When the 2022 FIFA World Cup kicks off in Qatar on November 20, for the first time in 36 years Canada will be there.
John Herdman, head coach of the Canadian Men’s National Team, has not yet announced his squad, but when that final roster hits it is expected that at least four players will have ‘Toronto FC’ listed as their most recent club.
In the four weeks since the 2022 MLS season came to an end, Jonathan Osorio, Richie Laryea, Mark-Anthony Kaye, and Doneil Henry have been hard at work preparing to step onto the world’s stage.
“A lot of double days, good sleep, good food. A lot of preparation, a lot of videos; everything,” said former TFC homegrown defender Henry. “Making sure mentally I'm into it, physically that my body is ready to cope with travel, with hard training, with games; everything.”
“It's been a really demanding period,” he continued. “It’ll start to taper off and now we're just taking in the information that we’ll need to help us go to the World Cup and win games.”
Drawn into a Group F alongside Belgium, ranked second in the most recent FIFA rankings, 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia, and Morocco, a highly-rated African nation, an epic adventure lies ahead.
“It’s a huge, huge moment,” said Laryea, on loan from Nottingham Forest. “It's a huge tournament – the most viewed sporting event in the world.”
“It’s a tall task, a lot has to go into it,” he continued. “We’ve been able to train with TFC the last couple of weeks and have chats with the national team coaches, training staff, physios. It’s been a little bit of everything going into the preparation, but so far it's been pretty good.”
Many of the MLS-based players who will represent Canada at the quadrennial celebration of the sport will not have played a competitive game in six weeks when the action gets underway. Maintaining the level required has been the aim.
The assistance of their TFC teammates in keeping the intensity high in training has been helpful.
“We understand, I understand, it's a big occasion for our team and myself,” said Kaye. “So I'm just trying to do as much as I can to get myself in the best shape possible fitness-wise, but also as sharp as possible too on the ball.”
“It's really good that we've been able to have a training environment where that quality has stayed pretty high over the last couple of weeks here with TFC. Things have pretty much stayed the same,” he added. “Maybe there's a heightened intensity between the Canadian guys.”
The quartet departed the BMO Training Ground on Friday, bound for a pre-tournament Canada camp that will see them face Bahrain on November 11 at Khalifa Sports City Stadium in Isa Town, Bahrain.
Several of their teammates, both current and former – Lukas MacNaughton, Ayo Akinola, Jayden Nelson, Liam Fraser, Raheem Edwards, and Jacob Shaffelburg – have been called into that group as Herdman narrows down his final selection.
Having not played a complete match since August 20, Osorio, recovering from post-concussion symptoms, is looking forward to getting back out on the pitch.
“Just recovering fully, making sure that I’m 100%, and feeling healthy – which I am,” he said last Thursday. “Getting as much fitness done as I can to be in the best shape possible to join the team in Bahrain and show in those games that I can contribute during the World Cup.”
“I've been training full and it's been good. I'm feeling 100%,” Osorio added. “Feeling really, really good.”
Canada will face Japan on November 17 in their final warm-up game before the World Cup gets underway a few days later. Canada opens the tournament on November 23 against Belgium.
That this nation will be at the 2022 World Cup seemed like an impossible dream not so long ago. Getting there was an incredible journey.
The Octogon, the final round of Concacaf World Cup Qualification, that spanned September 2021 to March 2022 was 14 matches of sheer thrill and excitement.
Every person, every player will have their own memories of which moments were the most crucial, be they big or small.
For Laryea one was the opening match, a 1-1 draw against Honduras on September 2 at BMO Field.
“The most important moment was the very first game, going down a goal,” he explained. “For a lot of us it was our first World Cup Qualifier, to comeback and [pick up] a huge point at home against Honduras. At the time we maybe thought of it as ‘we should have beat them’ and all these different things – which I think is true, but getting a point in that game really set the tempo for us moving forward. It was an entry game for us to see what World Cup Qualifying would be like.”
Kaye highlighted the second game, another 1-1 draw, on September 5 against the USA in Nashville, Tennessee.
“The way we were able to rise to the occasion and really go toe-to-toe with the US Men's National Team,” he said. “It was unfortunate to not come away with three points, but the US is a team that constantly goes to the World Cup and we just went into their home territory and gave it to them. That was ‘Wow, this team is very special and when everyone is playing their game we can beat anyone.’”
He saw the 1-1 draw away to Mexico at famed Azteca Stadium in Mexico City during the next window, where Osorio scored a dramatic equalizer just before half-time, as right on par with the US result.
“Again another game we didn't win, but went into these hostile environments and really showed CONCACAF and the world that we can compete with the best teams,” Kaye said. “It was just an enjoyable experience. To be in a situation where the stakes are so high against a quality opponent and then come out and do really well. Those were big moments for sure.”
The third match of that October window, again at BMO Field, saw one of the more iconic moments of the qualification process: Alphonso Davies tiptoeing down the touchline to score a highlight reel goal that captured the attention of the nation and powered Canada to a 4-1 win over Panama. It lit the touchpaper.
“We played in many massive games, but I think one of the big ones, a game in Toronto where a lot of the guys are from, was the Panama one,” highlighted Laryea. “The game where Alphonso scores that crazy goal.”
“The stadium was rocking, people were excited,” he continued. “After that game people were starting to believe in our national team. That was a pretty big moment, especially for me – being at BMO Field, being in Toronto. It was nice to see how lively the crowd was.”
When the action switched to a freezing Edmonton, Alberta for the November window, Canada played a match that changed what was possible: defeating Mexico 2-1 to establish their grip on the top of the standings.
“Our game against Mexico in Edmonton was probably the moment where a lot of us realized we were going to the World Cup,” recalled Osorio. “We believed before that, but that win really solidified that we were going to do this and at that point our ambitions became a little bit bigger than just winning [a place at] the World Cup. It became to try and qualify first out of Concacaf.”
“That game was huge for us,” he continued. “It was a huge indicator of where we were at, telling us that we were going to go to the World Cup.”
Asked the same question, Doneil Henry highlighted not one moment, nor a single game, but an entire window and something that will serve the team well as they brace for Qatar.
Canada won all three matches of the fourth window – away to Honduras, at home against the US, and away to El Salvador – by 2-0 scorelines. It was then they silenced any doubt.
“It was that period where we were missing a few of our stars and all the headlines were saying ‘How is Canada going to go through this window? How many points would we pick up?” Henry remembered. “And in three games we got three wins – that kept us at the top of the table.”
“From then we knew that this team was a team that didn't have to just rely on stars, we relied on a brotherhood. We were tight, we were a unit; we worked and we fought for each other,” he said. “We showed a lot of resilience in that camp.”