Having dispatched Dominica in their first round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the Canadian men’s national team will now travel a familiar road in a home and home series against Belize, starting Friday night in Toronto.
Back in 2004, Canada also faced Belize in a home and home series. The big difference between then and now is that both legs of that series were played in Kingston, Ontario, because Belize’s facilities were deemed unfit by FIFA to host this calibre of event. Canada beat Belize by identical 4-0 scores to easily advance to the next round. This time around, Benito Floro’s men will have to travel to Central America to properly face Belize in their home stadium.
Eleven years have passed and while the Jason De Vos’s, Paul Peschisolidos and Jim Brennan’s of the world have moved on to other phases of their lives, a few familiar names from that 2004 clash remain. Most notably, Atiba Hutchinson returns to the Canadian lineup after missing the WCQ matches against Dominica and the Gold Cup through injury. In 2004, he played in the “return” leg against Belize. He will be joined by Julian de Guzman, who played in the opposite leg of the 2004 qualifying round. For their part, Belize also have two players that can be traced back to those matches: goalkeeper Shane Orio and defender Elroy Smith.
Canada enters this round of qualifying ranked 84th in the ELO World Football Rankings (a much better barometer than the FIFA rankings, if the statistics community is correct), while Belize is ranked 169th. To give some perspective, Dominica ranks 192nd. Despite Canada’s recent early exit at the Gold Cup, its ELO ranking has actually improved by 24 spots in the past year on the strength of a solid string of results.
Head coach Benito Floro has called in a full-strength squad for the Belize matches, indicating that he’s not taking the Central American opponent lightly. That’s not to say there weren’t surprises. Canadian supporters can be excused for scratching their heads at the omission of Toronto FC’s Jonathan Osorio in favour of, one must assume, Kyle Bekker or Issey Nakajima-Farran. Osorio is having a very successful season in MLS and looked excellent in what little action Florio deemed to give him at the Gold Cup. Bekker is currently playing for the Montreal Impact’s reserves and was picked ahead of Maxim Tissot, who is part of the senior squad for the Impact and has played well when called upon for Canada. Nakajima-Farran is currently plying his trade with Terengganu in the Malaysian Super League. Curious choices, to the layman.
The good news is that Canada’s best players are in camp ahead of these matches. As previously mentioned, Atiba Hutchinson is present. Milan Borjan, David Edgar, Will Johnson, Cyle Larin, Tesho Akindele and Julian de Guzman have reported. On paper (here we go again), Canada overpowers Belize in every way. All but two members of the most recent Belize squad play domestically in the Premier League of Belize, which includes awesome club names like the Placencia Assassins, Police United, Belmopan Bandits and the Belize Defence Force. I mention this not to mock (hey, at least they actually have a national league), but to point out the disparity on display.
To make good on its potential Canada will need to start putting the ball in the net, something it failed to achieve at the Gold Cup. There is no better time to start that trend than against a weaker opponent and hope it turns into a habit. With Orlando City SC’s Cyle Larin having a record-breaking rookie season in MLS that possibility exists, but Floro has to be willing to put him in a position to succeed. Too often Canada’s managers have failed to exploit our strikers’ strengths (Rob Friend anyone?), instead asking them to conform to the manager’s vision. If someone like Larin is lighting MLS on fire with his 11 goals, it is incumbent on Floro to figure out how Orlando manager Adrian Heath deploys him to succeed.
If goalscoring is causing Canadian heartburn, the team’s defence is a much needed dose of antacid; Canada has conceded one goal in its last 655 minutes. Its back line is anchored by Sheffield United’s David Edgar, who is flanked by Nik Ledgerwood and Marcel de Jong. It is still unclear who slots in to be Edgar’s first choice centre back partner. Vying for the task are New York Red Bull’s Karl Ouimette, Greenock Morton FC’s Luca Gasparotto and Fredrikstad FK’s Adam Straith. Having seen plenty of Straith and Ouimette, Floro might be tempted to give Gasparotto some minutes.
Belize should not trouble Canada in this series. In many ways, Canada will be working out the kinks ahead of a WCQ group stage that is looking like an immense challenge to survive. Should Canada advance past Belize, it would be placed in a group with Mexico, Honduras and most likely El Salvador (if they get past Curaçao). With the top two advancing from that group, Canada will have to achieve something special to make it to the hexagonal.
Can Canada do some damage going forward? They are capable of it (their recent draw against Costa Rica in the Gold Cup was positive, despite the fact that they needed a win to avoid bowing out of the tournament). They have beaten the CONCACAF big boys before, and it can be argued that the squad is on an upward trajectory. The task at hand, however, is Belize, and Canada & its supporters need to focus on this round of qualifying before worrying about the next.
Tickets for Friday’s match in Toronto are still available, with www.canadasoccer.com providing live coverage with Gavin Day and former Canada international Terry Dunfied on the call. Game time is 7:30pm EST.