On the night of June 18, deep inside Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, John Herdman’s eyes were still wide with disbelief. He was breathing heavily after a dramatic press conference as the sounds of the U.S. men’s national team celebrating their Nations League Finals triumph over Canada grew less faint.
Canada’s head coach had just finished admonishing his own federation in his post-match press conference. Herdman had done so with Canada Soccer’s interim general secretary and his former assistant, Jason deVos, sitting a few rows away from him. DeVos sat expressionless as Herdman called out Canada Soccer for not providing resources comparable to Canada’s rivals and not being “serious” about winning a World Cup that Canada will co-host in 2026.
Minutes after his incendiary press conference finished, Herdman was tracked down and asked a simple follow-up question: What happens if the money you want doesn’t come?
Canada Soccer’s financial constraints were continually dominating the narrative of the sport within the country after the 2022 World Cup. The idea of filing for bankruptcy would eventually be floated, then retracted, by deVos himself.
Herdman replied that maybe he’d have to consider if he was right for the job.
Herdman was first hired by Canada Soccer to overhaul the women’s national team in 2011, and had done so with two Olympic bronze medals. He then proved he could do the same with the men’s program, as he helped guide Canada to their first men’s World Cup in 36 years with an unprecedented top-of-the-table performance in CONCACAF qualifying.
He had always been ambitious, and dead serious about taking Canada’s men’s team to the highest highs. But as smiling members of the U.S. team emerged in their sweaty blue jerseys, holding the trophy Herdman wanted, while stone-faced Canadian players openly disagreed with Herdman’s assessment of resources impeding their results, it felt unlikely that he could guide Canada to the next step.
In the days that followed the loss, multiple sources briefed on the matter told The Athletic Herdman’s representation began reaching out to various club sides to float his name for any possible job vacancies.
One of the teams his representation contacted was Toronto FC, who fired Bob Bradley on June 26. After two months of discussions, Herdman was eventually named TFC head coach on Monday. Herdman sent a general email to players on Monday to inform them of his decision.
But that June evening in Vegas felt like the beginning of the end of the marriage between Herdman and Canada Soccer that produced some of the most memorable moments for the sport in Canada. It was a divorce that just months earlier – as Herdman stood shivering, drenched in Gatorade in the middle of BMO Field in Toronto, having just qualified for the World Cup – seemed implausible.
Yet as multiple sources in and around the team detailed to The Athletic that, over the course of a few months, so much changed.
In 2018, Herdman threatened to leave his post as women’s team coach for a possible job offer to lead the England women’s team. He wanted Canada soccer to give him a crack at the men’s national team, and the federation realized they couldn’t let him leave after the remarkable changes the women’s program had experienced. Canada Soccer quickly fired then-men’s team coach Octavio Zambrano after just nine months and handed the keys to Herdman.
As the Canada men’s team began their ascent out of the wilderness towards the World Cup when qualifying began in March 2021, three years after he took the job and tried to instill a culture of unity and ambition that the program had long lacked, calling Herdman the most important person in Canadian soccer was not a stretch.
Herdman enjoyed unprecedented talent at his disposal — Canada’s rise was not thanks to him alone. But Herdman’s power within Canada Soccer was unrivaled: according to multiple sources with knowledge of a meeting between Nike and Canada Soccer, it was Herdman who insisted that the sportswear giant become the kit provider for Canada Soccer. Herdman sat in meetings with Nike representatives and told those representatives that Canada Soccer would do whatever necessary to land Nike as their kit provider. Canada Soccer then signed a deal that, at least early on during the contract, only provided Canada with free equipment.
Herdman would go on to make significant changes to the way Canada’s men’s national team prepared through a grueling, year-long qualifying journey: he added multiple new members to his staff, including coaches, physiotherapists and analysts. The team traveled on chartered flights with new regularity while also arriving to away match destinations earlier than they would have during past qualification cycles.
These changes were sold inside the federation as a key step to preparing the team for matches in a way they never had in the past. And the results spoke for themselves.
Herdman and Canada quickly mopped the floor with low-level opponents through the first round of qualifying with dominant, front-foot soccer. His players bought into his motivational and sometimes unconventional approach. Herdman convinced players to think differently about the national team’s ambitions. He had them thinking solely about one goal, and believing it, too: qualifying for the World Cup and changing the way the Canadian public think about the men’s national team.
Under Herdman, Canada established themselves as one of the top teams in the region alongside the United States and Mexico: finishing at the top of the table in the final round of World Cup qualifying would end up being Herdman’s most impressive achievement with the men’s team.
Yet Canada Soccer never enjoyed the financial resources those other two regional powers do. And when the bill came for the efforts to push Canada to the 2022 World Cup, Canada Soccer found themselves in such dire financial straits that they couldn’t afford to schedule friendly matches during the upcoming September window.
If 2022 was a year of goodwill with Herdman, the men’s team and Canada Soccer, 2023 has been a year in which the ugly other side of the coin was exposed: Canada Soccer could not afford to continue spending the way Herdman wanted to.
That Canada was one of just two teams at the 2022 World Cup to lose all three games, coupled with the Nations League final loss, meant the narrative around Herdman began to shift.
According to multiple sources briefed on the relationships between Herdman, Canada Soccer and the players, tensions between Herdman and Canada Soccer grew midway through 2023.
Herdman wanted his team to be competing against top-level international opponents to prepare for the 2024 Copa America and beyond. Canada Soccer were presented with the opportunity to book friendlies in the September window against South Korea and Saudi Arabia. But a lack of resources, and concerns over whether Canada Soccer could spend as much on the women’s team as they would in the fall men’s international windows, which was only exacerbated by ongoing behind-the-scenes turmoil between Canada Soccer and the men’s and women’s national teams – both currently without collective bargaining agreements – saw Canada Soccer back away from those potential friendlies.
The power Herdman enjoyed allowed him to publicly call out his federation in a way other national team managers might not. But it couldn’t make an injection of funding appear.
And so Herdman was stuck: how could he advance a national team that was unable to challenge itself the way its rivals were?
The issues he faced didn’t end with Canada Soccer’s financial limitations, though.
Herdman’s strengths as a coach are centered around his man management, and his ability to motivate players emotionally. His rousing speeches and unorthodox motivational tactics (such as having an actual sword designed for his team) allowed him to make connections with younger and less inexperienced players early in his tenure.
But as the pressure on Canada to get results against top-level opponents increased, a divide within his team began to grow.
After a disagreement between Herdman and star player Alphonso Davies over Herdman’s decision to deploy Davies in multiple positions throughout the World Cup, multiple sources with an understanding of the relationship between Herdman and Davies said that things broke down between the coach and the star player.
The embarrassing loss to the United States in June of this year saw Herdman lose his footing within the dressing room. Some of the team’s players did not respond to his motivational approach in the same way they did before the World Cup. There was a need for more tactical nuance and specific instruction.
When Herdman tried to keep a hold on his team late in his tenure, it wasn’t always received well.
Longtime goalkeeper Milan Borjan had always been one of Herdman’s most vocal supporters.
Asked during World Cup qualifying what was behind Canada’s impressive turnaround, Borjan said: “I can just say two words: John Herdman. That’s it.”
And Herdman trusted Borjan too, naming him to the team’s leadership group in the lead-up to the World Cup.
Yet there were younger goalkeepers on Borjan’s heels, including Maxime Crepeau (Despite an injury before the World Cup) and Dayne St. Clair. The 35-year-old Borjan was perhaps a surprise inclusion in Canada’s 2023 Gold Cup squad, and Herdman named him his goalkeeper for Canada’s first two matches, both of which ended in draws.
Ahead of a must-win final group-stage game against Cuba, Herdman wanted to turn to St. Clair. Yet that message wasn’t received well by Borjan. While Canada announced Borjan had left the team due to an undisclosed injury, multiple sources with an understanding of the relationship between Herdman and his players said Borjan left the team out of frustration due to a lack of playing time.
Though it was perhaps the correct decision to turn the starting job over to one of the goalkeepers of the future, the decision itself still contributed to growing frustration inside the team.
And so, late in June 2023, Herdman recognized that he did not necessarily have the ears of every player in his dressing room with key matches on the horizon in 2024. Herdman is unquestionably savvy, and he understood it might have been difficult to recover from the way his decisions were being questioned by some important members of the Canada dressing room. Herdman’s representation then began inquiring on his behalf with multiple club sides.
Very quickly, Toronto FC president Bill Manning became smitten with the idea of landing Herdman to turn around TFC. Manning pushed the MLSE board hard on the idea of landing Herdman, a nationally-recognized candidate, and organized a brief meeting between Herdman and an MLSE board member in August, multiple sources detailed.
Yet Herdman is still walking into a team with disgruntled stars, and a roster that will require a major overhaul. The midfield in particular needs serious attention. They will likely miss the playoffs for a third straight season despite continually having one of the most expensive rosters in MLS. Expectations in Toronto have never been lower for a team that has now lost 10 consecutive matches.
Since Greg Vanney left the team in 2020, TFC have been without a clear tactical identity.
Internally, sources at TFC feel like Herdman’s enthusiastic ways are exactly what the beleaguered team needs to put that identity in place.
Who takes over the Canada team for Herdman with the 2026 World Cup on the horizon remains to be determined. Yet there are three types of candidates to consider.
First, Canada Soccer could consider a domestic coach who clearly understands the Canadian soccer landscape.
The best domestic coach in Canada right now is Forge FC head coach Bobby Smyrniotis. Not only has Smyrnitios won three of four Canadian Premier League titles, he has previously coached three key national team players: Tajon Buchanan, Cyle Larin and Richie Laryea. He’s a tactics-first coach and Smyrniotis could present himself as an option to best unlock the talent Canada has at their disposal.
Canada Soccer could hunt for an assistant coach with World Cup experience looking for their breakthrough, as well. That would allow the federation to work within financial constraints.
Finally, the federation could take an unprecedented swing for a well-known international coach with proven tactical acumen. Doing so would require Canada Soccer and Canadian Soccer Business to work together to land new, high-profile sponsors to fund a recognizable coach to a team looking to take the next step.
But whoever takes over will inherit a team that will still be hampered by some of the problems that existed late in Herdman’s tenure.
This is a team with generational talent, but perhaps working in a fractured dressing room. Still, some national team players contacted by The Athletic expressed disappointment at Herdman leaving the team because of the efforts he made to overhaul the program.
There are difficult financial limitations that need to be worked within. There are contract issues that need to be sorted between the federation and the players.
But there is also a remarkable opportunity to win World Cup games at home that may never come again. Fixing what’s broken in the team will take work, but the payoff could further improve the way the sport is viewed in Canada.
Just ask Herdman.
(Photo: John Dorton/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)