The Canadian men's soccer team is preparing to embark on the long and winding road of World Cup qualifications, which commence in 18 months.
Saturday - when Canada plays Peru at BMO Field in Toronto - and Sept. 7 - when it takes on Honduras at Saputo Stadium in Montreal - will be stern tests for the current squad of players selected by head coach Stephen Hart.
There is no doubt the next two years will be a bumpy road for Hart, who will somehow have to turn the available group of Canadian players into a 2014 World Cup qualifying contender. A small depth chart in terms of talent and significant questions marks in the form of suspect goalkeeping or defenders with limited international experience will be the main impediments for Hart to overcome.
But then there is also the pressure that arises from coaching a country whose support and expectations are not always in sync with reality.
The limited depth issue will slowly but surely be resolved as Major League Soccer infiltrates Vancouver and Montreal in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The collective partnership and commitment from MLS clubs to the ongoing development of Canadian players will, over the long haul, pay dividends. It is whether it will be in time for the next World Cup cycle which should be of concern to Hart and Canadian supporters.
If Canada is to qualify for the 2014 tournament in Brazil, Hart will have to be meticulous in his own preparations, tough with his decisions, have the skin of a rhinoceros and, somewhere along the line, he may need to pull a few rabbits out of the hat in the form of persuading David Hoilett (Blackburn Rovers), Teal Bunbury (Kansas City Wizards) or even Jonathan de Guzman (Real Mallorca) to play for the national squad.
It is not that Canada's success in World Cup qualifying should be contingent on either of these players committing to the Maple Leaf, but for a soccer nation which still has too many obstacles in its path to success, it is simply a matter of turning over every stone.
If Canada qualifies for 2014, Hart will have done a sterling job.
For now though, his major concern will be formulating his players into a cohesive unit. And for what he has available, this present squad is at least well balanced with youth and experience.
With character players in the form of Paul Stalteri (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Atiba Hutchinson (PSV Eindhoven), Patrice Bernier (FC Nordsjaelland), Josh Simpson (Manisaspor), Rob Friend (Hertha BSC), Will Johnson (Real Salt Lake) and Iain Hume (Barnsley) providing the glue for a strong group mentality, there should be some cautious hope on the horizon.
The team shape and formation is the real trump with this current squad of players - and it is where Hart has been particularly wise. In selecting and grooming players who can play different roles and positions - Hutchinson at the back or in midfield; Kevin McKenna (FC Koeln) at the back or as a forward; Dwayne De Rosario (Toronto FC) as a forward, out wide or as an attacking midfielder, and Bernier just about anywhere - it gives him an overflowing tool box of tactical options.
With big, 6-foot-4 Friend as a more abrasive forward option or the youthful Simeon Jackson with pace and an ability to finish (at least at club level with Norwich City), it magnifies the alternative choices the coach has at his disposal.
In essence, it will allow Canada to transition from a 4-4-2 formation into a 4-4-1-1 to a 4-3-3 or a 4-5-1 and all seamlessly.
Hart's approach may not necessarily lead to immediate success, but over the next 18 months of preparations it should give the men's team a solid foundation to make a decent attempt at qualifying for the World Cup - which has not been achieved since 1993, when then coach Bob Lenarduzzi took Canada to within a game of making it to the 1994 tournament.
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