It’s a long way from those Saturday mornings at Windsor Park in front of a handful of parents.
Bays United products Adam Straith and Simon Thomas will be part of history Friday night (7 p.m. on TSN 2) when they take to the pitch at B.C. Place before what is anticipated to be the largest crowd to watch a Canadian team play soccer.
More than 55,000 fans are expected as Canada (1-0-1), with defender-midfielder Straith and goalkeeper Thomas part of the 23-player roster, meets regional-power Mexico (2-0) in a crucial fourth-round CONCACAF World Cup qualifying game for Russia 2018.
It will be personal for more than 500 of those fans, supporters from Straith’s and Thomas’s old Bays United club, among the several thousand expected to cross the strait from the Island for the game.
With ticket sales exceeding 53,500 as of Thursday afternoon, the throng is expected to surpass the previous record for Canadian soccer, when 54,027 came out to B.C. Place last summer for the 2015 FIFA women’s World Cup quarter-final between Canada and England.
“As the week has progressed, we’ve seen the excitement grow,” Straith said.
“It’s noticeable this has turned into what will most likely be the biggest event our sport has hosted in Canada. The boys are focused, but at the same time, relaxed. We cannot wait for the game to start. We have a number of players who have played big games like this before for their [overseas] clubs. But to have something like this happen in our own country is something we have been working toward for years. It’s massive for us.”
Straith and Thomas, also Lower Island Metro graduates, are both 25-year-olds from Oak Bay who play pro soccer in Norway. Straith has become a stout defender in which head coach Benito Floro has great faith. The Islander is the only player who has played every minute of 2018 World Cup qualifying for Canada through six games and will likely earn his 34th cap tonight.
“We all know how tough of a game it will be against Mexico. But we will also try to make it difficult for them, too,” Straith said.
“We are the home team with the home support, so we would obviously like to dictate spells of the game and try to put them on the back foot whenever possible. At this level, it usually turns out to be a very tight game. These are almost always decided by one or two key moments. So we will have to be well-concentrated defensively for 90-plus minutes. And when we get our chances, we will have to put them away.”
Thomas, a Norwegian Premiership pro with Bodo/Glimt, was dressed in reserve along with Kenny Stamatopoulos, behind Canadian starting goalkeeper Milan Borjan, for the last two World Cup qualifying games against Honduras and El Salvador. The six-foot-three Islander is likely to see bench duty again tonight. Being named to the roster by Floro automatically ranks Thomas among the top three goalkeepers in Canada.
World No. 87 Canada is second in Group A with four points. World No. 22 Mexico is on the full six points after its first two games. Canada will need to make the most of B.C. Place tonight because what awaits is the return leg Tuesday in the howling cauldron of 95,000-seat Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.
Canada opened fourth-round qualifying play last November with a 1-0 win against Honduras at B.C. Place followed by a scoreless draw in El Salvador. Canada closes the round with an away fixture at No. 89 Honduras (currently 0-2 for zero points) on Sept. 2. That will be followed by a home game against No. 99 El Salvador (0-1-1 for one point) on Sept. 6, likely at either B.C. Place or BMO Stadium in Toronto.
The top two teams in the Mexico, Canada, Honduras and El Salvador group will advance to next year’s six-team final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, from which the top three will advance to Russia 2018. The fourth-place CONCACAF finisher will play Asia No. 5 for a wildcard berth.
Canada has not qualified for the Word Cup since 1986, when Island players Ian Bridge, Jamie Lowery and George Pakos played and veteran UVic Vikes coach Bruce Wilson captained.
It has been a three-decade weight to carry, and that’s why it’s all hands on deck tonight for what could be a breakthrough for Canada.
“This is probably the strongest group of players that have been called in since I’ve been a part of the national team,” Straith said.
“It’s encouraging to see everyone available for selection and I think the coach was able to bring in everyone that he wanted, which is something that is often rare in international football.”