In a manner of speaking, World Cup qualifying kicks off for real for Canada on Friday with the Canadian Men’s National Team facing off against Cuba in Havana at 2pm at Estadio Pedro Marrero. With even the most pessimistic pundits correctly predicting that Canada would vanquish the football minnows – St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis and Puerto Rico – that the Canadian team faced off against in the previous round of qualifying last year, the really big matches start now for a Canadian National team who are aiming to qualify for the “Hex”, the final round of World Cup qualifying for the CONCACAF region.
And with this being the round of World Cup qualifying that Canada has often struggled in during previous campaigns, the heat is now on for Canada on a number of levels.
With a squad made up of talented and very experienced players who ply their trades as club players in Europe and in the MLS, this team has all of the qualities, experience and CONCACAF pedigree necessary to break through and qualify for a World Cup for the first time since 1986. Thus, the pressure is now on for Head Coach Stephen Hart and his players to prove that they can break through and get the job done on the pitch against Cuba, Panama and Honduras.
First up is Cuba and, as it often the case in the CONCACAF region, Canada won’t only need to deal with the qualities of their opposition, they will also need to overcome the type of factors (overwhelming heat, a poor pitch, suspect refereeing) that they rarely come up against in their days jobs in Europe and North America.
That said, Head Coach Stephen Hart was pragmatic when asked today about the inherent gamesmanship of the Cubans scheduling their home match against Canada at the hottest time of the day, at 2pm in the afternoon in a humid and sweltering Havana afternoon.
“Look, if you want to play in CONCACAF, you have to accept, endure and overcome. We can’t do anything about the heat. And with the pitch, we can’t do anything about that. You only take care of things that you can control. And I have told the players that,” said Hart at Canada’s final training session ahead of the kickoff of the third round of World Cup qualifying.
While Hart was equally pragmatic when discussing the state of a pitch that is reminiscent of the type of crab grass you see on the lawn of someone who has neglected that aspect of their property for some time, he also admitted the conditions will necessitate Canada having to adjust their style of play to make up for the conditions.
“It’s okay. Both teams have to play on it. One team is more accustomed to it than the other, but, you know, I don’t want any excuses. As I said, we have adapt and overcome. We have to be sensible in the things that we do. There are certain things that it will disrupt – the speed of how you play and the timing of your movement. Other than that, you just have to play the game,” said Hart.
Team captain Kevin McKenna parroted his head coach in terms of his expressed pragmatism surrounding the environment in which Canada will play a crucial first match in a round of World Cup qualifying that has confounded many Canadian teams in years past.
“It’s probably the worst pitch I have ever played on, but this is CONCACAF and this is World Cup qualifying. And these are the games that you have to win. I think it forces you to play the game more directly. This is not the type of pitch to pass the ball around on,” said McKenna.
Midfielder Atiba Hutchinson also admitted that the pitch was in poor shape, but he was also fast to state that the focus of the players is on getting three points rather than nitpicking about the state of the grass the game will be played on.
“It’s definitely not the best pitch that I have played on. The grass is pretty high and it’s bumpy, but it’s not something we are focused on. We are just focused on coming here and getting three points. It will definitely be a different game. You are not going to have the smooth flowing game that you are looking for and maybe we will have to be a little more direct at times to get behind them. We just want to make sure that we don’t concede any goals and hopefully we can get on the score sheet,” said Hutchinson.
When asked about the heat and humidity in which the match against Cuba will be played, McKenna and Hutchinson admitted that the weather condition which many are predicting will make a tough road match that much tougher will be a factor, but they were also expedient to state that it is something Canada is used to and prepared for.
“We trained down in Florida for ten days and it was similar weather and maybe even a little bit hotter. Today is windy, so I don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. I think that with the game being at 2pm tomorrow, you will see the weather playing a role,” said McKenna.
“We had some training sessions in Fort Lauderdale, getting used to this weather, before we played the game against the United States. It’s something that we are all used to and we have been in these conditions before and we have had to deal with it. So I don’t think it will be a major problem in the game tomorrow,” stated Hutchinson.
Central defender Andre Hainault, who plays his home matches at the club level in the often blistering heat of Houston, Texas, highlighted the importance of approaching the heat in an intelligent and scientific fashion.
“You just have to take care of yourself – hydrating before and eating well. It’s going to be hot either way. But coming from Houston, this is all right. It’s really just about managing it. You have to be smart and you have to start hydrating now rather than tomorrow. We can’t worry about things we can’t control and the weather is one thing that we can’t control, so we are going to be ready come rain or shine,” said Hainault.
Even given that two of the expected starting defenders on the back line (David Edgar and Kevin McKenna) play their club matches in environments in England and Germany that are considerably cooler than Cuba and Texas, Hainault was also quick to stress that he did not feel that he had any type of major acclimatizing advantage over his teammates.
“I don’t think so. These guys will be fine. We were in Florida before and it was probably hotter than this. We should have acclimatized to it pretty quickly and it shouldn’t be any issue,” stated Hainault.
With ten days of training in Florida and a final training session at Estadio Pedro Marrero under their belts, the Canadian team appeared very confident that they had a handle on the environment in which they will look to get off on the right foot with an opening victory over the lowest rank participant in their group. Canada last played Cuba twelve years ago in a match that the Canadians won 1-0 away over Cuba at the Estadio Pedro Marrero, with Jason de Vos scoring the lone goal in the June 4th, 2000 victory.
That said, with Cuba rarely playing and not being a regular opponent of the Canadian national team squad, the Canadian players could really only speculate as to what to expect from a team dubbed by many as the mystery opponent in Group C.
Dwayne De Rosario, Canada’s all time leading scorer, made it plain that he was expecting nothing less than a very tough match. He was also willing to make an educated guess as to the style and qualities of the Cuban team.
“It will definitely be a tough match. The environment is what it is. We are looking forward to kicking off our World Cup qualifying campaign on a positive note. We don’t know too much about the opponent, but we do imagine that they are going to be very athletic and very quick. As you can see, it is a big field. So we have to keep all of that in the back of our minds when we are approaching the game tomorrow. But we also have to play our game,” said De Rosario.
McKenna concurred with teammate on the Cuban team and suggested that Canadian national team supporters should expect to see another mature and defensively deliberate effort similar to the approach that Canada employed against the United States in the team’s centenary match last Sunday.
“We are going to have to be patient. I think it will be a game that will require a lot of patience and I think we will have to watch that we don’t get caught at the back door,” said McKenna.
Overall, the mood among the Canadian team was one of optimism, with many of the players both highlighting the CONCACAF experience inherent in the Canadian team and the fact that they were coming off an assured and composed draw against one of the superpowers in the region in the United States.
“We had a good session here today. We had to travel yesterday and got in a little bit late, but everybody felt good today and was getting used to the pitch and everything. Everyone is quite confident and positive and hopefully we will go out there and get the result we are looking for,” stated Hutchinson.
Interestingly, the 29 year Brampton, Ontario native has been something of a man of mystery himself, with there being a shroud of secrecy around both his fitness and the question of whether arguably Canada’s best player would actually play against Cuba.
While neither Hart or 2010 Canadian Player of the Year were able to give a definitive statement on whether he would see the pitch at the Estadio Pedro Marrero on Friday, the PSV attacking midfielder did suggest that he was a good bet to play. If so, that would give the Canadian team a major boost considering the fact that the team was firing on all cylinders against the United States, with the exception of putting the ball into the back of the opposition net.
“I’m feeling good. I’ve had two good sessions now and I’ve been feeling pretty well and getting better and better. So obviously we will have a talk about it a little bit later on today and then I’ll be available,” said Hutchinson.
The media session following training ended with Dwayne De Rosario being asked about how much of a disaster if would be if Canada was unable to come away with a result against Cuba and the reigning Major League Soccer Most Valuable Player was very quick to state that losing is not an option that the Canadian team is even considering at this point.
“We’re not even thinking about losing. It is all about coming here and getting three points,” stated De Rosario.