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Canadian men’s soccer team keeps eye on the prize

Canada's coach Stephen Hart watches from the touchline during second half 2014 World Cup qualifying game action against St. Lucia in Toronto on Friday September 2, 2011.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Christine Sinclair and Co. will be back on the field for the first time since the Olympics Friday at BMO Field.

But when they take centre stage with their bronze medals, the women's national team players will do more than simply be feted for their achievements in London – they will also be throwing down the gauntlet to their male counterparts waiting in the wings.

With the world's most popular sport seemingly at an all-time high in this country – 3.84 million Canadians watched the heartbreaking Olympic semi-final defeat to the United States – Stephen Hart's team can take another step closer to the world's most-watched sporting event with a World Cup qualifying win over Panama.

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In his second spell as head coach of the Canadian men's national team, Hart says the spike in interest was there long before Sinclair and her teammates became the nation's sweethearts.

"I saw this sort of wave a few years ago," he said Wednesday. "The women got their just due in the Olympics, and I'm happy for them, but this has been building for a while."

While Hart dismissed talk of the 2012 Olympic success adding pressure to his stalwarts, he also cautioned against putting too much stock in comparing the the two programs – especially when it comes to qualifying for the World Cup, to be held in Brazil in 2014.

"It's not a pressure, it's the reality," he said. "If you want to get to the World Cup, you do everything to get to the World Cup. The men's competition is very different – it's more than two games to qualify. I don't mean that with any disrespect. It's completely different football."

Already into the third round of qualifying, Canada has four points from two games, and a positive result Friday against the group leaders would put it in pole position to advance to the fourth and final round, squaring off with five other nations for one of the three coveted automatic qualifying berths for Brazil, or a playoff for a fourth and final spot.

Canadian defender Kevin McKenna made no bones about the challenge, calling the matchup with Panama "the biggest game in a long time for Canadian soccer."

While the women's team may have something to say about that, for a nation that has but one men's World Cup appearance to its name, just having a chance to get down to the last throws of the qualifying dice would be an achievement.

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Friday's game at 22,000-seat BMO Field seems unlikely to be a sellout, but it will be the seventh consecutive home attendance of 10,000 or more – a Canadian soccer first.

But Hart is loathe to say the culture of soccer in this country has been altered permanently.

"We can't talk about culture because we can only talk about that over a period of time," he said. "This is great news if the game sells out or if we have more than ever Canadian support but let's say it's growing, and we will do our part to keep it growing."

Having joined the rest of the country in watching the women fly the flag in Britain last month, midfielder Terry Dunfield is just hoping he and his teammates are up to the task of following in their footsteps, both Friday and in the return fixture in Panama next Tuesday.

"It will be tough to match what the women did," he admitted. "But the spotlight's on us the next two games and it's important, especially at home, we go out there and show what we can do.

"Right now, what's most important is the three points. Not putting on a show but being very business-like and if we can do that there's a huge cherry at the end of it."

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