Canada faces tough test in St. Kitts
Canada's road to the 2014 FIFA World Cup has taken the men's national team to some unlikely destinations and Friday night will be no different.
The Canadians sit atop their group and only need one point to advance to the next round of qualifying after three wins and a draw against Puerto Rico and St. Lucia.
But the game against a St. Kitts and Nevis side with nothing to lose should be Canada's toughest test yet.
Known as the Sugar Boyz because of the nation's history of harvesting sugar cane, St. Kitts can still mathematically win the group, but will need to beat Canada at Warner Park on Friday and then again at BMO Field in Toronto on Tuesday.
Only the top team in the group advances to the next round of CONCACAF qualifying.
"If we go on the field of play and do our thing the way we want them to do, we stand a chance. We're hoping the players can play the best game (Friday) and on Tuesday," said St. Kitts head coach Clinton Percival, whose team is ranked 109th in the world. "Six points or nothing, that's how we're seeing it.
"Whatever happens, we're asking the players to go out there and have fun. We're just asking them they make sure they do the best and at the end of the day, if their best is not enough, let's go down fighting."
Canadian head coach Stephen Hart says St. Kitts can't be taken likely and that his side will have to work hard to advance.
"Physically they're quite quick in both wide positions and up front so we have to be careful, especially on the counter attack," Hart said. "We've done some work on dealing with the counter attack but that seems to be their biggest quality."
St. Kitts is made up mostly of locally-based players, as well as a few who play professionally in places like Antigua, Trinidad or the U.S. Atiba Harris, who plays for the Vancouver Whitecaps FC of Major League Soccer, would have been one of the main players in the side if he was healthy.
"This is the biggest game of my career because it's a national team game and the importance of the game. It's against Canada, a quality team," said 39 year-old striker Keith Gumbs, who had to take four flights from his club team in Indonesia to meet up with his national side.
Gumbs will be looking to collect his 132nd cap for St. Kitts in a long career that has taken him to play professionally in places like Portugal, the Netherlands, England and Hong Kong.
Ian Lake, of domestic side Newtown United, has three of the team's six goals in qualifying. Lake has 17 goals in 35 appearances for St. Kitts and has some professional experience in both Trinidad and Malaysia.
Rowdy Warner Park
"They're up against us and our crowd here so we'll have the 12th man here," Lake said of the atmosphere No. 83-ranked Canada can expect. "The 12th man is really going to push St. Kitts. It's going to be a rowdy crowd here, trust me.
"It's going to be noisy from beginning to end."
Modest crowds of about 2,500 and 1,000 attended the previous home games in the competition against Puerto Rico and St. Lucia, but consensus is that this is the biggest game St. Kitts has ever hosted. A few dozen fans lined one end of the field as the team trained Thursday night.
"Mexico will be the biggest game we have ever played but we didn't play in St. Kitts," Percival said, referring to two games against Mexico in the qualifying run for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Their "home" game in that case was played in Miami.
"Now we are playing against Canada, they are ranked much higher than us also so yes, it's a very big game for us and it's going to be the biggest game we have played in St. Kitts in terms of international level and the senior level," Percival added.
Warner Park lies just a few blocks north of the small downtown centre in Basseterre. The stadium seats around 3,000 and is part of a larger athletic complex that also features a much larger cricket pitch that was one of the hosts of the 2007 Cricket World Cup.
The pitch itself is in pretty good condition, apart from a few sandy spots in the goalmouth area and the occasional small anthill.
It's a welcome relief for Canada after road games on a very hard surface in a refurbished baseball stadium in Puerto Rico and a cricket pitch in St. Lucia.
Banners advertising the game hang over the streets and there are posters in many storefronts across Basseterre. In those posters, the St. Kitts team is represented by a picture of a pelican, a common bird in the area, while Canada is represented with a picture of a loon.
The small city is also busy with cruise ship season now underway and large groups of tourists in the city almost every night. The Commonwealth Games Committee is also meeting in Basseterre and will announce the host venue for the 2018 Games earlier on Friday.
The conditions will be hot but not as humid as training on Thursday, which came the day after a massive storm moved through the area.