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Herdman says Canadian men head to El Salvador with support of the nation behind them

The Canadian men flew south to El Salvador on Tuesday to take the next step on their remarkable World Cup qualifying journey.

The Canadian men flew south to El Salvador on Tuesday to take the next step on their remarkable World Cup qualifying journey.

And while coach John Herdman and the players keep their eye on the prize, they know the support they have behind them as they inch closer and closer to Qatar 2022.

"We had a good chat about that with the players," Herdman said prior to jumping on the team charter ahead of Wednesday's game in San Salvador. "We feel that the country is really coming with us. And it's exciting."

The Canada coach cited special moments with the home crowd after wins over the U.S., Panama and Mexico in Hamilton, Toronto and Edmonton, respectively.

"Just moments you have to live. You have to soak it all in," he said. "And then the next day you get back to work.

"I've got some really top-level leaders in this team that have lived big experiences, so they know what comes with the territory. They know that we've got to tune out that noise at the right time and get back to being humble, feet on the ground. And knowing that if we don't take three points here, Panama win, Mexico, U.S.A. win, you're back in the fight again. You're back into the scrap of making sure you're in a position to not finish in fourth place.

"So it's massive game. And these players are well aware."

Canada (6-0-4, 22 points) tops the eight-team standings in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, with a four-point bulge over Mexico and the U.S. (both 5-2-3, 18 points). Panama (5-3-2, 17 points) stands fourth, four points above Costa Rica (3-3-4, 13 points).

Come March, the top three countries will represent North and Central America and the Caribbean in Qatar. The fourth-place finisher will face an Oceania team in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.

A win Wednesday combined with other results could see the Canadian men seal qualification.

Should Canada beat El Salvador (upping its total to 25 points), and Panama lose to Mexico, the U.S. lose to Honduras and Costa Rica lose or draw against Jamaica, the 40th-ranked Canadians would be through. That would open the door for Canada since Panama plays the U.S. in March — and under that scenario one of them would be unable to overtake Canada — while Costa Rica can’t drop any points if it is to reach the 25-point mark.

A more likely scenario could see Canada guarantee itself at least a fourth-place finish after play Wednesday.

El Salvador (2-5-3, nine points), Jamaica (1-5-4, seven points) and Honduras (0-7-3, three points) cannot catch Canada.

Herdman’s team has a nine-point cushion over fifth-place Costa Rica. A Canadian win Wednesday coupled with a Costa Rica loss or tie in Jamaica would mean the Costa Ricans could not catch Canada, assuring the Canadian men of at least a fourth-place finish.

A Canada tie in El Salvador coupled with a Costa Rica loss would also guarantee the Canadians at least fourth place.

Herdman says his team is aware of the dangers coming off the emotional high of Sunday's win over the U.S. And he is not taking El Salvador lightly, noting its strength at home where it tied the U.S., Honduras, Jamaica and Panama with the lone loss to visiting Mexico.

He says his team is going into "a real CONCACAF experience" at Estadio Cuscatlan.

"I think every game I've seen El Salvador play, they've got a packed house. They're fighting for their lives. They're the underdogs. We know they never surrender the shirt in that stadium."

It's been a gruelling schedule with three games in three countries in a week. But Herdman says the Canadians have made the best of it.

"It's been demanding. But I think when you're winning, it changes everything. I can imagine what this would be like if you'd lost those two games. It would be probably the toughest experience of our careers. But when you're winning, the sun shines. These trips don't feel burdensome. We're just excited now to actually get to El Salvador."

Herdman's backroom team has also worked hard to ease the travel. The Canadian men have flown by charter, taking chefs with them and having security in place while opting to spend as little time on hostile ground as possible.

"The mindset of the group has been just embrace and enjoy these moments," he said.

Canada is 9-5-4 all-time against El Salvador and won 3-0 when they met last September in World Cup qualifying play at Toronto's BMO Field. It is 2-2-2 in games in El Salvador, last winning there in December 1996.

After Wednesday, Canada wraps up qualifying play at Costa Rica on March 23, at home to Jamaica on March 26 and at Panama on March 29.

El Salvador, whose roster includes former Toronto FC defender Eriq Zavaleta, is coming off a 2-0 win in Honduras. It lost 1-0 to the U.S. in Columbus to open the international window.

With centre back Steven Vitoria suspended after picking up a second yellow card, Canada has called up CF Montreal defender Zachary Brault-Guillard.

Midfielder Samuel Piette limped out of last week's victory in Honduras and is deemed day-to-day.

Canada remains without Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies, who has been sidelined by myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, after testing positive for COVID-19. The 21-year-old from Edmonton has still been putting on a show, however, live-streaming on Twitch as he watches Canada's games.

On the plus side, Herdman said influential midfielder Stephen Eustaquio, who missed both the Honduras and U.S. games after Portuguese reports he had tested positive for COVID, was awaiting the team in El Salvador.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2022.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press