For Canada, just getting to the Hex would be huge
VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Canada has been a country in the soccer doldrums for more years than their supporters care to remember.
It has been 30 years since Canada's one and only World Cup finals appearance at Mexico ’86, and nearly 20 years since they qualified for the ‘Hex,’ the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
They've suffered heartbreaking near-misses and downright embarrassment in recent qualification campaigns, but under the guidance of veteran Spanish head coach Benito Floro, Canada has shown a resurgence of late and the signs are firmly there that their years in the international wilderness may soon be over.
A 1-0 home win against Honduras last November and a scoreless draw in El Salvador sees Canada sitting second in Group A, with one of two places in the Hex firmly in their sights as they prepare for a crucial doubleheader against Mexico.
Making it out of their group, and even beyond that, would not only be a monumental achievement, but key to the growth of the game in Canada. Taking three points off Mexico at BC Place in Vancouver on Friday night would see Canada take giant strides in getting there, but the home team is the underdog.
Restoring confidence in a nation
The magnitude of what is at stake in Canada's next four qualifying matches is more far-reaching than just qualifying for the Hex. It's important that Canadian soccer doesn't continue to be seen by some as a lost cause.
"I know that if we win, the possibility of going to Russia would be very, very important for the CSA (Canada Soccer Association),” Floro said. “Our players recognize that. They believe in that. The experienced players like Atiba [Hutchison] and Julian [de Guzman], they are fighting to achieve that because Canada has been laughed at a lot."
Canada is a country without it's own domestic league. It's a situation the CSA is keen to rectify. A proposed new Canadian Premier League should be up and running within the next year or two and it's crucial to developing the game in Canada and to producing a conveyor belt of talent for a prosperous footballing future.
The league doesn't hinge on Canada qualifying for the Hex or going to Russia. Neither does any prospective Canadian bid for the 2026 World Cup. But the impetus and enthusiasm to drive and support such ventures would be greatly boosted by qualification, and that's a fact not lost on Floro.
"It would be very important to show a lot of people, Canadian people, to create our own league," Floro added. "A Canadian first- or second-division league, because people don't understand that in Canada there are thousands, thousands of young players, very, very good, that when they become 18 years old, disappear. So we need a league."
Orlando City striker Cyle Larin is one young Canadian player who has burst onto the scene in sensational style. He feels this current squad of players is capable of doing "something special." It's a confidence and belief shared by many of his teammates.
Beating Mexico in Vancouver would certainly meet that description. Getting anything against them at the Azteca on Tuesday night - which most might consider impossible - would go far beyond that.
"Mexico's Mexico,” Canada midfielder Will Johnson said. "They're a good team. Great players. They move the ball very well. They fight hard, they compete. They're game-y, they're seasoned. They've played in major games. This won't faze them. So it's a big challenge but I think we're up for it. With this group we have equally similar qualities in terms of the group of guys that we've got in this week."
As confident as their bluster was in media interviews this week, with other factors at play, no one in Canada's camp was keen to put a number on how many points would be classed as a great couple of days for the Canadian cause.
Looking beyond Mexico
Realistically, Canada's qualification comes down to what they do in their final two group games in September, away to Honduras and at home to El Salvador. Anything they get against Mexico is a massive bonus. How this week's two matches between those other Central American rivals play out, however, could also go a long way to deciding Canada's fate.
"It depends what happens in the other games, right?" Johnson mused about what would be classed as a good points haul against Mexico. "It totally depends. We're focused, for me anyway, on Friday. Trying to get three points here at home, defend this turf against a very good team.
"Then we'll see what happens in the other game. Then you go into the next game reassessing what it's like out of the six. But for us, Friday night, try and get three points and go from there."
Canada is preparing for a battle, with tactics perhaps going out the window in favor of a bunkering approach and trying to hit Mexico on whatever counterattacks the team can muster. The turf pitch could be a factor, but the Mexicans see it more as something of an annoyance as opposed to a real concern.
The CSA has worked hard to give Canada as much of a home-field advantage as possible. An expected sellout crowd of over 55,000 could be the largest attended national team event on home soil in the country’s history.
How many Mexican fans will be in the large crowd is still an unknown. The CSA restricted ticket sales outside the designated visitors' supporters section to Canadian addresses to try and ensure a partisan home crowd. Conservative numbers are suggesting 10,000 Mexican fans will be in attendance. Other whispers suggest that it could be as many as 20,000.
Whatever the mix, the bi-partisan atmosphere will see the intensity level ratchet up a notch or two, not that Johnson minds that in the slightest.
"I kind of like that,” Johnson said with a smile. "The more rowdy they get, the better it is on the field. The more intense, the more meaningful it will be. The more competitive, passion and all the rest of it. I hope that spills over on to the field and it ends up as a good old fashioned battle. I like that."