New Road: Analyzing how a 12 team final round could affect CanMNT’s chances in 2022 World Cup qualifying

While COVID-19 has certainly thrown a wrench into things, there’s no doubt that this CONCACAF World Cup qualifying cycle has already been a long and complicated process, with each month seeming to bring a new story. So with the latest news out of the region suggesting that the newest change could be a doubling of the teams in the final round, we look at how that affects Canada’s chances at World Cup qualification, with Les Rouges looking likely to benefit from the proposed change. 

Slowly but surely, club football has finally started to make a triumphant return across various continents. 

After a surprise hiatus due to the global outbreak of COVID-19, some leagues that had been temporarily pushed to the backburner have started to return, with 4 of Europe’s “Big 5” leagues leading the way in that regard. 

As for fans of international football, however, their wait may have to go on for much longer, with the domestic leagues and continental governing bodies still miles away in terms of finding solutions, solutions that will return the global footballing calendar to what we previously knew to be normal. 

While that state of limbo is particularly influential on the future of upcoming tournaments such as the 2020(1) European Championships, 2020(1) Copa America, 2021 AFCON and 2021 Gold Cup, the big fish that many are surely wondering about is the 2022 World Cup, of which many teams have already begun the long and arduous process towards qualifying for. 

Take a look at Asia or Africa, for example, with both regions having started qualifying nearly a year ago, pushing themselves down a long road that would have culminated with a crescendo not long before the 2022 tournament, completing a lengthy and gruelling process. 

You contrast that with other places such as Europe or South America, two regions that haven’t started their qualifying (in the case of South America, they would have by now, to be fair), and it’s clear that the international footballing calendar is going to need some reworking when this is all over. 

But then there’s the case of CONCACAF. The North American region may be the confederation with the most question marks on their hands, due to a new split format that was supposed to see teams put down two different paths starting this fall, with 6 teams heading immediately to the ‘Hexagonal’, the region’s famed final round, while the other 29 teams found themselves supposed to fight their way towards a half spot through a grinding tournament format. 

As a result of this pandemic, however, all of that is in limbo now, with there unlikely to be enough time to complete the current format as planned, at least without any reform to how matchdays work in international football. 

It’s not all doom and gloom, though, as this may prove to be a blessing in disguise for the region, whose format was already heavily criticized for the favouritism it showed to a top 6 that wasn’t really reflective of the changing order of teams in the region. While it was a system that has worked in the past, with early-round qualifiers often just proving to be an exercise in training for most of the top 8 teams, CONCACAF’s had a handful of heavily improved teams over the past few years, leading to calls for a change to the format. 

And luckily for many, including Canada Soccer, who would have been on the outside looking in had the current format gone through as planned, change is coming. As we saw last month, CONCACAF was floating around potential changes, and now, thanks to reporting from Yahoo Sports, it appears that change is upon us. 

The proposition:

According to Yahoo, the idea that CONCACAF is floating around is a 12 team final round, doubling the current number of final teams from 6. Those 12 teams would be split into 3 groups of 4, with each of the group winners guaranteeing themselves passage to the 2022 World Cup, with CONCACAF having 3 guaranteed spots in that tournament. 

After that, things would get interesting, especially as it pertains to the other 23 teams. According to Montagliani on last months’ appearance on OneSoccer, he wants to keep them all involved no matter what, so that should keep the ‘Gauntlet’ around, albeit in a modified format, one that likely has each team playing way fewer games. 

But with there still being the questions of that one half-spot at stake, it will be interesting to see how CONCACAF allocates it, especially with this likely change to the groups. Under the other format, the 4th placed team in the ‘Hex’ played the winner of the gauntlet in a 2-legged tie, with the winner heading to the intercontinental playoff. 

Now, with there being the 3 smaller groups, instead of 1 big one, there are a couple of potential options in order to allocate that half spot. For example, the best 2nd placed team of the 3 groups could just play the winner of the gauntlet, which could keep simplicity while sticking to the integrity of the old format. 

If not, another option could be a quick 4 team knockout stage, where the three 2nd placed teams from the final round would find themselves seeded from 1 to 3, with the winner of the gauntlet finding themselves as the 4th placed team. From there, they could play 1 semi-final (1v4, 2v3), and then a final, with the winner heading to the intercontinental playoff. 

But either way, time is likely to be the biggest enemy, with the number of available international windows expected to be limited. That is why this 12 team, 3 group idea has become so popular, as it will only require six games, which under the current international format, will only take 3 windows to complete. 

Depending on when international soccer returns, which could maybe be as early as late 2020, or as late as mid-2021, that could either leave things jam-packed or give them plenty of leeway, but in either scenario, 3 windows should be plenty.  

So how does this affect the CANMNT?

While any expansion to the final round helps Canada, who is currently ranked 7th amongst CONCACAF teams in the latest FIFA rankings, a 12 team may be their best hope to reach 2022, bar maybe an 8 team, 2 group split. 

In this format, as long as they avoid Mexico, they should fancy their chances to top any given group, especially given their massive 2019 win over the current 2nd-ranked team in CONCACAF, the US. 

Despite many shortcomings in recent CONCACAF tournaments, such as the 2019 Gold Cup, Canada has shown to at least have the capacity to beat everyone in the region except Mexico, which to be fair to the rest of CONCACAF, has only been something that the Americans can lay claim to being able to do right now. 

So provided that they dodge that strong Mexican side, they should fancy their chances in this format. While it may be tough to see them winning all 6 games, especially considering their weaker away record in recent qualifying terms, they should be expected to win their games at home, which boosts their chances to advance quite massively, provided they snatch a result or two away from home, as well. 

If anything, this format hurts the current top six the most, especially the likes of El Salvador and Honduras, who have definitely shown that they are not the same sides that caused nightmares to teams in qualifying past, exemplified by their poor performances at last summer’s Gold Cup, where they finished 4th and 3rd in Group C, respectively. 

On the flip side, teams such as Canada, Curacao and Haiti, some of CONCACAF’s brightest risers, may stand to benefit from this, as they would have been left to fight it out amongst each other for that half-spot in the old format. Under this format, however, they can have dreams of 2022 once again, depending on which way the draw crumbles, of course.

Canada’s starters look on during the Canadian National Anthem ahead of an October 2019 Nations League clash with the US (Martin Bayzl/Canada Soccer)

So what could a draw look like?

But while a potential draw would be a while away from occurring, we can still get an idea of how things would shape up, based on the latest FIFA rankings. 

Given that there would be 3 groups of 4, this would likely see teams split into 4 pots of 3 teams, from which teams would be drawn. 

So based on where things stand today, that would see teams seeded like this. 

POT A: Mexico, USA, Costa Rica

POT B: Jamaica, Honduras, El Salvador

POT C: CANADA, Curacao, Panama

POT D: Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda

When we look at that, a few things stand out, especially from a Canadian perspective. 

Pot A: Avoid Mexico

Pretty self-explanatory. Until proven otherwise, there is no other team in CONCACAF that has shown to be able and keep up with Mexico, so in a group of 4 teams where only 1 team is guaranteed to go to the World Cup, drawing them would be a huge disappointment. 

After that, it’s a pair of interesting teams in the US and Costa Rica, both usual heavyweights that have fallen on tough times recently. 

In the case of the US, their struggles resulted in them missing out on the 2018 World Cup, whereas Costa Rica’s pain has only come about in the last year or so, as they only finished 2nd behind Haiti in their 2019 Gold Cup group, before falling in the quarter-finals to Mexico, before only narrowly etching past Curacao and Haiti in Nations League A play with 1 win and 3 draws over 3 games in the fall. 

And considering that Canada recently beat the US last year, and the fact that Costa Rica’s ageing backline provides tantalizing pickings for their speedy frontline, Canada’s chances of qualifying go up infinitely compared to if they were to find themselves with Mexico, which is why they’ll have their fingers crossed in order to help avoid El Tri in any potential draw.

Verdict: Keep away from Mexico, the US isn’t the end of the world, and Costa Rica could be fun

Pot B: Sleeping Giants

In Pot B, things are a lot more even, with the order of hierarchy being Jamaica at the top, Honduras in the middle, and El Salvador at the bottom. 

With Jamaica, Canada would find themselves matched up with one of CONCACAF’s rising stars, as the Reggae Boyz have firmly established themselves as one of the teams to watch in the region. 

Lined with a tricky assortment of forwards, a solid midfield spine and a veteran defence, they’ve got the mettle to hang with any team, which is why Canada would prefer to avoid them, if possible. That’s not to say that Canada couldn’t hang with them, which is certainly not the case, but if they were to play each other, a high-scoring affair wouldn’t be out of the question. 

After them, things are wide open. Honduras would be the team to avoid based on history, as their stadium in San Pedro Sula is among the most feared venues in the region, as Canada can attest to, whereas El Salvador would be the preferred option, with their recent form suggesting a team on the decline. 

That’s not to say there’s an easy choice amongst the three teams, as all of these sides have particularly intimidating home venues, but among these 3, Jamaica’s the fun option, Honduras is the bogeyman and El Salvador is the ones that would line up best with Canada. 

Verdict: Jamaica’s the fun option, Honduras offers a chance of redemption, and El Salvador is likely Canada’s best option

Pot D: Haiti, the sleeping giants

In Pot D, Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago are the teams to keep an eye out for, with Haiti being a young side that certainly plays better than what their ranking suggests, while T&T is a historically strong side that has proven to be plucky in qualifiers past. 

As Canada famously saw during last summer’s Gold Cup, when Haiti beat them in the quarter-finals of that tournament, coming back from down 2-0 to shock the Canadians, Haiti is probably the ones to avoid, as they would provide Les Rouges with a pair of tough matchups not expected from a typical pot 4 team. 

That’s not to say getting drawn with them is a bad thing, either, as a chance to avenge that big loss would surely be sufficient motivation for several of the players, but in a World Cup qualifying campaign, fine margins are everything, so it wouldn’t hurt to avoid them. 

After them, Trinidad and Tobago is the tough one to gauge. They’re a historically strong side, but they’ve fallen off hard since the 2018 cycle, as shown by their performances in the 2019 Gold Cup and Nations League A, where they got only a combined 3 points from 7 games against top opposition (3 draws/4 losses). 

They’re not a team to take likely, especially away from home (just ask that 2017 US side), but they’d definitely be a team that Canada would match up well against, as their offensive power would likely be expected to carry them to victory in both matches. 

And after that, Antigua and Barbuda is the biggest wild card, as they wouldn’t be expected to offer much, which is probably going to be their biggest strength. You’d expect Canada to win against them, especially in Canada, but you never know what could happen away from home in this region, which could make them unpredictable as opponents.

Verdict: Haiti is a chance at redemption, T&T matches up well, and Antigua&Barbuda is the side everyone is hoping for

Looking Forward:

All in all, it should be interesting to see how things line up for both Canada and their CONCACAF counterparts, who will all have their own reasons to keep a close eye on proceedings in this regard. 

For Canada, in particular, this could be the silver lining that they were hoping for, saving them from the pain that the other format was likely to offer them. While it’s not a format that will guarantee them qualifying, per se (there is no format that does so, to be fair), it’s one that sits them at the table that is the final round, of which they haven’t had a chance to do in this millennium. 

From there, their chances will be decided by how they perform on the field, which based on how things can go in this region, is sure to be interesting. 

But after looking likely to miss out based on a FIFA Rankings vs CONCACAF Rankings snafu that occurred off the pitch, the fact that they get to do just that, perform on the field, is a positive step. 

While it’s not a perfect solution, as 23 other teams will have to start at a disadvantage based on their current FIFA rankings, it’s a temporary solution that at least better reflects the changing order of teams in the region.

And then after that, hopefully they can find a format for 2022 that is fair to all 35 teams, as qualifiers should be. Obviously, for certain reasons, that wasn’t possible this time, but with the successful implementation of the CONCACAF Nations League now completed, it’s a problem that should be avoided next time around. 

So for now, it should allow us to enjoy this format from both a neutral standpoint, as it should be entertaining, and from a Canadian standpoint, as it should give the Canadians one of their best chances at making the big dance in over 20 years. 

It’s the latest sharp turn in a long series of winding blows in this road to 2022, but such is life in CONCACAF, so all one can do is absorb the blows as they come, and prepare for an arduous sprint towards the finish line. 

Cover Photo by: Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl

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