Kloke: What I learned from covering Canada at the World Cup in Qatar


Canada’s World Cup is over, but the lessons learned are plentiful. Let’s start with the team’s own objectives.

“The team set clear goals coming in here,” said coach John Herdman during the tournament. Those goals focused on being the first Canada men’s team at a World Cup “to score a goal, first team to show fearlessness, first team to entertain, first team to keep a clean sheet, first team to get a result, first team to get a win. We’ve missed out on (being) the first team to get out of a World Cup group stage. But we haven’t been here for 36 years.”

This team has a lot to be proud of and has made incredible progress in a short amount of time. But if this team’s goal is to continue to compete on the world stage, continue to raise the bar for its and achieve those goals, then they need to be held accountable, as well.

After taking some time to digest the end of Canada’s World Cup run, where they lost all three of their matches in a very difficult group with two goals scored and the second-worst record of all 32 teams, here’s what sticks out.

Watching Atiba Hutchinson start for Canada against Belgium in the tournament opener spoke to the 39-year-old defensive midfielder’s resilience, having previously gone through four failed World Cup qualification campaigns. That resilience became a hallmark of this Canada side.

Hutchinson was ultimately convinced by John Herdman to come back into the fold when he probably didn’t want to do so in 2018, because Herdman recognized the young group needed a veteran presence. Hutchinson served that purpose through qualifying. But now that this group has experience in a World Cup, it’s on this team’s younger core to move into leadership roles of their own.

While Hutchinson played well against Belgium, he lacked the necessary pace against Croatia. It’s not worth blaming him solely for the goals Canada conceded; you could argue the team as a whole wasn’t set up for success tactically. Regardless, it’s clear Hutchinson is not the answer in midfield he used to be for this team.

So after 101 international caps, the most in Canada men’s national team history, the end of the road has likely come for Hutchinson.

“I don’t know,” Hutchinson said after a long exhale after the loss to Morocco, when asked about whether he had just played his last game for Canada. “I really need to just put my head down and really think things through. I’m very close, but haven’t made my decision as of yet.”

Hearing Hutchinson’s voice crack and seeing his eyes water as he reflected on his career was a reminder of what his time playing for Canada has meant to him. I don’t know what a proper send-off looks like, but he certainly deserves his moment in the sun in front of Canadian fans.

“This time has gone by so fast,” said Hutchinson. “I enjoyed every moment. I wish we could have gotten results and really made everybody that much more proud of us. But I’m still proud.”

Tactically, John Herdman needs to improve

Herdman’s first men’s World Cup produced no shortage of lessons. He undoubtedly wishes he hadn’t said what he said before the game against Croatia, to start. But the lasting lessons need to be tactical ones. His set-up against Croatia and in the first half against Morocco simply didn’t work.

It feels likely Herdman will be Canada’s manager in 2026. In order to improve the team’s performance, he will need to have a better understanding of his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses because it looked, to my eyes at least, like there was too much focus on how his team should play and not enough focus on how the opposition would punish Canada.

Yes, I saw individual errors too, like Milan Borjan’s blunder with the ball against Morocco. That’s not on Herdman. But the chances of these errors occurring and the impact they have when they do can be mitigated by him.

Herdman’s loyalty to Hutchinson and playing him against Croatia in a two-man midfield was an error. Even if Herdman saw Hutchinson’s poise as a necessary addition, without the cover of an extra midfielder to protect the slowing captain, Canada were easily picked apart by some of the world’s best passers.

Herdman’s loyalty to veteran players throughout qualifying was not something he ran from. He saw it as an important element to build trust throughout the entire team. Now this team has seen just how difficult playing in a World Cup is, and how having a short bench without many depth options can hurt.

Herdman needs to move on from the veteran players who saw limited playing time under him immediately. The late March international window is a decent place to start, but the 2023 Gold Cup is going to be his first real opportunity to integrate young players without international experience and cap-tie dual nationals interested in joining the program.

Without a proper qualification run leading up to the 2026 World Cup, Herdman cannot afford to waste any time preparing his team. Hanging on to players who won’t contribute in 2026 won’t only be detrimental to the program’s growth, but will hamper their chances of getting out of the group stage.

(Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Alphonso Davies’ role needs to be better defined

The spotlight was on Davies for both positive and negative reasons in Qatar. He scored Canada’s first-ever men’s World Cup goal, which is impressive and historic in its own right. He was dynamic at times, creating attacking chances. But during this World Cup, his role seemed unclear. If he is Canada’s best player, there should be an expectation that he should also be one of the most accountable.

He missed a crucial penalty against Belgium that, in hindsight, given the how little gas Belgium had in the tank, might have ended up being the difference in the game. He declined to speak to the written Canadian press after he scored against Croatia, which caused controversy.

On the pitch, he was deployed in multiple positions, sometimes in one game, including against Morocco when he moved from an untraditional right wingback role to striker. He didn’t look particularly comfortable in either. And while that obviously is relevant to Davies’ performance, it’s also on Herdman. Tactically, Herdman needs to understand where Davies is most effective and communicate that, while also demanding more out of him defensively, as well.

Davies is Canada’s best player. It’s hard to see that changing. He has done great work for the growth of this sport — whether that’s with his talent and the influence that has, his work with an Edmonton-based soccer academy or his role as an ambassador for the United Nations refugee agency. But still, I came away from Canada’s World Cup run wondering if Davies, Herdman and Canada Soccer are all on the same page regarding how he can be most effective on the pitch, and how his voice can be heard off of it.

Centre-back is the biggest question mark

Steven Vitoria should no longer be the first-choice centre-back for Canada. He can still read play well and connect with tackles, but his foot speed isn’t there. He and Kamal Miller were both beaten in whatfelt like slow motion on Morocco’s second goal by Youssef En-Nesyri.

Meanwhile, Miller’s tackling ability was precise, and his body positioning also helped make up for his lack of speed, but it’s clear there’s still room for growth.

I wonder how much different Canada would have looked at the back with Scott Kennedy’s pace, had he not missed the tournament with a shoulder injury. Maybe it’s time to turn the keys over to him. Outside of Kennedy, the depth options aren’t inspiring.

So when it comes to focusing on player development ahead of 2026, no position should be more of a focus than centre-back. That could mean integrating 19-year-old Justin Smith, currently playing with Ligue 2’s Quevilly Rouen, though he plays largely as a defensive midfielder with some experience at centre-back.

The most consistent and consistently dangerous player I saw in a Canada shirt in Qatar was Tajon Buchanan. Whether it was driving forward with aplomb and getting into the most optimal spaces with the ball or using his pace to track back defensively, it was hard to take your eyes off the winger.

Per FBRef, Buchanan led all Canada players with a non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes of 0.5, suggesting he should have left Qatar with a World Cup goal over the three games he played.

Speaking with scouts and journalists from other countries in Qatar, I know I wasn’t alone in my assessment. The experience Buchanan has recently earned playing in the Champions League with Club Brugge appears to have paid off. And there’s still so much room for him to improve, too. You want your best players not shirking from the biggest moments and that’s what Buchanan did. Soon enough we should be talking about Buchanan in the same breath as Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David as the Canada players with the most upside.

“As a player, this is what you dream of: playing at the biggest stage,” Buchanan told The Athletic. “Coming here, I didn’t want to take anything for granted. A lot of guys don’t even get the opportunity in their careers. So when it’s right in front of you, you want to show the world what you could do. We were able to show the world that we’re growing as a nation, and we’re a football nation. And I think we’re going to start gaining a lot more respect from everybody, because we went toe to toe even though we lost, we showed our quality.”

The heat on this team needs to be turned up

The line I kept hearing from Canada players and Herdman again and again in Qatar was how Canada is now a “football nation.”

I don’t know how you prove that unequivocally. Maybe Canada is a football nation. Interest in the game is growing but we won’t see the effects of Canada qualifying for this World Cup for some time.

But having seen the way the media and fan bases treat teams that have a longer and more pronounced soccer heritage and culture like, say, Mexico and Argentina, it’s clear that the expectations and pressure on Canada need to shift. The tenor of coverage around this men’s team over the last few years was celebratory, because it should have been. Canada’s turnaround from being ranked 120th in the world in 2017 to qualifying for a World Cup five years later was remarkably impressive.

Moving forward, should Canadians just be happy to be invited to the dance, or should they expect more than three losses at the tournament?

I’ll speak for myself here: I think towards 2026, the tenor of my coverage needs to shift. I need to be more critical of this men’s team because I believe readers who are Canadian fans won’t simply be happy with going winless in a World Cup again.

That’s not to suggest that by asking tougher questions or writing with more of a critical tone that Canada will start producing wins on the world stage. It’s simply that if the Canada men’s team believe that they are playing for a “football nation,” then they need to be held to account as such.

(Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Jonathan Osorio had some impressive moments in his debut World Cup. The 30-year-old didn’t work in a two-man midfield, but in a three Osorio has shown he can excel by creating smart passing triangles. He still has the capability to create chances when necessary, something we saw both against Croatia and Morocco.

But what was more impressive was the way Osorio was not only able to speak for the Canada side after losses, but how he could break down Canada’s strengths and weaknesses in articulate detail. This team could benefit from his mind for the game.

“(Croatia) is a very smart team. They’re the highest level of midfield trio you can get. As much as it hurt because it happened against my team, I think when you analyze the game after you learn to appreciate what they did, and learn from it,” said Osorio.

This Canada team needs more of an edge. More urgency might be what the doctor ordered, and what I’ve seen from Osorio both before the World Cup and during shows me he can be the one driving teammates.

“I don’t think I’m everybody’s favourite teammate on the field. Everybody will tell you that. I’m super competitive. As long as they respect me and understand me, I don’t care. I’m hardest on myself but I’m hard on guys around me, to push guys,” Osorio told The Athletic.

Very few players showed that intangible desire to play for Canada the way Osorio does. He’s already part of the leadership group. It’s time to give him the armband.

“I feel like this is my purpose,” said Osorio. “I truly feel, spiritually, that this is why I was born: to play for Canada and to make a mark for Canada.”

Canada Soccer’s efforts with the media need to improve

I’m here in Qatar because I love this game. And I looked around the small group of Canadian reporters that made the trip and, for the most part, I can say the same about those reporters. I feel comfortable in stating that in Canada, you cover soccer because it means something to you that it might not to others and in part because you want the game to succeed at every level.

But this is where there is a divide.

Canada Soccer’s latest strategic plan states that they want to “Develop, govern and grow” the game, I’m not convinced Canada Soccer is doing enough to live up to that final word. Even with a run to the World Cup, this team is still clamoring for mainstream public attention. Compared to other organizations which are also focused on growing the sport like the United States Soccer Federation, Canada Soccer’s practices fall behind.

Part of that (but not all of it) could be addressed by making players more available, and communicating effectively and quickly with the media.

I want to tell stories about this team, and it’s significantly harder to do so as a beat writer without the main characters’ voices involved at all. I think readers need to hear from those voices – knowing how they personally saw or experienced certain moments can go a long way toward developing a personal connection to the game Canada Soccer is trying to grow in our country.

At times, a player can even be the organization’s best spokesperson in hard situations. After the United States was eliminated from the World Cup against the Netherlands, captain Tyler Adams spoke with media and expressed the requisite disappointment, but also the feeling that “we’ve shown we can hang with some of the best teams in the world.”

That’s a great message to send, it stands up to scrutiny, and even if fans disagree, at least it can serve as fodder for debate.

By contrast, after Canada’s loss to Croatia, which ended its World Cup, a federation representative clasped their hands together to make an important player for the team’s future stop and speak to reporters in the mixed zone. The player brushed the representative aside, and ultimately we had little to go on afterward.

Some will undoubtedly believe players don’t owe the media anything. But I’m of the opinion that if players make themselves more available to the media, and if Canada Soccer communicates better with the media while also helping players understand the role they have to play in the promotion of the team and the sport, it allows people to tell stories. That, hopefully, will resonate with new, curious fans. I don’t know if Canada Soccer agrees with me.

In Qatar, just as they have for years, I watched the end of Canada’s World Cup journey and wondered what could have been but, more concerning, I wondered if anything was ever going to change.

(Photo: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)


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