The bloom may not be exactly off the rose in John Herdman’s tenure as head coach of the Canadian men’s national soccer team, but the honeymoon phase is definitely over as pressure starts to mount heading towards 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying.
The initial optimism felt when Herdman surprisingly took over the men’s team in January 2018, hit a wall at the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament this summer after Canada blew a 2-0 half-time lead in a 3-2 quarter-final loss to Haiti.
To that point, it appeared Herdman had the program heading in the right direction, even if Canada were just beating up on small, developing countries playing in the newly formed CONCACAF Nations League tournament, which continues Sept. 7 against Cuba at BMO Field in Toronto.
Now a spot in the 2022 World Cup to be held in Qatar, looks a long-shot for Canada due in part to the performance at the Gold Cup and a change in how countries are ranked for the qualifying tournament in the region.
“We were originally notified that it was a CONCACAF-rankings table and we were tracking everything and building all our planning on the CONCACAF rankings, and that’s what had originally been presented when the Nations League was formally presented to the member associations,” Herdman said in a conference call with a select group of media outlets Wednesday announcing the squad selection for the game against Cuba. “That changed in July 2019. So we woke up one morning and the rankings table isn’t there anymore, it’s gone. We changed gears, that’s in the past and the future is the future now. We’re focused now on what we can control and what we have to do now to put ourselves in the best position to qualify for the HEX (top-six).”
The new CONCACAF World Cup qualifying system takes the top six teams in the region according to FIFA rankings and pits them in a group to battle it out for three qualifying spots for Qatar. The rest of the teams in the federation are placed into a secondary tournament to battle for a partial qualifying spot awarded to the region.
Currently ranked eighth among CONCACAF countries in the FIFA rankings behind Mexico (12), the United States (22), Costa Rica (44), Jamaica (52), Honduras (67), El Salvador (68) and Panama (74), Canada (78) is destined to play in the lower-seeded group.
If Canada manages to get through the lower-seeded group, they would play a home-and-home series with the fourth-place team from the original group of six. If they get through that, then they would play a home-and-home series with a team from another confederation to get to Qatar.
Herdman said the change in ranking systems took him by surprise. Canada is sixth in the CONCACAF rankings compiled by games against regional opponents.
“I think the first (reaction), the initial announcement caused us a little bit of shock and frustration, you can’t hide from that,” he said. “We committed down a path of Nations League, which involved Nations League ranking points and the matches were super meaningful for Canada, our big players were turning up for matches because they were aware those Nations League ranking points would lead to a path for World Cup qualification.
“Then at the same time we weren’t taking FIFA games in those (international) windows because our priority was to gather those (CONCACAF) ranking points. In June 2019, we were ranked sixth, we closed 20 ranking points on Jamaica and actually put ourselves in World Cup qualification reach with only a year to go. So we were celebrating a pretty successful Nations League campaign and when you see that change, and now it’s FIFA-ranking points and the gap between us and El Salvador is there and Panama and now you have a new focus. We’ve worked out all the math. We’ve looked at how real it is and I think what it’s going to take will be a perfect season from Canada and along the way Panama and El Salvador dropping some points.”
Essentially, Canada’s commitment to the newly formed Nations League, which in reality only benefits small and developing Caribbean countries who get to play higher-ranked opponents, and the lack of friendly matches against better-classed opponents will likely cost them a spot in the HEX and force the men’s national team to take the long road towards World Cup qualifying.
However, considering Canada’s inability to qualify for the HEX in previous World Cup qualifying campaigns, trying to qualify through the back door might be a better option.
In a flawed qualifying system, the seventh-place team in the region will still have a chance to qualify for the World Cup, while the fifth and sixth-ranked teams are left out in the cold.
The downside is, it may keep Canada from playing better opponents and therefore improving.
No disrespect to Cuba, but considering Canada pounded them 7-0 at the Gold Cup in June, they likely won’t present much of a challenge in the Nations League. Or shouldn’t anyway.
“I’m not sure that goal difference will have a massive take on FIFA rankings, but to qualify for the Nations League final four where they are a lot of (FIFA) ranking points available to Canada through that pathway, these matches are absolutely critical,” Herdman said. “We think this Cuba match is important because if we draw both matches against the U.S.A., it’ll come down to goal difference and that goal difference can be the deciding factor if we’re able to get into the Nations League final four.”
On Twitter: @DerekVanDiest
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