So here we are, Canada starts off it's 2014 qualification campaign just under 3 years before the tournament actually starts, reduced by their poor world ranking (we're number 102! we're number 102!) to having to pre qualify for next year's 3rd round when all the big boys such as Cuba have to join in and decide who advances to the 6 team final qualifying round, the Hex. Ignominy aside, and presuming that, despite all the respectful talk of not taking teams lightly, Canada will do what it should and advance, it's actually a good thing for a variety of reasons.
First up is that world ranking, getting some wins on the board should help boost Canada up a few places. With qualification groups already drawn, there's really very little practical use that will come of that, but it is something that gets noticed, so positive news there can only be a good thing.
There's also the fact that Toronto get three home games, which is great for me and any other selfish Toronto based supporter, if not so much for the rest of the country. Hopefully these will be three wins and will help to build momentum to turn BMO Field into a pro-Canadian place to be before the games get too serious next year. The flip side to that coin is that it's a great chance to see just how much support Toronto is ready to give to Canada, a trial run if you will. If crowds remain small, and the vocal support doesn't expand beyond a small pocket in the South East corner, then I'd fully support the CSA moving future qualification games to somewhere that would give a bit more of a home advantage. So go to the game. $20 is the cost of the tickets, which includes admission to the CNE. Or if you've already got a ticket to the ex, an extra $9 is all that's needed to get in to the game.
Thirdly and most importantly, it's 6 more games for Canada to play. One criticism levelled at the CSA over the years was the lack of games that Canada played, validly held up as a reason for lack of success. The last couple of years have improved in that respect with friendlies being played against a lot of good teams, but 6 competitive games being played in such a short period of time should go a long way to building chemistry and helping Stephen Hart figure out just who his first team is after things went wrong at the Gold Cup.
Though there probably shouldn't be too much read into how well someone plays against teams such as St Lucia, there are lots of consistent starting places to be won, so hopefully the players will see these 6 games as an opportunity to stake a claim to a long term place in the starting lineup.
In goal, it's currently a toss-up between Lars Hirschfeld and the younger Milan Borjan. There really shouldn't be too much for the goalie to do so I'd be inclined to give Borjan a chance to really cement his place as Canada's goalie of the future. The defence is a bit more of a multi player question mark, as injuries have taken Nik Ledgerwood and Dejan Jakovic out of the squad. Jakovic's absence will probably see Andre Hainault partner Kevin McKenna in the middle, with injury replacement David Edgar challenging for a place at Left Back that will probably go to Mike Kluskowski, with Jamie Peters more than likely getting the Right Back spot instead of Ledgerwood.
It's the midfield and forwards who should get most of the action, and that's where there are the most options in what will almost certainly be Stephen Hart's usual 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation. Olivier Occean had to drop out of the squad with injuries, otherwise he may have been the best bet for the Centre Forward spot as he's been doing very well in Germany this season. Ali Gerba and Rob Friend are also not in the squad, and Simeon Jackson didn't really pass his audition for that spot with flying colours. Iain Hume is also not really suited to that position, so Tosaint Ricketts, goalscorer against Ecuador the last time Canada visited BMO field, or Marcus Haber, formerly of Vancouver and West Brom and currently with Scottish side St Johnstone might be given a shot as the starter. For the lack of a truly obvious candidate, I'd guess at Jackson being given another chance, as he has too much quality to be on the bench, and the midfield spots are already very crowded, so that would leave one less player to fit in.
In that crowded midfiled, Atiba Hutchinson as one of the central 3, and Josh Simpson as the Left Winger should be nailed on starters, but then it's case of pick 3 out of Terry Dunfield, Julian De Guzman, Dwayne De Rosario, Will Johnson, and if he's not the main striker, Simeon Jackson. When there's a true centre Forward out there, I'm a fan of Jackson on the Right Wing, but if he's playing up front, then I'd play De Rosario there, with licence to roam in from the wing when the opportunity presents, let's face it he'll do it whether he has the licence or not. As much as I like Terry Dunfield, I'd go with De Guzman and Johnson in the middle alongside Hutchinson.
Figuring out how to get his midfield talents to fit on the pitch at the same time and play well together is probably the biggest puzzle facing Stephen Hart, and if he gets it right or now will probably decide just how far Canada goes in qualifying. The goal is obviously to get to Brazil in 2014, but a trip to the Hex would probably be considered a good result. While failure to advance from next year's group against Honduras, Cuba, and probably Panama would be a disappointment, it would at least be semi-respectable, tripping up at this stage is unthinkable. I really can't see that happening though, it really should be about just how many goals Canada can score, rebuilding confidence, and finding a team that can work well when things get tough in the next round.