Canada continues its journey towards qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup when it takes on Belize on Friday night at Toronto’s BMO Field.
Here’s what you need to know about the match…
This is a two-game, third-round CONCACAF qualifier, with the winner based on aggregate score winning the series. The return match is next Tuesday in the Belize capital of Belmopan.
Canada is ranked 102nd in the world while Belize is No. 128.
Canada had a first-round bye in CONCACAF qualifying and then beat Dominica 6-0 on aggregate in the second round. Belize won its first-round series over the Cayman Islands before besting the Dominican Republic in the second round.
The winner of this series moves on the semifinal round of the CONCACAF qualifiers, and will compete in a round-robin group with Mexico (No. 26), Honduras (No. 81), and either El Salvador (No. 107) or Curacao (No. 148). The top two teams from that group move on to “The Hex,” the final round of CONCACAF qualifying.
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Hutchinson and Johnson are back
Canada’s 23-man roster features the return of two key midfielders—Atiba Hutchinson and Will Johnson—who did not play for the Reds at this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. A nagging groin problem kept Hutchinson out of the tournament, while Johnson had returned from a lengthy injury layoff after breaking his leg.
Considered by most as Canada’s best player, Hutchinson should give the Reds a creative spark in attack, while Johnson offers a steady presence in midfield and is an astute passer. Johnson hasn’t played for Canada since 2013.
Canada did have a few video sessions on Belize, but other than that they don’t know too much about their opponents. But Johnson doesn’t view the lack of intel as a problem.
“It’s about us,” Johnson said. “If we play to our potential, we’ll win the series. That’s what we’re focused on. … If we want to get to the next level, we have to have the confidence that we can go in and win this series.”
Can Canada score?
After comfortably beating Dominica by six goals in its aggregate qualifying series in June, Canada failed to score a single goal at the Gold Cup in July, and bowed out of the group stage with two draws and a loss.
That lack of production can’t continue if Canada hopes to work its way through the CONCACAF qualifiers. A few goals against Belize would be a good place to start for the Reds, who need to put that dreadful Gold Cup performance behind them.
“In the Gold Cup, the problem was to create the chances and to expend energy because of bad pressing, unbalanced pressing,” Floro explained. “For this game, it’s another matter. We need to focus to play well in the attack and [look to] set pieces.”
Look for Orlando City’s Cyle Larin and Tesho Akindele of FC Dallas to pick up the scoring slack for Canada in this series.
A little bit about Belize
Nicknamed the Jaguars, Belize is the only English-speaking Central American country—it’s bordered to the north by Mexico, to the south and west by Guatemala and to the east by the Caribbean Sea.
Belize has just three players who play professionally outside their country. The rest play semi-pro in the Belize league—a majority of the players on the team do not play soccer full-time, as they have other full time day jobs.
Deon McCaulay, included on this roster, is Belize’s all-time leading scorer with 20 goals in 35 appearances.
The Jaguars have never played in the third round of CONCACAF qualifying before this year, but these teams have met previously, as Canada beat Belize 8-0 on aggregate in a similar qualifying tie back in 2004.
“We must respect Belize,” Canada coach Benito Floro said in a conference call this week. “They are serious, young, in good physical condition and have three or four players with good skill. It is a dangerous elimination series, so we need to concentrate and keep our focus to pass through the phase. We need to play well.”