This year’s Gold Cup promised so much for the Canadian national team, but delivered another disappointment on the international stage.
A lot was expected from John Herdman’s side, expectations perhaps falsely raised by the positive approach exuded by the coach and the current crop of exceptional attacking talent in the squad. Players talked about going all the way, but the end result was far from satisfying.
It wasn’t just the crashing out of the tournament to Haiti at the quarter-final stage, but more so the nature of the loss, giving up a two goal half time lead when seemingly in full control of the match and cruising to the semi-finals. It was a poor way to bow out, and one which Herdman admits will haunt him and his group for a long time.
“The Gold Cup, I don’t think that disappointment will ever leave you,” Herdman told reporters on a media conference call on Wednesday morning. “As a group of players and a coach you carry that but we’ve been able to reframe it and look at number one, all the positives that came out of the Gold Cup for the team, and then to look at those areas that are now going to be part of our learning through this Nations League period.
“Speaking to the players, we’ve addressed the positives and the areas for development, both individually and collectively, and coming in to this next period, the players are just ready and focused on their future. We’ve shut the door on that chapter and are excited to get ahead for these matches with the energy and the excitement of what this Nations League and qualifying for it was going to be about.”
The defeat to Haiti had a bigger impact on Canada than simply ending their Gold Cup aspirations, it cost them ranking points. Not something considered too noteworthy or concerning at the time, but when CONCACAF’s bombshell announcement came out about using FIFA ranking points and not CONCACAF rankings for World Cup qualification, that defeat suddenly loomed large.
For those that may have missed the original announcement, CONCACAF have changed the qualifying format for the 2022 World Cup. The ‘Hex’ stage still remains but instead of countries fighting to qualify for it, only the top six ranked CONCACAF teams based on the FIFA Ranking published after the FIFA window of June 2020 will take part in it.
Those six countries will play in a home and away round robin format in September, October, and November of 2020, and March and September of 2021. The top three teams will qualify directly for Qatar.
The remaining 29 CONCACAF nations will compete in group play and then a knockout competition to crown a best of the rest. That team will then take on the team that finished fourth in the ‘Hex’ in a home and away playoff match in October 2021. The winner of that will then take on a team from another region for the right to go to Qatar.
“We were originally notified that there was a CONCACAF rankings table,” Herdman confirmed. “The rankings table was there and we were tracking everything and building all our planning on the CONCACAF rankings. That’s what was originally presented when the Nations League was presented to the member associations and that changed in July 2019.
“So yeah, we woke up one morning and the rankings table isn’t there any more. It’s gone. So we changed gears. That’s in the past. The future’s the future now. We’re focused now on what we can control and what we have to do now to put ourselves in the best position to qualify for the Hex.”
CONCACAF’s announcement came not only as a surprise to supporters and media, it also caught Herdman off guard, derailing his carefully planned path to the Hex, which had seen Canada shun friendlies against higher ranked FIFA nations focusing instead on their CONCACAF Nations League matches.
They may have successfully gone four wins out of four in that campaign, but it did little for their FIFA ranking, which sees them ranked 78th in the world and 8th in CONCACAF.
“The initial announcement caused a little bit of shock and frustration,” Herdman admitted. “You can’t hide from that. We committed down the path of the Nations League, which involved Nations League ranking points. Those matches were super meaningful for Canada. Players were turning up, our big players were turning up for matches, and Nations League ranking points would lead to a path of World Cup qualification.
“Then, at the same time, we weren’t taking FIFA games in those windows because our priority was to gather those ranking points. So in June 2019 we were ranked 6th, we’d closed 70 points on Jamaica and had actually put ourselves in World Cup qualification reach with only a year left to go.”
Why there were two rankings to begin with is still confusing, albeit now irrelevant.
As things currently stand the top six CONCACAF nations in those FIFA rankings are Mexico, the US, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Honduras, and El Salvador. Panama are seventh and Canada eighth, 30 points behind El Salvador.
“We were celebrating a pretty successful Nations League campaign and then you see that change,” Herdman continued. “But changes have been made and now it’s FIFA ranking points. The gap between ourselves and El Salvador is there, and Panama, and now we have a new focus. Our focus is to climb that mountain, which is to qualify for the Hex through overtaking El Salvador.
“We’ve worked out all the math. We’ve looked at how real it is and what it’s going to take. What it’s going to take is a perfect season from Canada and along the way Panama and El Salvador dropping some points.”
That is a tall order, certainly not an impossible one. The first stage is the upcoming Nations League matches against Cuba and the US. A lot could come down to how seriously the US takes their qualifiers or whether they will see it as a chance to take a look at some fringe players, but it will also take a monumental effort from Canada in these next four games and beyond that into next year if they are to get a top six ranking.
“To qualify for the Nations League final four, where there are a lot of ranking points available to Canada through that pathway, these matches are absolutely critical,’ Herdman noted. “Coming in to the Cuba game, we know how difficult those away matches can be and Cuba have proved in previous years to be a stubborn test at home for some Canadian teams.
“We don’t expect it to be the same mindset or line-up that we saw at the Gold Cup. So I think this Cuba match is important because if we draw both matches against the USA, it will come down to goal difference and that could be the deciding factor if we’re able to get in to Nations League final four where there is a lot of FIFA ranking points up for grabs in that competition.”
At least Canada know what they have to do if they are to make it to Qatar, and that starts by topping their Nations League group.
“It’s all about how you look at things,” Herdman mused. “One day I got out of bed and it was woe me, and then the next day it was what a challenge this is going to be, and ultimately that’s how we’re talking about it with the players. What an amazing challenge.
“These matches against the USA, to qualify for the final four, are critical if we want to take the Hex route, and again, all we’ve said to the players is what we demand is the same excellence that you’ve shown and the commitment that you’ve shown and you’ve seen that with big players turning up to this Cuba match, and those big players will continue to turn up.”
The new World Cup qualification format is an incredibly long drawn out process for the lower ranked teams that ultimately rewards historic results and not up and coming countries. A decision which will hit the likes of Canada and Haiti hard.
If Canada do miss out, their road is long, but the always philosophical Herdman is actually relishing the challenge.
“If we miss the Hex, the path is clear,” Herdman said. “I think that is at least the one thing that everyone in CONCACAF is celebrating – the teams between 7 and 35 still get opportunities to qualify for a World Cup through a pretty grueling pathway.
“But again, if you look at the glass half full, what a football story that could be and something that country could rally around if Canada was to go through 12 matches to take that chance at playing in the half spot. That’s what CONCACAF have offered to those teams that might not be able to accumulate the ranking points in the time that they’ve got left.”