After two professional perfomances and good results in very different circumstances, Canada take on Honduras on Tuesday, and if all goes well (against Honduras in Concacaf, nothing could possibly go wrong right?) they could find themselves with a maximum 6 points. Halfway towards Stephen Hart's stated goal of 12 points, and given Honduras lost their first game against Panama, they'd be 6 points ahead of the Hondurans, a set of circumstances well beyond the dreams of all but the most optimistic of Canadian supporters.
It's all been built on the back of a solid team wide defence, really illustrated by a stat brought up by Kent Martin in the comments section of the Canada - Cuba report, which is that if you take out the February friendly against Armenia where there was less than an A team sent out, Canada now have kept 7 straight clean sheets. Going back to that St Lucia equaliser in the 7th minute last September, that's 713 minutes. Even if we go by just competitive games, no friendlies, it's still 623 minutes, a very impressive number.
Yes, Cuba didn't really up the quality of opponent beyond those games against St Lucia, Puerto Rico and St Kitts & Nevis, and yes, Honduras and Panama will certainly provide a much tougher test, but that goalless streak is no accident, and you can expect Canada to come out with a similarly tough teamwide defensive effort against Honduras.
Last year, against weaker opposition that Canada might have been expected to crush convincingly, it all looked a bit disappointing as the 4-5-1 formation often struggled to click offensively, but the defensive solidity and focus never really changed, and now we're seeing the benefits of that. What would be the point of going out, changing the gameplan to run up the score against the minnows, only to then fail when trying to switch back to an unfamiliar defensive plan against better teams. It was frustrating to watch in many of the games last year, but in this game, and the two against Panama in September, we'll really see if it was worth it or not.
Last year's 6 qualifiers, and also the game against Cuba can't really tell us too much given the limited opposition, I think the game against the US will be much better for trying to see how Canada will approach this game. Will Johnson talked after that game about how the midfield really focused on pressing the US midfielders, giving them little time and forcing them to pass it back to the defenders to launch attacks, rather than letting the more skilled midfielders dictate the game. That's something that will be crucial against the Hondurans as well, to stop Honduras from passing their way through and around Canada as they have the talent to do.
I'd expect to see the exact same defence ahead of Milan Borjan who'll replace the suspended Lars Hirschfeld. Borjan should fill in adequately for Hirschfeld, hopefully without the moments of calamity that Hirschfeld regularly brings. Neither goalkeeper is an ideal fully trusted option, but Borjan had a great run to end the season with his club team, and if he can continue that, he could really stake a claim to the first choice spot.
The midfield will definitely see Julian de Guzman and Will Johnson continue and again the question will be whether Atiba Hutchinson will be fit enough to get the start. At training, Gerry Dobson tweeted that Hutchinson said he was ready to go, whereas Kurt Larson tweeted that he doesn't think he'll make the lineup. So that really doesn't help much at all. If he is fit, then he'll surely get the start, if not, well Nik Ledgerwood has played well in these last two games, so it wouldn't be a disaster by any means.
On the left Dwayne de Rosario has had a good couple of games, creating chances against the US, and coming very close to getting that all time high 20th goal against Cuba. Tosaint Ricketts has played well on the right as well, combining effectively with David Edgar, so I'd say both of those positions should remain unchanged. I'd say the same for the centre forward position as well as long as Olivier Occean is fit. He had to leave the Cuba game with what was hopefully merely cramp rather than a serious injury. In both the recent games Simeon Jackson has replaced Occean later in the game and his speed has caused problems against tired centre backs, so that has been a very good one two punch for Canada.
While it's difficult to take anything out of the performance against Cuba due to the conditions, what we can take out of both these recent games is a welcome display of backbone, guts and discipline. Against the US, it was a very good defensive performance against a more talented team, overcoming a debatably disallowed goal. Against Cuba, yes it was a weaker team, but there was plenty of obstacles with the heat and the pitch and the sending off of Hirschfeld, and Canada overcame them all. 3 times, at the start of the first half, the start of the second, and in the period after Hirschfeld's sending off, Cuba came at Canada and put them under pressure, and each time Canada withstood that pressure before eventually taking over.
It's the sort of mentally strong approach I wouldn't really have put much faith in Canada showing in previous years, a very welcome surprise. Honduras will present a different challenge, a skilled team that Canada will have to be defensively focused against, similar to the US, but with all the extra frustration that the usual gamesmanship and shenanigans can bring. If Canada can stay focused, stick with the plan and keep it tight at the back, they could well end up with yet another clean sheet. If they can take advantage of one of the few chances that will come their way, then that could mean a famous victory, and a 6 point lead over Honduras