John Herdman - Gold Cup - sideline
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Canada target "perfect" Nations League campaign for World Cup hopes

When the new Concacaf World Cup qualification format was revealed in July, John Herdman and Canada were caught off-guard.

Instead of using Concacaf rankings, the revamped hexagonal round for 2022 qualifying will be based on FIFA rankings.

“We were originally notified that it was a Concacaf rankings table and the rankings table was there,” explained Herdman on a conference call on Wednesday. “We were tracking everything and building all our planning on the Concacaf rankings. That’s what had been originally presented when the Nations League was formally presented to the member associations.”

“That changed in July 2019. We woke up one morning and the rankings table isn’t there any more. It’s gone,” continued Herdman. “So, we changed gears. That’s in the past; the future is the future. We’re focused on what we can control and what we have to do now to put ourselves in the best position to qualify for the Hex.”

The principle difference between the two algorithms used by Fifa and Concacaf is the weight given to match importance. 

For friendlies, under the Concacaf system 17.5 points would be factored by the difference between the match result and expected result. Whereas in FIFA’s only 10 (or five, if the match was played outside an international window) would be. For Nations League group matches the disparity is 35 and 15, respectively. 

Basically, it would be easier to amass points under Concacaf’s system. Never mind that there are six teams in Concacaf who are not full FIFA members, muddying the waters further.

As Herdman noted, the Concacaf men’s rankings no longer exist

“The initial announcement caused shock and frustration. You can’t hide from that,” admitted Herdman. “We committed down a path of Nations League. Those matches were super meaningful for Canada, our big players were turning up for matches because they were aware those ranking points would lead to a path to World Cup qualification.”

Canada finished second in Nations League qualification, behind only Haiti on goals scored.

“At the same time, we weren’t taking FIFA games in those windows because our priority was to gather [Concacaf] ranking points, so June 2019 we were ranked sixth, closed 70 points on Jamaica and actually put ourselves in World Cup qualification reach with only a year left to go,” explained Herdman. “We were celebrating a pretty successful Nations League campaign.”

“Then you know changes have been made, now it’s FIFA ranking points and the gap with El Salvador is there, and Panama,” added Herdman. In the latest FIFA rankings, Canada are eighth in Concacaf, 19 points behind Panama and 30 behind El Salvador, who hold the sixth spot.

The rankings come June 2020 will determine which six teams are placed in the Hexagonal group for 2022 World Cup qualification.

“Now we have a new focus: to climb that mountain, which is to qualify for the Hex through overtaking El Salvador,” stated Herdman. “We worked out all the maths, looked at how real it is. What it is going to take will be a perfect season from Canada and, along the way, Panama and El Salvador dropping some points.”

“It’s all about how you look at things,” he continued. “One day I got out of bed and it was, ‘Woe me’ and the next day it was, ‘What a challenge this is going to be’. And ultimately, that’s how we’re talking about it with the players: What an amazing challenge.”

Canada’s best shot at making up that distance is by advancing through the group stage of the inaugural Nations League as the top side in Group A – matches in the later stages are weighted more heavily than the group games under the FIFA system.

Canada begin that quest on Saturday, September 7 when they host Cuba at BMO Field. The two will then play Cuba’s home match in the Cayman Islands on September 10. 

Said Herdman of those two dates: “To qualifying to the Nations League final four, where there are a lot of ranking points available to Canada through that pathway, these matches are absolutely critical.”

Then come the matches against the US men's national team. Canada host the United States at BMO Field on October 15 and then play away to the US on November 15.

“These matches against the USA, to qualify to the final four, [are] critical if we want to take the Hex route,” stressed Herdman. “What we said to the players: all we demand is the same excellence and commitment you’ve shown.”

“And if we miss the Hex, the path is clear,” continued the coach. “That’s the one thing that everyone in Concacaf is celebrating, that the teams between 7 and 35 they still get opportunity to qualify for a World Cup through a pretty grueling pathway.”

Those remaining teams that do not qualify for the Hexagonal will be divided into eight groups for home-and-away round-robin matches, with the winners of each advancing to a knockout stage of two-legged series until one is left. They then face the fourth-placed team from the Hex in a playoff round. 

And all that only grants access to the intercontinental playoff two-legged series.

“But again, if you look at the glass half-full, what a story that could be,” he added. “Something the country could rally around if Canada was to go through 12 matches to take that chance of playing in the half spot. That’s what Concacaf have offered to those teams that might not be able to accumulate the ranking points in the time that they’ve got left.”