Canadian Soccer Association
This morning I spent part of my holiday Monday reading a post by Justin Connolly on Red Nation Online. I read it because Jason deVos linked to it on Twitter saying it “reeks of ignorance” and, frankly, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
I didn’t think the article reeked but I have some experience with awful sports teams. Connolly starts by saying “few sports fans in the world that have endured the run of incompetence like those who follow the Canadian men’s national soccer team” but, as an Edmonton Oilers fan, I am one of the few. If Canada was like the Oilers we would have lost to Puerto Rico, failed to get out of the second round, and fired Paul Fenwick while the CSA insisted everything was fine. Then there would have been a lockout. Say what you will about the Canadian Soccer Association, and God knows I have, but they acknowledge there are critical problems and they must be fixed.
Which isn’t to say Connolly’s article was correct. He starts off weakly, writing about “teflon coach” Stephen Hart whose failings were apparently glossed over (yes, the coach who was fired in disgrace after one World Cup qualifying campaign with the near-unanimous agreement of the Canadian soccer world but who also not crapped on by the media once he was gone). Having accused Canada of making excuses for Hart, Connolly makes excuses for Canada by saying we’d be excellent if players like Owen Hargreaves, Jonathan de Guzman, Junior Hoilett, Daniel Fernandes, Asmir Begovic, and “budding defensive star” Steven Vitoria had just played for us.
It’s not unfair to say it “reeks of ignorance”, though, when that’s just the same old Canadian soccer fan attitude. “Fire the coach, blame the staff, and also it’s not our fault.” Anyone who hangs out with our soccer fans has heard it: it’s the default stance of message board posts, of nine out of ten pub talks. The only thing missing was a discourse on how the new head coach has to be a bright up-and-comer who “knows CONCACAF” and has a history of development talent but wants to come to Canada and earn their reputation.
What brought me up short was the criticism of Tony Fonseca. At the time I didn’t approve of Fonseca’s hiring as technical director. I think the Canadian Soccer Association needed new ideas and that Fonseca, as a long-time CSA insider, wasn’t the man to provide them. More than that, I was terrified that the CSA started soliciting candidates for technical director back in July with an application deadline of August 3, 2012 and, after three months, wound up with Stephen Hart’s right-hand man, as if either that long search was fairly pointless or there just weren’t many qualified candidates. Since then respectable pundits have said Fonseca was a voice for the right sort of change in the CSA. His coaching record in Vancouver was unimpressive, but I have been reminded he was responsible for bringing up a lot of local talent with the Vancouver Whitecaps, starting with bona fide A-League stars like Jason Jordan and Steve Kindel. That’s just the skill you want from your technical director. I still have reservations about Fonseca but am willing to give him a chance.
Connolly comes from a different perspective, one I find harder to reconcile with but one which also speaks for many Canadian fans. I will quote his criticism at length.
Which leads the how the CSA failed to get the Technical Director hiring right.
Tony Fonseca may be a great individual and a class act just like Stephan Hart. Fonseca is a former international with Portugal that once plied his trade with historic Benfica. His coaching experience however is far less glamorous involved exclusively in Canada with Vancouver and then the CSA.
This important hire should have been made so people across Canada knew about it. [. . .]
Instead of using the hiring of a key position, long noted by many as a vital to the growth of the game, they announced it the same day our American cousins were electing their president.
In political terms, they buried it.
The “buried” Fonseca has already appeared on TSN FC with Jason deVos and Luke Wileman and FAN 590 with Jeff Blair. He was written about by de Vos, Gerry Dobson, and Ben Rycroft for CBC.ca. The hiring was well-received by blogs, with Waking the Red and, of course, Red Nation Online bringing original content that American election day. The CSA sent out a press release and held a well-subscribed conference call hours before election results started rolling in; the same level of attention they give to pretty much everything, and have since made Fonseca available to the press. The news leaked on the Monday anyway. If this was a burying it was the most incompetent on record.
Fonseca’s coaching record is not unassailable. His coaching of Canada’s U-23s in Olympic qualifying, in spite of a famous win over the United States, was undistinguished. While he ran the Whitecaps from February 2002 to the end of the 2004 A-League season, his achievements were modest: a conference final appearance and a league semi-final appearance, three successful qualifications for the playoffs in three years but no great regular season records and no championships. It was a tumultuous period for the Whitecaps: Fonseca’s coaching run overlapped with David Stadnyk giving up ownership of the team and the desperate fight for a new owner that eventually led to Greg Kerfoot. But all the same, Fonseca’s onfield accomplishments must be considered “fair, but not great.” If he is remembered well in Vancouver it is because of the success he got from local players and because his successor, Bob Lilley, was the most hated Whitecaps coach until the Tom Soehn days.
But the argument isn’t that Fonseca isn’t qualified because of his coaching, but that he isn’t qualified because of his Canadianness. Despite being Portuguese he is, in almost every meaningful sense, a “Canadian coach”, and that in of itself seems to disqualify him. I’m not just trying to pick on Connolly here for we see the same argument made by Canadian soccer fans from coast to coast; Connolly is just an unusually eloquent writer with an unusually large platform to promote some very common views for which he cannot be held responsible.
They’re also views I once agreed with. Here is an article from July written, by me, with the not-so-subtle headline “Canada’s Technical Director Should Be Anything but Canadian”:
Canada needs foreign talent. Yes, a foreign technical director would cost money and come with risks: will he just flee back home, job undone? But ambition isn’t cheap and it isn’t risk-free, and “technical director” is an efficient area to spend money. If you have somebody at the top who can provide expert guidance and training for the most important members of your technical program, that can be far more helpful than any national team head coach or other more public but more expensive hirings.
It’s a delusion to think Canada’s men’s national team can pull itself up by its own bootstraps. The trouble is that there simply isn’t the expertise in this country to develop the team we need to qualify for World Cups. There isn’t an active Canadian who can say he’s been a steady winner at the professional level, or who can boast of a record developing players or staff. Our professional clubs are making great progress training young talent but even they found it necessary to bring in foreign heads for their academies. The Canadian Soccer Association, with such a vast responsibility and so much more work to do, is certainly no exception.
I hope you see why I’m trying not to bash Connolly too much, for very recently I was on the same side of the argument. I come by my conversion honestly.
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To the right is a list of the players currently in our national pool who I consider “developed in Canada”. You may argue with most of them. Lars Hirschfeld, the elder statesman, spent a couple years in Germany from 1998 to 2000 but was otherwise Canadian-based from childhood until 2002, when as a 23-year-old he had his shot with Tottenham. His professional debut was with, depending on how you’re counting, the old indoor Edmonton Drillers or the second-division Vancouver Whitecaps. He’s Canadian-developed to me, but you may disagree. Atiba Hutchinson was in Canada until he was 21, playing Canadian Soccer League and A-League soccer before moving abroad; he was obviously well above A-League level and was soon overseas but, again, spent his prime development years in Canada. Patrice Bernier spent a year in American college soccer but was primarily developed in Canada; he was an elite hockey player who spent two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Randy Edwini-Bonsu came up through the Whitecaps Residency and played for the first team but couldn’t stick and had to go to the Finnish second division. The only players who aren’t arguable cases are the young ones.
Every player on this list is either on the downside of their careers (Hirschfeld, Bernier), are too early in their professional careers to call up regularly (Attakora, Edwini-Bonsu, Henry, Morgan, Stinson, Teibert), or is Atiba Hutchinson (Hutchinson). Of the six young players, odds are most of them will fade into obscurity because that’s just what happens. As Canada’s best player since deVos’s prime Hutchinson alone lends this list gravitas but he is an unusual case: a fantastic talent who somehow slipped through the cracks, joined the Lynx as a 20-year-old, and immediately made everybody say “that’s it, he’s too good for us.” And the fact that, from the entire Canadian senior national team pool, I found nine players who could by any definition qualify as “developed in Canada” and four of those nine are under 21 is rather shocking.
This is for many reasons. One of them is that there is a shortage of qualified coaching in Canada relative to our size (meaning both “population” and “area”). A kid in Fort McMurray, however talented, has next-to-no chance of becoming a first-class soccer player, for there is unlikely to be a good coach within a four-hour drive of his house. When we say that Canada needs some foreign impresario this is usually one of the reasons: there just aren’t enough talented soccer minds in Canada to train the vast next generation of coaches we need.
The trouble is that the technical director job is such a far-reaching one that there’s more to it than just technical expertise. We’ve been perfectly capable of developing elite players like Hutchinson domestically, and there have been no fewer than three fully professional clubs in Canada every year since 1997. Our elites have had no trouble getting access to the best teams in Europe. But it’s never tied together. Kids have bounced up the ranks of youth clubs, going from coach to coach, club to club, hoping to be noticed by a scout or sign on professionally.
Lately the provinces, the clubs, and the CSA have improved matters, but there is no substitute for a high authority with the knowledge and the mandate to tie together disparate regional strategies. There’s no reason that high authority can’t be a former Canadian coach; indeed, somebody like Fonseca will have a better understanding of the unique world of Canadian soccer than a foreign voice however talented. The technical director doesn’t need to be somebody who can “win in CONCACAF”, nor necessarily even somebody who is a great teacher, but somebody who can finally start getting our players from cradle to national team within the Canadian soccer system.
I’m still not convinced Fonseca was the best man for the job, but that isn’t because of his Canadian coaching roots. Were the CSA to appoint somebody like Dwight Lodeweges with extensive Canadian experience but also superior technical qualifications, I’d have been thrilled partially because of his time in Canada. The best soccer mind in the world would be useless if he didn’t have the knowledge and the connections to give Canada a consistent, useful platform for player and coaching development. On the other hand, somebody could be a mediocre coach but if they were able to create a structure which gave Canadian players and coaches the best chance to develop in this country, they would be the greatest technical director in our history.
The idea that Canada must always go abroad for help is tempting; after all, we’re a weak soccer nation. But it’s one of those ideas that have gained currency among fans without sufficient challenge. It’s become accepted wisdom based on “we need to do something different, and this is something different.” The one time Canada brought in a foreign technical director, England’s Richard Bate, he fled within a year having achieved absolutely nothing, but this is just one bad apple while the failure of any ill-chosen Canadian is proof we need a foreign hand.
Over the years Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact teams staffed primarily with Canadians, often local ones, and as often coached by them, have won second-division championships. We’ve produced professional coaches, good teams, and excellent players; again, our best active soccer star played entirely within Canada until he was 21. We all know that Canada has some expertise but faces unique challenges because of geography, demography, and history. Yet every time a major vacancy in this country comes open fans shout that we need an outsider to show us what we’re doing, preferably that young guy we’ve all heard of and who develops great players while knowing CONCACAF.
There’s no doubt that Canada has much to learn from other soccer nations and we shouldn’t hesitate to bring over outside talent where we think it can help us. The work, however, needs to be done on a low level: teaching our community coaches that there’s more to the game than athleticism, that there’s more to youth development than trying to win. The job of a technical director is to improve the game from the highest strategic perspective, not to personally teach every coach his business. That’s a job which can as easily be done by a Canadian, one who knows the landscape, as anyone. Dragging in a European or Latin American just because they are an outsider is how you wind up with Aron Winter and Mo Johnston.
The sort of lazy thinking which brings us “we need a foreigner!” as a knee-jerk response is the same lazy thinking which says we’d be fine if only the traitors had played for us. It’s the same lazy thinking which just shouts “reform!” without considering the nature or the objective of that reform, that wants to sack the coach for bad results without thinking of anyone better (or hire the coach in the first place despite an underwhelming resume because “the players will play for him”). I’ve been as guilty as this sort of thinking as anyone, and I’m sure some of you can point out other examples where I’m part of the problem. We all are, from time to time, and we all need to check each other’s assumptions.
The one sure way to make sure Canadian soccer doesn’t get any better is if we don’t critically analyze all this received wisdom. “Everybody knows” these sorts of lazy assumptions, has known them for years, and look where it’s gotten us.
(notes and comments…)