CONCACAF Shakeup: World Cup Qualifiers, the (last ever?) Gold Cup, and a New Federation Order
It feels a long time since I last watched an international football tournament. If I recall correctly, the last instance was monitoring a devastating play by play of Canada’s 3-2 collapse to Haiti in the 2019 Gold Cup… eased only slightly by the unyielding sun and all inclusive bar tab I was wracking up in the Baja, México.
Fortunately, both on and off the pitch, 2021 is looking very promising. With effectively two years of competition squeezed into one, it’s a big, big year in CONCACAF. There’s a second chance at World Cup Qualifying for the Red and White, an expanded Gold Cup looks poised to actually expand talent, not water it down, and I believe we’re on the cusp of a new order — one that might finally dethrone Mexico from a long uncontested rule in North America.
The changing power structure and completion of CONCACAF right now is unprecedented and ought to be the theme of 2021. Here’s what to look out for.
1) There’s been a World Cup Qualifying shakeup, and it’s a lifeline for those nations, such as Canada, that are riding the momentum of a quick rise:
The pandemic forced the confederation to back track on a qualification method that would have all but blocked any pathway for rising nations, and the in-form coattails or new recruits that might have changed the complexion of who goes to Qatar in 2022. Whereas CONCACAF had originally ordered Hex qualification to be facilitated by the FIFA rankings, a pathway that was “all close” and “no cigar” for 7th ranked Canada following the 2-0 loss to the USMNT, a second life has been handed to those nations who were trying to break into “the Hex”.
As it stands, those nations ranked 1 to 5 – México, the United States, Jamaica, Costa Rica, and Honduras – will sit out the early going. The 30 remaining nations in the confederation have been drawn into six groups of five, with those nations ranked 6 to 11 – El Salvador, Canada, Curacao, Panama, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago – spearheading each group. The remaining 24 nations filled up the groups, all squaring off in this week’s international break. The six group winners are drawn against one another in a home and away tie, with the three victors joining the five aforementioned nations in the Hex-replacing “Octagon” for CONCACAF’s 3.5 spots.
Canada (ranked 73rd globally) have headed down to Orlando to play Bermuda (169th) and the Cayman Islands (193rd) this week, for matches on the 25th and 28th. They will also travel to Aruba (200th) on June 5th, and host Suriname (141st) on June 8th. There are no excuses for Canada should they fail to win the group, however John Herdman and his men will have to be on their game against Bermuda and Suriname, the former holding Mexico to a draw away until the fatal last seconds and the latter calling up almost an entire XI of European based Dutch players.
Travel restrictions and a compressed European schedule may hamstring Canada’s flexibility in who they can call into camp, and this may not change for the June window. The team has no excuse to not push on regardless though; there is still more available European and MLS talent than the national team could have called on a decade ago. What is paramount is, should Canada win their group over these upcoming four games, they need the best possible squad available for a likely home and away tie against Haiti on June 12th and 15th. Should they succeed, the Gold Cup will be the national team’s last opportunity to acquaint and test themselves as a group before the Octagon matches in the fall and 2021.
2) It’s the Quarter Quell of Gold Cups, and maybe our last as we know it:
The 2021 Gold Cup will once again feature 16 nations, after expanding by four teams in 2019, with 12 CONCACAF members and Qatar currently qualified. A 12 team playoff series is set to be held sometime in July to determine the remaining 3 spots. The Gold Cup groups were drawn as pictured below. Only the top two performers from each group will advance to the knockout stages.
From my estimate, Group A and B look like evenly matched Groups of Death, with perhaps El Salvador giving Group A the edge against a weaker Martinique. The qualification pathway for Group A should most likely see the addition of Trinidad and Tobago to an exciting Curacao program, the needs no introduction Mexico, and the always stubborn El Salvador. The members of Group B are hardly better off though, with Haiti knocking on the qualification door to a blossoming United States, dark horse Canada, and wildcard Martinique. Group C is intriguing with potentially revolutionized Jamaican and Surinamese squads, and, no matter how much one might protest to their inclusion, a Qatar that might prove to be a sleeping giant, having defeated Japan 3-1 and won the Asian Cup as recent as 2019. If Canada is to advance from their group, they’ll face opponents, in a intra-group victors vs runners up next round, from Group C in one of Costa Rica, Suriname, or Jamaica.
I question whether the Gold Cup will continue as the main, or even secondary, international tournament for CONCACAF members’ near futures, because I anticipate more integration of CONCACAF and COMMEBOL: at the least through the Copa Ámerica and at the most through an expanded Copa Libertadores and/or World Cup Qualifying. Historically the United States and Mexico, and at some level the less competitive football nations like us, have been held back by the lack of competitiveness in CONCACAF. In the past three years there has been plenty of chatter of integrating World Cup Qualifying and a proposed North through South Copa Ámerica. Put it this way, had the US bid to host that tournament structure in 2020 (now 2021) not been rejected in favour of Columbia and Argentina, this tournament might not even be happening, or at least not all member nations would be partaking. The Marca report informed the press in early 2019 that officials from both federations had discussed combining their respective World Cup qualifying processes when executives from across the sport gather in Miami for the FIFA Council.
However, should this expanded Gold Cup, backed by an unprecedented accumulation of dual national call-ups and passport applications, prove able to put on a quality, competitive product and attract viewership, perhaps CONCACAF officials might think twice. At the very least, it would protect the integrity and bargaining power of the confederation in any sort of future integration between the two parties.
3) Joining the New Order; Watch Canada, Curacao, Jamaica, and Suriname:
While the confederation has recently only been contested by the likes of Mexico, the United States, and less than a handful of Central American countries, the quiet progression of recruitment, coaching, and development in smaller nations could shake up the confederation in 2021. North American football fans with an eye on 2022 and 2026 ought to watch the World Cup Qualifiers and Gold Cup fixtures of this year with an attentive eye — they will be of significance to both tangible qualification and ranking points but also the first impression to which prospective dual nationals will weigh their decisions in the immediate future. Where a decade ago Honduras and Costa Rica were walking into the spotlight, Canada, Jamaica, Curacao, and Suriname look well poised to become forces to reckon with in the coming years. I’ll go through each country’s potential Gold Cup squad to give you an idea of how different these squads could be compared with previous years.
Say what you will about John Herdman, you cannot criticize him for recruitment. Canada needs as much help as it can get with the challenging route to World Cup Qualification ahead, and recruitment of up and coming young stars is really, really important for 2026. Watch Ferdi Kadioglu and Ayo Akinola for that in the near future. Nonetheless, the story of Canada right now is form.
Looking beyond the upcoming fixtures this week, due to pandemic related travel difficulties, the squad Canada could put together for the Gold Cup and the Octagon, should they qualify, is very impressive.
If I’m to step into John Herdman’s shoes, I envision their ideal, everyone’s healthy and released, 23 man squad for the Gold Cup or World Cup Qualifying as follows:
Goalkeepers: Borjan, Crépeau, St Clair
Defenders: Adekugbe, Gutíerrez, Vitoría, Miller, Ferreria, Henry, Laryea
Midfielders: Eustáquio, Piette, Hutchinson, Kaye, Osorio, Arfield
Forwards: David, Davies, Larin, Cavallini, Hoilett, Akinola, Buchanan
Eustáquio, Larin, and David are all currently in electric form for their respective clubs in Europe, particularly Larin’s prolific scoring for Besiktas in Turkey’s SuperLig. Arfield has just won a Scottish title with Rangers as a regular starter, and Hutchinson seems to only improve with age.
If Canada wants to take the next step, they need to make it to the semi-finals of this Gold Cup and qualify for the Octagon.
Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Curaçao are certainly a weird combo to have on your resumé, but that hasn’t stopped Guus Hiddink. The Dutchman took the reigns of the Dutch territory in August of last year, signing a contract through Qatar and 2022. Curaçao is a constituent state of the Netherlands, meaning there are a plethora of Dutch footballers who hold or are eligible for a Curaçao passport to play for the CONCACAF nation. Hiddink commented that the challenge of taking a country to a World Cup for the first time is a challenge he’s never achieved.
Looking at their prospective roster, Curaçao have a mix of established, quality players and a talent pool to round out and improve the squad from the Netherlands — prominently in the Eredivisie. Curacao’s recent roster attached has players from the US, the Dutch 1st and 2nd divisions, Germany, Sweden, Portugal, England, and the Czech Republic. Hiddink’s recruitment has been critical, poaching previously uncapped Dutch nationals Jeremey de Noojer, Vurnon Anita, and Anthony Van den Hurk, while it’s reported Curacao is also still courting centre half Riechedly Bazoer of Vitesse.
What is happening for Jamaica is genuinely surreal. I’ve always wondered why Jamaica didn’t exploit the massive untapped pool of dual nationals playing in England. In 2015, they called up Wes Morgan (Leicester), Adrian Mariappa (Bristol), and Gareth McCleary (Wycome), but of late had restrained from calling up dual-nationals. An opportune time to prove a point arrived in Jamaica’s 2019 Gold Cup co-host status, however again Theodore Whitmore fielded an all home-born squad excluding Fulham’s Michael Hector.
Well here we are two years later there’s been a complete u-turn on that strategy. There’s a depth and quality to the English-Jamaican dual nationals in the EPL and Championship that could provide Jamaica the talent to be potentially a top 3 nation in CONCACAF, and Whitemore seems ready to use it. As reported by Sportsmax in Jamaica, JFF President Michael Ricketts confirmed that all the players listed, with the exception of Max Aarons but addition of West Ham forward Michail Antonio have or are in the process of acquiring passports for the Jamaican men’s national team. They are reportedly targeting a shortlist of up to 15 English dual nationals.
To give you a more visual representation, here’s what a possible Jamaican Gold Cup or World Cup Qualifiers eleven could look like by their employers.
JFF President Michael Ricketts confirmed all of these players (except Max Aarons) listed + Michail Antonio have or are in the process of acquiring passports for Jamaica MNT
via @SportsMax_Carib 🇯🇲 #jff pic.twitter.com/MzIaZDPzO0
— chris bowerbank (@chrisbowerbank) March 3, 2021
Suriname have also began a recent trend of tapping into their Dutch heritage, quietly recruiting Dutch nationals such as talents Jaïro Riedewald of Ajax and Crystal Palace, playmaker Diego Biseswar of PAOK, and Ryan Donk of Galatasaray.
It’s of course not ideal timing for Canada; Suriname could be a very tough matchup in early June depending on who the Surinamese can make available.
Take a look at what a possible Suriname side could look like by their employers:
I said it last cycle and I’ll say it again, I encourage everyone to watch the Gold Cup. It’s a relatively unknown tournament but I’ve always had a personal liking for it; even from afar the atmospheres and football cultures in CONCACAF feel like entering a different world.
Last cycle, I wrote that I wasn’t jumping so quickly onto the Canada bandwagon. However this time, I’m pleased to say that, even amongst rising competition, I’m very optimistic for Canada’s chances. Should the Canadian MLS teams get off to a decent start, we’ll have never seen such a well-rounded squad in such great form. Canada has the depth that they should be able to juggle Olympic qualifiers, World Cup Qualifiers, and still put out our best players and performance in the Gold Cup.
As for the Gold Cup, whatever the future lies for the tournament, it appears to be growing teeth which will can only mean good things for Canada and hosting in 2026. Stay tuned for the the remaining qualifiers and visit OneSoccer.com for the Canadian soccer broadcasting streaming service, showcasing the U23s and senior national team matches ($74.99 annually of $9.99 monthly) in addition to various domestic leagues.