It’s very rare that Canada can go into a series of games and be considered the clear favorites, but that’s exactly the case for Group D in CONCACAF’s second round of World Cup qualification.
The Canadians headline a group featuring island nations St Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and Puerto Rico, with the winner advancing to next year’s third round. Canada coach Stephen Hart downplayed his side’s status as the favorite against the three Caribbean teams, preferring to keep the focus on the task at hand.
“In our preparation and in our discussions with the players, there’s no such thing as underdog teams,” Hart told reporters via teleconference on Thursday. “It’s more or less, ‘Let’s get the business done and make it as difficult as possible for the opposition.’”
To that end, the Canadian Soccer Association has scheduled all three second-round home matches at Toronto’s BMO Field, an unprecedented decision that Hart says makes the most sense for his players.
“I think if you look at the whole CONCACAF situation with the announcement of when the games [are to be played and] the schedule, basically we ended up with one month to start preparation and where we had to go and play,” Hart said.
“Things were left so late already we’re having difficulty just getting the entire squad on one plane to travel, the whole travel issue sort of made everything a little bit complex, so that was the main thought behind it. And yes of course, we’re sort of familiar with the surroundings in Toronto, so for now it was the most logical thing to do.”
While the surroundings may be familiar, Canada may be without a well-known face for the upcoming round of matches, as Atiba Hutchinson is just now getting back to training after suffering an injury in June’s Gold Cup.
“More than likely he will not be available,” Hart said of the 28-year-old PSV Enidhoven star. “He had some minor surgery, and he’s been starting back training very slowly on an individual basis so that’s a sort of touch-and-go issue.”
Hart also mentioned that veterans Rob Friend and Patrice Bernier are on the mend, but he expects both to be in the mix at some point during the qualification campaign.
Two players that will not be a part of Canada’s initial games are Blackburn Rovers youngster David “Junior” Hoilett and Real Mallorca’s Jonathan de Guzman, the younger brother of Canadian international Julian de Guzman. Both are high-profile absentees from the Canadian national program — Hoilett has never played internationally while de Guzman has represented the Netherlands at the U-23 level — and Hart said that it’ll likely stay that way for the time being.
“[Hoilett] is waiting to sort of establish himself contractually [with Blackburn] and then he’s going to make decisions on international football," said Hart. "Nothing’s changed about that because there’s been no development along that line on his end.
“As for the de Guzman situation, that’s a little more complex because you are looking at someone that basically gave up a passport to be a member of another country and now there’s a lot of complications that go with that,” he added.
While Hart continues to monitor the situation of Hoilett and de Guzman, he stated that he cannot focus too much on players that are not involved with the Canadian program.
“Right now they are not my concern," he said. "My concern are the players that can play for Canada and that are available.”
Canada open their qualifying campaign in Toronto vs. St. Lucia on September 2 before traveling to Puerto Rico for a match four days later.