SAN SALVADOR – For more than a decade, Central America has been the place where Canadian World Cup qualifying hopes have gone to die.
But after an encouraging win over Honduras last week in Vancouver, there’s optimism that Canada’s fortunes could soon change.
The team arrived in San Salvador on Sunday evening in advance of Tuesday’s Group A encounter against an El Salvador team that not only lost 3-0 to Mexico last week but is in turmoil. A battle between players and the Salvadorian FA has caused many first-teamers to essentially go on strike, necessitating what is a second-string roster being called up for Los Cuscatlecos.
Soccer Central podcast: SPORTSNET.CA’s Soccer Central podcast, hosted by John Molinaro and James Sharman, takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport’s biggest issues. To listen and subscribe to the podcast, CLICK HERE.
A Canadian team hasn’t won in this part of the world since a 1-0 victory over Guatemala in 2004, so Canada will be grateful for any little bit of good fortune that will come its way.
“Every game down here is difficult. We know that from experience,” midfielder Will Johnson said. “I think the better feeling with our group is that we’ve got a lot of young guys that are coming down for the first time and feel confident to be able to perform in an environment like this and really enjoy the experience versus being really intimidated by it. So I think that’s where we are. We’re confident.”
Canada has notably wilted in the heat and humidity in this part of the world. In the last qualifying cycle was that infamous 8-1 debacle against Honduras in October 2012. They also lost 2-0 in Panama the previous month after local fans camped outside the Canadian team’s hotel all night, setting off fireworks and playing music on massive speakers into the early hours of the matchday morning.
Don’t expect reports of those sorts of antics from down here as there’s a black hole of negativity surrounding this iteration of the El Salvador squad and that ongoing dispute with the FA.
There’s very little sign in the city that an important World Cup qualifier is at hand in San Salvador. In fact, there’s a Facebook group that’s been started to promote a boycott of the match in solidarity of the striking players, and one local official said he wouldn’t be surprised if only 15,000 fans showed up. For a stadium such as Estadio Cuscatlan, a crowd of that size would be dwarfed by empty seats, as capacity is listed at 53,400.
Canadian captain Julian de Guzman has experienced his share of disappointments in Central America over his career and isn’t going to get carried away by some encouraging signs for the Canadians.
De Guzman is in line to make his 85th appearance for Canada on Tuesday night, which would move him ahead of Paul Stalteri for Canada’s all-time record.
“Three points is the best way to go about it,” de Guzman said when asked how he’d like to celebrate.
“The importance of this match is game-changing in the long run so for us to take advantage of a victory that we have had, we can’t let it go to waste. And it’s the more important thing than for me breaking any records right now.”
San Salvador sits in a valley surrounded by volcanoes, all of which, according to one local, are active.
The team trained on Monday morning in temperatures feeling like the mid-30s with the humidity factored in and it’s been a wetter fall than usual so conditions are hard to predict.
The pitch, however, is in less than ideal shape after a game was played at the stadium on Sunday when rain moved through the area. It looked chewed up and that may affect Canada’s tactics Tuesday night.
“At this moment, it is not good. But I suppose that people will try to prepare it because this is an official game,” Canadian coach Benito Floro said after training on Monday.
Floro noted that Canada may have to move away from a possession based game, instead trying to hit players with 50/50 diagonal balls in the air should the pitch remain in less than perfect shape.
“It will be difficult for both teams because El Salvador is a team who likes to pass the ball,” Floro said.
In the 2014 World Cup qualifying cycle, Canada started the fourth round with a win in Cuba before dropping points at home to Honduras with a scoreless draw—those points lost proved to have been the difference as Canada was later eliminated.
This time, however, Canada started with a win at home and with all the turmoil around El Salvador, they do have a genuine shot at banking what could be crucial road points. Anything less than a point could be seen as a disappointment.
“We’ve put ourselves in a good position with three points at home. Now we’ve just got to come to these places and get a result,” winger Tosaint Ricketts offered. “The boys are prepared, the squad is looking good and I’m fully confident we’ll get the job done.”
Canada arrived into El Salvador with 22 players as midfielder Russell Teibert remained home with an undisclosed injury.
Defender David Edgar, meanwhile, does appear to be fully fit after missing out on the Honduras game while recovering from a hamstring injury. When asked after training, Edgar said he’s good to go on Tuesday.