With seven points after the first three games in Group C of World Cup qualifying, Canada finds itself in the driver's seat for the first time in years.A brilliant piece of playmaking by Atiba Hutchinson on Friday night did more than just give Canada a massive 1-0 victory over Panama.
It put the Canadians in the driver's seat.
For the first time in recent memory, the Canadian men's national team is in the rare position of controlling its own fate in World Cup qualifying, thanks in large part to a stingy defence that has yet to allow a goal in the current round of competition. That inpenetrable back line has combined with a very un-Canadian sense of opportunism to give Stephen Hart's side two wins and a draw halfway through this phase of CONCACAF's marathon qualification process, something that even the most optimistic of supporters will surely be happy with.
Heading into the final three games of the semifinal round, Canada realistically only needs four more points to book a spot in the Hexagonal for the first time in 16 years. And with a home match against group doormat Cuba still to come, it looks very promising for a Canadian side that has grown in confidence with each passing game.
Not everything is rosy, however. The Canadians still struggle with scoring, an habitual problem for the national side that will need to be remedied sooner than later. And with away fixtures looming in Panama and Honduras, the feelgood aura currently surrounding the team could evaporate faster than a player from either of those Central American sides hits the pitch on minimal contact.
The two remaining away games will raise the intensity to the highest levels Canada has seen so far in this cycle. With due respect to the growing throng of passionate support that has taken hold at BMO Field - and it is excellent to see an overwhelmingly Canadian crowd reliably behind Canada for the first time in, well, ever - the game completely changes when the setting shifts to the likes of San Pedro Sula or Panama City.
Canada will face all sorts of adversity in those two away matches, but thanks to having taken care of business in the first half of this round, it's expected that - in conjunction with an assumed win over the Cubans in Toronto - only a single point is needed to assure advancement into the final stage of qualification.
Just being in this position is a departure from the norm, with Canada exiting in the second or third rounds in every qualifying cycle since its lone appearance in the World Cup back in 1986. In fact, the Canadians were elminated from qualification for Italia '90 after just two games.
Hardly a good follow-up to the greatest achievement in the domestic history of the sport.
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It is this dreary history that makes the current incarnation of the national team so interesting. A tactically smart team that plays to its strengths, Hart has his troops fighting for every loose ball and giving the opposition very little time to play its own game.
Sure, sometimes it's not the prettiest of soccer. This is still Canada after all.
But to see the Canadians beating other CONCACAF nations at their own game - whether it's through subtle time-wasting tactics like back-up 'keeper Kenny Stamatopoulos hiding an errant ball from an opponent to delay a throw-in, or others taking just a little bit longer to get up from a challenge - is a breath of fresh air when compared to the old 'nice' Canada that always played hard, fair, naive, and, frankly, not well enough.
It's a shift in mentality that has, along with some other factors, allowed Canada to compete. With that ability to compete has come some tangible momentum, which is to be expected for a team that is unbeaten in nine games so far in the campaign.
There's still much work to be done, and even if they get to the Hex, it's still just a shot at a place in the World Cup, but the mere fact that the Canadians have put themselves in this position is a step in the right direction, and one that few thought possible just a short time ago.
Rudi Schuller is the Chief Editor of Goal.com Canada.