Canada’s quest to qualify for their first World Cup since 1986 resumes as it plays Panama in Toronto tomorrow before playing a rematch in Panama City next Tuesday. For Canada Soccer and fans of the Canadian National Team, these two matches represent a key point in their attempt to qualify for the Brazil 2014. Two favorable results could put the team in the driver’s seat in Group C while two unfavorable results could mean that they crash out of the World Cup Qualifying.
With two matches played, Panama leads Group C with six points. Canada is in second place with four points, Honduras lies third with one point, and Cuba is last with no points. The top two teams in the group advance to next year’s hexagonal stage. Considering that Honduras is likely to get a sweep against Cuba, giving them seven points, pulling out at least four points against Panama is a near-must for Canada. Those four points would then see Canada go atop the group with eight points leaving Panama and Honduras level at seven points. And with Panama and Honduras still to play one match against each other, that would afford Canada some breathing room going into their last match against Honduras if they are able defeat Cuba.
The only problem is that Canada has traditionally struggled on the road, especially in CONCACAF. During the same stage of qualification for the 2010 World Cup, Canada lost all three matches on the road by a combined score of 8-2. Additionally, last February Canada lost a friendly to Armenia 3-1 (the match was played in Cyprus). There are certainly several factors that have gone into this poor road record, mainly a lack of time together before going to play in these matches. Four years ago, the only top-level team in Canada was Toronto FC and with only so many available roster spots for Canadian players, as well as a restrictive salary cap, many Canadian players were forced to play in non-top level leagues across Europe. This meant that in order to assemble for a home and away with the Canadian National Team, these players had to make the trip across Europe, over to Canada, and then down to Central America. Canada isn’t alone in this conundrum, the U.S. also faces similar problems, but the skill of the American players and the financial resources of U.S. Soccer were often able to mitigate difficulties. But for Canada, with only a handful of players in top European leagues and limited resources, their road form suffered as a result.
However, things seem to have turned around. Over the last year Canada picked up a big 1-0 victory in Cuba. They also beat Trinidad and Tobago in Florida, and put up big scores against St. Lucia and Puerto Rico. Sure, outside of Trinidad and Tobago the quality of these opponents hasn’t been the greatest, but the conditions of the match will be similar to what is coming up next for the team. Being able to travel down to Cuba and to play in extremely difficult circumstances is a great experience for the team. The fact that they were able to pick up a win should only buoy the team and the players heading into their series with Panama.
Even more, the growth of Canadian teams in Major League Soccer has helped the team not only improve their road form, but also their overall form. Previously, key players like Patrice Bernier and Julian de Guzman were only able to be with the team just prior to a match due to their European commitments. Now, they, along with players like Terry Dunfield, have come back to North America, allowing them more assembly time ahead of key matches. That time together has really shown through as the team seems more organized and has a better sense of what they want to do out on the pitch. Credit should go to head coach Stephan Hart for taking advantage of the situation as well.
There are plenty of other factors to give Canadian fans hope that this year will be different. Team stalwart Atiba Hutchinson is healthy and has been in goal scoring form for PSV Eindhoven, Dwayne de Rosario continues to be a perennial MVP candidate in Major League Soccer, goalkeeper Lars Hirschfeld has been solid in Norway, and players like Andre Hainault, Dejan Jakovic, Dunfield, and Will Johnson continue to be key players for their teams MLS. Overall, Canada looks like they have strong pieces in every position. Anchored by Kevin McKenna, the defense is strong. The quadrant of Hutchinson, Johnson, de Rosario, and Bernier gives the team one of the best midfields in CONCACAF, and Simeon Jackson and Occean represent a effective forward tandem.
Another positive for the team is the growth of younger players like Ashtone Morgan, Doneil Henry, and Russell Teibert. Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps, and the Montreal Impact have three of the strongest youth programs in North America. The Whitecaps are one of only two clubs in MLS to have a residency academy while Toronto is building a very nice youth complex. Additionally, these three teams have all gone out of their way to get their youth teams games outside of the MLS Reserve League. The Whitecaps have long had a team in the PDL, while Toronto and Montreal have teams in the Canadian Soccer League. Young Canadian players are getting great competition and the results have been evident. The U-17 team qualified for the U-17 World Cup, and the U-20 and U-23 teams put in strong efforts in attempting to qualify for the U-20 World Cup and Olympics respectively. Eventually, not only will this investment in youth lead to better Canadian teams in MLS, but also to a better Canadian National Team.
But back to the big question, can Canada qualify for the World Cup? The answer is definitely yes. Canada is one of the up and coming teams in the region. They have the right infrastructure in place and the National Team is full of confidence. Beginning with last year’s Gold Cup, the team is 7-2-5 with notable draws against the U.S., Honduras, and Panama. That recent form has also drawn the attention of potential Canadian players like Junior Hoilett and Jonathan de Guzman, who may eventually turn out for the team. However, it all starts tomorrow at BMO Field and Canada is in a perfect spot to get the win.
Canada Squad for Qualifers against Panama:
Goalkeepers: Lars Hirschfeld (Valerenga), Milan Borjan (Sivasspor), Kenny Stamatopoulos (AIK)
Defenders: Ante Jazic (Chivas USA), Kevin McKenna (Koln), Andre Hainault (Houston Dynamo), Marcel de Jong (Augsburg), Dejan Jakovic (D.C. United), David Edgar (Burnley), Ashtone Morgan (Toronto FC)
Midfielders: Nik Ledgerwoord (Hammarby), Julian de Guzman (FC Dallas), Terry Dunfield (Toronto), Will Johnson (Real Salt Lake), Atiba Hutchinson (Eindhoven), Pedro Pacheco (Santa Clara), Patrice Bernier (Montreal Impact)
Forwards: Tosaint Ricketts (Valerenga), Simeon Jackson (Norwich City), Dwayne de Rosario (D.C. United), Olivier Occean (Eintracht Frankfurt)
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