And so the curtain falls on Act 1 of Canada's 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. There will now be a seven-month intermission before Act 2 commences. Whether or not Act 3 ever materializes remains to be seen.
We have been introduced to the principals, the supporting cast and the director. Audiences have been modest but acceptable and appreciative. The reviews have generally been favourable. Backstage, however, there is much to do before the curtain rises again.
Canada has done what needed to be done - nothing more, nothing less. An unbeaten sequence of six games, home and away, is an encouraging start to the latest World Cup qualifying cycle. Eighteen goals were scored and only one conceded with five successive clean sheets.
Youth serves Hart well
An evergreen veteran finally tied a decades-old scoring record while newcomers were handed a chance to impress at senior international level. It all looks promising on paper, but has Canada made any meaningful progress over the last two months which will make a difference when the qualifying process resumes in June 2012?
It's important these results are put in perspective. While it's true you can only beat what is in front of you, it's equally true Canada's second-round opponents were mediocre at best in terms of quality. Undisciplined defending and wayward finishing is a common problem shared by St Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis and Puerto Rico.
Clearly Canada is several rungs up soccer's ladder when compared to these minnows. Nothing new or surprising in that. From the outset Canada was expected to dominate its group and roll onto the next phase. Mission accomplished in a professional manner.
That it was achieved with a game to spare was a bonus. It allowed head coach Stephen Hart to experiment in the home finale against St Kitts & Nevis. Youngsters like Ashtone Morgan and Tosaint Ricketts are still finding their feet at international level and both acquitted themselves well.
There are others for whom the international learning curve is also crucial. David Edgar and Adam Straith have both been given an opportunity to form an understanding in central defence. In the absence of Andre Hainault and Kevin McKenna, Hart appears to have genuine competition for those pivotal centre back places.
It should not be forgotten Canada has come through this phase largely without Atiba Hutchinson. Arguably Canada's most influential and creative midfielder, Hutchinson has not reappeared since the opening victory over St. Lucia. The importance of his return to full fitness and the engine room next summer cannot be overstated.
Iain Hume is another whose participation was hampered by injury. The speedy striker scored three goals in as many games before a hamstring strain curtailed his involvement. His tenacity, versatility and eye for goal will be important ingredients for Canada when the going gets tougher.
There are other, less visible, fringe benefits. For the first time since taking the coaching reins from Dale Mitchell, Hart has had a series of competitive games for which to plan without the distraction of having to go cap in hand to club managers reluctant to release players for meaningless friendlies. International dates, stipulated by FIFA, are finally being respected in North America. It makes life easier for coaches, players and fans alike.
Those fans are also making their voices heard. Attendances are on the up, an absolute essential if Canada is to make any further progress. Another crowd in excess of 10,000 turned up on a chilly November night in Toronto to watch Canada play a game in which nothing but pride was at stake.
The players responded with a dominant performance. Home advantage is as important today as it has always been. Slowly but surely the numbers are growing. Maybe, just maybe, a pro-Canadian crowd on Canadian soil isn't such an alien concept after all.
Inevitably there are negatives as well as positives. Failing to score in back-to-back matches against Puerto Rico and St Kitts is little short of embarrassing. Ball possession and speed of execution needs improvement as the hill gets steeper. Scoring chances will be at a premium in Stage 3 and cool heads will need to prevail when those rare opportunities arise.
U.S. friendly would be ideal preparation
For the time being, let's enjoy the moment and move on. The planning for 2012 must begin immediately. The Canadian Soccer Association needs to arrange a series of friendlies in the first half of the year, ideally against opposition which mirrors the challenges ahead.
The Association is about to celebrate its Centenary. No better time than to use the milestone to prepare the team for the next stage of qualifying. Don't bother with England, Italy or Argentina. That would just result in Canadian stadia full of ex-pat English, Italians or Argentines.
The anniversary should be used constructively. It must be something to whet the appetite of Canadian supporters. For that reason I would much rather see a home and away series against the U.S. in the spring. It would be a real rivalry with real supporters and a good test for Hart's team.
The CSA needs to give its paying customers an attractive curtain raiser to kick off a decisive year. As any impresario knows, the audience is sometimes slow to take their seats after the interval. The promise of a show-stopping ensemble to begin Act 2 usually has the desired effect on tardy patrons.
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