First Step: Analyzing the CanMNT’s first-round draw for CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers

The Canadian Men’s National Soccer team’s first-round path to the World Cup was revealed on Wednesday, as CONCACAF drew the groups for the first round of their qualifiers, which are set to kick off in October. Here is a look at how Canada’s group shapes up, as some good tests await them in the road towards the 2nd round. 

That new road has just been made that much more real. 

The Canadian Men’s National Soccer team got a big boost on Wednesday, as their group for Round 1 of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying was finally drawn out, giving Canada their first 4 opponents on their road to the 2022 Men’s World Cup. 

Now, they know that in order to move onto Round 2, in which they’d face the winner of Group E in a home and away series, they’ll have to topple Suriname, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and Aruba and win Group B, allowing them to progress to the next stage in the process. 

As we said back when this new format was announced, Canada is an early favourite to be one of the 3 teams to make it to the ‘Octo’, CONCACAF’s new final round, from the 29 teams that will enter at the first round stage, and that hasn’t changed with this draw, but it does feel so much more real to have the opponents and a schedule laid out. 

After months of deliberation about a supposed format, just to have this plan laid out in front of them is huge, as it’ll give them a chance to gameplan and prepare for what are going to be 4 very important games in the fall. 

With Canada looking to return to the final round of World Cup qualifying for the first time in over 22 years, these games are going to be huge for the program, as they look to show that this rising Canada team can truly become a team to be reckoned with in CONCACAF. 

There are some questions to be asked of CONCACAF’s plan to resume qualifiers, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but if they can find a way to get these games all off without a hitch, some tasty fixtures will be on offer. 

Especially for Canada, who’s got an interesting road to the ‘Octo’ now laid out in front of them. 

Schedule:

Thanks to the draw, Canada now knows that it’ll kick off the first window qualifiers by playing Bermuda at home on Thursday, October 8th, before taking on the Cayman Islands away on Sunday, October 11th. 

In the second window, they’ll play Aruba away on Saturday, November 14th, before returning home to take on Suriname at home on Tuesday, November 17th. 

After that, the winners of each of the 6 groups from round 1 will move on, in which the winners of Group A would play F, B would clash with E, and C would affront D. 

So if Canada were to win their group, which they’re favoured to do, they’d play the winner of Group E, which consists of Haiti, Nicaragua, Belize, Saint Lucia or Turks and Caicos Islands, with Haiti, the side who knocked Canada out of the 2019 Gold Cup in the quarter-finals, the early favourites to escape that group as winners. 

Those games would be between the 22nd and 30th of March in 2021, with the winner of that series moving onto the ‘Octo’, which is supposed to start in May of 2021, spanning 7 windows and 14 matchdays total. 

Interestingly enough, the ‘Octo’ schedule was also revealed on Wednesday, much to the delight of the US, Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Honduras, the 5 teams already qualified for that stage of qualifiers as the top 5 teams in the region via FIFA Rankings as of August. 

While there’s no reason to look ahead to a potential ‘Octo’ schedule for Canada, at least not until they qualify, it’s interesting to note that if they do make it that far, they’d open that round with a home matchup against Honduras, giving them a chance to avenge many World Cup qualifying demons that the Central American side has inflicted on them in past cycles. 

What to expect?

CanMNT midfielder Samuel Piette takes a touch in a January clash against Iceland (Liza Rozales/Canada Soccer)

As for the group itself, there are a lot of question marks surrounding all 4 of Canada’s opponents, making it hard to know what to expect from them ahead of their matches with Canada this fall. 

No doubt, Canada is expected to win their group, allowing them to progress to Round 2, but no one knows how handily they’ll do that, especially considering the unpredictability of their opponents. 

At their best, Canada should cruise through these 4 games, but as they’ve shown in the past few years, even at their best, there is no easy game in this region, especially away from home. 

By virtue of being the highest seed in the group, Canada, who is currently ranked 73rd in the world, does get the advantage of playing the two highest-ranked teams in the group, 141 ranked Suriname and 168th ranked Bermuda, at home, giving their already good chances at qualifying a boost. 

But even despite that, they’re not expected to be an easy out, by any stretch of the imagination, even though Canada does come into this tournament rocking a 7 game home winning streak, coming in both friendlies and competitive matches. 

Away from home, the Cayman Islands will be a tough opponent, as their home field is notoriously bumpy and hard to play on, while Aruba comes into this reeling, as they were unable to pick up a point over 6 games of CONCACAF Nations League B action, relegating them to League C for the next tournament. 

With that in mind, here is a look at all 4 teams, and what Canada will want to wary of heading into these matches. 

We’ll have more in-depth previews ahead of the matches itself, so stay tuned for that in a few months, but for now, we’ll take a quick look at what team could potentially do to Canada, as well as the form that they come into these qualifiers in. 

Suriname:

If we’re going in ranking order, Suriname is up first, as the 141st ranked team was the first team drawn into Group B alongside Canada, who was already drawn into the group beforehand. 

And if we’re looking among Pot 2 teams, Suriname may end up being one of the biggest ones to watch, for a multitude of reasons. 

First of all, the country is in South America, making them one of the most gruelling CONCACAF away matches in terms of distance, so Canada will be happy that they’ll be hosting Suriname on matchday 4. 

Second of all, the country has a rich footballing history, as they’ve constantly supplied quality players to the Netherlands, of which they were formerly a colony of, and still have a close relationship with the country politically. 

As a result, some of the most talented Dutch players ever, such as Ruud Gullit, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert were all actually from Suriname, but instead chose the Netherlands through their dual-national eligibility. 

But now, much like Curacao, there’s starting to be a wave of quality footballers who are starting to choose Suriname, aided by a new law passed in 2019 that allows dual-nationals to play for the national team without rescinding their Dutch passport, as was the case before. 

While that likely won’t hinder the top Suriname-eligible players, as most of which who will choose the Netherlands anyways, that’ll be huge for the middle of the pack guys, who are not good enough to play for the Netherlands, but more than good enough to make a difference for Suriname, who could certainly use them. 

A similar movement happened in Curacao, who like Suriname, is a former Dutch Colony, as in 2011 they became independent from the Netherlands, allowing them to join FIFA and participate in qualifiers. 

They’ve since recruited some quality players who fall in that “not good enough for the Netherlands but more than good enough for Curacao” range, and as a result are now one of the brightest risers in CONCACAF, as they’ve showed with strong play in Nations League and Gold Cup play these past 2 years. 

Even though Suriname is maybe not quite at the level of Curacao just yet, as they still got some work to do in terms of recruiting players and building a sporting foundation in the country, they’re one to watch for the future. 

Due to how recently the law was passed, don’t expect them to catch Canada too much by surprise in October, aside from the possibility for a couple of new arrivals, but in a few years, they’re expected to be a team that can rise in CONCACAF. 

In recent times, though, they’ve shown some improvement on the pitch, as they earned a promotion to League A of Nations League, as they toppled Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Nicaragua and Dominica in Group D of League B, earning qualification to the 2021 Gold Cup, their first such qualification in over 35 years, in the process. 

So at the very least, it seems like they could offer up a good fight to Canada, who will have to be wary of what they can offer in a one-game scenario. 

Bermuda: 

Much like Suriname, Bermuda are also a rising team in CONCACAF, as they come into World Cup qualifiers fresh off of qualifying for their first-ever Gold Cup in 2019, in which they surprisingly beat Nicaragua and finished 11th out of 16th teams, making for a solid debut tournament. 

Considering that they’ve surprisingly never qualified for the Caribbean Cup, the championship for the top Caribbean National Teams that served as qualifiers for the Gold Cup before the format changed in 2019, they turned some heads at the Gold Cup last year, and for good reason. 

As a result of their strong strong play in Nations League qualifiers in 2018-2019, as they won 3 games and lost only 1 in the 4 games of qualifying rounds, they were able to make it not only to the Gold Cup, but to League A of the Nations League, in which they were drawn with Panama and Mexico in Group B. 

While they finished in last in that group, relegating them to League B for the next Nations League tournament, they only missed out on survival via goal difference, as a 5-1 loss to Mexico on matchday proved to be critical, after they did well to avenge an opening day loss to Panama at home on matchday 1 by beating them away on matchday 2. 

Considering that Panama made the 2018 World Cup as one of CONCACAF’S 3 direct entrants, that gives you an idea of what Bermuda can do as a team, so Canada will have to be very careful with them, even at home. 

Bermuda also gave Mexico one heck of a scare on the last matchday of League A action, only narrowly losing 2-1 to them, missing out on the last goal that would have seen their survival in League A, relegating Panama in the process, so they’re not scared of big opponents, either. 

So while Bermuda may lack the overall quality of a team like Suriname, they appear to be well-drilled as a team, as shown by their ability to be giant-disturbers. 

Even though Bermuda’s and Suriname’s rankings are separated by 27 spots, they seem very well-matched, so if Canada struggles against one, expect them to possibly struggle against the other, so that opening day match against Bermuda will be huge in terms of setting the tone for the rest of the group.

Cayman Islands:

Up next are the 193-ranked Cayman Islands, who aren’t expected to trouble Canada too much, even though they’ll be playing at home. 

They are coming off a solid League C Nations League campaign, in which they missed out on qualification to League B on goal difference, after both they and Barbados finished with 4 wins and 2 losses out of 6 games of Group A action.

To give you an idea of what to expect, Canada beat Barbados 4-1 twice in January, as they played a back-to-back with them as part of their ‘Camp Poutine’, in which Canada was missing most of their European regulars due to the window not being a regular FIFA one. 

Considering that the Cayman Islands hasn’t played in a Caribbean Cup since the 90s, and has never qualified for the Gold Cup, the 10 Nations League games they’ve played since September of 2018 are huge, as it’s given them some valuable match experience. 

Despite that, don’t expect them to trouble Canada too much on matchday 2, even if Canada were to be short a few of their regulars. 

The Cayman Islands pitch is quite bumpy, which could cause some worry, but Canada would still be heavy favourites to win in such a match, barring an unforeseen miracle. 

Aruba: 

Last, but not least, is Aruba, ranked 200th in the World, who will be looking to provide any sort of upset to these 4 teams in this group. 

A former Dutch colony, they’ve not had the same sort of footballing history that Suriname or Curacao have had, making it hard to build a solid team, at least one that could compete with their aforementioned former colonies. 

They come into this one in rough form, as well, having lost all 6 games in League B of Nations League, only scoring 5 goals and conceding 18 goals in the process, putting them in League C for the next Nations League tournament. 

After doing well to beat Bermuda and tie Guadeloupe in qualifiers, earning them that perch in League B, they were overmatched against Jamaica, Guyana and Antigua & Barbuda, pushing them down to League C. 

So clearly they’ve got some upset power in them, as the result over Bermuda showed, as that’s something that they’ll definitely want to repeat this time in qualifiers. 

Against Canada, however, they’ll be in tough, even at home, of which is actually in Curacao for games, as there is a notable gulf in quality between the two sides. 

Aruba can certainly make things interesting, but it’s definitely Canada’s match to lose, but seeing that Bermuda result, it does show how close things are between sides ranked 160th and 200th in the world, and shows why Canada will still have to bring their A-game on matchday 3. 

Looking Forward:

At the very least, there are some intriguing fixtures in Canada’s first 4 matches of World Cup qualifiers, which will kick off this October. 

As said at the beginning, no doubt that Canada is early favourites to win this group, but Bermuda and Suriname can definitely cause some trouble, while the Cayman Islands is a wild card, with Aruba a similarly mysterious side. 

If Canada play their best, they shouldn’t have to worry too much, especially considering that they get to play Suriname and Bermuda at home, but away matches in CONCACAF are never easy, so they’ll have to be careful when they leave the friendly confines of their country. 

From what we’ve seen here, the gulf between Suriname and Bermuda isn’t that large, and Aruba did beat Bermuda in 2018, so there is that to ponder as well, making that first game against Bermuda at home huge for Canada. 

Depending on if Canada wins that one or not, that’ll set the tone for the rest of the group, especially for the opponents, who may get a shot of belief or lose motivation depending on the result. 

So for Canada, it’ll be all about taking care of business, starting with that October clash, as they look to exorcise demons of World Cup qualifying’s past and make it to at least the final round, the ‘Octo’, before pushing to be one of the CONCACAF teams to make it to the World Cup proper. 

It won’t be easy to make it that far, let alone out of this group, but they have the quality to do it, they’ll just need to turn that into results, starting with these matches in October. 

Cover Photo via: Martin Bayzl/Canada Soccer

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