Last year, when Canada learned of its route to World Cup qualification, pundits called it a dream draw for the Canucks, pointing out the minnows they would have along the way.
Nearly a year later, that exuberance has worn off and the reality that Canada is going to be in tough against Cuba, Panama and Honduras has set in. And while it's certainly true that the road to qualification could have been much more difficult for Canada - they avoided drawing either of CONCACAF's powerhouses in the Americans and Mexicans - it's equally true that there won't be an easy game in the group when play begins in June.
With less than two months before Canada kicks off against Cuba in its opening game, head coach Stephen Hart will be taking no liberties with his opponents and is well aware of the task at hand.
The Hondurans, who are going through a youthful rebuild after their appearance at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, remain the favourites to finish atop of Group C. Their country's commitment to the national team program is as strong as any in the region. From the money they invest, to the time they take to shut down their entire national league to allow for preparation, they are focused on one thing - qualification.
"Honduras is a team that has done their work. They're a blend of youth and experience and they've transitioned very well from their World Cup. We all know how well they play at home, the question will be how well they travel," Hart told reporters Thursday.
Panama another threat for Canada
Panama represents the other threat - and the greatest to Canada's hopes of moving on to the next round, where only two teams advance. At this last summer's Gold Cup, The Red Tide shocked CONCACAF by defeating the heavily favoured Americans and finishing atop their group. They would go on to make a run to the semifinals where they would meet the U.S., once again, this time falling to the tournament hosts.
"They have been one of the most consistent squads in CONCACAF and are one of the most up and coming squads in the region. We all saw how well they played at the Gold Cup. They'll be [a] very similar side to their squad then. ... They'll be tough," Hart said.
Cuba should be no match for Canada, although it is crucial the Canadians take maximum points from this opponent, over the two games they meet.
"Traditionally Cuba have been hard at home. It has to do a lot with them being a team that plays together constantly. And of course the conditions down there - with the heat and humidity - make it difficult for any team. ... But we've talked about it as a staff and we're well aware of the battle we'll face in our first two games."
Perhaps the biggest battle will come away from the field, when Hart has to go to his players' teams and ask for time off. Even on FIFA dates, Canada continues to find it hard to wrangle players away from their club teams. Hart thinks he knows why.
"I think all the smaller countries go through the same thing. I've had these discussions with other coaches in Jamaica, even Honduras. It depends on how they, as players, are doing with squad at that time. It depends on how the team is doing. It is just a reality for now," Hart said.
Canada needs to build on momentum
And while a respectable qualification is crucial for Canada to continue building on the momentum it has built in recent years with a rejuvenated fan base, however they finish on the pitch, the future remains bright for the Canadian program.
The U-23 squad showed a combination of great potential and uneasy inexperience at the recent Olympic qualification tournament. A number of new faces emerged as the underdog side defeated an American program with deep pockets. Michal Misiewicz, Bryce Alderson and Lucas Cavallini represent the next generation of footballers that will be called on to fill the starting roles of an aging national team side. Hart was on the sidelines for tournament and saw what he liked.
"There are certainly some players that warrant being brought into [the senior] camp. It's a little difficult to judge the players on a three-game tournament. But I got a lot of time to watch them in training. More than likely its worth inviting bringing them in ... In the long run, if they can play with their clubs, there are five or six of them that can really make a run into the national side," Hart said.
The senior side will get a good tune up before World Cup qualification as they take on the U.S., as part of the Canadian Soccer Association's centennial celebration. It will be a good benchmark for the Canadians as they head off to Cuba for their first game.
A loss at home to the powerhouse side probably means little more than a few disappointed faces going home from BMO Field that night. But a win could put a jolt into the backs of a Canadian side that has been struggling to find its confident form since 2007.
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