Congestion Conundrum: Looking at the potential impact of CanMNT’s busy World Cup qualifying schedule

While there is no doubt that CONCACAF’s new World Cup qualifying format is good for Canada’s Men’s National Team, it has also created an interesting slate of questions concerning potential fixture congestion and fatigue woes. In this piece, we look at how that may impact the next year or so worth of games for the CanMNT, who may have to rely on the help of some fresh faces to get them to the Octo for this cycle. 

Upon first glance, it appears to be a very good solution. 

Without a doubt, CONCACAF’s new Men’s World Cup qualifying format, which was officially unveiled last week, is a great chance for Canada’s Men’s National Team to make some noise this World Cup cycle. 

After failing to make the final 6-team round of their region’s qualifiers, which was formally known as the ‘Hex’, since 1998, Canada now has a glorious opportunity to make the ‘Octo’, a new and expanded 8-team final round, which was officially unveiled last week by CONCACAF. 

It won’t be easy to make the Octo, as Canada will have to go through 6 gruelling games against tough opposition in order to make it there, but considering the alternative 2022 format, which would’ve likely seen Canada fight 29 other teams in a dozen game slog just for a playoff spot, this new format will have the CanMNT feeling a little more optimistic about their chances. 

At the same time, this sets up an interesting international football calendar for Canada going forward, as their schedule for the next 2 years just got a lot more jam-packed, starting this fall. 

With qualifiers starting later this year in October, it’ll be a non-stop sprint from then on to the finish line in 2022, when the qualifiers will wrap up with the end of the Octo in March, and the intercontinental playoff in June. 

If Canada makes it to the Octo, that’ll mean at least 20 competitive qualifying games between now and then, which along with next year’s Gold Cup, of which they’ve already qualified for, could see them playing somewhere between 23 and 27 competitive FIFA games in the next 22 or so months. 

Depending on if they find a way to play a friendly in September of 2020 or not, as that window remains empty, but also up in the air due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which still also poses a threat on the October 2020 WC qualifying start date, there won’t be much time for preparation ahead of then.

While that October date is unlikely to be postponed, with CONCACAF committing themselves to start on time, hence the intricate announcement last week, if all of these games go ahead as planned, it promises to be a busy time for the CanMNT and its players, starting this fall.

The depth question:

As a result of that fixture congestion, Canada’s depth is about to get a big test, which considering how much they’ve come along in that department in recent years, it’ll either confirm or deny the validity of that supposed depth many have talked about. 

There’s no doubt that the depth exists, as we found out in our 3-part series from back in May, in which we looked at their defensive, midfield and offensive depth ahead of this qualifying cycle, but in a congested cycle like this, we’ll truly see it sink or swim, especially given Canada’s daunting qualifying task. 

And when you consider the future health of some of their players, their depth is going to have to shine right from the get-go, starting this October. 

Think of Alphonso Davies and Atiba Hutchinson, the first being Canada’s future big star, and the latter being arguably Canada’s biggest-ever male star, as examples of how Canada’s squads may be impacted by this congestion.  

Davies has established himself as a pillar of the FC Bayern defensive line, playing nearly every game for them in their romp to the Bundesliga and DFB Pokal double after the restart, in which Bayern had to play games every 2 or 3 days to make up for the COVID-19 postponements. 

While he’s young, and Bayern’s sports science staff have made sure to ensure his well-being ahead of each match, even keeping him out of one game for precautionary reasons, it appears that this sort of congestion will be part of the European game until at least 2021, when all leagues will have caught up the lost games from earlier this year. 

If Davies is playing every few days in the Bundesliga, DFB Pokal and UEFA Champions League this fall, it’s hard to imagine him flying over the Atlantic in October and going 180 minutes in 5 days against CONCACAF minnows such as the US Virgin Islands and St.Lucia, for example. 

It would be a very risky proposition, one that Bayern would surely not want to agree to, and one that could also impact Canada in the longer term, especially if Davies were to pick up an overuse injury. 

No doubt, Bayern won’t get in the way of Davies representing his country, especially considering what it means for him, but they’ll still be cautious with their youngster, possibly working on Canada for a minutes cap or something of the like, allowing him to play and bond with his teammates, while not pushing himself to the limit in terms of travel and strain. 

And that’s just Davies, who’s young and could theoretically get away with this sort of game load. 

When you look at the case of Hutchinson, the 37-year-old ageless wonder who continues to get better each year for Besiktas, and you can see how things may start to get interesting for Canada. 

Considering that Hutchinson missed the first few months of the Besiktas season last year, as they slowly eased him back into the fold after he represented Canada during the 2019 Gold Cup, robbing him of a proper offseason, it’s hard to see him returning to the Canadian fold until 2021, as he has yet to accept call-up for Canada since that aforementioned 2019 Gold Cup. 

While some may think that he’s retired, he certainly isn’t, as A) when he does, we’ll know about it, and B) John Herdman has told reporters that Hutchinson still communicates with him and is part of his plans, but at the same time, we’ll see lots of caution surrounding his situation. 

Thanks to the pandemic break, he’s fresh once again, but given how congested Besiktas’ fixtures list will be until 2021, it’s hard to see him returning to the fold until at least June of 2021, when the Octo kicks off, provided Canada makes it that far. 

And even then, he’ll probably have to skip out on the Gold Cup later that summer, as he’ll surely want to keep himself fresh for the 2021-2022 Besiktas season, provided he’s still with them then. 

Those are just the cases of 2 players, but the exercise remains similar for players such as Steven Vitoria, Junior Hoilett, Stephen Eustaquio and some of the other Canadians who are playing in Europe, who have and will continue to face a busy fixture list for the next 8 to 12 months. 

Domestic players are going to be key to fast start:

CanMNT players in North America, such as Samuel Piette, pictured here, are going to be huge for Canada this fall (Canada Soccer/Liza Rozales)

That’s not to say that players from Europe will opt-out of CanMNT call-ups, at least aside from Hutchinson, whose case is understandable, but it’ll certainly create a reliance on domestic players for the first 6 games of qualifying, in which the team will look to use as a springboard towards the Octo. 

Due to the reduced travel that they’ll face in order to go to these CONCACAF destinations, both home and away, the likes of Mark Anthony Kaye, Samuel Piette, Derek Cornelius, Maxime Crepeau, Jonathan Osorio and Lucas Cavallini will be huge for Canada, provided they’re both fit and playing for their clubs when the call-ups come in. 

That last caveat mostly applies to Crepeau, who will be out injured for a few more weeks with a thumb injury sustained at MLS is Back, and Cavallini, who has so far opted out of all MLS return to play plans, but if they’re both playing by October, they’ll be huge for Canada in those games. 

While the MLS players have to face a lot of travel within the league itself, compounding what is expected to be a congested schedule, given that they’ll avoid some of the 12 to 24-hour travel nightmares that their European cohorts sometimes face for CONCACAF games, they’ll be key for Canada until the fixture congestion calms down on both sides of the Atlantic. 

At the very least, some of the travel in North America will be reduced, as MLS teams will only play within their own conference until the playoffs, avoiding too much cross-country travel. 

To look on the bright side, they’re not the only CONCACAF country facing this problem for qualifiers this fall, so it’s not like they’ll be alone in this plight in the road towards the Octo. 

And hopefully, the 5 substitutes rule is put into place for qualifiers, helping offset this fixture congestion and potential fatigue worries, giving Canada a chance to use their depth, especially that of their players on this side of the Atlantic, giving them a leg up on fellow Round 1 and 2 CONCACAF teams. 

If they’re going to push through those first 2 rounds and make it to the Octo, depth is going to be the name of the game, especially if they want to keep everyone healthy for that final round. 

While they also have to make it that far first, which will require a best lineup/rest balancing act, that’s all just part of the current international footballing landscape, which has certainly taken a big hit as the result of this pandemic. 

The Gold Cup and Olympic question:

But if Canada indeed makes it to the Octo, there is one big question to ponder, and that is: what to do with the 2021 Gold Cup?

On one hand, this is as good of a chance as any for them to win their 2nd ever Gold Cup, but on the other hand, if they’re right in the middle of the Octo, will they want to sacrifice their already-tired best players to get that done?

As a result, it may be prudent for Canada to send a B-team to that summer’s tournament, saving their players for the many huge matches that would await them in the Octo. 

It’s not a new approach, as the likes of the US, Mexico and Costa Rica tend to usually send B-teams, World Cup qualifiers or not, and Panama actually used the tactic in 2017 to help boost their eventual qualification to the 2018 World Cup. 

That’s not to say that Canada should send a complete B-team, as some of their youngsters who already get minutes could use the experience, but for some players, especially those based in Europe, it may be wise to give some of them a rest. 

Especially for older players such as Vitoria, Hutchinson, Scott Arfield and Milan Borjan, or players who are expected to have busy domestic and European seasons, such as Davies, Arfield, Borjan, Hutchinson or Jonathan David, it may be wise to test some new faces at next summer’s Gold Cup. 

Obviously, if Canada fails to make it the Octo, they should go all out in the Gold Cup, but if that happens, there will be bigger questions to answer, anyways. 

You don’t want to look too far forward, especially given how important these first two rounds of WC qualifying are, but at the same time, this Canada team should be able to make it through, and if they don’t, you will have to start asking questions about the long-term ceiling of this team under the current regime. 

At the very least, they can use Gold Cup games as sorts of experimental friendlies, if needed. 

One aspect of this new qualifying format is that Canada won’t have much of a chance to experiment with their lineup via friendlies, with all of their games being huge for World Cup qualifiers, so if needed, they can use the Gold Cup, which comes after the first 4 games of the Octo, as a chance to try some new things. 

Depending on how their World Cup qualifying quest is going at that point, provided that it’s still even alive, it may be a wise decision for them to regroup and prepare for a gruelling rest of 2021 and beginning of 2022. 

Elsewhere, the Olympic question looms, as there is still a chance that Canada participates in the 2021 Olympics in Men’s Soccer, provided they can find a way to navigate through CONCACAF’s U23 qualifiers, whenever they may be. 

While it’s hard to tell where Canada falls in the U23 hierarchy, there’s no doubt that there is some hope they can make some noise in that tournament, especially considering the growth a lot of U23 players have made these past few seasons in the Canadian Premier League and MLS. 

And those players will have to be huge in a hypothetical Olympic scenario, as barring a miracle, many of the European U23 players will be unable to fly over, with the Olympic qualifiers likely to coincide with the European league schedules. 

It’s always hard to tell who the favourites can be in a U23 tournament, as teams can change based on golden generations and whatnot, but it’s definitely a good chance for Canada to surprise, especially in a 8-team format, in which the top 2 nations will book a trip to Tokyo. 

But say Canada does pull off the unexpected and qualifies for the first time in over 36 years, it’ll add a lot of wrinkles to their 2021 schedule, as the Olympics will also overlap with the Gold Cup, which would make for an impossible lineup question. 

The Olympics are a U23 tournament on the Men’s side, save for the 3 overagers that teams are allowed to bring once qualified, but considering the fixture congestion question that Canada already may face for next year’s Gold Cup, them making the Olympics would open up an interesting can of worms. 

No doubt, it would be good for the program, as playing in big tournaments is huge for the country and its players, no matter who ends up having to fill in for the squad. 

At the very least, it’ll give some younger players big-game Gold Cup and Olympic experience, and who knows, maybe Canada can surprise in one or both of the tournaments. 

Along with the potential to use some of these games as sorts of friendly replacements, giving them a chance to experiment with lineups and new players, that may be where the value comes in this case for Canada.

Either way, it may prove to be an interesting summer of 2021, especially if Canada makes it to both the Octo and the Olympics. The former is a likelier proposition, but if they can pull off the latter, it would certainly make for a fun summer of storylines and lineup questions. 

Looking Forward:

While some of these questions may prove to be redundant in a year’s time, depending on how Canada fares in World Cup and Olympic qualifiers, it’s still interesting to throw the idea out there. 

At the very least, one thing that isn’t in doubt is Canada’s upcoming fixture congestion question, as some of its players will be busy with keeping up with their club and international demands over the next year. 

So if Canada is indeed to make it far in World Cup qualifying, they’re going to need a group effort, strong tactics and good game management, allowing them to progress through the rounds without too much fanfare. 

It won’t be easy, without a doubt, but it’ll certainly be an interesting period for the program, giving them a chance to test themselves at a good level in a competitive environment, something that they’ve not had a chance to do much of over the past decade or so. 

And the better they do, the harder it gets, giving them a chance to work towards a final goal, one that may include some combination of World Cup qualification, Olympic participation or Gold Cup glory. 

There are some interesting things ahead for this CanMNT, and we’ll be following along with interest, as they look to avenge the demons of World Cup qualifying’s past in this new format, a format that gives them a chance to take matters into their own hands and control their destiny once again. 

After a year of ups and downs, the rollercoaster continues, starting this October. 

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Liza Rozales

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