It looks like Canadian soccer fans, media and front office staff can put the calculators away. After months spent trying to decipher, tabulate and accumulate FIFA ranking points in an attempt to rise up the Concacaf standings, it appears the artist formerly known as “the Hex” is no more.
Like just about everything else in sports, and the world, qualification for the 2022 World Cup will have to be radically altered in order to be completed in time. This week, we got a better idea of how.
Pre-pandemic, Concacaf had devised a rather bizarre and exclusive qualification format based on ranking points which largely benefited the region’s previously successful sides. The resulting scramble to accumulate said points saw the Canadian men’s national team schedule a number of friendlies, while the team they were chasing, El Salvador, cancelled and altered many of their own.
Instead, the reportedly proposed new format, as shown on ESPN FC, would be simpler. The top 12 teams as ranked in Concacaf (Canada currently sits 7th) would be split into three groups of four. The winners of those groups qualify for the World Cup. The best second place team will play the winner of a tournament featuring teams ranked lower than 12th. The winner of that game will subsequently play in the intercontinental playoff against a yet to be determined (or at least revealed) federation.
Provided this gets approved, and reading between the lines of recent interviews with Concacaf President Victor Montagliani that seems likely, it is big news for the Canadian men’s national team. In fact, few teams stand to benefit as much should this format get approved.
Let’s start with the obvious, these revisions greatly increase Canada’s chances of qualification. Yes, they will almost certainly be drawn into a group with one of Mexico, Costa Rica and the United States. Mexico remains another story, but Canada recently defeated the States for the first time in 34 years, and haven’t lost to Costa Rica since 2013. Had they qualified for the Hex, they would have had to overcome these teams anyway.
Even if they do draw Mexico, that likely means two competitive games against the best team in the region that wouldn’t have previously taken place. Ditto for the games against the United States and teams like Jamaica, Costa Rica and Honduras.
From an experience standpoint, it isn’t perfect as these games could be played in a neutral location like so many other sporting events around the region. They will almost certainly be played at least initially behind closed doors. Not exactly the typical Concacaf away day.
That is both a positive and a negative. Negative, because it won’t build up Concacaf away day experience critical to winning in this region over the long-term. On the other hand, the national team has largely struggled to win matches, especially big ones, outside of Canada is recent years. Removing crowds would take out a significant advantage many Central American countries have always held.
A smaller and shorter format like this is also more conducive to upsets. One big result against a “Pot A” team in qualifiers (Mexico, US, Costa Rica) and all of the sudden World Cup qualification becomes a real possibility. It does mean no slip ups, which this Canadian team have had more than a couple in recent years.
Exactly how fortunate of a bounce this is for Canada depends of course first and foremost on whether or not the proposal actually gets picked up. The quality of Canada’s group is another potential roadblock.
But if this format is approved, it will be the first time Canada has reached the final round of Concacaf qualifying since 1998. With the amount of talent the team currently has, they will have a massive opportunity to finally return to the world stage.