Tonight’s game at BMO Field is being billed as the most important game for the Canadian men’s national team in more than a decade. Four points from their first two games has given the team and fans some belief that this could be the time that Canada get back to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the first time since Canada finished bottom of the Hexagonal in the qualifying rounds for the 1998 World Cup.
But standing in their way is a confident Panama side that sits on top of Group C after two wins in June. Should Canada come away with the victory on Friday, they’ll jump ahead of Panama for first place and have their fate in their hands when it comes to advancing. A tie or a loss and suddenly the return game in Panama City on Sept. 11 will be all the more daunting.
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Both teams are yet to concede a goal thus in the competition. Each picked up 1-0 win over Cuba and Panama beat Honduras 2-0 in Panama City while Canada could only slump to a 0-0 draw at home. Canada’s inability to score has certainly been well documented and with both sides having stood resolute in their defending to date, a single goal may prove to be enough.
Barely a year ago, a Dwayne De Rosario penalty kick at Livestrong Sporting Park had given Canada the lead over Panama they needed to advance out of the group stage at the 2011 Gold Cup.
The Canucks seemed well on course until second-half stoppage time when a scramble led to all sorts of confusion in the Canadian penalty area. Goalkeeper Milan Borjan couldn’t hold onto the ball and was left out of position, and Luis Tejada scored the last-gasp equalizer that salvaged a point for Panama and allowed them to win Group C ahead of the United States and Canada.
Apart from the long term injury to Josh Simpson, Canada’s squad is pretty much as expected. The fine play of Terry Dunfield and Patrice Bernier (at right) has seen both midfielders earning recalls and Marcel de Jong is now healthy and has certainly seemed anxious to play in a World Cup qualifying game after a series of injuries have kept him out of the side.
Contrary to Canadian squads of the past, the current group boasts a number of players who are coming in on good goal scoring form. Bernier, Simeon Jackson, Atiba Hutchinson, De Rosario and Nik Ledgerwood have all found the right touch for their club side. Things could be looking up for a Canada side that has just the single goal through two games and historically has difficulty finding someone to bang in the goals.
La Marea Roja took a bit of time to get their squad to assemble. Their players are scattered in leagues across 11 countries in four leagues. The bulk of the team got into Toronto late Sunday but trickled into camp during the week with captain Felipe Baloy arriving last.
The 50th-ranked Panamanians have been bolstered by the return of Blas Pérez has recently returned to action for FC Dallas after a long-term foot injury. Whether he’ll be fully fit and able to play at his best remains to be seen but he is a vital cog in the Panamanian machine.
The team has made great strides in the past few years with former national-team member Julio Dely Valdés in charge and confirmed that status as one of the teams on the rise in CONCACAF by opening this round by beating Honduras on the road before grinding out a win over Cuba.
Canadian coach Stephen Hart has admitted that Panama is arguably the best team in the group and a win over Canada on Friday will have them all but in “The Hex.”
Panama: Blas Pérez
When healthy, the Panamanian attack goes through “El Super Ratón.” Pérez scored both goals in Panama’s 2-0 win over Honduras in June that got their round off to a perfect start. But he’s only recently returned from foot injury that had kept him out for months. He has gotten some game action under his belt with FC Dallas since returning but one will have to wonder how his match fitness is. Julian de Guzman, Pérez’s Canadian teammate in Dallas was skeptical that the Panamanian veteran would even feature, but given the magnitude of this game, one would think he would have to be involved in some way. But just how sharp he’ll be if he does play will be crucial to how Panama perform.
Canada: Atiba Hutchinson
While he may be featuring more often than not on the backline with club side PSV Eindhoven, there is no doubt that Hutchinson will be a crucial part of the Canadian midfield. Hart says Hutchinson provides a vital link when moving the ball from the defense up to the attackers. While never prolific in front of goal with just four goals in 58 appearances for Canada, Hutchinson is coming in having scored twice in as many games for PSV and, given Canada’s scoring woes, if he can bring that form in, it will only further underscore his importance to the team.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Milan Borjan (Sivasspor/Turkey), Lars Hirschfeld (Vålerenga/Norway), Kenny Stamatopoulos (AIK/Sweden)
DEFENDERS (7): Kevin McKenna (FC Köln/Germany), Dejan Jakovic (D.C. United), Andre Hainault (Houston Dynamo), Marcel de Jong (FC Augsburg/Germany), Ante Jazic (Chivas USA), Ashtone Morgan (Toronto FC), David Edgar (Burnley FC/England)
MIDFIELDERS (7): Julian de Guzman (FC Dallas), Will Johnson (Real Salt Lake), Terry Dunfield (Toronto FC), Dwayne De Rosario (D.C. United), Pedro Pacheco (Santa Clara/Portugal), Patrice Bernier (Montreal Impact), Nik Ledgerwood (Hammarby IF/Sweden),
FORWARDS (3): Tosaint Ricketts (Vålerenga/Norway), Simeon Jackson (Norwich City /England), Olivier Occean (Eintracht Frankfurt/Germany)
GOALKEEPERS (2): Luis Mejia (Fénix/Uruguay), Jaime Penedo (Municipal/Guatemala)
DEFENDERS (7): Felipe Baloy (Santos Laguna/Mexico), Jean Carlos Cedeño (Alianza /Panama), Eduardo Dasent (Tauro/Panama), Luis Henríquez (Lech Poznan/Poland), Roderick Miller (San Francisco/Panama), Carlos Rodríguez (FC Dallas), Roman Torres (Millonarios/Colombia)
MIDFIELDERS (8): Nelson Barahona (Atlético Huila/Colombia), Armando Cooper (Godoy Cruz/Argentina), Anibal Godoy (Chepo/Panama), Gabriel Gómez (Philadelphia Union), Amilcar Henríquez (Independiente Medellín/Colombia), Juan Pérez (Tauro/Panama), Alberto Quintero (Chorrillo/Panama), Marcos Sánchez (Tauro/Panama)
FORWARDS (5): Rolando Blackburn (Senica/Slovakia), Edwin Aguilar (Tauro/Panama), Blas Pérez (FC Dallas), Luis Tejada (Toluca/Mexico), Yairo Yau (Sydney FC/Australia)