Canada's World Cup journey set to begin
Reds host St. Lucia in first of 6 qualifying games
If nothing else, give credit to Canadian men's soccer team coach Stephen Hart for seeing the big picture and knowing what's really important.
Canada begins its qualification campaign for the 2014 FIFA World Cup on Friday when it hosts St. Lucia at Toronto's BMO Field.
Currently ranked No. 102 in the world, Canada is the class of its CONCACAF qualification second-round group, well ahead of St. Kitts and Nevis (No. 122), Puerto Rico (No. 144) and St. Lucia (No. 184). Only the winner of the pool advances to the next round of the CONCACAF qualifiers.
Conventional wisdom suggests Canada can easily win this group and should be able to score at will against a series of opponents with little or no soccer pedigree.
Canada's World Cup route
Canada is competing in a second-round group that includes St. Lucia, Puerto Rico and St. Kitts and Nevis. Only the winner of the round robin advances.
If Canada wins its pool, it would compete in a third-round group with Honduras, Cuba and possibly Panama. Crucially, Canada would avoid CONCACAF heavyweights Mexico and the United States in the next round.
The 12 teams in the third round will be divided into groups of four with the top two in each moving on.
The final and fourth round consists of the six remaining teams fighting it out in one round-robin group for three automatic World Cup berths.
The fourth-place team from CONCACAF will play a two-game, home-and-away playoff against the winner of the Oceania region in order to qualify.
The World Cup in Brazil, involving 32 countries playing 64 matches, will be held from June 12 to July 13, 2014.
Hart, however, isn't concerned with living up to everybody's fanciful expectations of 10-0 victories. What's more, he is not going to panic if there are a few unexpected hiccups along the way against the trio of Caribbean opponents, so long as the Canadian team reaches its objective.
"If there are situations where we stumble and things don't go as they should, it is always a situation that can be rectified. The objective is to win the group, to play consistently — first and foremost that's the priority," Hart told reporters earlier this week.
A native of Trinidad, Hart admitted he doesn't know much about the St. Lucia team and that he has sought the advice of former teammates and coaching colleagues in the Caribbean to put together a scouting report for his players.
But Hart insists that the research he has gathered won't greatly influence how his game plan.
"Ever since I took over this team we have focused on us and what we do well," stated Hart, who began his second tenure as Canadian coach in 2009.
"When you play soccer, if you focus too much on your opponent, what happens is that it takes away from your own game. We've been working very hard on the part of the game that we control, which is when we have the ball.
Norwich City forward Simeon Jackson, who admitted he doesn't know what to expect from St. Lucia, echoed his coach's sentiments.
"For us, we have to focus on what we're doing, try to execute our plans and get a result," said Jackson.
Hart said he is happy with the roster of players he has assembled for this game. He does have one major concern, namely the health of Atiba Hutchinson.
Regarded as one of Canada's best players, the PSV Eindhoven attacking midfielder aggravated a nagging knee injury while playing for Canada at the Gold Cup in June and only recently returned to action for his pro club.
It's not known whether Hutchinson, the reigning Canadian player of the year, will play the full 90 minutes against St. Lucia.
"He is a concern because he is not at the fitness level that he probably should be," Hart said.
Canada's next game is in Puerto Rico on Sept. 6. The Canadians then return home to host Puerto Rico (Oct. 7) and visit St. Lucia (Oct. 11) before playing its last two games against St. Kitts and Nevis (No. 11 and Nov. 15 at home).
All three of Canada's home games will be played in Toronto.