TORONTO - Four points clear of second-place St. Kitts and Nevis following a dominant Group D performance in St. Lucia Friday night, Canada hosts Puerto Rico in its fourth of six World Cup qualifying matches tonight at BMO Field.
“We played (in Puerto Rico) and the conditions were in their favour,” head coach Stephen Hart said. “We went on top early in the second half, but told the players at halftime it was just a matter of coming away with the result.”
Should St. Lucia pull off an unlikely win against St. Kitts in Group D’s second match on the night, three points against the visitors will see Canada progress to CONCACAF’s third round and into a previously determined group alongside Honduras, Cuba and either Panama or Nicaragua.
“We can’t get complacent now because Puerto Rico is going to be a different team,” Dwayne De Rosario said at Monday’s pre-match workout. “They are probably going to sit back the way St. Lucia did (last month).”
Overwhelming favourites to get beyond the current stage, Canada has accomplished what it was expected to. On its way to securing nine points through three matches, the team has managed 14 goals and allowed just one — nothing to boast about seeing as each of its opponents sit below No. 123 in the FIFA world rankings.
While the team can’t be blamed for completing the task at hand, the current level of competition is concerning ahead of far superior opposition that sits less than a year away.
“Obviously we’re the bigger name in the group so we’re expected to win,” Iane Hume said. “Friday was the best I’ve seen us in a long time ... the opposition wasn’t that hard of a stumbling block.”
Although it hopes to cultivate soccer within smaller nations, it remains to be seen if Canada will benefit from CONCACAF’s latest World Cup qualifying format — a system that divided the region’s bottom 24 teams into six second-round groups.
While smaller islands like Bermuda and Barbados benefit and grow from additional matches against similar countries, more established teams are obligated to compete against poor opposition — matches that fail to prepare Canada to compete against more skilled and organized nations next round.
“These games are very important for us,” Julian de Guzman said. “It’s a bonus to get the guys together for these games and be able to gel and prepare ourselves for the (next) stage.”
But as regional powerhouses like the U.S., Mexico and Honduras are in the midst of scheduling competitive friendlies to prepare for next spring’s third round, Canada gains very little from beating up on much weaker opponents — a consequence of falling out of the top six within CONCACAF and being denied automatic passage to the third round.
“Our national team has been struggling in the past leading up to World Cup qualifying,” de Guzman said. “These games help the team bond well.”
At the same time, after 7-0 and 3-0 away wins that offered more of a vacation than competition, the Canadian Soccer Association must realize the ineffectiveness of Canada’s current slate in working hard to schedule competitive exhibitions early next year.
While tonight’s match will almost certainly boost Canada in its effort to continue building a winning mentality — Canada is unbeaten in six matches dating back to a 2-0 Gold Cup loss to the Americans — the CSA must begin looking ahead.
With each successive blowout, it’s becoming less about Canada’s play in a formality round and more about what’s to come — a difficult semifinal round Canada hasn’t advanced from since 1998.
CONTROL THE TEMPO: Canada fixed the issues it experienced earlier in the competition that led to a rather nervy starts against St. Lucia and Puerto Rico. Far superior on both sides of the ball, rather than forcing the game, opportunities will come if the Reds play a possession-oriented style with composure and patience going forward.
PREVENT THE COUNTER: On Match Day 2, the Puerto Ricans rarely threatened when Canada had numbers behind the ball. Should the Reds lose their shape, Puerto Rico have one or two talented individuals capable of orchestrating a productive counter-attack.
— Starting central defender Andre Hainault declined a call-up for a second time ahead of tonight’s match. With his club holding the final MLS playoff spot, he’s focused on securing a post-season place at Portland this weekend.
— With four goals in three qualifiers, Canadian forward Simeon Jackson looks to catch Antigua and Barbuda’s Peter Byers, the region’s leading goal-scorer, who sits on five goals.
— While hosting St. Kitts and Nevis last week, Puerto Rico used eight players from the same club — the Puerto Rico Islanders of the North American second teir — in a 1-1 draw.
— After failing to score in Canada’s previous two qualifiers, Dwayne De Rosario remains a goal behind Dale Mitchell’s 19-goal Canadian national team record.
— Should both Canada and St. Kitts and Nevis win tonight, the Reds will need a single point from their final two matches, both against St. Kitts and Nevis in November, to advance to the next round.
— In a match it controlled from start to finish, Canada earned a 3-0 win in Puerto Rico last month with goals from Iain Hume, Jackson and Tosaint Ricketts.
— Former TFC defender Marco Velez was a late substitute during Puerto Rico’s last qualifier and could feature for the visitor’s in Toronto.