Despite his team being the clear-cut favorites to win Group D of CONCACAF’s 2014 World Cup qualification second round, Canada coach Stephen Hart is taking no chances.
Hart called up a squad filled with veteran presence for Canada’s first two matches: a home game vs. St. Lucia on Sept. 2 followed by an away match at Puerto Rico four days later. He hopes that the players — none of whom are under 23 years of age — will be able to draw on their relative experience to handle the at-times unpredictable nature of competitive soccer in the region.
“The main thing about the opponents is how we approach the away games,” Hart told reporters via teleconference call on Wednesday afternoon. “From all accounts, the fields are not the best, and that’s the most important thing. It could become an equalizer, in that respect.”
Another difficulty for the Trinidad-born coach and his team is the ability to prepare for the likes of St. Lucia and Canada’s third Group D opponents, St. Kitts and Nevis, as there isn't a lot of information to be had about players on those sides.
“I would have liked to have traveled in and, [assistant coach] Tony Fonseca and myself, be in a position where we could see [Canada’s opponents] live, but that hasn’t been the case,” Hart said.
One team that should be easier to scout is Puerto Rico, a side filled with current or former players from NASL club Puerto Rico Islanders. Hart said that their familiarity with one another may prove to be an advantage with which Canada — who draw players from leagues all over the globe — will have to contend.
It’s a factor that could come into play with their other opponents, as well.
“A lot of the teams in the Caribbean, even some in Central America, are in a position to spend a lot of time together,” Hart explained. “So their playing relationships among players — whether it be the midfield and the strikers or the two strikers or whatever — are usually well-coordinated.”
Regardless of how familiar Canada’s opponents may be with one another, the fact remains that the Canucks will represent the stiffest challenge that many of their opponents’ players have ever faced. While the talent advantage should easily fall to Canada, Hart wants his players focused and respectful of opposition that will have everything to play for when the games kick off late next week.
“In theory, you should win the games,” Hart said. “Unfortunately, the games are not played theoretically. You have to go into the games and be mentally prepared to do your best, and to also understand that many times a lot of things are not in your control.”
Should Canada not find themselves in control from the get-go, Hart hopes that the veteran presence on his side will be able to calm things down.
“We’ve tried to learn and condition ourselves to deal with those conditions as best as possible as they come up,” he said. “When it comes to a World Cup qualifier, everything becomes a little bit magnified and we need to keep our heads on and don’t panic.”