Hart: WCup qualification "everything" to Canada

TORONTO – Heading into a busy part of the calendar for Canada’s men’s national team, head coach Stephen Hart made no bones about where his team’s priorities lie.

“World Cup qualification is everything to us,” he said Friday. “That’s what we want.”

At a press conference at BMO Field, Hart spoke to reporters about the many challenges that Canada will face in 2011 as the side gears up for the Gold Cup and potential World Cup qualifying matches.

CONCACAF has yet to announce the qualifying format that will decide which teams represent the region in Brazil for the FIFA World Cup in 2014, something that Hart says is “unfair.” The coach’s frustration lies in the fact that qualification matches could start as early as this summer, leaving very little lead time for teams to prepare. Hart expects to hear something from the confederation later this month.

“Hopefully we can get some information before the end of April,” he said.

In addition, the uncertainty of the World Cup qualification process is causing him to think twice about his roster for the Gold Cup, which kicks off in June.

“This time around one of the big decisions the coaching staff and myself have to make is what type of squad to take into this competition,” Hart said. “We’re not sure about the World Cup qualification format for CONCACAF. That would make a big [impact] upon the sort of squad or the aims and objectives going into the competition in terms of building.”

Hart is adamant that the Gold Cup is very important to Canada, especially since the team has been playing nothing but friendlies for nearly two years.

“The squad at times has looked very, very smooth in the progression of every game," he said, "but I haven’t seen them in competition and that’s the big thing. When it really matters, you’ve got to come and fight for the results.”

Perhaps Canada’s biggest test will come in the very first match of the tournament, when Hart’s side faces the United States at Ford Field in Detroit. While the Americans will prove a stern challenge, Hart doesn’t want his players to focus too much on one game.

“The players always love to play against the United States,” he said. ”For us, it’s just across the border, it’s our opening game, I think it’s a special game and my job is to keep everything on a sort of balance. It is one game out of a potential three to take you to the next round, and we’ve got to keep that in perspective.”

To prepare for the Gold Cup, Canada will host Ecuador at BMO Field on June 1. Hart feels the South American side will provide good preparation for the playing style his team will face in the tournament six days later.

“We had two European countries that were willing to come and play but we felt Ecuador – their style, their athleticism – sort of matched the teams that we will be playing at the Gold Cup,” he said. ”A lot of players on Ecuador will be wanting to prove themselves to their new coach. And for us, it will give us the sort of game that you need going into a competitive tournament.”

Hart hopes a strong match against the Ecuadoreans and a good run in the Gold Cup will translate to bigger things for a Canadian team that has not played in the World Cup since 1986.

“We’ve done very, very well in Gold Cups in the past and the euphoria of that hasn’t spread over to the World Cup qualifications,” Hart said of Canada’s tendency to flop at the qualification stage of the most important tournament on the planet. “I’m quite aware of that.”