Canada's men's soccer team is looking to regroup after an upset opening loss in the first game of the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament, but Thursday's game against Mexico offers little room for error.
Canada's rebuilding squad suffered a last-minute 1-0 loss to tiny Martinique, which only has a population of 400,000, in the first game last weekend in Pasadena, Calif. But the Canadians also have a chance to take advantage of two-time defending champion Mexico's unexpected loss to Panama in Game 1.
"I think we have a lot to prove for this next game — for the team, for the country, for ourselves," Canadian midfielder Issey Nakajima-Farran said Wednesday.
The Canadian squad is experimenting with several young players and battling illness, as interim coach Colin Miller prepares to give way to new field boss Benito Floro after this tournament. While the players get used to each other, Canada's style of play is also in transition as Miller attempts to implement a possession-oriented offence that emphasizes passing, in the form of through balls, rather than long lead passes.
Miller "disagreed wholeheartedly" with a suggestion during a conference call earlier Wednesday that Canada's passing skills are weak.
"I may have a Scottish accent, and I may be tied to the British mentality of trying to play the long ball," said Miller. "But we don't coach that theory. ... I've never coached anyone to just smash the ball up the park."
But Miller and defender David Edgar said Canada will have to be more disciplined against a Mexican side that also likes to keep the ball on the ground — a different style than that deployed by Martinique.
Discipline means strong defence that Miller said his successor must carry on in wake of Canada's talent level.
The problem, said Miller, is that Canada has never had a Lionel Messi-type player who can break open in the pitch and is a "real gem."
"We've never had that. We didn't produce it," said Miller.
"So until we do that, we will always have to be fairly well organized and fit, and then disciplined, as (Edgar) said. I don't think it's necessarily the system. I think it's about recognizing the mindset of where we're at in that transition and recognizing that we all have responsibilities to make sure that we give our players the best opportunities to win a game. If that means doing certain things defensively first, as well as we can do, it's the rock that we will be built on."
When it comes to beating Mexico, he and Nakajima-Farran contended, Canada must also show its character. Canada's men's program has struggled to recreate itself in wake of a humiliating 8-1 loss to Honduras in World Cup qualifying last year that prompted former coach Stephen Hart to resign and led to a months-long search for his replacement.
"It's definitely a difficult moment for the whole national team and staff," said Nakajima-Farran, who is a Japanese-Canadian born in Tokyo and plays for a First Division club in Cyprus and has been with the national program since 2006.
"But we've still a job at task, and we still have a lot to prove. With that in mind, I think we really have a good shot at this. ... Really, it's a matter of passion and laying our country on our shoulders."
Although this is a difficult time for Canada's national team staff and players, they still have a task at hand.
"Mexico had a very bad result also," said Nakajima-Farran. "They seem pretty vulnerable also. It's just a matter of who wants it more. Really, it's a matter of passion and laying our country on our shoulders."
He said players are much hungrier than they were heading into the game against Martinique. But some players have had trouble digesting food.
Captain Will Johnson, a Toronto native who plays for the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer, is suffering from what has been described as an illness after he came off early against Martinique, and has returned to his club.
He is questionable for Sunday's game against Panama in Denver. Meanwhile, Rusell Teibert, 20, of Niagara Falls, Ont., may not get to perform before a large contingent of Vancouver Whitecaps fans who are expected to head south for the game. The Whitecaps midielder has also come down with an illness and missed practice Wednesday.
As a result of the health woes, Kyle Porter, a 23-year-old Toronto native, has been called in from his MLS club, D.C. United.
Miller acknowledged that both Mexico and Canada are facing pressure to win after their early losses. He also noted Mexico will be favoured in its last pool game while Canada must battle against Panama, making Thursday's test all the more important.
Note — Miller declined to say whether he will go back with goalkeeper Milan Borjan following the late loss to Martinique. ... Striker Simeon Jackson of Mississauga, Ont., left the Canadian camp to pursue a club commitment in Europe, while fellow forward Randy Edwini-Bonsu of Edmonton also left due to injury. ... The first two teams in each of the three pools qualify for the next round along with the two third-place clubs, regardless of their pool, that have the best records.