The press, or at least the parts of the press that I frequent, have been abuzz with reports of a new CONCACAF World Cup qualification scheme to be introduced for the 2014 cycle. There are various ideas that various media outlets have been reporting are absolutely certain and placed before FIFA for approval, and as is so often the case everybody is convinced that their source is telling them the One True Way CONCACAF will end up running the show. The only thing that we know for certain is that, if CONCACAF can make its case before the big bosses at FIFA, qualifying for the 2014 World Cup will be vastly different than qualifying for 2010 was.
It's hard to see this as anything but a good thing. There are two new systems we're prominently hearing about: one would run each team through three groups of four, progressively narrowing the field and moving the top two in each group on to the next round. In this scenario, a middle power like Canada would face a first group with one other good team (like Mexico) and a couple of real runts, a second round slightly weaker than today's third round (as there would be four groups rather than three), and a final round slightly weaker than the hex but still nothing to sneeze about.
The other possibility is as horrifying as it is amazing: after a perfunctory qualification process to narrow the field down to twelve teams, the survivors would be thrown into one big pool and left to slug it out. As the current CONCACAF third round divides the teams into three groups of four, we can assume that Canada would be left to play its quadrennial home-and-away against some Caribbean country and then spend the next fourteen months trying to beat the hell out of every decent soccer power on the continent. The press doesn't mention an equivalent to the current first round in either proposal but there'd have to be one: somewhere where Antigua and Haiti could go to war and something Canada would probably rank high enough to avoid.
CONCACAF's World Cup qualifying system is infamously shambolic, condemning all but the six teams qualifying for the hex to a short season of meaningful games followed by an awfully long slate of idle misery. Canada knows a thing or two about this, having been on the outside looking in for the 2010 qualifying hex. And the 2006 qualifying hex. And the 2002 qualifying hex. It's been a rough decade for us, is what I'm saying. During each of these faux-qualifying runs, where we failed to get far enough to even fail honourably, Canada played a total of eight games: two against minnows like Belize, Cuba, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and then six in whichever group we were fated to finish last in this time around.
I've put together a rough sample schedule of the games involved in either proposal (rounds we either didn't or probably wouldn't qualify for are in italics) on the left. Either of the new systems being slung around would see a big increase in Canada's games played. Even if Canada failed to qualify for the final round in a three-round system, we would play a minimum of twelve games. And if there was a twelve-team final round then Canada could play an amazing twenty-four games in 2014 World Cup qualifying, presuming we have a FIFA ranking to escape the first round, we don't lose to some Caribbean island country, and we don't finish fourth in the group and play a two-leg qualifier against a CONMEBOL side.
My god, can you even imagine it?
Neither of these proposals is entirely sunshine and light. If CONCACAF goes to three group stages, Canada would have a pretty easy first round but by no means a gimme. On the left I list a potential schedule based on 2010 World Cup qualifying results, and a first round of Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico, and Belize is by no means a sure thing. If the gods disfavour us and we wind up with something like Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Cuba, we could have a serious test on our hands before the competition has even gotten serious and wash out in only six games. The advantage is that every game would almost certainly matter and if you can cope with the thought of a year and half of utterly life-and-death fixtures you may find that encouraging.
A twelve-team final group would reduce the risk factor, beyond the obvious (and current) peril of losing a short series against an inferior or badly-drawn opponent. It would also involve Canada and eleven other nations in a marathon of a final round which would heavily reduce the chance of an underdog sneaking into the third or fourth spots. And Canada is an underdog. We rank behind the Mexicans and the Americans, of course, but we're not likely to be the best of Honduras, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and El Salvador in a long, critical tournament. Even if we do nab fourth place that would send us to an elimination match against a CONMEBOL team which we would almost certainly lose (remember how ignoble Costa Rica looked in their attempt last year).
But it would be progress all the same. It's been a long-term obsession for many of us that Canada needs more matches. It's an obsession that we share with many of the mid-table CONCACAF sides, as fans of the Jamaican or Trinidad and Tobagan national teams would happily regale you about at length. The recent spurt of friendlies with which the CSA has gifted the Canadian team is both helpful and welcome, but there is no replacement for a competitive game. And until we actually qualify for something there can be no match more competitive than World Cup qualifying. It is the yardstick by which casual fans measure us. Not even the 2000 Gold Cup title could stand as an achievement next to actually making the World Cup for the first time in a generation. As we are once again seeing around the country, the World Cup is when even casual soccer fans come out and pay attention, and merely seeing Canada in that schedule would lend some legitimacy to the entire national program.
If I had to pick, I'd prefer the large, twelve-team group. There'd be something viscerally delightful in seeing the lines of Mexico or Costa Rica playing at Commonwealth Stadium in February, of course. It's the surest way for Canada to get as many games as possible, which is the point. And if we ever get our act together, if those wavering guys like Junior Hoilett and Teal Bunbury start to pick Canada rather than the alternative, and if the CSA continues to trend in the right direction, then we might just be the third best team in CONCACAF on merit by 2014. There are a lot of "if"s in that sentence, but the large group would give us our best shot at making our dreams into reality.
Either proposal, however, would be better than what CONCACAF has now, and I cannot hope more than I do that the powers that be pick one of them.