“I think we have a great chance to make it to the World Cup,” said Canada’s captain and inspirational leader Dwayne De Rosario, fresh from a 7-0 mauling of the home side in tiny St. Lucia, before half-laughing: “But I’ve said that before and I don’t want to eat my words again.”
The Canadians, whose only previous appearance at world football’s biggest showpiece came with a winless and goalless showing at Mexico 1986, are flying high in the early qualifying rounds for Brazil 2014. Led by a phalanx of senior players brimming with experience, like De Rosario himself, the midfield steel of Julian De Guzman and PSV’s versatile (though currently injured) Atiba Hutchinson, the Canucks are a better-balanced team than the all-graft-and-grit outfits of recent years.
“We’re playing a kind of soccer that is suited to our abilities now,” said De Rosario, 33, who has won four MLS titles in a roving club career. “We have an interesting blend of youth and experience in the team and it’s taking us to the next level,” he added, giving a nod to the next generation of Canadian players like free-scoring sensation Simeon Jackson.
Those who follow Major League Soccer already know that De Rosario is that rare combination of snarling competitor, clever creator and natural athlete. Currently with DC United, his fifth club in the North American top flight, he is tangled with Thierry Henry as the league’s top scorer. Always willing to bleed for the cause, he has rallied a young and inexperienced United side to within a hair’s breadth of reaching the MLS play-offs this season. Coach Ben Olsen brought in the three-time Canadian player of the year this season precisely for his ability to lead by example.
Which is exactly what the so-called D-Ro is doing on the bumpy pitches of the Caribbean at international level. In their three games so far, the Canucks have scored 14 goals while conceding only one in three straight wins. One more victory against Puerto Rico in Toronto on Tuesday night will likely assure the Canadians of a spot in the next round. De Rosario – who is one goal away from becoming Canada's all-time top scorer – falls well short of complaining about having to play in these early stages, while the USA, Mexico and the region’s other big boys get a pass.
“These early games can be a big plus for us,” he added to FIFA.com, quietly worrying about having to leave his young DC United mates at such a crucial time in their season, with four games to go and a play-off berth dangling so precariously in the balance. “We don’t play a lot of friendly games as a national team, so these games get us into a rhythm, give us a chance to work our way into balance and get a feel for playing in tournament play and on the road. We are getting better with every game, so this first round could be a big blessing.
“The World Cup is every soccer player’s dream and you have to put in the work in qualifying if you want to make that dream a reality,” said De Rosario, the St. Lucia wind blowing through the receiver of his mobile phone. This is his third qualifying campaign since making his debut 13 years ago, and all of them have ended prematurely.
On Tuesday, thousands of fans are expected to file into Toronto’s National Stadium, which teeters on the north-western shore of Lake Ontario and is the country’s first soccer-specific stadium. The ground itself, where De Rosario once captained his hometown club FC Toronto, represents a sea change in football in the Great White North, a country most often associated with Ice Hockey. In recent years, Canada has taken a shine to the world’s game. It is something that De Rosario – the son of Guyanese immigrants – is hoping to foster through results, and, just maybe, a place at the FIFA World Cup™ in the summer of 2014.
“There’s a real positive energy up in Canada at the moment,” he said of the notice being given the national team by his fellow countrymen. “It’s pulsing. The fans are paying attention, there’s a real buzz, and we know our role as national team players: when we do well, soccer does well in Canada. We honour this responsibility.”