Fresh faces give Canada hope vs. Honduras

Canada's Cyle Larin, front. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

VANCOUVER—The last time Canada tried to qualify for a World Cup its hopes were dashed by a merciless Honduran side. “Dashed” may be too soft a word, though—“bludgeoned” would be more accurate.

Honduras defeated Canada 8–1 in San Pedro Sula in October 2012. Canada, embarrassed by that thumping, was eliminated from qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Now, with the fourth round of CONCACAF qualifying set to kick off, Canada will again face Honduras, this time on Friday at BC Place in Vancouver. And in a tough Group A that also features Mexico and El Salvador, Canada will be aiming for a crucial win at home.

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A victory may not be an absolute necessity, exactly—this is the first of six matches in this stage of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia—but Canada will need those three points in order to improve their odds of making the Hex, the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, something it hasn’t done since 1997.

The top two teams in the group will advance, and with Mexico expected to finish first, the battle for second place should be tight. Friday’s match, too, could well be a game of thin margins.

“The first game is very important, which means that the mentality needs to be different,” Canadian coach Benito Floro said.

Floro stressed the importance of a competitive mindset. Even during recent friendlies, he said, he’s tried to impress on his players that every win counts—an attempt to develop the do-or-die mentality they ought to have in big international games.

While much has been made of the team hoping to exorcise their demons in this match—a win against Honduras would seem, on the outside anyway, like payback—many of the veterans who were on that squad three years ago maintain that humiliation isn’t really a motivating factor.

“The 8–1 game has nothing to do with [Friday’s] game,” de veteran midfielder Julian de Guzman said.

The players who were there still think about that loss, of course, but the focus is less on redemption than it is on something far more vital: winning.

Floro, who was brought in the year following the team’s implosion in Honduras, has worked on sharpening Canada’s defence since his arrival. But in order to win on Friday, Canada can’t just defend. Luckily, the squad has been buoyed by an influx of newcomers who could offer the attacking threat they’ve sorely lacked.

The arrival of David “Junior” Hoilett has been a huge positive in that respect. Hoilett was a longtime holdout who recently committed to playing for Canada. The 25-year-old winger for Queens Park Rangers has skipped some of this week’s training sessions, the result of a minor injury. But Floro said it was important to rest him because his availability on Friday will be key.

There are other fresh faces to watch for. Earlier this week, 20-year-old Cyle Larin was named Major League Soccer rookie of the year. Larin, who plays for Orlando City, will be looked on to create goals. The Brampton, Ont., native scored a record 17 goals in his debut MLS season and said he isn’t worried about the pressure he’s facing.

“It motivates me,” he explained this week. His plan is simple: “Just concentrate on working hard and do the things I did in Orlando. If I do that I’ll score here for the national team.”

Larin was just the most recent Canadian to earn MLS rookie-of-the-year honours. Last year’s winner, Tesho Akindele, made his debut for Canada in June. The 23-year-old forward for FC Dallas should also be seen as a threat to score.

Other recent additions who could contribute on Friday include Fraser Aird, a 20-year-old winger with Glasgow Rangers.

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With a more balanced side than we saw three years ago, Canada expects that their new home field will give the team a special kind of advantage (the men’s national squad hasn’t played a World Cup qualifying match on the west coast since October 2004).

“I think it could be good,” said veteran midfielder Atiba Hutchinson—a key fixture on the team—of playing at BC Place. “Hopefully we can get the same kind of atmosphere that we’ve been getting in Toronto, which I think we will. I think there’s a lot of interest in football now, so I think we’re all looking forward to that.”

Despite what should be a loud and passionate home crowd, Canada will be in tough against a physical Honduran side, which includes players who had a hand in that brutal defeat three years ago. The upside of facing them now is that Honduras has been struggling of late, winning just one match in their last 11.

A win on Friday would set Canada up nicely as they travel to El Salvador for their next qualifying game on November 17. The players may not be seeking redemption, but Canadian soccer fans wouldn’t mind if Les Rouges managed a little revenge on home turf.