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Canada against Honduras in Montreal. There's something horribly familiar about all this.
There's no need to rehash the details of that awful World Cup qualifying game two years ago. Everything that can be said about that has been said, and repeated, more times than I can count. In no sense can tonight's friendly against a sub-par Honduran squad be said to represent a chance at revenge, or to right a historical wrong: sports simply don't work that way. Even if we were to win this game by a converted touchdown, recent history would still favour the Hondurans because they beat our best when it mattered.
But oh my god do I want this game anyway.
There is no chance at revenge, but there remains the possibility of exorcism. The demons of 2008 still lurk deep within the Canadian soccer soul, occasionally lacerating us when we least expect it. At last year's Gold Cup, going out in the quarter-finals was bad enough, but going out in the quarter-finals to Honduras added an extra veneer of agony to the whole thing, as if the soccer gods were determined to not only kill us but cast us so low we could never rise again. Honduras, Honduras. Why does it always have to be Honduras?
And then the Canadian Soccer Association adds insult to injury by scheduling a rematch of one of our most infamous defeats on the same ground? We know why, of course. Honduras has shown they can pack Stade Saputo with away supporters and the CSA needs all the ticket dollars it can get. But one hopes the CSA also sensed a chance for us to, at least to some degree, right a historical wrong: to polish off the Hondurans, to scatter the ashes of 2008 into the breeze, and to get Mission 2014 off on the right foot by dispelling the failure of Mission 2010.
After Saturday's desultory defeat against Peru, it's difficult for even the most ardent supporter to believe in this team. But I'm trying. Oh, heavens, I am trying.
With Julian de Guzman, Dwayne De Rosario, and Nana Attakora all back at Toronto FC, a lot of Canada's attention has been focused on what changes Stephen Hart will make to his lineup and how badly hurt we'll be without the three Toronto players. Attakora, of course, didn't play against Peru, de Guzman was far below his best, and De Rosario was an outright liability. It's hard to imagine bringing in Patrice Bernier and Terry Dunfield instead of de Guzman and De Rosario will lead to us playing much worse, and hopefully an injection of physicality and grit in those two tough players will save us from the rough treatment we suffered at Peruvian hands.
Unfortunately, the addition of Terry Dunfield appears to be the only reinforcement Stephen Hart has found. Ali Gerba, the reigning USSF D2 player of the month and Canada's wide-bodied assassin in front of goal, has made the trip to Puerto Rico with the Montreal Impact and won't be taking part in tonight's festivities. Another suggested local reinforcement, thrice-capped midfielder Antonio Ribeiro, is also sticking with his club. Atiba Hutchinson and Bernier will probably start in central midfield, and if Hart sticks with his 4-3-3 my money for the third midfielder is Issey Nakajima-Farran. Dunfield might make an appearance off the bench, but beyond that Hart's depth is awfully shallow.
Also out of action and unreplaced is left back Marcel de Jong. In spite of pessimistic early forecasts his collarbone was dislocated, not broken, but it's still enough to rule him out and he's back in Germany with his club. Hart's playing his hand close to the vest as to de Jong's replacement: Jaime Peters replaced him in Toronto but did poorly and Adam Straith has enough club experience at left back that he may get a look, with a central defense of Kevin McKenna and Dejan Jakovic and the omnipresent Paul Stalteri attaining the national caps record at right back.
The attack is where I'd like to see Hart make some changes and where I'm almost certain he won't. Ideally he'd abandon his 4-3-2-1 and go to a traditional 4-4-2, with Will Johnson and Nakajima-Farran playing the flanks behind Simeon Jackson and Rob Friend up front. But Hart has stuck with his 4-3-2-1 through thick and thin so far. My next-best solution, therefore, would be the speedy Johnson and Nakajima-Farran on the wings for Simeon Jackson as a lone striker, slotting Terry Dunfield into central midfield. By this stage Rob Friend clearly can't play as a target man for Canada. He lacks the initiative, the ability to dig the ball out and create his own chances, which Jackson has. Of course with Jackson instead of Friend as the target man we'd all but abandon the aerial game as the little Jackson would be dominated by the imposing Honduran defense. Given that Friend would probably hardly see the ball and misplay it when he did get it, however, I think that's a price worth paying. This approach would also retain the option of bringing in Friend if we need quick offense; loading him up with Jackson and the two wingers and taking off a central midfielder would at least give the Honduran defense plenty to worry about.
I'd be willing to bet money that Hart will go with the same anaemic trio of Jackson, Johnson, and Friend which got Canada absolutely nothing on Saturday. It's the traditional thing to do: the two little, speedy wingers getting balls into the gigantic poacher in the middle. But for all Simeon Jackson's many virtues he's not a winger. He doesn't cross the ball particularly well and both his creativity and deft touch around the goal are wasted running up and down the flank. Johnson is better suited in the position, but trying to play balls to Rob Friend is like trying to set up a cement truck. Meanwhile, with both Jackson and Friend starting it's hard to imagine what adjustments we could make when we really need a goal. Iain Hume, the closest thing we have to a real attacking substitute, has hardly been on a goal-scoring run lately.
As for the Hondurans, I don't pretend to be well-acquainted with the "B" team they've sent to Montreal. All but two members of their current roster play in the Honduran domestic league and most of them are not regular national players. Carlo Costly, Amado Guevara... most of the names we've learned to loathe are absent. This isn't a team that should intimidate anyone except perhaps a Canadian national team on poor form.
It's a game we ought to win, but so are a lot of them. It doesn't necessarily follow that we will. Indeed, another demoralizing defeat would be par for the course against the Hondurans. But if Stephen Hart's crew wants to stick it to the pessimists, they could hardly pick a better time to start.