CONCACAF World Cup qualifying is set to hit the home stretch with only six matches over two international break windows remaining to set the final field for Qatar 2022. After eight matches played, Canada finds itself in the enviable position of topping “the Hex” as the last remaining undefeated side and sits firmly on course for a first World Cup appearance since 1986.

But before people begin to book flights to Doha, it’s important to recognize that qualification is far from a sure thing at this stage. The top three teams from the Hex qualify automatically for the World Cup with the fourth-place team set to meet a team from Oceania in a sudden-death playoff for one of the final berths. Yes, Canada is in a good spot right now, but is only two points clear of Panama in fourth. A lot can still change over the next six games.

One of the issues facing Canada over their remaining matches is that four of the six still left on the schedule are away and in places that have not been historically kind to the team. Their final qualifier is away to Panama in what could end up being a win-and-you’re-in match for both teams.

As qualifiers are once again set to resume this week, let’s take a look at the top four teams’ remaining schedules and what can be augured from history.

Canada (4-4-0), 16 pts

Jan. 27 – at Honduras – A visit to Honduras elicits a feeling of dread like no other CONCACAF opponent for Canadian soccer fans. Canada’s record against Honduras is not a good one to begin with at 7-11-8 all-time, but visits to Honduras have generally been a nightmare with Canada drawing three and losing seven matches. Canada’s sole victory there came in a 1986 World Cup qualifier when George Pakos scored to give Canada a 1-0 victory on Aug. 25, 1985. Outside of that win, Canada has drawn three and lost eight. None of those losses was any more haunting than the trip Canada took in 2012. Needing only a draw for passage into the Hex ahead of the 2014 World Cup, Canada was utterly humiliated on the night of Oct. 16. Down 4-0 at the half, Canada would lose 8-1 and have their World Cup dreams go up in flames. The loss was the second-worst in program history, only behind an 8-0 shellacking by Mexico in 1993. Needless to say, this trip to Honduras could go a long way in exorcizing some painful demons from the past against a team whose chances for qualification ended a long time ago. Honduras currently brings up the rear of the Hex on only three points, having yet to win a single game. In their first Hex meeting, Canada and Honduras played to a 1-1 draw in Toronto in what was both teams’ opening match of the current qualifying phase.

Jan. 30 – vs. United States – The chilly confines of Tim Hortons Field will play host to Canada’s latest clash with the USMNT with the hopes that the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ home can replicate the atmosphere created by Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton’s transformation into the “Iceteca” last fall. Like with Honduras, Canada’s all-time record against the United States isn’t great (11-18-11), but recent results show that the CanMNT is more than capable of hanging with one of the two teams that has dominated CONCACAF for the past several years. In Nashville last fall, a 62nd-minute goal from Cyle Larin earned Canada a 1-1 draw against the USMNT in their first Hex meeting. At home, Canada has actually enjoyed the lion’s share of the spoils against the USMNT, owning a 9-2-3 record. The last meeting in Canada between the two teams was at Toronto’s BMO Field during Nations League action in 2019 with Canada picking up a 2-0 win on goals from Alphonso Davies and Lucas Cavallini. The USMNT, like Canada, are playing for their lives over their remaining six matches. Currently on 15 points, one off of Canada, the USMNT’s lone qualifying blemish was a 1-0 loss at Panama last October.

Feb. 2 – at El Salvador – While El Salvador’s situation isn’t as dire as the one facing Honduras, sitting on six points through eight matches likely means they’re only playing for pride over their remaining six games. Of course, that doesn’t mean they can’t play spoiler with matches against Canada, the U.S. and Mexico still to come. Historically, El Salvador as a host hasn’t given Canada the problems that other Central American locales have, but matches have tended to be a struggle. The CanMNT’s record in San Salvador is a respectable 2-2-4, but Canada hasn’t travelled there since 2015 when the two teams played to a scoreless draw. In similar circumstances as the trip to Honduras, this has the makings of a trap game for Canada. Canada beat 3-0 El Salvador in the home fixture last September at BMO on goals from Atiba Hutchinson, Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan.

Mar. 24 – at Costa Rica – Obviously by the time the next qualifying window opens, things could look very different. But as it stands, Costa Rica’s World Cup hopes are hanging by a thread. Los Ticos sit on nine points from eight matches and are currently five adrift of Panama for the playoff spot. They could make up ground in matches against Panama, Mexico and Jamaica in the upcoming window, but make no mistake, this is an uphill climb and, perhaps, an insurmountable one. By the time this Canada match comes around, their campaign could effectively be over. Still, that doesn’t mean Canada can afford to take this match – or any other match, really – lightly. Canada’s all-time record in Costa Rica is 1-2-3 with nine of the 23 matches between the two teams coming at the Gold Cup in neutral venues. Canada last made the journey to San José back in 2004 for a World Cup qualifier and were 1-0 losers on a goal from then-Malaga striker Paulo Wanchope. Canada and Costa Rica played twice in 2021, once in the Gold Cup and once in the Hex, with Canada coming out on the winning end on both occasions. In qualifying, the CanMNT were 1-0 winners at the Iceteca in November on a David goal.

Mar. 27 – vs. Jamaica – Jamaica’s only trip to the World Cup to date came at France 1998 and, barring the unforeseen, it appears that it will remain their sole berth after 2022. Sitting on seven points from eight matches with one victory, Jamaica appears to just be playing out the string with their remaining qualifiers. But like they did in their Hex match against Canada in Kingston last October, the Reggae Boyz are perfectly capable of frustrating the CanMNT. Last fall, the two teams played to a 0-0 draw in what was arguably Canada’s worst match of qualifying, largely due to Jamaica’s ability to shut down Canada going forward. But against Jamaica at home, Canada is undefeated, posting a 6-2-0 mark against the Reggae Boyz. The last time hosting Jamaica came in 2017 with Canada emerging as 2-0 victors in Toronto on goals from Anthony Jackson-Hamel and Jonathan Osorio. The match also saw Davies get sent off with a straight red in the 76th minute. While Canada will likely feel good heading into this match, the Reggae Boyz will likely have a weapon they didn’t have in Kingston last fall in the form of Michail Antonio. The West Ham striker is in the midst of another fine season and is arguably the best player in CONCACAF who doesn’t play for Canada, the USMNT or El Tri. A venue for this match has yet to be announced.

Mar. 30 – at Panama – You’ve probably heard this a lot over the course of Canada’s Hex campaign: “This is one of the biggest matches in the history of Canadian men’s soccer.” You certainly heard it before the November match against Mexico and might hear it again when the USMNT comes to Hamilton. The fact is, the CanMNT is playing some of its most consequential matches ever right now without a shred of hyperbole. But the late March match in Panama has the potential to dwarf them all and be the most important game the program has played since 1986. The final game of qualifying could represent a do-or-die proposition where the winner goes to Qatar and the loser is relegated to the playoff (or worse). Now, are we getting ahead of ourselves here a little bit? Of course. Canada might already have qualification wrapped up by then or, God forbid, have gone 0-5 in the lead-up to the Panama game and have already seen their World Cup dreams go up in smoke. Still, the likelihood of this match being of significant importance remains high. Canada will obviously want to replicate their encounter against Panama from Toronto last October. After a nervy few minutes to start, falling behind 1-0, Canada grew into the match and turned into a rout with a 4-1 win that saw goals from Davies, Buchanan and David. Somewhat worryingly, Canada has never won in Panama and every game the two teams have played there has been a bit of a slog. Of the seven games between Canada and Panama in Panama, five have been scoreless draws. The other two were a 2-0 Panama win in World Cup qualifying in 2012 and a 2-2 draw in a 2008 friendly. In fairness, Canada possesses considerably more firepower than it had in the past, but the spectre of a repeat performance remains a frightening prospect.