Raising the Middle

By Benjamin Massey

November 12th, 2017 · No comments

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Canada’s women’s national soccer team drew a close-to-full-strength United States 1-1 at a very well-attended, if atmospherically indifferent, friendly in Vancouver last Thursday. This we’ve done before, twice in the John Herdman era. What’s unique is that we really, really deserved it!

The Americans were, as they have been for the past two years, mediocre. Shelina Zadorsky probably committed a penalty that went uncalled in the second half. And we would have lost anyway had Steph Labbé not made a miraculous kick save on a deflection. That said, Jordyn Huitema had a foul called against her late in the game for getting her head busted open in the penalty area, the American goal only happened because of a Labbé punching mistake, and we made a veteran-laden American team featuring Rapinoe, Lloyd, Morgan, and Press look incapable of retaining possession for, and I am being absolutely literal here, the first time in Canadian history.

Therefore, that game was automatically a Very Good Time. ESPN named tireless Jessie Fleming the woman of the match. Deanne Rose mauled Megan Rapinoe so severely that after Rose came off Pinoe broke up with her girlfriend by text. Huitema looked plainly inexperienced at this level but was a net contributor all the same and played great off Christine Sinclair. She survived her head wound, which contrary to what condescending writers would clickbait you into believing, is exactly what an elite athlete like her should do. Then she celebrated with a post-game ginger ale because she’s nine. Our wünderkinds were, by any fair standard, wunderful.

But everyone talks enough about them. We’re so enthusiastic that Huitema wearing a bandage becomes Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. That’s good, really; Fleming, Huitema, and Rose deserve support. The trouble is that we risk forgetting our solid but not headlining prospects. In a way, they should excite us more, because that indicates that something we once did wrong, we now do right. But I am damned if I can figure out what.

Even our worst youth teams, coached by mad Italians losing to Mexico and Costa Rica, have provided interesting players, but the leap from U-20 to senior soccer has been a long way. Even players who came into the senior team as useful pieces at a young age have tended to remain only useful. I am thinking particularly of Brittany Baxter (née Timko), Jonelle Filigno, even Sophie Schmidt. We would have been poorer without them, but they never seemed to make the leap they should have made. Their games did not evolve.

In the past few years, this has begun to change, a long, slow process whose fruits are only beginning to appear. If we exclude the obvious deities the best mortal on the pitch Thursday was Rebecca Quinn. Never as preternaturally gifted as her confrere Kadeisha Buchanan, Quinn has always gotten good reviews after coming into the national team at a young age. She recalled a young Emily Zurrer, the very archetype of the useful young player with a long way to go to become a star.

The difference is that Quinn keeps getting better. Born a centre back, she is now a safe starting option in defensive midfield and has an Olympic qualifying hat trick in her scrapbook. Boasting a new, 2015-Sophie Schmidt-like haircut, Rebecca looked like a new woman on Thursday… but in fact it was the same Quinny, only improved, facing threats as varied as Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, and Andi Sullivan with equanimity. She was better than her defensive partner, Shelina Zadorsky, who has a few seasons’ NWSL experience and has herself improved a bit the past couple years. And Quinn’s best position may be in defensive midfield, where she has, implausibly, surpassed Desiree Scott on many fans’ depth charts.

And Quinn’s not even the most impressive mid-lister. The gold medal for development goes to Adriana Leon, who at age 25 should surely not be classed as a prospect at all. In two years when most players’ destinies are fixed Leon has gone from an on-field liability and one-time Twitter malcontent to a magnificent opposition-bothering impact sub and scorer of two fine senior goals this year. I cannot explain how this possibly happened. After an indifferent NWSL career, not much for the senior WNT, and being changed for a better thing, she went to FC Zürich in 2016. With that underrated little club she showed well in Switzerland, had a three-goal-and-two-assists game in the Champions League, returned to both Canada and the NWSL, and was suddenly pretty good. Thursday’s goal-scoring turn against the Americans was only the most entertaining moment in seven months of good form.

A lot has changed since Adriana’s early days: she was the star striker on that U-20 team Carolina Morace got eliminated very early indeed. But John Herdman and company can’t take credit from a technical perspective: they didn’t see her for over a year. The person most responsible for Leon’s mid-career development spurt must be Adriana Leon. But the country did something right, insomuch as it remembered her and let her stay in the game, and brought her back when she was ready.

These things never used to go so well. For decades the classic Canadian role player was a physical specimen rather than a technically developed, versatile contributor. Changing this was a conscious goal of many coaches and administrators throughout the country. Now that it is happening, and the results are before our eyes, we are so blinded by Roses and Huitemae that we can’t see it. Leon, a hard-charging bull in a china shop, and Quinn, who is tall, would both in a different era relied upon their obvious physical powers too heavily. In November 2017 they look like soccer players.

We are not World Cup champions yet. Quinn has learned much of her trade at Duke, Leon picked up her magic boots in Europe; the path to long-term success requires a road through Canada. Nor has everybody been equally successful, because that never happens. But we’re going the right way. Leon scoring against the US because Quinn hit the crossbar bodes just as well for our program as Jessie Fleming descending from heaven.

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