Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association
In 2014 I set what must have been the world record for laziness by posting my Canadian soccer players of the year ballot on December 26
, long after the award winners had already been announced. I’d gotten my votes in on time, but actually sharing them with the world took ages. Yet that was as mayflies compared to what happened in 2015, when I find myself typing out my list of awardees at, er, the beginning of January.
This is not (exclusively) an exercise in hubris, nor an excuse to “start a conversation” since hardly anybody comments on this blog anyway. There’s a selfish element: I like being able to look back, see what I thought in 2013 or 2014. But there’s another dimension: voters for major awards have a minor moral duty to make their votes public. The recent Baseball Hall of Fame announcement, which again saw the tremendous Tim Raines left out of Cooperstown, shows why. Raines appeared on 77.8% of the ballots made public, nicely above the 75% required for election, but only got 69.8% of the vote overall. Raines is probably the greatest leadoff man in National League history but played in a small foreign market and was overshadowed in his own time by Rickey Henderson. He’s easy to overlook by those unaware of his greatness and unwilling to do the research, but as the public voters showed, accountability promotes responsibility. (Not that, as the FIFA Player of the Year awards demonstrate, it is a panacea.)
Canada’s official soccer awards are very vulnerable to this sort of slackness, as Christine Sinclair’s player of the year win last year showed. To my knowledge only a minority of media members publicize their ballots. Most of them, not coincidentally, have opinions you can take seriously, because they’ve put the thought in. I try to keep the same spirit even when I fall short in rigor. In fact, as you’ll see, I think I got one of my 2015 votes wrong already.
Enough tiresome preamble. Let’s begin. Here are my votes from 2014, 2013, and 2012.
Women’s Player of the Year
The Women’s World Cup in Canada captivated the nation. Being the major soccer event of the summer right in front of our noses, it should have led to a more informed level of voting than you usually get on the distaff side of the ball. And it did! Kadeisha Buchanan, born fifty-six days too soon to be eligible for the U-20 team, took what we can more-or-less guarantee will not be her last Player of the Year award, breaking Christine Sinclair’s unsurpassable run of eleven straight going back to 2004 (she also won in 2000, aged 17; another record that will never be broken). Sinclair still came in third. Josée Bélanger, scorer of the year’s biggest goal and first-rate feel-good story, was a well-deserved runner-up.
About Buchanan, there is nothing more to add. She would be a starting centreback on the World XI today. She made the 10-woman shortlist for FIFA World Player of the Year, as high an honour as she can get given that no defender has ever been voted into the top 3. She cracked the World Cup all-star team and was named Best Young Player despite a nagging injury and dragging the decomposing Lauren Sesselmann and Carmelina Moscato around like a sack of bricks. She won the Voyageurs Player of the Year award with an unusually heavy majority, 13 out of 18 first-place votes. She genuinely is that good. Canada is rightly condemned for its female player development and complete lack of professional opportunities, but if we can create a Buchananbauer then something must be going right. Anybody who didn’t have her on the ballot must be suspected of either disrespecting the defensive arts or knee-jerk contrarianism. Her victory, and the end of Sinclair’s dominance, can hardly be better deserved.
Bélanger is hardly be a reputation vote, since prior to this year she had effectively left the picture. But such a year catches a lot of attention. Not only the goal against Switzerland, a scrappy but skilled strike in the most critical of situations, but her general play up top, giving Sinclair a forward partner she could actually do something with. More than that, Bélanger actually played most of the World Cup at right back, substituting for the injured Rhian Wilkinson and doing, despite some dodgy moments, a better job than the veteran she was allegedly backing up. Today’s argument over Bélanger, which continued into the December Natal tournament, is whether the team is better starting her on the back line or starting her at forward. There aren’t many players on many national teams, male or female, who can boast that sort of versatility.
While it’s hardly of the same importance as her gallant national team play, Bélanger also tore the UEFA Women’s Champions League a couple new orifices. Turning out with Rosengård, a good women’s side, Bélanger had four goals and an assist in four matches. She was only the second-leading striker on Rosengård, but since the leader is Marta I bet she can live with that. Club soccer on the women’s end is less important than internationals but it’s still a good tie-breaker and Bélanger had as good a club season as any Canadian. Between that and her World Cup heroism I had her second place on my ballot with the rest of the voters. Incidentally, 2016 will see Bélanger play in the NWSL, leaving Rosengård just as Erin McLeod (and Ella Masar) join it but staying closer to the Canadian soccer spotlight.
Third place is where it all gets interesting. Erin McLeod had a lousy club season in Houston (again, tiebreaker) but proved once again she is the greatest money goalkeeper in the world at the World Cup. The Natal tournament, though it came too late to influence the CSA’s voting, was a vivid demonstration of just how vital McLeod is. When she went off with a knee injury in the final against Brazil Steph Labbé came in, and while Labbé wasn’t bad exactly she definitely was not Erin Fucking McLeod, and Canada lost.
Allysha Chapman was another great story. Last year she burst out of obscurity into the first team, slotting in at left back and making us all go “huh.” This year, her first as a regular, saw her be (with Buchanan) one of only two Canadian defenders you could pretty much trust. She started sixteen games, including the entire World Cup, and scored her first international goal in Cyprus against Italy. In the end she has more to learn at the highest level, was slightly too erratic to get many votes, and had a nearly non-existent season with the Houston Dash, but I thought long and hard about her and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
Sophie Schmidt didn’t play club soccer in the summer of 2015 at all, but after the World Cup signed on with maybe the best women’s soccer club in history, 1. FFC Frankfurt. She has instantly become a regular, starting seven of twelve games. Her World Cup itself was a slight disappointment, aggravated by injury, for the woman who should have been Canada’s best player, but she remained perfectly competent and you could tell how much the team missed her when she was gone. Though it was only a friendly, she scored the prettiest damned goal by a Canadian woman all year in the Hamilton match against England. Schmidt is who I wound up putting in third place. I deeply enjoy the way she plays, the creativity, the willingness to go on the attack. Even if she didn’t do everything we wanted after a superb 2014, she deserves a nod of respect.
Yet, not quite a month later, I think I was wrong. I think that I succumbed to reputation bias. I think I should have given third place to a woman who I left off my ballot because she gets too many votes as it is. I think I should have gone with Christine Sinclair.
I started thinking about this during the Natal tournament, where Sinclair played quite well and eventually tied Mia Hamm as the second-leading scorer in women’s soccer history. This was too late for the CSA vote, which wrapped up on December 11, but led me down the road to reconsideration. Sinclair’s World Cup wasn’t the 2012 Olympics redux. We all wanted it to be, and she couldn’t do it, and we knew that would happen but it saddened us anyway. But what did she do? She was, despite her 32 years, Canada’s most dangerous attacking player (bearing in mind Bélanger was usually a defender): another 2012 hero, Melissa Tancredi, by comparison was obviously completely done. She scored against China, and sure it was a penalty, but it was a 90th-minute penalty at a World Cup in front of the craziest, most desperate crowd she had ever played for. There aren’t many more nervy situations in the world, and Sinclair calmly slid it into the bottom right corner, as cool as it gets. Wang Fei guessed right and couldn’t get there. That’s not nothing.
Her other World Cup goal was against England, when Canada needed her more than ever. 2-0 down thanks to defensive mistakes the Canadians were regardless mounting a few good attacks, and near the end of the first half Sinclair bundled in a spilled ball from Karen Bardsley. Opportunistic, like the penalty. But, first, Sinclair’s inerrant homing instinct for goal made that mistake possible, and second, Sinclair got the play going anyhow when she outstepped an English defender and played a precise short pass to Ashley Lawrence, letting her find room and get the cross in. Sinclair couldn’t get the equalizer, and I’m sure she still thinks about that, but she was a threat. She also set up Bélanger’s goal against Switzerland and could easily have had more. Her chance against New Zealand, a specimen of coordination and Canada’s best opportunity, was saved almost miraculously by young Erin Naylor. The second-best opportunity in that game was set up by Sinclair, who sent her strike partner in for a late chance that would surely have given Canada a 1-0 lead if said strike partner wasn’t Melissa Tancredi. Against the Netherlands her strength and determination made her by far Canada’s best player going forward in a horrifying draw. She genuinely played well, led the team in scoring, and deserved better.
What’s more, outside of the World Cup Sinclair also had a good year. She started the year with five goals from her first five games, four against quality opposition. Her performance in the Hamilton friendly, just before her thirty-second birthday, was fine. Down in Portland she only had two goals and two assists in a World Cup-shortened campaign, but her strike rate on her team was bettered only by the sensational journeyman Allie Long. It was a good year. Not a great one, but enough that I should have put her on my podium. I didn’t and I regret it. Sorry, Christine, I know I broke your heart. 1. Kadeisha Buchanan 2. Josée Bélanger 3. Sophie Schmidt (but shoulda been Christine Sinclair).
Men’s Player of the Year
Wait, the men played? Oh yeah, Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying. Look, the men were an afterthought this year. But that’s okay, because in truth there were no performances to get you worked up anyhow.
Atiba Hutchinson is the best player, so absent anything more interesting I voted for him. So did a bunch of other people, and he won for the second year on the trot and fourth time overall. He’s a much-loved key player at Beşiktaş, who as we speak has a good shot of winning the Turkish Süper Lig for the first time since 2008–09. For Canada his calmness, precise passing, and low-intensity but somehow always adroit defending is quite literally indispensable. Canada without Hutchinson is nobody much, a demi-glorified Guatemala with a bit more speed down the wings. Canada with Hutchinson can hang around against anybody and occasionally surprise you with a moment of glory. Hutchinson missed out on the Gold Cup, where Canada was worse than bad, worse even than 2013 when fans said Colin Miller obviously didn’t know how to tie his shoelaces the team was so awful. Then Hutchinson played at BC Place against Honduras, looked vital, and was a key part of a fantastic win. Even in El Salvador he, and Junior Hoilett, were the two players who looked like they might be able to get us three important points.
No doubt there was a strong groundswell for Cyle Larin. For his club, he got more headlines than any other Canadian of either gender, setting the Major League Soccer rookie scoring record with 17 goals, tops at Orlando City and sixth in the league overall. His formidable strike rate was beaten only by Didier Drogba and Robbie Keane, of whom I believe I have heard. For country he scored the goal against Honduras, not that he knew anything about it, and notched a couple against Dominica to be the men’s second-top scorer of 2015 behind the continually underrated Tosaint Ricketts. He did many things right. I am biased against Major League Soccer and tend to discount its players on my ballot, but not even I can deny that Larin was a cut above the “wow Jonathan Osorio really established himself as a viable first-team option!” crap that usually passes for an MLS nominee. So I put him in second place.
Why not first, then? Well, if you’re going to stake your entire candidacy on being an offensive wünderkind, you probably shouldn’t score on 58.6% of your shots on target, the highest non-PK shooting percentage among any of MLS’s leading scorers, and make me scream “oh god he is going to regress so hard in 2016 and people are going to read way too much into it.” An unsustainable hot streak doesn’t take you out of the Player of the Year running but, when it’s so one-dimensional, it doesn’t get you ahead of Hutch either. Also, you probably shouldn’t do this.
In third is the usual pu-pu platter of decent but unremarkable choices. Milan Borjan, now inarguably Canada’s first choice goalkeeper, is popular and talented and continues what is a actually a pretty strong post-Craig Forrest tradition of eccentric but able men between the sticks. Tosaint Ricketts can’t get no respect, and I maybe should have been the man to give him some, but despite leading the MNT in scoring he’s currently playing fullback in the Turkish second division and didn’t step up against top countries this year the way some of his teammates did. Cheeky choices include Julian de Guzman, who had a good club run with the Ottawa Fury and is having the weirdest Indian Summer I can ever remember, playing consistent soccer despite being a million years old and seemingly washed-up in 2013, and Junior Hoilett, who wasn’t on the list of nominees but I can guarantee some smartass voted for him anyway.
I plumped for Adam Straith, currently running all over the field for Fredrikstad in the Norwegian second division. This was slightly unfair of me, as my lingering opinion Straith doesn’t quite get his due for club or country must have influenced what was a fairly aggressive voting choice. But look at the man. He’s gone 90 minutes in all six of our World Cup qualifiers to date plus all three of our Gold Cup matches, the only Canadian to do so. He is more versatile than any of our other men, suiting up in defensive midfield and centreback this year, with spells at both fullback positions not too far in the past. While not flashy and in little danger of winning a game by himself, he also makes few blunders and a comparison to David Edgar, a much higher-event player in every category, is not necessarily to Straith’s disadvantage. Sure, his current club form is worth nothing, and you wouldn’t panic if you learned thirty minutes before kickoff that Adam Straith was hurt, but on a team that seems to produce mostly guys who put together an incredible game then disappear for four months Straith’s steadfast solidarity is comforting. I trust Adam Straith. Only Atiba Hutchinson got the same praise. 1. Atiba Hutchinson 2. Cyle Larin 3. Adam Straith.
The Awards I Can’t Vote for
Every year the U-20 and U-17 player of the year awards are restricted to Canadian coaches. However, I like to weigh in anyway.
To name Jessie Fleming women’s U-20 player of the year took no leap of imagination. I wish John Herdman had used her more at the World Cup; her spark would have helped a team dying offensively. But, while not exactly a force when on the field, she did well for a kid. Nobody else was seriously in it, and with Fleming excluded we’re left with an odd field. The CONCACAF women’s U-20 tournament and the Natal senior tournament, which had a heavy U-20 presence, both took place in December and split the roster. Gabrielle Carle and Marie Levasseur were with the senior team and denied the chance to show their stuff against their own age group, while Sura Yekka and the Sarahs Kinzner and Stratigakis looked pretty good with the U-20s. I give Kinzner the edge, partially for her general play but mostly because she had two goals at the CONCACAF tournament and both were dope as fuck. Yekka was allegedly a fullback but more-or-less played every position depending on her mood. She thought she was really talented for her age group and, you know, she was right. Then there’s Deanne Rose, who is on the U-17 list but looked like such a dynamic attacking winger in Brazil that I thought about her for more than half a second, and Kennedy Faulknor, a surprisingly-good U-17 centreback in the same tournament. Apart from Fleming I’m basing this off not many games but oh well. 1. Jessie Fleming 2. Sura Yekka 3. Sarah Kinzner.
The men’s side is another mixed bag. Michael Petrasso, the eventual winner, would have been a good bet. Wearing the number 34 shirt at Queen’s Park Rangers, he’s semi-regularly on the bench in the Championship and has entered three games this season. The other European-based players on the list are Fraser Aird, whose commitment to Canada is so recent I rule him out, and Luca Gasparotto, on the book at Rangers but is loaned to Greenock Morton. Not bad, since they and Rangers are in the Scottish Championship, but is a regular centreback on loan in the Scottish second division better than an occasional midfielder in the English second division? In October’s ultimately unsuccessful Olympic qualifying campaign, Petrasso was Canada’s most dynamic attacking threat, while Gasparotto looked a little slow, a little uncertain, not quite up to it. Nobody, except Hanson Boakai, looked good at the disastrous CONCACAF U-20s in January but Petrasso was among the less bad while Gasparotto helped our backline concede multiple goals to pretty much everyone. Among the North American nominees, Chris Serban is a great story but is playing MLS reserve soccer right now, Kianz Froese at least saw MLS once in a while but Petrasso’s doing better, and Cyle Larin wait that’s right Cyle Larin was eligible for this! How did he not win?! We’ll probably never know what the hell the coaches were thinking. This is why it’s worth publishing these, because Cyle got robbed. 1. Cyle Larin 2. Michael Petrasso 3. Kianz Froese.
Our men’s U-17 CONCACAF championship bid went better than the U-20s, but in the playoff they got shredded by Costa Rica and that was that. Tristan Borges, one of the nominees, scored against Mexico, and honestly that always makes you worth at least a look. Sadly, others had more well-rounded years. His Toronto teammate Gabriel Boakye is not only enjoying a growing reputation but made seven starts for the TFC reserves last year. Ballou Tabla, last year’s winner, scored against mighty Saint Lucia for the U-17s but didn’t make noise otherwise. Duwayne Ewart was Canada’s leading scorer at the tournament; as the only nominee outside a professional academy I think he was slightly overlooked but I’m no expert. The sole European-based prospect, Harrison Paton, is something of an invisible man on this side of the pond. That leaves the man who won, Vancouver’s Kadin Chung, a versatile player who got 41 minutes with the Whitecaps reserves in 2015, couldn’t get off the field for the U-17s, and scored against Haiti. You can’t put one ahead of the others unless you’ve spent a lot more time watching them than I have, so I won’t bother giving a ranking, but my instinct leans towards Boakye and Ewart.
The women’s U-17s are easier just because so many of them got a chance at a higher level. We already discussed Rose, Faulknor, and Stratigakis, who impressed alongside players a few (or many) years their senior; Faulknor wound up winning, doubly impressive since her run in the Natal tournament came after the polls had closed. It’s hard not to like her (or Rose) based on the early returns. In some order Rose, Faulknor, and Stratigakis are by far the most reasonable 1-2-3, but spare thoughts for Emma Regan and Vital Kats, who more than held their own at the CONCACAF U-20s. Regan made three interesting appearances and posted a couple assists, showing a bit of dynamism that our fullbacks don’t always have, and as a 2000 kid is insanely young for the level. Kats was a supersub forward despite outplaying the regular starter, Taylor Pryce. Lysianne Proulx is also in the picture. I feel more confident ranking these young women – because I actually remember their games – so let’s go with 1. Kennedy Faulknor 2. Deanne Rose 3. Sarah Stratigakis and a confident “see you next year” for Emma Regan. Well, this year, I guess, now.
(notes and comments…)