TORONTO - Former Canadian head coach Stephen Hart issued his players the same message before every match.
“Regardless of the outcome, I wanted them to walk off the field with their dignity intact,” he said, a day after submitting his resignation following Canada’s stunning World Cup qualifying exit in Honduras Tuesday afternoon.
When asked during Friday’s debriefing if he thought his players accomplished that task, Hart, who garnered a 20-15-10 record over six years with Canada’s senior team, bit his tongue.
“You know,” he paused, “I’d prefer you ask (the players) that.”
It was a non-answer that answered quite a bit — a coach who when given the chance to bury his squad refused to turn against the same players who failed to turn up during an 8-1 loss in Central America earlier this week, a loss that saw Canada fail to qualify for CONCACAF’s final round for a fourth consecutive World cup cycle.
“I’m not going to sit here and blame players,” Hart said, immediately turning to solutions after taking the brunt of criticism in the wake of Canada’s biggest loss since 1993.
He listed structural issues within the Canadian setup as well as its miniscule player pool, pointing out that without three of his best attackers heading into the region’s third round that things were always going to be difficult.
“The best programs in the world have a common thread,” Hart said. “There’s always a working relationship for the common good of players, and the game, between the federation, the associations and the professional clubs. We must ensure that this happens in an effort to improve the entire system.
“We need more depth,” he continued. “If you look at the U.S., for example, they went into the last qualifiers with the No. 1 scorer in MLS and the No. 1 scorer in the (Netherlands) not even part of their (squad). We lost … Josh Simpson, Dwayne De Rosario and Olivier Occean. It’s very hard to replace that attacking impotence.”
Point taken, but one or two players wouldn’t have made a difference during what was a gutless 90 minutes from a group of players who for some unknown reason failed to show up in what many of them deemed the biggest match of their careers.
While Canada’s former bench boss isn’t without blame — starting Tosaint Ricketts in front of a cold Mike Klukowski on Canada’s left side was a glaring error — a majority of his field players failed to show up when the chips were down, a disturbing moment that likely ended a slew of international careers.
With the exception of Atiba Hutchinson, veteran Canadian mainstays should be passed over from here on out. Canada’s next head coach needs bring in young blood in an effort to extinguish the lack of character that was so prevalent earlier this week — and to infuse a host of new players for when Russia 2018 qualifying kicks up in three long years.
“Some of the players came over and were apologetic,” Hart said of how his players reacted following the lopsided loss. “The rest were more or less speechless.”
Most Canadians were, and still are, speechless following a result that will haunt the program for the foreseeable future.
“This is not like a league where you can redeem yourself the following Saturday,” Hart said of his legacy. “This freakish result was impossible for me to accept, especially after completely outplaying (Honduras) at home.
“At the end of the day, it’s a very bitter pill for me to swallow.”
From Canada’s historic road win in Havana to its heart-stopping 1-0 win over Panama at BMO Field, the positive results no longer matter.
“It’s always going to be about that last game,” Hart said.
The one result that will never be forgotten.
A pair of blue-collar players with significant work rates will come together in BMO Field’s middle third this afternoon. As he didn’t feature for Canada during its most recent World Cup run, Dunfield will be rested and ready to clash when one of Major League Soccer’s most fiery box-to-box players in a nothing match that neither side will want to lose. The Impact was thoroughly outclassed by Toronto when the two sides met in Montreal mid-season and the visitors will be doing their best to keep the Reds winless in 13.
WIDTH — With Ryan Johnson out through suspension and Eric Hassli still hobbled, the club’s only chances will likely come from the wings. Toronto needs to get Reggie Lambe and Ashtone Morgan involved as much as possible, staying away from a fairly experience Montreal spine.
WHO STEPS UP — An endless string of injuries will once against force head coach Paul Mariner’s hand as Darren O’Dea will miss today’s contest with a thigh strain. With Richard Eckersley already out of position and Jeremy Hall looking extremely shaky at right back, it will take a monumental effort from yet another makeshift back four to keep things clean.
Head coach Paul Mariner announced Friday that the Reds currently have 18 fit players in the first team, all of which will suit up for tomorrow’s match … Montreal head coach Jesse Marsch will miss today’s match due to suspension, stemming from an outburst following the Impact’s 1-1 draw in Houston before the international break ... The last time the clubs met in Toronto Marsch got into a dust-up with then assistant coach Bob de klerk … Ahead of the last home game of the season, the TFC's front office announced a season ticket rollback by as much as 40% ahead of 2013, a gesture meant to curb growing anger in the stands at the end of a sixth consecutive playoff-less season.