CONCACAF qualifying campaigns for the World Cup are usually fairly straightforward. A bunch of preliminary rounds, then down to a final round-robin qualification competition in which the USA, Mexico, and Costa Rica reach the finals, one of them usually getting there after a play-off with New Zealand or a similar team. After 2018 saw the USA fail to qualify, the round-robin was expanded, and while the USMNT did much better this time around, they were not the story of 2022 qualification. That honor, with not a single doubt, went to Canada.

The Maple Leafs’ qualification was certainly timely, as they’re co-hosting in 2026 and it could have looked bad if they’d qualified for their first tournament in 40 years via that backdoor. It was attention-grabbing, as fans flocked to visit to find out how to bet on their new heroes. But the big question is … why? With Canada having been largely a spectator in any of the important global soccer occasions in several decades, why did they manage to top the CONCACAF pool ahead of at least three more fancied sides?

A “golden generation” of players

For decades, even a relatively keen soccer fan would have been hard pushed to name a single Canadian national soccer player. Owen Hargreaves, born in Calgary and representing Bayern Munich to great acclaim, was a standout player at the 2006 World Cup. For England. It’s not that there were no good Canadian players, but there certainly weren’t enough to make a team. This time around, players like Cyle Larin, Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan are part of the team, and have featured in title-winning teams in Germany, France and Belgium among others.

A coach with obvious talent

There’ll be 32 head coaches at this World Cup, and most of them have played at one themselves in the past. John Herdman is one of the former group, but assuredly not one of the latter. His greatest experience as a player was turning out for Hibiscus Coast, an amateur side based in New Zealand. At the time he was playing for them, though, he was in a more important job, as coach of the national women’s team. 

His time there saw the Football Ferns qualify twice for World Cups. Moving on to coach the Canadian women’s team, he steered them to another World Cup and won bronze in the Olympic finals. That earned him a shot at coaching the men’s team as well as overall responsibility for all male Canadian national teams. It’s fair to say his time there has worked out well.

Some intelligent gamesmanship

When Canada’s men faced the USMNT in January, both sides were in a position where they could top the pool, or could equally fail to qualify altogether. Every point mattered. So Herdman arranged for the qualifier to be played on the plastic pitch at Edmonton’s Tim Horton’s Field. The stadium hadn’t been used for a soccer game of any note before, but it was close to zero degrees Fahrenheit at the time of kickoff and had a very narrow playing surface. The American players, used to wide grass pitches and not having to wear gloves, didn’t like it much, and Canada recorded a 2-0 win, which was pivotal in ensuring their qualification.