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Canadian Game Day: Men @ St. Kitts and Nevis, 4 PM PST (Almost a Friendly)

Patrice Bernier is just one fringe Canadian player being given a chance in today's almost-certain-to-win World Cup qualifier against St. Kitts and Nevis (Canadian Soccer Association)
Patrice Bernier is just one fringe Canadian player being given a chance in today's almost-certain-to-win World Cup qualifier against St. Kitts and Nevis (Canadian Soccer Association)
ST. KITTS AND NEVIS
 
CANADA
FIFA ranking: 109
vs.
FIFA ranking: 83
Elo ranking: 161
 
Elo ranking: 60
4:00 PM PST, Warner Park, Basseterre, St. Kitts
No television; live video at sportsnet.ca

With one point in their next two games, Canada will advance to the third round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying.

Given that both of these games are against St. Kitts and Nevis, this should be easy. Indeed, it almost certainly will be. Canada's heavy betting favourites to win this game pretty much everywhere I look. Sure, we looked catastrophically inept playing against an unusually self-destructive Puerto Rican team last time around, but we need one point out of six. And St. Kitts shouldn't be bunkering: if they win both of these games they take our rightful place in the next round.

This is, very nearly, a friendly. Stephen Hart has been talking openly about experimenting with his tactics. Youngster Ashtone Morgan is with the club; another Toronto FC kid named Matt Stinson would have been if he were healthy. Fringe players such as Patrice Bernier and Kenny Stamatopoulos are being given their chance, while Stephen Hart chose to send a message by excluding Andre Hainault from the team. The team isn't taking this game quite as seriously as it could be, but there's probably no cause for concern. Canada has so much rope with which to hang themselves that even they must hold on. One point in two games against a markedly inferior opponent, that's all they need.

This is a glorified friendly. This game is less a crisis and more a coronation ceremony. Anything less than a comprehensive win will be a disappointment, but anything more than a draw will be superfluous.

St. Kitts and Nevis is something of an unknown quantity to the Canadian fan. The Sugar Boyz have never played Canada, but they've had some decent results and are the second-best-ranked team in the group. They're without Vancouver Whitecaps forward Atiba Harris thanks to his knee problems but they've been without Harris this entire tournament and have gotten by. Harris is the only St. Kittsian player in a league of any international consequence, with the rest being a succession of obscure names with obscure teams.

St. Kitts's leading player has been forward Ian Lake, a star for Premier Division club Newtown United (sorry, that's the St. Kitts and Nevis Premier Division). The large majority of their roster is based domestically. A handful of their players have played professionally abroad in recent years. Midfielder Gerard Williams played for W Connection in Trinidad and Tobago and forward Tishan Hanley for the Harrisburg City Islanders in USL PRO. However, both were fringe players and have since been cut; if they've surfaced elsewhere I couldn't Google it. Midfielder Orlando Mitchum is still active with Antigua Barracuda of USL PRO's Caribbean division where he wears the #12 shirt, plays regularly, and has in fact scored three goals.

Forward Jevon Francis, an important player for the national team, turns out for Guyana's Alpha United and played in the 2011-12 CONCACAF Champions League, starting once and appearing twice in the two-leg preliminary round as Alpha United lost 10-2 on aggregate to Costa Rica's Herediano. Finally, 39-year-old Keith Gumbs has made 131 appearances for his country since 1989 and scored 47 goals: he's been a substitute recently for St. Kitts and Nevis but still plays professionally, captaining Indonesia's Sriwijaya FC where he is a crowd favourite. The rest of St. Kitts's roster is either without a club or based in their domestic league.

The ground in Basseterre lives up to the occasion. Pictures of Warner Park recall a Canadian municipal soccer ground: temporary goals on a haphazard grass pitch and one small permanent grandstand on the west side. It is nobody's idea of a world-class venue, although match reports suggest it plays reasonably well for a Caribbean ground. Certainly, what the St. Kittsian supporters lack in numbers they make up for in enthusiasm and desire: Voyageurs on the ground in Basseterre have reported that the local media is full of discussion about the game and high optimism, with one morning radio show even predicting a 4-2 St. Kitts win.

If St. Kitts was playing anybody but Canada I'd be rooting hard for them. They're not only a plucky underdog but they seem so eminently likable, from the goofy nickname to their 39-year-old star forward to the quaint ground in the middle of a little residential district. Their Football Association has issued a press release declaring this "Wear Red Day" in a statement so full of optimism and good nature that it makes my heart ache to think we must go out and crush these fine fellows.

I realize I sound patronizing as I write about this team and this game, but it's hard not to. Puerto Rico has a roster filled with professional players and decent upset chances: they proved at BMO Field that they deserve respect. St. Lucia was too irredeemably terrible to be sympathetic, like playing a dead midget in the NBA. But St. Kitts has a reasonably competent team which has hung on for three draws in four games and hasn't a single player who would be considered a potential Canada call-up at any level. They gave the aforementioned St. Lucians their only point so far in a 1-1 draw at home. They're a fun team which plays hard but which needs to get six out of six points off of Canada. They should be less than a speedbump.

Canada has proudly found ways to lose many games they should have won... but nothing like this. It's a friendly. I hope both teams go out, stay healthy, and give the St. Kittsian fans a good show. I hope St. Kitts punches hard for their home supporters and goes for the 4-2 win that radio jockey was predicting. And I hope Canada knocks their lights out, but in a fun way.