Panama's Amilcar Henriquez (L) fights for the ball against Canada's Olivier Occean during their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Toronto September 7, 2012. (REUTERS)
TORONTO - The energy is up, spirit is good, the message clear.
"Cuba, Cuba, Cuba," Canadian head coach Stephen Hart repeated Wednesday afternoon, two days before Canada resumes CONCACAF'S third round of qualifying at BMO Field against the island nation.
"That's the entire message," he said. "The entire practice was designed to play against Cuba."
Although Cuba has already been eliminated from World Cup contention, other than a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Honduras last month, the islanders have been in every game.
After making Canada work for a 1-0 result in Havana on Match Day 1, Cuba has performed well on the road, coming up short with consecutive 1-0 losses in Panama and Honduras, games it very easily could have taken points from.
"They played two fantastic games on the road," Hart said. "They've not been given credit for the games they've played."
For the most part, Cuba's national team is an anomaly, a roster of players who are more or less chained to the communist nation, emerging once a year for Cup competitions.
"They have a very good centreback -- a class player," Hart said of the largely unknown side. "(Cuba has) very good centre midfielders, one of which is extremely creative and very hard to pin down, and two athletic forwards. That alone is a good, balanced team -- a good spine."
Level with Honduras on seven points, Canada faces a must-not-lose match against the Cubans tomorrow night before playing in Honduras four days later. With Honduras playing away to group leaders Panama tomorrow, next Tuesday's game in Honduras will likely be a one-off affair to decide which side progresses alongside Panama to CONCACAF's final round of six, from which three nations automatically qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
Tomorrow night's result against Cuba will determine what result Canada will need in San Pedro Sula.
"The session was fantastic," Hart said of Canada's second-to-last training session. "There were some (hard) tackles in the practice today. You would have thought it was a cup final -- I like that."
WILL'S 'DOIN' HIS THING"
The pounding in Panama was as difficult for Will Johnson to sit through as it was for viewers back home.
Canada's midfield mainstay, who was suspended last month due to yellow card accumulation, said he felt helpless taking in the match from Utah, where he has been instrumental in helping Real Salt Lake become the class of Major League Soccer.
"You wish you could help your guys, your friends, your teammates," Johnson said. "There's no two ways about it, it was tough for me."
Johnson's absence forced Hart to tinker with his lineup, moving Canada into a 4-4-2 with Patrice Bernier and Marcel de Jong providing the width. After successfully implementing a stingy 4-5-1 through Canada's first three third-round qualifiers, a setup that saw the Reds preserve three clean sheets, Panama picked apart the changes before a convincing 2-0 win at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez.
"We just didn't have a great night," Johnson said of Canada's only group loss. "We weren't sharp, they got on us a little bit and our energy levels were low."
So low it seemed the Canadians were running in sand, essentially laying down from start to finish and handing the Panamanians control of the group.
"It's kind of what I'm known for," said Johnson, when asked if his probable re-insertion will give the group a lift. "It's something I take a lot of pride in, being the guy who gets stuck into a tackle and energizes the guys.
"It has been my role for Real Salt Lake for the better part of five seasons and it's something I've tried to bring into the national team as well -- to be the guy who can be counted on every game "¦ I'll go out there and do my thing (Friday)."
He'll be rested, too.
Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis didn't roster Johnson for the club's trip to Los Angeles last weekend, instead allowing the 25-year-old to stay behind with his newborn daughter.
"It's a long season," Johnson said. "A weekend off here or there really helps out. I didn't want to miss the (L.A.) game but I'm looking at it from a positive point of view. I'm well-rested and feel like I have a lot to give over these next five days."
With Dwayne De Rosario sidelined, all eyes will be on Olivier Occean, who looks set to return to Hart's lineup after missing the Panama match with back spasms.
But that doesn't mean Canada's target man is feeling the pressure after watching the team's all-time leading scorer limp off in Panama City with a knee injury.
"We deal with (it) every day," Occean said of the pressure surrounding the magnitude of tomorrow night's World Cup qualifier. "All of us have pressure from our club teams so I think we're quite relaxed about it."
Although Hart had nothing but good things to say about Cuba's back four, specifically in the centre of Cuba's defence, Occean didn't seem concerned.
"I respect all my opponents but he's not a really outstanding player," Occean said of the player Hart called a class centreback. "He's just a Cuban centreback. That's how I see it."