It all starts tomorrow. On a dodgy pitch in Cuba, Canada’s World Cup qualifying begins in earnest after dispatching some minnows, unimpressively it must be said, in a preliminary round last year.
In a group that has no clear favourite to advance and only one, Cuba, that most have written off, a cold, hard eye will need to reign over strategy if we want to ensure safe passage to the final phase, the six team hexagonal, that will determine who represents CONCACAF at the World Cup.
Personally, I’d rather have faced Panama or Honduras away as our first game (and have them at home later in the year when it’s cold). Like all round robin formats, teams really want to avoid losing their first game and in the feeling out process that defines first games in these situations, it would be better to leave Tegucigalpa with one point rather than Havana because both teams aren’t in a qualifying rhythm yet. Facing them later in the tournament when they may really need points, is a concern. Our last game is away to Honduras on October 16. If we think the Cubans are making it hard for us by playing mid-day on an un-Wembley-ish field, wait until October. If Honduras need points, it will be brutal. If we both need points because Panama’s wrapped up a spot, it will be hell…and next to impossible.
So let’s take a scan at what Canada needs to clear a path to the next round. A realistic scan but one that makes some safe assumptions. For example, if you’re talking about qualifying for the next round, and that being a reasonable task for Canada, you have to assume we can beat Cuba and Panama at home. If we can’t get those six points, we are in serious trouble.
Let’s start with the week ahead.
Three points in Cuba is a must. There are three away games and this is by far the easiest of the three teams we’ll play. If we can’t get three here you would really have to question our ability to get a road win in Panama or Honduras. Couple this with a win by Honduras over Panama and we’ve immediately put three points between ourselves and third place.
The dream result would be another three points over Honduras at home on June 12. Couple this with a draw between Panama and Cuba (unlikely) and we’ve now got a five point safety net between qualifying and not qualifying.
The optimist’s standings after two games would look like this:
- Canada 6pts
- Honduras 3pts
- Panama 1pt
- Cuba 1pt
Dreams are dreams though and I think, realistically, we’re likely looking at a draw with Honduras on Monday, leading to this:
- Canada 4pts
- Honduras 4pts
- Panama 3pt
- Cuba 0pts
The more we labour in Cuba and need to leave top players like DeRosario on the field to ensure three points, the guy is now 34 years old, the more difficult it will be to get three points at home to Honduras four days later in Toronto. The problem is that this is not a deep squad by any stretch of the imagination and the injury to Josh Simpson has made it all the thinner. Samuel Piette may end up being a very good player but for me, he was marginal in Olympic qualifying and having to draft in a 17 year old centre mid who’s not even attached to a pro club (though a signing with Fortuna Dusseldorf seems imminent), does not bode well for the depth chart. I would say the realistic path is the one to bet on. That means the two September matches against Panama will really determine if Canada goes through or not as it will be a safe assumption that Honduras takes six points off Cuba in the adjacent fixtures.
As mentioned above, it’s highly unlikely that Canada will go through if we can’t manage a home win against Panama. If we get that and hang on for a draw in Panama, coupled with Honduras clubbing Cuba twice, we will be on our way to the hex. Here’s what the standings would look like:
- Canada 8pts
- Honduras 10pts
- Panama 4pt
- Cuba 0pts
We would then face the enviable position of just needing a win at home to Cuba in October to render the last game, away to Honduras, moot. We could afford to lose that game and still go through regardless of how Panama do in their remaining two games.
For this scenario to pan out this way the two most important results become Honduras’ game tomorrow at home to Panama and Canada’s away game in Panama. If Panama are kept to just the one point at home to Canada and we can win the games we really need to, the final round of World Cup qualifying beckons.
In a nutshell: we need six points from the two Cuba games, four points from Panama and just the home draw on June 12 against Honduras. Seven of nine points at home and four on the road. If we can manage that then the only help we need comes in the form of a home win by Honduras tomorrow against Panama.