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Next-level opposition awaits Canada’s World Cup team in Qatar

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Canada turned heads in topping the final round of World Cup qualifying in the CONCACAF region. Now comes a string of next-level tests at the World Cup, starting with No. 2 Belgium.

The Canadian men are jumping into the deep end of world football.

Canada coach John Herdman knows the challenge that awaits. And how his players will have to rise to meet it.

“Coming up against the No. 2 team in the world in Belgium (on Nov. 23), you look at that and you know there’s another level to be found by our players,” Herdman said. “Yeah it is a bit nerve-racking to that degree. I’m sure every coach is going through these emotions.”

“It’s new, but it’s certainly a gift not a curse I’d say to be thinking about this,” he added.

No. 12 Croatia and No. 22 Morocco await the 41st-ranked Canadians in Group F in Qatar.

And while Herdman got good news pre-tournament on the fitness of veterans Atiba Hutchinson and Jonathan Osorio, there was major disappointment in seeing goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau (broken leg) and defenders Scott Kennedy (shoulder) and Doneil Henry (calf) ruled out by injury,

There was better news on Alphonso Davies, whose hamstring strain is not seen as major. But Herdman will undoubtedly heave a sigh of relief when Bayern Munich star takes the field for Canada.

On the plus side, influential midfielder Stephen Eustaquio has been in a rich vein of form with Portugal’s FC Porto. Like Club Brugge’s Tajon Buchanan, he has been seeing plenty of elite opposition in the Champions League. Jonathan David has been scoring for France’s Lille.

And before the latest injury, Davies was Davies.

“There’s a lot of positives for Canada,” Herdman said before arriving in Qatar.

While Herdman is a meticulous planner, there is little he could do about the MLS schedule and the fact that the season ended Oct. 9 for Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps. CF Montreal, which accounts for six of the 11 MLS players on Herdman’s roster, played on until it ran into New York City FC in the Oct. 23 Eastern Conference semifinal.

While some players may be lacking “match readiness for World Cup matches that are at that next level,” Herdman will have his players prepared tactically. Herdman and his staff leave no stone unturned when it comes to scouting the opposition, and the Canadians always have Plans B and C in their back pocket.

And if Plan D is needed, goalkeeper Milan Borjan has a history of requiring treatment around the 20- or 30-minute mark, allowing players to head to the sidelines for hydration — and a fresh dose of Herdman wisdom.

With the tournament allowing an expanded roster of 26 for the first time, Herdman and his staff did their due diligence into how a bigger squad would affect everything from training to the load on staff. They brought in 26 players for their September camp in Europe ahead of games against Uruguay and Qatar.

“We tested the environment in September. I think we’ve got a great group of players with the right attitude. So that bodes well,” Herdman said. “But it is a challenge. There’s certainly the rotation of players. It’s a long tournament.”

No stranger to World Cups from his time in charge of the Canadian women and while coaching the New Zealand under-20 and senior women, Herdman is well aware of the mental strain on players who are not getting on the field at tournaments.

“That’s the biggest challenge around coaching,” said Herdman. “It’s about being able to establish a level of fairness in the environment, trust in decisions. And this is the journey you’re going on. This is the adventure that as a coaching team, as a whole staff and then a player group, we have to embrace that there’s going to be things that impact and test the brotherhood.

“There’s no doubt the brotherhood will be tested because when you put pressure and the expectations, scrutiny and consequences of a World Cup around this group — you know people have never been exposed to this. And often you don’t know how people ware going to react in these situations.

“With it being our first World Cup, there’ll be a hell of a lot of learnings, I know that for sure. This is the first for the majority of staff on the men’s side and the first for these players. So they’re going to learn a lot about each other.”

While the Canadian men’s 20-match journey to the World Cup also came with tests, it was against CONCACAF opposition.

A congested qualifying schedule due to the pandemic plus the introduction of Nations League play in CONCACAF and Europe has left little room for teams to play rivals outside their confederation.

CONCACAF has just three teams (No. 13 Mexico, No. 16 U.S. and No. 31 Costa Rica) in the top 40 of the FIFA world rankings. In comparison, Europe has 21 (topped by Belgium) and South America’ six (including No. 1 Brazil).

Herdman is realistic. He hopes others are too.

While Canada is in Qatar to compete and start a new World Cup legacy, it is also building a foundation for 2026 when it co-hosts the tournament with the U.S. and Mexico.

“I think the true football fans in Canada understand this. They understand the realities of where Canada sits at this moment in time,” said Herdman. “We have a good team. We’ve have good players. But a lot of this is uncharted ground for us. And there’ll be a lot of learning experiences and learning on the job for players, staff.

“As a coach I’m going to learn from Day 1 to the day the tournament ends, everything is going to be new. And that’s what what’re embracing. But it’s the same for a lot of coaches and some of the players that are attending … I think the critical part is knowing that for 2026 there’s a lot of organizational knowledge that will be retained from preparing this team, the game experiences, the tournament experience.”

As co-host in 2026, Canada won’t have to qualify (although FIFA has yet to rubber-stamp that). But it will be a desirable opponent and destination for teams ahead of the tournament. Plus it will have an empty schedule.

“You should be able to play those matches that you haven’t been able to get access to which are critical,” said Herdman. “(It’s) critical to understand what it feels like to play against that $500-million-plus valuation team the billion-dollar team and teams like Brazil and England. Those are real tests, next-step tests that you have to experience.

“For this World Cup, I think the football fan that really understands football and world football, they get it. They understand for Canada to play the No. 2 team in the world, that’s a big test. And it’s a real experience. Because we’ve never played a top-five-ranked team in the world since I don’t know, maybe a decade ago,” he added.

“So we’ve got a lot to learn. But at the same time we have the underdog opportunity … that’s what we’re going to embrace.”

 —

Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2022.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Connor McDavid’s four-point effort leads Oilers to 8-2 rout of Coyotes

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EDMONTON — Connor McDavid had two goals and two assists and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored twice and had an assist as the Edmonton Oilers defeated the Arizona Coyotes 8-2 on Wednesday.

Derek Ryan, Leon Draisaitl, Bret Kulak and Klim Kostin also scored for the Oilers (15-12-0) who have won five of their last seven games.

Jack McBain and Shayne Gostisbehere responded for the Coyotes (7-13-4) who finished off an epic 14-game road trip with their sixth consecutive loss.

The Oilers got off to a good start with a power-play goal just 4:37 into the opening period as Nugent-Hopkins sent a wrist shot through a screen in front that beat Coyotes netminder Connor Ingram.

Edmonton added to its lead with 3:19 minutes remaining in the first frame as Ryan shrugged off a defender and scored on a backhand shot.

The power play clicked again for the Oilers 8:14 into the second period as McDavid sent it through to Draisaitl and he scored from a tight angle for his 18th goal of the season. McDavid recorded his 50th point in just the 27th game of the season, the fastest Oiler to hit that mark since Wayne Gretzky in 1987-’88.

Arizona got on the board with 6:17 to play in the second period. McBain made a nice move in tight to deposit it past an outstretched Stuart Skinner in the Oilers net.

Edmonton got that goal back just 23 seconds later, however, as Kailer Yamamoto stole a puck at the Arizona blue line and sent Nugent-Hopkins in alone for his second of the night and 13th of the season.

The Oilers went up 5-1 with 1:21 to play in the second as Kulak blistered a shot high to the glove side that went off the bar and in.

Edmonton had a 30-10 edge in shots after 40 minutes.

The Oilers kept the pressure on in the third period as Ryan stripped a puck that went to Kostin in front and he deposited his second goal of the season past Ingram at 3:19.

McDavid extended his goal streak to six games a couple minutes later, taking a pretty pass from Draisaitl behind the net before scoring on the wraparound.

The Oilers captain made it a four-point game with seven minutes left in the third, as McDavid took a feed from Hyman and scored on a one-timer for his 24th goal of the season.

Arizona scored with just over five minutes to play as Gostisbehere tipped in a Christian Fischer shot.

Kostin fought Zack Kassian in the final minute, giving him the “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” on the night with a fight, goal and an assist.

ROAD TRIP

The Coyotes’ 14-game road trip started on Nov. 5, lasted 33 days, and tied an NHL record for the longest in history with the Vancouver Canucks. Arizona started the trip with three wins before going 1-7-3 after that.

FIRST GOAL

Scoring first has been a challenge for both teams this season, as they came into the game having each allowed the first goal 15 times. Edmonton had managed to overcome the deficit more successfully with a record of 6-9-0, while Arizona was 2-11-2 in those situations.

HYMAN RETURNS

Zach Hyman returned to the Edmonton lineup, but the Oilers remained without forwards Evander Kane (wrist), Warren Foegele (undisclosed) and Ryan McLeod (undisclosed).

UP NEXT

Both teams play next on Friday night. The Coyotes finally return to Arizona to host the Boston Bruins. The Oilers close out a four-game homestand against the Minnesota Wild.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2022.

Shane Jones, The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Andersson’s three-point night helps Calgary Flames to 5-3 win over Minnesota Wild

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CALGARY — Rasmus Andersson notched the game-winner at 15:57 of the third period and added two assists as the Calgary Flames overcame a disastrous start in a 5-3 comeback victory over the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday.

Tyler Toffoli with a pair, including an empty netter, Nazem Kadri and Blake Coleman also scored for Calgary (13-10-3). Elias Lindholm had three assists.

The Flames have won three games in a row and earned eight points on their five-game homestand.

Kirill Kaprizov extended his goal streak to seven games for the Wild – tops in the league this season. Mason Shaw and Jon Merrill also scored for Minnesota (13-10-2), which had its four-game winning streak come to an end.

Making his sixth start in the last eight games, Dan Vladar gave up two goals on his first three shots. He settled in and finished with 25 saves for his fourth straight victory, improving to 5-4-1 on the season.

Marc-Andre Fleury had 22 saves at the other end. His record fell to 9-6-1.

Minnesota was trailing 3-2 when they tied it at 15:45 when Merrill’s point shot deflected in off the stick of Flames defenceman Chris Tanev.

But just 12 seconds later, a Wild turnover behind their net ended up on the stick of Andersson, who cut across the  crease and used his backhand to put the puck just inside the goalpost.

Kaprizov entered the game on an offensive tear with 19 points in his last dozen games. He extended his point streak to 13 games when he tipped in a Matt Dumba point shot just 1:27 into the game.

Both of Kaprizov’s streaks are franchise records.

Less than a minute later, the Wild broke out on a 3-on-1 with Shaw one-timing Connor Dewar’s cross-ice pass past Vladar.

But the Flames overcame the Wild’s fast start to the first period with an even better start to the second.

On a power play that carried over from the first period, Kadri got Calgary on the scoreboard just 16 seconds into the second period when he redirected Lindholm’s hard pass past Fleury.

Coleman tied it after a goalmouth scramble at 1:37.

The Flames moved in front at 3:11 with another power-play goal and another deflection. Toffoli got a piece of Andersson’s heavy slapshot from the blue line.

The Wild had three power-play opportunities later in the period but were thwarted by the Flames’ penalty kill. Entering play, Minnesota was 8-for-19 with the man advantage over the last six games.

BLOWN LEADS AND COMEBACKS

To lose a game in which they scored the first goal and led after the first period is a rarity for the Wild.

Minnesota entered the game with an 8-1-2 mark when scoring first and an 8-0-1 record when leading after 20 minutes.

Calgary improved to 4-6-1 when surrendering the first goal and 3-6-2 when trailing after the first period.

POWER SURGE

After a seven-game stretch where the Flames’ power play was just 2-for-21, they’ve scored two goals in each of the past two games, going a combined 4-for-9 over that span.

UP NEXT

Wild: Head to Edmonton to take on the Oilers on Friday.

Flames: Open a three-game road trip on Friday against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2022.

Darren Haynes, The Canadian Press

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