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The Canadian men's national has not yet bought a ticket to the third round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. However, they have a credit card in their hand, Air Canada on the phone, and a window seat all ready for them.
Canada has a four-point lead over St. Kitts and Nevis with three games remaining. St. Kitts and Nevis will in all probability win at home to group doormats St. Lucia so let's give St. Kitts an honourary eight points right now. A Canadian win over Puerto Rico would give us twelve points, meaning that St. Lucia would essentially need to beat us twice in order to knock us out of first place (a win and a draw would also work if St. Lucia beat us something like 12-0, which I will hazard is completely impossible). A Canadian draw at today would give us a two-point lead, so we'd still control our destiny against a team so poor Atiba Harris is the best part of it. A Canadian loss, virtually unthinkable, still has Canada a point in front with, in all probability, a far superior goal differential.
If Canada wins and St. Kitts doesn't beat St. Lucia, Canada has basically clinched first in the group (again, barring "St. Kitts and Nevis 15 - 1 Canada"-level disaster).
Many pundits, including myself, predicted that Puerto Rico would be the second-best team in this group. They still might be: St. Kitts is a strong second in the standings but haven't played Canada yet. Still, the St. Kittsers have won a couple credible draws with Puerto Rico, played beyond expectations, and generally earned their ranking. They're not to be underestimated.
I'm going to underestimate them anyway. If Canada wins tonight this group is over. If Canada doesn't win tonight this group is probably still over, but a win would be better.
The Puerto Rican "national" team is in an awkward position. Last week, they played at home to St. Kitts and Nevis. Andrés Cabrero, a neat young attacking midfielder with Bayamon FC, scored his first goal for his "country" to put Puerto Rico in front but St. Kitts and Nevis equalized through Ian Lake in the second half. I didn't watch the game but by all accounts Puerto Rico had the slight advantage and were a little unlucky to draw 1-1.
That's not the awkward part, though. The awkward part is that, the very next day, the Puerto Rico Islanders played their first game of the NASL playoffs against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Islanders players Richard Martinez, Alexis Rivera, Petter Villegas, and Scott Jones all started for the Puerto Rican national team on Friday; Marco Velez, Islanders captain Noah Delgado, and Tyler Wilson also came off the bench. Andre Hainault thinks he'd have it tough playing for Canada: that's seven Puerto Rico Islanders enduring a World Cup qualifier and an NASL playoff game in two days.
The Islanders tried to rest the national team players but events were soon beyond their control: an injury forced Colin Clarke to bring on Richard Martinez barely twenty minutes into the game. Fort Lauderdale wound up beating the Islanders 3-1, all-but-sealing the series for the Florida underdogs. Martinez was the only player to face the grueling two games in two nights but he is one of the key players for both the national team and the Islanders. In addition, Fort Lauderdale Strikers defender Cristian Arrieta played for Puerto Rico on Friday and Fort Lauderdale on Saturday.
Now, those same exhausted and beaten Puerto Rican players are in Toronto, on unfamiliar ground, facing a must-win to avoid World Cup elimination. Even with just Martinez and Arrieta having exhausted themselves playing twice in two nights, the rest were still available in Puerto Rico on Saturday. At minimum, they're facing low morale and a long flight.
Not that Canada is in perfect shape. Will Johnson has returned to Real Salt Lake with a sprained ankle and, despite the cobbled-together Canadian defense, Andre Hainault has disgraced himself forever by deciding he cares more about getting a nap for the sake of the Houston Dynamo than playing for his country. Canada's policy of carrying only the bare minimum of roster strength might be biting them, as they are short on depth.
Not that there's any question who should win this game. Upsets happen every year (we were treated to a hell of one on Friday: Bermuda's 2-1 victory over Trinidad and Tobago might be the death knell for the Soca Warriors) but this should be Canada's game to lose.
Canada's finishing was unusually superb in our 7-0 victory over St. Lucia; we obviously can't expect the same space from a defense that has actual professional players. Indeed, predictions of a heavy Canadian win are highly premature. Puerto Rico has a number of quality players and they can hold off the likes of Iain Hume or Olivier Occean for an awful long time if they want to.
But Puerto Rico must win this game, end of story. So they'll have to open the field up a bit, look for goals, and the attack is the weakest part of Puerto Rico's national team. On the other hand, running a back four of Ante Jazic, David Edgar, Adam Straith, and Nik Ledgerwood doesn't exactly inspire confidence in Canada's defense. There are mistakes there; mistakes that, if we're unlucky, Puerto Rico will exploit.
Let's hope Canada scores early. If they do, they might be able to spend most of the game in counter-attacking heaven which will play to our strengths and their weaknesses. Quick transition through the midfield, Canada's superior speed and athleticism, a few accurate passes, and a 1-0 lead becomes a 3-0 lead before the smoke's cleared. Hopefully.
There are potential pitfalls in this game, but I look forward to celebrating our place in the next round.