World Cup Qualifying

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Desperate Canada provides away challenge for USMNT

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Canada faces one of its most important matches in some time when it faces the United States men’s national team at BMO Field in Toronto on Tuesday.

The Canucks beat Cuba twice last month to start life in the CONCACAF Nations League, and can take both a physical and a spiritual step in its progression with a defeat of the U.S.

The U.S. is unbeaten against Canada in 16 matches dating back to 1985, and it’s been all wins in meaningful competitions for the Yanks.

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So that’s one hurdle for John Herdmann’s men, but the more meaningful, empirical stuff comes with the knowledge that a win would not only put Canada on the precipice of a berth in the CNL semifinals but also provide a significant boost in the race for the sixth spot in World Cup qualifying’s Hexagonal.

It’s one of the reasons Canada is spending its entire international break gearing up for the USMNT, playing just this match and not a proximal friendly.

ICYMI: CONCACAF will now determine its World Cup contestants a bit differently. Three of six sides from the Hex will head to the World Cup, while the fourth side will meet a seventh side, the champions of a second “lower” tournament, in a playoff.

Canada enters this month five points behind sixth place El Salvador, who beat Montserrat and next faces St. Lucia in what’s sure to be another win. But fifth place Honduras is also in play, as are Curacao and Panama. Haiti is on the outskirts but alive.

CONCACAF men’s world rankings via FIFA

12. Mexico (1603 points)
21. United States (1545)
43. Costa Rica (1442)
47. Jamaica (1435)
67. Honduras (1359)
72. El Salvador (1327)
——Hex cut-off———-
75. Canada (1322)
76. Curacao (1320)
77. Panama (1316)
86. Haiti (1277)
100. Trinidad and Tobago (1226)

Make no mistake: This Canada game looms large for both sides, as Gregg Berhalter’s resting of Zack Steffen, DeAndre Yedlin, Michael Bradley, and even Aaron Long was probably meant to preserve them for Tuesday (The Cuba match was only Long’s second outside the XI in the Yanks’ last 10).

All four will play a big part in dealing with Canada’s massive attacking threat. While it’s natural for American fans to expect goals from their men in Toronto, it’s pretty likely that Canada is going to produce a lot of threats through whoever Herdman chooses for his front three (or four, or whatever).

Herdman has played a variation of a 4-3-3 in five of his last seven matches in charge of Canada, only going away from the formation against the two best sides he’s played: Mexico (5-4-1) and Haiti (4-5-1).

At home against the U.S., what will he choose?

The 4-3-3 does hold allure. We know Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich) and Jonathan David (Gent) are going to start this match, but center forward Cyle Larin is not in the side despite red-hot form for Zulte Waregem in Belgium (on loan from Besitkas).

Puebla’s Lucas Cavallini would be the likely CF in such a 4-3-3, leaving Junior Hoilett to come off the bench. There’s an argument to be made that Canada’s out-and-out attackers are as dangerous as the U.S.

That’s why the play at the back is the difference between these sides. Herdman’s men have been sound against lesser CONCACAF sides but allowed three goals in the Mexico and Haiti tilts. Only one player, Steven Vitoria of Moreirense, plays at a higher level than MLS, while four players are regular contributors to their Major League Soccer clubs.

Samuel Piette (Montreal) and Scott Arfield (Rangers) are Canada’s big hopes in the midfield and will need to contend with not just the U.S. attack but Invigorated midfielders like Weston McKennie.

Berhalter’s Yanks are well-suited to deal with Canada, even 90-minutes north of the border, but the challenge will come from the desperate hosts and their electric attackers. How much of Berhalter’s plan is to build out from the back, and how ready is he to change tactics if the high press of Davies and David cause problems for Steffen and his backs?

The CNL may be a headache and a lesser competition, but the Yanks would love to hold Canada’s hopes to the sword with a decisive away win that puts the onus on the Canadians to attack next month in the United States. The second tiebreaker in classification is goal difference in group play, and the Americans’ plus-7 is level with Canada’s 6-0 and 1-0 defeats of Cuba.

Hex Watch: Canada closes ground; USMNT up to 21 in FIFA Rankings

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The USMNT moved up another spot in the FIFA Rankings, climbing to the precipice of the Top 20.

Gregg Berhalter’s Yanks are 21st, the second-highest team in CONCACAF to Mexico’s 12th.

According to the FIFA site, 21st is the average ranking for the U.S. since the ranking system was created.

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Another CONCACAF side, Jamaica, was the biggest riser in the Top 50 (47). Barring a dramatic collapse between now and June, the Reggae Boyz look set to join El Tri, the USMNT, and 43rd ranked Costa Rica in the Hex, as four of the top six sides from CONCACAF.

The final two slots are going to hinge largely on the CONCACAF Nations League, and expect a big charge from Canada when they meet the USMNT over the next two months (Oct. 15 in Toronto and Nov. 15 in a TBD location).

Our neighbors to the north are currently ranked seventh in CONCACAF, which means they’d have to win an entire qualifying tournament just to face the fourth-place finisher in the Hex.

Honduras has a nice cushion on the field, ranked 67th with 1359 points. Guatemala and Grenada were the biggest risers in the Top 200 besides the Cayman Islands, but are still far from the Hex.

CONCACAF men’s world rankings via FIFA

12. Mexico (1603 points)
21. United States (1545)
43. Costa Rica (1442)
47. Jamaica (1435)
67. Honduras (1359)
72. El Salvador (1327)
——Hex cut-off———-
75. Canada (1322)
76. Curacao (1320)
77. Panama (1316)
86. Haiti (1277)
100. Trinidad and Tobago (1226)

As for EloRatings, a site trusted a bit more than FIFA but meaning nothing to the Hex, the U.S. is 38th to Mexico’s 15th and Canada moves into fifth in the confederation.

Outside of CONCACAF….

Belgium remains the world’s No. 1 side, while France passed Brazil and moved into second.

The Netherlands moved up three spots to 13th and Chile dropped three to 17th.

Iceland (41) and Hungary (50) both sank five spots. Only Greece (six places to 60) and Lebanon (seven spot to 94th) sunk further down the chart.

2 Koreas move toward meeting in World Cup qualifying

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) Before a meeting of the Korean neighbors in the second stage of 2022 World Cup qualifying, North Korea must navigate a potentially tricky opening fixture against Lebanon in Pyongyang on Thursday.

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Forty teams are still active on the road to Qatar but only the eight group winners and four best-placed teams progress to the next stage where Asia’s four automatic places in the World Cup are up for grabs.

South Korea, the favorite in Group H, is scheduled to visit Pyongyang on Oct. 15 in a meeting between two countries technically at war.

“We know that North Korea will be tough at home and have World Cup history but we want to get a good start,” Lebanon coach Liviu Ciobotariu said. “In a group that also has South Korea, every game is vital.”

South Korea, looking for a tenth successive World Cup appearance, sits out the first round of games this week, as do all eight top-ranked teams in Asia, and kicks off against Turkmenistan on Tuesday.

Also Thursday, Turkmenistan takes on Sri Lanka, the world’s 200th ranked team. Unlike South Korea, the South Asians are unlikely to progress to the next stage but there is still much at stake.

After the Easter Sunday suicide bombing in Colombo that killed more than 250 people, first round opponent Macau refused to travel to the island for the return leg of their first-round qualifier in June and forfeited the match. Sri Lanka is keen to show that life has returned to normal.

“Terrorists have attacked many developed countries in the past and this does not affect carrying out the affairs of any sport,” the country’s football federation declared in a statement. “Sri Lanka shall enjoy its right to host the home game in Sri Lanka and every county shall respect each other’s right to host similar games.”

Southeast Asia also has plenty to play for. The biggest crowd this week will likely be in Jakarta as Indonesia takes on rival Malaysia in front of what is expected to be 80,000 fans.

Feelings between the two neighbors can run high. According to reports in Malaysia, Football Association of Malaysia president Hamidin Mohd Amin has requested that an armored personnel carrier be on standby.

“We are not worried about the situation at the stadium itself as there are a lot of security personnel from both Malaysia and Indonesia guarding the perimeter,” Hamidin told local media. “But there is a risk of provocation and chaos en route.”

Thailand hosts Vietnam in the same group while Mongolia plays its first ever game in the second round of World Cup qualifying and faces Myanmar.

Elsewhere, 2022 World Cup host Qatar is placed in Group E and kicks off against Afghanistan. Regardless of how the Asian champion performs, it will not progress to the next stage of World Cup qualification. Qatar is involved as the path to the 2022 World Cup has been combined with qualification for the 2023 Asian Cup which will take place in China.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

FIFA clears Iraq to host World Cup qualifying games in Basra

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ZURICH — FIFA says the southern Iraqi city of Basra can host the national team’s return to playing World Cup qualifying games at home.

Security concerns since the 1980s have forced Iraq to host most qualifiers in neutral countries. Iraq played “home” games in Iran, Jordan and Malaysia in a failed attempt to reach the 2018 tournament.

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FIFA says “following a security assessment by a FIFA delegation” Basra can stage games in qualifying for the 2022 edition.

Iraq hosts Hong Kong on Oct. 10, likely at the 65,000-capacity Basra Sports City stadium.

Top-ranked Iran visits on Nov. 14.

Iraq’s group in the current phase of qualifying also includes Bahrain and Cambodia.

Amid widespread pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong against China’s rule, FIFA says it is “closely monitoring the situation” ahead of the national team’s Sept. 10 qualifier against Iran.

Canada coach Herdman aims for 2022 World Cup

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We haven’t talked about 2022 World Cup qualifying in some time, as the focus was on the USMNT finding its coach, then Gregg Berhalter implementing his style, and soon winning the 2019 Gold Cup to ensure a spot in the 2021 Confederations Cup.

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There should be a ton of focus on the U.S. bounce back for any number of reasons, especially considering that qualifying for the next World Cup may be the last time the U.S. has to truly worry about its berth (unless Gianni Infantino gets his way and miraculously implements an expanded field for 2022. Then Berhalter and Co. are set already).

So with three-and-a-half spots available, it’s of-note any time a manager admits his national team side should earn one of those berths in Qatar.

Today, we’re talking about the biggest underachievers in CONCACAF for the better part of the last 20 years, and that’s Canada. The Canucks are led by John Herdman, and he’s bringing a mentality of expectation that’s been lacking from the unit in some time (although there were strides under Benito Floro) From Sportsnet.ca:

“We don’t have excuses. I don’t want to be that guy making them. At the end of the day if we don’t qualify for [2022], it’ll be a disappointment. To put that level of expectations on the team is critical. The team wants that, they’re ready for it. They know it’s now or never for many of them,” Herdman said.

“So, when you say, ‘how do you know it’s going to happen?’, we have to make it happen. But more importantly, we have to believe, and I think that belief is there from the men who are going to be leading the charge.”

He also, albeit not in so many words, admitted that the Canadians have underperformed in recent cycles.

First of all, no one is catching Mexico this cycle. El Tri are in something akin to a golden generation, and have the following stars in their prime: Wolves’ Raul Jimenez, Diego Reyes, and Hector Herrera, with Hirving Lozano getting there and several veteran leaders on the end of their elite window but still easy CONCACAF stars (Memo Ochoa, Hector Moreno, Andres Guardado).

So that’s 2.5 half spots.

Canada is ranked 78th in the world by FIFA and is 68th in the Elo Ratings. That puts them 8th and 7th amongst CONCACAF sides, as El Salvador is much lower in Elo than FIFA (and Elo is superior as an analytical tool. We’ve placed the chart at bottom).

Considering that the USMNT historically underperformed in 2018 qualification and Panama lucked into the tournament via a goal that did not cross the line, and it’s easy to predict a reverse in fortunes for the those two, but can Canada get in the Top Three (or the playoff spot) by moving ahead of 2-3 of the U.S., Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Jamaica (Considering Canada a contender requires they pass El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago).

If anything, the time is now for this group of Canadians, considering they’ll host the 2026 tournament with the U.S. and Canada. Les Rouges have vastly under-performed at two of the last three U-20 World Cups since giving the Americans a scare in the 2013 Round of 16. But they had a quality 2017 Gold Cup, and missed the 2018 World Cup qualifying Hex because Mexico had nothing to play for in the final game and drew Honduras.

Canada is still very low on overall depth and has a generation of player-first entitlement to overcome, but has CONCACAF star power in Alphonso Davies, Junior Hoilett, Scott Arfield, Cyle Larin, and Jonathan Osorio, a UEFA Champions League goalkeeper in Milan Borjan, a rising Liverpool teen in Liam Millar and the wild card of Barcelona property and former Montreal forward Ballou Tabla. Not to mention, the new and promising Canadian Premier League will make it easier for Herdman to scout potential next level stars.

Canada is currently en route for a Pot 3 ranking for the fourth round of World Cup qualifying (the last stop before the Hex). It would be drawn into a group where the main combatants will be one of Mexico, the USMNT, and Costa Rica, and one of Jamaica, Honduras, or El Salvador.

It’s not crazy at all to think Canada would edge Honduras and El Salvador for a top spot, and a group with Costa Rica where points will be live in those two fixtures. And the Canucks have a tactical boss with a chance to outwit another manager.

Hot take: Los Ticos are still long on experience but a bigger question in terms of depth and youth, missing three of four U-20 World Cups. That tournament shouldn’t be the lone arbiter of future goodness, but it’s something.

Even given the 2018 qualifying embarrassment, I fully expect the Yanks to qualify for 2022 in Qatar. Honestly, I think Jamaica might be the third-best group in terms of talent, with Costa Rica and Honduras interesting for different reasons. To borrow from the other football, Panama out-kicked its coverage and should be considered no certainty for the Hex. T&T is tricky at home. If Canada can be, there’s a really good chance they make the Hex.