The Hotel California has not always been kind to the Maple Leafs.
John Herdman inherited a men’s team ranked 94th in the world when he took over from the fired Octavio Zambrano in January 2018.
And the extent of the challenge facing him became clear at his first camp with the men, in March 2018 in Murcia, Spain, when there were two fights in training.
“I was blown away,” Herdman recalled. “And people were saying ‘Oh this is men’s football.’ And I stood against it. I told the guys it’s not men’s football. You can fight with your opponent but you don’t fight internally. I’ll never see that again.”
Herdman says he inherited a dysfunctional team split into cliques.
“I said unless you’re willing to change this, this team’s going nowhere,” he said. “And over time, you’ve seen a shift. The leaders, for me, brought the culture together. Now we can have fractious moments, where people are competing and pushing each other’s levels where it doesn’t end up in a complete split in the environment.
“And I think over time the leadership group have understood the importance of shared purpose. They’ve understood the importance of their own humility in the environment and they’ve understood the importance of connecting every man and making every man feel part of this, regardless of what their race, their religion, their ages.”
Speak to any member of the team these days and they talk of a brotherhood. And they show that on the pitch. Take on one Canadian and chances are 10 more will come your way.
“You can have as many great players as you want, but if you don’t have that chemistry, that feeling of a family, it’s difficult to perform on the field. When we go on the field, we know that the guy beside us has our back and that we have his back,” ” said centre back Derek Cornelius.
The next test of that bond comes Friday when 48th-ranked Canada (2-0-4, 10 points) marks the halfway point of CONCACAF’s final round of World Cup qualifying with a game against No. 45 Costa Rica (1-2-3, six points) at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium. As of Thursday afternoon, Canada Soccer said 46,000 tickets had been sold.
Canada currently stands third in the eight-team table while Costa Rica is fifth. After Costa Rica, the Canadian men will host No. 9 Mexico (which leads the standings at 4-0-2, 14 points) on Tuesday, also at Commonwealth Stadium.
Canada has yet to play Costa Rica in the Octagonal but tied Mexico 1-1 at Azteca Stadium last month.
Despite missing some big names, Canada comfortably beat Costa Rica 2-0 the last time they met, in Gold Cup quarterfinal play in July in Arlington, Texas.
The Canadian men are 5-8-9 against Costa Rica since 1985, including 1-3-2 in World Cup qualifying games.
Come March, the top three countries in the standings will qualify for Qatar 2022, representing North and Central America and the Caribbean. The fourth-place team will take part in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.
Friday could be a milestone night for 38-year-old captain Atiba Hutchinson, who is one appearance away from tying Julian de Guzman’s Canadian men’s of 89 caps. Christine Sinclair holds the Canadian women’s record of 306 caps, and counting.
It will also be a night to remember for Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies, who will play his first game as a professional in his hometown.
“He’s got to play the game and not this big occasion,” said Herdman. “He’s going to have 50,000 behind him if he starts showing his quality.”
Forward Cyle Larin, who was sidelined Wednesday by a stomach bug, was back in training Thursday.
Herdman, a renowned motivator known for his attention to detail, is no stranger to fixing programs.
The Canadian women’s team was broken when Herdman took over in the wake of a last-place finish at the 2011 World Cup. Herdman put the squad back together again, reminding them why they played soccer and for whom they did it.
The women rebounded from a roller-coaster semifinal loss to the powerful U.S. at the 2012 Olympics and defeated France in stoppage time to win bronze. They won bronze again with Herdman at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Now they are Olympic champions.
Ironically Herdman was runner-up to Caroline Morace when Canada Soccer looked for a successor to Even Pellerud as women’s coach in 2008.
But in breaking the news that he didn’t get the job, general secretary Peter Montopoli told him to stay in touch.
“And he actually did, over that three-year period,” said Herdman. “And then I got the next call in 2011 from Peter which was “We want you for the job.’ And we haven’t really looked back since.
On Wednesday, Montopoli announced he was leaving Canada Soccer at the end of the month to oversee the Canadian end of the 2026 World Cup, which is being co-hosted by the U.S. and Mexico.
Herdman said Montopoli gave him “the latitude” to lead his program, as well as “the belief that you’ve got this.”
“When he works with good people, he know how to get the best out of his talent. And he’s always given us that space to make our decisions and ultimately when we’ve needed him, he’s been there.
“It is going to be difficult to see him leave, but at the same time he’s got an amazing opportunity to bring the biggest event probably in our sporting history to this country.”
Herdman credits Jonathan Osorio, Milan Borjan, Maxime Crepeau, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Samuel Piette, Doneil Henry, Richie Laryea and Junior Hoilett as the leadership group that helped change the Canadian men’s outlook. He did not include Hutchinson, saying he hadn’t been to enough camps to be “one of those key influencers.”
“And my job has been facilitating them to understand higher levels of leadership are required.”
The work continues, with Herdman collaborating with the team leaders on identifying obstacles in the way “and then taking ownership within the team to drive some of the attention onto the things that might trip us up or can be used to elevate performance.”
Herdman has already made a mark.
The Canadians ended a 34-year-winless run against the Americans with a 2-0 victory in CONCACAF Nations League play in October 2019. And this marks the first time Canada has reached the final round of World Cup qualifying in the region since the lead-up France 98.
Osorio’s goal in the 1-1 tie in Mexico City last month was Canada’s first against Mexico at Azteca in 41 years.
The Canadian men are 11-4-2 this year with eight clean sheets and a record 52 goals scored. Canada also set a record with eight consecutive wins.
“So I think we’ve pressure-tested the environment,” said Herdman. “We’ve made it more resilient to the outside forces that can impact the inside. And we’ve made the team spirit, as the players call it, the brotherhood — we’ve made it strong enough that every man believes they can bring their best.”
Herdman says players have to understand they are fighting for a bigger cause. And that they have to do it together.
“When you’ve got trust and people are clear on what they’ve got to do on the pitch, then chemistry forms,” he said. “That’s where people are willing to mask each other’s weaknesses and highlight each other’s strengths. They’re willing to do things to make you look good.
“Then you see those sort of cohesive partnerships start to form, the Johnny (David) and Alphonso (Davies) partnership, the Steven Vitoria-Alistair Johnston-Kamal Miller back three partnership. And then you throw Doneil Henry straight in there and nothing really changes. It just gels again.
“That chemistry piece, it can only form when trust is strong and when people are clear on the roles and responsibilities of the collective. It’s a formula that I used with the women’s team and it’s a formula that I’m using here.”
The Hotel California has not always been kind to the Maple Leafs.
That’s changed on this trip, two lopsided wins and the chance for a rare sweep of the Golden State. The Leafs followed up a 6-2 win in Los Angeles with Friday’s 4-1 domination of the San Jose Sharks.
While rookie Joseph Woll finished strong with 30-plus saves for his third win to give Jack Campbell another rest, the other end of the ice belonged to the team’s top guns. William Nylander, Auston Matthews and John Tavares helped drive ex-Leaf James Reimer from the cage.
It was Toronto’s sixth straight road victory and eighth of the past nine allowing two goals or less. Most important for coach Sheldon Keefe, the team didn’t relax in the warm California sun. They weren’t given a day off since arriving from a win on Long Island.
“We made it very clear, it’s very much a business trip coming out here,” Keefe said before the game. “That’s not an easy thing to do, because it is a beautiful place to be and it’s a great time to enjoy that as you start to move on to the winter months. But our guys have been focused. We’ve had a enough time after practice to enjoy a few hours of sunlight.”
Another win Sunday in Anaheim, likely to be the toughest stop, would be their first 3-0 run here in four years with very few before that.
“Certainly the morale of this team right now is the best it has been all season,” said Keefe, who had his 77th win as Toronto coach to pass Paul Maurice for 14th place in team history. “We feel we had a really good camp and pre-season and felt really good about our group and had a few days together (in Gravenhurst, Ont.) where I thought there was a lot of growth inside our team. Then obviously the season didn’t start well, it took us some time to get rolling, get people comfortable in their roles.
“(But) we can’t get too focused on that. It’s a long season, a daily thing (to maintain). The confidence is there right now, but you need that every day. You hope to be 1-0 every day.”
With 15 wins in 22 games, the Leafs are still pressuring division leading Florida. The first five minutes and change produced three of night’s haul of goals. It took just 32 seconds for the Leafs, who survived a scramble around Woll and headed up-ice, Tavares with a nice pass to send Nylander in alone. After a long stretch without a goal, Nylander’s 111th tied him with Ace Bailey for 50th in team history.
A few moments after Nick Bonino took advantage of rookie Kirill Semyonov being caught out too long, Wayne Simmonds chipped a David Kampf shot past Reimer. It was his fourth point in five games, though trapped as the last man back on defence, he was beaten by ex-Leaf Alex Barabanov on a close call. Woll stopped that and then Jonah Gadjovich on a breakaway, but forced his mates to kill a second minor in the period when he came out to clear a puck that eluded Justin Holl, only to fire it over the glass.
Matthews missed on some good looks in the middle period, then directed blueline traffic for a point shot to give himself an easy rebound on the lip of the crease, making it 3-1. His eighth since Nov. 1 made him one of four NHLers with at least that many this month — Leon Draisaitl (15), Matt Duchene (10) and Alex Ovechkin (9).
While Toronto’s eighth-ranked penalty kill added three more to its total, the No. 1 power play unit stayed out for the duration and didn’t take its foot off the gas until Tavares knocked in a rebound with 20 seconds remaining, his team-high 10th and the 13th time in his career he’s reached double figures.
That was all for Reimer on 17 shots, marking the fifth time he’s not finished a start against his old club, one of those an injury on that crazy night when he and current Leaf Petr Mrazek were hurt and local Zamboni driver David Ayres filled in for a Carolina win. Adin Hill didn’t get much respite from Toronto’s breakaways, born of 11 takeaways through 40 minutes.
Kampf was back in the lineup after missing all but a shift of Wednesday’s win in L.A. with an upper body injury, though linemate Ondrej Kase was scratched for a rest, replaced by Semyonov. The latter was about the only Leaf not to shine, Keefe keeping him on the bench for a spell in the middle period after some rough spots.
The 27-year-old is in his second season with Ottawa after they flipped a second-round pick and prospect Jonathan Gruden to Pittsburgh to get him back at the 2020 draft. At the time, they felt they had their starting goalie of the foreseeable future, quickly inking him to a four-year, $25MM contract; his $6.25MM AAV is the sixth-highest in the league among goaltenders this season.
What have they received in return for that money? Not a whole lot. Murray struggled considerably last season, posting a 3.38 GAA with a .893 SV% in 27 games, the worst numbers of his career. This season, those numbers aren’t any better – a 3.26 GAA and a save percentage of .890 in six games. Those numbers are below average for a backup let alone a starter.
Ottawa’s decision to dress Anton Forsberg and Filip Gustavsson against the Ducks was a strong message from head coach D.J. Smith that he has lost faith in Murray. At this point, getting him down to Belleville for a stint to try to give him an opportunity to find his game again against lower-level competition certainly makes some sense.
Postmedia’s Bruce Garrioch suggests the Sabres and Coyotes could be teams to keep an eye on with regards to a potential claim. Both teams have a need for a goaltender but with two years still left on his contract and both teams operating as lower budget squads, it’s hard to imagine they’d be willing to take him off waivers with how poor he has performed in Ottawa. A trade with retention after he clears and maybe some games in the minors would be a likelier scenario.
Assuming he does indeed clear on Sunday, the Sens will get a small bit of cap relief as $1.125MM of Murray’s AAV will come off their books when he’s sent down. Of course, with Ottawa being a team that’s closer to the Lower Limit of the cap than the Upper Limit, that relief won’t be worth a whole lot to them but they’ll be able to move forward with a Forsberg-Gustavsson tandem for at least the time being while giving Murray an opportunity to get back to form in the minors.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman was the first to report that Murray would be waived.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The World Cup in Qatar is sure to be without either Italy or Cristiano Ronaldo.
Italy and Portugal, the current and previous European champions, were drawn into the same qualifying playoff bracket Friday, meaning at least one will fail to qualify for next year’s tournament.
Italy will first face North Macedonia at home in a playoff semifinal next March, and the winner will play away at either Portugal or Turkey for a spot at the World Cup.
Four-time champion Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, missing the tournament for the first time since 1958 after losing in the playoffs to Sweden. Now, after winning Euro 2020 in July, it may have to beat Euro 2016 champion Portugal to avoid a second straight failure.
“It’s not a great draw and it could have gone better,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini acknowledged. “Just like we wanted to avoid Portugal, they would have wanted to avoid Italy.”
Ronaldo has led Portugal to every World Cup since 2006 and this could be his last attempt at winning international soccer’s biggest trophy. He will turn 37 before next year’s tournament starts.
Ronaldo helped Portugal get through the playoffs for the 2014 World Cup, scoring a hat trick in a 3-2 win over Sweden that featured an epic duel between superstars, with Zlatan Ibrahimović netting twice for the Swedes.
“It’s not worth thinking about (Italy),” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. “It’s important that we concentrate on beating Turkey.”
Also in the 12-team draw, Scotland will face Ukraine at home, and the winner will play at Wales or Austria in the final of their bracket.
Russia will host Poland for the right to face Sweden or the Czech Republic in their bracket final. Russia or Poland will host the final.
Scotland looks to end a 24-year wait to play at the World Cup while Wales’ only appearance was in 1958.
“At the moment, the way the team is playing, the confidence the boys have got, we would be happy to play anyone, anywhere,” said Scotland coach Steve Clarke, whose team has won six straight since September.
However, Ukraine won at Hampden Park in June, in the Euro 2020 round of 16 against Sweden, and went unbeaten through a World Cup qualifying group won by France.
Sweden will not have Ibrahimović for its semifinal against the Czechs. The 40-year-old forward has a one-game ban for getting yellow cards in the qualifying group.
“We already did it last time (in 2018) and we of course (know) that we can do it again,” said Sweden coach Janne Andersson.
The six playoff semifinals will be played as single-leg games March 24. The three finals are played five days later.
The three winners will complete Europe’s entry of 13 nations in the 32-team lineup in Qatar.
FIFA will make the tournament draw on April 1 in Doha.
The European playoffs feature the 10 teams who finished second in their qualifying groups along with two teams — Austria and the Czechs — who won Nations League groups last year.
Also, FIFA said Qatar will host the intercontinental playoff in June that will decide the last two qualifiers for the tournament.
The intercontinental draw paired the team from Asia against the team from South America, and a team from North American region CONCACAF against Oceania’s representative.
Those qualifying campaigns are still being played.
The winners of the two single-leg games on June 13-14 will complete the 32-team World Cup lineup.
The intercontinental playoff was originally scheduled for March 2022 as two-leg, home and away series. The games were pushed back as the global qualifying program stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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