Saturday, November 24, 2007

WC2010: Preliminary Draw Preview

The fact that "pre" appears twice in the title is perhaps a sign that this is a slow time for Canadian soccer. They just played their final friendly for 2007, this summer's Gold Cup seems a long time ago, the World Cup in Germany has been history for nearly a year and a half, and the next edition is over 900 days away.

But FIFA has thrown a bone for all five of us Canadian footie fans, and rabid followers around the world. Tomorrow, in Durban, FIFA will be holding the preliminary draw for World Cup qualifying. Ink will be spilled over matchups over half a year away. Minnow nations will hope, just for a moment, that it could be their turn this time.

Format follies
CONCACAF, Canada's regional confederation, somehow manages to suck the drama out of the event by sticking to its ridiculous by eliminating the bulk of its 35 teams before things really even get started. You can read about how it all works yourself, but we'll break it down for you:
  • The 35 teams are seeded according to the FIFA rankings of May 2007. Why May? Who knows.
  • Teams 14-24 will be drawn against teams 25-35 in eleven home-and-away contests to reduce the field to 24 teams. The 13th ranked team, St. Vincent and Grenadines, gets a bye, though they will be on the minnow side of the draw for the next round.
  • Teams 1-12 are drawn randomly against St. V and G and the winners from round one in a second set of home-and-away showdowns. 4 games down, almost two-thirds of teams eliminated.
  • The remaining teams are drawn into three groups of 4, with each containing one team from each of Pots A (USA, Mexico, Costa Rica), B (Honduras, Panama, T&T) and C (Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, Guatemala, Canada, Guyana). A six-game round-robin with the top 2 teams from each group advancing will reduce the field to 6.
  • A ten-game round robin will eliminate two more teams, and leave a 3rd to play in a playoff against a South American side to qualify.
There may be a lot of minnows in CONCACAF, but this is surely not going to change by only giving them a chance to play in 2-4 important matches every 4 years. With half the games eliminating 83% of the teams, the process must be disheartening for most member countries.

Canada screwed?
I really don't know the justification for choosing the May 2007, nearly a year before qualifications begin, as rankings cut-off for seeding teams. Canada was robbed at the Gold Cup, but at least their play in that tournament boosted their ranking to a position more in accordance with reality. If CONCACAF had chosen, say, the October rankings current November ratings, the top 3 pots would be:

Pot A

Pot B

Pot C
Costa Rica
St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Trinidad & Tobago

Guyana still finds it way in, largely with smoke and mirrors and results against unimpressive sides, but at least the rest of the teams are arranged more realistically.

Looking ahead
If all of the top seeds prevail in round one, here are the teams that Canada could be drawn against in Round Two, to be played likely in early summer 2008:
Although St. V&G (I'll keep this format for now) is the highest ranked, the team to avoid is El Salvador. Canada played Belize last time, with a pair of 4-0 and 4-1 victories in Kingston (Belize gave up their home game for financial reasons). Similar results should be expect against any of these teams, though that doesn't mean we won't be worried.

The big picture
All rounds except the Hex (final round) will be drawn tomorrow and that will be the real interesting story. Some assumptions will need to be made and upsets could well disturb the picture a little bit, but Canada's path to South Africa will be largely on display by tomorrow morning, Canada time.

We hope to have a post for you following the preliminary draw, but there will be other sporting priorities on Sunday.

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