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Herdman notes competitive advantage Panama has ahead of CONCACAF Nations League clash

John Herdman John Herdman - The Canadian Press

On the eve of the CONCACAF Nations League semifinal against Panama, Canada coach John Herdman sounded another warning that help is needed off the field for his team to continue to flourish on it.

Herdman noted that 58th-ranked Panama has been in camp 10 days and already played a game, beating No. 140 Nicaragua 3-2 on Saturday.

The 47th-ranked Canadian men go into Thursday's game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas with some four days preparation.

And while Herdman spoke out in support of Canada Soccer interim general secretary Jason deVos, a former Canada captain, and the current board, he said there is more work to be done.

"Things are changing but it's got to change quick," Herdman told reporters. "It's going to come down to dollars and the investment and a commitment and words turning into actions quickly. Because we've got a team here that has got a chance of doing something really special at a home World Cup (in 2026). You can feel it. You can smell it. But we need that change."

The issue of support for Canada's national teams, from the men's and women's senior squads to youth sides, has been front and centre in recent months in ongoing labour talks.

Asked if he sees light at the end of that funding tunnel, Herdman could only offer hope and hard work.

"All I can control is what I can control and to keep bringing my passion to wherever I can bring it. To influence and get people fired up and to try and move the needle in places where the vision might not be clear," he said. "So I'll just keep doing what I can do from the position I'm in … to keep moving this program forward.

"I mean we've come a long way on the men's and women's side, a long way. We've still got a long way to go. But that's an exciting journey. It's the challenge that we're all taking at Canada Soccer. Thirty-six years, first time (at the men's) World Cup. That changed everything for us. We now had to think differently as an organization. I don't think anybody was expecting that to happen. It happened early. So let's adapt. Let's get on with it."

The Canadian men are looking for their first trophy since lifting the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2000. If they get past Panama, they will face either the 13th-ranked U.S. or No. 15 Mexico in Sunday's final, also at Allegiant Stadium.

The Nations League winner will collect around US$1 million in prize money.

The Canadian men have played just two games since last year's World Cup in Qatar, wrapping up Nations League group play in March by defeating No. 80 Honduras 4-1 and No. 88 Curaçao 2-0.

Forward Lucas Cavallini says the team is feeling positive in Vegas.

"The mood is to win it," he said. "We want nothing less than becoming champions. Our first final is Panama and then we go from there … And finally get a (trophy) because I think we deserve it."

Panama coach Thomas Christiansen was equally complimentary of Canada.

"We do know that they're a great team," the Dane said through an interpreter.

"They have players for all strategies on the field," he added, referencing Canada's ability to change formations. "That's why they're a very complicated team in terms of understanding what they are going to do … That's why they are so dangerous. And not only that, but also the individual quality of some players."

Herdman returned the favour by praising Panama, saying "they play as one."

"They have great team spirit," he added. "So I always think they are one of the top-two hardest teams to play in CONCACAF in the time I've been here. So when you get a semifinal against Panama, you know this going to be a hell of a game."

The Nations League features 41 teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean split into three tiers: League A (12 teams), B (16) and C (13). The four group winners in League A advanced to the final four.

Canada (3-1-0) won Group C in the League A of the Nations League while Panama (3-0-1) finished atop Group B, outscoring No. 39 Costa Rica and unranked Martinique by a combined 8-0. Panama defeated Costa Rica 1-0 with a 77th-minute goal by Jose Fajardo to decide first place in the final group game.

Mexico (2-0-2) topped Group A, while the U.S. (3-0-1) won Group D.

The U.S. is seeded first in the final four, based on its group stage performance. Panama is No. 2, followed by Canada and Mexico.

Canada has a 4-2-6 career record against Panama, but lost 1-0 last time they met. That was in March 2022 in Canada's final World Cup qualifying game, which came four days after the Canadian men had secured their place in Qatar.

Panama missed out on Qatar, finishing fifth in the final round of World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF.

Christiansen says his team is not fazed by the other three Nations League semifinalists, whom he called "powers in CONCACAF."

"We are not less important," said Christiansen. "We can compete with them, as we have done in the Octagonal (final round of World Cup qualifying) with those three teams. But we have to give our best."

At home, Panama tied Mexico 1-1 and beat both the U.S. and Canada 1-0 in the final round of World Cup qualifying.

After the Nations League, the Canadians turn their attention to the Gold Cup. Canada opens Group D play against a yet-to-be-determined qualifier in Toronto on June 27 before heading to Houston to play No. 116 Guatemala and No. 165 Cuba.

The Americans won the first edition of the CONCACAF Nations League in 2021, defeating Mexico 3-2 on Christian Pulisic's penalty in extra time in Denver. Honduras was third and Costa Rica fourth.

Canada missed out on the inaugural final four, finishing runner-up to the U.S. in its group on goal difference.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 14, 2023