Men’s national team begins three-year build to 2026 World Cup
Canada’s national men’s soccer team reunites this weekend ahead of its first competitive matches since the 2022 World Cup.
Upcoming games against Curaçao and Honduras in the Concacaf Nations League mark the beginning of a busy three-year schedule as Canada prepares for the 2026 World Cup.
In mid-February, FIFA announced Canada, Mexico, and the United States would all automatically qualify for the 2026 tournament as host nations. Direct passage to the tournament means head coach John Herdman won’t have to worry about another long qualification schedule across North and Central America, but each year until then presents unique challenges that should help Canada’s men prepare for their third World Cup appearance.
Here’s a look at Canada’s next 36 months, and how each year aligns with Herdman’s objectives.
2023: Rekindle momentum and build depth
Canada’s upcoming matches against Curaçao and Honduras are significant for two reasons.
First, Canada’s men need to start winning consistently. Canada boasted the best offence and defence during Concacaf World Cup qualification, but the team is 3-1-6 in the 10 matches since it qualified for Qatar and has fallen to 53rd in FIFA’s rankings.
Canada sat 33rd in the world last February – a ranking that represented the growing success of Herdman’s team and was a potential boon for Canadians hoping to secure lucrative transfers to Europe’s top leagues.
In some leagues, like the English Premier League and second division English Championship, international transfers must meet certain criteria, and world ranking points help international players secure moves.
If Canada wins its world ranking improves, as will its ranking inside Concacaf. That’s the second reason this weekend matters.
Canada currently sits fourth in Concacaf, behind the United States, Mexico, and Costa Rica. Wins over Curaçao and Honduras over the next four days will keep Canada inside the top four and advance it to June's Nations League finals.
A top-four place helps now and this fall when the new Nations League format will advance Concacaf’s top four countries to a quarter-final stage that also acts as a two-game playoff to qualify for the 2024 Copa América, when Concacaf’s best will take on the best from South America’s CONMEBOL region.
The subtext to all of this is Herdman’s own admission that Canada is now balancing its desire to field its strongest team while not burning out its best players.
Canada’s fast, aggressive play at the World Cup impressed many European club teams. Defender Alistair Johnston has since moved to Celtic. Midfielder Ismaël Koné moved to Watford in the English Championship. Midfielder Tajon Buchanan and forward Jonathan David are expected to make big moves this summer.
Herdman admitted to the media last week that his upcoming squad selection will have to be “individualized” as some of his players focus on their health and club careers.
“Will Tajon get a move and will that rule him out of a Gold Cup, given that will be [Buchanan's] first preseason with a new club? So, we just have to be ready for that," Herdman said.
Many of Canada’s players have also played a lot of soccer over the past 18 months, and big summer moves for some could present challenges for Herdman, especially with a potential a Nations League final and Gold Cup ahead this summer.
Some of Canada’s best players might need to balance rest with obligations to their new clubs. And though Herdman says some of his players are keen on playing in both events this summer, a tight June turnaround between the competitions might force Herdman to make some decisions.
"The back-to-back June Nations League with a [six-day] turnaround to a Gold Cup – which could be pretty much a month-long tournament – all the players want to play it, given the conversations you’re having with them," Herdman said. "But at the same time, when it comes to that time and their bodies aren’t healthy, we have to make big decisions around giving them rest.”
A need for more depth could reveal itself if the Canadian Premier League is a viable source of talent. Herdman recently called up defender Dominick Zator and midfielder Victor Loturi, who both parlayed time in the CPL into recent European moves.
2024: Competing against the best to play its best
Canada lost all three of its games in Qatar, and though the team was praised for its offensive approach, there was an undeniable lesson Herdman acknowledges: For Canada’s men to improve, the team must play more games against the world's best.
“Hopefully we can get tier-one [top nations] games in the future, because the players and staff are clear: Canada can’t go into its next tournament with only one tier-one match in a decade,” Herdman said.
Before the 2026 World Cup, the 2024 Copa América presents Canada with the best opportunity.
Of the 10 teams in South America’s CONMEBOL region, only Venezuela (55) and Bolivia (82) are ranked outside of FIFA’s top 50. The possibility of playing world champions Argentina (2), world No.1 Brazil, or even seasoned World Cup regulars Uruguay (16) or past Copa América winners Chile (31) in the group stage of a major tournament is exactly what Canada needs.
If Canada were to fall outside of Concacaf’s top four after this weekend, it would enter the 2023-24 Nations League needing to navigate a group stage that will look a lot like the team’s tricky 20-game journey through 2022 World Cup qualifying. And all of those potential Nations League opponents fall outside FIFA’s top 50.
A fast track to the Nations League quarter-finals and Copa América playoff could allow Herdman to schedule friendlies against higher-ranked nations during upcoming international windows.
“When you’re in those matches [against top international teams] you’re learning on the job as players and as a staff, as you start to realize the differences between your team and the teams you’re playing against,” Herdman said. “We need those games, and hopefully some friendly matches in September and October open the door to that.”
2025: Time to win
Herdman continues to emphasize how important it is for Canada to compete for international trophies. Apart from playing against the best teams in the world, few things prepare a nation for World Cup pressure like winning a continental tournament.
“We are the hunted now [in Concacaf] not the hunters in many ways, I think there is a lot of added motivation for this [Canadian team],” Herdman said. “But right at the heart of it, they want to experience winning a trophy for Canada. They want to experience winning and pushing up the rankings at the world level.”
Canada last won the Gold Cup in 2000. This June's Nations League Finals and Gold Cup are opportunities to lift silverware, but with some Canadians potentially making summertime moves, player availability might make it hard for Herdman to consistently select his strongest team.
Herdman likely won’t have many problems enticing his best players to play in the 2024 Copa América, and whatever experience Canada gains then will prepare it for the 2025 Gold Cup, which will fall around a year before the 2026 World Cup.
And that 2025 squad, including players likely entering the primes of their careers with experience from multiple major tournaments, on top of the additional talent Herdman will doubtlessly recruit – as he did throughout 2022 World Cup qualification – means Canada will be expected to win.
“Over the last three months [since Qatar], I’ve had a chance to connect with a lot of the players. I had multiple connects about the past, what we learned over the last four years, understanding what we need to change over the next [three] years to get this country to the next level,” Herdman said.
“We respect that it was a four-year process [before Qatar] to lay a foundation that hopefully we can all stand on now to reach another level in world football, another level of respect, and another level of achievement.”