Bring on the Octo: CanMNT get huge boost with latest CONCACAF World Cup qualification adjustment

CONCACAF finally announced their revised qualifying format for the 2022 Men’s World Cup on Monday, which for Canadian Soccer fans, was big news, as it now gives them an idea of the road that their team will soon face on the road to Qatar. 

After months of speculation, there is finally a solution. 

In a long-awaited announcement about the future of their Men’s World Cup qualifiers, CONCACAF finally revealed the new path that teams will have to take in order to get to Qatar in 2022 earlier this week, much to the joy of Canadian soccer supporters. 

Thanks to the introduction of a new 8-team final round, and a scrapping of the famed ‘gauntlet’ which Canada and 28 other teams were all-but destined for 5 months ago, Canadian Soccer fans now have a clear path towards a potential return to the Men’s World Cup, which wasn’t the case under the old format. 

While it’s disappointing that it took a global pandemic for CONCACAF to come to their senses, it’s positive that they’ve finally decided to throw out the calculators and return to more of a conventional format, while also keeping things relatively open to all teams, who will each now play a minimum of 4 games of qualifiers in this cycle. 

Under the old ‘hexagonal’ format, that number could be as little as two, and under the Hex/Gauntlet split, which was announced in July 2019, that number was also 4, so in a sense, this new format does help all teams get more games, which was the plan all along. 

So for Canada, this is huge news, as their ability to qualify to the final round is solely back in their hands, and if anything, they head into these first 2 rounds as one of the early favourites, along with the likes of El Salvador, Haiti, Curacao, Trinidad and Tobago and Panama, the latter 4 teams all joining Canada as the biggest beneficiaries of this change. 

Given that Canada’s in the midst of what is quickly looking like a golden generation of young talent, which should see several of their key players hit their primes when they co-host the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and the US, getting to a World Cup by actually qualifying in 2022 would be a huge boost for the Canadian program, as it would give their players a taste of what to expect from the world’s best. 

And now, they know their path to get there, which will no longer include concentrated friendly management, intense Caribbean travel and praying for others to lose. 

Once again, they completely control their destiny, which after having experienced the ups and downs this taste of that new Hex/Gauntlet format offered, will give them hope that they can make some noise in CONCACAF this cycle. 

The new format:

But before we look at what to expect from Canada in this new format, it feels important to break down the new path that has been laid out by CONCACAF, as it is quite an interesting proposition. 

To start things off, there are 35 FIFA members who reside in CONCACAF, making them the confederation with the 4th-highest amount of members, after UEFA (Europe), CAF (Africa) and AFC (Asia), in that order. 

There are several more members in CONCACAF, such as French Guiana, Martinique and Saint Martin, for example, who aren’t affiliated with FIFA, hence that number of 35 and not 41, the actual amount of CONCACAF members that can participate in the region’s competitions, such as the Gold Cup and the Nations League. 

Under the Hex/Gauntlet split, the top 6 teams in the latest FIFA Rankings after the June 2020 update would’ve have gone straight to the final round, the Hexagonal, which pits 6 teams against each other in a group stage format. 

In that group, each team would play the other 5 teams home-and-away, for a total of 10 games, with the top 3 teams going straight to the World Cup, leaving the 4th place team to play a playoff game, while the bottom 2 teams would be left to head home.

Meanwhile, in the ‘Gauntlet’, the 29 remaining teams would engage in a mini-tournament, complete with a group stage comprised of 8 groups of either 4 or 3, with each of the winners advancing to a knockout round starting at the quarter-finals, which would run 2-leg knockouts until a winner was determined in a final. 

That winner would play that 4th place team in the playoff in a 2 leg series, with the winner of that series then going to the intercontinental playoff, which is a 2-legged series with the playoff participant from either OFC (Oceania), CONMEBOL (South America) or AFC (the 4 confederations are put into a pot and drawn into 2 different series), with the winner of each of those 2 series qualifying for the World Cup. 

Under the new format, announced this week, things return to more of a typical format, one that sees teams streamlined towards the final round in a linear path typical of most regions, instead of this unconventional split that CONCACAF wanted to experiment with. 

Now, the first round of qualifying starts with the 30 members ranked from #6 to #35, who will be split into 6 groups of 5. The 30 teams have been split into 5 pots, based on the most recent FIFA rankings, with Canada sitting in pot A. 

Interestingly, the top 6 teams in this first round, (El Salvador, Canada, Curacao, Panama, Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago), have already been drawn in Groups A-F based on their FIFA rankings, with the highest-ranked side, El Salvador, already put in Group A, while the lowest, Trinidad and Tobago, sits in Group F. 

While that seems insignificant, the distinction proves to be quite important later on. 

Once drawn into 6 groups of 5, each team will play every other team in their group once, either at home or away, for a total of 4 games, after which they highest-ranked team in each group will advance to the 2nd round. 

In the 2nd round, those 6 group winners will split off into 3 different 2-legged series, of which the opponents have already been drawn. The winner of Group A plays the Group F winner, the winner of B plays E, and C plays D, with the 3 winners moving to the final round. 

And for that final round is where we see the big change, as CONCACAF announced that they’ve expanded their famed ‘Hexagonal’, comprised of 6 teams, to an ‘Octagonal’, now consisting of 8 teams. 

So that final round will be contested by the 5 highest-ranked FIFA members in the latest rankings, Mexico, the US, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Honduras, who will be joined by the 3 winners of those round 2 knockout series. 

For that final round, the 8 teams will then play each of the other 7 teams both home and away, for a total of 14 matches, with the top 3 teams heading to the World Cup, the 4th placed team heading to the intercontinental playoff, and the last 4 teams going home. 

To get a visual idea of how the first 2 rounds will work, here is a good breakdown of the pots and format for them, provided by Oliver Platt of Onesoccer.

And to get an idea of how all of this will fit into the FIFA calendar, here is a visual chart from CONCACAF provided by an expert of the region, Jon Arnold, via his twitter.  

Round 1’s 4 matches will be played over 2 windows in October and November of 2020, leaving the September 2020 window open in case the COVID-19 pandemic is still affecting some hard-hit nations, and if that isn’t the case, it also leaves the door open for some preparatory friendlies. 

After that, Round 2 will be played in the March 2021 window, with the home-and-away series fitting nicely into that slot (each FIFA window leaves room for 2 games), before the Final Round, the ‘Octo’, gets underway in June of 2021. 

And to complete the Octo, it will first take up a double-window in June of 2021 (4 games), before returning to a singular window in each of September, October and November of 2021, and then rounding off with windows in January and May of 2022. 

In the meantime, the 2021 Gold Cup will kick off as scheduled in July of 2021, while the 2019-2020 Nations League will wrap up in March of 2021, before resuming again in May 2022 with the 2022-2023 edition of that competition. 

(To get a short and visual explanation of the format, CONCACAF does these excellent short little videos showing how things work, so you can check that out at the embed below.)

Pros and Cons:

Much like any format, however, there are pros and cons to this new plan. Here are some that stick out upon first glance. 

Pro: Everyone gets a better chance

The one redeeming factor of the last format was that everyone would be guaranteed to play at least 4 group stage matches, instead of having the first 2 rounds consist of 2-legged knockout series, which often saw half of the teams sent home after only playing twice, both coming against the same team. 

Now, teams will all play a minimum of 4 games against 4 different teams, with some teams having the potential of playing as many as 20 games, which is right in line with what several other confederations around the World do.

For several of these smaller nations, having more competitive games is huge, especially as they continued to try to grow the sport in their respective countries, as it’ll give them a bigger platform for their players to showcase themselves on. 

Con: The top 5 get a huge advantage

At the same time, each of the top 5 is guaranteed 14 games, as they’ll enter at the Octo stage, which will give them lots of high-calibre games against good opposition, which if fans are able to attend, will also be a huge revenue booster for some federations. 

In a region where the divide between the top and the bottom nations is so stark, seeing the top 5 get that much of a financial and competitive advantage won’t do much to change that, especially not in the short term.

Pro: Expanded final round will help the middle class, though

The Final Round going from 6 to 8 teams is huge for the middle class of CONCACAF, arguably currently consisting of El Salvador, Canada, Curacao, Panama, Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago), 3 of which who are now likely to make it to the Final Round under this new format, upsets permitting. 

That’s good news for Canada, Curacao and Haiti, 3 of the biggest risers in recent years, who look ready to make that next step towards becoming CONCACAF giants, at least if some of their recent performances are any indication.

With these 2 extra spots in the Final Round, that’s 2 extra chances for teams to get 2 matches with each of the best nations in CONCACAF, which will be huge for a team like Canada, for example, who just hasn’t had enough consistent competitive fixtures over the past 10 years. 

Considering that the final round has mostly consisted of a shuffling of the same 7 teams (Mexico x5, US x5, Costa Rica x5, Honduras x4, Trinidad and Tobago x4, Panama x3 and Jamaica x2) during the last 5 editions of the ‘Hex’, with only El Salvador (x1, 2010), and Guatemala (x1, 2006) the 2 other teams to break that group of 7. 

While some of those 7 teams, such as Panama and Trinidad and Tobago, now sit in the CONCACAF middle class as they face some rebuilding trouble, that the current top 5 consists of the other of the remaining 7 teams is pretty telling. 

This is far from a complaint, as the other teams haven’t consistently been good enough to challenge this hegemony, but given the recent rise of Canada, Curacao and Haiti, an expansion of the final round feels overdue, as it’ll certainly improve the quality of CONCACAF’s World Cup participants with the extra pressure that having 2 teams may add. 

Cons: Not much of a backup plan

The lone other con is the lack of a backup plan on the table if the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hit some North American nations quite strongly, making international football hard to pursue in the region. 

With the large disparity of cases from nation-to-nation, having this sort of inter-border travel might not yet be feasible until 2021, which would put a cramp on what is an otherwise good plan. 

Fingers crossed that everything goes well, but it is one thing worth monitoring as the time quickly ticks down towards that October 2020 start date. 

So, what to expect from Canada?

Canda’s Junior Hoilett gets tangled with the US’s Weston McKennie in a match this past November (Jeremy Reper/Canada Soccer)

But even though this format helps the current top 5 nations, while also giving a lot of the bottom-ranked nations more games against good opposition, Canada surely stands out as one of the big winners of this new announcement. 

If they’re able to indeed qualify to the Final Round, which as the 2nd-highest-ranked team in the first 2 rounds, they’ll be expected to do, they may have the chance to play 20 competitive games, which would be huge for this program. 

Considering that in the 5 cycles they’ve participated in since last making the ‘Hex, they’ve only played either 8 (2002, 2006, 2010), 10 (2018) or 12 (2014) games, having that 20 in one cycle would be massive, especially if you factor in their impending participation at the 2021 Gold Cup, of which they’ve already qualified for, and the 2022 Nations League, of which they’re going to be in League A for. 

It will also be an important opportunity for Canada to get some matches against some big teams, because after only playing top 10 opposition 20 times in those past 5 WC cycles, they now have the potential to do so 16 times in this edition, upsets depending, of course. 

And while that 20 game counter is a lot higher than you would’ve thought considering Canada’s lack of final round participation since 1998, it is important to note that those games were staggered many years apart, so to have the potential to play 8 different likely top 10 teams in qualifiers, each home and away, all in a 2-year span, is huge for this current crop of players. 

You throw in the potential top calibre games that the 2021 Gold Cup and 2022-2023 Nations League has to offer, and the potential for this team to grow is massive. 

But while it’s important for them not to get ahead of themselves here, as just getting to the Final Round of qualifiers will require a 6 match grind that is not easy by any stretch of the imagination, this is about as perfect of a test that this young Canadian side can get. 

In teams of Canada’s past, we’ve gotten used to seeing them falter at the last stop before the final round, as has been the case for 5 consecutive cycles now, so having this clear opportunity to redeem that will show us how much progress John Herdman and his young charges have made under his reign so far. 

No doubt, this Canadian team is good enough to make a World Cup. That’s not that outlandish of a take, especially considering the fact that they’ve got players like Alphonso Davies, arguably the best left back in the world, and Jonathan David, one of the hottest attacking prospects in the world, leading the way. 

They’ve shown to be able to do great things, such as beating the US for their first victory over their rivals in over 34 years, or scoring a goal in all but 1 game during John Herdman’s reign so far (they failed to score against Iceland in a 1-0 loss back in January, the last game they played before the pandemic hit), both feats that most people haven’t come to expect of Canada in the past. 

At the same time, however, this group is yet to be battle-tested. Results such as the tough 3-2 loss in the 2019 Gold Cup against Haiti, a game that they led 2-0 at half time, or the 4-1 loss to the US in a Nations League A game they only needed a draw in, are proof of that. 

But it’s those kinds of big games that you learn from, both in victory and in defeat, so having the opportunity to play those sorts of big games on a consistent basis between now and 2022 is huge, especially considering that most of Canada’s best players are between the ages of 18 and 26. 

Based on what we’ve seen, they should at least be able to hang with every team in CONCACAF, aside from Mexico (which is an apt description of many of the top 10 teams in CONCACAF, to be fair), so this would be a great chance to prove that. 

So at the very least, we should expect an Octo appearance from Canada, as falling short would most definitely be a failure. 

If they can at least make the Octo, those high-pressure games against Mexico, the US, Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica and whoever the 2 other sides end up being would be crucial, as it will either A) show Canada that they can beat those teams and qualify for the 2022 World Cup or B) show Canada what they will need to do in order to beat those teams in the future and make some noise at the 2026 World Cup, which most of their current players will likely still be around for. 

It may seem like a lot of pressure to say that Canada needs to make the Final Round this cycle, but this team should be more than ready to do that, so if they do fall short, it’ll highlight the flaws that they’ll have to start working out before they can one day hope be a top team in CONCACAF. 

They’ve got the pieces, now it’s time to put the puzzle together, which they’ll get to start doing in October of this year, pandemic permitting, when they resume their road towards the 2022 World Cup. 

Looking Forward:

While there’s a lot to wait for ahead of then, as the groups still need to be drawn, schedules need to be released, without mentioning the constant threat that this pandemic provides, it’s exciting to have an actual format to talk about and prepare for. 

After months of speculation, which led to all sorts of talk about non-existent formats, it’s nice to have a legitimate format, one that came from the mouth of CONCACAF itself, giving an idea of what to expect in these qualifiers going forward. 

It also gives Canada about as clear of a path as they could need, which after trying to map out the headaches that the last format offered, is a big plus. 

So it’ll be interesting to see what happens now. There are lots of storylines to watch for, such as figuring out the teams that they’ll play, finding out where exactly they’ll play, and seeing if they’ll be able to even play. 

And will be here every step of the way, as we continue our coverage of the CanMNT on their quest towards returning to the World Cup for the first time in over 34 years. 

Cover photo via: Jeremy Reper/Canada Soccer

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