Canada kicks off a crucial stretch of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying this weekend with the first of what could be four games in 11 days.
At stake is a chance for the Canadian men, currently ranked 70th in the world and seventh in CONCACAF, to reach the final round of qualifying in the region for the first time since 1996-97.
"It's massive," said midfielder Samuel Piette.
"Big games are coming. We know how important these games are," he added. "We know there's no margin for error now in this road to qualify for the World Cup."
After dispatching No. 168 Bermuda 5-1 and the 194th-ranked Cayman Islands 11-0 in late March, Canada (2-0-0) leads No. 136 Suriname (2-0-0) on goal difference in Group B in the first round of qualifying in North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Canada takes on No. 205 Aruba (0-2-0) on Saturday at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., before completing first-round play against Suriname on June 8 at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Ill.
Both games were shifted to the U.S. due to pandemic-related travel restrictions. The Suriname match is officially a Canadian home game.
Canada has not qualified for the final qualifying round since 1996-97 ahead of the 1998 World Cup in France. The Canadians finished sixth and last in that final round with a 1-6-3 record.
In October 2012, Canada had a chance to advance to the final round with a win or draw in Honduras. But the Canadians exited after a humbling 8-1 loss in San Pedro Sula — Canada's worst defeat since an 8-0 drubbing in Mexico in 1993.
The Canadian men have only qualified for the World Cup once, in 1986 in Mexico where they failed to score a goal or secure a point in losses to France, Hungary and the Soviet Union.
The Suriname game will likely decide the Group B winner — the only team in the group that will move onto the second round of qualifying.
Canada currently has a plus-six edge in goal difference over Suriname. Unless that gap changes radically in the next round of matches — Suriname hosts Bermuda on Friday — the Canadian men could advance with a draw or win against Suriname.
The Suriname team has improved immensely with the advent of so-called sports passports, that allow players with Suriname roots to represent the country without giving up their existing citizenship, usually Dutch.
Canada has never played Aruba before at this level. The Canadian men beat Suriname 2-1 in their only previous international "A” level meeting, a 1977 World Cup qualifier.
"Obviously we have that second round in mind but we're just focused on the first two games," Piette told a virtual news conference from the Canadian team training camp in Orlando.
With 51 caps, the CF Montreal midfielder is the veteran of the group, along with Red Star Belgrade goalkeeper Milan Borjan (50 caps). But the Canadian roster is filled with young talent that has experience at the highest club level with the likes of Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich, Germany), Jonathan David (Lille, France) and Cyle Larin (Besiktas, Turkey).
The Group B winner moves on to face the top team in Group E — likely No. 83 Haiti, No. 147 Nicaragua or No. 170 Belize in a home-and-away playoff June 12 and 15 to determine who advances to the eight-team final qualifying round.
The winners of the three second-round playoffs join five other higher-ranked teams in the final round, which will see the teams play each home and on the road. Mexico (No. 11), the U.S. (No. 20), Jamaica (No. 45), Costa Rica (No. 50) and Honduras (No. 67) received byes directly to the so-called Octagonal.
The top three teams will qualify for Qatar 2022. The fourth-place finisher will take part in an intercontinental home-and-away playoff to see who joins them.
"I think we're just getting started," said Piette. "Things are exciting for the future."
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press