Canada national team coach Stephen Hart
Courtesy of CSA

Hart confident in improved Canada ahead of crunch qual

TORONTO – Canadian national team head coach Stephen Hart knows there is no getting around the fact that his team's World Cup qualifier against Panama on Friday evening at BMO Field (7:30 pm ET, Sportsnet) is crucial to the country's World Cup hopes.

A win at home would see Canada move into first place in a group that also contains Cuba and Honduras. They would also have momentum and confidence on their side heading into what is expected to be a hostile atmosphere in Panama City next Tuesday, Sept. 11. A draw or a loss would mean those conditions would be all the more daunting.

“Do we really have to talk about the importance of the game?” Hart replied with a smile when asked about the game at the conclusion of Canada’s training session on Wednesday. “You have four games and you have to look at it that way, but you can’t play before it comes, so the game at home against arguably the best team in the group is extremely important.”

Four years ago at this stage of the competition, Canada only managed to pick up two points in six games and finished dead last in their group. They doubled that total after just two games in June and Hart thinks the team is taking a better approach to these games than they have in the past.

“In the past, when we’ve had games that were very important to Canada’s program and to the result, I think we wanted it too bad,” he said. “At times we played in such a way that we try to win the game in the first half or in the first 10 minutes or whatever so it’s important to understand to create some sort of balance. Yes, the game is important but how you approach the game.”

Canadian Soccer Association officials said on Wednesday that Friday’s game is expected to outdraw the two games Canada hosted in June, a friendly against the United States and a qualifier against Honduras. There were worries that Canadian supporters would be drowned out by the blue and white of Honduras but those fears never materialized as the majority of the more than 16,000 fans in attendance for the 0-0 draw supported the home team.

As to whether the tide has been turned and Canadian fans will no longer be outnumbered at home games, Hart remained reserved but is pleased with what he’s seen of late and hopes to see a partisan Canadian crowd against Panama.

“We can’t talk about culture because we can only talk about that over a period of time,” he said. “This is great news if the game sells out or if we have more than ever a Canadian support, but let’s say it’s growing and we will do our part to try to keep it going.”