Canadian Soccer: Seldom as Bad as It Looks

By Benjamin Massey

January 31st, 2018 · No comments

Mexsport/Canada Soccer

There is a meme among Canadian soccer die-hards—and if you’re reading a post with Jordyn Huitema at the top you’re at least die-hard-adjacent—that our country takes success in women’s soccer for granted. We have been good because we have a built-in social advantage in women’s sport compared to traditional soccer powers. However, as the waves of sexual equity wash across the globe that will disappear and countries that are actually good at teaching soccer will catch us up. Meanwhile most Canadians with an interest in ladysoccer are sitting around with their thumbs up their butts, counting bronze medals and assuming the good times will last forever.

Personally, I don’t know any serious follower of Canadian soccer who does anything but worry about the future of our WNT, even as it has two Olympic medals in two tries and enough under-23 stars to crew a destroyer. Panic is our default mood. The most optimistic fan I know might be me, and I’ve spent years saying the CanPL should be a women’s league partly to address a weakness in our game that might someday cripple the women but is far less important for the men. But the real pessimists have spent this week running riot.

On Sunday, Canada’s girls lost 1-0 to Haiti in the CONCACAF third-place match, thereby failing to qualify for a U-20 Women’s World Cup some thought we had a shot at winning. The reason we were in the third-place match to begin with is that we lost on penalties to Mexico in the semi-final, a pretty grim sign on its own1. The Canadian team, though sans Jessie Fleming, Deanne Rose, and the late Kennedy Faulknor, had a number of recognizable faces: Huitema, occasional senior national teamers Gabby Carle, Julia Grosso, Sarah Stratigakis, and Ariel Young, young uncapped talents like Emma Regan and Rylee Foster. Down the other end, Haitian players are never household names but 19-year-old captain Nerilia Mondesir has already made a couple Ligue 1 Féminine appearances with Montpellier and might get there. That was it.

Half of this Haitian team, including Mondesir2, beat 11 of these Canadians 2-1 in the 2016 CONCACAF U-17 tournament with Canada that time winning a very scrappy bronze medal rematch. This year Canada dominated a meaningless group stage game where Haiti played nine second-choice players but when it counted, chance for chance, Haiti was better. Sherly Jeudy’s goal was a cracker while at best Canada generated moments that should have been scoring chances and weren’t. Watch the game on YouTube if you want, though you don’t want to because it was terrible, and feel the despair for yourself. I may not be making the best “watch the games, nerd” pitch here.

This loss was no fluke. Haiti played dirty, dove, and feigned injury so constantly that they spent more than the five minutes of second-half stoppage time with perfectly healthy players on stretchers, to the disapproval but not the discouragement of American referee Ekaterina Koroleva. It was the most embarrassing display of poor sportsmanship I have ever seen in almost twenty years of CONCACAFing, but Haiti did the same thing in the U-17s and Canada had no excuse not to be prepared. A more skilled team in that position ought to at least generate something, and Canada didn’t. We were not screwed by the referee, with maybe one borderline penalty for Carle not called and Jessica De Filippo earning her late red card; criticizing the disgraceful opposition is not the same as excusing the disappointing Canadians.

So the past few days in cansoc have been one long freak out. Social media and message boards are on fire looking for human sacrifices. A long list of nominees was available, from CSA supremo Steve Reed, through double-national-team-destroyer John Herdman, down to the coaches at your kids’ club. Our structural failures were biting us hard. The question was not whether we’d improve on our bronze medals in 2020, but whether we’d qualify. Anyway Christine Sinclair and Ashley Lawrence might keep us ticking along for a few more months but we’re ultimately doomed. RIP in peace Canadian soccer’s only decent team, 2012 to 2018, mourned by those who have always said that if we cheer for this we’re part of the problem.

Fair enough, to a degree. There’s no way to sugarcoat looking inferior to Haiti. But we’re not talking about one bad tournament, we’re talking about the future of a program. And the future’s not bad.

Players born in…
Median Mean ’98 ’99 ’00 ’01 ’02 ’03
Canada 17y 9m 10d 17y 9m 28d 3 5 5 7 0 0
Costa Rica 19y 2m 15d 18y 6m 13d 11 3 2 3 1 0
Haiti 18y 4m 9d 17y 7m 14d 3 10 0 2 0 5
Jamaica 18y 6m 30d 18y 2m 3d 4 8 3 2 2 0
Mexico 18y 6m 23d 18y 9m 22d 8 9 3 0 0 0
Nicaragua 17y 11m 17d 17y 10m 24d 5 5 5 4 1 0
Trinidad and Tobago 18y 2m 22d 18y 3m 13d 4 9 4 1 0 0
United States 18y 9m 21d 18y 9m 6d 7 10 3 0 0 0
All player dates of birth from CONCACAF.com. Ages as of January 18, 2018. Rosters of 20 players each, except for Trinidad and Tobago who were listed with 22. One Jamaican and four Trinidad and Tobagan players were missing dates of birth and are not counted.

Those who paid attention to the tournament know that Canada had sent an inordinately young team. We had the lowest median age of any of the eight teams, two months younger than sadsacks Nicaragua and six months younger than Haiti. The Haitians had a lower mean age because their roster included every one of the five 2003-born players in attendance. Three of those 2003s3 started against Canada, but that still give their starting eleven a median age of 18 years, one month, and 24 days. Canada’s was 17 years, six months, and 30 days. Eight of our starters4 are eligible for the next one of these things. The gulf in maturity showed to some extent against Haiti, where their older players were imposing, and 19-year-old Jeudy’s fine goal came because she was able to bust between 16-year-old centrebacks Ariel Young and Maya Antoine. But it was more notable against Mexico, who were able to shove around some of the smaller Canadians, lean off them easily, and physically dominate us for 90 solid minutes. Mexico also played well, full marks to the champions, but they drew that game like Canada used to.

There are those who will say that, rather than sending its most talented prospects who should have been good enough to get out of CONCACAF anyway, coach Bev Priestman should have called the oldest prospects for the best chance to win games in the short term. This seems like a fairly mental use of finite development minutes. The likes of Emma Regan, who with even ordinary luck will play for our senior WNT within five years, needed these hard lessons more than bigger, more physically mature players would have benefited from winning some shoving matches. In fact, I’m so old that I remember fans criticizing the Canadian programs for worrying too much about physical maturity and not enough about skill; Owen Hargreaves was totally justified shopping around his international career because he was cut from a Canadian youth team when he was 15 years old, you know.

Huitema won the Golden Boot, assisted by a generous schedule but punished by a tournament that viewed “foul the tall girl” as legitimate strategy. Carle was Canada’s heroine against Mexico and our most dangerous element against Haiti. Foster made mistakes, as a teenage goalkeeper always will, but was a big, big net positive and kept us in the bronze-medal match, including a penalty save. Among the role players, my co-podcaster hated her against Haiti but Tanya Boychuk has “future Adriana Leon type” written all over her. Stratigakis was not always at her best but could not conceive of the word “quit” and earned more time. Some players who we expected more from didn’t show much, and while politeness forbids my naming them that’s valuable feedback too.

And that is the only thing that matters. Carolina Morace’s failure to qualify for the U-20 Women’s World Cup in 2010 was not notable because we lost to Mexico and Costa Rica, but because hardly any of the young women she spent months trying to win with developed into anything. Neither Mexico nor Costa Rica, incidentally, has been close to passing us at the senior level in the eight years since, so anyone shouting about a changing of the CONCACAF guard was way premature. Of course it would have been much better to qualify for the 2018 U-20 Women’s World Cup and for our best young players to test themselves against the world, but our failure to do so is not proof of anything structural. If the many kids we took to Trinidad and Tobago learn from this experience, there’ll be a lot of red faces as we redeem ourselves in 2020. And if they don’t, well, then we can worry.

  1. Mexico went on to beat the United States, also on penalties, making the medalists for the 2018 CONCACAF U-20s Mexico gold, United States silver, Haiti bronze. As everyone predicted.
  2. Who won the Golden Boot that tournament.
  3. Tabita Dougenie, Melchie Dumonay, and Betina Petit Frere.
  4. Maya Antoine, Tanya Boychuk, Ashley Cathro, Julia Grosso, Jordyn Huitema, Emma Regan, Jayde Riviere, and Ariel Young.
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