TORONTO - Calm, cool and at times comical, Canadian national team manager Stephen Hart was full of laughs Thursday.
"We're going for 18 (points)," he joked, when asked how many points Canada needs from six third-round World Cup qualifying matches starting next month.
Following the shrill of giggles that rippled through BMO Field's press conference room, now weeks away from resuming World Cup qualifying in Havana, Cuba on June 8, Hart returned to the question with a realistic view of the task at hand.
"We've looked at qualifying over a number of years and we said 10 points should qualify us," he said. "Realistically, you have to get 12 points to be safe ... This is a crucial part of the campaign and it sets the tone for everything else."
Canada managed just a single point from its first two third-round round matches during the last World Cup cycle before ending the phase in last on two points -- an underperformance that ended the team's chances at appearing at its first World Cup in three decades.
Insisting Canada can't underestimate the Cubans, a side Hart expects to be much stronger in Havana than when playing away from the island this round, Canada's bench boss reiterated the pressure and unpredictability surrounding his side's opening fixture as an obstacle the they will need to negotiate if it's to avoid a similar fate.
"I think the opening game is your most important game," he said of next month's trip to the Caribbean. "The opening game is always a difficult one because mentally you want to perform ... you're more anxious ... The opening game is important and sets the tone."
Canada last advanced to the six-team, "hexagonal" round of CONCACAF qualifying in the run up to the 1998 World Cup. When pressured to respond to questions relating to whether it's realistic to believe his side has a chance of moving beyond the current stage, Hart was hesitant to beef up expectations.
"If we play as a team and effectively, we can get results," he responded. "For us to be successful we have to play as a team. That might sound cliché, but we do not have the one or two players a lot of countries have that can make a difference if all things are equal."
Set to host the U.S. in a pre-qualifying tune up on June 3 in Toronto, the third-year manager discussed the difficulties of preparing a thin roster in a match that's both crucial for preparation while being dangerous as it's slated to take place just days before the team departs for Havana.
"It is something I've debated with the staff," Hart said of the roster he'll use against the U.S. "We're in two minds. We want to be healthy. I don't think we'll risk anyone that's 80% ... We have to be smart ... People want us to play against the U.S., but we have to be realistic."
After travelling to Cuba, Canada returns to BMO Field for its second of six group matches against Honduras, a side that qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
It then hosts Panama in Toronto on Sept. 7 before heading to Panama four days later.
Canada concludes the current phase of 2014 World Cup qualifying on Oct. 12 and 16 when it hosts Cuba in Toronto before wrapping the third round in Honduras.
The top two finishers in each of CONCACAF's three third-round groups will move on to compete in the final six-team qualifying round next year. The top three final round finishers will automatically qualify for Brazil 2014.