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Herdman urges Canada’s men’s soccer team to complete World Cup journey in Costa Rica

Canada’s men started their World Cup qualifying campaign a year ago this week — in an empty stadium in Florida, during one of COVID’s grim peaks, with a victory over Bermuda. So much literal and psychological distance has been covered by this team since, it’s hard to remember each step along the way. But that’s how this incredible journey began: in silence, in semidarkness.

Now there is no shortage of noise and light. Canada is poised to play its 18th game in qualifying and somehow remains undefeated and on top of CONCACAF’s qualifying standings, having posted wins over the favored likes of Mexico, the United States, and Panama. A win versus Costa Rica on Thursday night, and Canada will be going to Qatar, its first men’s World Cup since 1986.

One more win and another journey initiates.

“I don’t think anyone wants it to end,” head coach John Herdman said Wednesday in advance of the match at Estadio Nacional, where vendors were set up beside the traffic jams, selling strings of red Costa Rican jerseys, more than 48 hours before the opening whistle. “We’ve really enjoyed the experience.”

Well, maybe not the entire experience. Those hazy early days unfolded on soccer’s less glamorous margins. After four opening-stage victories, Canada’s men had to play Haiti twice, home and away, just to earn entry into the final stage, called the Octagonal, let alone try to win it. 

“If I you’d asked was I enjoying it as I was entering the stadium in Haiti? No,” Herdman said with a laugh. “But when you look back, there’s been some amazing moments that have shaped the team.”

Alphonso Davies’ stunning solo effort versus Panama in front of a frantic Toronto crowd last October first earned a place in the national imagination.

Wins over Costa Rica and Mexico on a frozen field in Edmonton in November saw this team thawing out under a far hotter spotlight.

Gaining maximum points during the previous qualifying window, including a 2-0 domination of the Americans on a blue-sky January day in Hamilton, made Canada an almost certain bet to go to Qatar. Historically, not much has separated the two sides.

Costa Rica is a challenging team to play at home, at altitude, and Los Ticos are still in the qualifying mix, with everything to play for. The game in Edmonton was nervy, physical, and close despite the supposed cold-weather advantage for the Canadians. The Costa Ricans put up a bitter fight before they finally had to accept a 1-0 defeat. Here, they’ll fight harder.

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