TORONTO — Canada got to the final round of World Cup qualifying the hard way.
With the CONCACAF road map changing several times as the pandemic played havoc with the world soccer schedule, the 59th-ranked Canadian men — along with El Salvador (No. 64) and Panama (No. 74) — slogged their way through a 29-team first round and then a knockout second round to earn the right to join Mexico (No. 9), the U.S. (No. 10), Costa Rica (No. 44), Jamaica (No. 50) and Honduras (No. 63) in the so-called Octagonal.
Canada coach John Herdman believes the long road has paid dividends. Just how many will be seen over the next seven months.
Canada has 14 matches to make its case for Qatar 2022, looking to end a World Cup drought that stretches back to 1986. It starts Thursday, with the Canadians hosting Honduras at BMO Field in their first game on home soil since a landmark 2-0 win over the U.S. in CONCACAF Nations League play Oct. 15, 2019, at BMO Field.
The Canadians played their next 15 matches on the road, going 11-4-0 with the only losses to Iceland, Mexico and the U.S. (twice).
Herdman says just getting here has hardened his squad, helping build mental fortitude.
"A new mentality that was growing through the Gold Cup and a mentality now that they take into this game against Honduras where we won't fear people. We won't fear anyone in this qualifying round," he said in a brief virtual availability Wednesday after his team trained at BMO Field.
"While we know there's difficult games coming, very difficult matches, we can take them with a confidence that we've got the talent and we've got the spirit. And tactically we've been binding together."
Not many Canadian coaches have been able to say that in the past. Herdman believes his team is ready for the challenge.
"It's time," he said.
While first-round games against Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Aruba and Suriname pale against what lies ahead, the Canadians had to win on the road during the pandemic with no margin for error. Haiti was a tougher test in the second round with Herdman calling the 1-0 June win in hostile Port-au-Prince a "defining moment" for his squad.
He has reason for confidence, with a lineup that includes the likes of Atiba Hutchinson, Milan Borjan, Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Stephen Eustaquio, Cyle Larin and Tajon Buchanan, with plenty of other talent on the roster. He will need all of it, given the compressed qualifying schedule.
"I'm in a fortunate position, I think. When I look through CONCACAF, there's probably … four teams that have the sort of depth that Canada have at this stage," Herdman said, citing Mexico, the U.S. and Jamaica.
After the Honduras game, Canada travels to Nashville to take on the U.S. on Sunday before returning to Toronto to host El Salvador next Wednesday. The Americans open play Sunday in El Salvador.
Next month, the Canadians play in Mexico and Jamaica before returning to BMO Field to entertain Panama on Oct. 13.
Eight more games follow before play wraps up at the end of March with the top three teams in the CONCACAF round-robin booking their ticket to Qatar. The fourth-place finisher will take part on an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them in the 32-team field.
"For the players, they know the gravity of this moment for our country," said Herdman. "It genuinely is a turning point and a tipping point. But we're not going to let that weigh on us. We're going to enjoy it. We're going to enjoy it with the fans. We're going to seize the opportunity and just give it everything — like everything we've got. You'll see every man, every staff member just pushing every ounce of Canadian out of themselves to get us over this line."
The strategy is simple. Win at home and look to pick up points on the road.
"That's a priority for us — to accumulate 21 points in Canada," Herdman said.
"We have to win these games," added the Portugal-based Eustaquio, who will be playing his first game for Canada on home soil after 10 games outside the country.
Canada Soccer has not announced the remaining four domestic venues after the October matches.
Canada is 7-11-6 all-time against Honduras but is 5-2-2 on home soil. The teams drew 0-0 the last time they met, at the 2017 Gold Cup in Frisco, Texas.
Honduras, however, is responsible for one of Canada's darkest days on the soccer field, having ended one Canadian World Cup qualifying run in an 8-1 humiliation in San Pedro Sula in October 2012. Hutchinson is the lone Canadian starter from that game still wearing the Maple Leaf.
Honduras finished fourth in CONCACAF's 2018 World Cup qualifying, finishing behind Panama on goal difference. The Hondurans then lost a playoff 3-1 on aggregate to Australia.
Asked about reported complaints from the Honduran team that a drone was seen overhead during its training session here, Herdman suggested there was no shortage of drones in Canada. But he admitted he did not plan to arrive in rival countries too early to avoid such spying
"You've got to be careful in CONCACAF. It's a tricky place," he said.
Attendance for Thursday's match will be capped at just under 15,000 due to COVID regulations. Canada Soccer said there were less than 1,5000 tickets remaining as of Wednesday afternoon.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 1, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press