At times, it was far from convincing, but Canada's quest to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil began with a 4-1 win over soccer minnows St. Lucia in Toronto on Friday night. Three points was the only acceptable outcome against a team 82 places further down the world rankings, but despite the victory, there is plenty for Head Coach Stephen Hart to think about before his team takes to the pitch for its next game in Puerto Rico on Tuesday.
In many respects, it was a no-win situation for Canada. They were expected to beat St. Lucia and score lots of goals. In the end, the margin of victory was much closer than it should have been, but it was three points nonetheless, and the result sees Canada at the top of the group after one round of matches. There's no doubt performances will have to improve. Even St. Lucia coach Alain Providence described Canada's performance as “rather average,” although it was slightly ironic to hear that coming from the coach of a team that was clearly well below acceptable standards for an international game.
The first half at BMO Field on Friday was frustrating for players and fans alike as Canada failed to take advantage of their far inferior opponent and headed to the break tied at 1-1. Hart said postgame that his team paid the price for trying to do too much in the opening 15 minutes of the match and that they failed to put enough thought into how to use the long periods of possession they had. He described the performance as “marginally better” in the second half after seeing his side score three times and cruise through the final half an hour.
From the outset, Canada pushed forward in large numbers and found their opponents clearly unable to cope, but it wasn't until after half time that they finally managed to take advantage of the opportunities being presented to them. Heading towards a sea of red in the south end of BMO Field, the Canadians lacked quality in the final third. They had lots of space in wide areas but didn't use it enough. They failed to provide quality deliveries, and looked nervous in front of goal. Josh Simpson's early strike seemed to be a building block after a lively first five minutes, but the lead lasted just a matter of seconds.
Goalkeeping was a concern at the Gold Cup earlier this year, and Lars Hirschfeld will be disappointed not to have kept out the long range strike from Tremain Paul that tied the game at 1-1. It will be interesting to see whether Hart decides to make a change in net and bring in Milan Borjan for the upcoming match in Puerto Rico. For the rest of the game, Hirschfeld was largely untroubled with St. Lucia only managing one shot on target all night, and not producing a single corner. But the early tying goal seemed to knock the Canucks off their game for a while and they never really seemed to settle until after half time.
As the game progressed, Canada's dominance increased, albeit against a St. Lucia side that got progressively worse with each passing minute and were simply out of their depth technically, tactically and physically. It is very rare in an international game for one team to have so much space, but Canada had the run of the pitch for long stretches of the match.
Much of Canada's attacking play came through the middle of the pitch, including the third goal which was served to Josh Simpson courtesy of a precision pass from Atiba Hutchinson as two of the team's best players on the night linked up to ensure the game was over as a contest just after the hour. With two goals, Simpson became only the eighth player to score a double in the same game for Canada.
Other highlights on the night included a first international goal for Real Salt Lake midfielder Will Johnson and an effective display from Toronto FC midfielder Julian de Guzman. The Scarborough native took full advantage of the freedom afforded to him by St. Lucia in the centre of the park.
Canada's margin of victory should have been bigger and further down the road, missing so many chances and failing to take advantage of significantly weaker opponents will likely negatively impact the country's progress. However, if Canada has to worry about goal differential in this first stage of the qualifying campaign they will have much bigger issues to deal with. This is a group that they should win comfortably. They have taken the first step, and although the most important thing is to get positive results, Stephen Hart's men must also use this stage as a learning process for bigger challenges ahead.