People and Places

By Benjamin Massey · June 16th, 2017 · No comments

André Donato/Canada Soccer

When North American sports teams report their “attendance” they usually mean the number of tickets distributed rather than the number of people actually attending the game. More concisely, they are lying: giving a larger number that makes them look good rather than a figure which might reflect how many fans were interested.

So even the announced 6,026 fans at Saputo Stadium to watch Canada play Curaçao (formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles, now a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands with a population of 160,000) was fake news. Saputo holds 20,801. One sideline and one endzone were basically empty. The other sideline stand was probably not half full. The southern terrace, where the few dozen supporters congregated, was very empty indeed. Only one gate was open and it had no queue to speak of despite plenty of security theatre. Samuel Piette got a few hundred tickets for friends, family, and friends of family and created a statistically significant part of the crowd. The number of bums in seats was probably nearer four thousand than six.

You have to go back to pre-2012 women’s friendlies for a crowd that small. Granted we’re talking about a Tuesday evening friendly against an opponent that, while ranked ahead of Canada in the latest FIFA tables, is so obscure I felt the need to parenthetically describe it in an earlier paragraph. Even those going expected the game to be fairly terrible, and they were right. Though Canada came from behind to win 2-1, the match was overall a dog.

Canadian soccer fans are fond of argument, so this caused one. Montreal had disgraced itself! Canada has hosted only seven men’s friendlies in the past decade; wasting something so rare on a city that can’t be bothered is crazy. There are cities which would have fallen over themselves supporting even such a drab game. It’s too late to fix the past, but we can at least look to the future and keep Canadian soccer out of Montreal until they give a damn.

First off, those who weren’t there should know the Montreal experience had huge positives. Fans who did show up were enthusiastic, from top to bottom. The standard of the supporters’ section was excellent. An anglo there will always enjoy trying to figure out what those crazy bilingual bastards are on about, but more than that they were energetic and fun. Not to walk into the satanic mill that is supporters’ politics, but every time we have a game in Montreal I hear about how those damned Impact ultras are all too Frenchified to ever support Canada willingly, and every time I walk out thinking that it would criminal not to give those blessed maniacs all of the games their intensity and effort deserve. Despite dismal predictions there was no phalanx of Canada haters cheering Curaçao out of separatist spite. It was a perfect crowd in everything but numbers. It was good enough for the players, who fought back, won, and stayed late to salute the crowd. Milan Borjan scooped up a supporter’s cigarettes after he accidentally spilled them onto the field. It was a nice night.

But what of all those empty seats? What of Montreal’s lukewarm interest in Canadian soccer? It makes sense when you remember that, lately, Canadian soccer has had a lukewarm interest in Montreal.

Infamously, Montreal hosted a men’s World Cup qualifier in September 2008 that saw Canada lose 2-1 to Honduras in one of the most horrifying experiences of all time. In nearly nine years since then, Canada’s second-largest city has hosted four Canadian games: the Curaçao match, a 2010 men’s friendly also against Honduras, a U-20 Women’s World Cup group game against North Korea, and a senior Women’s World Cup group game against the Netherlands. In the same timeframe Toronto has hosted 19 games (not counting the Pan-Ams in Hamilton), Vancouver 14, and Edmonton six. Those cities also had more glamorous matches; only Montreal’s Women’s World Cup game could exactly be called must-see.

Vancouver did not host any senior international Canadian games between March 2006 and January 2012. That January 2012 game, at newly-renovated BC Place, saw only a very-generously-counted 7,627 fans to watch Canada’s women beat Haiti 6-0. Haiti, like Curaçao, is a small Caribbean island nation that is better than you might guess. It was another midweek evening match, not saved by strong promotion of hometown heroes (Patrice Bernier and Samuel Piette in Montreal, in Vancouver an obscure young lady named Christine Sinclair). Unlike last Tuesday’s game, the Canada – Haiti match was a competitive fixture as the teams tried to qualify for the London Olympics. The tickets were cheaper, starting at $10 for a double-header. Had you judged Vancouver on that game alone, you might never have gone back.

Fortunately the Olympic qualifiers were a multi-game tournament. As the women won stylishly attendance grew, culminating in a competition-record 25,427 to see Canada lose 4-0 to the United States in the technically-meaningless final. Those 7,627 fans, it turns out, witnessed the first steps of the John Herdman golden generation that’s so far won two Olympic bronze medals. Vancouver now regularly packs them into BC Place, including 22,508 for a recent women’s friendly against Mexico.

Every city in the Dominion has experienced the unjust withdrawal of international soccer. Toronto prior to the opening of BMO Field, Vancouver between 2006 and 2012, Montreal now. Fans in each of these cities know the stagnation that comes from only seeing “your” national team on television, as those without an existing, unbreakable bond inevitably find not only that their interest wanes but that it does not automatically return with a single game. Then, when their city is blessed and another loses out, they forget those lessons and criticize that unlucky town for facing the same challenges in the same way.

This country is big, and it’s hard for anyone but the well-heeled or fanatical to travel for many games even domestically. The only solution is for every part of the country to get a reasonable share of national team matches. Between the men and the women there’s no excuse for Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal to not each see a game every year, with additional fixtures spread between your Edmontons, Calgarys, Winnipegs, Reginas, Hamiltons, Victorias, Monctons, and St. John’ss. It’s the only way to build a truly national fanbase for this program, because otherwise you see what we’ve seen in Montreal: the diminution of interest, and the alienating blame that goes along with it.

Insulting Chants

By Benjamin Massey · October 5th, 2016 · No comments

Jay Shaw/Canadian Soccer Association

Jay Shaw/Canadian Soccer Association

The Canadian Soccer Association has again been fined 20,000 Swiss francs (about CDN$27,000) for “insulting chants by supporters.” This fine, their third of the past World Cup cycle, came at Canada’s 3-1 win over El Salvador on September 6. One earlier fine was for pyrotechnics, the other for the infamous streaker and more “insulting chants,” and we also got a warning for the team coming out late for the second half at Honduras – Canada. Which is fair enough since it did.

“Insulting chants” fall under section 67 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code, which reads:

67. Liability for spectator conduct

  1. The home association or home club is liable for improper conduct among spectators, regardless of the question of culpable conduct or culpable oversight, and, depending on the situation, may be fined. Further sanctions may be imposed in the case of serious disturbances.
  2. The visiting association or visiting club is liable for improper conduct among its own group of spectators, regardless of the question of culpable conduct or culpable oversight, and, depending on the situation, may be fined. Further sanctions may be imposed in the case of serious disturbances. Supporters occupying the away sector of a stadium are regarded as the visiting association’s supporters, unless proven to the contrary.
  3. Improper conduct includes violence towards persons or objects, letting off incendiary devices, throwing missiles, displaying insulting or political slogans in any form, uttering insulting words or sounds, or invading the pitch.
  4. The liability described in par. 1 and 2 also includes matches played on neutral ground, especially during final competitions.

So visiting fans are probably innocent. The phrase “insulting chants by supporters” implies repetition and organization, which in turn implies that it couldn’t have been Salvadoran agents provocateurs scattered through the crowd.

Last year’s pyrotechnics charge against Belize was a fair cop. That did happen, in the Canadian supporters section at BMO Field. Of course responsible pyro should be allowed in soccer stadiums, but whatever may actually be just, in that case supporters undeniably broke a clear rule. An apology would be disingenuous since it’ll probably happen again, but we can take responsibility. “Insulting chants,” though? How do you even respond to that? That could be anything.

FIFA does not say what the insulting chants were and nowhere defines the term beyond its plain English meaning. According to Duane Rollins, the Canadian Soccer Association has not replied to requests for clarification. The Voyageurs, Canada’s semi-demi-hemi-official supporters group, have no idea what they might have done. I don’t mean that in the sense of a guy going “it’s a football match innit it’s just some banter” when he’s upset someone. We genuinely don’t know. My truculence and rudeness are not typical of a Vancouver crowd, which is for the most part mild-mannered and at pains to avoid anything that might hint at offense.

During the Mexico game, some Voyageurs brought in rainbow flags to protest a Mexican chant that offended them and there was serious support for an organized campaign. A dozen people chanting “build a wall and make them pay for it” for a few bars when we were getting stomped caused serious internal recriminations. And while there are drunken louts in any big crowd, “insulting chants by supporters” must mean more than some university idiot fifteen beers deep bellowing “go home you spic.” Otherwise every country with liquor sales would get fined. Vancouver supporters aren’t saints, but they are less outspoken than most within Canada, let alone the whole soccer world.

Local supporters believe the “insulting chants” were the traditional Vancouver shouting of “you fat bastard” when the opposing keeper takes a goal kick. This chant, dating back way into the USL days, has gotten the Vancouver Southsiders some limited heat from Major League Soccer over the years without affecting its popularity. There are no more obvious candidates so its guilt has been sort of assumed. But there’s nothing official or semi-official, no leak, no unnamed source, saying so. Vancouver fans shouted “you fat bastard” at the Honduran goalkeeper last year and nobody was fined.

Section 67 is so broad that the only way to avoid it is to stay silent. “Football mafia, CONCACAF!” is a popular chant whenever a call goes against us; that sounds pretty insulting. Any of the many variants of chants accusing players of being diving weenies qualify. “Uttering insulting [. . .] sounds” is sanctionable; did we boo anybody during those games? FIFA’s refusal to explain exactly what the fine was for only makes them look more arbitrary, and the CSA staying mum suggests they don’t want to bother even asking the supporters to change. (We should, incidentally, appreciate the hell out of that.)

No doubt FIFA is trying to stomp out something it, or a member association, finds offensive. The fact that there is nothing to be offended by in the average Canadian eye is irrelevant. We are being judged by standards not our own, and the unsurpassable effrontery of FIFA technocrats thinking they of all people can be our moral tutors chafes like steel underwear. The fact that outsiders are taking our kids’ registration fees to enforce their cultural values and dictate what’s offensive in a Canadian culture they do not understand is appalling, but that’s modern international soccer, isn’t it?

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

By Benjamin Massey · September 3rd, 2016 · 1 comment

Paul Giamou/Canadian Soccer Association

Paul Giamou/Canadian Soccer Association

Despite our latest 2-1 loss in Honduras it’s not mathematically impossible for the Canadian men’s national team to qualify for the World Cup; just the regular kind.

To advance we have to beat El Salvador at BC Place on Tuesday (reasonable), and Mexico needs to simultaneously annihilate Honduras at the Azteca. Canada is currently three points behind Honduras for the vital second place in our group; worse, our goal difference is five behind theirs. We seem constitutionally incapable of scoring more than once and would need at least a 5-0 Mexico victory*. In 1980 Mexico beat Honduras 5-1, and if you go way back to 1935 Mexico scored an 8-2 win in a prehistory when Honduras lost by a converted touchdown to pretty much everybody[1]. Mexico’s already through but when you’re taking on a rival for the Azteca crowd, pride actually counts quite a bit. Not “five goals” though.

In games like this even the balanced mind becomes bipolar. On the one hand, there is the urge to resist defeatism. The odds of Canada advancing with a win are one in a million, but that’s a damned sign better than the odds if Canada doesn’t win, so give ‘er gusto. Roar the boys on to a victory that, to any true fan, would be worth it for its own sake anyway. Those of us who were in Edmonton to see an already-eliminated Canada play Mexico in 2008 won’t soon forget that game as, with nothing to play for, Dale Mitchell’s squad played like it was the World Cup itself and won a glorious 2-2 draw. Just because a difficult job will have no larger purpose doesn’t mean you don’t have to give it your all. What were we just saying about Mexico? Pride counts; the BC Place crowd isn’t as intimidating as the Azteca’s but it’s still worth effort.

On the other hand, we’re done and everyone knows it. Even if that one-in-a-million chance came through we’d advance through no fault of our own. We could try to fool ourselves, like the lottery winner who says he must somehow have deserved it, but deep down we’ll know. So we’re searching for someone to blame, and by “searching” I mean we already know exactly who to blame because it’s always the head coach.

What sin is Benito Floro innocent of? Nepotism (his son, Antonio, is an assistant with the first team and led us through a disappointing Pan-Ams)? Arrogance (the Doneil Henry Right Back Experiment has been the most destructive since the Manhattan Project)? Obliviousness (with Canada effectively needing a goal in Honduras, Floro subbed on defensive player Nik Ledgerwood for a striker, the superbly useless Cyle Larin)? Does he even care (seriously, people were upset about Floro not celebrating Manjrekar James’s goal enough)? What a useless empty sack. He didn’t even call up the players I like! Small wonder he’s been sacked from almost every job he’s ever held like 99% of the world’s soccer managers.

Benito Floro looks set to get scapegoated. Just as Stephen Hart was in 2012, after losing that 8-1 game in Honduras following up a qualification campaign in which Canada was hopeless in front of goal. Hart currently coaches Trinidad and Tobago, who are winning their qualifying group and already assured of a place in the hex. Oh, yeah, Trinidad and Tobago’s group was a bit easier than ours, but Hart got a 0-0 draw with the United States at home and a 2-1 victory over Guatemala away, both results we’d give our eye teeth for.

Just as Colin Miller was after the 2013 Gold Cup. Miller was acting as interim coach during a Gold Cup that saw Canada embarrassingly lose to Martinique, play a decent loss to Mexico, and a rather boring nothing-to-play-for draw against Panama, all without scoring a single goal. Three quarters of his team was sick and others had better things to do. As the interim coach Miller was not exactly sacked, but Floro’s appointment was announced during the Gold Cup Miller was coaching. Anyway, despite plenty of criticism over the years Miller’s FC Edmonton squad just played a rollicking 2-2 draw at Ottawa despite missing two starters on international duty and is in the middle of its best-ever season, with very strong odds of a playoff spot.

Dale Mitchell, our 2008 Judas, has never returned to professional coaching after that letdown. Instead he is director of coaching at Coquitlam Metro-Ford, the latest in a series of developmental spots he’s held across the Lower Mainland. Coquitlam’s youth clubs, boys and girls, are perennial provincial contenders, their boys U-18s participating in nationals this year. A number of current youth internationals including Kadin Chung, Julia Kostecki, and Caitlin Shaw have come through their program. So Mitchell is doing all right for himself.

It wasn’t many months ago that Benito Floro was Canadian soccer’s hero of the hour. Not merely because he coached Real Madrid, but because he got us that long-awaited home win over Honduras and convinced several waverers and non-Canadians to join our national setup. Junior Hoilett and Steven Vitoria had long pushed Canada off in favour of other ambitions but, with their careers not leading to the European Championships in the foreseeable future, accepted Floro’s call. Scott Arfield, of course, is not Canadian in any sense whatsoever, but had a coincidental family connection and accepted the summons from a country he’d never been to when Scotland seemed uninterested. All these additions were much-touted, put squarely in Floro’s favour, and in the end made very little difference.

You know, I’m beginning to think it’s not the coach.

Long-term everybody knows that the problems are far deeper than any senior national team personnel, and most of us agree that a proper Canadian soccer pyramid will help us in twenty years, but that doesn’t explain our underachievement now. If I had a quick solution I would tell you. But slapping another coat of paint on top of our crumbling wall obviously isn’t going to help. Sure, many of us disagreed with Floro’s decisions but that’s just another way of saying “Benito Floro coaches a sport.” Had our first taste of John Herdman been 2015’s backpasses-and-Tancredi show rather than the 2012 miracle, women’s fans might have called for his head, which would have been the greatest mistake in Canadian soccer history.

Of course, John Herdman does have one advantage. While his teams always have the occasional me-first player (every team does), they are for the most part a collection of women who have spent a lot of time together and who are whole-heartedly devoted to the maple leaf. They don’t need to be coddled and given perks in excess of their performance. They don’t need to be mollycoddled on higher, strategic matters like what city games will be held in. They aren’t replaced two, three at a time by lukewarm Canadians who only answered our call because their preferred country wasn’t coming and immediately got slammed into the starting eleven.

This isn’t a gender thing. Plenty of international-calibre Canadian men’s players fit the ideal I just described. They’d run through a wall for the red and white. Some of those players got left out in favour of foreign mercenaries and Canadians who couldn’t care less, flopping and hot-dogging with one eye on the stands for scouts. That strategy has been a constant for as long as our coaching carousel. Maybe that’s where we should change first? If you can’t be the most talented, and Canada can’t, you can at least work the hardest, want it the most, and drive on your teammates the furthest.

(notes and comments…)

Making Up Our Goddamned Minds

By Benjamin Massey · June 8th, 2016 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

If we Canadian soccer fans had died on Saturday, we would have died sad.

Friday morning saw our Canadian men’s national team in Austria up against Azerbaijan, current world football Elo ranking 112, nestled between Réunion and Lebanon and thirty spots below even lowly Canada. The oil-rich Azerbaijanis have been investing heavily in their soccer team; president Ilham Aliyev is both a fan and a ex-Soviet kleptocrat of the first rank whose passion is diverting public money to his own interests. Azerbaijan’s head coach is ex-La Liga star Robert Prosinečki, who succeeded ex-Borussia Mönchengladbach star Berti Vogts in 2015. In 2011 they built a fabulous new national stadium in the capital of Baku which will host matches at Euro 2020. But money can’t buy everything and Azerbaijan is crap, with most of their players stuck in their uninteresting domestic league. Not Canada crap, though: 2.Bundesliga journeyman Dimitrij Nazarov was able to turn the Canadian midfield inside-out and buried a well-deserved penalty past Simon Thomas. The Azerbaijanis had the bulk of the chances and while Tesho Akindele’s goal was pretty nice, it’s all that was.

Benito Floro’s company was under strength. No Atiba Hutchinson, no Milan Borjan, no Will Johnson, and Marcel de Jong was hurt in the first half. Yet nobody forced us to send out six centrebacks, Johnson is a useful international but no star, and Atiba is 33 years old; we should probably learns to play without him one of these decades. A 1-1 draw against a team that recently drew to Malta was well-deserved, arguably even fortunate, for Canada, who was outshot and outpossessed by the Baku boys almost from the beginning. It was our sorriest friendly performance since that time we took one point from six against Mauritania, or maybe since we tied the Ventura County Fusion.

But at least we have the women, Canada’s sweethearts, who will redeem the Dominion’s honour against Brazil before a raucous Toronto crowd oh hell. Kadeisha Buchanan looked like she was six years old, Diana Matheson and Christine Sinclair looked like they were 600, Desirée Scott had developed a paralytic phobia of the ball. Brazil’s first goal was actually an embarrassment, the sort you give up in Football Manager. After multiple comic failures to clear the ball Allysha Chapman decided to serve it delicately to Marta, who has always appreciated good service, with inevitable results. On her second goal Marta proved she could do it herself, sauntering through non-existent marking and skimming a low central shot from range that would have been easily saved most of the time, but this time bounced off Steph Labbé’s hands into the far corner. Speaking of Labbé, her Adventures In Goalkeeping drew two anguished screams in the first six minutes and had us seriously considering a #Sheridan2016 campaign, while in the booth Jason deVos and Karina LeBlanc dished out every crumb of faint praise they could sweep up. We had some positives but, in front of excellent Canadian support, Brazil beat ten kinds of crap out of us then sat back and laughed.

After the game I had two reflections. The first was that, though she is putting in an MVP-candidate season with the Washington Spirit, I hadn’t seen Matheson good with the WNT for a couple of years. Nobody contradicted this, except to add to the list of long-disappointing midfielders. The second was that, halfway through the year, I really had no idea who could possibly deserve to be Canada’s women’s player of the year, then I caught myself, said that I knew exactly who the front-runner is, and it’s Ashley Lawrence. Which, with all respect to an emerging core player, is a little frightening.

So it was a black weekend. The men were in full-on minnow mode. The women weren’t capable of living in the same universe as Brazil. Woe to the conquered.

Then again, if we Canadian soccer fans had been born, screaming and crying, on Monday night, how brilliant our lives would have looked.

First off, the Canadian men opened the week with a friendly against Uzbekistan. There could hardly be a better recipe for Monday morning misery. The Uzbeks are actually solid: their Elo ranking is 48, a worthy mark between Ghana and Wales. Save for a 4-2 loss in Pyongyang, which I suspect is a difficult road trip, they have blitzed the field in Asian World Cup qualifying and were on an eight-game winning streak when we met. They called a young team, with twelve players on fewer than ten caps and many regulars absent; in principle Canada would give them a match. But those young Uzbeks qualified for the 2015 U-20 World Cup, unlike Canada, and had an extremely respectable exit in the quarter-finals. After that Azerbaijani debacle, well.

Yet Canada did exactly what they were supposed to do. The game started well and stayed that way. David Edgar, in holding midfield, not only got his head on the goal but contributed to other attacking movement, particularly in the first half. Scott Arfield dribbled around most of central Asia and Tosaint Ricketts was always a whisker away from getting in clear. Another early injury in defense, with Manjrekar James coming off 14 minutes in, was handled far more gracefully than on Friday. We didn’t look brilliant, conceded a few chances, our goal against was a bit of a shambles, and of course there was nothing glorious about the winning goal. A bullet header from 20-year-old fullback Akramjon Kolimov, making his second ever international appearance, getting on the end of a Junior Hoilett cross and piledriving it beautifully into the back of the net, with the only blemish on the strike being that the net was his own. So no, Canada didn’t deserve the win, but they were the better team and deserved to deserve it, which against that level of opposition is good enough.

Steve Kingsman/Canadian Soccer Association

Steve Kingsman/Canadian Soccer Association

That afternoon the women went for revenge against Brazil in Ottawa. Again the crowd was good in a non-traditional city, notwithstanding the capital city dickery of Lansdowne security, who confiscated flags and generally made trouble for the Canadian supporters. Youngsters Ashley Lawrence and Deanne Rose, who had in Toronto earned another chance, got it. Fellow youngster Jessie Fleming also got a start and added style to the lineup, right down to fizzing a shot from distance just wide after two years of me shouting “Fleming needs to shoot more!” Buchanan settled in, though she flubbed a great scoring chance. Matheson, playing high, was so lively and involved in the play that I thought guiltily about deleting my Twitter. Sinclair didn’t turn any of her looks into brilliant shots, but those looks were plentiful and she distributed the ball well. Lawrence is basically the player character in a video game now, running around doing absolutely everything. And that worrisome Labbé could have played cards for all it would have mattered; Brazil handicapped its offense by leaving Marta on the bench, but Cristiane is a heck of a second choice and she was neutralized. Even when Marta came on she didn’t get a sniff.

Like the men, the women were not perfect. Buchanan was much better but not exactly A1 and Scott struggled again, but more importantly they dominated the chances through all 90 minutes. Many came off the #CanadaRED boots of sparkling impact sub Janine Beckie. She earned her moment of stoppage-time heroism: coming out of midfield Matheson could not possibly have arced her pass any better and Beckie leisurely lobbed Luciana with one touch to win it with seconds left. Then she went over to Jennifer Hedger and had a calm interview about how they pressured Brazil’s back line before posing for some photos, though scoring a dramatic winner against quality opposition in front of 20,000 fresh-baked Beckiemaniacs did rate a smile. We saw the same thing when she piled on the misery for a pleb in Olympic qualifying and was barely interested in high fiving her teammates: Janine Beckie is stone cold. She is also 21 years old and has every chance of being among our top ten all-time women’s scorers by the end of the Olympics, provided she isn’t forced into goal again.

We all swallow clozapine by the pallet in the Canadian soccer community but the past few days have been, even by our high standards, bipolar. From confirmation of how miserable we are to a bright spark of hope in less time than it takes to tie your shoes. Both pessimism and optimism have been justified by games that were exactly as miserable/promising as the worst/best of us could have feared/hoped, and the result is that we stand in the middle of the parking lot throwing our arms around and not knowing what to think. Has the MNT got the creativity and guile to break down the Hondurans at San Pedro Sula, who after all are not by any rational calculation properly good? Well, maybe? Can the WNT overcome the fact that its goalkeeping is reduced to crossed fingers and a hashtag campaign, pump goals by Zimbabwe, get out of the group stage with credit, and scrap into a knockout round which could easily bless us with a kind draw? It might happen? At their best, both our senior national teams looked plenty good enough to do what we ask of them. But at their worst, back on the pills. It’s going to be a long year.

The Greatest Canadian Game Ever

By Benjamin Massey · January 22nd, 2016 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

There are some good old Canadian soccer videos on YouTube, and today I found the crown jewel: the complete match video of the biggest day in Canadian men’s soccer history, when on September 14, 1985, Canada beat Honduras 2-1 in St. John’s, Newfoundland and qualified for the 1986 FIFA World Cup.

I had never before watched this game. It took place fifteen months before I was born. The game was broadcast live nationally on CBC, today not a home for the men’s national team, so there are few opportunities for the network to pull it out of the archives. The only chance was home videotapers, some of whom recorded this game, a smaller subset of those keeping both boxes of tapes in good order and the means to play (and digitize) them. Apart from the 1986 World Cup itself, where YouTube has varying-quality foreign-language videos of all three Canadian games, the earliest matches available online even as decent highlight reels dated from the 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign… until a magnificent user gave us this piece of history.

You know the story. Canada needed a draw or a win to qualify; a loss would see Honduras through. English-born Carl Valentine, late of the Vancouver Whitecaps and then with West Brom, had finally agreed to represent his adopted homeland. The game was scheduled for St. John’s and the Newfoundlanders packed King George V Park to standing room only, fans crowded around the thin white rope that protected the field of play. Meanwhile, according to imperishable legend, most Hondurans who traveled to support their side wound up in Saint John, New Brunswick, across the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the action and scrambling to find a friendly pub. In the end, despite struggling with the flu, Valentine set up Canadian goals from two players as different as ice and fire: scrapper’s scrapper George Pakos, the Victoria amateur who’d clawed his way into the national program with sheer persistence and guts, and super-skilled Torontonian forward Igor Vrablic, 20 years old and already making his 34th cap, but less than two years away from being forced out in disgrace for match fixing.

You see it all in the video. Pakos’s opening goal is superbly gritty; Valentine’s corner gets only a glancing header from Ian Bridge, the ball falls into a sea of Honduran white, and from outside the post George Pakos charges into the mob like a raging bull and puts his boot through it, driving it right off Honduran goalkeeper Julio César Arzú and in. Vrablic, on the other hand, does it almost like you draw it up: tied 1-1 just past the hour mark, Valentine’s corner is flicked on by David Norman and Vrablic makes the perfect run, chucks his leg in the way, and deflects it home.

However, when you know a game as only a legend, it’s so easy to be disappointed in the imperfect reality of a 90-minute soccer match. Especially a thirty-year-old one on a dodgy pitch during the salad days of defensive soccer. Early on I yelped at a Canadian backpass into goalkeeper Tino Lettieri’s hands before remembering that wouldn’t be a rule for seven more years, and his long holds of the ball would have driven Abby Wambach to distraction. This was not soccer’s finest era and, mentally, I prepared myself for Canada gritting out an undeserved three points. What I got was a match living up to its reputation.

There are so many little moments Wikipedia just can’t tell you about. Lettieri, officially listed at 6’0″ but definitely smaller (Bruce Wilson, no giant, has a good few inches on him), running down everything like a maniac, taking every chance, and sprinting down the pitch to celebrate with the team on Pakos’s opener. The aggressiveness of the defending. A constant press, mad challenges (particularly from Pakos and Norman) in spite of what we still recognize as Honduras’s trademark flopping. Vrablic’s first-half chance, an absolute sparkler of a ball flashing across the face of goal, only for him to cement-foot it sideways, the sort of thing that could have lived in infamy on another day. Vrablic cannoning a shot from distance off the post with barely ten minutes to go; that miss wouldn’t have to haunt him either.

Late in the first half, with Canada holding on to a 1-0 lead, Randy Samuel making one of the great goal-line clearances, outrunning both Lettieri and the ball to hammer it most of the way to Cape Breton. Lettieri spilling a dangerous free kick but Ian Bridge thundering in without regard for life or limb to clear the ball behind. Late in the game, a charging Lettieri being stamped on by Macho Figueroa, and an irate Bob Lenarduzzi immediately shoving Figueroa to the ground. Randy Regan and Paul James, of all people, hooking up for a European counter attack that ended with James two feet from a highlight-reel goal. Ken Garraway, another Victoria amateur legend making his second-last cap for Canada, coming on to help kill the last half-hour and in his charmingly limited way tying the desperate Honduran defense in knots, like a particularly awkward bull tossing aside Pamplona tourists.

And Canada running, running, running, living up to our every stereotype of a country that emphasizes fitness, guts, and desire rather than sheer technical skill, a negative cliché that, on this enormous day, worked in the most positive fashion. The game was even in the middle of the park but Honduras generated little. They wanted it, don’t kid yourself, but pushed on by one of the all-time great crowds Canada outworked them. A crowd so energetic that, even in the pre-supporters group era, on the dough-like mid-’80s CBC microphones the atmosphere flows though the video like lifeblood. Singing “na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey hey hey, goodbye”… in the sixty-fifth minute. The Voyageurs wouldn’t have the nerve to taunt the Hondos like that today, but St. John’s did, and they were right. There weren’t even moments of danger, just Canada working harder, holding on, and at the explosion of the final whistle thousands of fans invading what had suddenly become a hallowed pitch.

What a show it was, the best of Canadian soccer as it was then. Knowing the outcome and knowing that, in the long run, it would amount to nothing more than a story takes nothing away in 2016. These players gave their all for their country; there were a few flashy, uncommitted professionals, but old-school players who’d run through a wall for the maple leaf proved more important. Pakos and Wilson, in particular, were the very incarnation of what Canadian players should be. Even Valentine, born and raised in England and preferring to play for them, was an honest man whose heart belonged to two homelands and would give everything he had for either one. They weren’t as technical as the Hondurans but they were skilled enough, not to mention well-led and utterly committed, and that’s what mattered (indeed, their performance against a nasty group in 1986 should be a source of pride in itself).

Bringing in the most talented players regardless of other considerations is a valid approach. But it’s not the only successful one.

Confidence Ain’t So Easy

By Benjamin Massey · November 17th, 2015 · No comments

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

The last time our men won a road World Cup qualifier against an unquestionably serious country was, for my money, May 2, 1993, when Dale Mitchell and Johnny Catliff led Canada to a 2-1 victory over, as it happens, El Salvador. In 2012 Canada won in Cuba, on the borderline between “minnow” and “real team,” and we beat a better-than-marginal Guatemala 1-0 in a 2004 game that meant nothing for either country. The point is, it’s been a long damned time.

So imagine the excitement when Canada travels to a road World Cup qualifier against a non-minnow as betting favourites. As of this writing bet365 has Canada 11/10 favourites against El Salvador. Betfair is fractionally less generous at 21/20. Nobody needs to be reminded of Canada’s fine home victory against the still-decent Hondurans, while my scouts* tell me that Mexico absolutely humiliated El Salvador at the Azteca, pumping three goals past journeyman Henry Hernandez and looking unlucky not to do better.

El Salvador’s program is the biggest dumpster fire in CONCACAF, which is saying something. Many top players are on strike, outraged at corruption and poor treatment, demanding such decadent luxuries as hotel rooms with hot water. Seven of their players are first-time internationals, including 33-year-old midfielder Yuvini Salamanca. More are veterans with relatively limited experience for their country. Of their major players only Rafael Burgos, Nelson Bonilla, and Jaime Alas are present. They have even been reduced to calling up someone from FC Edmonton, winger Dustin Corea, who went 90 minutes wearing the #7 shirt in Mexico. Corea played for El Salvador at the Gold Cup but that was his first major run for his country; now he is a key man.

The fans are despondent. Ticket sales at the colossal Estadio Cuscatlán are appalling, with only 2,400 sold as of this morning. The major El Salvadoran supporters’ groups stand with their striking players and their boycott appears to largely have been honoured. An El Salvador fan joined the Voyageurs forum, which is traditional, and said Canada is going to beat the hell out of his country, which is not. Any chance of the notoriously powerful San Salvador crowd lifting their inexperienced underdogs to victory seems gone.

Are Canadians optimistic? Let’s ask the sports section of the Toronto Sun:

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We know how this goes, right? Canada with a huge game it has absolutely every reason to win, its fans confident, while the opposing faithful who can be bring themselves to show up are struggling through the larceny of their federation and the indignity of months-long outrages. Of course it’s going to be a let-down. Of course it is. You think Canada is going to meet expectations and get six points out of six? How new are you?

The referee in El Salvador is Mark Geiger, who is a human dreidel, spinning and spinning and coming down who knows where. This is doubly dangerous. Junior Hoilett, our much-ballyhooed new acquisition, was diving all over BC Place. Backpasses from Adam Straith and Dejan Jakovic put Milan Borjan under a lot of pressure and led to collisions that incompetent referees could have called penalties. Benito Floro, perhaps underestimating the difficult physical conditions in CONCACAF, has tended to use largely the same starting eleven match after match in his tournaments so far. El Salvador is likely to rotate their squad and showed signs of saving their best horses in the unwinnable Azteca match. Burgos and Alas only played 45 minutes each on Tuesday, while Bonilla did not play at all. San Salvador is only a two-hour flight from Mexico City; Vancouver quite a bit further. And of course there are the other advantages of home field, apart from the crowd. The grass is reportedly terrible, though that didn’t stop Canada in Cuba. While Vancouver has spent the last week hovering a bit below ten degrees Celcius it is, as of this writing, 30 degrees in San Salvador at noon. It’ll be down to about 23 at kickoff but training in the heat is draining too.

Finally, Canada is still Canada. Cyle Larin’s bumble off his back was our first competitive goal against a “real” team since Iain Hume put the one in 8-1; that’s two full Gold Cups. In twenty matches since November 15, 2013, we have been shut out seven times and scored once another eight times. The offense has improved under Floro, with a three-goal spurt in the Jamaica friendly and respectable performances against Ghana and Iceland, and Hoilett has been dynamite, but that’s not enough for us to come in with swagger against any Central American team. It was only a couple months ago that we drew 1-1 in Belize and earned it.

This has a horrifying draw written all over it. We beat Honduras, and I still grin irrationally to think of it, but our scars take more healing than that.

Programming note: the game is being broadcast live in Canada on the premium channel beIN Sports, which is also available as a web service. The Canadian Soccer Association does not control broadcast rights to road World Cup qualifiers; these were sold by the El Salvadoran federation. If you don’t get beIN, follow @thevoyageurs on Twitter; they will be tweeting a list of viewing party locations.

* — i.e. those who remembered to PVR the game.

Magic Realism

By Benjamin Massey · November 14th, 2015 · 1 comment

I got my Voyageurs scarf in 2008. It was my first serious V’s gathering and I remember it oddly well, taking up the woolen red sacrement in a time before functioning websites and easy $20 orders. We were at the Peel Pub in Montréal. It was a remarkable day, no less remarkable for what followed. A march through the Underground City, our voices ringing off the concrete, our bodies jamming the turnstiles good enough for rush hour but not for us. A heady confidence that faded as marched into Stade Saputo, immersed in Honduran kits, in blue and white thundersticks provided by an allegedly Canadian sponsor. A confidence that disappeared entirely as hope became horror. The fights and railing flips, the security as impotent as my country. Tomasz Radzinski went off, Canada went out, and our doom was assured. Montreal, Honduras, 2008. The horror moment. Even 8-1 wasn’t quite that bad. My scarf saw it all. A baptism of blood.

That scarf went around three Gold Cups, a few more World Cup qualifiers, two Women’s World Cups of assorted age levels, and more friendlies than I like to count. It soaked the beer of three countries and innumerable cities from Vancouver to Havana. It was more precious to me than I thought a scarf could be. It was untradeable. If Russell Teibert himself asked for my scarf in exchange for an autographed game-worn kit and a trip to Florida, I’d think about it for multiple seconds before I said no.

Tonight, as the final whistle blew in Canada’s 1-0 victory over Honduras in Vancouver, I threw my hands up, and when I pulled them down that scarf was no longer there. I was quite sober. It was not around me, nobody had snatched it, I had not thrown it. A victory I had been tearfully awaiting for seven years, in a game Vancouver had needed for eleven, and my old scarf had gone to be with the soccer gods. It’s a pathetic expression of superstition and self-absorption but it is, to me, true.

There is an atmosphere around Canadian soccer which, in its most exalted moments, can only truly be called mystical. When Christine Sinclair nearly defeated the United States in 2012 she was more than our best-ever player, she was the avatar of our country, imbued with our vices but more importantly our virtues when we most needed her. When the Canadian men lost 8-1 to these Hondurans it was the exact mirror image, with our lack of genuine confidence (as opposed to arrogance), and our fear and our lack of personality coming out in a horror show redeemed only by a cracking goal by Iain Hume, one of the undisputed Good Guys. That, too, was mystical. Mythology has always dwelt more on Hades than heaven.

So allow me to indulge in a little magic on this glorious night. Canada hasn’t really done anything yet – three points are great but it’ll take at least a couple more such wins for us to even see the next round. On the pitch this is good but a long way from decisive.

Psychically? Even mystically? This is everything. My scarf has gone, but to the most glorious of causes. El Salvador awaits.

Canada, Canada, Your Number One Team (Ya Gat Dat Right!)

By Benjamin Massey · September 9th, 2015 · 12 comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

On Tuesday almost everyone in Canadian soccer went crazy for Mad Bull and Maestro, the Belizean television commentators for the Belize – Canada World Cup qualifier.

The game itself was dull, almost beyond description, and shocking to the Canadian fan who saw a team we hope will beat Honduras draw mere British Honduras. Deon McCauley, who spent last year as a utility player for NASL sadsacks Atlanta, scored a goal through nasty marking by national team veteran Adam Straith and could have had two. Milan Borjan made a great save in the last second but was off his game otherwise, the midfield failed to provide service to the forwards, and when Larin, Nakajima-Farran, or Ricketts did get possession in Belizean territory not much came of it.

Our goal was a fine opportunistic 19-yard finish by Will Johnson, but he also shot what should have been the winner, after a lovely touch to take the ball to his left foot, about ten yards from goal with a decent angle and entirely unmarked, well wide. There were a few other half-chances but nothing you could write home about, and while in my books Larin won a penalty when a Belize player tackled through his back it was hardly highway robbery. There was very little to say about the action. Fans who feel overly optimistic about Canada should be chastened, but for the most part this is the same sort of soccer we’ve seen in the post-Mitchell era.

The web stream itself was hilarious, boasting equipment remarkably out-of-date by Canadian standards. There were blue screens and vertical tracking problems, like an old VCR with a loose coaxial cable. Colour went in and out like a dying Colecovision. Many of us are used to Central American and Caribbean broadcasts, but not even the old Puerto Rico Islanders brought us mid-’90s high school video club quality on this level. Then there was the advertising; some online TV service that used an ancient Eric Hassli clip, entertaining Carnival ads, but above all a hardware store, Benny’s, which immediately equaled Phillip’s Bakery in Voyageurs lore. This ad changed my life.

We loved all of this, but a little ironically, like bad beards and the Backstreet Boys. They do things differently abroad! Belizean television standards aren’t as high as ours! Haha! However, the Mad Bull and Maestro experience was entirely sincere.

You will get some idea of their personality if I say that “Mad Bull”, the play-by-play man, and “Maestro”, the colour commentator, are the nicknames they gave each other. Gavin Day, the Canadian Soccer Association’s renaissance man, posted photos of Mad Bull and Maestro in which they look like ordinary soccer pundits. Mad Bull, real name Ladrick Sheppard, turns out to be a reasonably prominent local politician. Perfectly respectable people who, in a commentary booth, put on some rare entertainment.

There are homer announcers, then there are Boston announcers, then there’s Mad Bull and Maestro. They were so enthusiastic, and they gave Belize everything they had. Maestro got carried away shouting “Belize, Belize, Belize!” on more than one occasion. Low-percentage Belize shots that went miles wide were as good as a hat trick. They both sounded like they could die for a Belize goal, and when Belize got one it was like the greatest moment of their lives. There is nothing they would leave unsaid to support a team that was hopeless underdogs even to the lowly Canadian selection. In the second half Maestro said, and I’m not making this up, “these are the players, we’re talking about Neymar and all of them, [Deon] McCauley is number one.” Mad Bull got more excited about McCauley having possession at the halfway line than I’ve ever been about a Canadian player doing anything.

Not that they disrespected the Canadians: Will Johnson was (correctly) called a flopper, but his skills were admired. Ledgerwood and Hutchinson came in for specific praise and Ricketts, who scored a brace on Belize in the first leg, was described by Maestro as someone “who can score the ball like no-one else.” They struggled to pronounce our names but frankly fair enough; anybody who listened to Two Fat Bastards will know my record there.

And the nicknames. To Mad Bull, every player is some combination of deadly, an assassin, or a killer. Deon McCauley drew the unmatched distinction of being a magician. Their metaphors were liquid gold: “this is a different food they’re eating on the table!” enthused Maestro after Belize took the lead. Nor did they use verbosity to distract from ignorance, as some commentators around the world do. Their terminology was unfamiliar to Canadians, and Mad Bull had the unnerving habit of using “spot kick” in any dead ball situation, but they knew what was going on and, in their way, accurately diagnosed how Belize playing was well above their level, with the sheer intensity of their runs overwhelming a Canadian team that was never fully engaged.

Honestly, Maestro is what I wish I could be if I were a soccer colour commentator, though I know I haven’t got the talent.

The intensely high energy of Mad Bull and Maestro might wear on me over a 30-game season but, for one night, it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard. Above all, their love for their country and their team radiated through the crummy stream. Both men also called the leg in Toronto, which had been a dispiriting performance for their side, but it wasn’t until they needed four goals in five minutes that Maestro even partially sounded like he was losing hope. Dodgy technical equipment, a team with no hope, a stadium that not long ago was considered unfit for international competition, a commentary position that was literally behind a pillar, none of it could dampen their passion. Many supporters around the world could learn from them.

Meanwhile, in far richer Canada, our far superior national team has no television deal at all. Even when we did, it was almost unheard of for Sportsnet to pack up a camera crew and leave the country to broadcast a game. At best we’d get Gerry Dobson and Craig Forrest talking over a St. Kitts video feed from a studio in Toronto on Sportsnet 8 (THE OCHO); more often we wouldn’t even get that. We were an afterthought to, well, pretty much anything, and I don’t just mean the Blue Jays or the CFL or other things that are more popular than our men, but cycling and re-runs of highlight shows and just about any excuse to bump the Canadian national team down the running order they could find. These days, with our television rights held by no-one, we’re stuck with an overworked Day and occasionally a guest commentator on unreliable CSA web streams even during home games. Day’s a good play-by-play man, and it turns out Terry Dunfield is excellent on colour commentary, but it’s all restrained and low-rent, accessible only to the current hardcore fan. During the Women’s World Cup, when TSN had the rights and gave our women’s team serious coverage, it was almost a shock to the system. “Oh yeah, that’s what real soccer countries do!”

Now Mad Bull, Maestro, and a few Belizean cameramen with 20-year-old equipment have again shown Canada how it’s done.

I’m sorry if this wasn’t what you expect from a match recap. You’re watching Channel 5, you can’t complain.

Bombed by Japan

By Benjamin Massey · October 29th, 2014 · No comments

Tony Lewis/Canadian Soccer Association

Tony Lewis/Canadian Soccer Association

Everyone who watches women’s soccer more than occasionally knew Big Red was going to have a hell of a time against Japan. Those who do watch women’s soccer only occasionally should have known from Canada’s match against Germany in Vancouver earlier this year. Despite the stereotype that Canadian fans overrate their women we seem to understand our place in the world, actually: none of the Canadian fans I was around felt overconfident, and my prediction on Saturday that Japan would take four to six points from these friendlies reflected the general mood[1]. The most optimistic person in the Canadian soccersphere is probably John Herdman, who back in June predicted a Canada – United States World Cup final[2]. Herdman, maybe the most universally popular and respected coach the Canadian Soccer Association’s ever had, still gets funny looks for that one.

If you were watching on Saturday, you saw Japan send out their best lineup (minus longtime goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto, who sat in favour of the unrefined but enormous Erina Yamane) and shoot Canada painlessly in the back of the head. Wearin a colour I can only describe as “Fukushima yellow”, Japan scored early, got another midway through the second half, and finished the game with a third, 3-0 final[3]. Erin McLeod, playing before what is technically her hometown crowd, was forced to make some good saves in the Canadian goal, and while Big Red generated some first-rate chances through Melissa Tancredi and Christine Sinclair it was clearly Japan’s game.

Canada’s performance was better than the score. There was a good forty-minute stretch between Japan’s first goal and the hour mark where the Canadians bossed the game, creating most of their best opportunities and holding meaningful possession. The initial goal came (in my books) from a mistake by first-timer Alyssa Chapman, caught up-field after a Rhian Wilkinson giveaway and not hastening back to cover Yuki Ogimi, number one in the Buzzfeed article “You Won’t Believe These Japanese Players Fullbacks Should Bust Their Asses to Mark After Turnovers.” But from Chapman’s audacity the rest of the way that was débutante jitters; she provided not immaculate but invariably lively left back play. After the hour mark Canada seemed to have shot their bolt, but that was still a sustained stretch of excellent soccer against a top team. Oh, Japan was much the better side, but 3-0 looks just a little harsh. And one of Canada’s most essential players, midfielder Desiree Scott, started the game on the bench. If you think that wouldn’t make much of a difference, you should have watched the Vancouver game.

We lost that match on Tuesday, by the way, 3-2[4]. Six goals conceded in two matches is appalling, especially when all the goals were “good”. The defensive breakdowns in both games were a running theme. Wilkinson, Chapman, Kadeisha Buchanan, and Emily Zurrer were all caught in first-rate breakdowns at some point and that’s just off the top of my head. These were forced by Japan’s high pressure, but good teams know to press Canada. The Americans will do it, the French will do it, the Japanese clearly have it down to a science. Canada’s defense, never exactly a strength, needs to work on its poise at once.

But elsewhere on the field the Canadian performance had much improved. Initially the Canadian midfield, which looked so overwhelmed in Edmonton, played some terrific soccer. You could see the difference between Canada With Desiree Scott and Canada Without Desiree Scott, clear as crystal. Her central partner, Jessie Fleming, had eyes like dinner plates and jelly feet in front of goal, but she was doing a marvelously composed job just getting into those positions and with the ball at her feet the Japanese soon learned to respect her skill.

One of the obstacles for young players who aren’t pure goalscorers, like Fleming, is learning the confidence and audacity to make the aggressive play. Fleming had one or two moments where she apparently expected to defer to one of her more experienced teammates; with good coaching and more exposure to those situations she will hopefully learn how to drill a shot first-time rather than faff around waiting for Sinclair or Tancredi to pop up for a low-percentage cross before, maybe, trying to get a shot off when the best of the opportunity has already gone by.

If Fleming wants a lesson in that sort of confidence she couldn’t do better than to look at Yuki Ogimi, whose play on Japan’s second goal was postcard-perfect. Kadeisha Buchanan bobbled a backpass and it went straight in front of Ogimi, one of the world’s more polished strikers. I firmly believe that, in that position, Fleming (or Josée Belanger, or Adriana Leon, or most of the Canadian roster really) would have settled the ball, tried to round the recovering Buchanan, and tried to generate a play. Instead Ogimi realized the situation at once, knew that Stephanie Labbé wasn’t in perfect position, and took a crack, first time, a marvelous looping goal that would have been an automatic entry on a lesser striker’s highlight reel. Had we players with the guts to try that sort of thing we might have a rather brighter team.

It was a terrific game in general, both teams contributing a maximum of excitement. Ogimi’s goal, opportunistic but marvelously taken. But it was Asano Nagasato who had the goal of the game with a first-rate left-footed volley from twenty-three yards that curled into the top corner and wasn’t being stopped by Stephanie Labbé, Erin McLeod, Manuel Neuer, anybody anywhere. The 25-year-old Nagasato had been very much a fringe player in the Japanese setup, but has been working her way into the lineup and has a couple goals for her country this year. Her wonderstrike today must be the best of the bunch: the undisputed highlight of a back-and-forth, mostly very even match. Besides that strike it’s the ending that will be best remembered: three minutes of stoppage time called for and Canada snatching the most Canadian of scrappy, workmanlike equalizers on 90’+2. Then Japan turning it around, capitalizing on yet another Canadian defensive blunder, and winning it on 90’+2.9999999999.

For me at least, that goal was too pre-ordained to be heartbreaking. The Canadian defensive mistakes had been coming in bunches. The Japanese, having started with a B+ team, brought on Aya Miyama in the 65th minute, and Miyama’s arrival coincided with Canada succumbing under pressure, making bumbling mistakes, giving Japan too many opportunities. There were… what, three or four appalling giveaways in the Canadian third in the last twenty minutes? When Aya Sameshima beat Labbé what was there to say besides “fair enough”?

From a development perspective it might have been better to lose rather than draw undeserving. There’s no euphoric high from the fortunate point snatched from a better team before a screaming home crowd; instead John Herdman can bust out the VCR and really emphasize to the women why those sorts of turnovers are going to kill us if we repeat our mistakes in money games.

How about Sophie Schmidt? Schmidt has scored Canada’s last three senior goals, all in Vancouver; it’s nice of the women to limit scoring to one of the four or so players the supporters have a chant for. (And a classy chant it is.) We were talking about Fleming needing confidence earlier? Both of Schmidt’s goals Tuesday were raw confidence and balls ovaries. Letting fly as soon as she had a sight of the net and reaping the rewards, with her first tally deflecting off a defender’s head and initially being called an own goal. We’re seeing a bit more of the Sophie Schmidt from 2011 that was such a promising supporting threat in the attack, combined with consistent guts and aggressiveness. I can’t help but feel the NWSL has been very good to Schmidt; on Sky Blue FC she’s asked to be a key player on a team that’s badly underequipped offensively and the challenge seems to have given her a shot in the arm. I swear she’s turning over the ball less than she used to, too. I like everything about this Sophie Schmidt except the haircut.

The injury to Diana Matheson is terrifying; she’s going to be on everybody’s ballot for Canadian Player of the Year and at the top of many, but she went off on crutches in Edmonton with a knee injury. The good news is that, during the Vancouver game, she was walking around the field with her teammates; the bad news is that this morning the Canadian Soccer Association tweeted that she’s torn her ACL[5]. She knows how to recover from these things, at least: the last time we were missing Matheson for an exciting game in Vancouver due to a lower body injury, it was during Olympic qualifying and Canada went on to a bronze medal. The omens aren’t bad.

Many people will be discussing Christine Sinclair in the days to come. She hasn’t scored for her country since December 12, 2013 against Scotland in the Torneio Internacional de Futebol Feminino; that is twelve matches without troubling the statskeeper. There was a time when, even when she wasn’t scoring, Sinclair was reliably generating scoring chances; that is no longer particularly the case. She’s also played the best teams in the world. Those twelve games include Japan (twice), the United States (twice), England, and Germany, but those are the teams we need her against.

Oh, she still looks reasonably dangerous, but not like it used to be. Sinclair gets the ball in an interesting position, the defense swarms her like termites, and unlike in the old days she no longer has the speed or the power or the will or something to get out of it and make a scoring chance. The ball comes out to her on the break and it turns into a tussle rather than an automatic excellent shot. Of course she still does reasonably well in the NWSL, but she isn’t the dangerwoman on the Portland Thorns. Alex Morgan is. When she plays for Canada as undisputed top dog Sinclair looks every minute of her thirty-one years. Not to get all narrative-pushing mitten-stringer but I swear I caught glimpses of the wear and tear in her facial expressions, an irritated look of “that used to work.” She’s frustrated. Wouldn’t you be?

(notes and comments…)

Rapid Thoughts on Canada – Colombia Rather Than Watching the Oilers Lose Again

By Benjamin Massey · October 14th, 2014 · 2 comments

Tony Lewis/Canadian Soccer Association

Tony Lewis/Canadian Soccer Association

Canada lost to Colombia 1-0. Which, since I was tweeting things like “did you know Canada’s record loss is 8-0 to Mexico in 1993?” and “+1200 on a Canada win is a ripoff bet, don’t you do it”, is something I’m pretty happy with.

I mean, Pedro Pacheco and Julian de Guzman marking Hamessssssssss Rodriguez? Come on. That’s going to be a debacle. Instead, Pacheco spent a solid fifty minutes busting his ass and playing out of his Portuguese second division skin. Pacheco is a limited player, and he’s not really Canadian, and he’s the kind of guy I’d always be glad to leave at home, but credit where it’s due: he played very well in a tough position and he’s learned the Canadian national anthem, which I don’t think Marc Bircham ever did.

And de Guzman? Over the last twelve months he’s undergone the most stunning resurrection imaginable for a player in his thirties on Unattached FC. I swear to you, 2012 and 2013 de Guzman was awful. 2014 de Guzman has, for Canada, been consistently one of the best players on the pitch, returning the days of his glorious afro flow and, while in no danger of reaching his CONCACAF Best XI heights of 2007, has been well worth the starts. It’s strange. Eerie. It’s the first known cured case of TFC Wasting Disease.

Rodriguez still got plenty of looks, naturally: the gulf in quality was just too great. Canada was badly outchanced and the score flattered us. You must say Canada could have used Russell Teibert. The Colombian goal, where Canada was caught complacent by a quick free kick, is just the sort of play a shouting jumping-around pinballing-around-the-top-of-the-eighteen Teibert makes his defensive reputation on. And his passing wouldn’t have hurt a Canadian team that, one glorious Nakajima-Farran through ball aside, had nearly nothing going forward from midfield.

How different is the game if, instead of Ledgerwood and Pacheco, we started Atiba Hutchinson and Teibert? I’m not sure the score changes: Colombia had a load of chances, a goal unjustly called back for offside, forced a world-class save out of Milan Borjan on a free kick, and we couldn’t have complained had they won 2-0 or even 3-0. It would have, however, have opened up possibilities, and maybe kept the defense from tiring a little in the second half and allowing them to keep their heads in the game on that free kick.

To the TV audience, we were made to look worse by the broadcast, which happily replayed every moment of Colombian skill and wouldn’t show an interesting Canadian play if you paid them. With Gerry Dobson and Danny Dichio calling the game from a phone booth in Toronto, Sportsnet was presumably piggy-backing on the feed of a broadcaster aiming for the Colombian market. Better than nothing, of course…

Why dwell on the negative? The team was calm, poised, made relatively few key mistakes. David Edgar was excellent. Milan Borjan was excellent. Pacheco and Andre Hainault were very good. Tosaint Ricketts earned a penalty that went uncalled. Even Doneil Henry, while a net negative, was no embarrassment (but a disproportionate number of good Colombian attacks seemed to start on his flank).

Enormous credit for this admirable loss is going to Benito Floro. Let’s not start sucking each other’s dicks just yet: remember at the beginning of 2013 when Canada went down to the United States and drew them, 0-0, in a game they could have won? That team was coached by Colin Miller, whose name in Voyageurs circles is basically mud. Miller also got decent soccer in the Gold Cup against Mexico and Panama, as people who remember only scores may have forgotten.

I’ve convinced myself more and more each year that a good Canadian coach is one who players show up for, and the rest is almost details. Floro’s record getting players to commit to his team is mixed. So if he is the on-field coaching revelation we all hope he is, it won’t be shown by one-sided but respectable neutral site games to teams with inflated FIFA rankings. It’ll be in Gold Cups, World Cup qualifiers, and the development of the young players, like Cyle Larin, Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé, and Karl Ouimette, in whom he has taken an interest.

Hanson Boakai didn’t get on, which sucks. Larin, an amateur soccer player, did something with his single touch; might have been nice to see Boakai get five minutes to run at guys. (The Colombian defense allowed us too much space at times but we had no technical attackers to exploit it.) But I understand. Boakai is young and this was be his first camp of many. Manuel Aparicio made his first appearance for Canada today but has been at senior national team camps all year waiting for his shot. As Miller has discovered with Boakai at Edmonton, there’s nothing wrong with making a kid work for it.

One can never be quite happy with a loss. But one can always be proud of a massive underdog that busted its hump, kept its composure on and off the ball, and never looked intimidated before a hostile crowd against a team nobody gave them a chance against. Well done, players of Canada. Work like that and you’ll get Honduras next time.