Qualifying for the World Cup brings professional pride and national glory for players around the world. At Toronto FC, however, the next stage of qualifying brings something perhaps even more precious -- locker room bragging rights.
Four TFC players will be matched against each other during the semifinal stage of qualifying in CONCACAF. Canada (Jim Brennan and Greg Sutton), Honduras (Amado Guevara) and Jamaica (Tyrone Marshall) have all been grouped together along with Mexico in CONCACAF Group 2. Each side plays the others in home-and-away ties, and the two teams with the most points advance to the six-team final stage in 2009.
Group play begins in less than two months, but the war of words has already begun.
"We've already started talking," Brennan joked earlier this week. "I'm the first one to start talking, so every day I'll let them know that we have a game against them coming soon. I'm definitely on those guys."
Brennan made particular note of Guevara, who is already an infamous figure to Canadian soccer fans after his performance in the qualifying stages for the 2006 World Cup. Guevara scored on a controversial penalty kick in the 88th minute of a Canada-Honduras match in Edmonton on Sept. 4, 2004 that salvaged a 1-1 draw for Honduras and cost Canada two sorely-needed home points.
"[Guevara] is one I hope doesn't score," Brennan said. "I know if he scores I'm never going to hear the end of it. He's a good player, Honduras has got a good side, and we're going to have to work to get one up on them, definitely."
Guevara, for his part, would love to continue tormenting both the Canadians on the pitch and in the Reds' clubhouse.
"There's some comments in the locker room, but after everything is said and done, we play for our jerseys and we have to win those games," Guevara said. "But it's all in good fun."
Canada and Honduras drew both games against each other in 2004 but were both eliminated in the group stage largely due to poor play at home. Canada were 0-2-1 at home, while Honduras managed only three draws in their three matches in San Pedro Sula.
This year, in an even more difficult qualifying group, home-field advantage becomes even more important.
"On top of Canada and Jamaica we have to worry about Mexico," Guevara said. "We have to win the games at home. We have to worry about every team."
One issue for Canada in particular is that in past years, home matches haven't always felt like home matches due to vocal opposing fans drowning out (and in some cases, almost outnumbering) the Canadian supporters. Sutton saw this first-hand playing for his country in a friendly against Jamaica in Montreal in 2004, when Olympic Stadium sounded like it had been transported to Kingston.
"We've never had the greatest support, but I think it's getting better," Sutton said on Monday. "Hopefully we can have a good strong supporters' section this time around in Canada. There's tons of ethnic groups in [Toronto] and in Montreal, so it's only natural they'll show up and they're always boisterous and loud.
"The important thing for us is to win our home games this round. Last qualifying time we struggled at home, and anytime you struggle at home in qualifying it's basically a no-win situation."
Canada, Honduras and Jamaica all share somewhat similar World Cup histories, as all three sides have each qualified once (Honduras in 1982, Canada in 1986, Jamaica in 1998) and been eliminated in the first round. All three countries have high expectations of reaching the 2010 World Cup in spite of these modest records, but with CONCACAF powerhouse Mexico heavily favored to grab one of the top two spots in the group, the underdog trio will have to be at their best to keep their World Cup dreams alive.
"I look at it as a group of death," Marshall said. "All four teams are very good teams and it's unfortunate that only two will go through from the group."
Honduras and Jamaica both advanced to the final CONCACAF stage for the 2002 World Cup, but ended up three and nine points respectively behind the third-place qualifiers, USA.
Marshall played in three of Jamaica's four matches against Honduras in both the third and final qualifying rounds, so he already has experience against Guevara on the international stage. 2002 was Marshall's first time through qualifying with his national team, and the veteran defender knows that the 2010 Cup will be his last chance to reach the biggest event in soccer.
"The pressure for me is trying to get us qualified into the next stage," Marshall said. "This is my last go-round and I want to make sure we're there for 2010 ... and reach the pinnacle of my playing career.
The opening games take place on August 20, when Mexico plays host to Honduras and Jamaica plays Canada at Toronto's BMO Field. Marshall hopes the familiar surroundings for him will help offset his team's disadvantage on the road, but the bright side is, he knows where to meet after the game with both his countrymen and his TFC mates.
"I was telling Jimmy and Sutts the next time I see them I'll be putting the ball in the back of the net," Marshall said with a smile. "It's all in good fun, but when the time comes around it's serious business. We'll leave the friendship in the locker room, get on the pitch, take care of business and then afterwards we'll go have a drink."
Mark Polishuk is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.