TORONTO - Call it a holiday.
“A game that really means something,” Canadian head coach Stephen Hart said of tonight’s critical World Cup qualifier against Cuba at BMO Field. “It’s like Christmas.”
Although December’s northerly winds remain two months away, it’s all the same for the Cubans, who elected to forego the first of their two training sessions this week due to Toronto’s chilly October air, according to one CSA official.
With temperatures forecasted to be hovering just above freezing ahead of Canada’s fifth of six third-round CONCACAF qualifiers, the weather already seems to be unsettling the islanders, who braved — if you will — Canada’s chilly, but comfortable, coolness during their only BMO Field session Thursday night.
Sitting level with Honduras in second on seven points after four games, Canada topped Cuba in Havana on Matchday 1. While two wins in their final two group games will see the Reds advance to the region’s final round of qualifying for the first time in four World Cup cycles, Hart reiterated that Canada can’t afford to look past the Cubans, who were eliminated from World Cup contention last month following back-to-back losses to Honduras.
“(We want) to keep everyone’s mind on what the reality of the whole situation is,” said Hart, when asked what he’s doing to prepare his players. “To just ensure we go out and play the game that needs to be played first and not worry about all the trappings around everything else.”
The “trappings” being next Tuesday’s match in Honduras, where Canada will likely need some kind of result to secure passage to CONCACAF’s last six, from which three nations will automatically qualify for the 2014 World cup in Brazil.
“What I try to do for the players is get a message across that it’s always important to play good football and play in a certain manner,” Hart said of tonight’s match. “If you do that, more than likely, results will come.
“If you look at how we’ve played defensively behind the ball, how we’ve counter-attacked, some of the chances we’ve created, you can’t really ask for more except the finishing aspect of our game.”
Having scored just two goals through its first four games, Canada is fortunate it still controls its own destiny heading into the final week. After striking the post on multiple occasions and watching a number of sitters go begging in home matches against Honduras and Panama, the Reds know they have goals in them.
But it’s a matter of settling in and finally burying the chances they’ve created since qualifying opened in June.
“We are well aware we need to score goals,” Will Johnson said, “but you can’t score the third goal without scoring the first one. The reality is you have to get that first goal and you have to make sure you win the game. If you don’t make sure you do those two things first, you’re going to find yourself sitting on the outside looking in.”
With Honduras currently holding a plus-2 goal difference ahead of its away match against group leaders Panama tonight, the Reds, who remain even on goal difference, will increase their chances of progressing if they can produce a multiple-goal win over Cuba in a match Hart was quick to label the most anticipated contest in his career.
“It’s the biggest,” he said of tonight. “This is the part I enjoy … You can’t ask for more as a coach … We had two good sessions that I was happy with and now it’s time to play.”
Keeping Canada’s past qualifying failures in mind, the stage couldn’t be bigger.
Tonight’s match will either be the beginning of the end or what could be the start of an additional qualifying journey through CONCACAF’s last six — a place Canada hasn’t ventured into since the 1990s.
CUBA at CANADA
FIFA World Cup qualifier
7:30 p.m., TV: SN1