With their 2018 World Cup qualifying fate to be decided in the coming days, there’s no looking back for Canada.
The team’s impending visit to San Pedro Sula, Honduras for Friday’s crucial qualifier naturally brings to mind bitter memories of four years ago, when Canada were eliminated from World Cup contention with an embarrassing 8-1 loss.
But for head coach Benito Floro, who was hired eight months after that infamous match, the focus is exclusively on his team executing its tactical plan, rather than worrying about Canada’s difficult history in Central America.
“All the players are going to face the game thinking only in the present,” Floro told MLSsoccer.com by phone. “We need to win the fight on the pitch, not in the conversations or other matters.”
Some of the “other matters” that have traditionally hampered the Canadian team in Central America include the conditions and the ravenous crowds. But despite a planned 3 pm local-time kickoff and expected sellout, Floro is confident in his players’ ability to escape San Pedro Sula with a result.
“It’s a fight between 22 players,” he said. “The team who keeps the formation and the tactical plan during the whole game has more possibilities to have the necessary luck [to win].”
Floro said he expects a tough physical battle against the Hondurans, making it especially important that his team stick to its own strategy and not play into the hosts’ hands.
A wrench was thrown into those plans when captain Julian de Guzman was ruled out of these two games due to injury. But the 35-year-old, who is the Canada's all-time caps leader, will travel with the team for its games in Honduras and in Vancouver to play El Salvador on Sept. 6.
Floro said de Guzman is a key communicator within the squad, and that his ability to provide “social cohesion” will hopefully put the players in the right mindset to have success.
“Jules is very important for us,” said Floro. “Even if he is on the bench, we are going to take him.”
One player who won’t be with the team – much to the surprise of many fans – is Toronto FC's Will Johnson.
Johnson recently returned to the TFC lineup after suffering a bone fracture in his left leg in late June. The 29-year-old midfielder has featured prominently in Canada’s last six World Cup qualifying matches, but is not on the roster against Honduras and El Salvador.
Johnson suffered a serious bone fracture in his right leg while playing for the Portland Timbers in late 2014. By the summer of 2015, he was back in the Timbers’ setup but declined a call-up to Canada’s Gold Cup roster, citing the fact that he was not yet fully recovered from that injury.
Floro suggested that Johnson’s ongoing recovery from his most recent leg injury is once again the reason for his omission.
“My experience with him is positive because I consider him an honest professional,” said Floro. “I am sure that if he is not in perfect condition to play 90 minutes, fighting a lot, he prefers [not to] play because it’s very important for him to be honest and fight a lot.”
Floro said his team has enough depth in central midfield to accommodate Johnson’s absence in these games. But if the team advances to the Hexagonal round (which begins in November), the TFC man will be right back in the mix.
“Why not? I am very happy with Will. I consider he is a very good player and a very good person,” said Floro. “If he is in good condition, he will be with us, without any question.”
One other Toronto FC player who could be added to the mix, should Canada qualify for the Hex, is 22-year-old Jay Chapman. The second-year player has made the most of his opportunity to shine in the midfield for his hometown team this summer.
“We have him in our mind,” said Floro. “If we go ahead to the Hexagonal, [we may] start to include him at the same time as [Michael] Petrasso and other young players.”
Could that group also include Jonathan Osorio? The 24-year-old member of Toronto FC hasn’t been involved with the Canada since the final game of last summer’s Gold Cup, leading to some speculation about a personality clash between the player and national-team manager.
But Floro insists that Osorio’s ongoing absence is simply about on-field considerations, and a desire by the manager to see the midfielder get more involved in play and create more dangerous chances in front of the opposing goal.
“Oso, he knows perfectly my opinion about him,” said Floro. “He’s young and has the possibility to increase his level, because he still has the door open. No problem.”
Of course, talk of the Hex will all be moot if Canada can’t get the required results in their next two games. While a loss in Honduras wouldn’t mathematically eliminate Canada, it would make advancement extraordinarily difficult.
Winning the next two games would clinch a spot in the Hex, while a draw in Honduras and a win over El Salvador at BC Place would most likely also be enough.
But much like he’s hoping his players will do, Floro is keeping focused on the present. The 64-year-old coach's current contract carries him through to the end of Canada’s participation in the World Cup cycle, whether that’s at Russia 2018, in next year’s Hexagonal round or in less than two weeks’ time.
“Coaches’ jobs are always on the line, everywhere, every time,” he said. “Speaking about my contract, it’s very clear… it is not a problem, it is normal.”
Indeed, Canada have cycled through four full-time head coaches – Holger Osieck, Frank Yallop, Dale Mitchell and Stephen Hart – since their last appearance in the Hex back in 1997.
In very short order, Canadian fans will find out whether Floro’s three years of roster tinkering and strategic finessing will be enough for him to avoid joining that list.