Gavin Day, The Canadian Press
Monday, September 05, 2011
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Most visitors to Puerto Rico have sun and sand on their minds, but the Canadian men’s soccer team has a much different focus.
Four days after dispatching St. Lucia 4-1 in Toronto, Canada continues its World Cup qualifying campaign Tuesday in the San Juan suburb of Bayamon.
The Canadians are the highest ranked team in the group at 102. St. Kitts, which tied the Puerto Ricans 0-0 in its first group game Friday sits at 122, followed by Puerto Rico (144th) and finally St. Lucia (184th).
Despite the ranking, Canadian head coach Stephen Hart says the Puerto Rico could pose the biggest threat to his team.
«I think if you look at the team, they have about six or seven players that play at one club,» said Hart at the team’s hotel prior to Monday’s training session. «That means the working relationships are very good.»
Despite Canada’s clear talent advantage, the heat could be a great equalizer Tuesday.
Temperatures have been pushing 40 C with the humidity and there is little respite in the evenings.
«It was almost 30 degrees (Sunday) night at nine o’clock at night,» said Hart. «We have to be sensible about possession when we go forward and how many numbers we throw forward. We’ve got to manage the game much better than we did in the first game.»
Despite the differences in climate, there are some similarities in how soccer is viewed in the two countries. Much like in Canada, soccer is the sport with the most participation Puerto Rico.
And just as hockey dominates the spotlight in Canada, in Puerto Rico, soccer lags behind baseball, volleyball and basketball.
It’s likely more of the island’s sports fans will paying attention earlier in the day Tuesday when the Puerto Rican basketball team plays Canada at the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament.
Despite the lack of attention, Puerto Rican soccer has been developing over the past few years. The Puerto Rico Islanders of the North American Soccer League, the same league as the Montreal Impact and Edmonton FC, includes many national team members and is a regular participant in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Other Puerto Rican teams have been playing in the U.S. professional soccer hierarchy and the fledgling domestic league is expected to expand, allowing for the creation of a promotion and relegation system as the league grows from one to two divisions. With a population of close to four million, there is also growing talent pool to draw from.
«They have sort of a wide base to choose from, not just from the island but they have a huge population in the United States and players developing there,» said Hart. «They don’t have the opportunity to play for the U.S. so they’ll opt to play for Puerto Rico. I think they’re progressing quite well.»
Hart also points to the appointment of Costa Rican Jeaustin Campos Madriz as the national team coach as a sign of growth. He led Costa Rican club side Deportivo Saprissa to a third place finish at the FIFA World Club Championship in 2005.
«They have a new coach from Costa Rica. He’s going to bring a sort of different dimension to the way they play so I anticipate it would be one of the tougher opponents in the group,» Hart added.
Elsewhere in the group Tuesday, St. Lucia hosts St. Kitts and Nevis. Canada leads the group with three points from their one game, followed by St. Kitts and Puerto Rico with one point a piece.
The group winner advances to the third qualifying round, which get underway starts next year.
© The Canadian Press, 2011