This may sound like revisionist history now, but the 2018 World Cup was never meant to be in the cards for Canada.
At the moment, that’s little consolation for a team that — despite a well-earned and entertaining 3-1 win over El Salvador on Tuesday — has fallen short of the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the fifth consecutive quadrennial cycle.
And as is always the case, the team’s exit raises some important questions about the immediate future.
What’s next for head coach Benito Floro? (He was evasive when asked about his status after Tuesday’s game.) How much longer will this team benefit from the immense skills of Atiba Hutchinson? (A teary-eyed Hutchinson declined to give a firm answer on that.)
Which players will be cycled out of the team, and where will Canada find the men to take their places? And above all, how do we, y’know, “fix” things?
In a roundabout attempt to answer those questions, let’s take a step back in time.
If you’d asked Canadian followers in early 2013 — shortly after “the 8-1 game” that ended the team’s previous World Cup qualifying campaign — whether reaching this year’s Hexagonal round (never mind the 2018 World Cup itself) was a realistic target, most would have laughed.
There was a minor surge in optimism when that summer, after a six-month search, the Canadian Soccer Association unveiled Benito Floro as the new manager. It was a departure from the federation’s usual modus operandi of making the cheap and expedient choice, and the fact that a former Real Madrid manager (back in the early 1990s, but still) was now helming Canada made national headlines.
Of course, any manager can only work with the player pool at their disposal, so it was unclear at the time how much of an impact Floro alone could have. But then, the reinforcements started showing up.
Cyle Larin arrived on the scene just as all-time leading scorer Dwayne De Rosario departed, and quickly established himself as the team’s top strike option. Tesho Akindele had the choice of Canada (where he was born) and the U.S. (where he grew up) — and, bucking the historical trend, actually picked Canada.
Junior Hoilett finally decided, after a decade of dithering, that it was time to suit up for his birth nation. Steven Vitoria did the same. Fraser Aird came back home, both at the club and national-team level, while Scott Arfield became the unlikeliest Canadian national-teamer since Marc Bircham.
Heck, even the self-exiled Lucas Cavallini came back for a game, though he’s since retreated back into exile.
All of a sudden, the Hex wasn’t looking like such a pipe dream after all.
The home win over Honduras to start the penultimate round had expectations hitting a fever pitch, though they came back down to Earth a few days later, when the team missed an opportunity to get full points against an El Salvador team that had just seen most of its players go on strike.
Two losses to Mexico and a defeat in San Pedro Sula, Honduras (again) left Canada with little hope heading into Tuesday night, needing a big win and some help from El Tri.
And yet… in the 56th minute, with Canada up 2-0 and El Salvador down to 10 men, the Hex, ever so fleetingly, was within reach. The Canadian team was playing with passion and fire, and potting another two goals seemed entirely possible.
Had it happened, and had Mexico finished just one of its chances against Honduras at the Estadio Azteca, we would today be talking about Canada reaching the Hex for the first time since 1997.
Neither of those panned out, of course. But it was still a more edifying finish to the campaign than anyone could have predicted three years ago, and gave the home fans plenty to cheer about.
Even so, here the team sits again, looking at the Hexagonal round from the outside. And thus comes the big question: how do we “fix” this?
Contrary to the numerous hot takes being tossed around on social media, there is no silver-bullet quick fix that will guarantee the team a spot in the 2022 World Cup.
Firing Floro won’t do it, nor would hiring [insert other manager’s name] instead. The absence of [insert player’s name] isn’t why Canada fell short in this cycle, and adding them back into the mix won’t be the panacea either.
Even the long-rumored unveiling of a new Canadian professional league will not, in and of itself, be the perfect solution.
The fix — the only fix there’s ever been — is to create, maintain and support a system where players learn the right skills from the youngest ages, and have a clear development pathway to the national teams. It gives the players the best chance to succeed in professional environments, and gives the senior team’s head coach a player pool that is as wide and as talented as possible.
That system has been getting built for years, with the most recent puzzle piece being the hiring of former national-team captain Jason de Vos as the CSA’s Director of Development.
This long-term outlook is why, back in 2013, fans were already looking ahead to 2022 and 2026 as the more realistic targets for Canada’s return to the World Cup. And it is why the cries of “blow it all up!” from knee-jerk reactionaries in the wake of Canada’s most recent elimination — whether borne of benign ignorance or callous self-interest — must be disregarded.
The sudden influx of talent in the past two years almost put Canada in a position to reach the Hex this time around. And in the next World Cup qualifying cycle, once again, new names will emerge (either from the youth ranks or elsewhere) to unexpectedly lead the team’s efforts on the field.
But in the big picture, reaching the Hex (or even the World Cup) should not be an anomaly, or a happy accident. Falling short of the Hex must be seen as a significant disappointment, not a foregone conclusion.
That is the future being built towards. No one knows for sure when that future will arrive, but it is where the focus must remain.