1st place or bust: Why Canada needs to top the US in Group A ahead of World Cup Qualifying

What does Friday’s Canada versus USA match mean for what happens next in CONCACAF?

As any Canadian soccer supporter would do following Friday’s match against the US, we know you’ll be rushing to BTS to find out what it all really means.

Well for this one, folks, we’re ahead of the game. The last month has been a very exciting one for soccer aficionados in this country. Yet, the way this rematch with the southern neighbours goes could determine what the next eight months might look like. Here’s how:

“We believe that we can qualify for the Concacaf Hex and that’s all that matters to us at this stage”

John Herdman

John Herdman has made it clear that Canada’s unique focus until next summer is to make it to Concacaf’s main World Cup Qualifying event – the Hex. That means being among Concacaf’s top 6 ranked nations in June 2020. That is all determined by FIFA points.

Every match played earns points, but some count for more. For example, the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup qualifying matches each count for 2.5 times as much as a friendly match.

This brings us back to Friday. If Canada is to pull off a victory, they will gain a whopping 17 points. However, if this same fixture was counted as a friendly, Canada would only get 7 points. What this shows is that if there are to be any significant changes to the rankings of any Concacaf member, they will be made in official competitions, namely the Nations League and Gold Cup qualifying.

Of course, there are also Nations League implications in this US clash. A draw or win would send Canada through to final round as group winners. A loss, however, would leave the US with the best chance of taking that spot. Yes, it would be nice to make it to the Nations League finals, but if you’re John Herdman, and for some reason you don’t really care about the Nations League, there’s a whole different meaning to it when you add in the knockout stages.

Playing in the Nations League finals in June 2020 means more competitive matches. If they are considered elimination matches (they were in UEFA’s version), then losses are scrapped from the point tally. If this rule is in place, as expected, then making the last four guarantees not losing any points, and provides another opportunity to rack up a bunch more.

Canada isn’t the only factor in all of this. And when we consider the other teams vying for a spot in the Hexagonal, we must also talk about Gold Cup Qualifying. Concacaf announced, the day before the start of the Nations League, that the Nations League would count towards 2021 Gold Cup qualifying. After the Nations League group stage, the last placed finisher from each group in League A, the runner up from each group in League B and the winners of each League C group will advance to play in two to four matches of Gold Cup qualifiers.

Here’s a visual:

For Canada, currently hanging on to the sixth spot in Concacaf by only three points, that spells potential danger. Let’s take a look at the situation for the countries trying to catch them:

El Salvador – 7th: El Salvador, surprisingly, is playing in league B. They are favourites to win their group, which would send them straight to the Gold Cup, bypassing qualification. However, if some results don’t go their way they could finish second in their group and get placed in the first round of qualifiers, meaning up to four competitive matches. While the countries they would be playing wouldn’t be the highest ranked, it may still be the best way for them to amass points. An interesting situation altogether… No matter what happens, given that they sit only three points off Canada at the moment, this is most likely the country The Reds will be keeping their eye on closest until next June.

Curaçao – 8th: Curaçao is in League A, like Canada, but in group D with Costa Rica and Haiti. It is a group that remains up in the air, meaning that the Caribbean nation could still finish first, second, or third. From a Canadian perspective, the ideal is that Curacao lose to Costa Rica and end up second in the group, but really, as long as they don’t make it to the Nations League finals, it will be danger averted. Either way, it is definitely a group to follow this window.

Panama – 9th: Panama is a little further back in the race for the ‘Hex’, 29 points off Canada, so they would probably need to make it to the Nations League Finals through group B of League A if they are to have a chance at finishing top 6. To get there, they must beat Mexico this Friday and have Bermuda do the same, unlikely events altogether. Barring some major upsets, or big losses from Canada, Panama isn’t much of a concern to the Canucks.

Haïti – 9th: Haiti are really in need of a miracle if they want to get into the top six for next summer. That would have to start with results going perfectly for them in League A, group D, shared with Costa Rica and Curaçao.

This is looking at things conservatively. Points can also be dropped from matches, and competitive matches means that there can be major losses, just as much as there can be gains.

Honduras is the only country Canada has a chance of surpassing, although it is unlikely, as they have clinched the first spot in the Nations League semi-finals.

For those keen on following how this November international window unfolds for Canada, check out Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic’s key CONCACAF matches to watch this window.

And what about Canada? Well, Les Rouges don’t have a chance of playing in Gold Cup Qualifiers, since they were the first team qualified! So, to keep control of their destiny while other nations do their thing, the only real option is to make it to the Nations League by topping their group. As I mentioned earlier, that would require a win or draw against the United States, or getting lucky. If Canada loses, then the group would be decided when the US plays Cuba in the Cayman Islands. The US would have to beat Cuba, which would be the expected outcome given the rough start to the campaign from Cuba this fall.

So, finally, if any points are brought back from Orlando, it’s job done and Canada is in the driver’s seat in regard to its hopes of the Hex. A loss and a second-place finish in the group, however, would eliminate them from any official competition. It would put everything in the hands of their competitors and Canadian soccer supporters back into an all too familiar state of wishful thinking.

It’s Nations League finals or bust time for Canada, and that comes down to this match versus the US in Orlando. 

Up Next: Canada vs USA, Friday, November 15th, 2019, 16:00 PST, 19:00 EST (Exploria Stadium, Orlando)

Cover Photo: Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl

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