Canada’s Men’s National Team took a tough hit this past week, with the cancellation of their 2 March friendlies due to the outbreak of COVID-19 potentially affecting their World Cup hopes. Here is how, and a look at what may be next for them.
Some might recognize what it represents. It could be 4 victories and 2 draws in football, 7 wins in hockey or the record of someone who is REALLY bad at driving.
For the Canadian Men’s National Team, it’s the gap between themselves and El Salvador in the FIFA Rankings, which currently have the Central American side ranked as the 6th best team in CONCACAF.
In any other year, this news would be quite irrelevant, but as such is the reality of CONCACAF, this number 14 looms quite large at the moment, with time running out for Canada to leapfrog El Cuzlatecos Azul y Blanco into 6th place in those rankings.
If they don’t? New horizons will be calling for them in September, when CONCACAF’s 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup qualifying kicks off, with all 35 eligible North American teams getting started on their journey towards reaching the world’s biggest football party.
Every other year, this would have been great for Canada. Even if they didn’t make the Hexagonal, the 6 team tournament that the top 6 teams after June’s FIFA rankings get to play in, they’d have a 1 in 29 chance of making it to the continental playoff, a far cry from the ruthless old format, which often saw over 70% of the field eliminated inside 2 years.
‘Hexit’ proves painful
But for this Canadian side, missing out on the Hex will hurt, without a doubt. Even though they haven’t made it since the 1998 World Cup cycle, over 2 decades ago, this team was seen as their best shot at doing so since then, which is why this new format was such a gut-punch for them.
And to give them some credit, they nearly pushed their way into the top 6, overcoming a 30 point gap to get into the top 6 for a window, before the split turned into what it is now. Despite having to play the US twice in Nations League play, two matches no one gave any chance of winning, they won 1 of those games, which is partly the reason why they still even had a chance this far in.
Looking back, there are some losses that stung hard, with the Haiti Gold Cup collapse hurting more by the day (Canada was up 2-0 against Haiti in the Gold Cup Quarter-finals, but eventually lost 3-2, which denied them a chance to get a lot more risk-free points), along with the other US game, a 4-1 loss that gave their rivals a chance to win their Nations League group on goal difference.
Had they won the Haiti game, they would have had a chance to get more points at an increased multiplier (with no risk, as you can only gain points, not lose them, in tournament knockout games), with Mexico looming in the semi-finals. Ditto with the US loss, as a draw would have seen Canada through, giving them a chance at what likely would have been a Nations League semi-final with Honduras or Costa Rica, another risk-free chance to gain points at an increased multiplier.
Instead, it’s been a slog of 2020 friendlies to try and overcome the gap, with Canada kickstarting the year with a trio of friendlies, which yielded a pair of wins against Barbados and a loss against Iceland, giving them a gain of 1 point (due to the games being played outside of an official FIFA window).
Up next for them would have been a pair of home friendlies against Trinidad and Tobago, 2 games that could have even seen them potentially overcome the gap, mostly dependent on how El Salvador fared, with another window of games still to spare.
But as we now know, those games won’t be played.
Due to the global outbreak of COVID-19, Canada wisely pulled the plug on those 2 games, all but ending their possibility of making the Hex in time for June.
And even though those hopes were already on life support, it hurts. There is still a slimmer of a chance that they still make it, with the June window of games not yet at threat due to COVID-19, but even if Canada does play games then, they’d still need the help of El Salvador, who have no need to play games with their spot still firmly intact.
They could also try to convince El Salvador to play a ‘mini playoff’ of organized friendlies, but their foes have no reason to take that match, having sat comfortably in 6th for the most of the process.
So what’s next? Could we see a change to the format? That could happen, but given that we are less than 3 years away from the World Cup, it’s hard to imagine that popping up.
Could we see some sort of playoff of teams in the hunt? That would be a lot likelier, and could be a fair trade-off for CONCACAF, as they could take the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th place teams and throw them into a tournament for the last 2 spots.
Will we see that from them, though? Don’t hold your breath, as that would require a lot of administrative work to make happen, and it’s way too early in the process to speculate about their next course of action. Given this is an unprecedented sequence of events, you’d have to imagine that once things settle down, they’ll take some time and announce a solution for the teams currently fighting to reach the Hex.
So what happens next?
Instead, until that comes about, the likely option is that Canada will jump into the ‘gauntlet’, along with the 28 other non Hexagonal teams, and fight to the end for that chance at playing the 4th place team in the Hex, all for a chance at the intercontinental playoff, with a chance at the World Cup on the line.
Is it ideal? Absolutely not, especially considering the exposure to high-level competition that the Hex would have offered (without mentioning the over 50% chance at making the World Cup, compared to the less than 2% the Gauntlet offers), but it’s also better than the alternative for missing the Hex in prior years; good old nothing.
They’d enter the 29-team tournament as the top seed, and while they’d have to be nearly perfect from there on in, they’d likely avoid most of their stiffest tests until the knockout stages. The group stage will give them 4-6 matches to get the legs under them, and then after that, it’s 3 2-legged knockout series to win it all.
That’s not to say they’d run the table, as the next 4 best teams in the FIFA rankings, Panama, Haiti, Curacao and Trinidad & Tobago, all compare quite evenly to Canada, but no doubt that Les Rouges would be the favourite of the 5. They have the most star power, they have the deepest squad, and even though they don’t have the same big-game experience that T&T or Panama have, they do match up quite well against the two ageing countries.
Haiti and Curacao are the two wildcards, however, as Haiti’s Gold Cup victory over Canada showed. Canada has struggled against fast teams that sit back, which Curacao and Haiti both do effectively, and much like Canada, they’re two of CONCACAF’s rising stars at the moment, with each program seeing huge growth over the past few years.
But what gives Canada hope as favourites? The fact that they get to play every potential opponent at least once at home, even in both playoffs. While that would also be the case in the Hex, that’ll mean that Canada will always have that chance to either kick things off or wrap things up at home.
Canada has done quite well within the friendly confines of their home fields, with their last loss in home territory coming in March of 2016, when they lost to Mexico by a score of 3-0 in World Cup qualifying. Since then, they’ve beaten El Salvador, Curacao, Jamaica, Dominica, French Guiana, Cuba and the US at home, which is a decent crop of opponents, including 4 top 10 teams, and 3 participants in this year’s Hex (in the case that El Salvador makes it in).
So assuming Canada continues to rock and roll at home, while also improving their proficiency on the road, there’s no reason to doubt they can’t at least win the gauntlet, before making some noise in the playoffs. Besides Mexico, there’s no team in the Hex that you could look at and chalk up an automatic win against Canada, especially after their victory over the US.
That is not to say they’d run the table against those teams, but they can certainly compete, which gives them a chance in the 1st playoff, with Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Jamaica the early favourites to sit in that 4th place spot after they play 10 games.
After that, it’s a lottery, with the yet-to-be drawn intercontinental playoff providing more questions than answers (you’d fancy Canada against an Asian or Oceanic team, not so much against a South American one), but at least it gives them something.
With years of almosts and nothings to look back on, they’ll certainly take it, even despite the close call with the Hex this time around.
If they don’t get through the gauntlet, then they don’t deserve to even imagine making noise in the playoffs, but after what we’ve seen from them this past year, making that far isn’t that impossible to think of.
Are they maddingly inconsistent sometimes? Yes, but such is life for a team filled with young and coming stars, so those are the lumps you have to take on the road towards success.
Who knows, maybe the gauntlet gives them a chance to work over those lumps, with the bond of travelling through the Caribbean with the slim dreams of a World Cup appearance forging them into consistency.
They manage to avoid the case of the CONCACAFitis, allowing them to have a full allotment of players at their disposal whenever possible (no last-minute mysterious groin and calf ailments, please), and they could have some fun over the next while.
Is it perfect? No, but considering the past ‘Hexless’ alternatives, at least it’s something, which once everyone gets over the sting of being ever so close to the Hex, is hope potentially worth clinging onto.
Either way, World Cup qualifiers loom in September, Hex or no Hex, and even though COVID-19 has potentially altered their hopes at the former, Canada will have to get going come August, especially if they find themselves in the latter.
And until we hear about any potential alterations to the format, all the COVID-19-related cancellations have done is give them a reality check, not a huge knockout, so they’ll surely have already been preparing for some ‘Caribbean Competition’.
Cover Photo by: Canada Soccer/Devin L’Amoureux