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  • Friday, July 21, 2000

    Canada needs a win to escape soccer hole

    By NEIL DAVIDSON -- The Canadian Press

     Canada badly needs a win Sunday if it wants to get back on track on the road to the 2002 World Cup of soccer in Japan and South Korea.

     The Canadians dug themselves a hole last Sunday in a 2-0 home loss to Trinidad and Tobago, the team expected to be Canada's main rival to advance from CONCACAF's Group C alongside favourite Mexico to the final round of qualifying.

     The loss squandered three previous points, and securing points at home is the key in World Cup qualifying.

     "It doesn't take a genius to say if we win our three (games) at home we go through," U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena said this week.

     There is little room for error in the six-game semifinal round of qualifying in CONCACAF. A loss or tie Sunday in Panama (CTV Sportsnet, 4 p.m. EDT on tape delay) and Canada will have to scramble for points -- after Sunday, there are just 12 points available with four games left and two of those contests are against Mexico and a third away to Trinidad and Tobago.

     Canada's failure in the final round of qualifying for France 98 was largely due to its inability to win at home. Canada, with a 1-1-3 mark, managed just six of a possible 15 points on home turf while losing all five games on the road.

     The Mexicans, Americans and Jamaicans were each 3-0-2 at home in the final round of France 98 qualifying.

     Of course, Mexico is 43-0-3 in its last 46 qualifying games at home.

     The need to win on home turf is obvious.

     Away games can be a descent into soccer hell in CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.

     Fans are hostile, the weather is hot and the pitch is usually bumpy. Even the hotel can be an adventure.

     "I'm finding they're very few rules when you go on the road, both on the field and off," said Arena, whose team tied 1-1 in an obscure Guatemalan town last week and plays at Costa Rica in a Group E match on Sunday.

     Canada, and coach Holger Osieck, hit the qualifying road saddled with unnaturally high expectations and a popgun offence.

     The Gold Cup success was a marvellous surprise but the soccer gods were definitely smiling on Holger's Heroes in California. Canada benefited from a coin toss win to get out of its round-robin group, a sloppy overconfident Mexican opponent, a sluggish Colombia side, rainy conditions that did not suit their opponents and some sensational goalkeeping from Craig Forrest.

     The Trinidad and Tobago player who asked Canadian captain Jason deVos last weekend how Canada won the Gold Cup wasn't the only observer wondering how it happened.

     The cracks in Canada's offence are also showing. In Winnipeg against Cuba, a team of modest talent, the Canadians squandered one opportunity after another.

     Good teams convert their chances. Last Sunday, Trinidad and Tobago made good on both of theirs. The Canadians shot wide, high, straight at the goalie or got in each other's way.

     "All it all it was not too bad but when we don't finish it off up front, what can you expect?" asked Osieck.

     Osieck has proved to be the real deal since taking over as coach, but he only has so much to work with. Plus he has had relatively little time to rebuild the squad. While he has done a masterful job of working in the likes of Jason Bent, Marc Bircham, Jim Brennan, Jeff Clarke, Tony Menezes, Martin Nash, Paul Stalteri and Davide Xausa, these are young players still finding their way at the club and international level.

     While Canada's defence is sound and goalkeeping strong, there is no playmaker in the midfield although Nash is beginning to show signs of real creativity.

     Canada's strike force of Paul Peschisolido and Carlo Corazzin played in the English First and Third Division, respectively, last season. Reserve Dwayne DeRosario is a good A-League striker.

     Osieck does not plan any changes to his forwards or his formation.

     "I don't have many options and I have to have confidence in the players that are available," Osieck said. "What I have done so far (this week) is try very hard to establish some kind of confidence.

     "We have worked a lot on shooting, on crosses, on finishing. I hope it will pay off Sunday."

     The players believe in Osieck and buy into his system. As a coach, he is tough but fair and runs a tight, professional ship.

     Panama was seen as the weak sister in Canada's group but it gave Mexico all it can handle last weekend. The Mexicans, who have disappointed of late, needed an 86th-minute goal to secure the win and by all reports benefited from some poor Panamanian finishing in the first half.

     Canada is by no means finished. But early in this round of World Cup qualifying, reality has set in.

     The honeymoon is over.



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