September 1, 2011
Canada's soccer hopes are high
By KURTIS LARSON, QMI Agency
TORONTO - Last month’s World Cup qualifying draw defined a route for each of the 208 FIFA nations that are competing to reach Brazil in 2014.
For Canada, the three-year process starts tomorrow night at BMO Field against St. Lucia in the second stage of CONCACAF qualifying.
“We feel good and very positive,” Dwayne De Rosario said. “We have a lot of guys that experienced (the 2010 qualifiers) and know what it’s like.”
That experience saw the Canadians go winless in a difficult semifinal group that contained World Cup 2010 participants Mexico and Honduras, as well as Jamaica.
Since then, the Canadian Soccer Association has been in preparation mode for the current World Cup cycle, scheduling a host of exhibitions against Greece, Ukraine and, most notably, Argentina.
“I have a good feeling if we’re healthy,” head coach Stephen Hart said. “We saw part of it in the Gold Cup when even the healthy players start to doubt the cohesion of the team (when we aren’t healthy).”
Still, the team’s poor form over the last two years — Canada failed to advance beyond the opening round at this summer’s Gold Cup — dropped Canada’s FIFA World Ranking below 100 and out of a top-six place within the region.
As CONCACAF’s top six countries automatically qualify for the region’s 12-team semifinal round, Canada enters the competition earlier than it would like and must win a second-round group consisting of smaller island nations in order to advance to the next phase.
“That’s what the format is now,” Hart said. “If you look at it, these games are going to be healthy for us.”
But Hart’s modest and reserved approach does little to curb expectations and the fact that his side is an overwhelming favourite to advance.
With Canada set to play a six-match series against No. 122 St. Kitts and Nevis, No. 144 Puerto Rico and No. 184 St. Lucia, anything short of Canada winning each fixture convincingly is unacceptable.
“We still have to go out there and do the business and compete like we’re playing against Mexico or the U.S.,” De Rosario said. “The main thing right now is to prove to ourselves, the country and the rest of the world that we’re a force.”
Predetermined by last month’s draw, the top finisher in Canada’s current qualifying group moves into a stronger semifinal group alongside Honduras, Cuba and likely Panama — a favourable draw that could see the Canadians into CONCACAF’s six-team final round for the first time since 1998.
Set to embark on his fourth World Cup cycle, De Rosario wouldn’t say it’s Canada’s best chance at qualifying since his decade-long stint with the national team began, but he knows it might be his last chance to appear on the world stage.
“A big thing on our list is to get results at home,” he said. “It’s not only the players, it’s a commitment from the CSA, the local media and the fans to get behind the team and come out and show their support.”
Canada’s first and only FIFA World Cup finals appearance came in 1986 in Mexico. The Canadians failed to score a goal in three matches against Hungary, France and the Soviet Union before finishing at the bottom of its group.
“I want to be in the World Cup,” De Rosario said. “It’s every soccer player’s dream and desire to play at the highest stage in the world.”
And for the first time in over a decade, there’s optimism surrounding Canada potentially qualifying after last month’s draw laid out an encouraging path that sees them avoid the U.S., Mexico and Costa Rica until CONCACAF’s final round.
Of the six nations that will compete in the final round, the top three earn automatic qualification to Brazil with the fourth-place finisher playing the Oceanic champion in a home-and-away playoff for an additional spot in 2014.