Canada set for Gold Cup showdown with Honduras

Canada will finally get a chance for payback when it faces Honduras Saturday in the quarter-finals of the CONCACF Gold Cup in Philadelphia.

PHILADELPHIA — The failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup still resonates in the minds of Canada's players.

Particularly haunting is a debilitating home loss to Honduras in Montreal back on Sept. 6, 2008, that started Canada's freefall to elimination. 

Nine months have passed, but Canada will finally get a chance for payback when it faces Honduras Saturday in the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup at Lincoln Financial Field. 

"I think it's going to be a beautiful game," said Honduras manager Reinaldo Rueda. "Canada has a strong national team, and I hope we can accomplish it (a win).

"Canada has a lot of internationals that play in great leagues. What worries me is just to play.  Canada has good football, they know us very well we know them very well, it's no secret."

The winner will advance to the semifinals next Wednesday in Chicago.

That's familiar territory for Canada, which reached the semis of he 2007 before losing to the U.S. 

Canada is poised to repeat that feat after finishing atop Group A — the Group of Death — with two wins and a draw to earn a berth in quarter-finals — no small accomplishment. After beating Jamaica and El Salvador by identical 1-0 scores, Canada drew Costa Rica 2-2, despite missing five starters in passing its biggest test in the tournament.

Much of the credit goes can go to interim manager Stephen Hart, who has instilled possession-style soccer and encouraged players to play to their strengths.  The midfield, led by 2007 Gold Cup MVP Julian de Guzman, Atiba Hutchinson and Patrice Bernier, has been outstanding in playing "keep-away," neutralizing opponents ' danger men and denying opponents a chance to execute their strategy.

That, combined with the opportunism of striker Ali Gerba, who leads the team with two goals, has Canada brimming with confidence.

Canada will take a focus on its own game and a healthy lineup into the match against Honduras, which presents a formidable challenge.

Missing key players

"They are very athletic, they love to play off the counter attack," said Hart. "We know that, we know what we need to do against them, and hopefully execute on game day and come away with a result."

Despite missing key players in captain and Toronto FC midfielder Amado Guevara, strikers David Suazo and Carlos Pavon and midfielders Wilson Palacios and Ramon Nunez, Honduran team has come together well of late.

Rueda has fielded a consistent starting lineup each game and his decision to rest Guevara and Suazo ahead of key World Cup qualifiers has given younger players a chance to impress for a regular place in the lineup.

Following a 1-0 win over Haiti and a disappointing 2-0 loss to the U.S., Honduras thrashed lowly Grenada 4-0 to finish second in Group B.

While some may attribute those unspectacular results to missing players, the effect of the ongoing political upheaval in Honduras can't be overlooked. Concerns for family and friends were as much on the minds of players as football in the first two group stage matches.

Amid the strife, strikers Carlos Costly (two goals) and Walter Martinez (one goal and two assists) have carried the offence. They lead a team that is skilful, athletic and has depth.

Honduras's lineup different

The last time these teams met, Oct. 11, Honduras won 3-1 at home in the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying. 

"It's very important for Honduran football and the coaching staff," said Rueda about the game.  "We have to beat Canada, and we also are the only ones that can beat ourselves. We beat them during the elimination. That's history. Now we have to beat them again."

Honduras's lineup will be much different from what Canada saw last fall. Only three players (Costly, Martinez and defender Osman Chavez) among the Gold Cup starters were in the starting 11 that faced Canada.

The unfamiliarity for Canada will be an advantage for Honduras as it will the partisan crowd.  Honduras should be backed by a few thousand Honduran-Americans, but hostile environments are nothing new to Canada.   

If Canada can continue to play "keep away," then it will be a long game for Costly and Martinez.  But if Honduras can control possession and use its speed and athleticism, then it may be able to break down Canada's defence. 

"It is a matter of understanding it is just one game," said Hart. "There are certain things we do well, if you focus on that, do the best along those lines, then we can come away with a result.  We're keeping the players focused on their own game."