The Uncomfortable John Herdman Problem

The Uncomfortable John Herdman Problem

Full disclosure, I’m not here to categorically say that Canada should fire the men’s National team’s most successful coach since the eighties. But football is a fast, results-driven business. It’s not March 2022 anymore, and after a run of form that has seen Canada soccer handed a big reality check, perhaps it’s time we examine John Herdman closer, and ask the uncomfortable question, is he good enough to lead Canada in 2026?


Now it would be unfair to disregard the good work Herdman has done. After revitalizing the Women’s National team, Herman swapped over to the Men’s team in January 2018 and has taken the team to heights that no one could see coming. Canada was ranked 94 in the world at the end of 2017, and by January 2022 they had dramatically risen to be the 33rd-best team in the world. The best quality is his ability to motivate and bring a team together, the core Canadian squad is a close-knit team who refers to itself as a brotherhood, and the team plays with a genuine mentality that they can beat anyone.

But Herdman’s managerial limitations have been starting to show. With some major weaknesses becoming more obvious over time.

Firstly, Herdman is either too stubborn or loyal to certain players. There are core players in the Canada squad that will either be retired or well passed their prime come the 2026 World Cup. As good as these players are now, it will not help Canada’s World Cup preparation at all to give significant minutes to 36-year-old Steven Vitoria, 36-year-old Milan Borjan, 33-year-old David Wotherspoon, 30-year-old Lucas Cavalinni, 34-year-old Junior Hoillet, and a half fit 31-year-old Johnathan Osorio. Canada has good promising players in Victor Loturi, Mathieu Choinière, Jayden Nelson, Dominick Zator, Kyle Hiebert, and Theo Corbeanu hey none of them have either been picked for the GOLD Cup squad or have seen little to no game time under Herdman.


In particular with Milan Borjan (who has undoubtedly been a great servant to Canada), it’s clear to see that he is past his prime. His distribution with the ball is shaky, he isn’t the best at commanding his box and he is only getting slower when it comes to reacting to shots. Canada has many upcoming good quality goalkeepers; Dayne St Clair is the most apparent choice right now – he is been a mainstay for Minnesota United and is well deserving of game time for the national team. Other options include Jonathan Sirois (who was very unfortunate not to be called up for the GOLD Cup squad) and Tom McGill, who still needs to be cap tied to Canada. For some reason, Herdman keeps persisting with Borjan, who was even recently let go from Red Star Belgrade as their manager didn’t deem him good enough.

Borjan’s error vs Morocco has been the lowlight of what has been a difficult run of form for the keeper as of late (NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP / Getty

Atiba Hutchinson is now retired, but during the World Cup he was only just back from an injury that has stifled his club season with Beşiktaş to the point where it was up in the air if he would retire or not before the tournament. Hutchinson started against Belgium on November 23rd and just four days later, Herdman deployed a barely fit 39 year old in a midfield two against Croatia’s elite midfield three of Modrić, Brozović and Kovačić…it was a disaster. Canada was completely overran in midfield and from the second minute on, were completely outmatched tactically. Remarkably, Hutchinson didn’t come off until the 73rd minute, 73 minutes more than he should’ve played.

Canada was badly overran in midfield in their 4-1 loss to Croatia (Adrian Macias: MEXSPORT)

Defence has also been a problem, not just in player selection but it’s a big part of the issue. Centreback Scott Kennedy had a very poor game against the States in the Nations League Final. He plays for a second-tier German team that just got relegated to the third tier, and he’s being asked to play in defence against an American front line that includes Folarin Balogun, Gio Reyna, Timo Weah and Christian Pulisic – a task that Kennedy just simply isn’t prepared for. Vitoria, Canada’s most experienced defender started against Panama but was dropped for the Final most likely because of fatigue (he did eventually come on). To be frank, Herdman wasted 90 minutes from Vitoria on a Panama squad that Canada should be dispatching.

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The defence in that game, just like many other games was falling victim to the same old Herdman problems. Set pieces and long balls. It’s been a common theme, most glaringly in the World Cup with goals conceded against both Belgium and Morocco both coming from long balls. It’s clear that Canada’s defenders don’t have the pace to deal with fast attackers latching on to the long ball, yet as we’ve seen in games since the World Cup…Herdman hasn’t adapted.


As for set pieces, particularly corners….oh boy. I went back and watched some Canada women’s games under Herdman’s tenure. The two most heartbreaking games in his time were the 4-3 defeat to the States at the 2012 Olympics, and the 2-1 defeat to England at the 2015 World Cup, naturally, Canada conceded a goal from a set piece in both games. The goal in particular against England even doubled as a long ball over the top.

Megan Rapinoe’s direct goal from a corner at the 2012 Olympic semi final sums up how poor Herdman teams are at defending set pieces (AP Photo/Ben Curti

In a 3-0 defeat to the US (2013), they conceded a goal from a long ball over the defence, in a 3-0 defeat to Japan (2013) they conceded from a corner, there are plenty of other examples and don’t get me wrong – no team is perfect with all arts of defending. But John Herdman’s teams have a problem that goes back over a decade now.

It’s not gotten any better with the men’s team, going as far back as the 4-1 defeat to the US in 2019 Herdman teams have struggled with the same old weaknesses. Canada conceded twice in World Cup Qualifying to long balls over the top, and were incredibly fortunate not to concede from corners in the home games against Mexico as the States.

If not an incredible Milan Borjan save, Canada would’ve conceded another sloppy set piece goal vs the United Staes in January 2022 (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

The point I’m trying to home in is that this defensive weakness is something that doesn’t show any signs of getting better. Even in the 2023 GOLD Cup Canada are still conceding this type of goal!


Signs are definitely showing that the tide is turning, Herdman was seen as a man who can do no wrong not that long ago. Yet now there is growing frustration with his tactics, his player selection, and even now his answers to media questions, in which he often fails to take responsibility for results. The 2026 World Cup is the best chance soccer has ever had to truly take off in Canada, and the best chance Canada will have to make an impactful World Cup campaign, surly there must be nerves that Herdman isn’t the man to unlock this team’s full potential?

Okay, he got the team to Qatar, but look at this team. Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Tajon Buchanan, Stephen Eustáquio, Alistair Johnstone and Cyle Larn etc, to be frank anything but World Cup qualification with that squad would’ve been a sackable offence. I’m not saying it was an achievement worth celebrating, but on paper it should’ve been expected. Canadas big results have came against the weakness Mexico side in decades, and the USA with Gregg Berhalter in charge, they have failed to deliver any other time they’ve faced a stern test.

But here’s the thing…what does Canada soccer do? First off, Herdman is realistically not going anywhere. He has too much credit in the bank and will always be thought of highly. The other issue is that the Canadian Soccer Association isn’t exactly swimming in cash. John Herdman is contracted to the end of the 2026 World Cup, meaning he would be entitled to significant financial compensation should the unthinkable happen and he is fired.

John Herdman himself has spoken out lately about the lack of financial resources made available to him by Canada soccer (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP, File) (Nathan Denette / Associated Press)

Furthermore, Canada would barely be able to afford a higher-quality manager. Anyone holding out for Carlo Ancelotti needs to come back it the real world, a new Canada manager would more than likely be some out-of-work mediocre MLS manager (I heard Bob Bradley is now free…)


So that’s the John Herdman problem. He has clearly raised Les Rouges floor to a level not seen in generations. But the ceiling is limited, a stubbornness in tactics and player selection will see Canada always struggle against better teams, and even weaker teams should their key players be missing.

But Herdman represents the best candidate the CSA can attract, so unless something dramatically changes, we have to get into the boat and enjoy the ride. All while hoping John Herdman can adapt as a manager come 2026.

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6 thoughts on “The Uncomfortable John Herdman Problem

  1. The moral of the story is right in the article. Canada Soccer had screwed up the finances so badly that Herdman is the best we can afford.

  2. Unfortunately, we have no other option. I said it from before after the world cup we need a change but with no money we have no one else to replace this guy.

  3. 50/50 the coach doesn’t have much of strategic,tactics ambitious and intelligence to transmit to the players seem like he plays by the book manual. The players .much of the players don’t have the guts to play on one on one to challenge the opponent they don’t look confident in this kind of matches . Players have to explote their potential to the max . To play soccer you have to use your brain and feet at the same time in fractions of a second and don’t relay on the coach or your co player . The coach don’t have to be soft on the players in soccer you don’t have so many games to play in a tournament so you win or you win !

  4. For goodness sake, John, use some of these young players. Start Shaffelburg his crosses are the best… Just get somebody in the box who can finish them off.

  5. To be frank, I think your assessment of Herdman is too harsh. Like you said, the CSA can’t afford to replace him with anyone better and arguably any coach that would be a significant upgrade on Herdman, would refuse to work for a federation with such limited resources. The claim that Canada should have been expected to qualify for Qatar due their talented players is simply ludicrous, I can literally find YouTube clips online where Herdman (back in 2019) tells Sportsnet that they are going to qualify in 2022 and everyone in the media reacts like he’s crazy. I will concede that the set piece defending is a very valid criticism and remains a longstanding issue, but how much can you really expect when you only have one centre-back in the entire pool that is capable of winning aerial duels (Vitoria), it’s not possible to turn straw into gold! I don’t see how you can criticize Herdman for mismanaging Vitoria’s minutes, and then criticize him for overplaying Vitoria at the expense of younger players at the same time. Sure perhaps Herdman could have been a bit more ruthless with moving on from some veteran players, but he has certainly moved on from some of them (Kaye, Doneil Henry, etc.), and any squad that gets taken to the 2026 World Cup is still going to need some veteran leadership presence (like Hoilett, Cavalini, and Osorio). In fact, at the Gold Cup we have already seen several new players get plenty of minutes in defense and midfield (McGraw, Bombito, etc.), but there seems to be lack of young new talent up top (aside from Ali Ahmed), so he hadn’t selected Hoilett and Cavalini for this tournament, the team wouldn’t have had any offense at all! Sure the results haven’t been great, but maybe just possibly the problem is not the coaching but rather that Canada’s depth is not as talented as people thought it was? Finally, if you want to be somewhat encouraged, you should go back and watch some of the matches that the Canadian Women’s team played at the Rio 2016 Olympics, which for my money was still the best Herdman team (men’s or women’s) of all time. It also demonstrates his ability to move on from a very veteran heavy 2015 World Cup roster, by only keeping a third of the best 2015 veterans and incorporating them with a bunch of kids (the core of the 2014 Canadian women’s U-20 team) to go win the second bronze medal and post a 5W-1L record for the tournament. Yes, I agree that the 2026 squad should be focused on the next generation, but they’re never going to get anywhere with keeping a few veterans around.

  6. Generally a fair assessment. I would argue Herdman is the manager to take us into 2026 simply on the basis that his quality as a manger is on par with the quality of our MNT. He knows the boys better than anyone, the group has established trust in each other and he has time to work on his known weakness. The realities are we can neither afford nor attract a better manager at this time, 2022 WC Qualification was very likely the peak potential of this MNT (and that’s not a knock against them, that’s a genuine achievement) and our limited recent success has been frequently overstated and placed unreasonable expectation on this MNT.

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