Bottjer on Canada: Hirschfeld the key

As Canada prepares for two crucial World Cup qualifying fixtures against Panama this month, many supporters are wondering if a team that has looked defensively impenetrable in recent fixtures will also be able to score enough goals to ensure itself a place in the final round of the CONCACAF qualifiers.

In that vein, many have been analyzing the recent performances of Dwayne De Rosario, Olivier Occean, Simeon Jackson, Atiba Hutchinson and Patrice Bernier, and are likely keeping their fingers crossed that they will catch lightning in a bottle at just the right time.

Programming alert: Watch Canada vs. Panama in 2014 World Cup qualifying action live on Sportsnet ONE on Friday, Sept. 7. Coverage begins with our pre-game show at 7 pm ET/4 pm PT.

While that necessity isn’t at all wishful thinking on the part of supporters, there is another player who will likely be key to Canada’s fortunes against Panama: goalkeeper Lars Hirschfeld.

Canada has already earned two clean sheets in this qualifying round and that has essentially been achieved as a result of two very strong team defensive performances. The back four, the holding midfielders and the wide attacking players have all played important roles in shutting down the opposition in a very cohesive fashion.

Interestingly, Canada’s two goalkeepers — Hirschfeld and Milan Borjan — were rarely tested and did not play starring roles in their team’s impressive win away in Havana and the scoreless draw at home against Honduras.

That scenario likely will not be repeated against Panama. Manager Julio Dely Valdes’s side is arguably the most dynamic offensive team in Canada’s group and their recent performances in the qualifiers and at the 2011 Gold Cup suggest a squad that will be tough to shut down. In fact, Canadian coach Stephen Hart has been candid in stating that Panama’s Blas Perez and Luis Tejada are two of the better strikers in CONCACAF.

While Panama (54th) currently sits above Canada (79th) in the FIFA rankings, realistically the two sides are fairly evenly matched. And one of the most commonly cited truisms of soccer is that when two evenly matched teams meet in a tournament format or a short run of games, the side with the better goalkeeper is most likely going to come out on the winning side of the equation.

Thus, if you believe that De Rosario, Occean and Kevin McKenna effectively cancel out any advantage that Panama might possess with Perez, Tejada and Felipe Baloy, then it becomes fairly obvious that Hirschfeld is going to have to be a difference maker this time around for Canada.

If you look back to Canada’s major success at international level, goalkeeper Craig Forrest was a vital component in the Reds winning the 2000 Gold Cup. It’s also interesting to look at Canada’s two most recent performances against the United States. Hirschfeld featured in Canada’s group stage match against the U.S. at the 2011 Gold Cup and in the centenary match against the Americans this June.

Canada lost 2-0 to the U.S. in 2011, but many people believe that the Canadians were basically equal to their rivals on that day, and that they just came up against an unbeatable Tim Howard.

Fast forward to this past summer and Canada set the stage for their positive start to the current round of World Cup qualifying with an impressive scoreless draw against the U.S. The fundamental play in that result was an absolutely world class save by Hirschfeld that essentially robbed the Americans of a victory.

While Hirschfeld and Borjan have split time in Canada’s two previous qualifying matches, it would be a major surprise if the former did not get the starting assignments in the two matches against Panama. That statement is not meant as a slight to the 24 year old Borjan, who is a fantastic young talent and a goalkeeper who has already acquitted himself quite well.

However, Hirschfeld is the more experienced of the two and he is currently in mid-season form due to the fact that he plays his club football in Norway, while Borjan has just completed his pre-season in Turkey.

At 33 years old, Hirschfeld is now in his prime years as a shot stopper. He has been capped 41 times, and like a number of his Canada teammates he brings considerable CONCACAF experience to the table. While he has not always been a number one ‘keeper during his professional career, the clubs on his resume are very impressive, with Energie Cottbus, Tottenham Hotspur, Rosenborg and Valerenga being just a few of the places where he has played and developed his skills.

Most importantly, Hirschfeld has shown in the past that he is capable of delivering game changing performances. Following the 2002 CONCACAF Gold Cup, he was named the best goalkeeper of the tournament after allowing only four goals in five matches and recording an impressive semifinal performance against the U.S.

If Canada is to be successful in these matches against Panama, Hirschfeld is going to have to be at his very best.

So keep your eyes on how Hutchinson, De Rosario and Occean look early on against Panama on, but also pay special attention to the lanky last line of defence for Canada. If Hirschfeld is at the top of his game, Canada’s chances of excelling in World Cup qualifying will be exponentially higher.

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.

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