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Friday, June 21, 2024

How Canada will approach World Cup 2026: ‘Our players know they’ll have that support’

Mauro Biello can still close his eyes and hear the noise swallowing him and the rest of Canada’s men’s national team as a whole.

In the hours leading up to Canada’s final game in the 2022 World Cup against Morocco, Biello – then an assistant and now interim coach – knew his team would have a challenge ahead of them. Morocco needed a win to progress out of Group F. And they were bolstered by a crowd at Al Thumama Stadium in Qatar that Biello estimates were “95 percent” Moroccan fans. The travel distance from Morocco to Qatar wasn’t nearly as daunting as it was for most of the other nations at the World Cup.

As the hours turned to minutes before kick-off and Biello and his staff took to the sidelines, they looked could barely hear each other speak through the constant whistles and chants.

“We’ve played in a packed Azteca, but this was different,” Biello told The Athletic. “From the national anthems, you saw it. We’re playing Morocco, but we’re also battling this type of energy.”

That energy isn’t just what Biello hopes his team will experience when Canada plays their three group stage games at home during the 2026 World Cup; he believes it will make the travel Canada will face in their home World Cup far easier to tolerate.

On Sunday, FIFA announced where the three co-host nations will play in 2026. The United States will be based in the west region and will play two games in Los Angeles and one in Seattle. Mexico will play two games in Mexico City and one in Guadalajara, both in the central region.

Both teams will stay in one time zone throughout their group stage, and most teams in the 48-team World Cup will stay in one region to limit the amount of travel across North America.

Canada, though, faces a unique set of circumstances. Canada will play its opener on June 12 in Toronto before travelling to Vancouver for two games on June 18 and June 24.

Toronto and Vancouver – the two Canadian host cities – are three time zones apart and require a five-plus hour flight.

This means teams in Canada’s yet-to-be-determined group will be the only teams asked to travel these distances during the group stage.

Could that be a disadvantage? Not according to Biello. If Canada’s crowds can re-create the energy he remembers feeling a year-and-a-half ago, it will make the lengthy travel worth it.

“I truly believe – yes, Morocco were a good team – that team went as far as they did because they had that kind of support behind them,” Biello said. “Every single touch of the ball, you knew those fans were there. And now, our players know they’ll have that.”

Canada will play their final two group-stage games at the 54,500-capacity BC Place in Vancouver. The stadium could feature nearly 10,000 more supporters than BMO Field in Toronto.

At the 2022 World Cup, Canadian fans who travelled to Qatar saw Canada become the only team other than the host nation to lose all three of their group-stage matches. Biello said his team will enter the 2026 World Cup with the expectation that they will secure their first men’s World Cup win.

“From a player perspective, when you have (home) support, it’s an extra boost,” Biello said. “You need that crowd and momentum to push you. It’s in those moments where you need to push a little more that you feel it the most.”

Biello took over as interim head coach of Canada in 2023 (Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)

Two home bases in 2026

It’s customary for World Cup teams to have one home base. United States coach Gregg Berhalter, for example, said his team would be stationed in Southern California for their group-stage games in 2026.

But Canada will operate differently, as Biello said the team expects to have two separate home bases.

Biello said it’s his team’s idea to first set up camp in Toronto likely before the tournament and ahead of their first game (“It’s familiar territory,” he said) before leaving for Vancouver the evening of June 12, immediately after the game.

From there, Canada will remain near Vancouver, where Bielloe says the team “will most likely get first dibs” on picking a training site.

Biello hopes that by getting ahead of the rest of the teams looking for home bases in Vancouver, Canada’s own two bases will have similar logistical setups and that the two locations look and feel as comparable as possible.

“Working with our country, we’ll be able to set ourselves up in the right way so that we know coming in there will be a seamless transition,” Biello said. “Players will walk into an environment where they’re going to see what it is to represent their country.”

More rest

Canada will be able to stomach the increased travel in part because World Cup organizers gave Canada five days of rest between each of their group-stage games.

During the 2022 World Cup, most teams played on three days’ rest. And it’s believed teams will get an average of four days rest during the 2026 World Cup thanks to the larger field of teams and increased number of total games.

Yet with Canada likely to be one of the few teams who will stay in one city on their second and third group stage match days, their extra rest time will come in handy.

Biello and Canada’s more immediate challenge will come on March 23. After losing at home to Jamaica in November Copa America qualifiers, Canada will now face Trinidad and Tobago in a one-game playoff in Frisco, Texas to determine which side goes to the tournament.

Win, and Canada will qualify for the 2024 Copa America and face Lionel Messi and Argentina in the tournament opener. Lose and the side be without meaningful preparation for the World Cup they’ll be co-hosting.

“The biggest thing is managing the mind and the frustration of playing now, potentially, versus a team that could be in a lower block, where you’re trying to break them down,” Biello said.

Biello said he had recent conversations with Berhalter about how to attack Trinidad and Tobago. Berhalter referenced United States defender Sergino Dest’s red card in their Nov. 20 second-leg loss, which came after an emotionally-charged interaction with referee Walter Lopez.

“You think of the frustration in that second half. We’ve got to be good at managing those moments,” Biello said.

To get past Trinidad and Tobago, it seems likely Canada will have one of their best players at their disposal, according to Biello. While Bayern Munich left back Alphonso Davies suffered a strained ligament on Feb. 3 against Borussia Monchengladbach, Biello said he spoke to Davies afterwards.

“We reached out to him post-game. He said he was OK,” Biello said. “We don’t want to be in a situation where he’ll be rushed back. And I’m sure Bayern will be careful. It’s their investment. But on his end, he said he was OK.”

(Photo: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

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