Canada unfazed by being drawn with old foe Honduras in Gold Cup Group A

Cyle Larin - Canada national team - Vs El Salvador

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – If Canada was looking for an easy go of it in the Group Stage of the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, its wishes have gone unfulfilled. Fate placed the country in a tough Group A along with nemesis Honduras, perennial power Costa Rica, and tournament newcomers French Guiana.

The Gold Cup draw was held at Levi’s Stadium, the site of the tournament’s grand final on July 26, in front of an audience of representatives from all 12 participating nations. CONCACAF general secretary Philippe Moggio, who made the announcement, quipped apologetically to president Victor Montagliani, himself a Canadian native, of the tough road ahead in Group A, prompting Montagliani to put hand to head.

The moment of levity didn’t last, however, as within moments of the draw, Canadian national team interim head coach Michael Findlay was already plotting his moves four months out from Canada’s tournament opener on July 7, the Gold Cup’s opening day.

“When it comes to any event like the Gold Cup,” said Findlay, “the expectation is that you’re going to get a tough draw in whichever of the groups you end up in. This is our regional championship, so absolutely we are highly motivated and highly interested in being successful.

Canada is coming off a tough 2016, when it was eliminated from World Cup qualifying in no small part due to its ongoing difficulties with Honduras, as a 2-1 loss to Los Catrachos in September kept the Canadians out of the Hexagonal. Four years earlier, Canada infamously lost 8-1 to Honduras in the same round of qualifying, a defeat that still haunts to this day. At this summer’s Gold Cup, the third game of the Group A play will again see the Canadians take on their nemesis, potentially with a spot in the quarterfinals on the line.

“We have a long standing relationship with Honduras so why change that, smirked Findlay, trying unsuccessfully to downplay the rivalry. “Our players and our staff look forward to playing Honduras because it is an enormous test. We look forward to having an opportunity to lay a new foundation against them.”

The loss in World Cup qualifying last September cost former coach Benito Floro his job, and Findlay, a longtime assistant coach at various levels of Canadian soccer, stepped in to get the program on track. He looks at the 2017 Gold Cup as a chance to measure up with the rest of CONCACAF’s best, especially 2014 World Cup quarterfinalists Costa Rica.

“In speaking to our players over the last few months, I’ve stressed that we need to play teams like Costa Rica,” said Findlay. “We need to play teams in our region who are proven to be of a high quality. Our group wants to be more of a protagonist in these situation, so to get Costa Rica is, yes, very difficult but also beneficial and hopefully that will help us.”

One knock on Canada’s national team is its inability to produce much on offense, something Findlay was quick to admit. He and the rest of the coaching staff are always assessing the nation’s players around the world, and those assessments will go a long way in determining the makeup of the Gold Cup roster this summer.

One potential striker is Orlando City forward Cyle Larin, who scored the game-winning goal for the Lions in a 1-0 MLS season-opening victory over New York City FC at Orlando City Stadium on Sunday.

“There’s no arguing Cyle’s qualities,” said Findlay. “He sees the frame of the goal very well and given the opportunity he’s quite clinical. And that’s incredibly valuable for us because as we know one of the greatest challenges for Canadian soccer over the years has been the lack of quality in the final third.”

As Findlay continues to lead Canada through a tough transitional phase, he knows the larger strategy is to identify and nurture a pool of players that can make qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar a reality. He sees this summer’s Gold Cup as a stepping stone in that effort, and he accepts the pressure the national team feels from its fans back home.

“Absolutely, the Gold Cup is at the top of our calendar,” said Findlay. “We play football to win and we play football to compete. We play football for our fans, to be involved in great events, and this is an enormously great event. The opportunity will motivate the players and staff, and hopefully we deliver for our long awaiting fans.”