Fresh off the redeye from Los Angeles to Columbus, and bits of me are scattered across every American airport from the west coast to Atlanta, Georgia. I flew from Los Angeles to Columbus via Atlanta! If the CSA lived up to their usual standard and sent the boys commercial, they're probably sitting in the hotel restaurant staring at plates of eggs and nursing hangovers the size of Landon Donovan's ego.
Flying in the United States is just the worst. The worst. Any Canadian players who have fallen onto this page: I have new respect for you guys. I feel like I just played ninety minutes plus stoppages against El Salvador by myself (I did not win).
Luckily, El Salvador had to make the same trip, and their federation isn't known for being flush with cash. There were some folks with big bags in front of me at LAX: they may have been stowing El Salvadoran players in the cargo hold to save on airfare. Say what you will about the brutal travel and a schedule that seems like it was composed by Chuck Blazer in the midst of a particularly forgettable bender, at least every team in every group is getting the same treatment.
Unfortunately, I am scared to death of El Salvador in any stadium. I had the privilege of watching El Salvador dismantle Costa Rica, and the comparison to Canada could not have been more striking. Canada was as fundamentally sound but unexceptional, with next-to-no creativity apart from Josh Simpson and the audacious connection between Klukowski and Gerba for the goal. Few mistakes were made, except for Greg Sutton's well-documented distribution problems and a couple ill-conceived giveaways early in the second half. Canada was the better team on the night but it could have easily - so easily - been 2-1 to Jamaica after ninety minutes.
El Salvador was taking a few liberties and lost the ball on occasion. But on balance they were flying, and they were doing so against an intensely skilled Costa Rica lineup fielding their B+ squad. Yes, they had the Carson crowd behind their backs; about 26,000 fans of whom 25,500 were there for El Salvador, but if they'd come out against Canada in that form they'd have ripped us to shreds. I don't think the Columbus crowd will be quite so partisan, but the Voyageurs numbers are estimated at fifteen and you'll be able to push me over with a feather if El Salvador's ultras don't beat that by a factor of ten.
A few months ago, I thought El Salvador would struggle to beat Jamaica. Now, I'll be surprised if they don't win the group.
At every position (except possibly goal), Canadian players are more skilled than their El Salvadoran counterparts, but that's been true for a decade against most of CONCACAF's sides and it's hasn't got us many points. Except against the United States and Mexico, Atiba Hutchinson and Julian De Guzman ought to be the most talented players on any pitch yet it never works out. When our stars put together their best matches this team is a contender in CONCACAF. In the 2006 friendly against Brazil and the 2007 Gold Cup against the United States, Canada went toe-to-toe with a strong Brazil B team and the Americans' best eleven and were up to the challenge. Those performances come too seldom.
But there is one bright spot. Both of those matches were under our Tobagan titan, Stephen Hart.
Hart's shown the ability to get close to the best out of these players. Our one real Canadian-style submission was in 2007 in an ultimately meaningless loss to Guadeloupe and we came back admirably from that. El Salvador is a nothing country with a historically unsuccessful team and they're underdogs to Canada according to the online bookies. But they're also in the hex and have been getting better results than us against better opposition. If Hart can convince them to take El Salvador seriously, a victory is in the offing.
I can't predict a Canadian win. I just can't. El Salvador's form is better, El Salvador's support will be better, and I don't think Canada has won four matches in a row in my lifetime. I'm saying El Salvador 2, Canada 1 (Gerba), Canadian supporters tased 3, heads knelt on by enthusiastic Columbus cops 5.
Of course, even a loss leaves Canada in a good position. Beat Costa Rica in Miami or and we're through; draw and we're probably through anyway. But, if the stars align (in every sense), it could be glorious tonight.