TORONTO – The coach calls it an ideal game in an inconvenient situation.
Canada’s men’s soccer team will play a friendly against Trinidad and Tobago next month in a World Cup qualifying tune-up, a game the team had to fit in to avoid a nearly three-month layoff between matches.
Faced with winning a vital game against Panama on Sept. 7 at Toronto’s BMO Field, head coach Stephen Hart said he needed his team to regroup one last time.
But the options were slim. The only date remaining for FIFA friendly matches was Aug. 15, limiting the number of opponents available. Just four teams were considered, and in the end Hart said only 80th-ranked Trinidad could make the day work.
“It’s a difficult situation because of course the August date is probably the most hated date in the FIFA calendar,” said Hart on a conference call Thursday. “There’s a lot of negotiation … As soon as I can I will release the roster but there’s still a lot of back and forth going on.”
Putting together that roster will also be a chore. The date comes in the middle of the MLS season, with several other leagues set to open shortly after. Toronto FC and FC Dallas each have games on Aug. 15, limiting the availability of midfielders Julian de Guzman and Terry Dunfield, and centre back Adrian Cann.
Hart said he’ll use the game to give time to players who have yet to play or have seen limited minutes.
“I think my concern is to call upon some players that if I do have to call upon them in the Panama game I would know what to expect from them having seen them internationally,” Hart said. “I’m still trying to work out the roster in that respect, but I think it’ll be a balanced squad with quite a few of the players that have been in the last sequence.”
Even the venue isn’t Canada’s first choice. Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was unavailable, so the two teams will play at the Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill, Fla. The pitch is primarily used as a cricket field but can be converted for soccer.
Nevertheless, Hart said Trinidad will be a good opponent to help prepare for a difficult opponent in Panama. He said the teams have a similar athleticism, and that Trinidad’s willingness to meet Canada in Florida was key to limiting travel time for players.
But history will have nothing to do with it. Hart, who was born in Trinidad, said he didn’t see anything special about playing his opponent. The last time Canada played Trinidad was in 2000 when the teams faced each other five times. One of those matches eliminated Canada from qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, while another advanced the Canadians into the CONCACAF Gold Cup final, which they eventually won.
“It doesn’t carry anything for me,” said Hart. “I’m preparing my team and whether it was Trinidad or you know whether it was Ecuador or whoever, it really doesn’t matter to me. I just want to focus on my team and get in a game and work on the things we need to do.”
The Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation said in a statement on its website that financial constraints mean its team, which has already been knocked out of World Cup qualifying, will likely play all games this year away from home.
The game will be an excuse for Trinidad to get in some practice — their national team, which includes Stoke City forward Kenwyne Jones, hasn’t played since a 2-0 win over Guyana ended their World Cup qualifying in November.
Canada, ranked 68th in the world, will have every reason to take the game seriously. The team is second in CONCACAF Group C following a 1-0 win over Cuba and a 0-0 home draw against Honduras in June, and trails Panama by two points.
The top two teams in the group will advance to the final round of qualifying in the CONCACAF region, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Four days after their first meeting, Canada visits Panama for another match Sept 11. Canada then hosts Cuba on Oct. 12 before playing its last group game against Honduras on Oct. 16.
With plenty of games ahead, Hart said he isn’t dwelling on the first two games.
“Those games are in the past now and we will build on what we learned off of those games. We know what we need to do and what would be necessary in our preparation to try and make those things right,” Hart said.
“The bottom line is like always you’re going to need players playing as often as possible and to be as sharp as possible and then we will try to get the relationships right and all the ideas working in synch. But we know what we need to do.”