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Canadian men’s soccer team leaves qualifying calculation to others as Qatar calls

World Cup bid can sewn up as soon as Wednesday as match with El Salvador looms
Canada’s Milan Borjan (18) and head coach John Herdman celebrate the team’s 2-0 victory following second half World Cup qualifying soccer action against the United States, in Hamilton, Ont., Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

John Herdman said all the right things Sunday after Canada dispatched the United States at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field to move closer to qualifying for 2022 World Cup.

He warned against looking too far ahead, preferring instead to focus on Wednesday’s game in El Salvador. He talked about the commitment and skill of his players.

He even playfully put his fingers in his ears when a reporter suggested qualification was essentially a fait accompli.

“Until those points are in the bag … and I’m not even allowing the players to talk about the (CONCACAF qualifying) table,” he said. “We’ve just got to go into this with the same kind of attitude. Start again. El Salvador’s a cup final. The second we take our eye off that and we start thinking about the math, I think that’s the mentality that’s going to hurt us.”

But the numbers bode well.

Come March, when the eight teams in the final round of qualifying in the region have completed their 14-game schedule, the top three will qualify for the tournament in Qatar. The fourth-place finisher will face an Oceania country in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.

Canada (6-0-4, 22 points) tops the standings with three games remaining after the visit to El Salvador — at Costa Rica on March 23, at home to Jamaica on March 26 and at Panama on March 29.

Canada could clinch a World Cup berth Wednesday, although it would take a combination of results.

Should Canada beat El Salvador (upping its total to 25 points), and Panama lose to Mexico, the U.S. lose to Honduras and Costa Rica lose or draw against Jamaica, the 40th-ranked Canadians would be through. That would open the door for Canada since Panama plays the U.S. in March — and under that scenario one of them would be unable to overtake Canada — while Costa Rica can’t drop any points if it is to reach the 25-point mark.

A more likely scenario could see Canada guarantee itself at least a fourth-place finish after play Wednesday.

El Salvador (2-5-3, nine points), Jamaica (1-5-4, seven points) and Honduras (0-7-3, three points) cannot catch Canada.

And Herdman’s team has a nine-point cushion over fifth-place Costa Rica (3-3-5, 13 points). A Canadian win Wednesday coupled with a Costa Rica loss or tie in Jamaica would mean the Costa Ricans could not catch Canada, assuring the Canadian men of at least a fourth-place finish.

A Canada tie in El Salvador coupled with a Costa Rica loss would also guarantee the Canadians at least fourth place.

Canada would then be well positioned to ensure qualification early in the March international window

At the other end of the standings, Canada currently has a four-point lead over the U.S. and Mexico (both 5-2-3, 18 points) and five points over Panama (5-3-2, 17 points).

While Herdman was trying to avoid looking ahead, he couldn’t resist a bit of a sales job as he celebrated both the 2-0 win over the 11th-ranked Americans and the renewed focus on football in the country — spurred by the men’s the men’s qualifying run and the women’s gold-medal performance last summer at the Tokyo Olympics.

In his post-game comments, Herdman cited Marcelo Flores, a 18-year-old Canadian-born forward, who is in the Arsenal setup and has already featured in the Mexican youth program thanks to his father’s bloodlines.

Canada Soccer would like to claim him.

“I’m sure you’ve got players like young Marcelo Flores (who) might be looking after this game and wondering whether he wants to play for Mexico or Canada,” said Herdman. “This is what we’re starting to provoke across the world. And these dual-passport players are looking out where they pledge their international future. All of this is important to our success.

“But you know as well as I do, World Cup qualification, the financial opportunity that falls with that, if invested properly, can really set a country up for a long time. And then knowing we have ‘26 (the 2026 World Cup that Canada is co-hosting) in the bag, this country could really start setting itself up as a top-20, top-30 nation given our population and once this passion catches fire — I think we’ll make sure the best athletes come to our sport and make sure that those with dual passports wear the Maple Leaf.”

The rewards of World Cup qualification are substantial.

While FIFA has yet to detail the prize money breakdown for Qatar, it offered a total purse of US$400 million at the 2018 tournament in Russia, ranging from US$38 million for the champion to US$8 million for each of the teams that finished 17th through 32nd.

Canada Soccer’s normal operating budget features annual revenue of C$22 million to C$25 million.

Qualifying for the 2022 World Cup would also no doubt boost sponsorships, player registrations and profile — all welcome signs on the runway to the 2026 tournament.

Still, the Canadian players are following Herdman’s lead by focusing on one game at a time.

“Honestly it’s been a mindset here where it’s not about counting points in the table and saying ‘Oh if we do that, we can qualify,’” said fullback Richie Laryea. “It’s more of we’ve come this far, why not just keep going. Let’s just keep pushing and just do what we’ve been doing from the beginning.”

“We have to keep going,” he added. “At this point I don’t think it’s enough to just qualify. We want to make a statement. We want to be the first team (in CONCACAF) to qualify. We want to finish first in these qualifiers … Just set the bar high for ourselves to keep pushing.”

—Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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