Earlier this week, CONCACAF revealed their brand new World Cup Qualifying format for the 2022 Tournament in Qatar. This comes almost a year from their earlier revision that replaced the infamous Hex which has been in effect since qualification to France ‘98.
This new format must be a sigh of relief for the Canada Soccer Association, as in the prior revised system, only the top six teams based on FIFA ranking would play in the traditional Hex while the other ranked CONCACAF nations would play in a group then a series of playoff matches until a single team remained. That single team would then play the fourth ranked team in another playoff match to then possibly get the intercontinental playoff spot against a team from Oceania, Asia, or South America. A little convoluted for the Nations who were not part of the top six, which Canada find themselves in, and insult to injury was them not even getting the full qualifier spot for their troubles.
The old format caused major headaches for Canada soccer, as the losses to Haiti in the 2019 Gold Cup and the United States in the Nations League took precious FIFA ranking point opportunities for them, while El Salvador managed to sneak themselves past Canada to the sixth spot simply by blitzing their group of weaker opponents in the Nations League. This lead to a scramble for the Canada Soccer Association to set up as many friendlies as possible, whether in official FIFA windows or not, in order to boost up their points to get past El Salvador (Keeping in mind that El Salvador could do the same against weaker opposition while only continuing to extend their lead on Canada while Canada would have to play bigger and riskier oppostion such as Iceland.).
This led to the trio of friendlies played in the beginning of the year in which Canada trounced Barbados twice and lost to Iceland, which barely managed to get them over a point in FIFA rankings. The road looked bleak ahead for Les Rouges, but with the pandemic having halted all sporting events, including qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup, CONCACAF had to rethink their process on how they would approach qualification with the reduced timeframe once again.
This leads us to the current format, which ditches the Hex in favor of the new 8 team group fighting for the three and a half qualification spots. Seems more inclusive, right? Well, like many other things in CONCACAF, it’s not as simple as first seems. This time, the top five nations have a guaranteed spot in the group, while three spots are left open for the rest of the 30 teams to have a shot at qualifying for. Definitely a better opportunity for the smaller nations but it’s far from ideal. The process on how this all goes down is pretty well described by the video above, but to put it brief, the thirty lower ranked nations are put into six groups of five in which each team plays each other once, and the top team of the group moves on to play in a home and away knockout fixture against one of the other five remaining teams. This leaves three teams, who will join the top five CONCACAF nations in the expanded group of now eight.
How does this affect Canada? Well, given that the top members of each group are pre-seeded, that means Canada finds themselves in group B, and they will have to play the winner of group E. Barring any surprises, the winner of group E should be Haiti, while Canada if all goes well, should find themselves top of group B. This would lead to a home and away tie against Haiti for a spot in the top eight. This is a fresh wound for Canada, and sets up the perfect place for Canada to prove that they belong in the quasi-hex with the rest of them, since Haiti famously knocked a promising Canada side out of the Gold Cup in 2019.
It’s not an easy road by any stretch of the imagination, but being able to overcome Haiti would be a real statement of intent by Canada on their road to the World Cup. If all goes well, one could possibly see a trio of Canada, Curacao, and Trinidad and Tobago all making it into the final eight. How they would fare in the enlarged group themselves is another story, and even that is conditional to the up to six matches that come before that. For now, the focus for the team should be to top the group and secure a rematch with Haiti, if they manage to go a step further than that, then we’ll be able to size up how much of an impact Canada Soccer can make in the final round and another article analyzing can be in order.
Did you enjoy this look into Canada Soccer? Let me know in the comments if this is something you want to see more often.