Canada's final World Cup qualifier important for FIFA rankings, World Cup draw
Finishing 1st in CONCACAF can make things easier for finals in Qatar
It was a moment that was 36 years in the making for the Canadian men's team.
Canada officially booked its place at the 2022 FIFA World Cup with a convincing 4-0 win over Jamaica on Sunday, marking the team's return to the tournament since its only previous appearance in Mexico in 1986, when it meekly bowed out following three consecutive shutout losses in the group stage.
Nearly four decades of heartbreak and hardship instantly dissipated on a frigid evening at Toronto's BMO Field thanks to a "golden generation" of Canadian players, and a coach in John Herdman who has completely transformed the men's national team program since his appointment a little more than four years ago.
"It's unbelievable. We're a football country… We've just qualified for a World Cup," said Herdman, who previously guided the women's side to back-to-back Olympic bronze medals in 2012 and 2016. "This is a legit football country. Our women's team won an Olympic gold [in Tokyo last summer.] What more could we ask for? It's time.
"This country, they never believed in us because we gave them nothing to believe in. They believe now," he said. "If we all get behind each other, this is the time for everyone to get behind football and unite, because we can be a powerhouse."
So now the question becomes what lies ahead for Canada before it competes in the biggest sporting event on the planet later this year?
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For starters, there is the small matter of Canada's final match of the CONCACAF qualifiers against Panama on Wednesday night. The Canadians currently top the table with 28 points, and enjoy a three-point edge over the United States and Mexico. A win or a draw in Panama City would clinch first place in the group, a seemingly unattainable goal for Herdman's team when it began its qualifying journey in earnest a year ago.
And if you think Canada is simply going to phone it in on Wednesday now that World Cup qualification has been secured, well, you haven't been paying close enough attention. This team doesn't do anything half-heartedly. Herdman would never stand for that, and the players wouldn't dream of disrespecting him by taking their foot off the gas pedal.
The convincing victory over Jamaica was as much about sending a message to the rest of CONCACAF as it was about booking a spot at the World Cup. The U.S. and Mexico have historically ruled soccer in this part of the world, reigning over the region with an iron fist and squashing anyone who dared to ascend to the throne. Canada clinching first place in the group would leave no doubt in anybody's mind as to who are the new kings of the region.
"It was a dominant performance [against Jamaica]. We showed we were the better team, we showed we are the best team in CONCACAF, which I think we set in stone," midfielder Jonathan Osorio said.
Finishing first would be advantageous for Canada, as it would give them a better chance of obtaining a higher seed for Friday's draw in Doha, thus increasing the probability of it being placed into an easier group at the World Cup.
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The Canadian men were ranked 73rd in the world when they started World Cup qualifying in March, 2021. Today, Canada is 33rd. FIFA will use the rankings released on March 31 to determine the four pots for the draw. Right now, Canada is on the Pot 3-Pot 4 bubble, but a win in Panama would see it move up the world rankings, thus improving its chances of landing in Pot 3 for Friday's draw.
Beyond that, it's unclear at the moment what the next eight months will exactly look like for Canada before it travels to Qatar. However, Herdman is noted for going to great lengths to prepare his teams, including having a say in what hotels the team stays in for its road matches, the bus route the team will take from the hotel to the stadium, and the menu for the team meals.
Herdman's meticulous attention to detail, the likes of which is unprecedented in the men's national team program, has earned him the universal respect of his players and staff.
Former national team captain Jason de Vos, who earned 49 caps for Canada from 1997 to 2004 and played for seven pro teams in three countries during his pro career, called Herdman a "national treasure."
"Hands down, without question, the best coach I have ever come across in my lifetime," said de Vos, who serves as an assistant coach under Herdman. "We should appreciate him while we have him because he is phenomenal. World class is a term that's used too frequently [in soccer], but I would put him in that category. Just no one better."
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Between now and the kickoff of the World Cup in November, there are two FIFA mandated international windows — May 30 to June 14, and Sept. 19 to 27 — that will allow Canada to call up its players from their respective pro clubs in order to play as many as six exhibition games. It can play matches outside of those windows, but the pro clubs would not be obligated to release their players for national team duty.
The challenge for Canada Soccer is not only to organize as many games as it can in a short period of time, but also to line up quality opponents that the men's team can benefit from playing.
Between last summer's Gold Cup and the World Cup qualifiers, Canada has played 25 times since the start of 2021. But all of those games have been CONCACAF opponents. The last time Canada played a nation outside of its region was in a 1-0 loss to Iceland on Jan. 15, 2020. Before that, you have to go back to a 1-0 win over New Zealand (Herdman's first game in charge) on March 24, 2018 for its previous encounter against a non-CONCACAF team.
If Canada is going to be competitive at the World Cup, it has to test itself against nations from other parts of the world before heading off to Qatar.
"We want to go to a World Cup and really make a statement," Osorio stated.