SPORTS

Canada faces crucial World Cup qualifying stretch with two games against Panama

09/06/2012 12:52 EDT | Updated 11/06/2012 05:12 EST
TORONTO - To get to the 2014 World Cup, Canada faces at least 14 more matches.

But the next two could shed a lot of light on how much of that journey the Canadian men's soccer team will get to take.

Canada plays Panama in a vital home-and-away series that opens Friday at Toronto's BMO Field before moving to Panama City on Tuesday.

"The next two games for us are huge," said 32-year-old captain Kevin McKenna. "Especially (Friday) night. It's probably the biggest game I've played in with the national team, probably every player here also.

"I think we're all looking forward to it. Obviously everyone's a bit on edge."

Picking up points at home is crucial in qualifying. Poor performances on Canadian soil have cost the national team in recent qualifying campaigns and Stephen Hart's squad missed an opportunity with a 0-0 draw with Honduras in June.

"Every home game is a must win," said midfielder Patrice Bernier.

Panama leads the group with six points from two matches. Canada is second with four points from its two matches. Honduras has one point and Cuba none.

"They have been very consistent over the last four years," Hart said of Panama.

That has shown in the FIFA world rankings with Panama rising to a high of No. 46 in June from a 2008 low of No. 96.

With Honduras, ranked 72, expected to pick up points against Cuba, the group standings could change dramatically over the next week. Canada does not want to be left behind.

After the Panama games, Canada wraps up group play next month with a home date with 147th-ranked Cuba and a tough match in Honduras.

The top two teams will advance to the six-country final round of qualifying in CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.

That group will send three to Brazil with a fourth CONCACAF country meeting a team from Oceania in a playoff to see who joins them.

"We have a good belief within the team," Hart said after practice Thursday, "but for that belief to continue, you need to continue to get results."

Panama is currently ranked 50th in the world, and third in CONCACAF behind No. 21 Mexico and the 33rd-ranked U.S. Hart, whose team is currently No. 73 to rank eighth in the region, has maintained from the get-go that the Panamanians will be Canada's toughest foe in this round.

Panama is led by FC Dallas striker Blaz Perez, who scored both goals in an earlier 2-0 win in Honduras.

"He scores goals — with his head, with his feet . . . He's always scored goals, wherever he's played," said Hart.

Another threat is Luis Tejada, a striker known as El Matador whose stoppage time goal eliminated Canada from last year's Gold Cup. Panama made it to the semifinals before losing 1-0 to the U.S.

The good news for Hart is that his team is healthy, with the exception of midfielder Josh Simpson.

And his players have been in good form. Bernier was just named MLS player of the week, attacking midfielder Dwayne De Rosario recently became the seventh player to score 100 MLS goals and forward Simeon Jackson has been turning heads at Norwich City.

There is plenty of experience on the Canadian roster, which features solid citizens like 36-year-old defender Ante Jazic. Those close to the team say it is a harmonious, hard-working group under Hart.

Canada's 21-man roster draws players from clubs in 10 countries.

"We have a lot of players that play at big clubs and they're getting their chance to play there," said McKenna, who was six when Canada made its lone World Cup appearance in 1986. "I think Canada's making that step forward."

The attack has to kick into high gear, however. Canada has posted two shutouts to date in this round but has only scored one goal (Olivier Occean in a 1-0 win in Cuba).

"Scoring has always been a little bit of a problem for us," said midfielder Atiba Hutchinson, who plays his club football in the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven. "We've been talking about it and working on it also. Hopefully it will just kind of connect (Friday) and work in our favour."

NOTES — Organizers expect a crowd of more than 16,000 Friday ... The Canadian women's team, bronze medallists at the recent Olympics, will be honoured prior to the match ... McKenna's name has been linked to MLS in recent months. The defender has a year remaining on his contract with FC Cologne, relegated last season in Germany. McKenna says the MLS could figure in his future, although he noted both his wife and kids are German.

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