O’CONNOR-CLARKE: Where does the CanMNT go from here?

Friday night’s defeat to the United States was, in essence, a reality check for the Canadian men’s national team.

Heading into that game in Orlando with an abundance of confidence, having seen off an ostensibly stronger version of those same foes just a month prior, Canada came crashing swiftly back to earth at around the two-minute mark.

Optimism isn’t necessarily a common trait among Canadian soccer fans, but it was the prevailing mood in the week leading up to matchday, before it was so cruelly torn away. The Reds were in the top six of Concacaf, with results elsewhere (like Curacao’s loss to Costa Rica) going their way. Qualifying for the Hex felt like a very real possibility.

Now, after just one loss to a team 50 places ahead of Canada in the FIFA World Rankings, the landscape is bleak once more. The Reds came out flat in Orlando, and even though they dominated in possession and moved the ball better than the U.S., they’re on the wrong end of an embarrassing 4-1 scoreline.

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Did Canada fall victim to their own hubris? Many fans and pundits probably did; this U.S. team may have been beatable, but many of us may have overlooked that they’re still a talented team with a good deal more experience.

By this writer’s calculations, Canada have fallen to about 1,331 ranking points, slipping below El Salvador’s 1,336. That’s before either of El Salvador’s two matches in this window, on Saturday against Montserrat and Tuesday against the Dominican Republic.

If they win both (which they should comfortably, although Canadians can hang onto a sliver of hope for a Dominican result), that’ll add about 10 points to the Salvadorans’ total. That’ll be a 15-point gap for Canada, with no friendlies scheduled between now and the June deadline for Hex qualification.

So, where does Canada go from here? Well, there’s no need to overreact to losing against a team that was, really, the betting favourite at home.

Canada essentially has two options left in their quest for the 2022 World Cup. They could take their chances in the repechage group of Concacaf’s “best of the rest,” or they could schedule friendlies over the next few months to try and make up those points.

The first option is far from ideal; the Reds would need to win a group of three or four teams (comparable to their Nations League qualifying group, which was pretty straightforward). Then, they’d have to advance through three two-legged knockout ties against sides like, perhaps, Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, and Haiti.

Again, that’s doable, but it leaves no margin for error. If Canada gets through that tournament, they’ll need to beat the fourth-placed team from the Hex (Costa Rica or Honduras, maybe) in a two-legged playoff tie next October. And then, Canada would only have earned the right to play a team from Asia, South America, or Oceania for one of the last spots.

It’s a long road. Canada has reliably picked off Concacaf minnows in the past couple of years, but no plan should hinge on winning five consecutive knockout rounds.

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So, scheduling friendlies, then? Not a bad option, with plenty of time between now and June. A 15-point gap isn’t unmanageable; Canada’s task will be to find opponents that are high enough in the world rankings to offer significant points, but also beatable.

International friendlies don’t offer many points (the FIFA multiplier is 10, rather than the 25 of Concacaf Nations League games), but a win against, say, 24th-ranked Wales or 26th-ranked Venezuela would offer around 6.7 points. A Concacaf opponent like Honduras (62nd currently) could give Canada about 5.3.

El Salvador (and Curacao, for that matter) can do the same, obviously. Scheduling friendlies is also easier said than done, obviously; a ton of logistics go into that. Also, Canada then has to actually beat those opponents.

Neither path is easy. Even if Canada do squeeze their way into the Hex, qualifying for the World Cup from there would be an even greater challenge.

The world did not end with a loss to the United States, though. Canada’s team remains young and talented, and although John Herdman got it wrong on Friday, he’s got tricks up his sleeve.

The road to 2022 is long, and it was always going to be that way.