Canada's good results in World Cup Qualifying have so far been built on a solid defence, but the clean sheets are about much more than the backline.
Friday's win over Panama at BMO Field was a memorable occasion for many reasons, but it was a standout performance from the Canadian midfield that really caught the eye.
Canada is yet to concede a goal in this stage of World Cup Qualifying, a record that will face a stern examination in the return match in Panama City on Tuesday. Of course it helps to have a settled back four and a strong leader at the back like Kevin McKenna, but Canada coach Stephen Hart points to the play of his midfielders as the main reason why his side has been able to shut out the opposition.
Canada's midfield denied Panama space to attack the backline and forced the visitors into playing longer balls and misplaced passes which were easily eaten up by McKenna and Co. In fact Canada goalkeeper Lars Hirschfeld was hardly troubled all night. With a protective force in front of the back four, the Canadians proved themselves to be extremely difficult to break down.
There's no doubt this team has a different swagger with Atiba Huitchinson in it. The PSV Eindhoven midfielder was superb against Panama and fully recovered from his recent injury layoff. His influence on the side is massive both defensively and going forward.
Julian de Guzman has endured a difficult couple of years at club level but has always remained a valued contributor for Canada and once again showed what he is capable of for the international side. Real Salt Lake's Will Johnson was also effective as Canada rarely allowed Panama to dictate the game in the middle of the park.
The Canadian attack continues to be the weak point. Had it not been for the intelligent, quick thinking of Hutchinson and the speedy response of Dwayne De Rosario, Canada would likely not have scored against Panama on Friday.
They had plenty of possession, but had limited success in the final third. One of the big factors for Canada to be more potent in attack is finding a way to get the most out of De Rosario on a consistent basis.
The Scarborough-born reigning MLS MVP proved again on Friday that he's a game changer. On the night, he made the only impact that really mattered, scoring an historical goal to give Canada the win and take him clear of Dale Mitchell as the country's all-time leading goal-scorer. However, at times he found it difficult to influence the game from his position wide on the left.
When asked about whether De Rosario might be able to impact the game more playing in a central role, Hart points to the 2011 Gold Cup as an example of how that didn't work as well as he would have liked and seems set to stick with him in his current position.
De Rosario's goal leaves Canada in a fantastic position to qualify for the Hex sitting top of the group with seven points from three matches. A win at home to Cuba and a point on the road in Panama or Honduras will see Hart's men through to the final stage of Qualifying for 2014. Although nothing can be taken for granted, the previous three performances in this stage of World Cup Qualifying have shown that it's a highly realistic goal.
Tuesday's match will be a much different encounter in difficult surroundings, but this side is playing with confidence and resilience. One of this team's strengths appears to be the ability to grind out results, and that is exactly what they will need to do in Panama City.