It would be gross hyperbole to call Canada's pair of upcoming World Cup qualifying games against Panama the biggest in a generation -- but you would be hard pressed to find anyone who will downplay their significance.
In a World Cup cycle it's easy to get carried away with the "It's the biggest game ever" rhetoric. They're often one off games with elimination hanging in the brink. They're against regional rivals, who the fans know and hate. And they're as emotionally charged as anything a city's sporting public will experience that year.
Add an exclamation point to that last sentence given Toronto, who is hosting all of Canada's home games this round, hasn't seen success since around the last time Canada qualified for a World Cup.
Canada hopes to release its roster for the September games early next week, which will feature a game in Canada and a game in Panama. And even with the stated importance of these fixtures, there are two major questions still being aired out for answering.
Will Canada be properly prepared? And will Canada get the players it wants from the teams that pay them?
The Canucks are in the unfortunate position of being the low man on the totem. That means, when they come calling for players to be released for World Cup qualifying games, the bigger clubs in Europe tend to look down their nose at Canada, sip some of their 18-year-old Scotch ask, "why bother?"
It's a problem that will continue to plague Canada until it improves its standing in international soccer but for now it's a problem head coach Stephen Hart hopes he's solved.
"So far it looks like I may have everybody I want. It's a matter of making a decision of who is playing. Some of the players have one game under their belt at the moment. And some of them have none. A lot of them have none. I have some tough decisions to make," Hart said by phone on Thursday.
The factors aren't just if the European-based players will be made available - Simeon Jackson and Atiba Hutchinson to name a few - but whether or not they will they be fit.
"They might be fresher [than the North American players] but they haven't been playing. It will take them a little while to settle down. The good thing is physically they should be prepared. And it's just a matter of getting their rhythm and game fitness back on track."
And that runs into the second major question about the September games - will they properly prepared?
While Canada took a rag tag roster down to Florida last week to play Trinidad and Tobago in a warm-up game - on what was nothing more than a converted cricket pitch - Panama found themselves in a top-flight test against Portugal. Some will be happy that Canada even managed to get a game on that FIFA date. And given that they pulled it together last minute the Canadian Soccer Association does deserve some credit.
Hart didn't mince words when asked about what this game meant in terms of preparation though.
"The word preparation I wouldn't say at all. We had one basic training session for one hour because of the availability of players. So, no I wouldn't call that preparation," Hart said. "These set of games come at a difficult time. You have players that are almost to the end of their season. And you have a group of players, some of whom have not even started playing yet."
Doing what they could with a difficult situation, Canada sent staff to scout the Panama friendly against Portugal.
"My assistant Tony Fonseca was at the game. And we have a DVD of the game and we're getting all the match analysis done on that. Panama has been a consistent squad in the players they've selected and how they play," Hart said. "We know the team quite well. Basically, they're a very disciplined team who has grown up together. And they have two very interesting strikers, arguably two of the better strikers in CONCACAF. They haven't strayed much from that so we know what to expect from them."
A win at home, Sept. 7 on BMO Field, would put Canada in prime position to advance on to the next round of World Cup qualifying.
Anything less than three points and the road to Brazil could easily wash out during the return leg the following week in the hills of Panama.
"It's no secret they're arguably the best team in the group. And have been very consistent over the past two to three years in CONCACAF. So we know what to expect and the task we have ahead of us," Hart said.
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