Mar 8, 2017 04:32:27
The Canadians are given a spot in each edition of the continental tournament, but perhaps it would be more beneficial to make them have to qualify.
What's it going to take to improve Canada's men's national team?
It's a question that has been asked ad nauseam as the team stumbles from failure to failure, having not qualified for the World Cup since 1986 and not getting out of the group stage from the other major tournament available to it — the CONCACAF Gold Cup — since 2009.
The potential of Canada as a soccer nation is clear. On the women's side, the entire country has gotten behind John Herdman's back-to-back Olympic medal-winning side. At the club level, the three MLS teams are among the league leaders in terms of attendance, television ratings, and overall relevance within their respective markets.
But beyond that, the landscape presents the same messy, fragmented story of underachievement that has plagued the country for decades. Soccer is far from the most popular sport in the land, despite its exploding popularity at the professional level and its entrenched status as a grassroots juggernaut. Player development is a constant struggle, leading to a snowball effect that eventually leads up the pyramid toward the unhappy truth that faces the men's program — the team isn't very good.
Without getting into the minutiae of everything that could be done to improve the game in the Great White North, a simple solution exists to at least help get Canada back to the mid-level CONCACAF power it was up until a decade or so ago.
No, this isn't about increasing the player limits in MLS, or the upcoming Canadian Premier League, or long-term player development at the youth levels. All of those things are important issues, and they all contribute to the larger picture of improving the Canadian player at each step of the pyramid.
Rather, this is about a simpler issue: Why doesn't Canada have to qualify for the Gold Cup?
Only three nations in the region are given automatic berths into the biennial continental championship — Mexico, the United States and Canada. This wasn't always the case, but the last several editions have seen the three countries bypass the qualification process and be placed directly into the tournament.
The three nations share a couple of things in common. The first is that they remain the only countries to have lifted the hilariously oversized trophy as continental champions. The second thread in common is geographical, as CONCACAF's largest and richest three countries are also the only three on the main land mass known as North America, and thus none of the three are part of the smaller sub-confederations (UNCAF and the Caribbean Football Union) within CONCACAF.
This isn't a problem for Mexico and the USA, who are consistently the best two teams in the region and deserve their spots. But for Canada, which could definitely use as many competitive games as it can get, the lack of participation in Gold Cup qualifying leads to a recurring scenario where the program is going two years between meaningful matches, instead trying to fill the gaps by scheduling friendlies against anyone who will pick up the phone.
That's a long stretch of low pressure, meaningless competition for the Canadians, which inevitably leads to competitive fixtures that feature a Canada side that appears overwhelmed when the opposition steps into a higher gear.
Getting Canada into the Gold Cup qualifiers would also expose the team to its regional opponents more often, so that the likes of El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, et al. wouldn't be such unknown quantities during the actual tournament or, more importantly, during World Cup qualifying. In addition, the accumulation of FIFA rankings points would be a nice side benefit to playing more competitive games, as wins against the real minnows of the region — the St. Vincents and Grenadas of the world — would actually contribute to Canada's underwhelming world ranking. Every little bit helps.
Sure, the possibility of failure at the qualification stages exists — there's nothing in Canada's recent history to suggest that the team would be a shoo-in for advancement through the qualifiers — but that's all part of the process. Besides, the possibility of missing out on the odd Gold Cup is a small price to pay for the existence of consistent, pressure-filled matches against regional foes.
So how do we get Canada into these games? Well, current CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani is a Canadian, and he's a man who has shown he has the best interests of the Canadian program at heart. And make no mistake, an increased exposure to real, competitive games is in the best interest of the men's game in Canada.
Montagliani would be wise to use his influence to get his home country included into one of the existing Gold Cup qualification tournaments.
Is it the magic bullet solution to a decades-long problem at the top of the Canadian pyramid? Of course not, but it's just one way the Canadian program can be improved in short order, with very little work as compared to some of the bigger issues that plague the game in the northernmost part of North America.
It's too late for the upcoming edition of the Gold Cup, as Canada has already been drawn into a group with Honduras, Costa Rica and French Guiana. It could be another three-and-out scenario as the Hondurans have had Canada's number for years and the Ticos are a bona fide giant in the region. Regardless of what happens later this summer, it would be an ideal situation if this is the last time the Canadians are simply handed a spot in the Gold Cup for the foreseeable future.
More games for Canada. Let's get it done.