Canada's World Cup qualification odyssey continues on Tuesday with the 4th game in what will hopefully be a glorious 22 game path to Brazil, and if the results of both games go their way, they can wrap up qualification to the third stage with two games to spare. Given that that would require St Kitts & Nevis failing to beat St Lucia in the other game I can't really see that happening, but a win would put Canada in a virtually unassailable position, needing only 1 tie out of November's double header against St Kitts and Nevis.
Too much really shouldn't be read into the 7-0 stuffing of St Lucia, don't get me wrong, positive momentum is always a good thing and the confidence boost to the forwards of getting a few goals can't be overestimated, but Puerto Rico should be a much tougher proposition. Having said that, a win really shouldn't be a problem even for a short handed Canada team, Will Johnson joining Atiba Hutchinson and most of the first choice defence on the sidelines after spraining his ankle in St Lucia.
Canada beat Puerto Rico away with a textbook 'away performance against a team you're better than', soaking up the early pressure and with some good goalkeeping and a bit of luck keeping it at 0-0, then slowly taking control of the game, taking a chance when it came, then holding on and scoring a couple of late goals against a tired and increasingly desperate opposition to seal the game. This game will be different, Canada will have to overcome a team going for the textbook 'away performance against a team that's better than you' performance. Sit back, soak up the pressure, get numbers behind the ball to frustrate the home team and crowd. Hope for a goal on one of the few chances you'll get all night, then defend for your lives with all the timewasting and niggly little fouls you can get away with, hope the goalie plays a blinder and gets some help from the posts and you hold on for 1-0. Think Puerto Rico Islanders against TFC in the 2009 CCL qualifier.
Though unlikely, that scenario's definitely a possibility, Puerto Rico are no St Lucia, they're more professional, fit enough to play the 90 minutes at this level, and organised enough to be difficult to break down. The first goal will be key to the outcome, if Canada can score first and fairly early on, that will force Puerto Rico to attack and leave gaps to exploit, after all, anything less than a win and Puerto Rico is officially done. The longer it takes Canada to score, the more anxious they and the crowd will become, and Friday's 7 goals will quickly be forgotten as the pressure mounts. If, heaven forbid, Puerto Rico scores first, then it will be very nervous times at BMO Field.
As for the lineup, despite Kenny Stamatopoulos' clean sheet on Friday, I'd expect Lars Hirschfeld to get the start in goal. In defence, Ashtone Morgan would be the sentimental choice to start at Left back, but I'd hope Stephen Hart will go with the same back line that started against St Lucia, with the more experienced Ante Jazic at Left Back. Hopefully we'll have the game wrapped up in the second half and Morgan can come on to the raucous standing ovation he deserves. This game should be a much tougher test for the David Edgar/Adam Straith Centre Back partnership, let's hope they play better than it looks on paper.
In midfield, Will Johnson will need to be replaced, which probably means Terry Dunfield starting alongside Julian De Guzman in the more defensive midfield positions, and it's Josh Simpson who provides the intrigue in Attacking Midfield/Up front. He was rested against St Lucia, with Hart going with Iain Hume, Dwayne De Rosario and Simeon Jackson behind Olivier Occean. Simpson is clearly one of the better players on the team and should be pretty much an automatic starter, but who would you drop to accomodate him? Jackson scored 3 and Occean and Hume got 2 each on Friday, and yes it was against St Lucia, but it would be incredibly harsh to be dropped after that kind of performance. As for De Rosario, he's on the verge of breaking Dale Mitchell's scoring record, and has a chance to do it in his hometown, surely to god, he'll be made captain again not dropped.
I'm fairly certain Occean won't be dropped, as this game can be another valuable audition to see if he can handle the target man Centre Forward role at the head of a 4-5-1 against a tougher defence than St Lucia provided. De Rosario as well I'll say is definite, for the reasons stated above, I'll guess at Hume as being the odd man out, with De Rosario taking up the central role behind Occean with Simpson and Jackson on the wings.
If canada needs a goal late on, then Hume would be the obvious substitution, but hopefully they can get an early goal and cruise to a comfortable win, in which case getting Joseph Di Chiara on for his first cap should be the first priority with substitutions. That is closely followed by Ashtone Morgan who would get a massive reception for his first game on his home pitch if he were to come on.
Talking of sentimentality with the hometown players, that brings us back to DeRo. Currently sitting just one goal back of Dale Mitchell's record, it would be a great story if he were to at least tie the record on home soil, in front of friends and family. His time at TFC obviously didn't end well, but hopefully fans in attendance won't let that drama get in the way of celebrating his achievement should it happen. After a few months, I feel like I'm over the acrimony, and though I don't like the way he reacted so publicly, I have no trouble believing that TFC management did repeatedly shaft him and that he does have a case that it wasn't all his fault.
Either way, TFC drama shouldn't be allowed to contaminate Canada games, and though he's also had his issues with Canada, and his style of play isn't always effective for the team as a whole, you can't deny he's always tried his hardest to win, and he's always been there for Canada, with 63 caps and counting. So if he does score and tie or break the record, he'll deserve all the plaudits and cheers that come his way. Then hopefully he can be moved back to the subs bench to see out his career with Canada as plan B, behind our other talented attacking players, if all that can heppen before we move on to the next round and tougher matches against Honduras, Cuba and Panama, then I'll be very happy for him and the team.