to more.

Friendlies, or an invite to the 2024 Copa América to square off with South America’s elite, would be a good start.

It’ll also behoove Herdman. He surely learned a lot about himself as a coach, be it tactically or otherwise, by facing other top-level coaches and national teams.

IMPROVE YOUTH PROGRAMS

This year’s crop of under-20 players was full of potential. Unfortunately, they failed to qualify for the U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics by bowing out of the Concacaf U-20 Championship in the round of 16 to Guatemala.

Optimism was high after a pair of April friendlies against Costa Rica’s U-20s. Then, out of nowhere, the players looked shackled.

After the tournament, multiple sources told Sportsnet that there was a sudden shift in tactical philosophy from the April camp to the Concacaf U-20s, which likely contributed to the team’s disjointed play.

Whatever the case, the youth teams can’t underperform. The federation has missed out on several dual nationals because of a lack of camps, and for the first time in years, the U-20s gathered before the Concacaf Championship. Dual nationals were thrilled to represent Canada and spurned call-ups from other top nations in order to do so.

But whether it’s coaching or overall funding – and there’s more than $10.5 million on the way, minus the players’ cut – the youth programs need more focus.

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