The next 10 days will be among the most important in the history of Canada's national men's soccer team.
Currently third in their World Cup qualification group, they need to move up at least one place if they're to have any hope of making the 2014 event in Brazil. Matches at home to Cuba on Friday and away to Honduras on Oct. 16 will determine their fate, and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to suggest they need to take four points from the pair of them.
Of course, progression from their bracket would only see Canada book a place in the final qualification round -- a six-team mini-tournament known as the "Hex" that will send three sides to the World Cup and a fourth into a playoff with a team from Oceania -- but at this point anything less would only reinforce the suggestion that, in a country where soccer is played more than any other sport and where its women's team is an international force, the men's side continues to be a laggard.
The chances of changing that perception were always going to be difficult given the quality of Canada's opposition in competitive Group C, but injuries to key players have also conspired against manager Stephen Hart and his squad, who against Cuba in Toronto will be without all-time top goal scorer Dwayne De Rosario (knee) and energetic winger Josh Simpson (broken leg). Striker Olivier Occean, who wears the number-nine shirt for both Canada and Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt, may also miss out after struggling to overcome persistent hamstring problems.
Canada should be able to cope against Cuba, but their final group match against Honduras in San Pedro Sula is another matter entirely.
Notoriously poor travellers, Canada have won just one of their last 12 matches in Central America (a streak that goes all the way back to 1996) and have only once taken all three points back North from Honduras -- in 1985 when George Pakos scored the only goal in Tegucigalpa.
To say the Canadians are up against it would be a considerable understatement, but that's nothing new for an outfit that has only one World Cup appearance to its name. Canada are used to being in this position in the crucial stages of qualification, and while neither history nor fortune is on their side they will still progress to the Hex if they can manage to beat what's in front of them over the next week and a half.
Three points from the Cuba match at BMO Field should be money in the bank for Canada, and quite frankly if they can't beat the Cubans--who have yet to both win a match and score a goal in Group C play--they don't deserve to move on to the next round, anyway.
It's against Honduras that Canada will make its stand.
Fresh off an impressive Olympic campaign and currently second in the bracket, La Bicolor will face first-place Panama on Wednesday before the final showdown with Canada four days later. Hart & Co. would love for Panama to at least take a point off Honduras in Panama City as a Honduras win would require Canada to win outright in San Pedro Sula, the chances of which would be negligible. Either a win or draw for Panama would be a massive help to The Canucks, who would then only need to pick up a draw on the final day.
A difficult assignment, sure, but hardly an impossible one.
Prior to last month's 2-0 defeat in Panama the Canadians had kept 11 clean sheets from their previous 12 matches and had created something of an identity in their collective commitment to defence. The back four of David Edgar, Kevin McKenna, Andre Hainault and Ante Jazic had developed a good understanding and Julian de Guzman had provided a reliable shield in front them.
Any success Canada have over the next 10 days will be built from the defence out, because goodness knows this isn't a side that has a lot of goals in it. And that should make for nervous watching. But then again, what would watching Canada be if not a nerve-racking experience?
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @peterssoccer