Weeks before three of the most important games of his life, John Herdman opened a press call on Wednesday sounding alarmingly subdued, almost stricken. He soon revealed that he’d just spoken with defender Scott Kennedy and together they came to a brutal conclusion: Kennedy will not be going to the World Cup.
In Kennedy’s case, a freak injury will see him miss the first World Cup for the Canadian men in 36 years. The 25-year-old defender fell awkwardly on his shoulder while playing with German club SSV Jahn Regensburg on Saturday. He won’t play again until the new year.
“He’s sitting in Germany in a lot of pain at the moment,” Herdman said. “He was devastated this morning.”
Herdman was clearly wounded, too. He’s elevated his team, willed them to play above their relative stations, in part through a remarkable spirit of togetherness. He’s narrowed gaps in skill and technique that might otherwise have taken years to close with emotional investment.
His terrible exchange with Kennedy laid bare the risks of underwriting something with your heart.
“It’s really raw,” Herdman said. “We’ve just had a really difficult conversation and got to see what it means to someone when it’s taken away.”
Much of Herdman’s time before the World Cup has been spent watching his players’ club performances while he continually builds and rebuilds his 26-man roster. The European season has been compressed because of the strange winter timing of this year’s tournament in Qatar, leaving the obsessive coach in a constant state of couch-bound anxiety.
“Every game we’re monitoring you have that pit in your stomach that you’re going to lose a critical player,” he said. “Every weekend, you’re dreading it. One part is, you’re going to miss some quality from your team, but the next part is just knowing the pain that those players are going to go through.”
There have been close calls with marquee members of his side. Herdman could only watch in horror when Alphonso Davies staggered off the field for Bayern Munich last month after getting kicked in the face.
Fortunately, Davies has recovered, part of a string of mostly positive news out of Europe.
Stephen Eustaquio kept his wonder season with a Champions League goal for Porto on Tuesday. (“I’m really proud of his progression,” Herdman said, finding his smile.) Jonathan David, third among Ligue 1 goal scorers with Lille, has been the subject of torrid transfer speculation, including rumored interest from English giants Chelsea and Manchester United.
But the loss of Kennedy — less a pillar of the Canadian defensive corps than the sort of quality dressing-room character Herdman hugely values — is a reminder of the stakes of these coming days and weeks.