To get to the 2014 World Cup, Canada faces at least 14 more matches.
But the next two could shed a lot of light on how much of that journey the Canadian men’s soccer team will get to take.
Canada plays Panama in a vital home-and-away series that opens Friday at BMO Field in Toronto before moving to Panama City next Tuesday.
“The next two games for us are huge,” 32-year-old captain Kevin McKenna said. “Especially [Friday] night. It’s probably the biggest game I’ve played in with the national team, probably every player here also. I think we’re all looking forward to it. Obviously everyone’s a bit on edge.”
Picking up points at home is crucial in qualifying. Poor performances on Canadian soil have cost the national team in recent qualifying campaigns and Stephen Hart’s squad missed an opportunity with a 0-0 draw with Honduras last June.
“Every home game is a must win,” midfielder Patrice Bernier said.
Panama leads the group with six points from two matches. Canada is second with four points from its two matches. Honduras has one point and Cuba none.
“They have been very consistent over the last four years,” Hart said of Panama.
That has shown in the International Association Football Federation world rankings with Panama rising to a high of No. 46 in June from a 2008 low of No. 96. Panama is currently No. 50, Canada No. 73.
With Honduras, ranked No. 72, expected to pick up points against Cuba, the group standings could change dramatically over the next week. Canada does not want to be left behind.
After the Panama games, Canada wraps up group play next month with a home date with No. 147-ranked Cuba and a tough match in Honduras.
The top two teams will advance to the six-country final round of qualifying in CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
That group will send three to Brazil with a fourth CONCACAF country meeting a team from Oceania in a playoff to see who joins them.
“We have a good belief within the team,” Hart said after practice Thursday, “but for that belief to continue, you need to continue to get results.”