Canada's Benito Floro in Gold Cup action vs. Costa Rica
USA Today Sports

Commentary: Boosted by returning Will Johnson, Atiba Hutchinson, Canada should breeze past Belize

If your only points of reference about the Canadian national team are their results at this summer’s Gold Cup, you could be forgiven for thinking they’re in trouble in their two upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Belize.

The truth is, they’re not. Longtime Canadian fans may gasp in fear as such impetuousness (we’ve learned not to tease the soccer gods, after all), but folks, you can relax. They’re going to advance.

Now, in terms of how they advance – head coach Benito Floro and his squad are stuck in a bit of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. Win by only a goal or two on aggregate, and it’s confirmation of every misgiving about Floro and his plan for the program (and I guarantee that at least one person will, un-ironically, call for the Spaniard to be fired).

But even a convincing win won’t be worth much more than sarcastic scoffs of “congrats, you beat a tiny Central American nation of less than 350,000 whose highest-ever FIFA ranking was No. 118… next stop, World Cup 2018!”

Either way, these early-round matchups with CONCACAF minnows are a quadrennial tradition for Canada, a team whose own FIFA ranking rarely affords them automatic entry to the later rounds of regional qualifying.

The team’s first such matchup of this campaign was a 6-0 aggregate win over Dominica back in June. In the last World Cup qualifying cycle, four years ago, they were in a four-team group with Puerto Rico, Saint Lucia, and St. Kitts and Nevis (undefeated in six games, with 18 goals for and one against). Before that, St. Vincent and the Grenadines (7-1 aggregate) and before that, hey look, it was Belize (8-0 aggregate).  

So again, whatever your well-earned paranoia/irrational alarmism/low-simmering disdain for Floro may be whispering to you, ignore it – Canada will advance.

One of the main drivers of such fate-tempting hubris is the return of a pair of stalwarts, Atiba Hutchinson and Will Johnson, both of whom missed out on the Gold Cup. Johnson, in fact, hasn’t played a game for Canada in over two years, due to a variety of factors, but his return will be a massive boost as the team prepares to face more dangerous opponents in the months ahead.

Those two, along with 34-year-old Julian de Guzman and 28-year-old David Edgar, form the veteran core that Floro will be looking to for leadership during what everyone hopes will be a long and fruitful qualification campaign. But the core of that core, the man who makes the team tick, is Hutchinson.

Few would dispute that the 32-year-old Besiktas man is Canada’s finest – and most important – player. His absence was felt at the Gold Cup, as the squad struggled to create meaningful scoring opportunities. And while it’s always hazardous to place too much weight on one player’s shoulders, the truth is that Canada’s progress towards Russia 2018 will depend heavily on Hutchinson’s health and form.

Canada will also be buoyed by the return of its No. 1 goalkeeper, Milan Borjan – although veteran Kenny Stamatopoulos, who is also on the roster for the Belize series, did an excellent job in Borjan’s absence at the Gold Cup.

Of course, no roster would be complete without questions about player selection, and there’s been plenty of it in this case. Fans, particularly those in Toronto, have been wondering how Kyle Bekker found a spot on the roster while Jonathan Osorio was left at home.

Floro chalked Osorio’s absence up to nothing more than the return of Hutchinson and Johnson to the lineup, while also remarking that he considers Bekker a “very good player.” And as for the exclusion of veteran striker Olivier Occean, who has been scoring for fun in Norway this summer?

“We consider [this is] the moment to look for a new forward,” Floro said on Tuesday. “[And] to create a structure around the young players and only use three or four experienced players that we consider are good for the play, good for the relationships, all of that.”

That “new forward” is certainly 20-year-old Cyle Larin (with, probably, a bit of help from 23-year-old Tesho Akindele), and the parade of youngsters doesn’t stop there – Michael Petrasso, Luca Gasparotto, Sam Adekugbe and Maxime Crépeau will all be looking to earn their first senior-team caps against Belize.

It’s unlikely that Floro will run any of them out simply for experience or cap-tying purposes. We could see some new faces make an appearance, but Floro said this week that he plans to pick a starting lineup and roll with it for both games against Belize, barring injuries or other concerns.

That sense of structure and continuity has been a running theme of Floro’s team for most of his tenure. He plays a tight, defensive-minded structure, with the goal being to make Canada a difficult team to break down. It may not always be the prettiest, but it might represent the team’s best chance at earning a result in Central America in World Cup qualifying, something Canada hasn’t done since 2004.

That streak will almost assuredly be broken next week, down in Belize. But the true test will come in the next round, with play beginning in November, against Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador (unless Curacao can pull an upset in their home-and-home series).

Despite Mexico’s recent troubles, they’ll pose a massive challenge for the Canadians, while San Pedro Sula, Honduras, is where Canada’s World Cup dreams usually go to die. That round – specifically, road games in those sorts of hot, hostile conditions – has been Canada’s historical stumbling block. If the team hopes to ever get close to the World Cup again, it will need to find a way to have some measure of success in those sorts of games.

And while Floro has said all the right things about having to focus and concentrate on the task at hand (defeating Belize) he’s undoubtedly got an eye on the future, with the constant thought of putting his team in the best possible position to get to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying (“the Hex”) for the first time since 1997.

That’s what Floro was hired to do. This series against Belize is a quick, necessary step along the way – but it could also be our last chance to evaluate whether the national team is destined for a long-awaited breakthrough, or if devastating heartache once again awaits Canada on the road to the World Cup.