Two months into his tenure as Canadian men’s coach, John Herdman has a clearer idea of where he’s going.
Wednesday’s qualifying draw for the new CONCACAF Nations League has Canada playing the U.S. Virgin Islands, Dominica, St. Kitts & Nevis, and French Guiana in the buildup to the 2019 debut of the competition showcasing teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean.
More importantly for Herdman, the CONCACAF Nations League offers a framework to build around in the run-up to qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. The 40 CONCACAF countries — Guatemala, the 41st member, is currently under suspension by FIFA — will eventually be divided into three tiers with promotion and relegation.
"I think it’s excellent. It brings real clarity for everybody," Herdman said in an interview. "The players are excited by the clarity it brings to them.
"I think the other side of it is everyone now is on the same landscape. We’re at the starting line with teams like Mexico, the U.S.A., Costa Rica, Panama, etc. where they have to figure this thing out as well."
The new competition will crown the Nations League champion and serve as qualifying for the newly expanded 16-team Gold Cup. It is also expected to influence seeding in future World Cup qualifying.
Europe has already announced similar plans for the UEFA Nations League. Its plan calls for 55 national teams divided into four leagues based on October 2017 rankings.
The tournaments are, in part, offer a chance to move away from meaningless friendly matches and to ensure all confederation members get meaningful games.
In CONCACAF, which under Canadian president Victor Montagliani is emerging from a cloud of past scandal, it is also a chance to return the spotlight to soccer.
While Canada will start against four countries better known as holiday destinations than soccer powers, the games mark the first step of a journey that could bring regular matches against the heavyweights of the region.
"This next 3 1/2 years through to the Hex (the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying) is all meaningful matches," said Herdman. "We get a chance now, I think, to start to build that level of resilience to the adversity of moving into those CONCACAF regions where it’s challenging to play those away fixtures.
"So there’s definitely an excitement among the group. From my side, it gives us a chance to start building the systems and strategies that allow you to perform optimally in those sort of environments."
Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, the U.S., and Trinidad & Tobago, the six teams that made it to the final round of World Cup qualifying in the region, will bypass the one-off qualifying stage.
Results from the 68 qualifying games will be used to seed Canada and the 33 other contestants into three tiers for the inaugural edition of the full CONCACAF Nations League in 2019.
The qualifying games will take place on FIFA match dates in September, October and November 2018 and March 2019. Wednesday’s qualifying draw took place in Miami, with former Canadian goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, CONCACAF’s new head of women’s football, taking part.
Canada will open at the U.S. Virgin Islands in September, before hosting Dominica in October, visiting St. Kitts and Nevis in November and finishing in March at home to French Guiana.
Dates and venues for the Canadian games will be announced at a later date.
The Canadian men stand seventh in the newly unveiled CONCACAF national team rankings. French Guiana is No. 13 while St. Kitts & Nevis is No 16, Dominica No. 31 and the U.S. Virgin Islands No. 36.
Canada is ranked 89th in the FIFA world rankings, followed by St. Kitts & Nevis (No. 110) and Dominica (No. 170). French Guiana is not a FIFA member.
The inaugural CONCACAF Nations League competition will be played in the official FIFA match windows in September, October and November 2019 with a final championship to be played in March 2020.
The qualifying results will be compiled into an aggregate table, ranking the participating teams on points earned, goal difference and a series of additional tiebreakers.
The teams will be seeded into three leagues: A, B and C. Each league will be subdivided into groups that will see teams play in a home-and-away, round-robin format.
The top six teams from the qualifying phase will join Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, the U.S., and Trinidad & Tobago in League A. The next 16 teams will qualify for League B and the remainder assigned to League C.
The top 10 qualifiers will also join the six Hex teams in the Gold Cup.
League A will feature four groups of three teams with the group winners qualifying for the final championship stage. The four teams at the bottom of each group will be relegated to League B for the next edition of the tournament.
League B will contain four groups of four teams. The group winners will be promoted to League A while the bottom four teams will be relegated to League C.
League C will feature four groups with the pool winners earning promotion.
Canada’s next match, the first under Herdman, is a March 24 friendly against New Zealand in Murcia, Spain.