Forget 2014 and 2018, and with 2022 far in the distance, there's a new target for Canada's mens' national team: 2016.
CONMEBOL announced yesterday that to celebrate their centennial, they will host a special version of their Copa America tournament in 2016 in the United States. 16 teams will be invited: all 10 members of CONMEBOL, along with six invitees with CONCACAF. the US and Mexico are automatic invitees, while the remaining four slots in CONCACAF will be given to the four best performances at the 2015 Gold Cup.
It's not the World Cup, but it's still a pretty big deal: behind UEFA's Euro, the Copa America is perhaps the second most prestigious continental football tournament in the world. To be invited to such a tournament would mean rubbing shoulders with some of the top names and countries in world football, and to have it take place next door in the USA is just the icing on the cake. The question then becomes: Can Canada get to this stage?
The last time Canada had a chance to play in CONMEBOL's premiere tournament, it was 2001, shortly after we had won the Gold Cup -- however, due to security reasons within the host country Colombia, it was canceled. But when it was suddenly re-instated, the Canadians had already disbanded their training camp, and in turn missed an excellent opportunity to play on the Americas' biggest stage. Honduras, invited in Canada's place, went on to finish third in that tournament.
We may have missed a filip ten years ago purely by the fates, but this is one chance that we cannot miss again. Granted, most of the players that were involved in the current World Cup qualifying cycle will likely not be part of the 2015 Canadian Gold Cup team, and that could hurt our chances -- but Simeon Jackson and Tosaint Ricketts will have had three years to develop further as footballers, along with the likes of Ashtone Morgan, Will Johnson, Dejan Jakovic and David Edgar.
But the key will likely be Lucas Cavallini, who plies his trade in South America. If we get there, we will have someone who has at least some knowledge of the region. Plus, he will also have had more time to develop his footballing skills, to help navigate the tricky Gold Cup a little easier.
The path to 2016 certainly won't be easy: with Mexico and the USA already given the first two slots, competition will be fierce to qualify for the remaining four. Most assumptions (based on recent results) have both those countries vying in the final, which usually means a semi-final berth in 2015 will be enough to win Canada a golden ticket -- but given the fact that we have not made a Gold Cup semi-finals since 2007, and with 2013 looking a bit dicey given the recent thrashing at Honduran hands, A semi-final berth in 2015 is not a gimme.
Relying on trying to be the two best quarterfinalists is another gamble that Canada has recently lost on, just a year before while trying to qualify for the Gold Cup's knockout stages. We gambled on beating Panama in the final group match (after letting minnows Guadelope off easy with a 1-0 thrashing), and ended up drawing instead -- so that's not a path for us either.
So what does Canada need to do? For one, get the best squad possible ready for 2015. 2013 could probably be considered as a write-off, given the age of the squad and with no distinctive prizes available to claim. That tournament would be a good time to cap the players that could help in 2015, and perhaps make the case to those still dawdling (and also to put them through the trenches where they can prove their loyalty to Canada -- I'm looking at you, Jonathan de Guzman, Steven Vitoria and Junior Hoilett). Then, when 2015 comes, with the best squad possible, go all out to claim a slot in 2016.
Some of you might argue that 2016 is a meaningless tournament, and that it will never rival what a World Cup could mean -- but given our current status, and the bleak near future, the 2016 Copa America Centenario is probably the most meaningful tournament to not only to restore Canadian faith in the national team, a faith so broken after the promises of 2014, while at the same time get the rare opportunity to hobnob with some of the biggest names in world soccer at the same time?
I'm not disputing the fact that we'll likely be blown out by those teams, but even a mildly successful 2016 (ergo, not being totally embarrassed) could well serve as a springboard to better results for 2018 or 2022. And who can argue with that?
Mission 2016: it's actually possible -- so let's go for it, Canada.