Stephen Hart wants 'six points' for Canada

KURTIS LARSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

TORONTO - Canadian captain Kevin McKenna has been capped in countless friendlies, five Gold Cups and a Confederations Cup — none of which were as big as tonight’s World Cup qualifier against Panama.

“Whether we’re a good team or not, only time will tell,” said McKenna, who will lead Canada through the BMO Field tunnel for its third of six third-round World Cup qualifying matches. “The next two games for us are huge … Probably the biggest (games) I’ve played in with the national team.”

Canada sits two points behind the group-leading Panamanians on four points. Honduras and Cuba complete CONCACAF’s Group C, with one and no points respectively.

As only the top two finishers in the current group progress to the region’s final round, back-to-back matches against Panama tonight and next Tuesday are crucial. Following Tuesday’s match in Central America, games against Cuba and Honduras in October will decide which teams advance to CONCACAF’s final round for a chance to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.

“We have a good belief within the team,” said Canadian head coach Stephen Hart. “But for that belief to continue we need to continue to get results.”

To clarify:

“Six points (against Panama),” Hart said expressionless, pausing as surprised reporters looked on. “Why not? If you want to aspire to play at the World Cup or qualify for the World Cup you have to win games.”

Something Canada failed to do during last summer’s Gold Cup, a tournament that saw Panama pull level with Canada in stoppage time, bouncing the Reds from the competition and sending the Central Americans through to the quarterfinals.

It’s a result that still lingers in Hart’s mind.

“I tried to forget it,” said Hart, who lamented the goalkeeping error that led to the loss. “We didn’t play exceptionally well but we played well enough to get a result and it was unfortunate an error put us out on goal-difference.”

On that day the equalizer was supplied by Panama’s Luis Tejada, one of two attacking threats Hart has warned Canadian media about for months leading up to tonight’s game. The other, FC Dallas striker Blas Perez, bagged an impressive brace in Honduras in June before picking up an ankle injury against Cuba.

Although Perez only recently returned from the injury that kept him out for 11 weeks, Hart is wary of player who always seems to show up for his country.

“He’s a goal-scorer,” Hart said following Thursday’s training. “He scores goals with his head, with his feet and he has good leaping ability. He’s always scored goals wherever he’s played and that’s his forte.”

After securing consecutive clean sheets against Cuba and Honduras in June, Canada will likely defend with same back four — David Edgar, Andre Hainault, Mckenna and Ante Jazic — despite having a fully fit Marcel de Jong as an option.

The quartet gave little away against a normally high-flying Honduran side and will look to stay organized against a Panamanian attack that’s likely the best in the group.

“There’s a certain security and comfort in players who have played together,” Hart said of defence. “Defending is about good communication and the relationships. And so far we’ve brought back that sort of core.”

All eyes will be on this afternoon’s early match as Cuba hosts Honduras in what has to be considered a must-win for the Central Americans. By far the group’s weakest team, anything less than three points against Cuba will send Honduras into crisis mode — and increase the likelihood of Canada progressing beyond the current stage for the first time since 1998.

“Everyone’s a bit on edge,” McKenna said. “Canada’s making that step forward. I would love to play in a World Cup one day and I only see this chance and this chance only.”

Canada’s best draw in multiple World Cup cycles, tonight’s match will go a long way in forecasting how Group C will finish.

Larson will travel to Panama City, Panama ahead of next Tuesday’s qualifier in Central America.

KICKOFF

PANAMA @ CANADA

MARQUEE MATCHUP

Andre Hainault vs. Blas Perez

Two players who play club ball in Texas will meet in a matchup that will go a long way in deciding the result in this one. The Houston Dynamo’s Hainault is a hard-as-nails, ball-winning centre back who will likely receive direction to batter Perez throughout the night. That said, the FC Dallas striker has seen it all before, playing in a host of environments in North and South America throughout his career. If the central tandem of Hainault and Kevin McKenna can contain Panama’s biggest threat, a single goal for the home side could be enough to collect maximum points at BMO Field.

TONIGHT’S KEYS

GET FORWARD EARLY: Canada can’t let its opponents settle into tonight’s match. The Reds need to go forward in search of one, then two, goals or risk the visitors pouncing late like they did a year ago. This is a must-win for Canada, it’s not for Panama.

SAME OLD STORY: Canada must finish the quality chances it creates. A tale as old as time, scoring has been an issue with this team for as long as memory serves. Having already dropped two points to Honduras, the margin for error has dwindled.

QUICK HITS

-Should Canada advance beyond the current stage, it will need a top-three finish in CONCACAF’s final round of six teams to automatically qualify for Brazil 2014. The region’s fourth-place finisher faces a playoff against the Oceania champion for a potential fourth spot.

-Canada hasn’t qualified for a World Cup since 1986 when it went 0-3-0 and failed to score a goal.

-Dwayne De Rosario is a goal away from passing Dale Mitchell for top spot on Canada’s all-time scoring list.


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