What’s next for the Canadian men’s soccer team?

November 18, 2021
What's next for the Canadian men's soccer team?
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Canada is top (!) of the table. Now what?

It’s a new day in Canadian soccer. If anyone wasn’t clear on that after the women’s national team won its first Olympic gold medal this summer and the men’s team kept churning out impressive results in World Cup qualifying over the last few months, then they are now.

Last night’s landmark 2-1 victory over legacy regional power Mexico on the frozen tundra of “Iceteca” (aka Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium) vaulted Canada into first place in the final round of World Cup qualifying for the CONCACAF region.

With eight matches down and six to go, Canada’s men’s first World Cup berth since 1986 is more than just in reach. It’s now this team’s to lose.

WATCH | Evaluating Canada’s historic win over Mexico:

What Canada’s win over Mexico means for World Cup chances

Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic, editor-in-chief of Between The Sticks, joins Signa Butler to break down the Canadian men’s national soccer team’s historic win against Mexico in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Canada is in 1st place after the win, leaving top-3 favourites Mexico and the United States with ground to make up when the next round of matches come in late January. 5:51

But Qatar 2022 is still a ways off — figuratively and literally. The tournament kicks off in just over a year, and Canada still has work to do to get there. Here’s a look at where things stand and what lies ahead:

How solid is Canada’s position?

First, a quick refresher on how this final round of regional qualifying works. The eight remaining teams in CONCACAF (North and Central America and the Caribbean) are in the midst of playing each other once at home and once away, for a total of 14 matches. When this ends, in late March, the top three teams will be awarded a spot in the World Cup. The fourth-place team can still get in by winning a two-leg playoff against someone from another continent.

Last night’s win over Mexico, coupled with the United States’ disappointing 1-1 draw at Jamaica, pushed Canada past the two highest-ranked teams in the region and into first place in the standings. But even though the Canadians are the only unbeaten team, their lead is razor-thin. Canada has 16 points. The U.S. has 15. Mexico and Panama both have 14. Then there’s a big drop-off to Costa Rica with 9.

So, it looks like we have four teams fighting for those three direct tickets to the World Cup. And just two points is the difference between being in first place and being relegated to that intercontinental playoff. A win is worth three points, and a draw is worth one. So one slip-up could still send Canada tumbling down the table. And, remember, this final round is just a little more than half over.

Is Canada as good as its record suggests?

We see it all the time in sports: a team gets off to a hot start by beating up on weaker opponents, then falls back to earth when the competition gets tougher. But that doesn’t look like the case here. Canada’s two toughest-looking matches — at Mexico and at the United States — are already out of the way, both resulting in 1-1 draws that can be viewed as victories for Canada, considering the difficulty of earning points on the road against higher-ranked opponents in international soccer.

Plus, the Canadians have won their two hardest home matchups so far — the one last night against Mexico, and last month vs. Panama, which Canada pounded 4-1. Canada has also beaten fifth-place Costa Rica 1-0 and seventh-place El Salvador 3-0 at home.

WATCH | Larin ties De Rosario’s goal record as Canada tops Mexico:

Larin brace moves Canada past Mexico and to top of CONCACAF World Cup group table

Cyle Larin’s two-goal performance gave him a total of 22 for the national side, tying Dwayne De Rosario as the top Canadian men’s goal-scorer in history and also gave Canada a 2-1 win over Mexico, moving them to the top of their CONCACAF World Cup group. 2:03

On the negative side, there was a disappointing 0-0 draw at sixth-place Jamaica — though that looks a little better after the Jamaicans tied the U.S. yesterday. Canada’s only really bad result so far was a 1-1 tie at home vs. last-place Honduras, which is still looking for its first win. But that was way back on Sept. 2, in the opening match of this round. Canada has since picked up steam, and seems to be getting stronger and stronger.

What’s next? And where might the traps be?

The six remaining matches will be played in two windows, starting in late January. First, Canada visits Honduras on Jan. 27, hosts the United States on Jan. 30, and visits El Salvador on Feb. 2. For the final window, in late March, Canada visits Costa Rica and Panama and hosts Jamaica.

A general worry in looking at this schedule is that four of Canada’s final six matches are away. Earning positive results on the road is notoriously difficult in CONCACAF, which features some truly hostile environments. Some of the war stories, which you can read about here, include 3 a.m. fire alarms at the team hotel, scuffles with machine-gun-toting guards, and bags of urine raining down from the stands.

This Canadian team proved its toughness with last month’s 1-1 draw at Estadio Azteca, the massive Mexico City stadium that’s feared for its punishing blend of heat, altitude and boisterous fans. Earning a point there was huge. The last time a Canadian men’s team did so was in 1980. But Canada still hasn’t won on the road in this final round — though it hasn’t lost either, picking up a draw in all three away matches.

Both of Canada’s road games in the upcoming window are relatively easy — Honduras and El Salvador are the two worst teams in the group. The road games in the final window are tougher. Fifth-place Costa Rica hasn’t looked all that impressive, but fourth-place Panama is unbeaten in its four home matches, including a win over the U.S. and a draw vs. Mexico. That game — on March 30, the final matchday — could be a big one.

As for the two remaining home games, Canada should be able to handle Jamaica, but the Jan. 30 date vs. the U.S. looms large. It’ll be interesting to see where Canada decides to play it after braving the elements in Edmonton for the last two matches. For logistical reasons, the team seems eager to return to Ontario — maybe Toronto’s BMO Field, which hosted the first four home games, or Hamilton’s CFL stadium, which is also home to a pro soccer team. But a match in either of those cities would be awfully accessible for American fans — especially now that the land border has reopened.

Let the gamesmanship continue.

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