Toronto FC carries Canada's hopes
They display the maple leaf on their arms for a reason. Never will the symbol mean so much as when Toronto FC represents our nation in the CONCACAF Champions League on Tuesday.
The Canadian Champions are playing for more than a berth in the competition proper. Like Montreal before them, Toronto are modern day pioneers - soccer evangelists, whose mission, should they choose to accept it, is to spread the word.
They must believe, and make others across a continent believe, that soccer in Canada is alive and well and ready to meet the challenge.
The U.S. and Mexico have already been to the World Cup again. Canada wasn't close again. The four-year cycle to the next World Cup starts right here, right now. It is time, high time, for Canada to stride boldly with pride and purpose across this soccer landscape.
Canada gets one shot, once a year, at the fledgling Champions League. The U.S. gets four berths as does Mexico. Toronto FC dare not toss away that precious chance the way they did 12 months ago. If Preki is truly building a team which can compete, the moment of truth is at hand.
This is not Europe or South America. This is our own backyard where the sport, despite a long tradition, is very much in its infancy. Two years ago a Montreal team, with a game plan and bags of determination, demonstrated what is possible.
The road map has been handed to Toronto FC. Last year they ran into a ditch before hitting the highway but now, with an experienced hand behind the wheel, there can be no more errors of judgement. The first hurdle appears formidable, but it may be merely an illusion.
Preki's team seems to have drawn the preliminary short straw. C.D. Motagua is one of the most successful clubs in Honduras and finished runners-up in last season's Clausura. They finished top of the regular season table while losing only 4 games.
But that was then. Motagua is currently in pre-season with the Apertura still two weeks away. In stark contrast Toronto FC is in mid-season with virtually a clean bill of health and, one hopes, a desire to make us forget about what happened against Puerto Rico in 2009.
There are other reasons for guarded optimism. Maicon Santos, having found the net with a well placed header against Bolton, struck for the second time in as many games against FC Dallas on Saturday. Leading the line can be a thankless task but perhaps Preki has finally found Danny Dichio's replacement.
Mista is not fully fit, but he is full of quality. The Spaniard needs games and then more games to make an impact in North America. The quicker he strikes up an understanding with Santos, De Rosario and Barrett among others, the better. Fitness and familiarity will take care of the rest.
Julian de Guzman is beginning to find his game. His defence-splitting pass, to set up the opening goal against FC Dallas was sublime and despite his apparent reluctance to get forward in support, his presence and first touch are often welcome in the final third.
At the same time I am concerned. The self inflicted wounds which have, so often, hurt this team in the past are beginning to resurface. Slipping on a wet playing field is one thing but poor decision making is an entirely different matter.
This is a team which still needs to learn how to go for the jugular. Sitting back and settling never was and never will be an option. No lead can ever be big enough - especially when the second, and deciding leg, is on foreign soil.
What happens over the next 10 days is Toronto's and Canada's opportunity to make a soccer statement. I've said it before and, at the risk of repeating myself, I'll say it again. Be proud of the Canadian Champions and expect them to return the favour.