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  • Good news (kinda) for Canada in Brazil 2014 qualifying


    Burning cars! Broken windows! Pet salamanders let free to roam the streets!

    No, I'm not describing a Canadian city after an NHL playoff series victory; rather, I'm describing the fictional outraged response to Canada's draw for World Cup 2010 qualifying a few years back. And while there were no burnt cars or marauding reptiles (that I know of), fans of the men's national team were rather agitated at having been screwed over by CONCACAF and put in a very difficult position in attempting to qualify for South Africa.

    Well kids, CONCACAF has screwed us again for Brazil 2014. 'Cept this time, it feels kinda nice.


    My colleague Grant has ground into the nitty-gritty of CONCACAF's World Cup qualifying scheme in a previous post, so I won't delve into it too deeply here.

    But for context, the outrage in South Africa 2010 qualifying was over the fact that Canada failed to receive an automatic bye to the semi-final round (the round just before the vaunted "Hex"), even though its stellar run in the 2007 Gold Cup suggested that it should have. The anger was not at the fact Canada had to play a home-and-away with St. Vincent and the Grenadines to reach the semi-final round (after all, it gave Ali Gerba a nice opportunity to pad his strike rate). Rather, the sticking point was that Canada ended up in the semi-final round's "group of death" with Mexico, Jamaica and (ugh) Honduras.

    With such a daunting task ahead of them, and with only two World Cup qualifiers under their belt, Canada was under extreme pressure right from the beginning. When they failed to pick up the full three points in their first game of the semi-final round (the epic encounter with Jamaica at BMO Field in August 2008), many fans left the stadium knowing the dreams of qualification were probably already dead. After one game. Which we drew.

    So, that brings us to Brazil 2014. What's changed?

    Canada will, once again, not receive an automatic bye to the semi-final round. But instead of playing a home-and-away against a minnow (last time, St. Vincent) to reach the semi-final round, we'll now have to win a four-team group with three minnows to do so.

    "More games to get to the World Cup?" says the cynic. "Bad news! Just more chances for Canada to fail!"

    Hold your horses.

    We're talking about real minnows here. Not El Salvador or Panama or Trinidad (we can't be drawn into a group with any of them). More like Nicaragua, Antigua, the Cayman Islands or, yeah, St. Vincent.

    We're talking three World Cup qualifiers on Canadian soil this year, sometime in September through November. Three more opportunities to build anticipation and excitement for the squad, in games that really matter. (And hey, maybe a chance for Mission Moncton to come to fruition?)

    We're talking six games (rather than two) with the pressure of World Cup qualifying on the shoulders of the team. Four more chances to build camaradie and chemistry in meaningful games (and, if I may be the cynic for the moment, four additional chances to cap-tie players with multiple options). Four additional opportunities, if coach Stephen Hart sees fit, to give young or "on the bubble" players a chance to show what they can do.

    And we're talking about a situation where Canada knows exactly what the Gold Cup is about this time. A great run at the Gold Cup would be terrific for morale and the team's profile. A less-than-stellar one... meh. Experience still gained. Either way, we know precisely where we stand for World Cup qualifying, and the Gold Cup won't change things.

    Sure, I'm acting as though the quarter-final round will be a cakewalk for Canada... and it sure as hell better be, otherwise I think we may all be due for thorough psychological evaluations.

    But while the qualifying format was changed by CONCACAF to give those minnow teams the benefit of more meaningful games, it's ended up having the same impact on Canada.

    Prior to South Africa 2010, the team simply wasn't adequately prepared, and crumbled when it mattered the most. Going into Brazil 2014, we'll be facing a similarly difficult group in the semi-final round -- going up against two of the region's top six (U.S., Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Cuba). But we'll enter with more preparation, more organization and, hopefully, a lot more momentum.

    That's no guarantee of anything, of course. But in Canadian soccer, you take every small bit of positive news you can get.

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