Neither an untimely sending off nor horrendous pitch conditions could derail Canada in its latest chase of an elusive World Cup berth.
Olivier Occean scored in the second half and 10-man Canada held on for a 1-0 win over Cuba to kick off the second stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Friday.
Occean scored the game’s only goal in the 54th minute. David Edgar’s well-placed cross from the right side was neatly headed by Occean past Cuban goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper.
The goal was timely, as Canada went down to 10 men shortly after when goalkeeper Lars Hirschfeld was given a straight red card for handling the ball outside the Canadian box.
It was fitting that Canada’s winning goal came in the air, as the condition of the pitch at Estadio Pedro Marrero in Havana made it tough for the teams to get any sort of flow going.
“I would not know how to describe the field. It’s not even playable,” Occean said. “We came out with a big win and that’s important for us.”
Canadian head coach Stephen Hart said the field could play havoc for Cuba’s other opponents in qualification.
“It was difficult for the players today—very, very difficult,” Hart said.
“I think Cuba are going to take points from anybody that they play here. A lot of teams that have a passing game and passing patterns are going to struggle.”
After training Thursday captain Kevin McKenna had called it the worst pitch he had ever played on. Those conditions combined with the hot and humid weather could have tripped up the Canadians —many of which play professionally in Europe on perfectly manicured fields.
But as the game kicked off at the stadium built in 1929, and the teams emerged from the ramshackle, sheet-metal roofed tunnel, the skies were overcast and there was a solid wind that made things tolerable.
“It was definitely hot but we did a good training camp in Florida and there wasn’t much difference there,” Edgar said. “The little breeze helped but it was just brilliant. Those are the things we have to overcome in CONCACAF.”
Anything short of three points would have been a disappointment to a Canadian side looking to make the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Canada now has four wins and a draw in its last five matches against Cuba.
Canada is ranked 77th in the world and Cuba is 145th.
Both teams came up with a couple of chances in the first half, though Canada’s were more dangerous as the visitors started to take control as the half wore on.
Cuba had the first chance to score in the game’s opening five minutes, but a free kick went just wide of the post.
Canada had a great chance to open the scoring in the 20th minute. Will Johnson set up Dwayne De Rosario at the left side in front of the Cuban goal, but his shot was parried by the goalkeeper and no Canadian player could get to the generous rebound.
Cuba came close again 10 minutes later when Marcel Hernandez’s drive was tipped over the bar by Hirschfeld.
Tosaint Ricketts fired the ball just over the Cuban goal in the 39th minute.
De Rosario had the best chance of the first half in stoppage time as his shot from right in front of the goal hit the underside of the crossbar and did not cross the goal-line.
Cuba gave Canada a scare early in the second half but Alberto Gomez’s shot from a tight angle went off the far post of the Canadian goal.
The Cubans were the better team to start the second half, but Occean’s goal took a lot of the fight out of them.
Hirschfeld was shown a red card after he handled the ball outside the box in the 63rd minute. A dangerous free kick was poorly taken by Cuba.
“I came out pretty aggressively and basically looking to play it out to the left back with my head and when it bounced it popped up really high over me,” Hirschfeld said.
“It was a desperation thing — either let it get up over me and into the box and let them have a go at it. I haven’t seen it but I think I was about a foot or two out (of the 18-yard box).”
Goalkeeper Milan Borjan came on in place of Ricketts.
Cuba failed to take advantage of its numerical superiority, and Canada ended up having the better late chances. Substitute Simeon Jackson had a chance in the 85th minute but his shot was just off target. Cooper parried De Rosario’s shot in the 87th minute.
Despite three great chances to score De Rosario remained stuck at 19 international goals — tied for the Canadian lead with Dale Mitchell.
Canada brought on Atiba Hutchinson in the 69th minute in place of Julian de Guzman. Hutchinsion had missed Canada’s friendly against the United States last week with a knee injury.
Cuba had just its second corner kick of the match in the 90th minute but it was easily cleared by Canada, and the visitors dominated possession in injury time.
Hirschfeld wasn’t the only Canadian to get booked in the game. Defender Ante Jazic was booked in the 61st minute for a poorly timed tackle on Hernandez, and Johnson was booked in the 76th minute for a tackle on Aliannis Urgelles.
After the game, Serbian-born Borjan went to the corner of the pitch to join the hundred or so Canadian fans who had made the trip to Havana. The fans threw him a hat, a flag, and a scarf and Borjan put them on and celebrated with the fans before heading to the locker-room.
“That’s the best thing that can happen to a player when their home fans come to a visitor’s field,” Borjan said. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just awesome. Thanks to them for coming.”
Canada’s next game is Tuesday against Honduras at Toronto’s BMO Field.