So here we are, another big game for Canada. Kind of. Hopefully not. The only way we're all going to be looking back after the dust settles next week and saying this game was the important one is if things go wrong.
It's similar, in a completely opposite way to September's game in Panama. If we'd won that game, that would have been THE GAME, 3 crucial unexpected points, the one result that really sealed the deal. The loss, well it sucked but no-one was really expecting much more, it was par for the course. This is theoretically the easiest game of the 6, a win here is just doing what needed to be done to get in the best position for the last game. Even if Canada qualify, no-one will hold this game up as the difference maker. Drop points here though, and fail to qualify, and everyone will rightly point to this as the big choking point, the one that got away.
Of course nothing will be totally decided either way here. As detailed here, win, and Canada could still get knocked out after Tuesday's game, lose and they can still go through with a big enough win on Tuesday. But still, just win, don't make it harder than it needs to be.
Everyone from Stephen Hart on down seems to be very focused on this game rather than looking ahead to Honduras, which is a good thing as this has got a good old Canadian banana skin written all over it. Cuba haven't even scored in their 4 games so far, never mind got a point. It's almost as troll-tastic a setup as TFC going 0-9 and then still beating the Whitecaps for the Voyageurs Cup. To ensure against that, there's no talk of resting those players (Ante Jazic, Kevin McKenna, Simeon Jackson and Olivier Occean) who are on a yellow card and risking a suspension for the final game.
One player returning from suspension is Will Johnson, who was very evidently missed in Panama. He'll be back anchoring the midfield alongside Julian de Guzman and Atiba Hutchinson. That combination played a big part in the 3 consecutive clean sheets achieved to start off the group and should pick up where they left off easily enough despite new dad Johnson not arriving to camp until Wednesday.
More than likely it'll be the same back 4 again behind them. After looking rock solid, it was a much less assured performance in Panama, especially from David Edgar who looked like a centre back out of position on the right for the first time all year. I don't know all that much about Cuba, but I know they're not as good as Panama, and with the game being at home and with the first choice midfield back in front of them, it looks like a good opportunity for the first choice defenders to get back into the groove of things. I see no reason why it wouldn't be Lars Hirschfeld behind them again as well.
This is where it gets tricky, the attacking midfielders/wingers and centre forward. Dwayne de Rosario of course won't be playing, and unless it's some pre game mind games, it seems like Marcel de Jong is likely to take his place on the left. That didn't go all that well when he replaced de Rosario in Panama, but then that game didn't go well for anyone, it's always difficult to get thrown in into the middle of a game as opposed to starting, and he's had a lot more games in Germany to get into form, so there's plenty of reasons why he should be better than in that game. The other option there is Iain Hume, more of a forward, but less of a left footer. He's getting regular playing time now with Doncaster Rovers so is a very viable alternative.
Over on the right, it's just as unclear. Tosaint Ricketts has looked good there, but still hasn't got his contract situation sorted out so hasn't played yet for his new club in Norway. In previous games Ricketts has been preferred there with Simeon Jackson replacing Olivier Occean late in the game in the middle. That worked to perfection in the game in Cuba, Occean getting the goal, and Jackson doing a great job of killing the game off, harrying the Cuban defence, holding the ball up when he could.
Ricketts lack of playing time and Occean's fitness level both throw into doubt what would be plan A for those two spots, so I think Simeon Jackson could well get the start in one of those two spots, I'll take a random guess at on the right wing, with Occean as the centre forward and Ricketts and Hume ready to come off the bench if needs be late on.
The other storyline people keep touching on is the weather. Seems like it's going to be cold tonight, so hopefully that can work in Canada's favour and turn the Cuban's into ice Cubans (ba-dum-tish). I can't imagine it'll make that much difference really, these are pros, I'm sure they've encountered cold weather before, but hey, I'll take whatever advantage we can get.
Finally of course there's that ever present issue when Canada plays in Toronto, what crowd will we get? That seems to be less of a thing each time these days as momentum slowly builds, the south stand is again sold out thanks to the efforts of the Voyageurs, and the upper deck of the West stand has been opened up again. Hopefully people will decide late on to brave the cold and we can get a decent walk up crowd to push it towards 20,000. Either way, there's now almost a comfortable acceptance that we'll reach at least acceptable levels, which is very good progress over this year's games.
Adverse weather conditions can often bring out the best in a crowd so this has potential to be an epic night if Canada can shake off their scoring woes and build their goal difference. I'd like to think that will happen, but really i'm expecting a Cuba side that will put up a better than expected fight, and it'll be a narrow win. Then it's on to Honduras, let's hope Panama can get a result to give us the best chance there.