OBETZ, Ohio – Canada’s men’s national soccer team is building momentum.
An organized Canadian side opened the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup impressively with a 1-0 win over Group A opponent Jamaica last Friday in Los Angeles, Canada’s third consecutive victory under interim coach Stephen Hart.
The goal is to extend that streak against a strong El Salvador squad Tuesday night at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.
“It’s obviously important in the first game of a tournament to get off to a good start and we managed to do that,” Canadian captain Paul Stalteri said Monday after the team’s practice at the Columbus Crew facility. “It was a bit of a tricky game for some of us coming off of our summer breaks. It was important that we were well organized, and found our rhythm early in the game.
“Tactically, we weren’t spot on but we were close.”
Stalteri knows the El Salvador match will be a challenge. The captain emphasized the need for Canada to be as sharp as the previous outing, while maintaining possession of the ball for as long as possible rather than chase defensively.
El Salvador sits alongside Canada with three points atop Group A – considered the Gold Cup’s “group of death” – following a 2-1 win over Costa Rica Friday.
“It’s important that we stay focused, stay disciplined and stay organized,” added Toronto midfielder Julian De Guzman. “If we can do those three things I think we can come away with three points.”
Canada’s difficult draw hasn’t phased De Guzman or his teammates.
“This is a wake-up call,” he said. “It’s never going to be easy to be one of the best in CONCACAF. The group that we’re in, it puts us in a certain state of mind and I think we do well when we’re focused.”
Hart, the Canadian Soccer Association’s technical director, felt the side did many positive things in the first half against Jamaica. The game was eventually won on a 75th-minute strike by Ali Gerba, who has scored 14 goals in 25 international matches, including a Canadian record-tying five Gold Cup goals.
The key in upcoming games will be sustaining the performance for a full 90 minutes. Hart admits that the tournament’s rigorous travel schedule has impacted preparation time but is confident in his players.
“We are more focused on what we need to do well to be successful,” he said.
Hart doesn’t expect any major changes to the lineup that defeated Jamaica, though he hinted there might be a tweak to the starting 11.
“We’ve been toying with a couple ideas but if it’s not broken, you don’t really need to fix it,” he said.
This edition of the national team, while missing key components like attacking midfielder Dwayne De Rosario and defender Jim Brennan, both of Toronto FC, has a blend of established veterans (‘keeper Greg Sutton) and newcomers (defender Dejan Jakovic and forwards Will Johnson and Simeon Jackson among them).
Hart, who is familiar with many of the younger players because of his involvement with youth sides, likes the group assembled and is using the competition as a tool to shape the look of future international teams.
“I think we have to look at a plan of how we’re going to go forward,” he said.
“The balance is good. It’s an experience where hopefully some of the young players can get in and show what they can do. And of course, it creates competition for places within the squad, which for me, is probably one of the things that has been lacking in the past.”
With eight wins, a draw and four losses in his 13 matches in charge of Canada, Hart is helping the program establish a consistent approach. He said there is a distinct way of how they want to do things to succeed and the players understand that.
“The word philosophy frightens me,” said Hart. “We have a way, an approach to play the game that I like. I think we have the ability to do that. It takes time.
“We have a good midfield and we like to advance the ball through that, play with a certain sort of speed and then understand what your starting points are in attack, for example, and then get penetration through that.
“If we can do that, I think it will be good for us. I don’t know if that’s the Canadian way but that’s the way we would like to play.”
The problem for Canada, which competes in few international matches, is that the team is only together for a limited time. Sometimes, Hart said, it comes together quickly. But when the players go their separate ways, that chemistry needs to be rebuilt.
Competitions like the Gold Cup, however, allow for better camaraderie and development.
“When you have a tournament like this, it’s a great opportunity because you’re together for longer periods of time with the same group of guys as opposed to maybe World Cup qualifying where the group changes,” said Stalteri. “The guys are together and manage to build a good rapport with each other.
“It’s an important time for us.”