Canada headed to Haiti on Friday, looking to minimize its time in Port-au-Prince ahead of Saturday's World Cup qualifier.
The two teams meet again Tuesday in suburban Chicago with the series winner advancing to the final round of qualifying in CONCACAF.
While travel to Haiti is not recommended due to the pandemic and possible civil unrest, footballing authorities gave the green light to stage the first leg of the second-round playoff at Haiti's Stade Sylvio Cator in Port-au-Prince. Haiti has already hosted Belize and Nicaragua in qualifying play.
Canada coach John Herdman said his 70th-ranked his team was "excited" to face No. 83 Haiti.
"We're just focused now on what happens between those white lines," he said in an interview. "Everything else is just noise. We know we've got people in place to keep us safe."
Herdman said while the travelling party had gone through COVID-19 testing ahead of departure, it found another round of testing awaiting in Haiti.
"Which is a surprise," he said. "And honestly a bit of a concern. That was a new thing last night."
"We'll adapt to whatever they throw at us," he added.
Peter Montopoli, general secretary of Canada Soccer, said his organization had had "many discussions" with FIFA about the merits of staging a game in Haiti. Montopoli, noting both FIFA and CONCACAF had been "very co-operative," said Canada Soccer had requested extra security and medical staff plus "experienced staff on the ground."
"What we believe is that we've taken the necessary steps to mitigate as much risk as possible … and done the best job possible with the governing bodies that we're working with," Montopoli said in an interview. "And potentially additional support that we as Canada Soccer see and feel is required for our team
Canada is 7-2-2 all-time against Haiti but lost last time out, blowing a 2-0 lead in a 3-2 loss in the quarterfinals of the 2019 Gold Cup in Houston. Haiti also beat Costa Rica at that tournament and took Mexico to extra time in a 1-0 semifinal loss.
"It showed the strength of that Haitian team and that we have to respect," said Herdman.
"Two years later, we're a stronger unit … We're a more talented team. We're stronger collectively and ready to go," he added.
The Canadians only found out they would be headed to Port-au-Prince on Tuesday in the wake of their 4-0 win over No. 136 Suriname and Haiti's 1-0 victory over No. 147 Nicaragua. The result meant Canada won Group B and Haiti took Group E.
The team is travelling by charter, in part due to that tight time frame.
Herdman calls Haiti his team's toughest opposition to date in qualifying.
"For sure," he said. "I think Suriname were tough in a different way. Suriname had higher quality but Haiti is a real team … They're a connected team. They have a very clear identity and one of those styles that teams don't really want to play against. You have to have the right mindset going into a game against Haiti. They're like that Wimbledon or a Burnley, that sort of direct football. They'll want to create a chaotic game.
"So for us it's pretty clear, It will be a tough match. But (we're) excited. This is what the guys want. They want this test. They want to show they can play against this team in these conditions and heat on a (artificial) turf field, maybe in a bit of a monsoon in Haiti. That's the exciting part, that's the adventure for us to be able to rise up to that challenge."
Defender Scott Kennedy agreed.
"I'm taking it on as an experience,: said the 24-year-old from Calgary, who plays for SSV Jahn Regensburg in the German second tier. "I'm not really sure what to expect. I know it's more of a Third World country but we're there to do a job. We're all professionals. So we'll get in, do that and come back to Chicago and finish the job."
Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies said he believes the necessary steps have been taken to get the team in and out safely.
"We're ready and we're excited for the two legs coming up," he added.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises avoiding travel to Haiti, listing the country in its highest level of COVID-19 warnings.
"Because of the current situation in Haiti, even fully vaccinated travellers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants," it said in its most recent advisory.
Canada Soccer says it has administered some 2,250 COVID tests since January, with just two positive results.
The Canadian government is urging Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel during the pandemic. COVID aside, Ottawa advises against going to Haiti "due to the potential for civil unrest throughout the country."
"The security situation could deteriorate quickly. Kidnappings of Haitians, dual-nationals and foreigners alike has increased in recent months in Port-au-Prince," the government says.
The rematch Tuesday is at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Ill, where the Canadians played Suriname.
The Canada-Haiti winner advances to the final round of qualifying in the region, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean. Two other second-round playoff victors will join them in the so-called Octagonal, along with Mexico, the U.S., Jamaica, Costa Rica and Honduras who had byes to the final round.
The top three teams after the final round-robin book their ticket to Qatar 2022 with the fourth-place finisher advancing to an intercontinental playoff. The Canadian men have not made the final round of CONCACAF qualifying since the lead-up to France '98.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 11, 2021