To hear Stephen Hart tell it, 2011 will be a critical year for the Canadian men's soccer team.
Canada is scheduled to compete in the CONCACAF Gold Cup from June 5-25, when it will take on the best teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean in the biennial tournament that it last won in 2000.
The Gold Cup provides Canada's national team with a rare taste of international competition, so under normal circumstances Hart would focus all of his attention on winning the CONCACAF tournament.
But Hart, the Canadian coach, admits the Gold Cup, while important, isn't his top priority. Instead, he views this year as an opportunity to build towards the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, which kick off in 2012.
"We haven't really decided what kind of squad we will take to the Gold Cup," Hart told CBCSports.ca. "But we want to be very competitive and 2011 is going to be more about building a nucleus of the team for the qualification for 2014."
Canada played six international friendlies last year with mixed results. A credible 2-2 draw against Ukraine and a 2-1 win over Honduras was juxtaposed with an embarrassing 5-0 loss to Argentina.
Hart used 2010 to experiment, calling up youngsters who had never been capped, using different formations and trying players in different positions, most notably forward Simeon Jackson as a winger.
"We thought we would use 2010 to create competition for roster places, see what kind of depth is out there and then progress from that," Hart said.
He says he doesn't plan to experiment as much this year.
"We have a good idea of what's out there now and depending on the players we bring in, exactly how we would need to play, how those players fit in and what the relationships would be — I think I have very good idea of that now," Hart said.
"There are still one or two positions that, I wouldn't use the word worrying, but we definitely need depth in those positions."
Hart declined to indicate which positions, exactly, but most Canadian soccer observers agree the team lacks depth up front and in goal. How does Hart plan to address the problem? There's not much he can do.
"You just have to keep trying people," he said. "If someone doesn't step up, you try to fit other players into that position.
"With the national team, it's not like a pro club situation — I can't open my chequebook and buy a player to fill that position so you try to adapt and improve and encourage players that they can fill the role for you to the best of their ability."
Canada has several promising youngsters on its roster, but many critics feel the team relies on too many veteran players whose best days are behind them. Hart, however, insists players such as midfielder Dwayne De Rosario, 32, and defender Paul Stalteri, 33, could feature in the next round of World Cup qualifiers.
"It's a matter of are those players playing, are they playing consistently and are they performing? If you look at Dwayne season last year for Toronto FC, you have to say he was one of their better players."
"If he continues to perform, then I think he should be selected. The same goes for any player. I don't look at age and that sort of thing. I look at if they can help the team and can they perform."
Canada's only World Cup appearance came in 1986 in Mexico. Since then it's been 25 years of embarrassing futility — the Canadians were eliminated before the final round of the CONCACAF qualifiers the last three times and they haven't come close to qualifying for the World Cup since 1994.
The key for Canada this time around, insists Hart, is that it play as many exhibition games as possible. The Canadian coach believes that by playing more international friendlies, his team will be better prepared for the rigours of the World Cup qualification process.
Canada is scheduled to play Greece on Feb. 9 in Larissa, and Hart is pushing the CSA to arrange a number of other exhibition matches ahead of the Gold Cup.
"There are still some negotiations going on that need to be done, but we need to play games and I'm going to be fighting for games between now and then," Hart said.