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Five burning questions about Canada to finish World Cup qualifying

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After a historic victory over Mexico, the Canadian men’s national team is in a prime position to qualify for its first World Cup since 1986.

But six games still remain. Three of them make up a dicey January window for the team, with MLS and other leagues outside Europe on pause.

Plus, Canada’s lone home game of the three-game January cycle against the U.S. on Jan. 30 still doesn’t have a confirmed venue.

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With some uncertainty still surrounding the final two windows of Concacaf World Cup qualifying for Canada, here are five burning questions and some potential answers.

What is Canada’s remaining schedule?

Jan. 27: at Honduras.
Jan. 30: vs. USA.
Feb. 2: at El Salvador.
March 24: at Costa Rica.
March 27: vs. Jamaica.
March 30: at Panama.

What about the rest of the top four in Concacaf?

USA: El Salvador (home) on Jan. 27, Canada (away) on Jan. 30, Honduras (home) on Feb. 2, Mexico (away) on March 24, Panama (home) on March 27 and Costa Rica (away) on March 30.

Mexico: Jamaica (away) on Jan. 27, Costa Rica (home) on Jan. 30, Panama (home) on Feb. 2, USA (home) on March 24, Honduras (away) on March 27 and El Salvador (home) on March 30.

Panama: Costa Rica (away) on Jan. 27, Jamaica (home) on Jan. 30, Mexico (away) on Feb. 2, Honduras (home) on March 24, USA (away) on March 27 and Canada (home) on March 30.

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A reminder that the top three automatically qualify and fourth has to play an inter-confederation playoff. Canada is currently two points ahead of fourth-place Panama.

Six matches remain in Canada’s road to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Watch all remaining qualifiers live on Sportsnet, starting Jan. 27.

Where will the U.S. game be played?

Due to the inclement winters across Canada, many presumed the Jan. 30 match against the U.S. would be held at BC Place in Vancouver.

It makes sense given the milder conditions and the fact that BC Place is an indoor venue. The turf, while not the most pristine, is being relaid ahead of that match.

Then head coach John Herdman threw one of his patented curveballs after the win over Mexico.

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“I think everyone’s got to understand the travel realities of January,” said Herdman. “There’s some ridiculous travel commitments there, and we’ve got to put the players’ health, safety as well as the performance at risk. This isn’t about touring the country and having a celebration, it’s about going to the Qatar World Cup. We will do everything we need to do to do that.”

Steven Goff of the Washington Post added to the intrigue by reporting that Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field is being considered for the Jan. 30 date.

Whether it’s at BMO Field, Tim Hortons Field, BC Place or any other stadium, there is an element of mind games at play. The U.S. have a home game against El Salvador on Jan. 27 and haven’t announced where it is playing that match. The longer Canada holds out and keeps the Americans guessing, the more difficult it will be for them to finalize their plans.

That is the nature of Concacaf, a confederation defined by the dark arts.

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Logically, holding the games in an open-air stadium in Hamilton or Toronto is risky. Sure, the team just played Mexico in frigid weather, but east-coast winters are unpredictable. The turf at Tim Hortons Field would be just as tricky to play on as Commonwealth Stadium’s.

BMO Field’s grass may not hold up well, either, even with undersoil heating. Toronto FC’s 2018 Concacaf Champions League run did a number on the pitch during the late winter and early spring. The flip side is this is only one match, but with both sides training on it the day before the match, the field could be chewed up.

The only logical reason to hold the match on the east coast is travel. Flying from San Pedro Sula to Vancouver, then to San Salvador adds an extra four or five hours onto each leg. Chartering a flight would require Canada Soccer to eat into a small budget, one that was heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The national team flew from Vancouver to San Salvador in November 2015, although that was a two-game window.

An announcement regarding the host city should be made a few weeks before the match. The players and coaching staff sound content to play another cold-weather game, so the federation has some thinking to do.

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How will MLS off-season affect squad selection?

One reason why the next three games are so massive for Canada is the fact that it coincides with MLS’ off-season.

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Provided none of them earn a European transfer in January, the likes of Kamal Miller, Alistair Johnston, Richie Laryea and Mark-Anthony Kaye will be lacking match fitness for at least a couple of months.

The player pool is deep enough at forward and midfield to cope without some MLS players. It’s the defence and goalkeeping that will suffer.

James Pantemis (CF Montreal) and Maxime Crepeau (Vancouver Whitecaps) are the two backup shot-stoppers behind Milan Borjan. Goalkeepers can theoretically cope without match fitness, especially if Borjan is the No. 1.

However, the Serbian SuperLiga goes on winter break from Dec. 15 to Feb. 12, so Borjan will be lacking match fitness himself.

As for the defence, the right side is very thin without Johnston, Laryea and other MLS players. Doneil Henry, who plays in the K-League, will also be in the middle of his off-season so that’s one fewer centre-back option.

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Henry would logically be replaced by Manjrekar James, who is a regular starter at Vejle in Denmark. With James, Steven Vitoria, Derek Cornelius and Scott Kennedy, if he recovers from injury in time, that’s enough centre-back depth to handle three games.

Right-back is the real problem. Tajon Buchanan will be at Club Brugge by the time the January window begins, and he has experience at wingback. The other alternative is Kris Twardek, who plays for FK Senica in Slovakia. But he’s not an out-and-out full-back, either.

Could Canada hold an extended camp to get players fit?

If there is room in the budget for Canada Soccer to pull it off, this is the best plan of action.

Call in all the players who are in their off-seasons, get them back in shape and maybe set up a couple of friendlies to build match fitness.

A January camp has been an annual tradition for Canada, but with World Cup qualifiers in the same month, that throws a wrench into the plans.

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It would also be a prime chance to call up dual nationals like Marcelo Flores, Stefan Mitrovic and Daniel Jebbison so they can experience the Canadian setup as well.

Plus, with the Concacaf Under-20 Championship kicking off in the summer, bringing in some U-20 players as sparring partners would help the senior team and prepare the youngsters for that tournament. Working out tactical kinks and building chemistry could be very useful before the Concacaf U-20 competition begins.





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