With most Canadian soccer fans likely never having witnessed Canada’s lone World Cup appearance in 1986, the thirst for seeing the national team qualify for the biggest sporting event on Earth has never been greater than it is right now.
And with the European Championship tournament having kicked off, we can expect to see droves of Canadians take to the streets wearing jerseys for the German, Spanish and Italian national teams.
The same soccer fans who have been hesitant to get on the growing Canadian bandwagon should now consider investing themselves in their own national team side in light of recent events. Coach Stephen Hart’s team delivered a quality performance in a recent friendly against the United States, and opened the third round of World Cup qualifying for Brazil 2014 with an important victory away over Cuba.
Fans should harbour no illusions about the monumental task facing the Canadians as they try to progress through a CONCACAF region where the cards are often stacked against them due to suspect refereeing and other external factors. Just getting to the World Cup is huge achievement in and of itself, and teams often have to be as lucky as they are good just to qualify.
All of that said, Canada’s recent outings suggest that the plan that has been put in place by Hart and his staff is a valid one and, that with a few bounces going their way, the Reds can be in the mix to earn one of the 3.5 spots allotted to CONCACAF for the 2014 World Cup. One game does not make a World Cup qualifying run, but the win over Cuba does suggest that things are coming together for Canada at an opportune time.
While there isn’t a soccer fan anywhere that wouldn’t like to see their team play attractive football in the vein of Barcelona, taking a defence-first approach is a proven strategy for teams that don’t possess players such as Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. In their last two matches Canada has effectively employed a very deliberate and patient approach that has focused on the defensive aspects of the game first and foremost and the results have been encouraging. And if the team’s performances against the United States and Cuba are any indication, a game plan that appears to be tailored to both the vagaries of CONCACAF and the strengths and weaknesses of the Canadian players looks like it could be starting to pay dividends.
Most importantly, the players have bought in and that there is real unity within the current Canadian roster. It’s noteworthy to remember that the national team that qualified for Mexico 1986 was not the most talented side ever put together, but they were supremely fit, and well organized under coach Tony Waiters. It was also a cohesive team partly due to the fact that so many of them played together in the North American Soccer League.
Similarly, this current Canadian squad is one that has played together for years on various national teams and at different levels. Players such as Julian de Guzman, Kevin McKenna, Atiba Hutchinson and Dwayne De Rosario have years of CONCACAF experience to draw on for the weeks and months ahead.
If there is one ideal word to describe Canada’s performance against Cuba on Friday it is mature. A game plan was put in place, the players followed it and the Canadians did not buckle or fall apart when goalkeeper Lars Hirschfeld was sent off for handling the ball outside of his penalty area. There were a handful of relatively nervous moments as Cuba pressed for an equalizer, but overall Canada’s team defence and experience was more than enough to close out the victory.
The manner in which Canada defended when down to ten men was impressive and the core of veteran players played intelligent and composed football to lead the team to a vital three points. It’s important to note that the win over Cuba marks Canada’s first victory in the third round of World Cup qualifying since defeating Guatemala in 2004. Add in the fact that the result also marked the first time that Canada has opened with a victory in the third round since 1996 and it is not a huge leap of faith to assume that Hart and the Canadian players have learned from past disappointments in World Cup qualifying.
However, it would be a stretch to say that Canada is now peaking at the right time. World Cup qualifying is a marathon rather than a sprint and this is a race that has only really begun. Furthermore, this team still has trouble scoring and does not really have the depth to withstand any more injuries to key players.
Will Honduras and Panama pose a bigger threat to Canada than Cuba did? They most likely will. At the same time, if Canada continues to deliver clean sheets with a defence first tactical approach, then they will be in every game and will have a good chance to continue to engineer the wins and draws required to see them through to the final round of World Cup qualifying.
De Rosario, Olivier Occean and Simeon Jackson will certainly have to raise their games if Canada is to realize the ultimate goal of qualifying for a World Cup. And avoiding injuries to key players is always a major variable, with the fitness of Hutchinson still something of an ongoing concern.
However you add up all the pluses and minuses, the fact that Canada has started the round of World Cup qualifying that has always tripped them up in the past in an impressive fashion is something that provides hope. Canada now must build on the away result and find a way to defeat Honduras in Toronto on June 12.
There would still be a ways to go but it would be an ideal start for Hart and company and could set up Canada to go to the Hex round where, at the very least, anything is possible.
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.