TORONTO — The road to the World Cup has always been difficult for the Canadian men. And getting to the 2022 tournament in Qatar will present more challenges than normal given delays caused by the global pandemic.
Just how challenging remains to be seen, depending on the grip of COVID-19.
But Canada coach John Herdman says his team will do whatever's needed.
"It's going to be abnormal," he said of what promises to be a crowded qualifying schedule. "But I think the group of players and staff are just desperate to qualify. We'll do whatever it's going to take."
CONCACAF's already-delayed qualifiers were to start in the FIFA international match windows in October and November. But CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean, announced Tuesday that first-round qualifying matches will now kick off next March.
The two governing bodies cited "challenging public health situations" and travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The delay affects what is the third incarnation of CONCACAF qualifying for the tournament due to the pandemic.
"I really empathize with CONCACAF and the challenges they're having with FIFA, trying to pull a World Cup qualification competition in a global pandemic," said Herdman. "It must be the hardest job to think about bringing 30 countries together all with different restrictions, different challenges, different realities — and Canada being one that certainly isn't out the deep water yet."
CONCACAF qualifying will involve 35 countries over three rounds, with the five top-ranked teams not joining in until the final round. When the dust settles, three countries will book their tickets to the 2022 World Cup with another advancing to an intercontinental playoff.
When play does start, the Canadian men will be the top seed in a first-round group consisting of Suriname, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and Aruba.
CONCACAF's plan had been to conclude qualifying by March 2022. Tuesday's announcement did not put an end date to the revised schedule.
Instead, CONCACAF said it will work with FIFA to finalize a new qualifying schedule, beginning with the first round in March 2021. The 2022 Qatar tournament is slated to run Nov. 21 through Dec. 18.
CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, has also delayed its qualifying schedule, pushing games back from September to October 2020. The goal is to complete the South American qualification in March 2022.
The Canadian men, currently ranked 73rd in the world and seventh in CONCACAF, have not played since Jan. 15 when they lost 1-0 to 39th-ranked Iceland in a friendly in Irvine, Calif.
Once CONCACAF qualifying starts, Canada will play each of the other teams in its first-round group once for a total of four matches — two home and two away.
The winners of each of the six first-round groups advance to the second round, which was to have featured three home-and-home series starting in March 2021. The three home-and-home series winners will then join the region's top five teams — Mexico, the United States, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Honduras — in the final round.
The final eight teams will play each other home and away, with each side playing 14 matches.
Successful qualification will be a 20-game ride for Canada. Herdman expects a very busy schedule next year.
"We're going to have to adapt," he said. "I think come June there'll be a bit of congestion there and some tricky challenges."
Assembling a team for the Gold Cup, the CONCACAF championship slated for July 10 to Aug. 1 next year, could also be challenging. In the past, a FIFA window overlapped part of the competition.
"That won't be the case (next year), which should make it trickier to get players released," said Herdman. "But that opens new opportunities for other players as always."
The Gold Cup also overlaps with the Tokyo Olympics, now planned for July 23 to Oct. 8, with CONCACAF qualifying for the men expected next March.
The Canadian men have qualified for the World Cup just once, in 1986 in Mexico. It is co-hosting the 2026 tournament, which will be expanded to 48 teams from 32, along with the U.S. and Mexico.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 8, 2020.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press