Hello Darkness my old friend....
It seems that time has come again. No one wanted it; one cannot really brace for it, but for the fifth-straight qualification cycle, Canada has failed to reach the final stage, the Hex, that determines who will represent CONCACAF at the quadrennial celebration of football: the World Cup.
It would be wrong to say that this turn of events was not expected. But with each new cycle comes a fresh bout of hope... that this will be the time Canada shirks off the short-comings, overcomes the weight of time, and moves on to that final grouping.
Of course, the goal should be the cup itself. But Canada is a nation, in the footballing sense, that cannot take anything for granted. Cannot look beyond the present, lest inattention lead to error. Every step along the way is fraught with peril, even the most circumspect of matches can prove the downfall.
Take this cycle for example.
Every astute observer knew that the matches against Mexico would be fruitless. And given the tragedies of the past, the date circled on the calendar was the away trip to Honduras.
But in the end, it was that overlooked match in to El Salvador that proved the downfall.
El Salvador, shorn of much of their starting side by a strike, managed to hold firm, and Canada were content – perhaps too content – to settle for a point on the road, having begun the campaign with a tight 1-0 win over Honduras in the group opener.
A scoreless draw, in and of itself, is rarely a bad result. But the lesson from the 2014 cycle should have been plain: leaving points on the table that were there for the taking is prelude to disaster.
Back in June of 2012 the circumstances were different of course: Canada were at home and Honduras were the opponent; but it too was the second of the six match stage and the Canadians were coming off a solid start, having won 1-0 in Cuba.
That splitting of points set up that do-or-die match in Honduras on the final match-day. And no one can forget how that one ended.
Canada would end up one point shy of qualification – simple maths implies that were those two not dropped at home, it would have been a very different outcome. That loss in Honduras would not even have mattered.
Despite the disappointing outcome, there were plenty of positives to be gleaned from this cycle.
The side was a different animal defensively, coach Benito Floro has made them organized and difficult to beat. Mexico aside, they conceded just three goals in four matches – that is the sort of foundation upon which success is built, just have a look at what Toronto FC has done this season as further proof.
Floro brought on some new talent at both ends of the pitch, while expanding the player pool with his willingness to think outside the box for answers.
Manjrekar James looks a persistent threat from corner kicks – set-pieces being a weapon that Canada must exploit to succeed – and is lightning quick, though the occasional defensive frailty exists, and Steven Vitoria brings invaluable experience to the group. While several exciting attacking players – Cyle Larin, Junior Hoilett, Scott Arfield, and Tesho Akindele, to name a few – will be the basis of future forward momentum.
And Canada did well enough in San Pedro Sula, losing just 2-1 was an improvement, even if the way the match played out – scoring first only to crumble – was frustrating. Competing with the Hondurans on their home turf is never easy.
But it is clear that the downfall came with a reticence to take the risks required to score goals. The old adage 'goals win games', comes to mind once again.
That hesitation was on display in El Salvador and in both matches against Honduras.
A more forceful result than 1-0 over Honduras at home, showing the impetus to grab a second goal when away, which may have been enough to earn a draw, and/or a win in that match in El Salvador would have made the requirements of the final day all that much more imaginable or rendered such scenario pondering moot. The two extra points in El Salvador, given how the group concluded, would have seen Canada through.
It could be argued that dropping five goals to Mexico made the gap heading into the final round insurmountable, necessitating a five-plus goal swing, but imagine if Canada had won by more at home over Honduras or by a goal or two in El Salvador. That would have reduced the required goals to a manageable figure for Tuesday, if not alleviating the requirement altogether.
Honduras' 0-0 draw in Mexico on the final day obviously altered the calculations, but the concept is sound.
There is a reason why the Hex holds such an allure, even if it falls short of the cup itself.
Progression to what is officially known as the CONCACAF Fifth Round comes with ten more matches against the region's best.
Over the next year, Canada would have had home-and-away matches against the top sides in CONCACAF: the USA, Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, and Trinidad & Tobago. Those ten matches keep the momentum going, amongst both the squad and the fanbase. It keeps the Canadian Men's National Team in the conversation.
Those games would garner attention. And even if Canada were to lose every single one, some of them badly, the experience would serve the side well for the next cycle and beyond.
It is a shame that once more a premature end is the fate. Just as the program inches forward, it goes into stasis.
The question that must now be asked, with years of relative inactivity ahead, is: was this enough progress? Or should it all be torn down and started anew, under a different manager?
There will be plenty of time to reflect on that. There is a Gold Cup next summer and, barring any changes to the system, Canada will kick off the qualifying campaign for 2022 in 2019. That seems so far away...
Until then, only silence awaits, or maybe a random camp in some place or another, with a friendly or two against some other also-rans.
Please leave your questions and comments in the section below and the WTR staff will respond in kind