The next five days will be one of the most crucial periods in the history of the Canadian men’s soccer team.
With two important World Cup qualifying games on the horizon, including Friday’s contest against Cuba in Toronto, Canada can take a giant step towards qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Earning a combined four points from the Cuba match and next Tuesday’s contest in Honduras would likely be more than enough to send Canada through to “the Hex,” the final round of CONCACAF qualifying where the best three countries in the six-team, round-robin group advance to the World Cup.
Canada last qualified for the Hex in 1998, so to even be in this position is a very big deal for a country whose lone World Cup appearance came in 1986. The Hex still means there’s a long way to go for Canada, but getting to the final round on the CONACAF qualifiers would give the long-suffering men’s team a major shot in the arm and genuine hope for the future.
And yet, even though he conceded this was the biggest moment of his professional career, Canadian coach Stephen Hart cut an incredibly relaxed and jovial figure during the team’s final training session ahead of the showdown with the Cubans.
If he’s at all nervous, he’s hiding it very well.
“You know what? Any time I wake up and there’s a game and I have players to work with, it’s like Christmas for me,” Hart said while sporting a broad grin and his eyes as bright as lights on a Christmas tree.
“I really enjoy working with the players and having a game to work towards, and a game that really means something. You can’t ask for more as a coach.”
Canada currently sits third in Group C with seven points. Panama is first (nine points), followed by Honduras (seven). With the group so tight, Canada needs to earn a win over Cuba to have a realistic shot at the Hex. Panama hosts Honduras on Friday night.
Even though there’s still some work to do, midfielder Will Johnson likes the position the team is in.
“We’re four games in, and we’ve got a very good chance. Everything is in our own hands to get through to the next round,” Johnson stated. “If you would have offered that to us before this whole thing started we would have taken it. So here we are and we’re in a good spot.”
It’s far from a sure thing, though.
Historically, one of Canada’s biggest problems in international play has been scoring, and that’s certainly the case this time around. The Reds have just two goals through their first four games of the current qualifying round. They’re also without all-time leading scorer Dwayne De Rosario, who is sidelined with a long-term knee injury.
Goal difference is the first tiebreaker, and with Honduras at plus-two compared to zero for Canada, the Reds desperately need to score some goals against the Cubans as an insurance policy.
If ever there was a time for Canada to overcome its tendency to squander scoring chances and be more clinical in front of the opposition’s net, this is it.
And yet, Hart maintains he’s not overly concerned with how the team has looked going forward in this qualification round.
“You always want to score more goals but if you look at how we’ve played defensively, behind the ball, how we’ve counter-attacked, some of the chances we’ve created, you can’t really ask for more except for the finishing aspects of our game,” he said.
On paper, Friday’s game is a bit of a mis-match. The Cubans have lost all four of their games this round (and have been outscored 6-0) and have already been eliminated from World Cup contention.
But Canada struggled to beat the Cubans 1-0 in Havana back in June, and Cuba should have taken points in their previous games against Panama and Honduras.
“I think they have not been given credit for the games they’ve played. They’ve played some excellent games,” Hart stated.
Hart has warned his players to stay focused on Cuba and not look ahead to Honduras. The message has sunk in according to Johnson.
“We’re professionals and we know what to do. If we want to get to the World Cup these are the kind of games that you have to win, no matter what’s ahead or where we’ve been,” Johnson stated.
“The experience and professionalism in the squad has to come through and you have to win games like this at home, otherwise we have no chance of accomplishing our goals.”