What’s next for Canada Soccer on the path to the 2022 World Cup?

With the results from CONCACAF Nations League now finalized, as Canada missed out on making the knockout stages on goal difference, they now turn their focus to qualifying for the Hex by next fall. Here is how that journey looks to be shaping up for them. 

The latest round of CONCACAF Nations League fixtures are now over, as the 2019 international slate wrapped up yesterday. It was a quiet window in terms of volume for Canada, who only played once, but it was a game with a big consequence, with their future now looking murky heading into 2020. 

In that lone match, a pivotal road affair against the US, they fell by the score of 4-1, which was a big turnaround from their 2-0 victory at home in October against that same US team. It was a tough loss to stomach for Canada, who had plenty of momentum heading into that game, as they must now regroup ahead of what looks to be a gruelling new year. 

With the game carrying significant World Cup and Nations League implications, the loss may prove to have a more lasting impact than just the pain of losing on that day, as their road to the World’s biggest footballing party just got a lot tougher. 

Nations League over: 

Despite finishing with 9 out of 12 points, along with a plus 6 goal differential, Canada was eliminated from Nations League contention yesterday, as the US comfortably beat Cuba in the Cayman Islands. While they were both tied on 9 points, the US finished ahead on goal difference, which was massively aided by their 4-1 result over Canada in Orlando last week. 

For Canada, being eliminated carries a whole host of other implications. As they already find themselves qualified for the Gold Cup, the Nations League Knockout stages were their last chance to get in some competitive matches before fall 2020, when they and their CONCACAF peers kick off the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign. 

It’s too bad for Canada, who miss out on some valuable experience building games, as they would have gotten the chance to face the likes of Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica in a competitive environment. Instead, they are now left to fill the first 2 windows of 2020 with friendly matches, as they turn their eye towards accumulating FIFA points ahead of the start of World Cup Qualifiers.

Hexagonal hopes on life support:

Canada were unable to keep up with the US last week, and now they must play catchup in order to reach the Hex (Jeremy Reper/Canada Soccer)

Canada’s World Cup hopes took a huge blow this window, as they went from sitting in the driver’s seat spot in 6th place in the race for the Hexagonal, to now finding themselves in 7th place in CONCACAF, 15 points behind rivals El Salvador. That was a huge blow for Canada, as the top 6 teams after June 2020 get automatically placed in the Hex, as part of CONCACAF’s new qualifying format. 

For those unfamiliar with the new or previous format, the Hex, otherwise known as the ‘Hexagonal’, was formerly the last round of World Cup qualifying. It had 6 teams, who were composed of the top 2 teams from each of the 3 four-team groups in the round prior, playing each of the 5 other teams both home and away, for a total of 10 games. After that, the top 3 teams would progress straight to the World Cup, while the 4th would go to a playoff, with the bottom 2 teams being eliminated. 

Now, to encourage all teams to have a shot at World Cup qualifiers later into the cycle, CONCACAF changed that format, eliminating the 4 rounds prior to the Hex. Now, the top 6 teams based on FIFA Rankings in June 2020 go straight to the Hex, while the 29 other teams get put in what can be best described as a gauntlet, with the winner of the 29 team tournament earning a chance to… play the 4th placed Hex team in a playoff, with the winner of that going to… a confederation playoff. 

We have broken the format down ad nauseam, so for more an in-depth look at what this all means, you can check out this piece on Canada’s path in the new format and this piece on why the format is no good

Where things stand now after this window is that Canada now has 1331 points, while main rivals El Salvador has 1346, which is a pretty big gap to make up in the new year. With Canada missing out on the Nations League knockout stages, they missed a chance to take advantage of a 2.5 points multiplier, which would have been huge. Considering that it could have gifted them in the region of 15+ points had they won a game, without mentioning that they wouldn’t have lost points for losing, it would have been a dream scenario for Canada in their hunt for the Hex.

Now? They only have the option to schedule friendlies (1.0 multiplier), which would only yield a handful of points, as playing a top-level team like France and winning still only means around 6 or 7 ranking points coming to the Canadians. While losses in this window for teams such as Curacao and Panama turned the fight for 6th place in CONCACAF into a two-horse race between Canada and El Salvador, it won’t be easy to make up that 15 points only through playing friendlies. 

Luckily for Canada, El Salvador also progressed straight to the Gold Cup with their performance in Nations League Group B, which means they miss out on the chance to play official games against lesser teams in the spring, denying them an opportunity to win some easy points. While El Salvador also didn’t drop any points to Monsterrat and the Dominican Republic this window as was hoped, this is a next best-case scenario, as El Salvador will be left to organize friendlies like Canada if they hope to progress.

This does also theoretically mean that they could also gain points on the Canucks, but given how much they struggled with the low-ranked competition in Nations League play, there’s also the possibility that they lose points, as well. 

Current Hex standings:

CountryCONCACAF RankPoints
Honduras1376
El Salvador1346
Canada1331
Curacao81313
Panama1304
Haiti10 1284

Bold denotes teams currently in Hex spots.

What will 2020 bring?

It’s going to be a huge 2020 year for Alphonso Davies and Canada Soccer (Jeremy Reper/Canada Soccer)

For Canada, the immediate focus is to make up that 15 point gap, as they have to now schedule as many friendlies as possible next year. They will look to find games to play both in the March and June windows, with the Hex rankings finalizing at the end of that June window, giving them a possibility of up to 4 games at the 1.0 multiplier. 

Another avenue for more games would be by playing during the January window, which doesn’t fall under any of the official FIFA windows, which means that any games played then would only have a 0.5 multiplier. For Canada, who needs any points that they can get, it would be wise to get some games against anybody that they can in that window, with the only issue being finding opposition and venues on short notice, as well as finding players to field a squad. 

While the former will be difficult, for the latter it shouldn’t be that hard, as there are many guys participating in leagues that run over the summer, meaning that a camp would fall into a period where they would be able to come. While some of their other names playing in some top European leagues wouldn’t be able to come, if Canada could pick up 5 or 6 points total from 2 games against weakish opposition at that 0.5 multiplier, it would give them a good boost heading into those big March and June friendlies. 

After that, it all remains a lottery, as they would need to find a calibre of opposition that they deem beatable, but still high enough in the rankings to yield those precious points. With other factors such as availability and travel coming into play, it all of a sudden becomes a headache to start scheduling, but they’ll definitely need to fill that maximum allotment of friendlies available to them. 

Who could they play?

An added wrinkle to the whole process would be that some continents have qualifiers which will be played during those windows, eliminating some potentially good opponents. In March, only the OFC (Oceania), some UEFA(Europe) teams and other CONCACAF teams would be able to come to Canada to play, while the AFC(Asia) and CAF(Africa) both remain options, but only if Canada were to embark on the road. 

In June, things are a little more open, as CONMEBOL(South America) teams free up from their qualifiers, and would likely be open to travel to North America, but they are all pretty good teams and would pose a challenge for Canada in terms of winning. Meanwhile, UEFA would probably mostly fall out of the picture, as they prepare for the Euros in the summer, while AFC and CAF would once again remain open, but only as road options. CONCACAF and OFC would also both remain open, but again, it is yet to be seen how open some of those teams are to playing each other. 

The dream scenario for Canada would be to play El Salvador in a set of friendlies, with the worthy winner going to the Hex, but it’s hard to see that happening. There will be other names in CONCACAF that also provide intrigue in potential matchups, with teams like Curacao, Panama and Jamaica all available for friendlies, but it’ll remain to be seen if teams schedule games within the confederation. 

UEFA would provide interesting matchups on their end, especially with teams such as Slovenia, Montenegro, Albania and Greece all missing out on both Euro qualification and playoffs, but Canada would likely have to find a way to negotiate a game on the road in that case. If they are up for that kind of trip, they could also choose to go to either Africa or Asia*, with several teams there having 1 match windows, meaning Canada could potentially fill in and provide a second matchday, crucial for many teams looking to build chemistry and evaluate talent.

Ultimately it will come down to how Canada and their mathematicians determine where the best route to the Hex lies, as well as how the scheduling of friendlies goes. Barring the unlikely scenario where they get to play teams competing for the 6th spot, such as Panama, El Salvador, Honduras and Curacao, they’ll need to come up with a decisive plan of action. That will mean determining a strength of opposition that can get them the points that they need, while also figuring out if to travel or to stay home, as they look to make up the lost ground. 

*Note: FIFA only allows you to play competitively within one continent in a window, so Canada cannot play in Canada and South Korea in the same window, for example. That means if they go to Europe to play, they would not be able to go to Africa (for example) to play another match within the same window. If they did do that, the second game would not count, which would be pointless for Canada in this case. 

Availability of Friendlies for Canada:

MonthJanuaryMarchJune
Games (multiplier)Friendy outside FIFA window (0.5)Friendly inside FIFA window (1.0)Friendly inside FIFA window (1.0)
Available ConfederationsEveryone, but CONMEBOL, AFC and CONCACAF are likeliest as many of their leagues operate on a summer calendar.OFC
CONCACAF
CONMEBOL
OFC
CONCACAF
UEFA 
Available, but limitedN/AAFC
CAF
UEFA
CAF
AFC
UnavailableN/ACONMEBOLN/A

Looking Forward:

It’s going to be a long road ahead for Canada, as they look to tackle what seems like an insurmountable 15 point deficit. If they are unable to do that, an even longer road looms, as they would enter the CONCACAF gauntlet in the fight for a half spot. It’s a crucial period for the country, with the US loss looming large, as it put a huge dent in their quest to avenge some World Cup qualifying demons. 

If Canada does schedule 6 friendlies between now and June (January included), they could likely gain a maximum of 25 to 30 or so points, but that’s provided that they win all of those games. While El Salvador will need to play 1 or 2 friendlies against similarly ranked opposition to avoid losing their lead, they do have the luxury of coasting a bit, with the current gap basically representing a 3 win headstart over Canada. An El Salvador loss would completely throw things on its head, especially against weaker opposition, but if you’re Canada, you wouldn’t count on that happening. 

All in all, it’s a tough period for the Canadian Men’s National Team, who certainly need to be in the Hex considering the state of their squad, but may very well fall victim to the new system. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean they are without fault, either. They had a chance to beat Haiti this summer, they didn’t, and ditto with their game with the US most recently. Even more frustratingly, they experimented with their lineup in those games, and it backfired, which may prove costly now looking back to the FIFA Points lost. 

Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Lucas Cavallini, Scott Arfield, Junior Hoilett and Milan Borjan, among many others, need to play in the Hex for Canada to grow, but it won’t be an easy road to get there. As the most recent US game showed, these players need to be tested more, and missing out on the Hex won’t help with that. 

For all the goodwill John Herdman has brought in terms of mentality to this team, those experimental tactical decisions may come to rue his tenure as head coach. He can nail his tactics, as seen in the October US game, but it almost seemed like he overadjusted in both the Haiti and the most recent US games, and it’s coming back to bite them now.

While the door still remains open for World Cup qualification, even if they don’t make the Hex, it definitely won’t be easy. They’ll need to be perfect, and based on what we’ve seen from them so far, they aren’t quite there yet. But then again, they’ll need to be perfect to make the Hex in time for next fall, so maybe we’ll look back and realize this is the time they learned from their mistakes, finally becoming the team most people expect them to be. 

In an international game with little time for those kinds of learning moments, it’ll be best hoped that the turning point comes sooner rather than later, especially with so much at stake. 

Cover Photo: Jeremy Reper/Canada Soccer

2 thoughts on “What’s next for Canada Soccer on the path to the 2022 World Cup?

  1. Disappointing year for Canada Soccer. El Salvador has less population than the GTA and the average GDP per capita is less than the annual fees of an academy program in OASL. There is clearly something very wrong with the approach of organized soccer in Canada. There are some really cool stats showing that Soccer is basically Canada’s National Game, with more interest and participation than Hockey or Baseball by a long shot.

    https://www.wakingthered.com/2016/9/16/12949480/why-is-canada-trailing-behind-in-mens-soccer-world-cup-qualifying

    Anyway, we’re trying to do our part with a standards based, training approach earlier. Most importantly, we pay our coaches and follow set curriculum at an affordable price. Here’s hoping it pays off:

    https://www.sportstars.ca/mississauga-outdoor-youth-soccer-league.php

    1. Keep on fighting the good fight! So many people play soccer when they’re younger, but the big issue is keeping things affordable upstream. Lots of talented players I played with didn’t go as far as they could have, with price playing a big role.

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