It’s been less than a week since Canada was soundly thumped by Panama in World Cup qualifying.
Given that the match was played on the heels of an impressive and emotionally satisfying win against the Panamanians in Toronto, Canada blew a big chance to take a stranglehold on clinching one of two spots in the final round of World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF.
While the manner in which Canada lost was certainly disheartening and raised some red flags, it is important to remember that the contest in Panama City was only one of six matches played in the current round, as well as arguably the most challenging road fixture the Reds had on their schedule.
Realistically, this round was always going to be a tight three-way battle between Panama, Honduras and Canada. Looking at how Group C has shaped up to date, one can look at Canada’s current position with either a glass half empty or glass half full viewpoint.
Proponents of the former will argue Canada must now avoid a slip up against a pointless Cuban team at BMO Field on Oct. 12 and must then also engineer a result away from home in the very hostile climate that is Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Some people see the latter as an impossible task given the manner in which Canada underperformed in Panama.
Proponents of the latter point to the fact Canada controls its destiny and still has everything to play for. Add in the fact that Canada had a record of one draw and four losses after four games played in this round four years ago and the current team’s record of two wins, one draw and one loss looks encouraging.
Make no mistake, the road ahead for Canada is very challenging. Furthermore, the way the Reds lost in Panama City was unsettling no matter how you slice it. Was it a single game blip in which the entire team was off or a harbinger of how mentally prepared Canada will be for that final match in Honduras?
Hopefully, Canada can take some encouragement and confidence from the fact that Panama has already illustrated that Honduras is beatable on their home turf. The Hondurans lost 2-0 to the Panamanians in San Pedro Sula and also struggled to eke out a 1-0 win over the winless Cubans. It’s not going to be easy for the Canadians in Honduras on Oct 16, but it’s not like they will be facing off against Mexico at Estadio Azteca.
In fact, the current edition of the Honduran squad is a far cry from the side that qualified for the 2010 World Cup. They looked quite beatable when they faced off against Canada in a scoreless draw at BMO Field in June 12. Thus, it is actually not a stretch to say that if Canada fails to make it to the final qualifying round, it will have been its inability to pull out a win over Honduras in Toronto that was the determining result.
So where does Canada go from here? Well, it is clear that adjustments are going to have to be made and the players are going to have to step up their games.
Looking at the loss in Panama City, it is also clear that Panama made some key adjustments, had studied Canada’s performances to date and took advantage of some key absences. If the humbling defeat to Panama proved anything, it highlighted just how important Will Johnson and Olivier Occean are to the Canadian team.
Canada had not conceded a goal in their first three matches of the current round and it is now crystal clear that the sandpaper and tireless work ethic that Johnson brought to the proceedings was just as important as the stellar play of the back four. His suspension for the match in Panama City played a significant role in the two goals that Canada conceded.
Furthermore, as Canada’s only big physical target man, Occean makes the Canadian squad looked like a completely different team when he is the lineup. Whereas the Quebec native physically wore down Panamanian defender Felipe Baloy in Toronto, the Panama back line never really looked pressured in the return fixture. The pace that players such as Simeon Jackson and Tosaint Ricketts bring to the attack is a big weapon, but the two players also benefit when opposing defenders have been tested and worn down by the physical play of Occean.
And as a team most comfortable playing in a 4-5-1 formation with a lone striker, Canada really missed Occean’s ability to hold up the ball.
Looking rationally at the next two matches, Canada faces an uphill battle to make the Hex. Cuba will be playing for pride and should be motivated by the fact that they don’t want to go pointless in all six games.
Not only will the atmosphere be intense and oppressive in Honduras, but the pressure on Canada will be overwhelming just by virtue of the fact that it will be a case of earn a result or the World Cup quest is over.
Canada has proven that it can compete with the very best teams in the CONCACAF region. It’s now up to the Reds to prove that they deserve an opportunity to compete against the best teams in the world.
Steve Bottjer is a Toronto-based writer, podcaster and editor for RedNation Online, on online magazine covering all aspects of Canadian soccer. Follow RedNation Online on Twitter.