Sports·The Buzzer

How Canada can qualify for the 2022 World Cup — and why its hopes are looking up

As the Canadian men's soccer team kicks off its World Cup qualifying campaign, CBC Sports' daily newsletter looks at the path it faces and why its chances suddenly look better — both for 2022 and, especially, 2026.

Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David boost the men's team's outlook

Canada has a bone fide rising star in Alphonso Davies. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

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The Canadian men's soccer team starts World Cup qualifying tonight

The long road to Qatar 2022 begins in empty stadiums in Central Florida, where Canada plays regional qualifying matches tonight at 8 p.m. ET vs. Bermuda and Sunday at 4 p.m. ET vs. Cayman Islands. These are the first of at least 20 matches Canada will need to play to get to Qatar.

World Cup qualifying is a bit complicated. And even if you thought you had a handle on the system, the pandemic caused a few changes. So here's your guide to the path Canada is facing:

How qualifying works and how Canada fits in

The top five teams in the CONCACAF region (North and Central America and the Caribbean) are Mexico, the United States, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Honduras. They get a bye to the third and final round of regional qualifying. Canada is ranked seventh in the area, so it has to play its way there.

For the first round, the 30 teams ranked sixth through 35th in CONCACAF are split into six groups of five. Each team plays the others in its group once, and only the winner of each group advances. Canada (No. 73 in the world) is easily the highest-ranked team in its group and should win it. In addition to tonight's match vs. Bermuda (ranked 169th) and Sunday's vs. Cayman Islands (193th), Canada will face two more lightweights in Aruba (200th) on June 5 and Suriname (141st) on June 8. It's unclear right now whether those matches will be hosted by one of the countries playing in them (Canada would get one home and one away) or in neutral locations.

For the second round, the six group winners are paired off for a two-legged mini-series on June 12 and 15 (either at a neutral site or home-and-home). Assuming Canada makes it here, its opponent will be the winner of Group E, which is likely 84th-ranked Haiti. That matchup would be close to a toss-up and could tilt in Haiti's direction if matches are played in home stadiums — especially if fans are allowed. Canada has historically had trouble playing in front of hostile crowds in the Caribbean and Central America.

The winners of these three head-to-head matchups advance to the third and final round. This is where the top five teams join in, creating an eight-team final group that kicks off this fall and runs through next March. Everyone will play 14 matches — a home-and-home set against each of the other seven countries. The teams with the three best records qualify for the World Cup, and the fourth-place team earns one last shot to qualify via a two-leg intercontinental playoff matchup in June 2022. The World Cup kicks off Nov. 21, 2022.

WATCH | Soccer experts break down Canada's path to Qatar:

Canada's best shot at World Cup Qualification begins ahead of Qatar 2022

Sports

3 months ago
10:08
Canada's men's national team squad, filled with as much raw talent as there is experience, has to win the group stage in the First Round of qualification to keep their hopes of participating in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 alive. 10:08

Canada's chances of qualifying

They're not the greatest, but they look better than they have in some time. This is mostly thanks to Alphonso Davies, the 20-year-old phenom who is already among the best players in world soccer. Last season with German powerhouse Bayern Munich, he was named rookie of the year in the Bundesliga and became the first player from the Canadian men's national team to win a Champions League title. His peers voted him to the FIFPro World XI, meaning they consider him among the 11 best players in the world when position is factored in. For these reasons and plays like this, Davies is the most exciting men's soccer player Canada has ever produced.

Unfortunately, Canada's second-most-talented player won't be joining Davies for the first two qualifying matches. Twenty-one-year-old forward Jonathan David plays in France's Ligue 1, which at the moment won't release foreign players for international duty outside Europe because of France's quarantine rules. David is having a terrific debut season in the French league, where he's helped Lille climb to second in the standings (neck and neck with mighty Paris Saint-Germain) by scoring nine goals — tied for 13th in the league and first on his club. With David unavailable, Canadian head coach John Herdman says he'll consider deploying Davies, who plays left back for Bayern, in more of an attacking role for the first two qualifiers.

Davies and David could be reunited for the final two matches of the opening round and, more importantly, the two-leg second-round matchup. Those all take place in the first half of June — after the end of the European club season.

Making it to CONCACAF's final eight is a realistic goal for Canada. Advancing beyond that to the World Cup (or even the intercontinental playoff) still feels like a bit of a stretch for a team with such a young core and a pretty thin roster around its two stars.

But, at the very least, Canadian soccer fans can start dreaming about the men's team's first World Cup appearance since 1986. 2022 might be a long shot, but Canada is co-hosting the 2026 tournament with the United States and Mexico. It hasn't been decided yet whether all three host countries will get an automatic berth, but no host has ever been denied a spot and the field is expanding from 32 to 48 teams that year. Plus, with Davies and David in their primes, Canada will also have a shot to qualify the old-fashioned way.

For more details on the Canadian roster for the first two qualifying matches, read this story by The Canadian Press' Neil Davidson.

Jonathan David won't be available for the first leg of Canadian World Cup qualifying. (Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images)

Quickly...

There's another big Canadian men's soccer qualifying match today. Along with the World Cup qualifier vs. Bermuda, an under-24 Canadian squad faces Honduras at 10 p.m. ET in a key Olympic qualifying match in Mexico. Both teams will likely need a win or a tie to secure a spot in the semifinals, where they'll face either Mexico or the United States for a spot in the Tokyo Olympic tournament. If Haiti and El Salvador play to a tie in their 7:30 p.m. ET match, then both Canada and Honduras advance to the semis no matter what. The Canadian men's team hasn't qualified for the Olympics since 1984. Read more about the matchup vs. Honduras here.
 
Nathan Chen has some ground to make up.
The American figure skater's quest for a third consecutive men's world title suffered a setback today when he fell on his opening quadruple Lutz attempt and wound up third in the short skate. Two-time Olympic champ Yuzuru Hanyu took first with a dazzling performance, and fellow Japanese skater Yuma Kagiyama was a fairly distant second. The lone Canadian, Keegan Messing, placed fifth. Chen trails Hanyu by more than eight points, but his unmatched jumping talent makes him capable of stunning comebacks. We saw that at the 2018 Olympics, where Chen rallied from 17th after the short to a fifth-place finish by attempting an unprecedented six quads and landing five of them. Read more about today's results here. The pairs competition in Stockholm wraps up today, and if you're reading this before 5 p.m. ET you can watch the conclusion here. Tomorrow, the ice dance event begins at 5:45 a.m. ET, followed by the women's free skate at 12:55 p.m. ET. Watch them live on CBCSports.ca and the CBC Sports app. And, right after each program, That Figure Skating Show goes live on CBC Sports' YouTube channel, where hosts Dylan Moscovitch and Asher Hill and special guests will give their instant reactions and insights.

The federal government is helping make the NHL trade deadline more interesting. CBC News' David Cochrane reports that Canada is set to reduce its mandatory quarantine period from 14 days to seven (with extra testing) for NHL players dealt from U.S.-based teams to Canadian ones before the April 12 deadline. All provinces with NHL teams have approved of the move, a source in the federal government told Cochrane. The 14-day quarantine may have made Canadian teams hesitant to deal with U.S. ones because of the long period of time they'd have to wait to get their new player(s) in the lineup. We saw this earlier in the season when Winnipeg played seven games between the time it acquired Pierre-Luc Dubois from Columbus and he actually suited up for the Jets. Read more about the quarantine exception here

And finally...

The Sabres hit a new low. Last night's 5-2 defeat at Pittsburgh ran Buffalo's losing streak to 15 games — the NHL's longest since the shootout was introduced in 2005-06. The league officially considers it a "winless" streak because two of Buffalo's losses were of the overtime or shootout variety, which are worth one point — equivalent to a tie in the pre-shootout era. But if you believe a loss is a loss, the Sabres are now only two short of the all-time record for consecutive losses in a single season. It's shared by two teams: the expansion 1974-75 Washington Capitals and the second-year 1992-93 San Jose Sharks. The latter, incredibly, had two separate 17-game losing streaks that season.

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