Draw it out: Tough 2021 Gold Cup draw presents unique challenge to already-busy CanMNT side next year

CONCACAF held its first-ever Gold Cup draw on Monday, revealing the groups for next summer’s edition of the region’s marquee men’s tournament. Here is how the draw shaped up for Canada, and why next summer’s tournament promises to be an intriguing one for them, mostly due to the uncertainty surrounding their schedule and who will be available. 

In the midst of uncertainty, CONCACAF made history earlier this week. 

While the short term future of international soccer in North America remains in doubt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with World Cup qualifiers that were supposed to be staged this fall postponed to 2021, CONCACAF decided to still host its draw for the 2021 Gold Cup earlier this week. 

And while that may seem insignificant, the draw was a historic one, as it marked the first-ever time that there had been such an event for the Gold Cup. Usually, they’d ‘select’ the teams to go into each group, but for the first time, they decided to finally use a random seeded draw to determine the 4 groups at next summer’s edition of CONCACAF’s marquee Men’s footballing tournament. 

Considering that this is also the first edition of the tournament was the first one where every team had to qualify through playing games, and not automatically based on past performance, or the region that they come from, this is a big tournament for many reasons, as it truly legitimizes CONCACAF’s top tier Male continental tournament. 

For Canada’s Men’s National Team, it promises to be an exciting tournament, as they continue their quest to win their second-ever Gold Cup, after having won it all back in 2000, the only team not named Mexico or the United States to do so in the Gold Cup era (which started in 1991). 

It was expected that they could potentially challenge that bilateral order in 2019, but they succumbed to Haiti in the quarter-finals in a huge upset, as the small Caribbean nation fought their way back from down 2 goals to beat the favoured Canadians and progress to their first-ever Gold Cup semi-finals.

Now, Canada will hope to be able to create some magic, even though it won’t be easy, as they have no idea if they’ll have their full squad at their disposal due to possible scheduling concerns.

Despite that, it appears that it’s a problem that most teams will face, so there’s no reason that the Canadians, who have been slowly building up good program depth, can’t compete for the big trophy next summer. 

But before we look at the possible scheduling crunch that awaits them, here is how their Gold Cup group stacks up, as they were drawn into Group B with the US, Martinique and a yet-to-be-determined qualifier. 

Group B: Surprisingly balanced

USA: Up first was the pot 1 draw, the US, who Canada will happy to be drawn with, mostly due to the fact that they avoided the always-dangerous Mexico. 

The US is a tough opponent, no doubt, and if there’s a team not named Mexico that has the depth handle the potential CONCACAF scheduling crunch, it’s them. 

At the same time, Canada will feel confident against their neighbours, knowing that they beat the US for the first time in 35 years in last year, as they overcame the Americans by a score of 2-0 at BMO Field in October, giving them a memorable and historic Nations League victory. 

While they fell 4-1 to the US a month later in the rematch down in Orlando, Canada did show that when they play at their best, they can challenge the US, so they’ll believe that they can repeat the trick in this clash.

Yes, Canada has struggled away from home, and with the Gold Cup being held in the US, where the Americans have been excellent in recent years, it won’t be easy, but if there is a Canada side that could cause the US problems, this one is probably it, assuming they have their full roster at their disposal. 

Canada’s Richie Laryea takes on the US’s Christian Pulisic during Canada’s historic victory over the US at BMO Field last October (Martin Bayzl/Canada Soccer)

Martinique: After that was Martinique, the pot 3 team, as Canada was drawn out of pot 2 on the basis of their current FIFA ranking. 

And it’ll be interesting to see how Martinique, one of the lone non-FIFA nations to participate in the tournament, stacks up against Canada. 

They faced off at the 2013 tournament, with Martinique beating Canada by a scoreline of 1-0, but in their most recent matchup, the opening game of the 2019 Gold Cup, Canada did win 4-0, so it appears that they do have the upper edge, for now. 

At the same time, Martinique did go on a decent run since finishing 3rd in Group A behind Canada and Mexico in that aforementioned 2019 Gold Cup, as they achieved survival in League A in Nations League action by finishing top 2 in their group of 3 last fall, as their record of 3 draws and 1 loss from 4 games was just enough to edge out Trinidad and Tobago, who had 2 draws and 2 loss, with Honduras leading the way with 3 wins and 1 draw in first place in Group C. 

Therefore, when considering that, on paper, you’d consider Canada favourites, but this Martinique team can grind out games, and they did only lose 3-2 to Mexico in last year’s Gold Cup, so they can trouble big teams. 

Canada should definitely not take them lightly, because if they do, Martinique won’t be scared to steal some points off of them. 

Qualifier #7: And with qualifiers for the Gold Cup not finished yet, Canada was drawn with the winner of qualifier #7, which is going to be contested by 4 teams in a quick one-game elimination series between Haiti, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Bermuda and Barbados. 

Without a doubt, Haiti is the overwhelming favourite here, having done so well at the 2019 Gold Cup, so they’ll be the ones to watch if you’re Canada, especially given the recent history between these two teams.  

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines can also be dangerous, as they did beat Trinidad and Tobago in a friendly last year, and also beat Suriname in Nations League play last year, so Canada would have to be wary of them, even if they’d be favourites in a potential matchup. 

Barbados wouldn’t be one to worry about too much, as Canada beat them twice this past January by identical 4-1 scorelines, and that was with their B-team, while Bermuda remains a wild card, having beat Panama and gave Mexico a scare in Nations League A action last year. 

Either way, to win the Gold Cup, you need to beat the best, so if you’re Canada, there’s no point in hoping for a certain team to emerge from these qualifiers. They’re going to get a tough matchup no matter what, so they’ll just need to make sure they’re at their best for whoever it ends up being, and gameplan accordingly. 

Potential Scheduling Crunch does loom: 

But while Canada would feel confident in their chances, assuming that each team has their strongest lineups, no one knows what lies ahead for each country in this case, as a busy set of 2021 fixtures awaits all teams. 

First of all, Canada does have a bunch of World Cup qualifiers to worry about, especially considering that the first round of qualifiers slated to start in October of 2020 was postponed until at least 2021 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Obviously, that was something that CONCACAF was prepared to see happen when they announced their revised World Cup qualifiers plan back in the summer, as they weren’t afraid to announce the postponement of those fall games long before the October window came around. 

With everything already drawn out for those qualifiers, you have to assume they’ll be played one way or another, with the only uncertainty being in where and when they play these games. 

But either way, it sounds like there will be a quadruple matchday in June, be it to have the start of the ‘Octoganal’, the new final round of qualifiers, or the postponed qualifiers, which may just cause everything to get pushed back a window or two. 

(Here is the original schedule, to get an idea of how things look)

When looking at that inevitable double window in June, that opens up an interesting can of worms, especially if you’re Canada, as head coach John Herdman confirmed that his priority was getting his players released for those two windows, with Canada’s main ambition being to focus on World Cup qualifiers. 

Obviously, they also want to focus on the Gold Cup, which starts in July, but it’s unlikely that they’ll have their full roster for that tournament, as most club teams, especially European ones, will want to avoid potentially losing players for all of June and then most of July for National Team duty. 

Therefore, it’s very likely that Canada ends up sending some sort of B team to the Gold Cup, or at least one without some of their star European exports, whose clubs will not want to be playing through all of their offseason, especially with the seasons usually starting back up in late July and early August. 

The MLS players are the interesting ones to watch, as they do have the advantage of being in mid-season form when the tournament happens, but at the same time, you do wonder if teams would be okay with some of their best players missing 2 months of action right in the middle of the season. If the league puts some sort of month long-break as it did in 2019, that does alleviate some of the pain, but it will without a doubt be an intriguing discussion to be had. 

And all of that leaves out the potential of Canada qualifying to the Olympics, which is still a possibility, as they await news about qualifiers, which will probably be held sometime next year. 

If they somehow they make the Olympics, something they haven’t done in over 36 years, that opens up a whole new can of worms, as that tournament would have a significant overlap with the Gold Cup. 

As a U23 tournament (along with the possibility of 3 overagers), not everyone could participate, but you do wonder if some players would prefer a chance to play in a tournament like that, knowing how rare a chance partaking in it would be.  

So with all of that in mind, there’s obviously a lot of questions to answer ahead of the Gold Cup, and that’s without considering the uncertain Olympic question, which even if you leave out, still leaves more queries than responses. 

It’ll be a good test for Canada’s depth, which is certainly much-improved over where it was even just a few years back, but at the same time, it’s still going to take a decent hit considering what awaits them. 

Looking Forward:

But for a Canadian team that hasn’t played a competitive game in over a year, it’ll be good for them to get into a swing of games once again, whenever that ends up being. 

They’ve constantly stated that they want to be among some of the best teams in CONCACAF, and there is no better chance to prove that in 2021, with some big matches awaiting them. 

Be it through World Cup qualifiers, where Canada is favoured to be one of the 3 teams to make the final round, or at the Gold Cup, where Canada will want to end their 21-year drought, as well as their quest to make any sort of dent in Olympic qualifiers, there is a lot for them to play for next year. 

After a 2020 calendar that was wiped out due to the unforeseen circumstances brought about by COVID-19, they have a chance to hit the ground running in 2021, making for a memorable international year. 

So stay tuned for when they do start playing games, whenever that ends up being, as Canada has a lot to prove in the first big steps in their quest towards making the 2022 World Cup. 

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl

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