Last night CONCACAF held the draw for the first two rounds of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, set to take place in Russia, determining the initial stages of the regional competition, which will begin in March with the first round of matches.
Entering the competition in the second round, Canada will face the winner of Match Two, a two-legged affair that will see the British Virgin Islands and Dominica meet in a home-and-away series – Canada will take on their opponent in June of 2015, between the 8th and the 16th of that month.
Canada just missed a bye to the third round, as CONCACAF used the August 2014 FIFA rankings to determine placement – it was explained that as they were the first standings after the 2014 World Cup, it was a fitting starting point for the 2018 rendition. Ranked at 122 in the world and in ninth place in the region, Canada was a full five FIFA spots behind eighth-ranked Haiti, who will join Jamaica in entering the competition at that later stage.
In an altogether more professional setup, aside from a slight delay to the start of the draw, CONCACAF also made clear that the format of the upcoming edition of the qualification would see some slight tweaks: adding two extra rounds of head-to-head competitions and removing one of the group stages to stretch the process from four rounds to five, while maintaining the signature Hex that determines the final composition of CONCACAF's representation to the FIFA tournament.
The fourteen lowest ranked teams (22 – 35) will begin in the First Round, with the seven winners of those two-legged series moving onto the Second, where they will be joined by the next thirteen sides (9 – 21) for another head-to-head round of ten matches.
The ten winners will then be joined to two further nations (those ranked 7 and 8) for the Third Round, yet another session of two-legged series, resulting in six candidates moving on to the first group stage, or the Fourth Round, where they will be joined by the remaining top ranked sides (1 – 6) to be divided into three groups of four, who will then partake in a round robin tournament, with the three group winners and three runners-up moving on to the Fifth and final round of qualification.
Those top six sides, in order as per the August 2014 rankings, are Costa Rica, Mexico, United States, Honduras, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago.
The dreaded Hex will see the remaining six sides engage in a second group stage, each playing the others home and away, to determine who will take part in the World Cup; the number of spots available will depend on how they are distributed amongst the various regions. In recent years, CONCACAF has had three and a half spots, with the top three moving straight to the Finals and another side destined for an intercontinental playoff to determine their fate – Mexico progressed through Oceania representative, New Zealand, for the 2014 tournament – but given the success at the 2014 Brazil World Cup, CONCACAF has been lobbying for more, perhaps transforming that fourth spot officially a guaranteed one.
By way of comparison, in 2014 Qualifying, a single round of straight elimination series fed into three subsequent group stages.
The downside for the lower ranked teams – recall Canada topped a group composed of Puerto Rico, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Saint Lucia in the second round last time – is that with the elimination of that first group stage, they will have far fewer matches to find their feet. Should they fail to progress through the second round, they will have a maximum of four games, half the amount to reach the same point last time. While cost effective, it does little to progress programs when the sides rarely get the chance to get together and play.
For the heavyweights of the region, they will be required to play the same number of matches – sixteen – while Canada's path to the World Cup has been reduced by two (from 22 to 20).
The road to Russia for Canada begins in June, their opponent for that second round will become clear in March; how far they will progress this time is yet to be determined. Coach Benito Floro has spent much of the last two years plumbing the depths of the player pool to suss out his squad for the upcoming qualification, but has he found the right pieces to see Canada reach the Hex and beyond?