Sports·THE BUZZER

Canada's mission in this World Cup qualifying window: Just hold on

CBC Sports' daily newsletter fills you in on what to know for Canada's next three World Cup qualifying matches, which will be played without Alphonso Davies.

Alphonso Davies' absence dials up the pressure for the next 3 matches

Top scorer Cyle Larin and the rest of the Canadian men's soccer team will have to step up with superstar Alphonso Davies sidelined for this World Cup qualifying block. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

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Canada's men's soccer team is back for a crucial block of World Cup qualifiers

Just hold on. That's the objective for the Canadian men's soccer team as it heads into its penultimate window of regional World Cup qualifying matches without its best player.

With eight matches down and six to go in the final round of qualifying in the CONCACAF region, Canada has put itself in great position to reach the world's most popular sporting event for the first time since 1986. The Canadians sit alone atop the eight-team group and have the only unbeaten record. Their four wins include a monumental victory over longtime regional power Mexico in frigid Edmonton back in November. Their four draws include one in each of the two toughest road matches they'll face, at the United States and at Mexico's dreaded Estadio Azteca.

But Canada's perch is far from comfortable. Only the top three teams get a ticket to Qatar, and four are jammed together at the top of the standings. The United States, CONCACAF's highest-ranked team, is lurking just one point behind Canada in second place. Mexico and Panama, who both qualified for the last World Cup, are two points behind Canada. A win is worth three points, a draw is one and a loss is zero. So Canada's fortunes could swing dramatically with a single match.

The fourth-place team will get another shot to qualify via a one-game playoff in June in Qatar vs. the winner of the Oceania region's qualifying tournament. That will most likely be New Zealand, which is currently 70 spots below No. 40 Canada in the world rankings. But a one-game scenario is always fraught. Much better to avoid it by securing your World Cup spot now.

Canada's chances of accomplishing that could hinge on its three matches in the upcoming window: at Honduras on Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET, home vs. the United States on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET, and at El Salvador next Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET.

The showdown vs. the Americans, which will be played in Hamilton, Ont., in front of a reduced-capacity crowd of 12,000, is obviously the big one. Win that, and Canada will have swept its home games vs. the United States and Mexico (traditionally, the two teams to beat in this region) while tying both on the road. That's an almost-unassailable formula for World Cup qualification.

But Canada will need to avoid getting tripped up in Honduras and El Salvador. They're the two worst teams in the standings, but road games in Central America are never easy. Fans there are extremely passionate, and they're infamous for creating a hostile environment both inside and outside the stadium. Canadian players who experienced the disastrous 8-1 World Cup qualifying loss in Honduras in 2012 sound like combat veterans when they talk about it.

As if the challenges presented in these next three matches weren't enough, Canada will be without its best player — in fact, the best player the country has ever produced — for all of them. Alphonso Davies, the 21-year-old sensation behind Canada's stunning rise to men's soccer relevance, is sidelined for this window due to a heart issue detected after he recovered from COVID-19. Bayern Munich, the German powerhouse that Davies plays for, said on Jan. 14 that his case of myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart muscle) appears mild and shouldn't keep him out for more than a few weeks. The expectation is that Davies will be able to play in the final window of World Cup qualifying matches in late March. Canada visits fourth-place Panama and fifth-place Costa Rica and hosts sixth-place Jamaica.

Another worry for the current window is the availability of key midfielder Stephen Eustáquio. Reports last weekend said the 25-year-old tested positive for COVID-19, though he was included on Canada's roster when it was announced on Monday. Coach John Herdman said today that Eustáquio is "day to day" and the team is "waiting to see if he'll be cleared."

If Eustáquio can't play, it puts even more pressure on the likes of Jonathan David, the 22-year-old star who ranks second in scoring in the French league this season, and fellow forward Cyle Larin, who leads all of CONCACAF with four goals in the third round. Read more about what Canada is facing in the upcoming qualifying window here.

Jonathan David is another Canadian player who may have to shoulder a heavier load with Davies out. (Chris Young/The Associated Press)

Quickly...

Felix Auger-Aliassime lost a heartbreaker. The ninth-seeded Canadian looked poised to reach his second Grand Slam semifinal in a row when he went up two sets to none on No. 2-ranked Daniil Medvedev today at the Australian Open. But the Russian survived a third-set tiebreak and then dodged the upset by grinding out a 6-7 (4), 3-6, 7-6 (2), 7-5, 6-4 win that took 4 hours, 42 minutes to complete. With top-ranked Novak Djokovic absent due to his refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19, this was a great opportunity for the 21-year-old Auger-Aliassime to capture his first Grand Slam title. But, with three consecutive trips to major quarter-finals under his belt and the sun setting on the Djokovic/Federer/Nadal era, it could be only a matter of time. Read more about Felix's tough loss to Medvedev and watch highlights here.

And finally…

Baseball Hall of Fame voters made some… interesting choices.

That would be the charitable way of saying it, anyway. With their 10th and final opportunity to vote Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens into the Hall, baseball writers gave a resounding nah to arguably the greatest offensive player of all time and one of the greatest pitchers ever. Bonds was named on just 66 per cent of ballots and Clemens on 65 — well below the 75 per cent threshold required for induction. Alex Rodriguez — another guy you'd think would be rubber-stamped after he won three MVPs, hit 696 home runs and helped revolutionize the shortstop position — got only 34 per cent support in his first year on the ballot.

The only man the voters sent to the Hall is David Ortiz, who hit 541 homers and was the heart and soul of three Red Sox championship teams but never won a season MVP award and just isn't as good a player as those other three guys. Ortiz, like all of them, has also been linked to steroid use — an automatic disqualifier in the eyes of some voters. And yet, he was named on about 78 per cent of ballots.

So, what gives? Well… Ortiz is a really nice guy. In fact, one of the most beloved players ever. Everybody loves Big Papi. Bonds, Clemens and A-Rod are not what you'd call Hall of Famers in the personality department. A lot of writers (and fans) even despise them. So, as much as we talk about the impact that steroid hardliners have on deciding who gets into the Hall of Fame, it seems personality and popularity could be just as big of factors.

Before we get too wound up about this (too late, judging by the internet), let's remember that the vote might not ultimately matter. The Hall of Fame has several era-specific committees that can send players to the Hall after the writers reject them. These groups have proven to be quite a bit softer than the writers, letting in such questionable candidates as Jack Morris and Harold Baines in recent years.

Bonds and Clemens are expected to be up for consideration by the Today's Game era committee in December. That could also be a path for Curt Schilling and Sammy Sosa, who fell off the ballot themselves after being rejected for the 10th time yesterday, largely due to off-field demerits. It's less prestigious to get in via the committees, sure. But the lustre of the writers as ultimate gatekeepers might be wearing off too.

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