Eyes on the Road: Looking ahead at what’s next for the CanMNT after progressing to final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers for first time in 24 years

Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team qualified for the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, the Octogonal, for the first time in 24 years on Tuesday. In this, we look at what making it that far means for the program, before breaking down what to expect in the Octo and mapping out how they might go about preparing to get off to a good start to that final round in September. 

They said that they wanted to do it, so they went out and made it happen. 

When they officially began their 2022 CONCACAF World Cup qualifying campaign back in March of this year, Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team immediately set out a goal of reaching the Octagonal, the final round of qualifiers, breaking a dry run of 24 years since they last made it that far.

For a team that had long danced on the edges of making that final round, which used to be known as the Hexagonal, it was bold for them to proclaim that they’d not only make it there, but do so confidently, doing what several past iterations of this team had failed to do. 

Obviously, it helped that an expansion from the Hexagonal (6 teams) to the Octagonal (8 teams) for this cycle gave Canada a better chance at actually making that final round, but even then, this team still had a few roadblocks to take care of on their way there. 

As one of the nations ranked 6-35 in CONCACAF, they avoided the luxury of progressing straight through to the ‘Octo’, something that the teams 1-5 in this region, Mexico, the US, Honduras, Jamaica and Costa Rica, got to do. Instead, Canada had to first navigate a tricky first-round group with Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Aruba and Suriname, one in which they had to top the table in order to progress to the 2nd round. 

Much to the relief of fans, they did so easily, winning all 4 of their games by a combined 27-1 margin, even finding a way to navigate past a rapidly improving Suriname team that many expected to give them a scare in their final game, winning 4-0 to punch a spot into the 2nd round.

From there, however, they were faced with an even bigger task, as the next step on their journey was to take on Haiti in a two-legged series, one in which they’d have to travel into a tough Haitian environment, before returning to their temporary ‘home’ for pandemic reasons, Chicago, to try and finish their job, which was to qualify to the Octo. 

On their own, Haiti is a formidable opponent, but for Canada, they’ve become a bogeyman team of sorts, as Canada came into that series looking to avenge a shocking 3-2 loss against the Haitians from the 2019 Gold Cup, one where Canada gave up a 2-0 lead en route to a shocking upset to their Caribbean counterparts. 

That history didn’t stop Canada this time, though, as they found a way to snatch a big 1-0 win away from home in the 1st leg, before returning to Chicago to close off the series with a 3-0 win, sending them back to the final round for the first time in 24 years.    

“Just pride,” Canadian head coach, John Herdman, said of what he was feeling after the 2nd Haiti win. “Real pride for you guys, for the fans, for people who’ve been waiting for this opportunity for so long. You know it’s an organization that has been relentless in finding a way to make sure that we got into that Octagon, keeping that dream alive of taking the group to the 2022 (World Cup).”

So thanks to that 6-game push, including a quadruple matchday this month that culminated with Canada playing 4 games in just over 11 days in order to qualify, the Octo finally awaits them. Now, they’ll get set to play 14 games over a 7-month span, with 3.5 spots in the World Cup on the line for them. 

For a team that has only made the World Cup once, all the way back in 1986, this is now a fantastic opportunity to double that short appearances list, proving that this team is indeed a special one.

With this big opportunity, they’ve now got a chance to actually show that they’ve got the credentials to be a top CONCACAF team, starting this September, when they’ll officially make their long-awaited return to the final round, putting a few decades of heartbreak behind them in the process.

What’s at stake? 

And make no mistake, this is huge for Canada, on a multitude of fronts. 

First, there’s just the fact that making the Octo gets them 14 competitive games against 7 of CONCACAF’s best teams, giving them the sort of test that they desperately need at the moment. By playing home-and-away with Mexico, the US, Jamaica, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and El Salvador, this Canadian team will be pushed to the limit as they have never been before. 

If they thought these Haiti games were tough, the Octo games should be like taking on a heavyweight boxer after dispatching a middleweight, as there will be a whole other level of play on display throughout these 14 games. 

Unlike some of CONCACAF’s other top competitions, such as the Gold Cup or Nations League, teams will be consistently playing at their top level with their best teams in the Octo, meaning that Canada won’t have the fortune of facing anyone’s B-team or heavily rotated squad in these games. 

They’re getting 14 games against CONCACAF’s best, with a spot in the World Cup on the line, and the intensity of these matches should reflect that. 

“Our focus shifts onto the big mountain,” Herdman said of the Octo. “And the big mountain is one of the most exciting mountains, and I think this whole country is going to try and climb it together.”

For those unfamiliar with how the Octo works, the top 3 teams after those 14 games will then head straight to the 2022 World Cup as CONCACAF representatives, while the 4th place team will take on a team from either Asia, Oceania or South America in a two-legged playoff for a chance to join them.

Starting in September, teams will play 2 to 3 games each international window until March of 2022, with the intercontinental playoff expected to be played in June, giving teams time to recover before the World Cup proper starting in November of next year. 

And what’s so unique about the Octo is how compressed the window of games will be, as there will be 3 games in each window in September, October, January and March, along with a 2-game window in November, allowing these 14 games to be completed in such a short time span. Typically, it took teams approximately a year to play the 10 games in the Hex, but that won’t be the case in the Octo, where fixtures are going to be coming in fast and furious, allowing it to be completed in just under 7 months.

So because of that, all 8 teams are going to be gunning for a top-half finish, ramping up the intensity even further. It’s not as if they wouldn’t have ever done otherwise, but at least in the Hex, the schedule wasn’t so intense and the number of spots in the World Cup remained the same despite there being 2 fewer teams, meaning that some countries would be able to recover and qualify despite a slow start. 

But with the clog of 8 teams, starting fast is going to be huge, as it’ll be quite hard to get out of a rut, especially with there being so many teams competing for such few spots. 

A small bounce here or there could be the difference between going on a run and making the World Cup, or going home without much of a whimper, only driving up the pressure of these matches. 

A realistic objective:

Considering all of that, though, the question has to be asked – what’s a fair expectation to have of this Canadian team heading into the Octo? 

It’s a good question, as no one has any idea of how good this Canada team can be, as they’re relatively untested in this region. 

On paper, they appear to have a team that can be top 3 in CONCACAF, but even that doesn’t mean anything, as a talented US side missed out on the last World Cup despite all of the names that they have at their disposal. 

Being good in CONCACAF comes down to being able to pick up as many points at home as possible, and just surviving on the road, and a team like the US failed to do that in the 2018 World Cup cycle. 

And just looking across the field when analyzing the teams at the Octo, Canada could easily have a similar run if they’re not careful, as there are some interesting names that sit alongside them in this final round.

“In that Octagon, there is no easy team,” Herdman said. “There are 4 different styles of play, there are 5 different types of environments that you’re going into. It’s an adventure.”

There’s Mexico, who is a juggernaut to beat both home and away, both due to their talent and their immense support, but there’s also the US, who are always so close to Mexico, putting in their licks whenever possible. Having just beat Mexico to win the inaugural Nations League title, the US will be feeling confident that they have what it takes to avoid another 2018 qualifying debacle, showing that they’re still a top 2 team in CONCACAF.

Elsewhere, Jamaica is an up-and-coming team that has been recruiting some very intriguing English dual-nationals as of late, while Costa Rica is a very technically gifted team that has had some memorable moments at the World Cup this past decade, making them 2 tough opponents.

Along with Honduras, El Salvador and Panama, who might not be as talented as the others on paper, but play really good team football and have some of the best home-field advantage in the region, there’s no easy matchup for Canada in these qualifiers, as it really is a gathering of CONCACAF’s finest. 

So for Canada, whose main goal is to finish in the top 4 and either qualify directly to the World Cup or keep their goals alive with the playoff, what would it take for them to actually achieve those things, especially knowing the level of opposition? 

Using Asia’s 3rd round and South America’s main round as examples, as both confederations have done similarly big 6-10 team groups where everyone plays the other twice for a total of 10-18 games, it’s worth noting that to finish in the top half of those groups, picking up an average of 1.3 to 1.9 points a game was the minimum required in order to do that. 

Using an average points-per-game rate of 1.5, which seemed to be a number that pretty much guaranteed a team finishing in the top half of their group, that would mean that Canada would need to pick up 21 points to all but guarantee a top 4 finish in the Octo. 

It is a daunting figure, but it’s worth noting that a winning percentage of 50% makes that possible. 

So when you look at Canada’s 14 games, considering that it’s much easier to win at home at CONCACAF than it is away, a realistic formula would be for them to win at least 5 of their 7 home games, before finding those 6 other points either on the road or in their other encounters. 

It’s a tough ask, but Canada should beat Panama, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama and Jamaica at home, which would give them those 5 wins. For those who’d suggest that is too tall of an order, Canada did beat El Salvador and Honduras at home in the 2018 World Cup cycle with a much worse Canadian side, so it’s not that tall of an ask to imagine them doing the same again here, especially considering Canada’s current squad, which blows away their team from that 2018 cycle. 

Then, if they can snatch any home points off Mexico or the US, even better. Mexico is the near-impossible one to beat, but Canada did beat the US in Nations League in 2019 with both teams mostly playing at full-strength, which shows that it wouldn’t be that impossible to try and repeat that feat again in the Octo.

And then if they managed to somehow get those 5 wins, that would leave them only needing to get 2 wins out of 7 away games, which hopefully shouldn’t be too daunting of a task for a Canadian team chock full of talent. 

So all-in-all, this is just to say that it’s very possible for Canada to make the World Cup from the Octo, especially if they can play up to their potential. 

Obviously, it won’t be as easy as it is written out here, as this sort of simplistic calculation doesn’t factor in having to play away in CONCACAF, or the bounces that Canada might or might not get at home, for example, but the main thing is that it’s possible, and that’s always a good starting point to have. 

Canada’s Alphonso Davies looks on during a Canadian training session last week (Canada Soccer)

Focus now shifts to the Gold Cup:

So now, Canada will look to begin preparations for the Octo after a well-deserved rest, one that their players will be relishing after some of the damage that they took in these games. 

But before then, they’ll have the Gold Cup to worry about, which poses such an interesting conundrum for Herdman and his staff. 

Does Canada send all of their best players to the Gold Cup, potentially tiring them out for the Octo after a long season? Or do they send more of an experimental team, giving some new names a shot down in the US? 

From what it sounds like, Herdman is trying his all to make sure that it’s the former, which is risky, but could actually prove to be a good thing for this Canadian team. 

Obviously, winning a trophy would be huge for this program, especially considering that their last major triumph came 21 years ago at the 2000 Gold Cup, but surprisingly the Gold Cup could have plenty of benefits for the Octo. 

First, there’s the experience that getting this team more reps in a competitive tournament setting would offer, which would be invaluable for a squad where nearly half of their players are 24 or under. 

Secondly, there’s the chance to work on tactics, something that this Canadian team hasn’t gotten much of a chance to do before March of this year, having not played competitively at all in 2020 due to pandemic. Considering that several of their Octo opponents have been playing games since the fall of 2020, they have a much better idea of what their identity is heading into the fall, something that the Gold Cup could allow Canada to help continue their ongoing ques to try and find. 

Thirdly, as mentioned, there’s the thrill of actually winning a trophy, which could bind together the team before the big games that await. Just look at what winning a supposed ‘small’ trophy like the Nations League did for the US, as their players seemed to be on clouds after winning that competition a few weeks ago, and winning the Gold Cup could do the same for Canada. 

Despite all of those positives, however, there is the very valid rest concern, which is one that needs to be addressed. 

After a long club season for most of the European-based players, who had to deal with an extra-congested schedule to make up for the time lost due to the pandemic, fatigue is already a big issue for several of these players, making the idea of a summer tournament less attractive. 

But at the same time, that might not actually be as much of an issue as previously thought. 

Most European seasons start back up at the beginning of August, meaning that players will have to report back to camp at the beginning of July, anyway, cutting their holidays short. 

If they were to play in the Gold Cup, they’d probably also report to Canada’s camp at the beginning of July, giving them some time to train before playing their first game on July 11th. 

So if their club is fine with them sticking with Canada (something they’d technically be ‘forced’ to with the Gold Cup being during a mandated international window), that could open the door for some of Canada’s best European exports, such as Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, to stick around for the summer. 

Considering that usual favourites, Mexico and the US, almost never send an A-team to the Gold Cup, just having those 2 would increase Canada’s chances of winning significantly, which as highlighted above, would be big for this team. 

Obviously, if there’s any sort of doubt with players, there’s no need to take any risks, but the idea isn’t as far-fetched as some may think, which does open up the door of possibility. 

And heck, even if Davies and David are unable to play, just having Canada’s first-choice midfield and backline, for example, could be huge, as they’d both give Canada a better chance at winning this tournament while preparing them to play together in the Octo. 

The Gold Cup might seem like an inconvenience at first glance, but there’s no reason why Canada can’t use it as a chance to give themselves some momentum ahead of the bigger games that await them, starting this fall. 

Looking Forward:

But until Canada has to worry about Gold Cups, and Octos, they’ll take some much-needed time to recharge the batteries, before diving back into things either in July or in September, depending on the player. 

Either way, though, a big summer and fall of Canadian men’s national team action awaits both players and fans, which based on the small sampling that the spring gave, is a tantalizing prospect to envision.

With it so far being a landmark year for Canadian men’s soccer, there’s no reason why that good feeling can’t continue into the summer and the fall, making 2021 a year to remember for Canada. 

After a 2020 that was quite forgettable on many fronts, 2021 is shaping up to be quite the special year for Canada, and the CanMNT’s qualification to the Octo was just another step in this rapidly progressing journey, one that this team hopes will end with them qualifying for the World Cup. 

Before then, some big games await, both at the Gold Cup and at the Octo, but for a team that has rarely gotten this far into the journey in past cycles, it’s so far been a good start, and they’ll want to keep the good times rolling this summer and fall. 

Up Next: Canada vs Martinique, Sunday, July 11th, 2021, 15:30 PDT, 18:30 EDT (Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas)

Cover Photo via: Abel Arciniega/Canada Soccer

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