Canada secured a marquee matchup at the 2021 Gold Cup when it was drawn against the U.S.
The two North American soccer rivals will be joined in Group B by Martinique and a preliminary-round qualifier at the championship for North and Central America and the Caribbean.
For Canada coach John Herdman and his counterparts, it's another piece of a congested, pandemic-complicated 2021 puzzle that also includes Tokyo Olympic qualifying and the start of 2022 World Cup qualifying.
It's likely the Gold Cup may have to take a back seat.
"We're going to have to juggle the squad a little bit," U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, who also has to fit in CONCACAF Nations League finals, said by way of understatement.
"Part of the uncertainty is what we're dealing in our every-day lives. Nothing feels certain any more," he added.
"Nobody really knows what the future's going to hold," echoed Herdman.
The Gold Cup will feature 16 teams including 2022 World Cup host Qatar as a guest entry. It is slated to run July 10 through Aug. 1 in 2021 with venues to be announced.
While FIFA requires club teams to release players for the Gold Cup as of June 28, Herdman is dealing with a schedule that sees Canada possibly playing two World Cup qualifying matches in March and four in June.
Given the Canadian men have not played since January, he will also want to get his squad together in advance. With club seasons already jammed together because of the pandemic, he will have to prioritize who he wants when — especially when it comes to star players like European-based Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich) and Jonathan David (Lille).
"The reality for Canada is the prime responsibility is to qualify for a World Cup in 2022," said Herdman. "That's our key focus. The June window we'll probably have to choose which players will be in in June and which players will be in the Gold Cup. That's a reality for us.
"The clubs, while they'll work with national bodies, they also have a pre-season to get themselves ready for. And pre-season games that will be talking place throughout July and August."
He called 2021 the "most congested period" in Canadian soccer history. On the plus side he said Canada had developed depth in its squad — helped by the Canadian Premier League.
Berhalter also called the 2021 schedule congestion an "opportunity for players to show that they belong, that they should be part of the first team, so to speak."
Canada, ranked 73rd in the world by FIFA compared to No. 23 for the Americans, defeated the U.S. 2-0 last October in CONCACAF Nations League play. The victory at Toronto's BMO Field ended a 34-year, 17-match winless run for the Canadian men against their North American rivals.
The U.S. avenged that loss a month later in Orlando, winning 4-1.
Herdman said his players will relish a rematch
"That match means a lot to our players. It will be the game that I'm sure all the players will want to play in," said Herdman. "You can't hide that rivalry. It sort of ignited last October and November."
Canada is 2-1-2 against Martinique, which is unranked because it is not a member of FIFA. The Canadians blanked Martinique 4-0 at the 2019 Gold Cup.
The qualifier that will complete Group B will be one of No. 86 Haiti, No. 162 Barbados, No. 167 St. Vincent & the Grenadines or No. 168 Bermuda.
Haiti ousted Canada in the 2019 Gold Cup quarterfinal, rallying from a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2.
The 2021 tournament draw was held Monday evening in Miami.
CONCACAF is instituting a 12-team preliminary round vying for the final three spots in the 16-country group stage. The preliminary round replaces the Road to Gold Cup Qualifiers, which were slated to be played in the pandemic-halted March and June FIFA match windows this year.
Canada had already booked its berth in the group stage by virtue of its performance in the CONCACAF Nations League.
Group A consists of Mexico, El Salvador, Curacao and a preliminary-round winner. Group C is made up of Costa Rica, Jamaica, Suriname and a preliminary-round winner while Group D features Honduras, Panama, Grenada and Qatar.
The top two in each pool will advance to the knockout stage.
Eleventh-ranked Mexico, the U.S., No. 46 Costa Rica and No. 62 Honduras were pre-seeded in Groups A to D, respectively.
CONCACAF called it the first draw for the tournament. Previous editions had seen the governing body choose the makeup of the groups.
The draw was conducted by CONCACAF director of competitions Carlos Fernandez, former Grenada international Jason Roberts, now CONCACAF's director of development, and former Honduras international Wilson Palacios.
CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani, a Vancouver native, took part remotely citing the COVID-19 travel restrictions.
"It promises to be a fantastic tournament," he said.
The new preliminary round at the 2021 tournament will be played as a direct-elimination format, from July 2 to 6 in a centralized location in the U.S.
The first round will see Haiti versus Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Guatemala versus Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago versus Montserrat, Cuba versus French Guiana, Guadeloupe versus the Bahamas, and Bermuda versus Barbados.
The six winners will then play one more direct elimination round. The three survivors will join Qatar in rounding out the final tournament field of 16.
Currently ranked 55th in the world, Qatar will be the second Asian Football Confederation team to compete as a guest in the Gold Cup. South Korea participated in 2000, when Canada won the event, and 2002.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2020.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press