Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association
For decades, if you wanted to watch Canadian men win at soccer, you watched indoor. Some of the sport’s greatest ever stars, including Tino Lettieri, Dale Mitchell, and Branko Segota, were Canadian. They were the spine of our 1986 FIFA World Cup squad, and until quite recently much of our senior men’s national team had considerable indoor experience. The last major indoor product, Lars Hirschfeld, replaced Pat Onstad as goalkeeper for the 1997 Edmonton Drillers before going on to Tottenham and fame. Well-established outdoor players like Martin Nash and Jeff Clarke would play a season or two of indoor between contracts, for it was long North America’s best way to make a living in soccer.
Those days are gone, probably forever. The Canadian Major Indoor Soccer League, a western league that folded after the 2012 season, was our last serious organized competition. Though several perennially-reorganizing professional and semi-professional indoor leagues operate in the United States, none include a Canadian entry. Nor is there much appetite for a revival. Though indoor soccer may seem—and indeed for a long time was—a natural fit with severe winters and hockey rinks in every town, experts scorn it. Indoor soccer encourages the development of skills such as playing the ball off the boards which do not transfer outside. Six-a-side games mean less room for creativity, and an indoor soccer ball discourages fancy play anyhow. Besides, indoor soccer in the North American code is virtually unknown outside Canada and the United States, without even FIFA recognition.
The experts prefer futsal, a five-a-side game played on ceramic courts with a smaller, weighted ball that responds marvelously to the trickster’s touch. Futsal was developed in Brazil in the 1930s, making North American indoor arguably the older game, but unlike it futsal has caught on worldwide. Though dominated by the Brazilians, as you might expect, seven countries from three continents have medalled in the seven FIFA Futsal World Cups, including such unlikely teams as Russia and the United States. In 1989 Canada, coached by Bob Lenarduzzi, participated in the first. They took one win in the group stage with a young team of indoor soccer worthies including Eddy Berdusco, Nick DeSantis, Lyndon Hooper, Paul Dolan (fresh off his single indoor season with Tacoma), and (slightly improbably) a 21-year-old Alex Bunbury, who only ever played a few months of Minnesota indoor and didn’t do much with them. Dolan was the regular starter in goal and John Fitzgerald, an eventual 12-time international, was Canada’s leading goalscorer with two.
But despite all our indoor pedigree Canada hasn’t been back, perhaps for want of precocious Bunburys and Dolans with a few idle weeks in the spring. Most years Canada did not even try to qualify. In 2004, Edmontonian Ross Ongaro selected a twelve-man roster that included no fewer than six Edmonton Aviators, two players at amateurs Edmonton Scottish, former Edmonton Brickman Guiliano Oliviero, and former Edmonton Driller Tiarnan King. Somehow this team lost a two-leg series to Panama. (Also on the team was future United States international Ugo Ihemelu, later found ineligible for the senior Canadian MNT when Dale Mitchell wanted him in a World Cup qualifier. This is an unstoppable trivia question.) In 2008 Canada didn’t enter a team, and a 2012 group that included former senior international Robbie Aristodemo as well as U-20 internationals Alex Elliott and Robbie Tice put up a pretty good fight. They dropped El Salvador 7-6 on aggregate to qualify for the CONCACAF tournament proper, but suffered consecutive losses to Guatemala, the United States, and Panama.
In short, we are not a futsal country and never have been. Expectations were always modest for this Canadian team, run by 2004 survivor Kyt Selaidopoulos. But nor are we walkovers. The indoor soccer blood in our veins still has a little warmth. Our first task was to win a two-leg series against the United States, twice on the World Cup podium. Though far diminished from their salad days the Americans were an all-professional team, but after falling behind by three in the first leg Canada stormed back for a 4-4 draw, then won the second 5-3 on a Robert Renaud hat trick. It was a tremendous victory, but like Collingwood after Trafalgar Canada still had troubles ahead: drawn into the Group of Death with Costa Rica (hosts and defending CONCACAF champions), Cuba (four-time CONCACAF runners-up), and Curaçao (not nearly as bad as you’d think). The top two teams in the group qualify for the Futsal World Cup, by no means an impossible target, but realism promised another dignified, hard-working campaign that built on the improvements from 2012. Our first game, against the better-rested Costa Ricans, was sure to be the toughest, and a point would have been remarkable.
Well, if you’ve survived the 800 words so far you’ll have an idea what happened on Sunday night. Oh yes, Costa Rica gave Canada a futsal lesson at no charge. Nobody, and I mean nobody, left the arena in any doubt about the superior side. But Canada, living up to every cliche, fought hard, played raw route-one futsal, kept their defensive shape despite overwhelming opposition, and had the plucky grit you’d expect from a game played basically in a hockey arena. Though hopelessly outgunned in every category we blocked shots and harassed the Costa Ricans into errors. When we opened the scoring through Frederico Moojen it was hilariously against the run of play and beautifully scrappy, the veteran Moojen ushering a deflected long ball out for a corner then fighting through traffic to side-foot in an ensuing cross.
But with its short pitch futsal does not forgive a team that cannot keep possession. The little ball zips around and the talented attacker has the advantage with it at his feet. All the grit in the world avails you not against such superior skill unless, of course, you put a brick wall in goal, which Canada did.
In the pantheon of great Canadian soccer goalkeeping performances—Erin McLeod against France in 2012, Craig Forrest against anybody in 2000—Josh Lemos may be the most improbable member. Like most futsalers he had an unremarkable outdoor career, including an appearance as a central midfielder at a Canadian U-15 national camp in 2004. By his twenties he had become a goalkeeper, turning out with semi-pros North York Astros (also a home to former senior international Haidar Al-Shaïbani) and, briefly, in the Nicaraguan league with Diriangen. At the time of his central American adventure he was already an established presence in Ontario futsal, drawing good notices, and when the national team reformed in 2012 he was a natural call-up.
In 2012 qualification Lemos was the starting goalkeeper and an immediate hero: it was he who, with five seconds left, charged up the court to score the aggregate winner against El Salvador. This Jimmy Glass moment would have been enough for most careers, but alas the 2012 tournament was not broadcast and his glory was limited to soon-forgotten news articles and the futsal community. When Canada went out of the group stage in three games Lemos’s hopes of immortality faded.
But apparently in futsal lives there are second acts. Lemos was one of four 2012 players, with Vincent Cournoyer, Daniel Chamale, and Ian Bennett, to return in 2016. In the comeback against the United States he played his part, saving a penalty, but the heroes of that fight were the attackers and a goalkeeper got little notice. Anyway, the game was not broadcast. But for the group stage of the tournament CONCACAF put on a free high-definition webstream and over 2,000 people, including many Canadians, spent their Mother’s Day evening watching a form of soccer little-known up here. I’m bound to say that for me, at least, it was… well, if not ironic, at least self-consciously obscure, watching a match that I thought nobody would care about and that would surely not be interesting because it had “Canadian soccer” in the description. One of my less successful predictions.
Against Costa Rica, our outfield players struggled badly so Lemos did it all. It was an incredible performance, and the highlights do it no justice whatsoever. He made his first save one minute and twenty-two seconds in, all but ten seconds or so of which were Costa Rican possession. He and his tenacious defenders barely fended off fire-breathing attacks until Moojen opened the scoring. Seven seconds after Canada took the lead, Lemos made another massive reflex stop. Twenty seconds after that he made a staggering double-save that would have been the sure-fire highlight of the night 364 days of the year. Rattled by our star goalkeeper the Costa Ricans shaped their shots, trying to place the ball perfectly, and missed a disproportionate number for their trouble. When they did not miss, Lemos was there. On top of everything else, Lemos’s accurate throws gave Canada some of their best counter-attacking opportunities, almost the only opportunities we could get. It took a dubious penalty, after Lemos made a challenge where he clearly got to the ball first and Edwin Cubillo made a meal of it, for Costa Rica to get on the board. Erick Brenes’s penalty was probably literally unstoppable. Early in the second half Costa Rica struck again, another perfect shot by skipper Alejandro Paniagua off a corner kick, and surely, we said to ourselves, the dam had burst.
It had not. Canada settled in as Costa Rica defended their lead, and the chances were fewer, but still dangerous. With eight and a half minutes to go, Costa Rica’s Juan Cordero found himself set up with a wide-open net, but no net is wide-open when Josh Lemos is playing: he not only saved but held. Canada’s Eduardo Jauregui made an insane challenge that even more insanely received only yellow; in MLS the DisCo could have suspended him for the rest of his life, and not long after Lemos robbed Cubillo absolutely blind, getting over to parry a seemingly-sure goal that had developed out of nowhere. Finally, with five minutes to go, Lemos was again called for an unjust penalty: his challenge on Victor Fonseca was clumsy, he missed the ball, and Fonseca very deliberately tripped over Lemos’s ankle in the best CONCACAF style. Brenes took the penalty perfectly, again, and though Moojen made the final minutes interesting there was really very little doubt, save for that glorious instant in the last thirty seconds when Robert Renaud had the equalizer on his foot and shot wide. Costa Rica deserved much more than the 3-2 victory they got.
But damn that. Nobody would have bet on Canada to get a point, and thanks to Lemos and their dauntless hearts Canada very nearly did. There is no guarantee that Cuba or Curaçao will spurn so many chances, or that Lemos will find the same transcendent form. To an ill-informed eye the Canadian team didn’t show the skill to fight the best in CONCACAF on equal terms, and that’s what World Cup qualification takes. Yet, for one fabulous evening, Canadian soccer could delight in the last all-world performance we would have expected. Had we won, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of our goalkeeper which would have stirred the heart of every Canadian. These rough notes and dim highlights must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great soccer country like ours will see that those who fight on will be properly supported. Canada plays Curaçao tonight at 4:30 PM Pacific, with the game streamed on CONCACAF’s Facebook page. Perhaps, as when Lemos scored against El Salvador, there are still greater heroics to come.