MF Will Johnson soccer

MF Will Johnson

By Jim Wilkie

Special to ISN

VANCOUVER — Canadian soccer history will be made Friday at BC Place.

With more than 54,000 tickets sold, the CONCACAF World Cup qualifier between Canada and Mexico will have the highest attendance of any men’s national team match on Canadian soil.

Now it’s up to the squad to deliver results with more Canadian soccer fans and some media starting to give it the attention “the beautiful game” deserves.

“It’s been a number of years now where you’ve seen the potential a following we could have,” Canada midfielder-defender Adam Straith said. “And this could really be the game where if we have a successful result it could tip over in the right direction the way we’ve been fighting for years as players.

“But that following doesn’t just get handed to you in this country, unfortunately, you have to earn it more than probably a lot of other countries in the world, where they have an automatic football following.

Years of ups and mostly downs are well-documented and resulted in national indifference toward the men’s national team, especially after it crashed out of qualifying for the last World Cup with a humiliating 8-1 loss in 2012 in Honduras.

But the pendulum started to swing the other way after Benito Floro was hired as coach in 2013. Canada is 7-8-10 with Floro took over and brought a defensive structure and pride to the program.

“He got all the guys together to play as a team, not individually,” said Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan. “When we come here we’re Canada, we’re not Milan Borjan or Julian de Guzman or somebody else. It’s Canada, we play for our country, so it’s a team. And that’s what’s most important when we come out on Friday to play as a team as we try to win.”

Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan

Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan

Canada fell to 122nd in FIFA’s rankings in October 2014 and has climbed back to 87th. Veteran midfielder Tosaint Ricketts, who has been capped 47 times, said this week’s training camp has been going well and everyone has been in good spirits in a good environment.

Ricketts, 28, said it’s a dream and an honour to have the opportunity to play in an important match before such a big crowd at home.

“The program has come a long way, and some of the guys have been through the ups, the downs, the hard times, times when we’ve had little support,” Ricketts, an Edmonton native, said. “And now that we’re getting all the support it seems like everyone’s ready for it. I’m confident in the players, and I’m so happy to be Canadian at this moment. To get a full house it’s a dream come true for a Canadian kid.”

The timing of such an important international game has fallen into place quite nicely. MLS and NASL franchises in major cities have given fans a higher-level pro game, and Canadian soccer has continued the momentum from serving as host of last year’s successful women’s World Cup.

This is a big deal, even if the broadcast rights-holder decided to air Friday’s 7 p.m. PT soccer match on TSN2 while women’s curling is shown on TSN1. Curiously, Bell owns TSN and is a major sponsor of Canada Soccer.

Out of 158 members of the media issued credentials for the match, 38 of them were from Mexico, said Canada Soccer public relations manager Carrie Croft.

Meanwhile, none of Canada’s NHL teams have a realistic shot of making the Stanley Cup playoffs. So Les Rouges will certainly be a more exciting lead story overnight on the sports networks if they can get a positive result in front of a loud, maple leaf-waving, red-clad crowd.

“If we win it will be very good for the Canadian program because it means we are improving a lot,” Borjan, 28, said. “Even if we lose or tie, this team proved a lot in the last couple of years with Benito as the coach here. We have a lot of discipline and everything, we play good defensively, we’re missing a little bit offensively but … I think with this win, hopefully on Friday we’re going to make a huge step towards Russia (World Cup 2018).”

A lack of goals has haunted Canada for years, and it figures to be the primary obstacle in reaching the World Cup Finals for the first time since 1986.

Canada hasn’t scored in two games since Nov. 13 when Will Johnson’s header bounced off Cyle Larin’s back in the first half of a 1-0 victory over Honduras in its first match of this group play. They’ve allowed only one goal in two games since (0-0 vs. El Salvador and 1-0 loss to the United States), but Mexico presents a big step up in quality.

“We’ve been very organized in the past,” said Canada’s star midfielder Atiba Hutchinson. “We want to go out there with the same attitude, not really concede any goals, and hopefully we’re strong in the attack. You know you have to be smart. Obviously, they’re a team that can hurt you in their attack, they have a lot of skillful and technical players so I think we’ll be ready for it, but we’re going to have to look for getting goals also.”

Larin, the 2015 MLS Rookie of the Year who set a league record with 17 goals in his first season in the league, has picked up where he left off with goals in each of Orlando City’s first three games this season.

The big striker from Brampton, Ontario, has drawn praise from Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio and he is expecting a physical battle Friday. Larin, 20, has four goals in 15 matches for Canada.

“He gives us something different, a reliable presence,” Johnson said about Larin. “He fights, he works hard, he can score goals. He gives us a steady No. 9 that we haven’t had in a while. We’ve rotated guys in and out of that position. We’ve tried to play various types of attacking players in that position, and now we have a steady player that you know exactly what you’re going to get from, which is a high quality centre-forward.”

Larin said he doesn’t feel any added pressure to be the goal-scorer. On the contrary, he said he’s motivated to get in a rhythm and continue scoring in international play.

“We have quality players on this national team, very talented players to get me the ball in service. Anyone can get me the ball and I can score, or I can do it by myself,” Larin said.

Canada is 3-16-7 all time against Mexico and two of those victories happened in B.C. In1990 in Burnaby, B.C. (2-1) and 1976 in Vancouver (1-0). Canada has also had draws in the past three home games against Mexico.

A victory could be even more historical than the final attendance figures. Three points would allow Canada (now at 4 points on a win and a draw) to take a one-point lead over Mexico (6 points on two victories) atop Group A before they meet again Tuesday in Mexico City.

“I think we see it more of an opportunity to get points in a group that we’re trying to get out of,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to establish ourselves as one of the better teams in CONCACAF for sure but for me it’s one game to start on Friday and it’s an opportunity to get points to move ourselves towards a big goal, which is to get out of this group.”

It’s a near certainty Mexico will earn one of the first two spots that advance to the next round, so Canada needs to create as much of a gap as possible between it and El Salvador (1 point on a draw with Canada) and Honduras (0 points on two losses).

“Yes, the team is ready to fight a lot because with the support it is not another way to do things,” Floro said. “We need to develop the best play, to expend a lot of energy to try to win the game because it’s the best way to say thank you to our supporters.”

It’s possible the crowd will surpass the largest crowd for a Canadian national team in any sport (54,027 for the Canadian women’s team vs. England during the 2015 World Cup).

BC Place brings other possible help to the home team because of artificial turf and a retractable roof that will be open if the weather cooperates (game-time temperatures are forecast to be around 8 degrees). Mexico will have a good number of vocal supporters in attendance, but the response and actions of the home fans can help make a difference, Straith said.

“If we go down to some of these countries the hardest part is the atmosphere. A lot of the challenge is before the game even starts, the moment you arrive at the stadium the kind of uphill battle you have,” Straith, 25, said. “And that’s something we want Mexico to experience. We want them to feel uncomfortable every time they might make a mistake because we want at least close to 50,000 people on their back whenever they make a mistake. So we’re going to need that help. It’s going to need a good performance from us but we’re going to need all the fans we have.

Johnson, 29, said it doesn’t matter to him how the breakdown of fans ends up. But his message to Canadian fans is to go and give everything to out-cheer the Mexican fans.

“We’re going to do everything we can on the field to put on a performance that this country’s proud of,” said Johnson, who has 39 international appearances for Canada. “This is a game and an event that hasn’t happened here in a long time and this is so meaningful to us so I hope the people who are coming out understand how meaningful it is and the impact that they can have on the play on the field.”