Canada squanders chance to take stranglehold on World Cup qualifying

The nightmare scenario didn’t develop. Honduran fans did not wrench home-field advantage away from Canadian fans at BMO Field, and while their desperate team came equipped with its usual bag of referee-baiting tricks, it wasn’t enough to grab a needed three points in qualifying for Brazil 2014.

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But the fact that the glass half-empty crew from inside the Canadian dressing room – not the media or the fans – carried the day in post-match analysis was telling. Ten, 11 or 12 points to move on? Doesn’t matter. Tuesday’s scoreless draw at BMO Field was three points kissed or, more precisely, headed away.

Panama, which surprised Honduras 2-0 in their first qualifying match, is next up for Canada at BMO when qualifying resumes on Sept. 7 and Canada, 1-0 winners in its first match in Cuba, still must play in Honduras and Panama in order to be one of the teams to advance to the next stage of qualifying out of this group of four. “I’m not happy with this point,” said head coach Stephen Hart, who in an in interview with Sportsnet immediately following the match called Canada’s tendency to choke inside the other teams area “a repeating story …. Ground Hog Day.”

Canada had plenty of chances to win this match – two alone in added time – but failed to finish. Again. That included the final kick of the ball in this affair before 16,132: Will Johnson’s free kick deflecting wide off the head of Simeon Jackson, who is good enough to log significant minutes playing for Norwich City in the Premiership but in Canada’s biggest home match in years can’t come on until the last five minutes. Is Jackson the sure-fire finisher who could single-handedly answer Canada’s shortages? No. But he’s easily one of Hart’s six best players. He is around the ball and that can create set-piece opportunities and, well, let’s just come out and say it: Canada’s not good enough to be that picky.

Four years ago, Honduras – which unlike Canada lives and breathes with its two Premiership-calibre players, Wilson Palacios and Maynor Figueroa – beat Canada in a World Cup qualifier in Montreal that was played before a largely pro-Honduras crowd. They were present at BMO on Tuesday night but were more of a factor for their large blue and white flags in the north end than their noise, so much so that Hart was moved to thank the Canadian fans, who were in full voice especially in added time as the Hondurans twisted and turned.

The first half was, to be polite, one of those unevenly officiated affairs that can make CONCACAF seem awfully Mickey Mouse in these days of saturated television coverage of overseas soccer. The Hondurans are masters of playing up to officials – if you don’t think that’s important, you didn’t hear U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann lecture his team on the importance of in-game politics during their recent run of tune-up matches for qualifying – and Canada finished the half with 10 fouls to the Hondurans’ three. Palacios, who plays for Stoke City in the English Premiership, was a particularly nasty piece of work and twice flirted with red cards, once for lashing out at DeRosario and again for a two-footed challenge on Atiba Hutchinson.

The first 45 minutes had all the feel of a match in which somebody would have to spend a fair amount of time playing with 10 men. But it was the victory – as opposed to retribution – that seemed on both teams minds in the second half. Canada had three strong opportunities on set pieces, with David Edgar heading the ball just wide of Honduran goalkeeper Noel Valladares in the 67th minute, and captain Kevin McKenna winning an aerial battle in extra time to get his head on a corner from Johnson, only to see it, too, miss the target.

Canada was lively on the attack at times and Julian de Guzman had another one of those performances that must drive Toronto FC fans off the ledge (were he half the player for club he is for country), as Canada cut down the Hondurans space in midfield, but was once again done in by a lack of finish. “It’s not luck,” forward Oliver Occean said. “It’s quality. This was a disappointing result. We can’t score that one goal.”

The fondest hopes of those within Canada Soccer is that two of the games wayward sons, Junior Hoilett and Jonathan de Guzman, might still see fit to don the country’s colors in lieu of another country’s. De Guzman, who was in attendance at BMO Field wearing a throw-back Canada jersey top, seemed to snuff out that possibility Tuesday night when he told The Score that “as of this point,” he was firm in the commitment he made in 2008 to the Dutch national program. Hoilett might want to seriously consider whether playing for his father’s birth country, Jamaica, really offers much more in the way of international opportunity than hooking up with Canada, since the Jamaican program is no longer one of CONCACAF’s best. Dwayne De Rosario said he thought the Canadians let Honduras off the hook. They did. For once there was a chance for Canada to carve out a rare comfort level for itself, and Hart’s men were not up to it. These lost points will need to be made up on foreign soil, and that’s not usually the Canadian way.

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