John Herdman shouted, clenched his fists in anger and walked with his head down, alone, into Canada’s dugout.
The wall of aggressive noises from what felt like hundreds of nearby Croatians must have been deafening. The sound had begun to ramp up eight minutes earlier when Andrej Kramaric scored Croatia’s first goal and a small handful of his vitriolic teammates approached Herdman, possibly using a variety of the same curse word he had used four days earlier when describing their team.
It was a lead Croatia would not relinquish. Despite Alphonso Davies scoring Canada’s first ever men’s World Cup goal with a stunning header in just the second minute, Croatia stomped on Canada because they could and, after Herdman’s comments, they wanted to. They had the tactical precision, the intelligence to execute their decision-making and, perhaps most importantly, the experience that made a 4-1 win over Canada look easy.
They could weather a Canadian storm that felt like it was built on vibes and vibes alone at times. Because when Herdman walked back into the dugout, his head down for the first time in what felt like his entire time as Canada’s coach, he may have realized what happens when a team relies too heavily on emotion.
Canada’s hopes of advancing out of the group stage are now dead, and it was a series of poor decisions that sunk them.
Over a lengthy qualifying campaign, upstart teams have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and correct them. But in a short World Cup run, the margins for error are thin, and mistakes have a way of compounding at an alarmingly quick rate.
Throughout this World Cup run, one of the go-to phrases used by Canada’s players, coach and staff was that Canada was indeed a “football nation.”
It’s the right attitude: you’re at the dance. Act like you belong.
And there were genuine moments — most of an entire game against the No. 2 ranked team in the world, in fact — where they did look like they belong.
But if this team wants to be considered as a “football nation,” one that can routinely be CONCACAF’s best, they cannot make the kinds of decisions predicated on emotions that they did against top-quality teams like Belgium and Croatia, who use experience and tactical know-how to beat down opponents.
And they have to be ready for those decisions to be questioned.
For a little under two years, the vibes around this team have been impeccable: the brotherhood, the positivity, the sword, the belief that this team is on the upswing and can grow the game in their country in an unprecedented way. It was difficult to question this team because of how far they’ve come in such a short amount of time. Their progress, and results throughout CONCACAF were real and deserved to be celebrated.
Those results somehow feel far in the distance now, and the questions surrounding this team must intensify in order to maintain that progress.
First, there are the two words that will likely be the ghost rattling around in Herdman’s closet for some time now: “F— Croatia.”
Herdman must have known, even in some small part, what he was doing.
There are a few things that have become hallmarks of Herdman’s entire ethos, and meticulous preparation is one of them. This is the man who, you’ll remember, sends 64-page documents to what he calls his “tactical architects” on his team about each of Canada’s opponents.
How could he possibly have not known that saying on camera he told his team they were going to “F— Croatia” would lead to an intensified opponent the following game?
Want to know if it had an effect on the Croatia team?
“These are words that have motivated the whole of Croatia,” forward Andrej Kramaric, who scored two goals on the night, said after the game. “I want to thank the coach of Canada for the motivation. He could have chosen better words. He could have formulated it a bit differently. In the end Croatia demonstrated who F’d whom.”
Now, maybe Croatia would have played just as well against Canada. But the point is we’ll never know. A team that was already more talented and experienced than Canada was also served extra motivation on a platter. To be clear: there’s no issue about the message that Herdman delivered within the confines of a team huddle. But the results of sharing that message with the media are now evident. Again, this Canada team sometimes veers more towards relying on their heart than their head, and this was when it went too far.
Tactically, Canada defended in a poor manner on all four goals. That needs to be clear. But the most prevalent tactical mistake on the day was the decision to both start 39-year-old Atiba Hutchinson and leave him in the match.
It didn’t take long to see that Hutchinson couldn’t keep up with the pace of the game, and a mix of questionable decision-making in his defending and a lack of speed was partly to blame for Croatia’s first and third goals, in particular.
Hutchinson was playing in his 100th game for Canada and deserves the entire country’s respect for how loyal he’s been to the team and how well he’s played for so long. But in the end, the loyalty Herdman had in Hutchinson burned the team’s chances. Croatia’s midfield had outmaneuvered Hutchinson and exposed his advancing age. Herdman not bringing Hutchinson off at half, or even sooner, might not feel like the most pressing issue to fix with this team, but it might have been the one that put them under an inescapable knife.
What’s curious, however, is that Herdman said after the match that while he might have wanted to take Hutchinson off, the veteran midfielder asked to stay on. Leaning too heavily on loyalty instead of making necessary tactical adjustments was a clear error to nearly everyone else watching the game.
“I thought (Hutchinson) was just next level in that first half,” said Herdman. “I was really, really happy with his performance. A real leader tonight. I asked him in about the 55th minute, because that was the plan to bring him out at that time. I asked him how he was, and he said he wanted to keep going.”
Herdman said that the team needed leadership, and that’s why he kept him in instead of opting for 20-year-old Ismael Kone.
But why opt for intangibles when it was clear the opposition had figured them out tactically?
On the day, playing Hutchinson was just one of the tactical mistakes this Canada team made. As prepared as they claimed to be, they capitulated against a smart, talented team.
Milan Borjan, for one, was out of answers after the game.
“We started to press but then we pulled back, and I don’t know why,” said Borjan.
Jonathan Osorio had some answers worth following. Canada fell apart on the day in the middle of the park.
“Their midfield three is the key to everything, I feel,” said Osorio. “They figured out the spaces, they figured out our formation, they figured out our pressing cues. And they started to use those cues to their advantage because there are three against two in the middle. And they took advantage of that. And as soon as they saw the spaces open up, you saw their midfielders going out into spaces, dragging guys out and leaving the third man open. They’re a very smart team.”
This is all good information, but not new information.
Osorio clutched Luka Modric’s jersey that he swapped for, and smiled when asked about getting a memento from his “idol”.
But the gap between that idol and the Canada team was just too large to overcome.
Finally, it’s in the rearview mirror, but still visible: That there wasn’t a clear penalty taker decided before the tournament and that Alphonso Davies took the penalty against Belgium because he was feeling confident in the moment, only to have it saved, is curious. Had Canada converted that penalty, they might have been able to get a result against Belgium. And their World Cup hopes would still be alive.
But relying on confidence in the moment instead of adhering to a predetermined plan?
That’s heart, not the head.
After Croatia’s fourth goal on Sunday, Herdman tilted his head and threw his arms out wide. He was out of answers. He began walking, once again, to his dugout.
In so many ways, this year and this World Cup represented big steps forward for Canada men’s soccer, but they could have been even bigger if not for those costly judgment errors in recent days. Both Herdman and the team have a little under four years to reflect on this experience, to refine their process, and to create the kind of meaningful World Cup experience they so desperately want.
(Photo: David Ramos – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Bo Horvat puts up four assists as Canucks top Blue Jackets – Sportsnet.ca
Ramblings: Updates on Bennett, Talbot, Theodore, and Gostisbehere; Kuzmenko Re-Signs; All-Star Schedule – January 27 – dobberhockey.com
In Minnesota’s last game, forward Ryan Hartman took a late penalty that put his team on the penalty kill with under five minutes left and down a goal. The coach wasn’t happy, Hartman knew it was a dumb penalty, and that led to him being healthy scratched on Thursday:
Hartman had been producing well for Minnesota since his return with four goals and nine points in 16 games while skating under 14 minutes a night. However, the team had lost three in a row and six of their previous nine games, sliding out of a playoff spot. Undisciplined play is not something they can afford, so this makes sense, and I’m sure we’ll see Hartman in the lineup on Saturday when they host Buffalo.
Andrei Kuzmenko has re-signed with Vancouver:
There was chatter of a trade, seeing as the Canucks need to really stop spinning their wheels in mediocrity and start setting themselves up for the future. However, they decided to extend a winger with 47 career games that is shooting nearly 25% through his age-29 season rather than build for that future because this team cannot stop being hilarious.
Ottawa provided an update on Cam Talbot:
It seems like it’s going to be Anton Forsberg‘s net for the time being. Ottawa has three games before the All-Star break and two of them are against Montreal, which would make for great Forsberg starts. The problem is that the team has a back-to-back this weekend so he’s surely only playing one of those, and one of those is in Toronto on Friday night. He may only get two starts in the next six days, one of them being on the road against the Leafs. After their game against Montreal this coming Tuesday, the team is off for 11 days, so Forsberg’s usefulness as a streamer in the short-term is murky at best.
Following a gnarly crash into the boards in Florida’s game against the New York Rangers on Monday, Sam Bennett was at practice on Thursday:
He missed the game on Tuesday but looks no worse for the wear. That is incredible news for him and the Panthers; his splits going into the boards looked like a hamstring strain at the least. Florida needs all the depth it can muster if it hopes to get back into the playoff race, Bennett included.
Staying on the good news train, Vegas defenceman Shea Theodore was in a regular jersey at practice on Thursday:
The 27-year-old blue liner has not played in seven weeks due to a leg injury but had posted 22 points in 29 games before exiting the lineup. That is a 62-point pace in a full campaign and was doing so without much power-play production. He will provide a much-needed boost whenever he does return but keep in mind we’re less than a week from the All-Star break. The team may give him some of that additional rest if they feel he needs it.
Cale Makar was back in the lineup for Colorado on Thursday night after having missed four games due to injury. There was some thought he might not be back until after the All-Star break, but the team just climbed back into a playoff spot after peeling off six wins in a row. They want to keep this momentum going and adding Makar will certainly help in this regard. Also, a home matchup with Anaheim is about as easy a matchup as possible for Makar to get his legs back under him.
Valeri Nichushin was out of the lineup, though the Avalanche are saying it’s not related to his ankle injury from earlier this season. He was at practice watching the team, though, so it doesn’t seem anything serious. Remember that season Roope Hintz was basically a game-time decision every game, sometimes being scratched? It seems like Nichushkin may be in that boat for the rest of the season unless he rests up over the All-Star break.
Another Western Conference defenceman was injured, though, as Shayne Gostisbehere was dinged up in Arizona’s game on Tuesday. That is going to cause him to miss around a month:
As Mr. Morgan points out in his tweet, we’re fewer than six weeks away from the trade deadline. Gostisbehere is a pending free agent who turns 30 years old this spring, so he’s likely not in Arizona’s long-term plans. He was an attractive trade deadline candidate but if he’s not healthy, do teams still want to acquire him, and will they pay his market price? We’ll find out in a month or so.
In a battle of a potential heavyweight Stanley Cup contender, Tampa Bay took a 3-2 win in at home against Boston. Andrei Vasilevskiy was superb, stopping 37 of 39 shots he faced in the victory. Victor Hedman scored the game-winner with less than seven minutes remaining, just his third goal of the campaign. He had four total shots as well as his fantasy value has come alive over the last six weeks.
Nikita Kucherov got in on all three goals, managing one tally and two helpers. He is quietly having an outstanding fantasy season with 20 goals and 71 points in 47 games.
Casey DeSmith held back Washington through 65 minutes, stopping 43 of 45 shots he faced, but Pittsburgh lost the shootout and fell by a 3-2 margin. DeSmith had arguably the best performance of the season, but that says a lot about Pittsburgh’s own problems.
Alex Ovechkin scored on the power play, totalling seven shots and a pair of hits. He now has 32 goals in 50 games.
Kris Letang had a great multi-cat effort even without a point going plus-1 with three shots, four blocks, four PIMs, and five hits.
Two goals from Rafael Harvey-Pinard wasn’t enough for Montreal in their home game against Detroit as the Red Wings held on for overtime which was ended by Robby Fabbri on a tremendous passing play:
Moritz Seider had three assists in the team’s triumph, one on the power play and one in overtime. After starting the season with just two points in 10 games, he now has 22 in his last 37 contests. That is much more what fantasy owners were hoping for. He even chipped in two blocks and three hits for good measure.
Jake Allen stopped 38 of 42 shots in his first start in nearly three weeks.
The All-Star break is looming with it officially starting next Thursday, February 2nd. The break itself is four days long but the NHL is giving its teams more time off on either side of the break. It is going to make for a light schedule over the next couple of weeks, so I thought it’d be worth highlighting some key spots. Let’s use the Frozen Tools Schedule Planner to see what those weeks look like from January 30th through February 12th.
Also, be sure to check out Andrew Santillo’s ‘Looking Ahead’ column. He covers all this stuff much more in depth, and every week, so he’ll have his thoughts on this lightened schedule sometime Friday.
There are seven teams with just two games in that two-week span and all are notable: Boston, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Nashville, Ottawa, St. Louis, and Winnipeg. There is a lot of high-end fantasy talent in there and weekly fantasy owners will have to decide if they are worth using.
Specifically, Boston, Buffalo, and Los Angeles have tough schedules in just those two games. The Bruins face the Leafs and Caps, the Sabres get a Hurricanes/Flames duo, and Los Angeles receives a Hurricanes/Penguins present. Using players from Boston, Buffalo, and Los Angeles might be tough sledding until Valentine’s Day, so fantasy owners that cannot make lineup changes once weeks lock should make alternative preparations.
Ottawa is one of the two-game teams that requires some consideration for rosters. The are in Montreal then home to Edmonton, both matchups that could bring scoring potential. The Oilers game is on a busy Saturday, February 11th, but the Habs game is on a three-game evening. For those that can make daily lineup changes, they might be a team to look to next week before the official break starts.
The final note here is Winnipeg’s schedule. They play Monday (the 30th) at home to St. Louis and then are off for 11 days. Their return is a home game against Chicago but it’s also on that busy Saturday that has 14 games on the docket. The matchups are good but an 11-day break with Jets players sitting on a roster doing nothing is a long time, and there’s a chance they’ll be rusty when they hit the ice against the Blackhawks.
Fill Up On Flyers
No team in this two-week stretch plays more than four games, and Philadelphia is one of those four-game teams. What differentiates them is all four games are at home, and the schedule isn’t that bad: Islanders, Oilers, Predators, Kraken. They start their All-Star break early so they have no games from this Sunday until a week from Monday, or no games next week at all. However, when they do return it’s with one of the best schedules in the league. There could be secondary names like Morgan Frost, James van Riemsdyk, Scott Laughton, or Cam York that could be of use in some fantasy formats.
Four-Game Road Warriors
There are nine teams with four games in the two-week span, and two of them play all their games on the road: Seattle and Vancouver. Both teams are heading to America’s Northeast for a three-game New York/Jersey trip, rounding the four games with Seattle then heading to Philadelphia while Vancouver goes to Detroit. It isn’t a great schedule for either, but it’s not awful, and four games is four games.
The difference between the two teams is Saturday, February 11th. It is a huge day with 28 teams playing but Seattle is one of the four teams that is not. Instead, they play on the lighter Friday and Sunday that sandwich that huge day. Anyone looking for some extra games the weekend after the All-Star game should look to Seattle as they and Anaheim are the only two teams to play February 10th and 12th, lighter days than that heavy February 11th.
Granted, fantasy options on Columbus are few and far between, but their top line is still important, so their schedule is important, too. The team has a home game this coming Tuesday to Washington, which is a light game day. Then they’re off for nine days before a back-to-back with Toronto the following weekend. Columbus’s second game against the Leafs is not only on the road, but also on that incredibly large 14-game Saturday slate. In that sense, Blue Jackets skaters might have two opportunities to crack fantasy rosters, and those games are against Washington and Toronto. Decisions need to be made.
Those are some of the important/interesting spots I noticed. Again, check out Looking Ahead for more in-depth coverage of every team as we navigate the All-Star break.
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