It's not often that Canada finds itself as the overwhelming favourite of its group, whether it's at the CONCACAF Gold Cup or in World Cup qualifying.
But that's exactly the situation the Canadian team currently finds itself in.
Coach Stephen Hart's side takes it first step down the long and arduous path towards the 2014 World Cup on Friday when the team hosts St. Lucia at Toronto's BMO Field in the opening match of its qualifying campaign.
Ranked No. 102 in the world, Canada is the class of its CONCACAF qualification group, well ahead of St. Kitts and Nevis (No. 122), Puerto Rico (No. 144) and St. Lucia (No. 184). Only the winner of the round-robin group advances to the third round of the CONCACAF qualifiers, which means there is little margin of error for the Canadians.
After Friday's contest, Canada plays Puerto Rico on Sept. 6 in Bayamon.
Hart is not overlooking any of his upcoming opponents, and has done everything he can to keep his players mentally sharp and focused — and he doesn't want to hear any talk of Canada being the group favourite.
"As far as we're concerned, we're not even considering that. The format is simple [and] you hope to win the group," Hart told reporters Wednesday. "Overall, we've approached this like we've approached every other game. Of course there's always good days and bad days … but we have not spoken about being the overwhelming favourites. We are not [having] any discussion like that at all."
Hart is correct to take such a cautious tone, as history has proved.
Canada's only World Cup appearance came in Mexico in 1986. Since then, it's been one disappointing World Cup qualifying campaign after another. The Canadian team last made it to 'the Hex,' the final round of the CONCACAF qualifiers, in 1998 and finished dead last.
In the 2010 qualifiers, Canada suffered the humiliation of being eliminated from its third-round group with two games to spare.
More recently, Canada is coming off a lacklustre showing at the CONCACAF Gold Cup in June when it bowed out of the tournament at the group stage.
"The players are all aware of that situation. Some of them weren't even born when Canada was last in the World Cup," Hart said. "But the thing is we set a goal to get into the Hex. If we can get ourselves into the Hex, we think we are now in a situation to fight for [a spot]."
Hart added: "Once you get to the Hex, anything can happen."
The Canadian coach said he likes the makeup of his roster, but worries that injuries could cause problems due to the team's lack of depth.
|Sept. 2||St. Lucia||Toronto|
|Sept. 6||Puerto Rico||Bayamon|
|Oct. 7||Puerto Rico||Toronto|
|Oct. 11||St. Lucia||TBA|
|Nov. 11||St. Kitts and Nevis||TBA|
|Nov. 15||St. Kitts and Nevis||Toronto|
"I have a good feeling — if we're healthy," Hart admitted.
"When we are not healthy, and we saw that at the Gold Cup, then even the healthy players start to doubt the cohesion of the team because leaders are starting to disappear."
Lack of minutes
Several of Canada's key players are not seeing regular first-team action for their respective pro clubs. Simeon Jackson, for instance, has been limited to six minutes through Norwich City's first three matches of the English Premiership season.
Hart doesn't think the forward's performances for Canada against St. Lucia and Puerto will be adversely affected by his lack of playing time in England.
"The thing I like about Simeon is that he came into training, he tried to get himself involved as much as possible … I think he's going to be OK," Hart stated.
Hart is far more worried about PSV Eindhoven midfielder Atiba Hutchinson, who only recently returned from a knee injury.
"He is a concern because he is not at the fitness level that he probably should be," Hart said.
If Canada wins this group, it will then move on to a third-round section that will include Honduras, Cuba and most likely, Panama.
The top two teams from that pool move on to the Hex — a six-team round-robin group where the best three sides earn a World Cup berth.
The fourth-placed team from CONCACAF will play a two-game playoff against best team from Oceania, with the winner advancing to the World Cup.