What's next for the Canadian men's soccer team?
A World Cup spot is theirs to lose. But there's still work to do.
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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:
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.