Monday, March 18, 2013

Canada's friendly week

With the benefit of a snow day (in March; in Manitoba that's actually a thing) I can expand upon my roster post from yesterday in relation to this week's national team friendlies against Japan (Friday, the 22nd) and Belarus (next Monday, the 25th).

Now Canadian soccer fans can be forgiven for their ignorance of -- or indifference to -- these matches. The men's national team does not have any competitive matches scheduled until this summer's Gold Cup (of which more later) and is still relatively fresh off the Honduras disaster. These are not home friendlies. Heck, they're not even away friendlies. They are neutral site matches being held in Doha, Qatar, including one at a ground with the unlikely name of Aspire Dome. 

And Canadian fans can also be forgiven or giving attention, instead, to the beginning of the domestic season where both Montreal and Vancouver have begun the year with 100% records and Toronto, by virtue of a home win and being competitive in three consecutive matches, are hotter than they've been in nearly a year.

But there is much that is newsworthy and possibly even to be encouraged by regarding these matches.

Canada is playing two friendlies!

That Canada is playing these matches at all is heartening. After booking two matches in late January (loss to Denmark, draw with USA), a match window during which Canada has typically played only one, the CSA has also managed to double-down in March by adding the date with Belarus. These are two strong (or strong-ish, in the case of Belarus) opponents, with Japan using the match as preparation for a vital upcoming qualifier.

Add to that rumours of a late-May friendly against Costa Rica in Edmonton, and it seems the CSA is living up to its promise to play friendlies as often as possible.

Roster thoughts

Two players will have the opportunity to earn their first Canada caps: Tomer Chencinski, a journeyman backup keeper for Maccabi Tel Aviv who is also eligible to represent Israel, and Stefan Cebara, who has played for Canada at youth levels and is currently plying his trade in Slovenia.

With so many of Canada's better-known players now working in MLS, the roster for a European (or Middle East) friendly is bound to be a blend of veterans and youngsters mostly on the fringes of European teams. Given that they are getting a regular 90-minute shift every week, and there aren't many other midfielders around anyway, it is tough to argue the inclusion of vets Atiba Hutchinson, Julian de Guzman, Pedro Pacheco, and Nik Ledgerwood (who will surely be a regular once his Swedish season kicks off in a week or so).

The forwards, on the other hand, will be looking to stretch their legs a bit. Tosaint Ricketts is only 44 minutes into his Norwegian season, Simeon Jackson hasn't even been in the matchday squad of late for Norwich, and ditto for Randy Edwini-Bonsu and Braunschweig, while I couldn't tell you the first thing about Cebara. Only Marcus Haber, who has 7 goals in 36 appearances for Stevenage, is likely happy with his the role he's been given this season.

The defense, too, mostly rests. Only Dejan Jakovic and Ashtone Morgan, two of three MLS players in the squad, have been regular starters lately (and Morgan may well have lost that job). David Edgar has had a recent appearance in midfield but does not appear to be part of the first-choice central pairing for Burnley. Andre Hainault has only been a late sub since signing for Ross County. Marcel de Jong has been in and out of the first team for Augsburg. Adam Straith has been fighting for minutes in the German 3rd tier.

If you were to take the view that this Canada team might look a little rusty, you could hardly be blamed.

The matches themselves

Don't kid yourself. Canada will lose to Japan, and should be happy with a draw against Belarus. They will struggle to score (the only Canadian forward getting regular minutes anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere these days is, of all people, Rob Friend). But new interim boss Tony Fonseca should be able to get a good look at a few guys, like Edwini-Bonsu, Kyle Bekker, Haber and even potential new No 1 Milan Borjan. This is a useful exercise, despite its seeming futility.

A torch passed?

I am glad to have Chencinski in camp, if only to get a better look at what he can offer. At his age, and not able to get starter's minutes, it is unlikely he'll play a big role for Canada, but it is better if no stone is left unturned. At the other end of things, the absence of Lars Hirschfeld could signal a changing of the guard in goal. Hirschfeld is available and has begun his season, though at Valerenga, too, he has been supplanted as first-choice man.

Watching the matches

Illegal streams aside, there is no word as yet of any way to watch Canada-Belarus. Sportsnet will be streaming the Japan friendly to its website on Friday at 12 et / 9 pt. This is a good thing.

Tale of the tape

CANADA
FIFA ranking: 68
Last 3 results: 0-0 draw with USA, 4-0 loss to Denmark, 8-1 loss to Honduras (CONCACAF WCQ)


JAPAN
FIFA ranking: 26
Last 3 results: 3-1 win vs Latvia, 2-1 win over Oman (AFC WCQ), 0-4 loss to Brazil


BELARUS
FIFA ranking: 62
Last 3 results: 1-1 draw with Hungary, 2-1 win over Israel, 2-0 win over Georgia (UEFA WCQ)

Predictions

There really is nothing to be gained by being too hopeful for results here. A reasonable outcome would be a loss and a draw; more likely is two losses.

Canada 0 : 3 Japan
Canada 1 : 2 Belarus

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