By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 18, 2021) US Soccer Players – The beginning of the end of Concacaf 2022 World Cup qualifying kicks off in September with eight teams vying for three automatic spots and one intercontinental playoff position for the November 2022 tournament in Qatar. For the first time in history, Concacaf’s ultimate round of qualifying will involve eight teams. It’s a function of the loss of dates during the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown, the larger final group (up from six) will also mean a brutal gauntlet of 14 games spread out over five FIFA windows.
Since five doesn’t go into fourteen in pairs, Concacaf had to adjust. Three of the five windows for qualifiers will contain three games in seven days. That will push the eight teams involved well beyond the accustomed for international play. The strange rhythm of the qualifying process is why USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter scheduled friendlies around two Nations League matches earlier this month.
Here are the eight teams who will compete for Concacaf’s three-and-a-half spots for Qatar 2022: the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica, Canada, Panama, and El Salvador. For five of the eight, reaching the final round is old hat. The USMNT, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Honduras have been in each of the last three final groups. Panama took part in 2014 and 2018, reaching the World Cup the last time out.
For the other three nations involved, getting to this stage is well beyond the norm. El Salvador made it to the final round for the first time since the 2010 cycle, while Jamaica rates as an occasional participant. Of the pair, only Jamaica has been to a World Cup, something the Reggae Boyz achieved back in 1998.
Then there’s Canada. The Canadians have long been the region’s biggest “what if” team because of strong sporting infrastructure and changing demographics in the country. Communities that rate soccer as their most beloved game in a nation most known for ice hockey have long held the key to pushing Canada into the World Cup qualifying conversation. The 2022 cycle will be the first with Canada in the final round of Concacaf qualifying since 1998 when they finished last in a six-team group.
Canada undoubtedly benefited from the expanded size of the final round field for 2022, but their arrival at this stage doesn’t feel like mere good fortune. Canada has talent. The list starts with Bayern Munich fullback Alphonso Davies, already considered one of the best left-backs in the world at the age of 20. It continues with Lille forward Jonathan David, New England Revolution winger Tajon Buchanan, and a host of others still making their way into the first team.
Head coach John Herdman got his team through the tricky task of reaching the Octagonal with relative ease. Although the pandemic prevented Canada from playing any games in their home country during the revamped third round of qualifying, Canada won every one of its matches and conceded just one goal in the process.
Canada will need every ounce of confidence gained against Concacaf minnows to have a chance at reaching its first World Cup since 1986. The landscape of Concacaf has changed so dramatically since the Canadians participated in Mexico ’86 that all of this is a new experience.
The return of Canada to the final round means meaningful matches against its neighbors to the south. The relationship between the United States and Canada has always been a strange mix of sibling rivalry, sporting enmity, and mutual respect. Canada often plays the role of America’s little brother, both on the field and off of it.
Although the USMNT and Canada haven’t played a World Cup qualifier since the 1998 World Cup cycle, we don’t have to go too far back to find competitive matches between the two nations. It was Canada that the USMNT triumphed over to reach the final four of the recently completed Nations League. That tournament ended with the USMNT lifting the trophy, a “leveling up” moment for a young group of American players.
It’s been long enough that it’s easy to forget that Canada beat the United States at BMO Field back in October of 2019. That was during Berhalter’s first year as USMNT head coach, at a time when the Americans were struggling to regain confidence and momentum following missing out on the World Cup in 2018.
The USMNT bounced back from that 2-0 defeat with a 4-1 win over Canada in the return leg, thereby booking its place in the Nations League final four. Maybe that Canada win is the indication of things to come. They’ll now have plenty of chances to show the North American zone that it has three competitive teams.
There won’t be much of a wait for the first clash between the USMNT and Canada when the Octagonal round begins. The United States will open its qualifying campaign on the road against El Salvador before returning home to face Herdman’s team. The Federation has yet to set venues for that qualifier, though the game should be one of the few in the round where the Americans enjoy a clear home crowd advantage.
The Canadians hold a grudge against the US going back 15 years. American fans remember the 2007 Gold Cup for the victory over Mexico in the final on a wondergoal by Benny Feilhaber. For Canadian soccer fans, that tournament is an open wound of hurt feelings because of what happened in the semifinal.
With the US up 2-1 in added time, Canadian forward Atiba Hutchinson collected a ball in the American penalty area that hit off the head of defender Oguchi Onyewu. Hutchinson rifled a shot past goalkeeper Kasey Keller, but the flag went up for offside. In an era before VAR, there was no fixing what looked to be a clear mistake. An attacking player is not offside if he receives a ball intentionally played by a defender.
Fourteen years later, both Canada and the United States are turning to generations of players and fans who might not remember that game. In that way, this rivalry is a blank slate, ready for whatever happens in the final round of 2022 World Cup qualifying.
Canada is slightly ahead of the curve. 2026 figures to be when a lot of its talent comes of age. That doesn’t mean they’ll be pushovers. The region is better when more of its teams have the quality to challenge for World Cup berths. Expanded field or not, Canada’s arrival is a welcomed addition.
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Logo courtesy of Austin FC