On Friday, Canada Soccer announced that the Men’s National Team would play a pair of March friendlies to Victoria, bringing the National Team back to Vancouver Island for the first time in over a decade. Here is why the announcement is so big, how these matches will impact Canada, and a look at why the Olympic Qualifiers may stand to be impacted by these games.
As their quest towards the 2022 World Cup continues, they’ve decided to take their talents to a new locale.
In a historic announcement, Canada’s Men’s National Team revealed that they were bringing international football back to Vancouver Island in 2020, as they will take on Trinidad and Tobago in a pair of late-March friendlies.
With their quest towards the 2022 World Cup ramping up, these games will give them a chance to collect some valuable FIFA ranking points, with the race towards the ‘Hexagonal’ still in full flight.
For those not familiar with the current process, or who are still confused, CONCACAF changed their World Cup qualifying format last year, eschewing their traditional model, instead going with a format that will split teams into two groups, the ‘Hexagonal’, and what has come to be known as the ‘Gauntlet’.
Instead of using a typical multi-round format to whittle down teams for the ‘Hex’, the 6-team final group for CONCACAF’s qualifiers, they are now using FIFA rankings as of June 2020, with the rankings taking account of a teams performances over the last few years in all matches, including friendlies.
That has made scheduling friendly matches of paramount importance for Canada, who started fall 2019 30 points behind the 6th place team in CONCACAF, El Salvador, before whittling the gap down to 14 ahead of this window.
“We were 30 points away from the Hex when it (the format) was announced in July,” Canada’s head coach, John Herdman said Friday. “In 2019, we’ve closed that gap to 14 points. In the games out here, the 2 matches against Trinidad, there’s some pretty critical points to push us to a competition pathway that all of you guys can be excited about and proud of, which is the ‘Hexagonal’ tournament.”
With two official international windows left before the cut-off, which will be in June, that gives Canada some time to completely narrow the gap, allowing them to participate in the ‘Hex’ for the first time since 1998. Considering that the Hex offers the 6 participants a chance for 3.5 spots in the 2022 World Cup, compared to the measly half-spot that the 29-team ‘gauntlet’ offers, Canada will be gunning hard these next few months in order to make it in, as they look to return to the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
What’s on the line?
For Canada to narrow the 14 point gap, they’re going to need to be perfect over their next couple of games, while hoping El Salvador slips up along the way. By playing Trinidad and Tobago twice, they have the opportunity to cut down the 14 point gap to 7, and depending on if El Salvador loses once or twice this next window, they could even leap over them into 6th.
El Salvador has yet to announce any friendlies, however, which will be something to monitor as things progress. In January, they played one friendly against Iceland, but made it a FIFA ‘B’ ranked training match, meaning that it didn’t count, denying Canada a chance to whittle the gap to 12, as El Salvador lost that match 1-0.
With this window being an official international window, meaning that the points multiplier will be be 1.0x, instead of the 0.5x that the January camp had to offer, it’s expected that El Salvador will play, as them winning could pretty much eliminate Canada from the race, but by the same token, them losing could also open things right up, so it’ll be interesting to see what they choose to do.
But for Canada, who don’t have that same luxury of choosing whether to stand pat or go for it, it will be all about winning their two games and growing their current total of 1332. Here’s a breakdown of how things could stand to change with two victories.
|Matchups||Canada win||Trinidad and Tobago win|
|Canada vs T&T||+3.8 (1335, 11 points behind El Salvador)||-6.2 (1226, 20 points behind El Salvador)|
|Canada vs T&T||+3.7 (1339, 7 points behind El Salvador)||-6.3 (1220, 26 points behind El Salvador)|
That means if Canada wins both games, that would give them 1339 points, putting them 7 points behind El Salvador, which would be a very realistic gap to overcome, while a loss pretty much finishes their race early.
Now the only question will be what happens with El Salvador. If they play two teams ranked lower than them, two victories would theoretically give them approximately the same amount of points that Canada could gain, but if they were to lose 1 of those two games, the gap all of a sudden would be down to 3 or 4, depending on the exact rankings of the opponent that El Salvador plays.
If they play two teams ranked higher than them, they would have a chance to completely separate themselves from Canada, as even 1 win and 1 loss against higher-ranked opposition would probably widen the gap to around 10, assuming Canada wins both of their clashes.
But therein lies the conundrum for 69th ranked El Salvador, who are far from the same team they were years ago, when they had built up this lead they have in the FIFA rankings. Even in a weak Nations League B circuit last year, they struggled with CONCACAF minnows who were ranked miles behind them, never really dominating a group with the 158th ranked Dominican Republic, 183rd ranked Monsterrat and 176th ranked St. Lucia, even losing against the Dominican Republic in a huge upset back in September.
That means that if they do play 2 matches against high-ranked opposition, they’re likely to lose, which could be deadly, as 2 losses against teams higher than them does push them behind Canada, provided Les Rouges does the double over Trinidad and Tobago.
And if they play lower-ranked opposition, as expected, even that is far from a sure thing, which could be even deadlier, as they could lose upwards of 7 points for just one loss against a minnow, which would benefit Canada, who could sit approximately 3 points back in that case.
So for Canada, the goal will be to make sure they win their two matches, and then they’ll see from there. While it would have been nice to control their destiny, losses to Iceland in January, the US in November and Haiti in July robbed that from them, so they only have themselves to blame.
It also once again exposes the massive flaws in the system, which we highlighted back in July, with them only seeming to get worse every window. While the FIFA rankings are a pretty accurate decider of CONCACAF’s best 5 teams, as no one would doubt Mexico’s, the US’s, Honduras’s, Jamaica’s and Costa Rica’s pedigree, but after that, the gap between the likes of El Salvador, Canada, Haiti, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago isn’t that clear, which makes this arbitrary way of deciding the best of them quite ridiculous.
The qualifiers should be decided on the field, not with a calculator, which is the biggest frustration surrounding all of this. If Canada were to play El Salvador and lose in traditional World Cup qualifying, fair enough, but they should not have to jostle for a valuable position in the ‘Hex’ by scheduling friendlies, without ever having to play their direct opponents for that last spot.
With Canada being a team that’s very much on the rise, it’s painful to see them potentially robbed of their best chance to make the Hex since the last time they did make it, only supplanted by El Salvador’s past accomplishments.
The beauty of World Cup qualifying is seeing those surprise stories, such as Panama making it in over the US in 2018, and while that can still happen, with the gauntlet providing usually disadvantaged minnows a new lifeline, which is a positive, the murkiness at the top benefits no one.
But either way, playing these games will be good for Canada, because Hex or no Hex, they start World Cup qualifying in September no matter what, so it’ll be huge for them to play quality games ahead of then, allowing them to continue growing and progressing as a program. They should have scheduled more in the past, as they’d typically only schedule a fraction of the games they had potentially available to them, but this new process has at least pushed them to start doing more, which should help this team in the long-run.
And at the very least, they’re still in the hunt for the ‘Hex’, so not all is bleak. The lifeline is very slim, and it will require help from others, but that’s more than the likes of Panama, Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago can unfortunately claim, so at least Canada has that going for them.
Olympic qualifying also looming
Further complicating matters for Canada is the start of Olympic qualifying in March, with the qualification tournament overlapping with these two friendlies against Trinidad and Tobago, which will make for some interesting decision-making from John Herdman and Mauro Biello.
With many of Canada’s top players also eligible to participate in the Olympic tournament, which is a U23 competition, it’ll be interesting to see who ends up going where, with both sets of matches being huge for the program. There’s no doubting the importance of World Cup qualifiers, but making the Olympics could also prove to be a banner moment for the Men, especially with so many good U23 players potentially becoming available for the tournament in late-July and early-August, without mentioning the 3 overager spots that also open up for the tournament proper.
But to get there, they’ll have to qualify, first, which won’t be easy. Canada’s current best U23 and Senior players, attackers Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies, will certainly be with the Senior team, especially considering that advertising for the game has them plastered front-and-centre, with regular centre back Derek Cornelius likely joining them.
It’s after that where things get interesting, as the likes of Liam Fraser, Kamal Miller, Liam Millar have all gotten good minutes with the senior team recently, but are all yet from fully established regulars. Does Canada potentially send 1 or 2 of them down to Mexico for Olympic qualifiers to bolster the squad, knowing that some other veterans could take place?
John Herdman has said in the past that it’ll be all hands on deck for his senior outfit, but it’ll be curious to see how he handles those fringe players, who could certainly be big assets for Biello to have in tow.
Aside from them, we did get a good idea of who Canada is considering back in January, as they brought on 13 eligible players into their ‘Camp Poutine’, with many of them being first-time call-ups. With newcomers such as Jayden Nelson, Shamit Shome, Zorhan Bassong, Charles-Andreas Brym, Tristan Borges and Theo Bair all impressing in their limited minutes, Canada does have a solid base of talent to build themselves around.
Considering that they could potentially line up like this, they could realistically have dreams of Tokyo. Will it be good enough to beat a Mexico or US, who have several U23s playing regularly in their domestic leagues? It’s hard to tell, but they have a better shot than usual.
This squad is far from complete, especially with Canada being relatively thin at centre back at levels, let alone at the U23 one, but it’s a good spine to build around. Considering that they also have access to a Canadian Premier League circuit full of U23 guys who made a difference for their clubs last year, along with the potential for a few wild cards coming down from the first team, there is a chance that they make some noise down in Mexico.
Westhills a good sign for others
But while the squads for both the friendlies and Olympic qualifiers remain very much up in the air, especially given how far away they still are, what is clear is that the move to put this game in Victoria is a win.
Canada plays too many games in the same locations, so why not move things around and garner more fan support?
“These are important games for Canada and we wanted to play them at home to give the team the best conditions possible to perform with the people of Vancouver Island providing us with that 12th man atmosphere,” Herdman said Friday. “There’s something special about a small stadium when it is jammed packed and sharing these moments with fans young and old from football communities that don’t often get to see their national team heroes in the flesh.”
As Herdman says, Westhills may be small, but it’ll be sold out and rocking, which may prove to be more fun than the half-filled crowds bigger stadiums would have had to offer in this case. No doubt that this will be a successful crowd and atmosphere, which for someone like Halifax, who has a similarly sized stadium and passionate support, should have them excited for maybe getting games in the future.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens next, especially with World Cup qualifying coming up in the fall, which Canada will typically play in their bigger venues, but at least this opens the door for those smaller cities and stadiums to get some attention.
After seeing many towns complain that they’ve been shut off for too long, maybe this can be the start of more widespread promotion and support of the Men’s National Team, spreading things beyond the typical hubs that they’re used to.
Now, it’ll be interesting to see how the squads end up shaping up ahead of the big matches that lie ahead, as well as how Victoria responds to this big announcement. The latter seems a guarantee, but the former is very much up in the air, which will be quite interesting to monitor.
There’s no shortage of questions surrounding this program, many of them positive, which is quite good to see. How many regulars will Canada send to Mexico? Can Canada beat Trinidad and Tobago handily? Can they make the Olympics? Will they make the Hex?
Heading into what will be a crucial half-decade for Canada, especially with the upcoming 2026 World Cup that they’ll co-host, kicking things off with a potential Olympic qualification and strong performance in 2022 World Cup qualifying would be huge, as they look to redeem some of the many missed opportunities they had left on the table in the past.
Which for fans of the program, should make for an interesting next couple of months, win or lose.
Cover Photo Provided by: Liza Rozales/Canada Soccer