Stephen Hart weighs up CONCACAF's World Cup teams
It has been about 18 months since Canada was knocked out of 2010 World Cup qualifying.
Since then, the country has toiled in the equivalent of the soccer wasteland, resorting to playing a string of friendlies against countries large and small.
It won't be easy for Canadian national team manager Stephen Hart to be on the outside looking in as 32 countries vie for soccer's ultimate prize this month in South Africa.
What's particularly bittersweet is two of the three representatives CONCACAF were in Canada's semifinal round qualifying group. Mexico and Honduras advanced out of the "Group of Death," and will join the United States as CONCACAF's flag-bearers in South Africa.
But what's done is done. With Brazil 2014 now his sole focus, Hart will be following Canada's regional rivals closely in South Africa as he prepares his squad for the next round of World Cup qualifying that begins in two years.
So how does Hart see the three CONCACAF teams faring?
Analysts around the confederation have pinned their hopes on Mexico, and Hart is no different, but with a disclaimer. While young stars such as Carlos Vela and Giovanni Dos Santos lead a flexible and flowing offensive system, it's the front line's inexperience, Hart says, that is a concern.
"Giovanni Dos Santos and Vela — a lot will fall on their shoulders, and they're very, very young," Hart told CBCSports.ca.
"I noticed they've selected the old veteran (Cuauhtemoc Blanco), and I don't know if he has it in him to come up with some goals. But I think it will take a team performance and a lot of discipline from them to really come off with anything."
The United States, Hart believes, will benefit from its athleticism, the strong goalkeeping of Tim Howard and an ability to launch quick counterattacks. But the question is can Bob Bradley's side consistently score goals? That's where Hart says Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey are key factors.
Honduras is no stranger to Hart, having beaten Canada twice in qualifying and again last summer in the quarter-finals of CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Canada couldn't handle their speedy attack and array of offensive weapons in David Suazo, Amado Guevara, Wilson Palacios and Carlo Costly. Despite the firepower, Hart feels the Central Americans' back-line and goaltending are lacking and won't stand up to the more organized teams in their group.
"They're going to depend on their team actually going forward. Offence is the best defence so to speak," Hart said. "I'm not sure that's going to be enough against the likes of Spain and a team that plays as organized as Switzerland and look to play off your mistakes."
All three CONCACAF teams have their strengths, but Hart believes their ability to take points from their opening matches will be the key to determining whether they advance beyond the group stage.
And that's where he feels Honduras will fall short, despite being an exciting team. Starting off against a strong Chilean side as a prelude to a showdown with defending European champion Spain will be too much.
Which goes furthest?
"I would like them to go through because they have a very exciting team," Hart admitted.
"I had a chance to speak with their coach. He's concerned about many of his players not playing consistently, but he does have a good midfield and a good attacking team that can surprise people. I wish them well, but I can't see them getting out of the group."
So which team does he think will go the furthest?
Not one to look too far ahead with Canada, Hart believes the U.S. and Mexico will reach the second round, but no further. When pressed he gave the nod to Mexico, but insisted El Tri doesn't have the goal-scoring ability.
"Mexico has been struggling to score goals and continues to struggle to score goals, and the biggest question is where their goals are going to come from," Hart explained. "They're a very flexible team in how they play technically, very sound in all positions, but that question lingers."
Regardless of how the three teams fare, Hart will look to glean valuable intelligence that will help get Canada to the status those three countries enjoy at the moment.