The Canadian women got a pre-game ovation. And then it was the Canadian men's turn.

And while they took their time to pull ahead, the men ended up savouring their own curtain call after a key 1-0 win over Panama moved them atop their World Cup qualifying group.

More challenges lie ahead just to make it to the final round of qualifying in the region. First up is a tricky rematch in Panama City on Tuesday. And converting goalscoring chances remains a work in progress.

But the Canadians showed flashes Friday of a team with real speed in attack, midfield guile and some defensive steel.

"I though the first half was one of the best first halves I've seen from Canada," said coach Stephen Hart.

It was 0-0 after 45 minutes, however, despite two good headed chances by defender-captain Kevin McKenna.

The Canadians, who have now recorded five straight shutouts, had pressed the action but failed to turn that advantage into goals. A canny Panama side was able to soak up the Canadian attack in the first half before showing more on attack in a more even second half.

"We held our nerve," said Hart. "Defended with some intelligence and we got the result on the back of good defending."

Canadians convert with heads-up play

A heads-up play turned the tide in the 77th minute.

Simeon Jackson, who had been a threat on the flank the whole night, was taken down on the side of the penalty box and Panama fell asleep at the switch on the ensuing free kick. Atiba Hutchinson immediately floated the ball in and an unmarked Dwayne De Rosario swooped in to tap in his record 20th goal for Canada.

"Quick thinking on two players' part and you get the goal," said Hart.

"Great vision by Atiba Hutchinson to catch the defence sleeping," added De Rosario. "Really all I had to do was just focus on the ball and put it in the back of the net. Happy to get that goal in front of our fans and in front of a great crowd tonight."

Panama coach Julio Dely Valdes, speaking through an interpreter, called his team's play on the goal "naive." Another Spanish speaker disputed the translation, saying the coach had in fact used the world childish.

Up until that point, it seemed like Canada might be squandering two more precious points at home in what seemed a must-win evening.

Picking up points at home is crucial in qualifying, especially in the wake of a 0-0 tie with Honduras in June. Poor performances on Canadian soil have cost the national team in recent qualifying campaigns — last time out at this stage, Canada managed just two draws and a loss at home and failed to advance.

"It was important I think playing at home to sort of break — I don't what the word is — the hoodoo and get the goal," said Hart.

Panama is ranked 50th in the world, some 23 places above Canada, and has been enjoying an upswing in recent years.

Midway through this qualifying round, Canada (2-0-1) has seven points while Panama (2-1-0) has six.

Honduras (1-1-1) climbed up the group standings with a 3-0 win in Cuba earlier Friday, upping its points total to four. Cuba, winless and pointless at 0-3-0, has not scored in 573 minutes.

The Hondurans, ranked No. 72, will likely add three more points Tuesday when they host the 147th-ranked Cubans.

Only the top two teams from the group will advance to the final round of qualifying in CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Six teams will then contest three places from the region at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, with a fourth CONCACAF team facing a squad from Oceania to see who joins them.

"We've got seven points and still all to play for," said McKenna, who is in his fourth qualification campaign. "I think the last World Cup qualifying we were out by now. Now we've given ourselves a massive chance and I'm just delighted for everyone."

After the game in Panama, the Canadians will host Cuba on Oct. 12 in Toronto before finishing the round some four days later in Honduras.

Plenty of emotion

A loud and proud crowd of 17,586 at BMO Field roared Canada on in a game played with plenty of emotion from both sides.

As the game wore, the hard-nosed visitors looked to cloud matters by antagonizing the Canadians or just whacking them. The Costan rican referee handed out four yellow cards, with three going to Panama.

Members of the Canadian bench were up in arms during stoppage time and a melee almost broke out. Hart said later that his players accused a Panamanian of stomping on a Canadian as he went to retrieve the ball.

Los Canaleros (Canal Men), whose outfield players opted to stay in the dressing room rather than warm up prior to the match, were welcomed by a small but enthusiastic group of supporters in the north stand. "Our Time to Shine" read the giant Canadian banner at the other end of the stadium.

The Panamanian fans were drowned out during the game.

Hundreds of fans came early to meet members of the Canadian women's team, bronze medallists at the recent London Olympics. The Canadian women signed autographs prior to the game and drew chants of Canada as 14 players, including captain Christine Sinclair, were introduced prior to kickoff.

Olivier Occean led the Canadian attack, flanked by Jackson and De Rosario with Will Johnson and Hutchinson looking to pull the strings from midfield.

Panama looked to stay compact and counter-attack through strikers Blas Perez and Luis Tejada when possible. The visitors stayed composed, putting plenty of men behind the ball. And when cracks showed in the defence, someone was quick to move in and nullify the threat.

McKenna, a central defender who played striker earlier in his career with the national team, hit the post with a header off a 36th-minute free kick.

The scoreboard remained unchanged but tempers were rising. De Rosario and burly Panamanian captain Felipe Baloy jawed at each other late in the first half after Alberto Quintero was fouled and stretchered off, only to recover seconds later.

The visitors failed to put a shot on target in the first 45 minutes. Canada finished the game with a 13-11 edge in shots (5-2 in shots on target).

Panama began to show some offence in the second half. A shot early in the half had Lars Hirschfeld diving but the ball flew wide and a corner in the 52nd minute looked dangerous as the ball ricocheted around the penalty area before it was booted away.

Canada responded with hard shots by De Rosario (saved) and Occean (wide).

A long-range chip tested Hirschfeld in the 60th minute as the Canadian goalie was berating McKenna for a short backpass that led to a frantic clearance.

Canada has only made it to the World Cup once, in 1986, and has stalled out in the penultimate round of regional qualifying for the last three World Cups. The Canadian men made it to the final round in CONCACAF qualifying for the 1998 tournament, but finished last in the group with a 1-6-3 record.