We Canadian soccer fans have had a good six weeks. Unusually, both the men’s and women’s senior national teams are playing competitive tournaments, with the gentlemen playing qualifying for the first ever CONCACAF Nations League, and the women playing the confederal championship that doubles as World Cup qualifying. Even more unusually, both teams are living up to all our hopes against, admittedly, shabby opposition.
Neither tournament is an end of itself. The women have three goals: first, qualify for the 2019 Women’s World Cup (already done in style), their second to beat the United States, God willing, and their third to lift CONCACAF’s huge, silly trophy for the third time. The MNT is in a double qualifier: they must finish top ten in this 34-team tournament to make the 2019 Gold Cup1, and a top six finish puts them in the top group of the Nations League proper starting next September with all the teams you care about.
Since the men’s tournament is the 34 teams in CONCACAF that didn’t make the hex, among whom Canada actually looks pretty powerful, and the CONCACAF women’s tournament is, well, a CONCACAF women’s tournament, you will guess that we are playing lousy teams. We are. In four women’s games and two for the men there has hardly been a moment of adversity. Give or take Scott Arfield and Desiree Scott the teams are even healthy. It is, and this is not a word you get to use much in Canadian soccer, relaxing.
When the women beat Panama 7-0 in the Sunday semi-final that was gratuitous, even unsportsmanlike, but goal difference might have counted in the earlier group stage where both Mexico and Costa Rica were burned by big upsets. The final, Wednesday against the United States, is not likely to be a large Canadian victory, and if somehow it is then sportsmanship can go hang. The men are cursed with needing as many touchdowns as possible: the ridiculous Nations League format has each team play different opposition then compares the goal difference, with all the favourites guaranteed plenty of chances against minnows. Without some big wins Canada could go undefeated and miss the Nations League’s top tier anyway. Even Junior Hoilett flopping in the box with an early 2-0 lead against an island with less population than Saanich had a purpose.
Anyway, our country is scoring more than a ten on Tinder. The MNT broke its record win by beating the US Virgin Islands 8-0 away in September. The WNT’s record 21-0 win over Puerto Rico in 1998 is, we almost hope, unbreakable2, but 12-0 over Cuba set the national record for a win against an independent nation-state.
|gg jk ez no re|
In both cases, teams cap-tied exciting teenage talent. Okay, maybe we weren’t worried about Julia Grosso turning to Portugal, but this is the best soccer we’ve seen from her yet and we should be glad to have her. Liam Millar, Jonathan David, Ballou Tabla, and Alessandro Busti are getting quite a bit more hype and, until FIFA changes the rules again, they’re stuck with us. Besides, there are other teenagers: Alphonso Davies, Jordyn Huitema, Jessie Fleming, you might have heard of them.
Both teams are bidding adieu to legends. Atiba Hutchinson, on a shortlist for the best Canadian men’s player of all time, has already announced his plans to retire from international soccer after the 2019 Gold Cup. Christine Sinclair has not given us her timeline, but at age 35 she’s obviously winding down and may well be done by 2020. She’s on the shortlist for best female soccer player ever, full stop, and both Hutch and Sincy are worth showing the grandkids while you can under any circumstances at all.
And of course, given Canada’s unbiased love of skipping international windows, it’s delightful to get the lads/lasses together for extended camps. This goes double when you’re getting used to a new head coach, and it so happens both teams are doing that as well. John Herdman left the WNT to coach the MNT, his assistant Kenneth Heiner-Møller replaced him, and as such they have had more-or-less identical amounts of time as the new boss.
Really, the similarities are spooky.
But there are differences. The men are, through no fault of their own, engaged in a truly risible tournament. Their game in September against the US Virgin Islands was played in Bradenton, Florida, because facilities in the islands were considered inadequate. Soccer fans of Toronto did a magnificent job making BMO Field look good for the Dominica game: the Voyageurs were in fine voice and an attendance of 10,500 on a Tuesday evening was terrific. Compare it to 9,749 when Dominica visited for a World Cup qualifier in 2015 and I guess all that promotion of Ballou Tabla did some good. But the game itself is ridiculous. Busti, the 18-year-old backup goalkeeper with Juventus’s U-23 team, made his professional debut starting in goal for a competitive international; John Herdman admitted quite frankly before the game that he wanted to captie the kid. Given that we wanted goals, we couldn’t go full silly-season: the outfield starting lineup was something like our best ten minus the injured Arfield. But later in the game Herdman brought in two teenagers, Tabla and Zachary Brault-Guillard, plus one 23-year-old trying to find his international scoring touch in Cyle Larin. Sam Piette and Tosaint Ricketts sat, unneeded, on the bench. It was goofy, a friendly in which you were obliged to humiliate the other team. Dominica played with pluck throughout and deserved a more dignified context.
The way the Nations League qualifying works is that each of the 34 teams are separated into four spots, based off ranking. Given that the six 2018 hex teams aren’t included, you run out of quality teams before you finish Pot A: top-seeded teams include Haiti, Cuba, and three French overseas departments, including a Florent Malouda-less French Guiana. Each team plays four games, two home and two away, one against a member of each pot. But there are no groups: Canada plays the US Virgin Islands, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, and French Guiana. French Guiana plays Anguilla, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Guyana (ooh aah), and us. Everybody gets thrown into one huge table and may the most lopsided scores win.
Whose bright idea was this? We have four games that would be comic if it wasn’t so important to pummel these trash bags as hard as ever we can. Many fans are getting excited for these games and I don’t know how. At least when we go to Spain and play Mauritania we’re seeing something different and potential unpleasant surprises. These games are nearly pointless, apart from cap-tying kids: you could build as much chemistry and get a better game by gathering in Toronto and playing the League1 Ontario all-stars.
The women’s tournament has blowouts, but also structure. Canada went to a semi-final as a top seed because we won the group. The real minnows, the 21-0 teams, got a chance to qualify fair and square but were weeded out long before they faced anybody of quality. It’s not all according to Hoyle: nobody would have picked either Jamaica or Panama to impress before the tournament but one of them is going to the World Cup and the other has a shot in a playoff against Argentina. Plus there’s the #ChasingAbby factor, with Christine Sinclair grinding four goals closer to a world record. Tosaint Ricketts is playing so little behind all these kids that #ChasingDeRo isn’t even on the board for the five of us who’d cheer for it.
In hindsight Jamaica’s 2-0 loss to Canada, while flattering to the Reggae Girlz, laid the groundwork for their famous win over Costa Rica. Nations League qualifying will give us no such consolations. The closest thing to an upset so far was St. Vincent’s win over French Guiana, and despite their 2-0 loss to Nicaragua they are alive in the race for the Gold Cup, but to be the top six of 34 teams playing four games each means more than one upset win.
This format is not the Canadian Soccer Association’s fault. 10,500 fans at BMO Field prove the CSA is doing all they could. Nor is it their fault that the women, playing the more interesting games, are playing down south for the third consecutive championship, in empty stadiums with indifferent media attention and broadcast rights allocated to the federation’s streaming service. CONCACAF is CONCACAF and always will be. But while blowouts are always fun, for now the women’s are more compelling.