Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association
This is the time of year when the Canadian Soccer Association asks coaches, members of the media, and even soft-brained, slobbering bloggers to shamble out of their mothers’ basements, shield themselves from the light, and try to vote for the Canadian men’s and women’s players of the year without pooping themselves.
Placing a vote is one thing but broadcasting our rationale for it in a 3,000-word blog post is uncut narcissism. Or not quite, for these sorts of awards often feature indefensible voting based off reputation or the candidates’ team. The upcoming FIFA Women’s Player and Coach of the Year awards already look demented and we haven’t even seen the winners yet. Being able to hold the worst voters accountable not only helps us know who the idiots are, but encourages those who are merely lazy to put a little more thought into an award that, after all, can mean a great deal to an athlete’s career. The Canadian player of the year awards have historically been more intelligently selected than others but they aren’t perfect, and those who help decide the winners should be unafraid to publicly stand by their choices.
For more examples of how I am the idiot, see my votes for 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012.
Men’s Player of the Year
Every year, deciding on the best men’s national team player is like picking your favourite Nazi. “Well, Speer downplayed his part in the Holocaust and his knowledge of slave labour, but he at least said sorry and his books were interesting.” For Albert Speer read “Atiba Hutchinson,” who I and lots of other people vote for on an almost-annual basis because he’s the best player. There’s another good argument for him this year: with much help from Atiba Beşiktaş won the 2015–16 Turkish league, is undefeated so far in 2016–17, and is playing respectably in the Champions League. Because of World Cup qualifying he was also able to play for Canada quite a bit, contributing his usual reliability and poise. He will probably win player of the year, again, and nobody will mind, again.
So here’s the argument against. First, while Hutchinson is still a core player at Beşiktaş, he hasn’t been at his best. In 2015 we had Arsene Wenger singling him out for praise amid rumours he might move at last to the Premier League. This year he’s been the Turkish team’s talisman, and the fans love him, but he has not enjoyed the same daunting run of form. Second, for country, his standard has slipped a little. He’s 33 years old, for God’s sake, he’s entitled to slow down, but the Hutch we saw, particularly at Azteca and San Pedro Sula, was not the same almost-intimidatingly imperturbable presence. Now that World Cup qualifying is over he has returned to his usual habit of showing up for the NT only now and again; he’s skipped every post-WCQ friendly and you’d be unwise to bet on him playing the Gold Cup. Unless you’re punishing him for playing at Beşiktaş any ballot without Hutch on it is incomplete, but there’s no easy, automatic first place vote here.
I also rule out the other two Canadians playing at the highest-level clubs. Scott Arfield is a neat guy but a foreign mercenary, and Junior Hoilett, besides not actually playing that well for anybody this year, is still a poster boy who couldn’t bother with us for a decade. Giving either of them a high national honour, particularly in an uninspiring year where they’d essentially win by default, is an insult. Hoilett might earn forgiveness with dedication and effort, Arfield might embrace his Canadian passport of convenience, and either might play so brilliantly that to deny them recognition would be the greater sin. But none of that has happened yet.
So who’s left? The leading scorers on the Canadian men’s national team this year were Tosaint Ricketts and David Edgar, each with two. Ricketts bagged a brace in the Mauritania Revenge Friendly. Edgar had singles against El Salvador and what was functionally Uzbekistan’s U-23 team; though normally a centreback he was playing striker at the time against El Salvador. Every word of those sentences looked like a cruel joke but was completely accurate. Both play in Major League Soccer these days, Ricketts with Toronto and Edgar with Vancouver. Well, we say “both play,” but actually Ricketts has better fit the MLS mold. Edgar has been on the field but hasn’t found a consistent role with Carl Robinson despite being, in principle, exactly the defensive stalwart the Whitecaps needed. Yes, as we all know the Whitecaps hate Canada, but he was also culpable for more MNT mistakes than anybody would have liked. The weird thing about Edgar isn’t that he’s been a rotation player in MLS, it’s that you can understand why.
Tesho Akindele did a bit for FC Dallas, a very small bit indeed for the MNT, scored against Azerbaijan (still not a joke), and I guess is defensible in another weak year. Cyle Larin inevitably regressed towards the mean for Orlando City but still had a good season, scored a goal for Canada on purpose, missed his sitters less screamingly than before, and will get well-deserved votes. Milan Borjan’s a nice shout as well, though he’s become a flamboyant goalkeeper who looks like he could steal us a big game but never does. Patrice Bernier is oddly effective for the Montreal Impact but is basically no longer a member of the national team pool. The other finalists (Marcel de Jong, Jonathan Osorio, and Adam Straith) provoke varying levels of “are you kidding?” Steven Sandor argued in favour of a player from our fascinating futsal team, and frankly if I had more bottom I would have wrote in Josh Lemos, but my almost Germanic love of order proved too strong to accept voting for a guy who doesn’t actually turn out for the senior MNT.
This brings me back to Ricketts. When he joined Toronto FC I joked that, much though fans revile him as a one-dimensional speedster, a one-dimensional speedster named Bradley Wright-Phillips is having a decent MLS career. No, Ricketts isn’t scoring like Wright-Phillips yet. He is, however, having a strong early run. On a team whose approach had been “get Giovinco the ball and let him deal with it” Ricketts provided a real spark, scoring three goals on nine shots on target in 399 minutes during the regular season; 0.676 goals and 2.030 shots on target per 90 minutes. Small sample size, absolutely. But he was also the most reliable attacking threat on the senior men’s national team, for the very little that’s worth. And, though it doesn’t feel strictly fair with the MLS Cup still ahead of us, we can’t help but note Ricketts’s two playoff goals and an assist in 117 minutes. He’s not the team’s playoff MVP, but would they have gotten this far without him?
By voting for Tosaint Ricketts, we’re voting for a criminally underappreciated player finally getting some love. He has, for both club and country, achieved something positive. Rare things in the MNT. 1. Tosaint Ricketts 2. Atiba Hutchinson 3. Cyle Larin.
Women’s Player of the Year
Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association
Last year, Christine Sinclair’s brutal dominion over the Canadian Women’s Player of the Year award was finally broken by the heroism of young Kadeisha Buchanan, a stalwart, hard-tackling centreback who won a country’s love by having an excellent Women’s World Cup at a tender age and wrecking Abby Wambach. At long last, Canadian soccer fans were liberated from the limitless malice of Sinclair, ensconced upon her throne of skulls, laughing mercilessly as she ruthlessly drove pretenders like Diana Matheson and Sophie Schmidt into the blood-soaked dirt. (This may be slight poetic license.)
A year later, the Red Queen has marshaled her forces to restore her rule. At the Rio Olympics, Sinclair had a fine run with three goals, including the bronze medal winner, and a fine assist against Australia. Add three more in Olympic qualifying (two against relative non-minnow Costa Rica) and another in a friendly against the Netherlands for seven goals and another very respectable season. She was nominated for FIFA Women’s Player of the Year and actually outscored two of the three finalists, Marta and Melanie Behringer (though Behringer is not a striker). Less importantly, but still impressively, in a season shortened by injury and Olympics Sinclair was also the most dangerous striker for the NWSL regular season champion Portland Thorns, while younger players feted by FIFA neglected their clubs in favour of book tours, not naming any names.
Can Buchanan defend the crown wrested so heroically from Sinclair’s iron claw? No. Of course she was unbelievable for West Virginia University, a no-doubt first-team All-American and ESPNW’s national collegiate soccer player of the year. At WVU she’d boredly rampage on the attack just to keep busy as she was normally, to a hilarious degree, head-shoulders-and-hips above the low standard of the Big 12. WVU, helped by a Canadian corps on defense that most notably included Bianca St-Georges and Rylee Foster, conceded 12 goals in 27 games and none (zero!) in their eight regular-season Big 12 games. That’s a hard record for a defender to improve upon. Buchanan improved upon it anyway, scoring three goals and adding three assists.
But nobody votes for the player of the year based on what she did in the Big 12, and nobody should. In the year’s major friendlies and at the Olympics Buchanan was no more than acceptable. Compared to 2015, her tackles retained aggression but had lost common sense: she racked up the yellow cards, should have given away a penalty against France and ended our medal hopes right there, did give away an unnecessary penalty in the semifinal, and was too often just a quarter-step behind the play. There were great moments, and really bad ones; the term that comes to mind for 2016 Buchanan is “high-event” and in a centreback that’s bad. Ending 2015 on such a high then spending most of the year as a woman among girls in the NCAA, she just wasn’t precise enough at the highest level. This was her last year of college eligibility, we can count on her joining the NWSL if she’s willing, so with luck Buchanan will be back among the top three in 2017. Because she isn’t now.
So who remains to repel the dreaded Sincy, her black heart burning in hopes of revenge? Is it Steph Labbé, who was less bad than we feared during the Olympics and lost her starting spot on the Washington Spirit because they are eccentric? (No.) Is it Sabs D’Angelo, who didn’t do much for the national team but did backstop the Western New York Flash to an NWSL championship? (It is not.) Does a brace by Melissa Tancredi against Germany put her over the top? (I am more sympathetic than you might think but no, I doubt it.) How about the usual Old Pretenders, the Sophie Schmidts and the Diana Mathesons and the Desiree Scotts? Some had better seasons than others, Schmidt had an immortal moment at the Olympics, but none, you must confess, was the team’s beating heart. Matheson’s four goals and four assists in 800 NWSL minutes was very good but usually she’s in the MVP argument; not this year. (Again, though, Washington Spirit, eccentric.)
Though Buchanan is not among them, it is to the Young Pretenders that we must look if Sinclair is to be denied. In her first year at UCLA Jessie Fleming was a third-team All-American, which as 99 Friendship listeners have already been told is a very high honour for a freshman. Her ability to humiliate absolutely everyone made her a meme. She was fifth in the Pac-12 in points and tied for second in goals despite not being a natural forward; UCLA used her as a trequartista late in the season simply because she was so much more talented. She also had a strong Olympics, starting all six games, going 90 minutes in four, and achieving a magnificent assist on Sinclair’s goal against Australia. Finally, she bagged her first two goals for the senior national team, against Trinidad and Tobago and China, which is impressive for an 18-year-old if grammatically awkward.
When you vote for a senior player of the year, though, it can’t be because she was “impressive for an 18-year-old.” Fleming was certainly that, but had we lost her for the Olympics would we still have won that bronze medal? Probably. I’m glad we didn’t have to find out, but she was not our most irreplaceable player.
If super-young, super-skilled Fleming does not yet sneak into the top three, the next-most-glamorous choice is poacher Janine Beckie. Like Sinclair, Beckie scored three goals at the Olympics; unlike Sinclair, two of them were against lowly Zimbabwe. But the third was against Australia, briefly the quickest strike in Olympic history, and against France Beckie provided unquestionably the Canadian soccer assist of the season on Sophie Schmidt’s winner. Elsewhere she scored in both her starts at Olympic qualifying, had two at the Algarve Cup, and bagged a beauty on 90’+4 to beat Brazil in Ottawa. All-in-all she scored nine times for Canada in 2016, leading the charts, and just for fun added three goals and two assists in 916 minutes for the same Houston Dash team some teammates couldn’t bother to play for. It was a marvelous season for Beckie, and while it’s too soon to say she’s now Canada’s best striker, you can’t say she isn’t either. Certainly she had a better season than our friend Sinclair.
Shelina Zadorsky has risen from a relatively quiet spot to be a regular starter for Canada at centreback. This is impressive. Centrebacks of her ilk, not too physical and more focused on doing the little things right, don’t always get their credit (though it was Zadorsky’s long switch of play that started the sequence leading to Schmidt’s Olympic goal). It is a shameful omission that I am perpetuating, for her game is a modest one and was not sufficiently close to perfection to break onto the podium.
The winner is Ashley Lawrence. Moving from the wing to fullback so effortlessly is amazing, but not inherently player-of-the-year stuff: there’s no automatic “degree of difficulty” bonus. What makes Lawrence the player of the year is that she was an incredible fullback. Moving between the left and the right with ease, absolutely indefatigable despite playing an extremely quick, pacey game. Unafraid to challenge players in her own third, and sufficiently talented that she won those challenges. Disciplined but damned difficult to beat. An offensive threat not only in the way that her speed and aggression forced defenders to defer to her, but in terms of the two assists she bagged in 2016 including one in the bronze medal match, an annihilating run putting Brazil on the back foot before she sauced it up to Deanne Rose. She was probably the best fullback in women’s soccer in 2016 despite playing the position for the first time and remaining in midfield with West Virginia. Internationally, she was incredible almost every game, started eighteen of twenty appearances for Canada, was probably man-of-the-match in the Olympic games against Australia and France, and despite her workrate was only subbed off once. Oh, and she was another first-team All-American, but her national team play was so fabulous that no such tinfoil slivers of distinction are needed to establish her pre-eminence. In the future teams will be used to Lawrence, they will plan for her, and we’ll see if she can build on this. But no player can take more personal pride in that bronze medal. 1. Ashley Lawrence 2. Janine Beckie 3. Christine Sinclair.
Awards I Can’t Vote For
Licensed Canadian soccer coaches are eligible to vote for the youth players of the year. I am not, but will say what I would have done anyway.
It was an off year for baby broso, so opinions there are formed in great ignorance. For the U-20 men’s player of the year, for example, it is hard to see past Shamit Shome: the FC Edmonton Academy product turned in 18 starts and 1,654 minutes in the NASL last year, totals none of the other nominees have come close to on a professional first team. As Sadi Jalali or Hanson Boakai would tell you, no amount of “potential” will get you playing time from Colin Miller unless you are a consistent contributor, and Shome (who has already spent more time on the field than either higher-touted player did in their FC Edmonton careers) was. He’s become a regular on the national U-20 team, as well, and has captained them in a few games. Compared to him the likes of Kris Twardek, who recently saw his first action for Millwall in the former League Cup but has never played a real game, just seem inadequate. Twardek and Shome are the only nominees to have played a single minute of first-team soccer, though Ballou Tabla has an MLS contract. Some have done very well with the reserves: Tabla had five goals and five assists in 1,685 minutes last year for the mini-Impact and Thomas Meilleur-Giguère was omnipresent on their backline. Still, there’s no substitute for leadership and the first eleven. 1. Shamit Shome 2. Ballou Tabla 3. Kris Twardek.
In principle the women’s U-20 player of the year is a gimme, but here’s a philosophical question. There was a U-20 Women’s World Cup this year, and can you be U-20 player of the year if you deliberately skipped it? This applies to Jessie Fleming, who is easily the best candidate except for the fact that she chose to stay at UCLA rather than make the trip to Papua New Guinea. If the girls had enjoyed a great World Cup this might have got very interesting, but in fact they were absolutely destroyed and the less said about the tournament the better. Judging players by their performance on other stages is an act of mercy, with the exception of centreback Bianca St-Georges. At the end of the U-20 World Cup I genuinely felt bad for her: no defensive starter ever deserved a 4.33 goals-against average less. By the way, Deanne Rose is not on the official nominee list, which is so obviously insane I can only assume it’s a typo. 1. Jessie Fleming 2. Deanne Rose [write-in?!] 3. Bianca St-Georges.
The men’s U-17 player of the year is even easier. The Vancouver Whitecaps’ Alphonso Davies played like he was three or four years above this age cutoff all year. As long as he appears on this list of under-17 players, he’s a leading contender. So let’s talk about second place. Once again there’s been next-to-no public action from this age group, incidentally justifying the CSA limiting the vote to accredited coaches. Toronto FC’s Terique Mohammed scored three times for the U-17 national team, including one against the United States and a last-ditch winner against Panama. He also managed just over an hour with their League1 Ontario team, and that’s excellent work for a forward of that age. The Whitecaps’ Gabriel Escobar enjoys a decent reputation, so in light of no clear third-place contender let’s pick him. 1. Alphonso Davies 2. Terique Mohammed 3. Gabriel Escobar.
How about the women’s U-17 player of the year? For just a tenth of a second, I flirted with contrarianism. The best player on Canada’s U-17 Women’s World Cup team was not who you’re automatically nodding towards, Deanne Rose: it was fullback Emma Regan, who in a disappointing tournament was truly excellent. Playing a position where Canada has historically been rubbish at the youth level, and still eligible for this award next year, Regan was dynamic in both offense and defense and even waged a respectable fight at the U-20 Women’s World Cup despite being thrown into soccer hell. After just missing out on my ballot in 2015 she certainly deserved recognition. Then I woke up and said “wait a minute, Deanne Rose was a useful player at the actual Olympics, stop being so stupid.” It was a moment’s madness, it passed, but seriously Regan did really well in a summer where Canadian women’s youth soccer did not win any laurels. Third place is Sarah Stratigakis, because she was successful at the U-17 Women’s World Cup and okay at the U-20s given that she was, for most of the 270 minutes, literally our only midfielder. 1. Deanne Rose 2. Emma Regan 3. Sarah Stratigakis.