TORONTO — Back home after picking up points via draws in Mexico and Jamaica, unbeaten Canada can move further up the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying standings when it hosts Panama on Wednesday night at BMO Field.
But it won't be easy. The 68th-ranked Canaleros currently sit third in the so-called Octagonal round-robin with eight points from five matches (2-1-2).
The 51st-ranked Canadian men (1-0-4) are one point behind.
Canada coach John Herdman sees Wednesday's matchup as a key step on his team's 14-game road in the final round of qualifying in North and Central America and the Caribbean.
"If there's any game we've got to win to really set the tone, it's this one," he said after training at the lakeshore stadium. "I feel like this is a six-point match given where the standings are but, more importantly, where I think Panama are going to be at the end of this journey. I think these are one of the genuine threats to a top-three place."
Come March, the top three teams will book their ticket to Qatar 2022 while the fourth-place finisher takes part in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.
Panama has essentially stuck to the same starting lineup in its five qualifying matches to date — a physical, battle-hardened side looking to return to the World Cup after making its debut at the sport's showcase in 2018.
"They're a good team … They've got that veteran experience, you can see that in every game," said Herdman. "They're just a team that can manage games very well."
Herdman pointed to Panama's 1-1 draw with Mexico on Sept. 8, when the ninth-ranked Mexicans needed a 76th-minute strike from Jesus Corona to salvage a point on the road.
"You just see how committed and connected that group is … They're a team that well deserve their position in the table," Herdman said.
Panama is captained by Nashville SC midfielder Anibal Godoy, a 31-year-old who has won more than 100 caps for his country.
"He's got the nickname 'El Samurai' and it's for a reason," said Canadian defender Alistair Johnston, a teammate of Godoy at Nashville. "He's strong to the challenge, just super-competitive, one of those guys who's just a winner and a leader all-round. He's been great on my Nashville locker-room."
"He's great at being able to draw fouls and just dominate in midfield," he added. "He really knows how to win games in CONCACAF … We know how big of a game it's going to be and one of our keys is going to have to be shut him down and shut down their midfield."
Panama is coming off a 1-0 win over the U.S. on Sunday in Panama City, just its second victory over the Americans in 24 meetings (2-16-6) and first in World Cup qualifying play (1-6-2).
It has also registered home ties with Costa Rica (0-0) and Mexico (1-1). On the road, it won 3-0 at Jamaica and lost 1-0 at El Salvador. Panama used the same starting lineup in its first three qualifiers and nine of the 11 who started the loss at El Salvador were on the field against the Americans.
Ninth-ranked Mexico, at 3-0-2 the only other unbeaten team aside from Canada, currently tops the standings with 11 points. The U.S. (2-1-2) is second on goal difference with eight points.
Mexico plays at No. 65 El Salvador (1-2-2) on Wednesday while the U.S. hosts No. 44 Costa Rica (1-1-3) in Columbus and No. 59 Jamaica (0-3-2) plays at No. 63 Honduras (0-2-3).
The Canadians have taken four of a possible six points so far at home. They've done the job on the road, picking up points through draws, but know they need to maximize their production on home soil.
Herdman says his group is glad to be back in Canada, with some able to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families on Monday.
"So we're in a good space," he said. "I wouldn't say we're comfortable because I never create an environment where anyone can be comfortable. But emotionally and mentally we feel safe and we're at home."
BMO Field will be at full capacity on Wednesday, with local authorities easing pandemic-related restrictions. Canada Soccer, saying there were fewer than 2,000 tickets left as of Tuesday, expects a crowd of more than 26,000 -- which would be the largest at the stadium since the pandemic struck.
"This could be a really good night for us," said Herdman. "I think the fans will tip us over the edge."
Canada opened the final round of qualifying with a 1-1 home tie with Honduras before tying the U.S. 1-1 in Nashville and blanking El Salvador 3-0 at BMO Field. In the current international window, it drew 1-1 in Mexico and 0-0 in Jamaica.
Captain Atiba Hutchinson and forwards Cyle Larin and Lucas Cavallini remain out injured and goalkeeper Milan Borjan is recovering from COVID-19. Herdman is also without veteran Junior Hoilett, who has returned to his Reading club in England after suffering a hamstring injury ahead of the Jamaica game.
But Richie Laryea, Tajon Buchanan and Steven Vitoria are eligible to play after missing the Jamaica game through suspension for yellow-card accumulation. And influential midfielder Stephen Eustaquio should also be fresh after seeing just 31 minutes off the bench Sunday in Jamaica.
Herdman said his team needed to be more "ruthless" in the scoreless tie with Jamaica and pointed the finger at himself, saying he made his substitutions too late.
Like Canada and El Salvador, Panama made it to the final round of qualifying the hard way. In the first round, it won all four games with a 19-1 edge in goals in a group that consisted of the 157th-ranked Dominican Republic, No. 162 Barbados, No. 183 Dominica and No. 209 Anguilla. It then ousted No. 79 Curacao 2-1 on aggregate in the second round.
Mexico, the U.S., Costa Rica, Jamaica and Honduras all received byes to the final round of qualifying.
Canada is 3-1-6 in international 'A' matches against Panama since 1996. The Canadian men are 3-1-2 in World Cup qualifiers between the two (1996, 2000 and 2012).
The teams last met in November 2014 in Panama City where 10-man Panama played Canada to a 0-0 draw. The Canadians are winless in the last three meetings (0-1-2) since a 1-0 victory at BMO Field in September 2012.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 12, 2021