CONCACAF Nations League qualifying is the stupidest thing Canada’s men’s national soccer team has ever done, including that Merlion Cup we fixed.
Let’s see if I can explain it in a paragraph. Lesser teams, such as Canada, are trying to qualify for the 2019 Gold Cup and the top divisions of the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League. The six teams from the last World Cup qualifying hex got automatic spots; the top ten of 34 teams in this tournament will join them at the Gold Cup and the top six will also play in the Nations League first division starting this fall. Nations were seeded into four pots based on their ranking, to play one nation from each pot including their own. For example, Canada is in the top pot, Pot A, and play a game each against a team from each of pots A, B, C, and D. To date Canada has whipped the US Virgin Islands and Dominica without shipping a goal, and beat St. Kitts and Nevis by a handier-than-the-scoreline-looked 1-0. Our final game is against pot A rival French Guiana, Sunday, March 24 at BC Place (good seats most emphatically still available).
This is all very stupid, but just wait. (Dammit, two paragraphs.) The teams are not drawn into groups. So pot A Canada plays French Guiana, Dominica, and the US Virgin Islands; also-pot-A French Guiana plays Canada, Guyana, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Anguilla. The schedule isn’t home-and-away, either. So French Guiana, a relatively weak pot A team, has to travel from South America to Vancouver and doesn’t even get a home rematch out of it. If I was a French Guiana fan I’d think I’d pissed CONCACAF off a couple years ago or a Canadian ran the confederation or something.
Teams play schedules of unequal strength and are measured against teams they don’t play at all. Goal difference, creating an urgent need to hammer as many goals past pot D minnows as they can. Canada, with its 3-0-0 record and no goals conceded, is currently tied for third with Cuba. A draw on the final match day will assure Canada both qualifying spots, but a loss would introduce more permutations that can easily be calculated; it would probably be fine, but we could theoretically fall as low as thirteenth1. Basically it’s American college football.
This is bad sport, and fans are not interested. Toronto hosted 10,523 fans for our previous home game against Dominica on a Tuesday in October, and Vancouver will be around that on a Sunday afternoon. CanMNT boss John Herdman called up four hometown Vancouver Whitecaps and four more popular alumni, including Bayern Munich depth player Alphonso Davies for his first match back since being sold a few months ago. Davies’s face has been all over the advertising to an almost pitiful degree. “It is impossible to care about this game,” they plead, “but wouldn’t you like to see Alphonso again?”
We can try to gin up some rage from the 2017 Gold Cup. French Guiana’s squad that year included one of their better locals, 37-year-old former Chelsea man and 80-time French international Florent Malouda. In the past, CONCACAF had allowed former French internationals born in the overseas départements like Guadeloupe’s Jocelyn Angloma and Martinique’s Frédéric Piquionne to spent five years outside of international soccer and then play in the Gold Cup. Malouda had been out of the French setup since 2012 and played in the Caribbean Cup but, come the actual Gold Cup, CONCACAF informed French Guiana that he was cap-tied to France and considered ineligible. Reeling from this change of policy, Malouda was left out of their first match, a 4-2 loss to Canada. In their next game against Honduras French Guiana defied CONCACAF, started Malouda to the delight of their supporters, and got a 0-0 draw on the field that became a 3-0 default loss in the standings for fielding an ineligible player. Canada’s goal difference in their win was +2, Honduras’s in their default was +3; los Catrachos were one up.
The French Guianans, who knew what would happen, gave Honduras an unfair advantage over Canada. It would have been a scandal if it had mattered: Canada finished ahead of Honduras in the group anyway. Frankly, if it was my team suffering an abrupt rule change to strip away a core player when the president of CONCACAF was from a nation that profited, I would have been defiant too. We were mad at the time, being partisans, but it’s hard to muster much of a grudge now.
Unfortunately for Vancouver-area Chelsea fans, the French Guianans have learned their lesson and have left Malouda off their squads ever since. Their roster includes a number of players from the French Ligue 2, but these guys already lost to St. Vincent and the Grenadines at home and now faces maybe the longest road trip in confederational soccer outside Australia2. They barely beat Regular Guyana at home. Their current lofty position with the rest of the CONCACAF second-raters is exaggerated, based largely off good luck and a 3-0 win over Cuba in 2017.
Fans are calling for us to run out the big guns and light up French Guiana like a malfunctioning Ariane 5. After all, we have a fast guy who had a hot streak in Belgium, a fast guy who Bayern Munich paid a fortune for, and a centreback from English non-League soccer, so no collection of Ligue 2 scrubs can possibly oppose our excellence. Canadian men’s national team fans are, somehow, always overconfident, always sure that this batch of foreign mercenaries and alluring prospects will definitely turn it around this time. You can’t spell “cognitive dissonance” without “cansoc.”
Mathematically, the idea of us failing to make the top Nations League group is close to unimaginable and that of failing to make the Gold Cup very unlikely, but that doesn’t mean we’re certain to overwhelm the distant visitors. At the Gold Cup we went up 3-0 then let them peg us back to 3-2 in about 90 seconds; it wound up a comfortable 4-2 win but between that result and others Canada has not earned the right to sneer at French overseas départements. We should win, we really should, and with goals in hand, but this isn’t Dominica or Saint Lucia. It’s a team just good enough to be a tripping hazard, but bad enough that if we do get a 4-0 victory and a brace from Junior Hoilett there’ll be no honour in it.
This may be the least appealing competitive home game in Canadian men’s national team history. Thanks, CONCACAF.