Canada’s path to the 2022 FIFA World Cup became a lot clearer on Monday when a new qualification format was unveiled by CONCACAF.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the region’s confederation to provide a different format to what was originally planned. Under the new guidelines, it appears the Canadian men’s national team has a realistic chance of playing 20 competitive matches between October 2020 and March 2022 as they attempt to qualify for their first World Cup since 1986.
The new configuration sees the five teams (Mexico, USA, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Honduras) that have already been guaranteed to play in the proposed hexagonal round moved to the final phase, which will now extend from six teams to eight in an octagonal format.
That leaves 30 different countries to play two rounds of competition to fill out the remaining three positions in the final round of qualifying.
Those associations will be placed into six groups of five, where teams play each other once but not home and away, meaning sides will be playing two home games and two away games.
Crucially, these groups will see the best six teams from the 30 seeded, ensuring Canada will top one of those groups on the day of the draw and face three opponents currently ranked between 12th and 35th in the region (opponents will be revealed in a draw on August 14th).
This is similar to how the Nations League qualifying rounds were set up, where Canada won all four matches from September 2018 to March 2019.
CONCACAF hope that all four of these games can be played during the international windows currently scheduled for October and November this year. Should October become too difficult in the current climate, they may look to add an international window in January much like the South American CONMEBOL region did recently.
This round could see challenges in bringing players from Europe, but Canada should still be confident to progress if they are forced to use players based in North America.
The six group winners will move on to phase two of qualifying where they will be drawn together for three two-legged ties to secure the final three slots in the new octagonal final qualifying process. Should all six seeded teams advance from phase one they would be El Salvador, Canada, Curacao, Panama, Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago.
The three winners in this round would join the top five teams currently in CONCACAF, according to FIFA world rankings, to make up a fascinating eight-team league where the countries will play each other home and away for a total of 14 matches from June 2021 to March 2022.
The top three automatically qualify for Qatar 2022 and the fourth team will enter a qualification two-legged intercontinental playoff against another side from a different region, likely in June 2022. The FIFA World Cup in Qatar will run from Nov. 21 to Dec. 18, 2022.
Canada will welcome the new format as it now gives the team a realistic opportunity to receive an invite to the top table in the region and go up against the likes of Mexico, USA and Costa Rica as they battle to make the World Cup.
It previously appeared the side would narrowly miss out on the hexagonal round, being the seventh best team in the rankings, and subsequently be denied a chance to fight for the three automatic bids to the World Cup alongside the best teams in the region.
Instead, John Herdman’s young side faced the prospect of competing in a repechage format featuring the other 29 nations where they would have had to play 12 games to become the best of the rest. After winning that, the team would have then played a two-legged playoff against the fourth team in the ‘hex’ for a chance to compete in the intercontinental playoff.
Expectations for this team to make the World Cup remain optimistic while understandably reserved, knowing they still need more opportunities to test themselves against the best in the region.
Internally, however, the side, led by young stars Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, has been talking for some time about a collective belief they have that they can qualify for Qatar and this new format should strengthen that.
Should Canada progress to the final eight, it would also give the program 14 enormous matches against the best in this region, allowing the squad to raise its profile, further test themselves on the biggest of stages and potentially help recruit other players who are always going to be more interested in playing against the likes of USA and Mexico than some of the smaller countries.