Jason Gemnich/Canadian Soccer Association
Today is a good day to be an optimist. The Canadian national team beat St. Kitts and Nevis handily, 4-0, at BMO Field. Dwayne De Rosario tied Dale Mitchell's record as the all-time leading scorer in Canadian men's national team history. There was an early scare when Ian Lake thwacked a shot off Kenny Stamatopoulos's goalpost but for the most part Canada was well in control. By the end of the game the St. Kitts players, particularly goalkeeper Akil Byron, were visibly decomposing; frustrated and heart-broken, they were playing soccer and looking for their goals (to their credit) but quickly gave into petulant, late tackles, pantomime fighting displays, and aimless runs with the ball as far as they could go as if they were too disheartened to try and beat Canada at their own game.
Some fringe Canadians showed very well. Tosaint Ricketts got his first start for his country and was an endless thorn in St. Kitts's side: generating dangerous chances with his speed and footwork, drawing a penalty, and eventually scoring another garbage time goal. Adam Straith and David Edgar (one ugly turnover aside) continued to impress, while Nik Ledgerwood beat (modest) expectations at right back. On the other hand, Dwayne De Rosario continues to look completely out of his depth in any international competition, the erratic Josh Simpson looked worse, and Patrice Bernier seemed old, tired, and not quite up to this level anymore. Canada's team defense continued to look pretty good except when it gave up sudden awful chances that will presumably burn us against decent opposition.
It was a generic good game. So no, I do not suddenly think that we're going to qualify for the hex. My pessimism remains unabated and I'll tell you why.
The game reminded me of nothing so much as Canada's last victory march against a minnow: June 21, 2008 when we beat St. Vincent and the Grenadines 4-1 at Stade Saputo in Montreal. Dwayne De Rosario scored a brace in that game (probably the last competitive game where he played really well for Canada) and, despite a goal from striker Marlon James giving the Vincy Heat some consolation, it was a one-sided affair in Canada's favour.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 2008 were a better team than St. Kitts and Nevis in 2011, of course. They were still a minnow but they had some quality professionals: defender Wes Charles, forwards Marlon James and Shandel Samuel, midfielder Cornelius Stewart. They played well as a team and, unlike our most recent opponent, they didn't come unglued when it was clear they had no chance of winning, nor did goalkeeper Winslow McDowell pretend to try and chase down Adrian Serioux and pull the whole "hold me back!" routine with his defenders.
It was a ruthless and effective result, although Canada looked badly flawed at times. That may sound familiar, and certainly would have if Lake had put his shot about two inches further to his right in the first half.
You certainly won't need me to remind you what happened in the next round of qualifying: Canada crumbled, finishing without a win and rock bottom in their group. There was backstabbing and recriminations among players looking to blame everyone but themselves and countless dark days for Canadian soccer. The much-vaunted "best midfield in CONCACAF" proved unable to cope with Jamaica. Only an encouraging 2009 Gold Cup kept Canadian fans from leaping off bridges in droves.
In this round of World Cup qualifying there are four teams which can at least pretend they might conceivably make the hex: Canada, Panama, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Canada has the best goal differential, which gives the optimists a reason to smile. However, Panama, with a +13 goal differential in four matches, almost certainly would have matched or beaten us if Bahamas hadn't withdrawn from the tournament. Canada is the only one of the four without a perfect record. Canada's vaunted goal differential came from one 7-0 throttling of St. Lucia, and while that's not worth nothing our opponents got their records from consistently good results, not one record-breaking performance.
Beating a team like St. Kitts handily at home is pretty much what should happen. Neither Panama did not win a home game this round by fewer than three goals; Guatemala won by two over but beat Grenada by three and St. Vincent and the Grenadines by four. Even El Salvador was perfect at home and only blighted their record with a surprisingly-competitive 3-2 win the Dominican Republic.
Does this take anything away from Canada's accomplishment? Of course not. It was a quality win! Not a remarkable one, nothing that was good enough to erase any fears, but ninety minutes in which Canada was the better team and there was no real question about it.
The problem is, the old weaknesses were still there. Too many crosses hammered from the flanks into nowhere. Too much fancy footwork to get us into useless positions. Olivier Occean still jogs a bit too much, Dwayne De Rosario still has no clear idea what he's supposed to be doing. Too many mental lapses and too much poor positioning. None of that has changed. What did change was that Tosaint Ricketts was able to slice through the St. Kittsian defense with ease and that we showed plenty more aggression, allowing us to batter a team literally made up of amateurs into submission.
Be happy with the win. It was a good thing. But it didn't "show" the naysayers anything new.