Saturday, September 06, 2008

Soccer: Heartbreak for Canada

This [Sean Gordon, The Globe and Mail] perfectly illustrates the state of Canadian soccer: a 2-1 loss to Honduras in CONCACAF qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. With the earlier draw with Jamaica and now this loss, Canada has its back up against the wall: there are only four games left, and two of them are against the powerful Mexicans, who are almost assured to grab one of the top two spots in the group and advance to the next round.

The worst thing is that it's so tough to explain. Really, on paper, Canada should have won this game. From the summary, it also sounds like they deserved the win, but couldn't convert a few chances and got caught on some bad breaks. The soccer haters in this country will argue that there's no way we can compete with countries where the game is the number-one sport, so we should just give up now. They'll see that half the crowd of 12,338 were supposedly in Honduran blue, and they'll conclude that no one in Canada even cares enough to support the national team. Both accusations are far from true.

First, there is no dearth of talent in this country. If you put the Canadian roster up against the Honduran one, taking into consideration the clubs and leagues that each player toils for and in, it compares pretty favourably: in fact, Gordon's match report indicates that the Canadians held most of the possession and the Honduran goals came on counter-attacks, which is what you'd expect. The systematic problems are also starting to decline: we have three excellent professional clubs in Toronto FC, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact, and all are moving towards strong academy systems that develop and nuture in-house. There are also plenty of other avenues for talented players to explore, including CIS, NCAA Division I and European clubs. Even the Canadian Soccer Association seems to be getting its act together these days and putting the good of Canadian soccer as a whole above what's best for each provincial group: the recent Nutrilite Canadian Championships and the support and coverage those games received are excellent examples of a more proactive approach that will eventually benefit the country. Things will assuredly improve even more in the future due to these new initiatives, but the point is, the current national team has plenty of talent, and on paper, it should have easily made it out of this group.

Second, those who criticize the lack of fan support are missing the point. It used to be that next to no Canadian supporters showing up at a "home" match was the norm. Now, if you take Gordon's estimate that half the crowd at Saputo Stadium was there to back the Honduran side, that still means that over 6,000 Canadian fans turned out. That number should not be trivialized. There's a long way to go, but we've made big strides in that area too.

Getting out of CONCACAF is never easy, and it's certainly become far more difficult with this loss. However, let's postpone the inevitable hand-wringing and demands for heads to roll for the moment. For one thing, Canada could still pull off an unexpected result in one of the games against Mexico, beat Honduras and Jamaica in the away legs and sneak through. More importantly, though, if the team doesn't make it, my argument is that they probably should have pulled it off this time, but it will only get easier down the road as our development systems kick into top gear and Canada (hopefully) gets additional MLS franchises. We're doing plenty of the right things for once, but like all investments, it will take time before we see the results.

(One questioning comment, though: Was it really necessary to play Lars Hirschfeld in goal? My understanding is that he isn't even the first-choice keeper on his Romanian club, so why would you go with him over a key proven veteran like Pat Onstad, who's an established star in a higher-quality league (MLS)? Yes, Onstad screwed up against Jamaica, but he's a far better keeper in my mind and he's getting regular game experience. Greg Sutton probably would have been the ideal choice given Onstad's recent error, but he wasn't available as his wife was giving birth [CBC Sports]. It may not have made a difference in the end, but I'd have favoured giving Onstad another chance over resorting to Hirschfeld.)

1 comment:

  1. another loss to mexico tonight. it's over. officially. fuck.