The Canadian Men's national team suffered a humiliating loss to Honduras last week in the final game of the CONCACAF preliminary round, eliminating them from a World Cup '14 berth. I know our fans here in Vancouver are disappointed and it has been very interesting to watch coverage from the media in placing blame.
Already head coach Stephen Hart has fallen on the sword and can be seen as the scapegoat. However, after talking to players from the team and others surrounding the situation, Hart is merely a pawn in the larger reason why Canada's soccer team wasn't able to make it to the next round.
I think we all have to acknowledge the uphill battle the CSA has in front of them. There is no recent history of soccer achievement on the men's side which could help motivate and drive the younger soccer players of today. Some will argue that the women's side has been so instrumental in driving the sport, why can't the men do the same? Well this is definitely comparing apples to oranges.
The Canadian women's soccer team has been helped more by Title IX than by any CSA developmental program or curriculum. By my recent count, all but two players on the Olympic roster have played for, or are still playing at American Universities. A third, Diana Matheson, plays at Princeton where no athletic scholarships are given (Ivy league), so she could also be exempt somewhat. These universities are the same places where American stars Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Hope Solo and Alex Morgan all applied their trade. Canadian women have been getting to compete and play with the best in the world for the last couple of decades. In the future, this will change with the rest of the world putting more emphasis into the women's game.
Where does that leave the men? The American Universities have manifested themselves to be a deterrent to professional growth rather than a benefit. Unlike the women, Canadian men are more at a disadvantage when they go off to college. The limited training schedule and priority to school rather than sport leaves college players way behind when compared to players in other parts of our region. Even though many former USA players have used the school system (Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, Cobi Jones, John Harkes, etc), the recent trend suggests North American players are foregoing their University experience to play MLS and professional club soccer. (Brek Shea, Omar Salgado, Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, etc)
Where then should a young Canadian play?? The CSA has yet to come up with a system that develops the best players in Canada and puts them in competitive environments year-round. Is this really their fault?? Yes and no. The weather, lack of facilities, money, and the large geographical make up of Canada makes it difficult to put together a year-round program which can truly identify and train today's talented youth. On top of this, the priorities of MLS clubs in Canada are not always aligned with Canadian soccer's. What's a country to do??
Canada at some point will have their moment. When Paul Caligiuri scored for the Americans in Trinidad to put them into the World Cup, it did a lot for men's soccer in the USA. Without knowing it, the 1990 Men's World Cup team gave tons of young American boys ,like myself, the dream of playing in a World Cup. We knew it was possible because it was done before. On top of this, the momentum created along with hosting the 1994 World Cup, gave the USA it's newest professional soccer league: MLS.
Canada needs this moment now more than ever. This is why this latest loss was so devastating and painful. It has literally put Canadian soccer on pause in the public and media's eye. However, we cannot look back, but to the future. From my end, here are just a few suggestions to help Canada create the moment it needs to bring this country back onto the World Stage.
1) Get a coach who is motivated by the challenge - Listen, we all know Canada won't be producing droves of talented players like Brazil anytime soon, but they do have some very capable players who can help make a possible breakthrough. CSA has done a great job in hiring John Herdman for the women's team. They need to do the same on the men's side. Someone who is great with the media, positive with their team, and also very enthusiastic about the job. It could be a former Canadian player or even a young ambitious coach. Thankfully, this is not my job.
2) Start developing a long term plan between CSA & Canadian MLS teams - With players from all over the world living in Canada to play soccer, new possibilities for players have opened up. The CSA and the teams should try to pinpoint younger and/or talented MLS players who have no chance to play with their home countries, or could get a jump on their "caps". Lots of pros just want to get "caps" to be able to qualify for a English FA work permit. They know that there is more money to be found overseas, but without a parent/grandparent from Europe, you only have a few options. One of them is playing for your national team a high percentage of the time. (or marry a British girl) Find ambitious players who want this option and try to exploit it. Think Camilo, Stefan Frei, or even a player like Eric Hassli.
3) Make Edmonton FC or create an NASL team, the lone destination for all Canadian reserves - Russell Teibert, Bryce Alderson, Ben Fisk, and Caleb Clarke can all benefit from playing twenty something games in the NASL. Add players from TFC and Montreal and you get a young Canadian team playing week in or week out. I really don't know if the rules will allow this, but something to this effect should be done.
4) Turn the page......slowly - The next World Cup is not for six years as far as Canada is concerned. It would be foolish to simply force everyone 27 and older out of the equation because of their age. Every tournament and international game now becomes a stepping stone. It is going to take awhile but now you really need to start ushering in a new era and a new attitude. Of course a lot of this will come down to suggestion 1.
5) Play ugly - Learn from the Americans. At home, we play exciting and attacking soccer. However, away, we simply just try to dig in and get results. One of the things CONCACAF teams struggle with the US is our athleticism. I would like to see the Canadians exploit this as well. Use size and strength to plug up the middle and force teams to cross from wide positions and deal with your height accordingly. Of course, this will all come down to the coach as well.
Canada as a sporting nation is just coming into its own as far as our sport is concerned. As a soccer nation in CONCACAF, the history of Canada is relatively short and spotty. There will be that moment propelling the country to the next level. Until then, enjoy being a loyal fan who was there before they made it big. Of course the recent loss was painful, but used in the right way, this loss can be used as a catalyst to bigger and better things.....
Best of Luck CSA!