HAVANA - Things couldn’t get any worse for Canada ahead of a critical World Cup qualifier in Cuba.
“The worst pitch I’ve ever played on,” Canadian captain Kevin McKenna said of the conditions at the country’s national soccer venue. “This is CONCACAF and this is World Cup qualifying … You come to these countries and that’s the way it is.”
After arriving on the island late Wednesday night, the Reds took to the Estadio Pedro Marrero yesterday afternoon for a brief training session to familiarize themselves with the choppy, weed-laden field before opening the third round of CONCACAF qualifying against a largely unknown side.
“There’s nobody here enforcing any rules,” McKenna continued. “For me, it’s a joke — playing at 2 p.m., CONCACAF has to step in.”
All that as the entire Cuban federation watched on from a balcony located at the stadium’s south end — something that breaks too many FIFA rules to count.
“Of course — that’s why we played upside-down,” Canada head coach Stephen Hart said, referring to his adjusted training lineups.
It appears the game outside the game begins long before the opening whistle.
For Hart, though, this afternoon is about what Canada can control.
During their hour-long, pre-match session Thursday, the Reds worked on circulating the ball and dealing with the inconsistent surface that will undoubtedly give the Cubans — traditionally a less-technical side — a slight edge in terms of disrupting Canada’s passing game.
As the grass at the Pedro Marrero is approximately three-times taller than the surface at BMO Field — where Canada will play each of its three home qualifiers — both Tosaint Ricketts and Dwayne De Rosario will find it difficult to run at the Cuban back line with the ball at their feet.
“If you want to play in CONCACAF you have to accept, endure and overcome.” Hart said after walking on the pitch. “You only take care of the things you can control.”
As a result of the conditions, Hart and the players said they’ll likely play a much different brand than they did against the Americans earlier this week – one that features no-nonsense defending and direct play whenever possible.
With the pitch in the condition it’s in, Canada can’t afford to carelessly circulate the ball around the back and risk turning over possession at bad spots in the defensive third.
“It forces you to play more direct,” Kevin McKenna said of how the team will approach the match. “It’s not really the type of pitch to pass the ball around.”
Canada received good news yesterday as play-making midfielder Atiba Hutchinson, who missed the scoreless draw with the U.S. on Sunday, should be available for selection after experiencing knee swelling last week.
Should Hart elect to re-insert the Brampton, Ont., native into Canada’s starting lineup, Hutchinson should provide a big boost given his previous qualifying experience.
“I’m feeling good,” Hutchinson said. “I’ve had two good sessions now and I’ve been getting better and better so we’ll have a talk about it … I’ll be available.”
What’s not immediately available is any kind of scouting report on the Cubans. Multiple Canadian players said yesterday they expect a big, physical side that will try and knock them off their game.
As is typical of lesser known nations within the region, expect the Cubans to sit back and look to capitalize off potential mistakes and set pieces in dangerous spots on the field.
As for individual members of the home side’s squad, it’s anyone’s best guess.
“To be honest, (we don’t know) much,” Hart said of Cuba’s scouting report. “I will have to judge from the Gold Cup … that is a year ago.”
With a match against Honduras next Tuesday in Toronto, the Reds can’t afford to drop points against the worst side in the group. It was four years ago that Canada began third-round qualifying with a disappointing draw against Jamaica and a loss to Honduras.
“I’m not even thinking about losing right now,” Dwayne De Rosario said. “I’m focused on coming in here and getting three points.”
From the looks of it, the Cubans are doing everything imaginable to make that statement as difficult as possible.
DID YOU KNOW?
Canada last played in Cuba during 2002 World Cup qualifying. In a home-and-away playoff to determine who would advance to CONCACAF’s third round, the Canadians walked away with a critical 1-0 result at the Estadio Pedro Marrero on June 4, 2000. A week later Canada secured passage with a scoreless draw in Winnipeg that knocked the Cubans out of qualifying.
CONCACAF GROUP C
-- The other match in Canada’s group tonight will see Panama travel to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the venue the Reds will visit on the final day of qualifying in September. Canadian fans should hope for a draw between the two Central American sides.
— Canada hosts Honduras at BMO Field on Tuesday. Should the Reds secure a big three points against the Cubans, three points at home against the surging Hondurans will go a long way in earning a place in CONCACAF’s final round.
THE WAY I SEE IT
CANADA WINS IF: It eliminates mistakes and manages an early goal. The Canadian attackers were far from clinical on Sunday against the Americans and simply must finish the few opportunities it will create against a side that will defend at all costs.
CUBA WINS IF: They manage to grab a goal off a set piece and unsettle what would appear to be a confident Canadian side. We’ll see just how much Canada’s week-long Florida training stint helped them prepare for the steamy island weather.