Let me take you back, to the heady days of last Friday evening. After a 0-0 draw with Honduras that was more than respectable as these things go, Canada has emerged from the group stage at the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the first time since 2009.
The 2009 crew was a rag-tag bunch of misfits plus Atiba Hutchinson, and while they outplayed Honduras in the quarter-final they were always an average team overachieving. This year, by contrast, we have the future of the Canadian national team minus Atiba Hutchinson. Hoilett, Arfield, Vitoria, Cavallini (!), hardly a dodgy dual-national is missing. The sole blot on the copybook is Cyle Larin, who, returning from Canada’s June friendly against Curaçao, had far too much to drink, got in his car, drove down the wrong side of the road, and tried to excuse himself to the arresting officer by saying he was a professional soccer player from Canada. We learned that there was video footage of Larin inexcusably, disgracefully drunk at the wheel of his vehicle and that this was as open and shut an incident as you will ever find. Even fans who disdain soccer teams playing judiciary felt a distinct uneasiness.
It’s interesting, how the Canadian Soccer Association handled the Larin case. There clearly was discipline, since he was left off a Gold Cup roster he obviously would otherwise have made. They can’t claim it’s none of their business since they intruded into it. But there was no announcement saying Larin had been suspended for x games, and he was on the “taxi squad” of players to be recalled in contingencies. One is inevitably left with the impression that Octavio Zambrano would sooner have not punished Larin at all, and the Canadian Soccer Association was most concerned with public relations. Had Canada been eliminated in the group stage, as in the previous three Gold Cups, they could have said “we suspended Cyle for the tournament” and nobody could have contradicted them. In the event Canada was not only alive, it was well, and for the umpteenth time principle was discarded for expediency.
You see where this is heading. CONCACAF rules permit a coach to replace six players from his team with guys from the taxi squad, and Zambrano replaced one. The successful Canadian team was broken up only so far as Cyle Larin, who missed Canada’s earlier achievements on account of his literally criminal selfishness, replaced the blameless Raheem Edwards. On top of that, come Thursday evening, Larin was immediately put into the starting lineup. Team? What team?
It’s hardly necessary to say Larin was terrible, because for Canada he usually is. Larin has scored two goals in fourteen games, including ten starts, against remotely serious soccer countries and one was by accident. His howling misses outnumber his tidy finishes. He scores in Major League Soccer, but MLS is too poor a league to predict quality. Bradley Wright-Phillips, a bad English Championship striker with only one aspect to his game and never anywhere near international honours, may be the best striker in MLS history. Add in Larin’s incapacity in other aspects of his game and there’s no reason, beyond a superstitious admiration of the Americans, to give him the benefit of the doubt in the tougher CONCACAF arena.
Larin was just trash. Breaking up a winning setup he had no part in making, he missed an open header, failed to make challenging runs, went wide left a couple times and did nothing, failed to harass his defenders into mistakes, failed to execute a single defensive or midfield play. The man is garbage when he can’t finish chances, so for Canada he is almost always garbage.
But a team can survive a selfish, one-dimensional, mercurial player. In fact Canada did: infinitely-ballyhooed mercenary Junior Hoilett played almost every minute of the Gold Cup like he thought England would notice him if he just dangled one more guy, but in this quarter-final his selfishness also yielded a stunning goal from a mile out. When Hoilett is on the ball his teammates almost slump in despair, they know they’ll have to run sixty yards back when he almost-inevitably turns it over, but the point is they do know and they account for it.
The real damage was not in having a bad striker. The damage was that the team collapsed around him. By the time Larin was finally removed we were down 2-0 to Jamaica. Jamaica! A team Canada, even in its present decadence, consistently outplays. A team whose idea of a star is Darren Mattocks. Jamaica.
Lucas Cavallini, who replaced Larin, is no holy terror. I would have preferred Anthony Jackson-Hamel or Tosaint Ricketts, the maligned man, the guy who doesn’t create drama or try to get on SportsCentre so doesn’t get his minutes, he just delivers. But Cavallini has a defender-annoying hip-checking level of pissy effort that Larin hasn’t. Canada tried countless long shots with Larin on: Jamaica smothered them like unplanned babies. With Cavallini agitating the Reggae Boyz, not only could Hoilett score an unchallenged thirty-yarder but he could damned near do it twice. In the last half-hour, especially when Jackson-Hamel entered, Canada looked like they could play heroes and overturn a two-goal deficit for the first time since, according to the Carolyn Duthie Research Bureau, October 1988. They didn’t, but what a reasonable effort it was all the same.
We are cynical men, we soccer fans. We sneer at the idea of intangibles, of friendship and connectedness and team cohesion and other woo-woo nouns. Any Canadian men’s head coach of the last twenty years would have done what Zambrano did and give liquored-up Larin his starting spot based on pedigree and club form. But John Herdman, coach of Canada’s women’s team, definitely wouldn’t. And ask yourself, out of the men and the women which team consistently outperforms the theoretical sum of its parts, and which team consistently underperforms it?