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The last time Canada reached the men's World Cup, one Canadian goalkeeper playing professionally in Minnesota, Tino Lettieri, started two group games in Mexico.

That was 1986.

Dayne St. Clair — a Canadian goalkeeper now playing professionally with Minnesota United — wouldn't be born for another 11 years.

"Who would have thought it'd be another 36 years?" asked Lettieri, a member of that Canadian team who also played for the Minnesota Kicks.

All this time later, Canada became the first CONCACAF team to qualify for November's World Cup in Qatar with Sunday's 4-0 victory over Jamaica. St. Clair (below) was called to his national team for this qualifying window, seeking Canada's third goalkeeper spot.

Minnesota United goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair

Canada was the only unbeaten squad in its CONCACAF eight-team group before last Thursday's 1-0 loss at Costa Rica. Sunday's clinching win had all of Canada celebrating at Toronto's BMO Field and across the country.

That's some 1,200 miles from where that 1986 team qualified for the first time by beating Honduras 2-1 in the 1985 CONCACAF championship final. By winning, Canada claimed the only qualifying spot among 17 regional teams because World Cup host Mexico automatically took the other.

"That's how tough it was," Lettieri said, "and is."

It was played in Newfoundland — a province Canadians call "The Rock" — of all places.

The U.S. men's national team sought a home advantage this year with some gamesmanship when it scheduled a February World Cup qualifier against Honduras at frigid Allianz Field. It wasn't nearly the first: Canada did something similar decades before to the same opponent by scheduling its nation's biggest game ever on North America's easternmost point.

It was played in King George V Park, a soccer-specific stadium opened in 1925. The capacity is listed at 6,400, but its record crowd listed is 13,000 loud, flag-waving Canadian fans for that wet, chilly September 1985 game.

It was such an obscure destination that some lost Honduran fans watched on television in Saint John, New Brunswick, rather than St. John's, Newfoundland, some 1,000 miles apart and 3,000 miles from home.

"That was our strategy all the way," Lettieri said. "You can't go farther away than Newfoundland."

A league of their own

Back then, Lettieri neared the end of a 10-year pro goalkeeping career in which he played soccer outdoors and indoors for the Kicks and their North American Soccer League rival Vancouver Whitecaps. He was known for his competitiveness and a stuffed parrot he called Ozzie, which he kept in the back of his net — but the bird was banned from that World Cup in Mexico.

Canada qualified for the first time by winning that CONCACAF final. It's a victory never forgotten in Newfoundland and parts of Canada, but mostly lost in the mists of time elsewhere.

"I couldn't tell you much about it at all," St. Clair said. "I wasn't born."

St. Clair wouldn't be born until 1997, in a Toronto suburb.

He has seen the rise of his country on soccer's international stage. It's an ascension partly attributed to Major League Soccer's 1996 birth that helped popularize the game and provided youth academies on both sides of the border, including Canadian cities Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

"If you don't have a league, it's tough to produce players," said Lettieri, who was born in Italy, raised in Montreal and became a Minnesotan for life after he joined the Kicks in 1976. "Those academies and reserve teams feed the growth of the game."

Some of those who have elevated Canadian soccer are sons of parents who, like St. Clair's father, immigrated from Caribbean and African nations to Toronto, Montreal and other eastern cities and from Europe and Africa to Vancouver and western provinces.

In the past 25 years, Canada has developed talented players — Alphonso Davies, Cyle Larin, Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan now among them — who now fetch multimillion-dollar transfer fees to European teams.

"They've got some outstanding young players now who are going to last them for the next eight, 10 years," Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath said.

Meant to be

The closest Canada came to World Cup qualification since then was 1994. That's when Canada came within a tense 2-1 home loss to Mexico from playing in the host country United States.

Loons technical director Mark Watson played on that Canadian team whose players still remembered the World Cup team eight years earlier.

"I was 16 and it was a big deal," Watson said.

That 1986 team qualified two years after the heady days of the North American Soccer League ended when the league folded in 1984. It had filled stadiums when it signed the great Pele and other worldwide stars in the 1970s.

Two years later, some members of that 1986 World Cup team still looked for work. The Boston Globe called Canada's roster "filled with amateurs, indoor soccer players and NASL refugees." It also noted London bookies gave 10-1 odds that Canada wouldn't score a World Cup goal.

It didn't, losing to France, Hungary and the Soviet Union by a combined 5-0. But Lettieri now calls that '86 team "so good" because many of them had been together approaching a decade. Lettieri played for Canada in the 1976 and 1984 Olympics — and alongside such teammates as Bob Lenarduzzi, Randy Ragan and George Pakos in Mexico.

"It was a special moment," Lettieri said. "You knew it was going to happen and everybody wanted it together."

New on the block

Lettieri considers that team ahead of its time, when only such countries as Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, the Netherlands and France dominated the international stage.

"People used to ask me, 'Why don't you play for Italy?'" Lettieri said. "I said, 'Are you kidding me? I can barely make the Canadian team.'"

Canada needed only 36 years to return to the World Cup.

"The game has elevated," he said. "There's so many good players from so many different countries now, playing for clubs all over the world. Women's soccer has been tremendous. Soccer is growing and growing. It's tough to stay on top now. Even Brazil, look at the tough time they've had."

Lettieri, now 64, retired from playing in 1987 and grew businesses in the food industry, popularizing his Italian calzones and pizza on a stick at the Minnesota State Fair. He is a management director for Wuollet Bakery. His son Vinni plays in the NHL for Anaheim.

Lettieri has discussed with Canadian soccer officials about attending in Qatar come November.

"I wish I could turn the clock around," Lettieri said. "That'd be a lot of fun playing today. God bless them. They're doing well and the opportunity is there."