Sports·THE BUZZER

World Cup qualifying: Canada's final push and what's happening in Europe

CBC Sports' daily newsletter previews the Canadian men's soccer team's final push for a monumental World Cup berth, plus a big showdown brewing in Europe.

Canadian men a win (or less) away from first appearance in 36 years

A World Cup appearance is on the horizon for Jonathan David and the Canadian men's soccer team. (Delmer Martinez/The Associated Press)

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Canada is on the verge of a stunning World Cup berth

Barring catastrophe, the Canadian men's soccer team will qualify for its first World Cup in 36 years at some point over the next week.

It could happen as soon as Thursday night, when Canada visits Costa Rica to begin its final three matches of regional qualifying. If not, then probably Sunday, when Canada faces Jamaica in Toronto. The finale is March 30 in Panama, but it shouldn't come down to that. A win in any of these matches will put Canada into this year's World Cup, which kicks off in November in Qatar. A draw or a loss could even do the trick, depending on the results of other countries' contests.

The Canadians are in this cushy position because of a stunning run over their first 11 matches in the final round of qualifying for the CONCACAF region. A team that probably would have been pleased with just laying the groundwork for the 2026 World Cup, which Canada is co-hosting, has instead gone undefeated, winning seven matches and drawing four. Everyone else has lost at least twice.

In soccer, a win is worth three points and a draw is worth one. With three matches left, Canada leads the United States and Mexico by four points, Panama by eight and Costa Rica by nine. The other three teams are out of it. When this round ends next week, the top three teams will get a ticket to the World Cup. The math says Canada will almost certainly be one of them.

More subjectively speaking, there's nothing phony about the Canadians' dominance to this point. They beat both of the region's traditional powers, Mexico and the United States, at home and battled them to draws on the road. That includes an historic 1-1 tie at fearsome Estadio Azteca, where Canada had lost every one of its matches against Mexico for a span of 41 years. When Canada beat the U.S. 2-0 in Hamilton, Ont., in late January, it did so without superstar Alphonso Davies.

The most electrifying player in Canadian soccer history remains out for these final three matches due to a heart condition detected after a bout with COVID-19 (Davies' club, Bayern Munich, says he should be back in a few weeks). But any concern about this being a one-man team was alleviated when Canada won all three of its matches in the previous window without Davies. In his absence, forward Jonathan David (Canada's "other" world-class youngster) scored twice, including a brilliant effort off a laser-like pass from Liam Fraser vs. Honduras. Davies and Cyle Larin, who found the net early in the big win over the Americans, lead all CONCACAF scorers with five goals apiece in this round. Behind them, Stephen Eustáquio controls the midfield and fiery goalkeeper Milan Borjan keeps coming up with big saves.

Thursday's match in Costa Rica kicks off at 10 p.m. ET. Also, keep an eye on the Panama-Honduras match at 9 p.m. ET — the Panamanians need a win to maintain any hope of catching Canada for a World Cup berth. Mexico vs. the U.S. at Azteca at 10 p.m. ET is a big one too.

Earlier in the day, the final stage of European qualifying kicks off. Three World Cup spots are still up for grabs in soccer's most stacked continent, and they'll be decided by a set of mini-tournaments among teams who failed to make it in the previous round. The most interesting one involves Italy and Portugal. Assuming they get past, respectively, North Macedonia and Turkey on Thursday afternoon, the traditional powers will square off next Tuesday for a spot in the World Cup. That means either Cristiano Ronaldo or the reigning European champions won't be going to Qatar.

Europe's other two playoff brackets are a bit of a mess. The disqualification of Russia as punishment for the invasion of Ukraine gave Poland a free trip to the final, where it'll face the winner of Thursday's match between Sweden and the Czech Republic for a World Cup spot. Meanwhile, the winner of Wales vs. Austria tomorrow will have to wait a few months for its final opponent because the Scotland-Ukraine matchup was postponed until June.

Read a preview of Canada's final qualifying push here. Get a Costa Rican soccer journalist's take on Thursday's matchup in this video. Learn more about the key Canadian players by watching this:

Meet the Canadian Men's Soccer team trying to make World Cup history

3 months ago
Duration 3:53
Brendan Dunlop introduces you to the faces who are trying to lead Canada to their first world cup qualification since 1986

Quickly...

The No. 1 women's tennis player in the world retired. Ash Barty's announcement last night was surprising on multiple levels. The Australian is only 25 years old and appeared to be at the peak of her game, having won the Aussie Open less than two months ago. But, with that lifelong goal fulfilled — plus two other Grand Slam titles and close to $24 million US in career prize money — Barty decided she was done. "I don't have the physical drive, the emotional want and everything it takes to challenge yourself at the very top level any more. I am spent," she said. This is Barty's second retirement from tennis — she walked away in 2014 as a teenager battling depression and played pro cricket for a while before returning to the touring life she loathed. The pro tennis circuit is a grind for every player, with tournaments happening all over the globe and almost no off-season to catch your breath. It's even tougher for someone from as far-flung a place as Australia, and Barty was open about battling homesickness throughout her career. Now she's free of it all. Good on her.

Canada is on a roll at the women's curling world championship. Since getting trounced 11-3 by defending-champion Switzerland on Sunday night, Kerri Einarson's team has rattled off wins over Denmark, Japan and, today, Sweden to improve to 5-2. Make that 6-2 once Canada is credited with a win for tonight's scheduled matchup vs. Scotland, which forfeited the rest of its games after a COVID-19 outbreak last weekend. Switzerland (7-0) is the lone unbeaten team, followed by South Korea (6-1) and Sweden (6-2). Canada is tied for fourth with Denmark and the United States, which it plays Thursday at noon ET. The top six teams advance to the playoffs.

And finally…

The NFL is drunk.

The most unhinged football off-season in memory delivered another shot of huge news today when Kansas City traded superstar receiver Tyreek Hill to Miami. The Dolphins sent K.C. a boatload of draft picks and also agreed to make Hill the highest-paid receiver in the league — which is why he's OK leaving Patrick Mahomes and a Super Bowl contender for Tua Tagovailoa and a team that missed the playoffs last year.

Remember, it was just a week ago that Davante Adams pulled basically the same move, facilitating a trade from Aaron Rodgers' Packers to Las Vegas to become (for a minute anyway) the NFL's highest-paid wideout. And only five days ago, Cleveland traded for quarterback Deshaun Watson and gave him by far the most guaranteed money of all time. And before all that, Tom Brady retired, Tom Brady un-retired, Russell Wilson was traded from Seattle to Denver, and Atlanta receiver Calvin Ridley got suspended for a full year for gambling on NFL games. Just for a chaser, big-name passers Matt Ryan (Atlanta to Indianapolis) and Carson Wentz (Indy to Washington) and pass rusher Von Miller (Rams to Buffalo) have also switched teams. Another round, please!

Coming up on CBC Sports

Figure skating world championships: Olympic bronze medallist Kaori Sakamoto of Japan took the lead in the depleted women's event by placing first in today's short program. With the top three favourites missing due to the blanket ban on Russian skaters, Canada's Madeline Schizas placed 10th. The pairs short program was still in progress at our publish time, so you might be able to catch the end here. On Thursday, watch the men's short at 6:30 a.m. ET and the conclusion of the pairs event at 1:50 p.m. ET on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem.

U Sports national championships: Day 1 of the Canadian university swimming championships in Quebec City will be shown live on CBC Sports' streaming platforms starting Thursday at 10 a.m. ET. The first quarter-final matchup at the women's hockey tournament in Charlottetown, between No. 2 UNB and No. 7 McGill, is streaming live Thursday at 2 p.m. ET. Read a full preview of the hockey tourney here.

You're up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.

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