Here we go again. Earlier this year, in July to be exact, I published a post about what Canada needed to do in order to be in the best possible place for the qualifying draw for Brasil 2014. I got some things correct in that post, but I got a lot of things wrong too. Luckily Edgar at Football Rankings noticed my post and decided to help me out. Rather than go over the mistakes I made before, I will lay out the way things should be done correctly and go from there.
First off there are four phases involved in the accumulation of points that will impact the rankings when the qualifying draw is made. For the purposes of this post I have based the phases on the way in which the draw was conducted for 2010 qualifying.
Phase 1 May 17 2007 - May 7 2008
Phase 2 May 8 2008 - May 6 2009
Phase 3 May 7 2009 - May ? 2010
Phase 4 May ? 2010 - May ? 2011
As a quick aside, there was a comment on Edgar's website that suggested the draw could be made in August instead of May 2011. This would mean the Gold Cup 2011 would be included. The commenter suggested the change could be made to benefit Trinidad & Tobago, but this would also be a big help to Canada, as we tend to do well at the Gold Cup. Therefore I will continue under the assumption that things will be done the same way they were in the 2010 qualifying draw. A change from May to August would benefit Canada and place a large importance on the Gold Cup 2011.
Points are accumulated in each phase by winning or drawing a match. The totalled points from the phase are then divided by the number of matches played. For example, if a team had won two matches, drawn one, and lost five, their point total would be divided by eight. However, if a team plays fewer than five matches their total is still divided by five, so it is important to play at least five matches in each phase.
The points from each phase are also weighted differently: you are only able to count 20% of the points from Phase 1, 30% from Phase 2, and 50% from Phase 3. Teams are able to count 100% percent of the points from Phase 4.
Now that you have got all of that, here are the current standings for the points accumulated towards May 2011.
1. USA - 540.79
2. Mexico - 482.03
3. Honduras - 457.00
4. Costa Rica - 412.68
5. CANADA - 355.60
6. El Salvador - 251.68
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7. Panama - 242.75
8. Jamaica - 211.52
9. Trinidad & Tobago - 193.96
10. Haiti - 174.21
11. Antigua & Barbuda - 148.41
12. Grenada - 114.54
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13. Guatemala - 111.88
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14. Cuba - 82.96
15. Bermuda - 79.89
16. Barbados - 72.12
17. Suriname - 63.11
18. Nicaragua - 52.66
19. St. Kitts & Nevis - 50.63
20. Guyana - 50.30
21. Netherlands Antilles - 50.18
22. Puerto Rico - 44.24
23. Belize - 22.31
24. St. Vincent & the Grenadines - 21.54
25. Cayman Islands - 19.00
26. St. Lucia - 12.75
26. Turks & Caicos Islands - 12.75
28. British Virgin Islands - 11.90
29. Bahamas - 8.50
30. Aruba - 6.50
31. Dominica - 4.93
32. Dominican Republic - 4.25
33. US Virgin Islands - 3.40
34. Anguilla - 0.00
34. Montserrat - 0.00
The draw is made and teams ranked 1-13 receive a bye to the Second Round. Teams 14 -35 play each other, with the eleven winners advancing to Round Two. The eleven winners from the first round plus the 13th ranked team then face the top twelve sides for a place in Round Three. Round three is a group stage that consists of three groups of four. When the draw is made the top six ranked teams are placed in such a way that should they advance from Round Two, there will be two members of the top six in each group. The top two teams from Round Three then advance to the final round known as "The Hex". The Hex contains six teams in one group. The top three teams qualify for the World Cup, the fourth place team enters into a playoff against the fifth place South American team.
At the moment we are sitting in fifth, which isn't bad news. The bad news is that USA, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Trinidad & Tobago are still playing in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. This means they each have a minimun of three more matches in Phase 3. Playing lots of matches isn't necessarily a good thing, but as these matches are worth two & a half more than a friendly in points value, these teams can get a lot of points. I think at this point Canada can give up trying to catch any of the teams above us in the standings and should focus on staying in fifth or sixth place. The bonus is El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago are last in the group. It would be ideal for Canada if they lost all of their remaining qualifying matches, which is possible since they have already played both games against each other. Matches at the World Cup will be a part of Phase 4 and count 100% towards the qualification rankings for 2014. Not only will matches at the World Cup be a part of Phase 4 when it is crucial to gain points, they also count four times as much as friendlies - meaning any results gained there will put those teams out of reach, so we need to have El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago miss out on the World Cup in order to give ourselves the best chance at making the next one.
The next piece of bad news is most countries that are chasing are likely to participate in four or five qualifying matches for the Gold Cup 2011. These matches will be in crucial Phase 4 and count two and a half times what a friendly does. This will give an advantage to the countries that are chasing Canada for a place in the top six.
Now for some almost good news. The Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) has said there are no plans for any friendly matches for the next 18 months. I am fine with the decision not to play any more friendlies in Phase 3, which ends at yet to be determined date in May 2010. This is eight months from now. However we should start planning to play matches after the FIFA rankings come out in May 2010. We need to target countries that have higher than average rankings so we can get as many points as possible. The earliest opportunity is to play a country that was a part of the African Cup of Nations (ACN). This is the regional tournament of Africa; similar to CONCACAF's Gold Cup, it is played every two years. The matches in this tournament will count three times as much as a friendly. So we will see African teams fly up the rankings ahead of the World Cup, much the same way that CONCACAF teams flew up the rankings in August. Remember Canada jumped up 26 places. It won't matter that the tournament will affect rankings starting in March - as there will be no other competitive matches, the rankings shouldn't change drastically. The benefits are easy to see: if we play a team that is normally ranked in the seventies, but has moved into the forties or fifties, then we could get more than 60 extra points. We should also try to play matches against sides from Europe and South America, as these regions have a higher regional value. This means playing a team ranked 75 in the world from Europe or South America will get you more points than playing a team ranked 75 in the world from another region.
I am trying as much as I can to be realistic about the way this could play out. We had a disastrous Phase 4 in 2006-2007 and gained only 100 points and ended up finishing 11th. I am aware that the CSA is trying to expand the game in Canada, which I am in favour of; this will likely mean a friendly against a team with a big reputation. An example would be our match against Brasil a few years ago. However it would be more beneficial to save that match until after the qualifying draw for 2014 is made. With this in mind, here is my suggested Phase 4 friendly schedule for Canada.
Late May - before World Cup: Play an artificially high ranked African team. This would be a team that did well at the ACN, but did not make the World Cup and should be a side that Canada could beat. Ideally a team with only one star player. Togo is a side that may meet these criteria.
Any time - Play a friendly against Bolivia at sea level - either in Canada or at a neutral venue, but make sure it is at sea level. Bolivia are very, very difficult to beat at high alititude, but they are beatable at sea level.
November or February - Play a highly ranked warm weather team outside in Edmonton. Bolivia & other countries use their altitude to their advantage; we should take advantage of our cold.
Anytime - Play a European country, preferably ranked in the top 100. The match against Cyprus was a good example. How does taking on Bosnia-Herzegovina sound at BMO sound?
After the World Cup - Play a nation we can beat that was at the World Cup. If they managed to get some points there, their ranking will increase dramatically. That means more points if we are able to beat them.
If we follow this plan and win all five friendlies, we should double our points total which would be great. Even if we are able to add 200 more points, this would put us in good stead for claiming a top six place. Here are the points totals for the top six when the 2010 qualifying draw was made in 2007:
1. Mexico - 891
2. USA - 785
3. Costa Rica - 575
4. Honduras - 542
5. Panama - 514
6. Trinidad & Tobago - 463
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11. CANADA - 342
You can see, as Canada are already at 355, we are already doing better than last time. We need to continue to build on our good form by playing at least five matches in Phase 4. In the 2006-2007 we only played four (Jamaica twice, Hungary, and Bermuda). As I mentioned above, the total points of a team are divided by a minimum of five, so only playing four is like losing a match. I should mention that staying at 355 is contingent on us not playing any more matches before Phase 3 ends and the May 2010 rankings come out. Even if we were to win, it would probably lower our points unless we beat a team in the top 40.
The way forward is simple: do not play any more matches until late May 2010. Then play at least five matches we can win before the May 2011 rankings are released and we should be in a strong position for the draw for qualifying. This should ideally put us through to The Hex, at which point we need to play our socks off, and hopefully in fours years' time Canada playing in the 2014 World Cup in Brasil will look like a reality.