Phase one has been successfully completed and it’s on to the next leg of the journey to the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament in Brazil.
Canada shut out St. Kitts & Nevis 4-0 last week to finish on top of its group and advance to Round Three of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Associations of Soccer (CONCACAF) competition that runs from June 8 to October 16, 2012.
It was the fifth straight time that Canada blanked the opposition after conceding an early first-half goal to St. Lucia at BMO Field in the opening second round qualifier last September.
A total of 28 players were called up for the six matches and just two of them – midfielders Dwayne DeRosario and Josh Simpson – were in the starting line-up for the first and last matches.
Injury and unavailability provided coach Stephen Hart with the opportunity to assess more players, a few of whom made a favourable impression.
A right knee injury forced midfielder Atiba Hutchinson to miss the last five qualifiers after playing 69 minutes in the home opener against St. Lucia while centre-back and skipper Kevin McKenna was bothered by a foot injury that restricted his appearances. Defender Andre Hainault, who played the entire match against St. Lucia at BMO Field, missed the remainder of the games, choosing instead to turn out for Houston Dynamo which met the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Major League Soccer (MLS) championship game last weekend.
“It’s difficult to come together as a unit when you are using so many players,” said Trinidad & Tobago-born Hart who is approaching his second year on the job as the full-time coach after serving on an interim basis on two occasions. “If we are talking one or two players, that’s O.K. but when it comes to eight players between the first and second set of matches, there are challenges.
“Some of the young players who were given an opportunity showed that they are here to stay and that means that there will be fierce competition for spots on the team, which is good.”
Left-back Ashtone Arthur, who became the first Toronto FC Academy player to receive a national team call-up, made his first start for the senior team against St. Kitts & Nevis last week.
“He looked comfortable,” said the coach, who was also impressed with defender David Edgar who plays for English club, Burnley.
Hart said there will also be competition for the goalkeeping position.
“Lars (Hirschfeld) has stepped up his game and he’s playing every match with his club which makes a difference,” said Hart. “Kenny (Stamatopoulos) is also playing every game and I got a call from his coach saying he has been fantastic. Milan Borjan is also playing regularly. They are going to push each other.”
Hirschfeld and Stamatopoulos play in Norway and Sweden respectively while Yugoslav-born Borjan competes in the Turkish league.
When asked if he will be looking at more overseas-based players for the next round, Hart said the door is not closed.
“I am looking at other players, but they have to decide if they want to play or not,” he said.
Brampton-born striker David Hoilett Jr., who plays for Blackburn Rovers in England, has been on Hart’s radar for a few years. Hoilett, who has been with the club since he was 14 years old, turned down invitations to join the squad, opting to concentrate on playing for his club. The 21-year-old is also eligible to play for Jamaica for which he qualifies through his parents.
Despite the success in the last round, Hart said there is room for improvement.
Canada outscored St. Lucia, Puerto Rico and St. Kitts & Nevis 18-1 and DeRosario led the team with four goals, all from the penalty spot. In the last match against St. Kitts & Nevis, he tied Dale Mitchell’s national mark of 19 goals.
“Our ball possession and movement can be better,” Hart said. “We are creating chances but I still think that final pass could be a little better measured and we have to take care of those chances. We will keep working along those lines.”
With the exception of the MLS representatives, the players have returned to their European clubs. The squad will re-group for a February 29 friendly international against 60th ranked Tunisia at a venue to be named before meeting Cuba – ranked 100 – on the road on June 8. Canada’s other opponents are 57th ranked Honduras, which appeared in the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa, and 53rd ranked Panama.
Canada ended an eight-game, 14-month winless streak with a 2-1 win over Honduras in a friendly international in September 2010 and held Panama to a 1-1 draw last June in Kansas City in the Gold Cup tournament.
Cuba was the first Caribbean team to play in a World Cup finals in 1938.
The two other CONCACAF Round Three groups are Mexico, Guyana, Costa Rica and El Salvador, which will compete in Group “B” and Guatemala, the USA, Jamaica and Antigua & Barbuda, which scored 26 goals in the last round.
Two teams from each group will make up a final round of six teams that will play 10 home and away matches from February 6 to October 15, 2013. The top three teams will advance to the World Cup finals while the fourth-place team will advance to an intercontinental playoff.