Finally the wait is over - it’s time for the Canadian Men’s National Team to embark on another round of World Cup Qualifying and put behind them the disappointment from their previous run in 2008. This time around, they begin the third round away from home and will be under assault from stifling heat in Havana to take on the sixth seeded side in CONCACAF, but 136 ranked in FIFA, Cuba.
Canada once again heads into a third round of qualifying with cautious optimism and will need to get off to a better start than they did in August, 2008 if they are to progress to the Hex for the first time since 1997. Their friendly versus the USA has certainly buoyed the team and supporters into believing they have a strong chance to get through this stage.
Cuba presents all the challenges faced in away matches in CONCACAF, and the added nature of their society adds an element of the unknown when arriving in Havana to play. Canada demonstrated all of the right characteristics last Sunday against the U.S. to build upon over the next week. A strong work ethic and mental toughness in definite difficult conditions should see them home to BMO Field with three points in the bag.
Still fresh in the minds of many is the start to the third round of qualifying in 2008. A 1-1 draw to Jamaica at home, and a 2-1 loss to Honduras in Montreal essentially ended Canada’s hopes at advancing to the Hex in just over two weeks.
Four years later, Canada is back in the same position, but with a brighter sense of optimism that wasn’t sealed until this past weekend. A 0-0 draw with the United States displayed plenty of positives from the team that observers could draw from to conclude, when on their game, disciplined and mentally prepared, can compete with the best in CONCACAF.
A winning start to the round cannot be overstated as after Tuesday night against Honduras, the next matches are not until September when many players will either be in a playoff hunt or ready to begin their fall/winter season. Player-wise, even with Josh Simpson out for the foreseeable future, and Atiba Hutchinson questionable, on Sunday the team looked composed and cohesive enough that these first two games are beginning to lean in their favour.
A tough midfield who are ready and willing to work, in Julian De Guzman, Will Johnson and Nik Ledgerwood are the much needed bridge between a slower, but physically dominant backline lead by the veteran Kevin McKenna. Dwayne De Rosario is looking to be in good form and able to create all the problems for defenders he has in MLS for the last five years.
Of course, Cuba presents a unique challenge in the region. Aside from the usual issues competing in CONCACAF, is the general unfamiliarity with a team and players who are usually only seen every few years. Even with that in mind, rumours of players only being available for home fixtures adds another intangible to prepare against.
Canada did not meet Cuba in the 2011 Gold Cup, a team who lost all three games, only scoring once and allowing sixteen goals, but supporters will still recall with disappointment this team from Olympic qualifying just under three months ago. Even an overmatched Cuban team, who only scored once in the stage, did enough to dash Canada’s hopes of finishing first and avoiding Mexico in the semi-finals through a 1-1 draw. Now the question is has Canada learned from this setback in order to not let history repeat itself.
What Canada will likely be familiar with is a few of those players from Nashville. Keeper Odisnel Cooper looks to be the number one choice for the senior team, as well as forward Heviel Cordovez. Dayron Blanco, the lone goalscorer from Olympic qualifying has also been making appearances of late, and he and Cordovez, while not technically proficient yet, will bring strength, pace and width to Cuba’s attack. Their only home result of late, is a 1-1 draw with Costa Rica, however, this was a Ticos team without Bryan Ruiz, Joel Campbell or Alvaro Saborio.
Even with this in mind, the reality is that from what has been demonstrated over the last six months, Canada’s toughest opposition is themselves in this match. There is no question Canada, player for player, are the superior side and should earn the result much like in Puerto Rico or St. Lucia. A poor pitch is one factor, insufferable heat is another, CONCACAF refereeing is the third, however, the previous round of qualifying should now be seen as a blessing as Canada is now well acclimatized to all those obstacles already faced in Bayamón, Gros Inlet and Basseterre.
The last piece of the puzzle Stephen Hart will need to put together is the missing piece from the positive result Sunday against the Americans, and that is clinical finishing. Olivier Occean and Simeon Jackson both had some chances, but simply cannot afford to expect several opportunities on goal before putting one away. There is some depth through Jackson, Tosaint Ricketts and Iain Hume that can offer a tenacious option to go at the net, and one of these players will need to deliver if Canada is to get this round off on the right foot.
In the end
Heading into this round of qualifying, many would have looked at these upcoming games uncertain what Canadian team will show up, or if they will be prepared enough to get through to the next stage. The draw against the U.S. demonstrated many positives that the team has been able to continue coming together from last fall and begin to look even more like a unit. Canada will no doubt be in tough in Cuba, if anything from the elements and environment, and a repeat of their discipline and composure will be needed to come away with three points. As long as the backline remains in tact, the midfield continues their tireless efforts, the offence should be able to create the chances to start the round and leave Havana with a victory.
Canada 1 – Cuba 0