Canada's Copa América success lays groundwork for World Cup: "The goal is 2026"

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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – Even in heartbreak, Canada know the greater goal.

Tuesday night's 2-0 semifinal loss to Argentina ended Les Rouges' Cinderella run at the 2024 Copa América, but set the foundation for what awaits two years from now when they co-host the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

A tournament full of generational performances that captivated an entire nation wasn't enough to get past the defending Copa and World Cup champions, led by none other than Lionel Messi. The superstar Inter Miami CF No. 10 scored in front of more than 80,000 fans at MetLife Stadium, as did Manchester City's Julián Álvarez, to bring Argentina within a win of a third straight major international trophy.

Canada, meanwhile, look towards a third-place game on Saturday.

“There’s a level of comfort that they have in big games... and we're getting there,” former CF Montréal and Nashville SC defender Alistair Johnston said post-match. “They're battle-tested with World Cups, Copa Américas, they’ve lifted it all, so they’re not fazed by anything.

“I was proud of our group that we walked out there. We held our heads high, and I don't think we looked like the moment was too big for us.”

Cinderella run

Canada had reserved expectations at the Copa América. Starting the tournament mere weeks after appointing Jesse Marsch as head coach and coming off a turbulent 2023, a long run seemed unlikely.

Maybe get a point or a win. Few expected a semifinal berth.

"I took this job seven weeks ago and I couldn't have imagined that I'd be right here right now,” Marsch said. “I know the team is very disappointed, but I'm very proud of them. We've put together some incredible performances, and we’re just starting our process.”

A transformative tournament

While the Argentines dispatched Canada, the last month has undoubtedly proven a critical kickstart in the journey towards 2026.

Despite admitting that several players were lagging from exhaustion in the semifinal, being at the tail end of a difficult camp with challenging environments, Marsch has quickly instilled a new mentality within the group while bringing the team up to speed on how he wants them to play.

“He wants us to be a bit more arrogant. He thinks we’re too Canadian sometimes, where we can be almost too nice, and I think we started to show that,” Johnston said. “That comes from him and his style of play and how he leads us with the energy on the bench, and we feel that on the pitch as well.”

While they won’t compete for the Copa América title Sunday night at Miami's Hard Rock Stadium, the group has strong hope and a clear idea of what personnel fit the system and those who could come through in the future.

“After two days of training, I looked at the staff and I said we could be in for a tough month. I thought maybe we could go 0-5, given the opponents that we played against. We didn't, which was good,” Marsch said. “We performed well, and we're way ahead of where I would have thought we could possibly be.”

Maximizing the player pool

As Argentina subbed on superstars such as Lautaro Martínez and Nicolás Otamendi, Marsch knew he didn’t quite have that same depth on his bench. Yet, there were minutes for Minnesota United breakout star Tani Oluwaseyi throughout the tournament, as well as Vancouver Whitecaps FC's Ali Ahmed, while two-time MLS All-Star Mathieu Choinière also got a chance.

Even with youngsters and inexperience within the camp, Marsch has his eyes on more, keeping a keen watch on MLS and global soccer.

“We need to find a way to expand our player pool, and we need to continue to challenge our group to come together and perform in moments like this,” he said. “Ahmed, Choniére and Tani came on and gave good performances, but in the end, we’re still in the beginnings of our processes.”

Ahmed, in particular, made an impact late in the game as Canada drove forward. After making his international tournament debut at the Concacaf Gold Cup a year ago and also seeing that run end in the semifinals, the 23-year-old continues to grow into his national team identity.

“I’ve learned a lot and we’ve accomplished a lot in a short time with one of the best today, and we’re already hitting all these milestones in such a short time,” Ahmed said. “Things can change in such a short time in footy... The goal is 2026, and to get a warmup with something like this – you just feel the stakes and this is big for us.”

World Cup-ready

Even with evident heartbreak, Canada walked away from Copa América contention with newfound confidence, knowing that of the 16 teams in the tournament, they were one of only four that got to play the maximum amount of games.

And with the World Cup coming to Canada two years from now, Marsch is doing everything to ensure Les Rouges will be ready.

"It'll be hard when we're all done to say goodbye because I've really enjoyed the process with this team, and I think we've made a lot of progress together,” he said. “I'm trying to really build and develop every single player in this pool so that we can have a real 26-man squad when it comes to 2026.”