Canada is in familiar territory.
After two games in the penultimate round of CONCACAF's marathon qualification tournament for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Benito Floro's side sits at four points. The Canadians grabbed a win and a draw to open the round, which is also what they had accomplished at the same point in the previous cycle four years ago.
Canadian soccer fans know how that went — the team earned two more wins and two losses, ultimately falling well short on the last matchday and missing out on the final round of qualification by a single point.
It's a failure that stings those players who are still in the program, and something that they feel can be corrected this time around.
"We've got to get out of this group and take a massive step forward and qualify for the Hex," veteran midfielder Will Johnson told Goal Canada earlier this month. "That, for me, is the ultimate goal."
Johnson was on the field for all 90 minutes of the deciding game back in 2012 — an 8-1 embarrassment in San Pedro Sula that cost former coach Stephen Hart his job and ushered in a dark period for the men's program. He was also largely responsible for Canada's redemption against the same Honduran squad last November in Vancouver, where Johnson's header caromed off Cyle Larin and into the net for the game's lone goal and a huge three points for the Canadians.
With an massive pair of qualifiers against expected group winner Mexico kicking off in two weeks' time, Johnson said that the time to put right the ghosts of past qualifications could be ahead for Canada.
A slow and steady improvement under Floro has brought the Canadians to the point of controlling its own destiny, even as the huge underdog versus the Mexicans.
"We've put in a lot of work over the past two or three years and lot of it's been painful at times," Johnson explained. "Now we're putting ourselves in a good position to be able to get out of that group."
Any points taken off Mexico in the home-and-away fixtures at the end of the month would go a long way toward vaulting the Canadians out of reach of Group A's other teams, Honduras and El Salvador — each of which still face Mexico once again before the end of the current round.
ARFIELD COULD START FOR CANADA
Canada Soccer will announce the 23-man roster for those Mexico matches sometime next week, but there shouldn't be too many surprises among the names on that final squad list.
Floro is done testing the depths of his player pool for the time being, and he is expected to summon mostly the same group of players that contested the previous World Cup qualifiers back in November.
One name that could be a new one in the match programme is Scottish-born midfielder Scott Arfield, who has been reportedly filing his paperwork to represent Canada in time for the March 25 fixture at BC Place.
There has been no confirmation of his inclusion in Floro's squad as of yet, but enough smoke has billowed out of Arfield's case to indicate a fire. The 27-year-old has waited patiently for a Scotland call-up that has yet to happen, and he's now ready to don the colours of his parentage.
If the papers have been processed in time, expect to see Arfield slot directly into Canada's starting XI for the near-sold out affair at BC Place. His combination of attacking prowess from any spot in the midfield and experience at the Premier League level could be too tempting for Floro not to take full advantage of.
BC PLACE WILL BE FULL ON MARCH 25
As noted above, Canada Soccer is expecting a gigantic crowd in Vancouver for the game on March 25. The organization announced that 40,000 tickets already have been sold as of earlier this week, and with two full weeks left to sell tickets we could be looking at a close-to-capacity BC Place by the time the match kicks off.
The venue holds a little more than 54,000 in its soccer configuration, and it already has surpassed the all-time Canadian World Cup qualifying record by a long shot.
The one concern when playing Mexico — as the United States Soccer Federation is well aware — is that fans of that team tend to show up en masse almost everywhere in North America. With it being such a crucial game for Floro's side, Canada Soccer has taken the extraordinary step of making the vast majority of seats only available to buyers with a Canadian mailing address (or IP address, if purchasing online).
It's a bold move for an organization previously criticized for making the opposition feel at home in Canadian venues in the past, but the need for a true home field advantage is seen as far too important to overlook by those currently running the sport's governing body in Canada.
Will the measures be enough? There are always ways around ticket restrictions, and Mexican soccer fans are passionate and savvy enough to get themselves into BC Place. With such a massive number already confirmed for the game, only time will tell if this is truly a watershed moment for home support in Canada or just another heavily divided crowd.
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