Though they have gone out of fashion in many quarters, Canadian men’s soccer coach John Herdman still loves military references.
Canada’s qualifying campaign is a “14-game war.” The coming matches are “life and death.” You use your “weapons” to “fight” a “wounded” opponent.
In the spirit of going with the flow, let’s continue in that vein. After Canada’s remarkable 2-1 win over Mexico in soccer’s first Ice Bowl on Tuesday, how does the rest of the campaign shape up?
Three of the eight CONCACAF teams still competing will automatically qualify for next December’s World Cup in Qatar. The fourth advances to a play-in tournament against other lucky losers from around the globe.
As of right now, it’s a four-horse race. Canada (16 points), the United States (15), Mexico (14) and Panama (14) have broken from the trailing pack. Fifth-place Costa Rica is sitting on nine points and fading fast.
So let’s think of the territory still to be crossed in two different ways. There are opponents that must be faced and others whose lines of supply must be choked off.
The first axiom of this fight – there is no difference between first and third. Topping the final qualifying group would be great and all, but it won’t make a lick of difference to where/who/how Canada plays in Qatar.
With that in mind, who are the easy prey coming up?
In the next international window – Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 – Canada plays Honduras (in Honduras), the U.S. (in Canada) and El Salvador (in El Salvador). All three games will take place in yet-to-be-announced cities.
The hot tip going around Edmonton on Tuesday was that the home leg of that window will be played in Hamilton.
That makes sense from a time-zone perspective. If Canada has to make three hops in six days, it’s best that it remains in the same time zone. That puts Vancouver’s temperate climes and Edmonton’s intemperate ones out of the running. (Toronto’s BMO Field is no good unless global warming gets a real jump on us in the next few months and the grass is still growing in January.)
It’s tempting to make the focus of that window the game against the U.S. You want to make a statement while also putting this thing in the bag? Beat America.
But the real tripwire there is Honduras, mostly because it comes first.
Honduras has been terrible recently. It hasn’t won a game yet (and also hasn’t been completely out of many games). That’s a competitive red flag – nothing to lose but still able to win.
If Canada comes out of that series with two wins, it is golden. Not wanting to be greedy, two wins and a tie would be optimal. That’s still on a first-place path.
The other focus is the weakest link of the four teams competing for three spots: Panama.
Panama is the Canada of Central America. It has only made one World Cup, and it was wiped out once it got there. Fair to say, that failure hurts Panama more than it hurts us.
Panama probably shouldn’t still be in this and, higher power permitting, it soon won’t be. As good as it would be for Canada to keep running the table, it’s probably more likely that Panama will start going sideways. It’d be best if both things happened at the same time.
The alternative is a two-front war.
It’s possible that the four major players come out of the next window in essentially the same position. That bumps us to a series of final showdowns in March.
That three-game sequence lines up: Canada vs. Costa Rica (in Costa Rica), Jamaica (in Canada), Panama (in Panama).
Canada does not want to end up needing to win in Panama in the final game of qualification. You thought Edmonton was amped this week? Panama will be like Edmonton if the whole country had tickets to the game.
That’s one of those mariachi-band-playing-all-night-in-front-of-the-Canadian-hotel and fire-alarms-going-off-every-half-hour situations. That is not where you want to find yourself.
Which means Canada would have to win in Costa Rica (difficult, but doable). Failing that, Canada would need to knock off a Jamaican team with nothing left to do but ruin things for everyone else (also difficult, also doable).
Let’s call the final three-game window the Alps of soccer wars. Can you win there? Sure. Hannibal did. But you’re not doing yourself any favours.
Needing a win in Panama on the final day is the Russian steppe. No land wars in Russia, please and thank you.
This rounds us back to something Herdman & Co. have been banging into everyone’s skulls for as long as people have been paying attention (so, about six days now). Forget about winning the whole thing. Just win the next one.
At the risk of being alarmist, Canada must beat Honduras in Honduras on Jan. 27. If it loses, there is the very real possibility it will find itself having dropped to fourth from first by the next day.
Then it is running home to face a U.S. side that needs a morale-boosting win. Canada now qualifies as such. And this time, winter won’t be on Canada’s side. Americans have winter, too.
Lose that one and you’re moving backward. Suddenly that play-in tournament is starting to look as though it’s not such a terrible way to end up and then you’re in full retreat.
Everything that Canada has managed up to now has been incredible. The performances are remarkable. The resilience is brand new. It’s as though the men’s soccer team just invented resilience.
But there is still a future in which this can go wrong and in the worst way possible.
So if you want to win the war, win the next fight. Win in Honduras. If Canada manages that, it is difficult to see it finishing up anywhere but in Qatar 13 months from now.