European matches a chance to experiment: Stephen Hart
Canada's national soccer team meets Macedonia and Poland in upcoming friendlies
Stephen Hart is in an experimenting frame of mind these days.
The interim coach of Canada's national soccer team isn't a mad scientist by nature — it's just that current circumstances allow him to use a trial-and-error methodology.
With no World Cup qualifying games on the horizon or a CONCACAF Gold Cup to prepare for, Hart plans to experiment with his roster and formation when Canada visits Macedonia (Nov. 14) and Poland (Nov. 18) in a pair of international exhibition matches.
"I think everything from now on requires some experimentation," Hart told CBCSports.ca. "It's very difficult for Canada — we haven't had a game since July, and we're going to be playing against opposition that was trying to qualify for the World Cup up until a few weeks ago.
"You have to look at this European trip as an outing for the players to come represent their country and to give myself and the staff a chance to see these players in international competition."
One player who won't suit up for Canada on this European trip is Vancouver native Jacob Lensky.
The 20-year-old defender, who plays for Dutch club FC Utrecht, accepted an invite from coach Stephen Hart to play against Macedonia and Poland.
But Lensky, who has yet to make an appearance for Canada's senior team, turned down the offer so that he can play for the Czech Republic's under-21 side.
In theory, Lensky, who has represented Canada at the U-20 and U-23 levels, could still turn out for Canada's senior team sometime in the future, as a player's international and World Cup eligibility isn't determined until he plays in a qualifying game for a country's senior team.
But Lensky's decision appears to be a clear statement that he intends to represent the Czech Republic, his father's birth nation, and not Canada in international play.
Hart was informed of Lensky's decision Thursday afternoon via email.
"It was shocking," Hart told CBCSports.ca. "I spoke to him before. He agreed to come in. We issued a [plane] ticket to him, and up until today, as far as we were concerned, he was going to play for Canada."
Lensky's choice to play for the Czech youth team, and the way it was communicated, left Hart more than a little disappointed.
"The manner in which it was done, right now I have a sour taste in my mouth," Hart admitted.
It's also a chance for Hart's 17-player roster, 15 of whom play for European clubs, to bond and build a little team chemistry.
"I think it's important to let them know that on the horizon there will be more games like this," Hart explained. "These are two quality games because either Macedonia or Poland, if they were in CONCACAF, they would be very competitive."
Flourishing under Hart
The Canadian national team has flourished since Hart took over as interim coach in April after Dale Mitchell was fired. Canada has compiled a 4-1-1 record under Hart, including an impressive performance during the summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup when the team reached the quarter-finals.
Canada's strong run of form comes on the heels of a disastrous 2008, when the team was eliminated from World Cup contention after it went 0-4-2 in the final round of the CONCACAF qualifiers.
Hart was quick to downplay his role in Canada's turnaround, giving the bulk of the credit to the players.
"They came together well. We were a bit surprised at how quickly it came together at the Gold Cup, because we really only had one exhibition game in May and another one in June, and then we went straight into the competition," Hart opined.
He also stressed the importance of picking players who want to play for Canada.
"For me, it's the most important quality that's required," Hart stated. "Almost all of these players are committed, they've shown they want to play for Canada, and the bottom line is that's exactly what you need, and once you have that commitment from them, you start to create an atmosphere of healthy competition for places."
It's not often that the Canadian national team gets together, and because the Canadian Soccer Association can only organize matches on an infrequent basis, Hart believes his side needs to get the most out of these upcoming games in Europe.
53rd in FIFA
"Canada's program certainly lacks depth at the moment," Hart said. "A lot of players need to get international experience, so from now on that's the objective - to give players a lot of experience internationally and then later as we get down the road as you create that competitive element in the squad, you can start looking at the team, and formation and tactics."
Canada currently sits 53rd in the FIFA world rankings, 13 spots ahead of Macedonia.
Despite Canada's higher ranking, however, Hart expects a tough match.
"Macedonia is well organized, and they have quite a few quality players in the squad," Hart said. "If you look at their World Cup qualification, all of their games were tight, so I think it would a really good opportunity for us to test ourselves and see where we're at at the moment."
Poland, ranked 56th, poses an equally stiff test.
"They're a team that was in the last World Cup and at Euro, and they started off really well in the recent World Cup qualifiers before going off the rails a little bit," Hart said.
"But if you look at their team, they've got a lot of quality within the squad. … They are a country that is back on the rise again, and I think it's a great opportunity for us to play against such opposition."
Hart also promised that fans can expect to see Canada play more international friendlies in 2010.
The lack of games has "been identified by the Canadian Soccer Association, and I'm sure they're going try to do everything in their power to rectify that problem," Hart stated.