If Canada is planning on travelling to Brazil in 2014 to participate in the biggest soccer event in the world, now is the time to step up and demonstrate they are World Cup worthy.
The Canadian men's soccer team will host Panama in a decisive match and first of a two-game World Cup qualifying series on Friday at BMO Field (7 p.m. ET).
The result will dictate the future of Canada in the third round of qualifiers.
Canada sits second in Group 3, with four points in two games and behind leader Panama (six points).
A victory over its direct rival in Toronto would give the Canadian squad the top spot in the group standings, but most importantly, a boost of confidence ahead of the second leg in Panama City (Sept. 11).
"The next two games for us are huge," said captain Kevin McKenna. "Especially [Friday] night. It's probably the biggest game I've played in with the national team, probably every player here also."
"I think we're all looking forward to it. Obviously everyone's a bit on edge."
Honduras is third with one point, and Cuba completes the group (no points).
Canada has never lost to Panama in World Cup qualifying games, holding a record of two victories and two draws against its Central American opponent.
"We have a good belief within the team," said coach Stephen Hart after practice on Thursday, "but for that belief to continue, you need to continue to get results."
However, if Hart's team wants to continue the unbeaten streak, a more aggressive offence will need to show up in Toronto.
Scoring is the priority for Canada with only four games left in the calendar, not only to win matches, but an important factor in goal differential situations.
"Scoring has always been a little bit of a problem for us," said midfielder Atiba Hutchinson. "We've been talking about it and working on it also. Hopefully it will just kind of connect [Friday] and work in our favour."
The top two squads of each group advance to the fourth and final round, in which CONCACAF's six best teams will compete for only three tickets to the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The nation in fourth place enters an intercontinental repechage.
Keys to victory:
- Experience takeover: Veterans like Dwayne DeRosario and Julian de Guzman need to take over the middle of the field early into the game in order to control possession and make it easier for the strikers to get the ball. DeRosario, the reigning MLS Most Valuable Player and national team leader shines in crucial games. When 'DeRo' plays good, Canada plays better.
- Score, score, score: Can't win a soccer match without scoring goals. It's now or never for Simeon Jackson, Tosaint Ricketts and Olivier Occean. This trio, along with offensive midfielders like DeRosario and Hutchinson will eventually find the end of the net; let's hope it's not too late before they do it.
- Protect this house: A good result at BMO Field will push team morale and guarantee a confident squad will travel to Panama with victory in mind and ready to finish the job in the second leg. However, Canada needs to protect home field against arguably the best team in the group before thinking about game two of the series.