Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Of course, being as the man question was Dwayne De Rosario – a man who has never been afraid to march to the beat of his own drum – fashionably late was the only way to go.
So, after 77 exasperating minutes and not a moment too soon, the Scarborough, Ont., native popped up unmarked in the penalty area, converting Atiba Hutchinson’s quickly taken free kick and scoring the only goal of Friday’s game to propel Canada past Panama not only on the night, but in the group standing as well.
Hands up if you saw this coming? Three games played and Stephen Hart’s men are perched atop the summit of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Group 3 and facing a return journey to Panama Tuesday, where a win would all but punch the team’s ticket to the fourth and final round of qualification.
“This is a big mental boost,” said Patrice Bernier, the in-form Montreal Impact midfielder who came off the bench to join the fray after 71 minutes. “I’ve said before that sometimes the problem with Canada is we don’t have that winning spirit, we’re not used to winning but knowing now we’re first in the group after big win against Panama at home, we got what we’re looking for so we’re not under the gun when we go down there.”
The fact that De Rosario’s goal – his 20th for the national team - also lifted him out of a tie with Dale Mitchell for the national team record was just icing on an already very sweet cake.
“This is huge. Coming from a kid from Scarborough, who’d have thought, right?” said Canada’s newest record holder of setting the mark in front of 17,586 fans at Toronto’s BMO Field. “But I’m just grateful. I give thanks for being in the position I’m in and hopefully I can motivate a lot of other kids that feel that they have a lot of things against them and hopefully there’s a lot of De Rosario’s out there.”
But the D.C. United star – the reigning MLS MVP – was quick to deflect the attention to the team performance and rightly so.
Hart, the Canadian coach, had previously singled out Panama as the best team in the four-team group – it had won both its previous two games – and while goal scoring continues to be a problem for his team – just two in the three qualifying games so far – he was justifiably proud of a third consecutive clean sheet.
“Collectively, it’s not just the defence,” Hart gushed of the rearguard effort. “Good work by the midfield, the defence today, they got battered around. As you can see, two strikers with good leaping ability, they like to play little combinations, but we held our nerve, defended with some intelligence and we got the result on the back of good defending.”
They’ll need more of the same Tuesday, when Panama – which was clearly playing for a draw Friday in a place in which it had never won – will pull out all the stops to prevent Canada from escaping over the qualifying horizon.
Still, there’s no questioning the confidence currently coursing through the squad. Simeon Jackson put in a sterling performance in a rare international start, continuing the purple patch of form he’s currently enjoying at Norwich City of the English Premier League, while Hutchinson clearly relished being off the leash imposed on him by Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, where he’s recently been employed at right back.
And despite Honduras pulling itself back into contention with a 3-0 win at Cuba Friday – where Canada opened its campaign with a 1-0 victory – De Rosario has no doubt that his team is the best in the four-team qualifying group, but has no intention of taking his foot off the gas.
“It’s going to be even tougher,” De Rosario said of Tuesday’s contest. “Panama’s a hostile environment, it’s not an easy place to play but if we come out with the same mentality we’ll do just fine.”