Putting the Team Second

By Benjamin Massey · March 5th, 2017 · 1 comment

Ville Vuorinen/Canada Soccer

On a dreary Friday morning, far from and unseen by almost all of her fans, Christine Sinclair scored. She does that a lot. On this occasion, Russian forward Anna Cholovyaga dropped a long way back and attempted a backpass to… well, it’s hard to say who she wishes it went to, but anyway it went to Sinclair, and she buried it with the nonchalance of Kutuzov against Napoleon. The only thing easier would have been to knock away a failed clearance while unmarked, which come to think of it is how she scored against Denmark on Wednesday.

Sinclair, 33 years old, now has 167 international goals, 17 behind American legend Abby Wambach for the all-time lead in the history of international soccer. Two have come at this year’s Algarve Cup and both were cheapies. But the only reason we phrase it that way is because we compare the goals to the good old days when Sinclair could never capitalize on an awkwardly-handled Deanne Rose cross because there was no Deanne Rose to cross it to her. If she’d been doing this all her life we’d call her a “poacher” and count it in her favour, but because we’re used to her being the team, notwithstanding a Melissa Tancredi having the game of her life or a Kara Lang having moments of inspiration between months of injuries, it seems like an insult. This is how genius, as it fades to mere intelligence, becomes its own condemnation.

There are asterisks all over the record. Male soccer players play many fewer international games than women. Sinclair has 253 senior international appearances, no Canadian man has more than Julian de Guzman’s 89, and the leading male worldwide is Egypt’s Ahmed Hassan with 184. The top men’s international goalscorer of all time is Iran’s Ali Daei with 109, dozens away from the both-genders podium. In short women’s soccer is one of the few athletic fields where men are statistically behind the women, and with the enormously different economics of their respective games they will never catch up.

Whichever of Sinclair or Wambach finishes on top will probably be there forever. The age where large, lone strikers can write the record books like Charles Dickens being paid by the word are passed. Alex Morgan caught the tail end of the glory days and possessed a preternatural innate talent, and is still over a hundred goals behind Wambach with no prospect whatsoever of catching her. Brazil’s Marta has 105 goals in 101 caps, hurt by her association’s indifference to the women’s team outside Olympic years, but for all her great early seasons she’s no record threat. Truly excellent young strikers no longer score such circus numbers thanks to tactical developments, and while the men’s record book is full of Arab players who got loads of opportunities against mediocre opposition, this for obvious reasons will not affect the women’s game in the foreseeable future.

The Sinclair/Wambach duel is one for history. It’s like when Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky were fighting for scoring titles: they were both obviously historic greats, but whichever one of them set the highest mark was never going to lose it.

Wambach scored her 167th goal at the age of 33 years, nine months, and ten days, on March 12, 2014 against North Korea (at, coincidentally, the Algarve Cup). On the day of her 167th Sinclair was 33 years, eight months, and 19 days old. Moreover, and I do not pretend to be objective when I say this, on quality I would take March 2017 Sinclair over March 2014 Wambach.

But Wambach infamously hung on too long, all-but-forcing the United States to carry her to another World Cup victory in 2015 when on merit she certainly should have been dropped. Sinclair is already overall less effective than Janine Beckie and has the reputation of a woman who will not put herself ahead of the team. The alarm clock will go for her eventually, and it’s hard to imagine her playing boardroom games to keep her minutes up. Essentially tied with Wambach at her age, Sinclair may not have the same advantage in her autumn years.

The day will come, if it has not already, when Canada will have to ask whether it would rather Sinclair passes Wambach or Canada wins soccer games. Promising Canadian attacking players such as Deanne Rose and Ashley Lawrence have been shuffled around the formation, buying Sinclair time, but this will not last forever. Another promising forward who’s scored plenty in the NCAA, Alex Lamontagne, just made her senior debut. At any time her own development or Canada’s wide defensive frailty might necessitate moving young Deanne Rose to the centre of the park, where Sinclair currently roams. Against the weak Russians, Beckie was involved in several good chances, but she was substituted off for Lamontagne while Sinclair went the full 90. This probably isn’t strategy, since Canada faces the also-feeble Portuguese on Monday and only after that will meet a real team in whatever their placing match is. If anything, Canada should have pumped goals past the mistake-prone Russians to improve their goal difference. But coach John Herdman apparently wanted Christine Sinclair to get them.

This could have hurt the team, though since China and Sweden drew later in the day Herdman probably got away with it. But he was right.

Dedication to the individual rather than the whole runs contrary to what we know we should think, in sports and in life. English writer E. M. Forster, with his usual straightforward contrarianism, said “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” This was most famously quoted by Soviet spy Anthony Blunt when, still unexposed, he defended not reporting friend and fellow-traitor Guy Burgess. In his context the inevitable first thought is that either Blunt did not know what sort of swine his “friend” Burgess really was, in which case protection reflected poorly on him, or that he did know, in which case it reflected even worse. We now know it was the latter: Blunt was himself in the pay of totalitarianism and by supporting Burgess he was supporting “his” country, the Soviet Union. So Forster’s attitude, that of the individual ahead of the institution, did not really apply, and yet the ordure that sprayed from the wound of Blunt’s treachery caught Forster as well.

Yet even those of us who would dissent as a rule have to admit that Forster was, maybe not right, but right enough. His aphorism is unusual because it’s wrong in general but right in detail. Most of the time the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but sometimes the needs of the one trounce them both. It is impossible to define when those times are. Sometimes you need to fire the pleasant but incompetent employee to help save the jobs of six others. But once every blue moon you’ll give up the ship to save one man, and there is no formula to tell you if a dilemma is coming until it arrives.

The object’s own opinion does not always matter. Part of why we honour Christine Sinclair is because we know that if we grabbed her and said “answer now: world record or World Cup?” she’d say “World Cup!” without hesitation. And we’d believe her! Like Cato the Younger, she would subordinate all to the health of her people, and if we insisted on raising personal ambition would not sneer, but remind us when the time came to pay the price. She’s the one we can trust above all, to act for us rather than for herself, and so we should honour her especially. It is the contradiction where sincere public-mindedness in an individual means that individual should get more of our favour.

Every four years, somebody wins a World Cup, and every four years, somebody wins the Olympic Games. Huge achievements that will survive the players who won them. But however great such a victory is, give it a few years and there’ll be another one for somebody else. Galt FC won Canada gold in men’s soccer in 1904, but to the casual or the foreigner it’s an excellent trivia question. So it will be if Canada wins the World Cup in 2019: our grandchildren rubbing foreheads over the Trivial Pursuit board, mumbling, “I know we won it somewhere in there…” A heck of a thing, immortality of a kind, but not Mount Olympus.

I want players like Sophie Schmidt and Desiree Scott and Ashley Lawrence to wear gold medals. I want them to win, lots. I want them to have it all. If a soccer team made up of good, dedicated Canadian men or women wins a world championship, that should be the greatest day of my sporting life. But if Lucifer popped up at the crossroads and said “Ben, I will let you choose. Either a senior Canadian soccer team will win the World Cup, or Christine Sinclair will become the leading scorer in international soccer history,” I’d decide for Sincy. She wouldn’t. If she found out I cast the deciding vote, she’d probably be pissed. That’s part of why I’d vote for her. Nobody said philosophy should be easy.

I Don’t Want to Be Elfstar Anymore! I Want to Be 2016 Canadian Players of the Year!

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

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.

Victory with Honour

By Benjamin Massey · August 21st, 2016 · No comments

Steve Kingsman/Canadian Soccer Association

Steve Kingsman/Canadian Soccer Association

I’ve waited a few days to write this. Why was I not sprinting for my laptop, getting the words out of my burning fingers, screaming with joy at the Canadian women’s national team defending its bronze medal? Especially when it was not a London-style demifluke but a comprehensive dismantling of the well-matched-on-paper Brazil in Brazil, when Brazil’s best eleven recently beat Canada’s best eleven fairly easily in a Toronto friendly.

Because it didn’t really matter.

By the time the Germans beat us we’d proven what we needed to prove. Our young players had taken that decisive step in a major tournament, with Ashley Lawrence, Jessie Fleming, and Janine Beckie fighting over team MVP honours. A gold medal would have meant everything, obviously, but another bronze is, from the perspective of the long-time fan, a cherry on top of a sundae that would have been perfectly delicious without one. (I do not say the players felt, or should have felt, this way; both London veterans and first-timers were quite rightly starving for the podium. But for a fan, things are different.)

Well, we got our cherry. It was good. It was totally deserved; in his excitement John Herdman put Canada into bunker mode prematurely, Brazil got a goal back on a defensive miscue, and we had a few minutes of uncertainty that did not reflect the 75 minutes Canada spent running Brazil’s show, or the obviously-superior Canadian cohesion and conditioning that would have made us favourites in extra time anyway*. Josée Bélanger, Sophie Schmidt, and Deanne Rose killed the game to death and in hindsight we were stupid to worry. The women did their leap off the podium, posed with their bronze medals, and even those who already had one seemed perfectly pleased to get another. I can think of one better way for soccer to start a Friday… but only one.

It wasn’t the same on the other side. The Brazilians needed victory so badly, to the point where a desperate, heart-broken Marta went on Brazilian television and almost desperately begged her countrymen to keep the faith. The Brazilian women have always been the poor relations for their soccer federation, usually playing in men’s-cut kits without enough training camps and limited exposure to first-class competitive environments. This isn’t the first time Marta and her comrades have briefly taken off in Brazil, but in the past momentum petered out and it was back to the same old institutional inadequacy. Medalling at home could have made all the difference and the players knew it. Instead, a Brazilian media outlet reported that the team’s funding is now in doubt[1] [Portuguese]. This is one time when the old Canadian cliché of “who wanted it more” definitely doesn’t apply.

But we’re happy. Five wins, no draws, one loss in the Olympics. Beat France and Germany, beat the hosts, beat Australia. A significantly better performance against the French than we got in London, with the same happy result. A full team effort, not “Christine Sinclair and Erin McLeod punch in cheat codes and turn superhuman.” That was the best major tournament Canadian soccer has ever had, and you can’t ask for more than that.

No, I lie. You can. You have to.

Christine Sinclair said it in a Facebook video with Karina LeBlanc[2]. LeBlanc asked “what’s going to keep you going?” and after only a moment’s thought Sinclair replied “I’m kinda sick of the bronze medal.” And if she’s sick of it, so am I.

At the end of the 2015 Women’s World Cup it looked like our window had closed. As tournament hosts we had home-field advantage and a favourable draw, the best opportunity to actually win a major international trophy we’d ever get, while our stars were on the tail-end of their primes. Despite playing well we went out in the quarterfinal. There was nothing for the team to be ashamed of, that loss to England was harsh, but it didn’t matter. Yet both fans and officials kept the faith. For all the disappointment and debate over selections there was never any suggestion that John Herdman’s job was under pressure. So Herdman could take the risk of integrating youngsters when running his veterans into the ground would have been safer. Beckie got into the first team, Lawrence was transformed into a fullback, Fleming became an automatic starter, Rose and Shelina Zadorsky went from obscurity to surefire Olympians in about ten months.

When you run five experiments like that you’re lucky if two pan out. Either John Herdman is even more brilliant than we thought or he took all the bad luck from 2015 and cashed it in for 2016, because so far he’s five-for-five. Lawrence turned out to be one of the best fullbacks in women’s soccer and is my vote for Canadian player of the year, Fleming was at her best in the most important matches and is making the leap before our eyes, Beckie not only scores but generates chances and gets in beautiful positions, Zadorsky has been perfectly respectable, and while you have to call Rose a prospect she had a serious early impact. There are more young players who haven’t yet broken in but have every chance in the next two years: Victoria Pickett, the Sarahs Kinzner and Stratigakis, and Gabby Carle being the most prominent, with Sura Yekka still lurking. Suddenly, and who saw this coming, Canada’s selection for the 2019-20 World Cup/Olympic cycle looks stronger than that for 2015-16.

So if Sinclair is sick of bronze medals there’s a small but real chance that Canada will be well-positioned to get her an upgrade. A World Cup or a gold medal for Canadian soccer would, under any circumstances, be an unprecedented national achievement, but in 2019 and 2020 there’ll be more on the line than mere triumph, glory, immortality, and eternal celebration. There’ll be Christine Sinclair’s place in the history of the sport.

Whenever she scores we talk about #ChasingAbby, and becoming the all-time leading international goal-scorer would be incredible, but nobody has ever doubted that Christine Sinclair can put the ball in the net. The only question, mostly from outsiders who don’t watch her day after day, is her record with her team. “Sure, Canada spent hundreds of games lumping the ball up to Sincy and letting her knock it in, but what’s it gotten them? It’s one thing to be the alpha dog on a team that’s never in the running, it’s another to lead a team to victory like Abby Wambach.” The highest honours in her international career are these two bronze medals and silver in the 2002 U-19 Women’s World Championship. It’s not fair, but you see it in every sport: when ranking the all-time greats, winning counts.

It’s because Sinclair has bled and fought and broken bones for a team that was not always worthy of her invincible talents that we, and now I do mean both fans and players, have such an obligation to get her one big prize. She is the best player in women’s soccer history. She represented soccer in this country during some of its darkest, most obscure days. She began her career swinging from 55,000-strong crowds at Commonwealth Stadium for the U-19s to 550 people watching senior friendlies at the University of Victoria, because the country had not yet learned to embrace this team unconditionally. Only Sinclair could teach us. Not because she’s some huge media presence (she is, deliberately, a notoriously indifferent interview), not because she was pushed on us as some human interest story, but because she kept performing, in thankless obscurity, for years and years and years and years, scoring, scoring, scoring, fighting, adding one page after another to her developing legend, until even the most casual sports fans couldn’t tear their eyes away. The quintessential episode will always be the 2011 World Cup, where Sinclair scored a scorching free kick goal against the host Germans, broke her nose, came out in a ghastly face mask, and fought like a goddamned Greek goddess before the astonished eyes of the world even as her team, badly chosen and badly coached, comprehensively decomposed around her. The Canadian women’s national team emerged from that tournament with not even the slightest trace of credit, except for Sinclair, who earned the Order of Canada. Never, not even the 2012 Olympic semifinal, could you so literally say of an athlete that “she was worth the price of admission on her own.”

For most veteran players, no matter what their contributions and how great their personalities, there comes a point when they must be gently eased out of the picture. That point should never come for Christine Sinclair. Not because she is immune to the ravages of age, but because she is an exception to the usual hyper-competitive rules.

Daniel Squizzato wrote that “Sinclair deserves to lead this team for as long as her body will allow her.[3] Right now that’s easy to say, because Sinclair just scored three goals at the Olympics with two from open play, including the bronze-medal winner. Though not the focal point of Canada’s attack anymore, no longer the best forward alive, there’s no doubt among the sensible that Sinclair is still worth a starting spot. In strictly on-field terms we could live without her (actually a good thing) but I wouldn’t want to. However, over the next cycle, as she goes from mid- to late-thirties, time will exact its inevitable toll. The injuries are slowly accumulating already. Christine Sinclair can beat a lot of opponents single-handed but not that one. Nobody believes that Sinclair would stick around long after she’d lost her last trace of quality like some Americans of the past, but, especially when there’s one last tournament ahead, athletes tend to go too late rather than too early.

So be it. It’s possible that Sinclair will be capable of playing a useful role at age 37, but if she isn’t, bring her anyway. Cheer her on and support her without condition, do everything in your power as a fan or as a player to ensure that she can get that precious championship. The kids will get their chance regardless, we can afford to show the loyalty due to the ultimate legend. Spare nothing to get her that title, whether it’s playing 90 minutes for the senior WNT or buying tickets to local women’s soccer teams that get our players games. Sinclair carried us single-handed for so long, if we have to carry her for a moment, let us smile while we do it. Because if Christine Sinclair can stand proud and finally hear the Canadian anthem at the end of a game as well as the beginning, we’ll know that even this cruel world can be just.

(notes and comments…)

Defeat with Grace

By Benjamin Massey · August 16th, 2016 · No comments

Andrew Soong/Canadian Soccer Association

Andrew Soong/Canadian Soccer Association

I spent all morning beside myself with anxiety. My game-weekdays have a ritual: roll my office chair around aimlessly, pace back and forth for a couple hours, get up for water more than any hydrophiliac would find necessary. Then, go to the pub. Drink, drink, drink, bullshit with comrades, and drink some more. Leap up every time Canada had the ball in the attacking half, collapse in my stool every time possession was squandered. Live and die with the team; mostly die. Hollywood North would be proud. Everything went straight to the script.

So did the result: a 2-0 defeat for Canada against Germany. If this was your first women’s soccer game you’d say “Germany was better” and you’d be right. Germany looked like the more powerful team because they were. Consistently Canada launched an audacious through ball, attempted to cut the corners of the defensive square with a sudden break, and consistently Germany cut it out, because they were a half-step ahead of us through superior vision and talent. The illusion of last Wednesday, when these Canadian women snatched a stunning 2-1 victory over the Germans, is rightly dispelled. If Sweden advanced to the gold medal game by being cowards, Germany advanced by being capable. Despite being near the top of the women’s game throughout its history Germany has never before played for Olympic gold, but now they have a huge opportunity to be champions. You know what? Good for them.

It is a truism of Canadian soccer that winning never feels as good as losing does bad. The glory of Diana Matheson’s 2012 bronze-medal winner against France does not make up for that agonizing semifinal against the United States. Canada played the Americans like hell in the 2007 Gold Cup, but Atiba was onside. FC Edmonton did everything against the Montreal Impact at the 2014 Voyageurs Cup except not get screwed over by Drew Fischer, but what do we remember? Agony pierces through all other memories. This is why torture works. No Canadian supporter will ever be so stupid as to say “as long as I remember the love of my family and my country, ISIS can do what they will.” We’ll hand over the nuclear codes straight away. We’ve been there.

Today?

Today was an exception.

Don’t mistake me. That sucked. I won’t be in any hurry to watch that game again. The backbreaking first goal, when Kadeisha Buchanan flagrantly gave away a penalty in a situation when there was no need to leave her feet at all, was classic Canada shooting itself in the face. God bless Buchanan, she’s a lion, but she spent the whole Olympics believing her own Buchananbauer hype, remembering how we fans would worship her aggressive but accurate tackles, and launching those challenges into situation when she should have just kept her footing and played straight defense. Frankly, we could have lost our quarterfinal thanks to an identical foul on Eugenie Le Sommer, but the foul against Le Sommer was missed and this one was called. Buchanan is only 20, an age at which Becky Sauerbrunn was playing part-time in the USL W-League and Amandine Henry just breaking into the French national team, young for a centreback of any gender, certainly young enough to iron a mental kink out of a game that is physically dominant and technically proficient enough. I doubt she got this far in her life without costing any of her teams a careless goal and she’s mature enough that we can call it straight. I’m not worried about her. Besides, she deserves us remembering her multiple excellent challenges as well as the late-first-half header off a Janine Beckie corner kick that was only just cleared off, or maybe after, the goal line.

But let’s look at what didn’t happen. There were no scandalous calls against us. There were no six-second-rules, no Abby Wambachs shouting into the referee’s ear. Germany played with class, scored two goals, and unlike some other semifinals past there was also no capitulation. Sure, Canada didn’t have luck on its side, but they clearly belonged in an Olympic semifinal against a German team that will end this tournament ranked number one in the world. We put up a better fight than Sweden did against the United States, but the Swedes got lucky when the Americans didn’t bury their chances, and we did not.

In my post on the first Germany game I pointed out how we’d walk away from the average game thinking “we did okay, considering.” Today we did okay, considering. We were without our starting goalkeeper (never forget that; Erin McLeod would have saved the second goal) and two of our top three fullbacks. Allysha Chapman defied my optimistic projections by not overcoming her shoulder injury and Josée Bélanger was suspended with yellow card accumulation. The difference between the sublime Ashley Lawrence and the inadequate Rhian Wilkinson should suffice to show what a difference top-class wide defending can make, when Chapman and Bélanger had put in two useful weeks.

And what weeks they were! 4-0-1 so far, including wins over Germany and France! Put an asterisk on Germany if you like, but Canada beat France when the French were desperate to win. The France of Henry, of Camille Abily, of Wendie Renard, of the legendary Louisa Cadamuro playing her final tournament before premature retirement, and they were denied their storybook ending by Janine Beckie, Sophie Schmidt, and an impregnable midfield. We’ve beat them before, but in 2012 we hung on by our fingernails and hoped for heroics, while in 2016 France was better but Canada actually played soccer against them. You’ll never confuse us with a tier one team, not yet, but we’ve become “a team which, on every given night, can beat a tier one team;” honest progress.

Time was we relied on Erin McLeod stealing a game and Christine Sinclair being a one-woman wrecking crew. Today, McLeod is hurt and Sinclair a shadow of her former self, good for her starting position but no star. We could have replaced her with Deanne Rose and not lost much. In goal, while Steph Labbé’s mistakes did not cost us the mistakes were made, and it took adroit defending to keep them out of our net. Yet Canada had, by the numbers, the best major tournament in our history, on the backs of Lawrence, a resurgent Schmidt, and Beckie, who snuck between German defenders and got the sort of chances Sinclair used to, even if she missed them. Two goals against in open play, one a meaningless late blunder against Zimbabwe, despite both starting centrebacks being suspended at one point in the tournament and a back line aged, going from left to right, 27, 23, 20, and 21. (The 27 was the most replaceable of the bunch.)

At London 2012 we cried ourselves to sleep in joy over a bronze medal. At Rio 2016, a bronze medal will be consolation, a little gong to commemorate a tournament we’ll never forget anyway. We fluked out a win over France in 2012; if the host Brazilians similarly get lucky against us in 2016 I doubt it’ll burn our guts out. In 2012 we hadn’t really done anything and needed the medal to take something from a tournament that should have been so much more. In 2016, we know what we’ve done, know what we’re capable of, and another bronze would be a bonus. That’s why we can view today’s loss with equanimity rather than heartbreak.

Now, I’m not leaping up and dancing. Sinclair is the greatest player in the history of women’s soccer and of Canadian soccer, and had a wholly unexpected late-career opportunity to win a gold medal. Olympic and World Cup glory have equally eluded her, and though she would have been a supporting player in any Rio 2016 triumph it wouldn’t matter: for her sake, alone, for the sake of putting a luminous exclamation mark on the sentence of a career that should be burned in fire, silverware would have been worth any sacrifice. If Sinclair retires without a championship then we, both the players who weren’t good enough for her and the fans who did not advance women’s soccer in this country when it could have made a difference, will wear the shame of that. We should still feel abashed. After all, there’s still no women’s professional soccer team anywhere in Canada.

However, on the day, can you point to one teammate and say “she didn’t leave everything on the pitch?” Even Buchanan’s mistake was an excess of passion. To blame some of our players for not being talented enough seems to miss the point: we can wish for the game of their lives but can hardly be upset when it wasn’t there. In the first German game (or the Melissa Tancredi game, as I find I want to call it), her friends and teammates sacrificed everything to turn a 2-1 lead into Olympic history. Overturning a 2-0 disadvantage against those same Germans takes more than sacrifice, but the skill is coming. Having just seen what we’ve seen, can we swear that Canada will not be among the contenders in 2020, and that Sinclair will not still be hanging around?

I’m not happy, but I’m content. I’m proud of that team, again. In the 2012 Olympics, the 2015 World Cup, and again this year, they never disappoint. Every time they rise just a little, a team that’s more than the sum of its parts, the best of Canadian traditions. This Olympics might have been the most worthy achievement of the John Herdman era and we haven’t even played for a medal yet.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge

By Benjamin Massey · August 9th, 2016 · No comments

Al Quintero/Canadian Soccer Association

Al Quintero/Canadian Soccer Association

It’s a bastard, but the Canadian women’s soccer team was better off losing today and everybody knew it. Defeating Germany, the current second-ranked team in the world[1] and the overall strongest nation in women’s soccer history, would give Canada its first-ever perfect group stage in a major international tournament and represent our biggest upset of all time. Incidentally, it would also make our lives much worse, all-but-guaranteeing Canada a quarter-final matchup against world number three France rather than a relatively sweet game against China or Sweden.

In FIFA tournaments the knockout-round brackets are drawn before the groups are set and life is unfair: the winner of Group F, Canada’s group, was predestined to face the second-place team of Group G, containing both France and the United States. Whereas the second-place team in Canada’s group would take on the second-place team from Group E; in any event much easier opposition. The Olympics are a twelve-team tournament and, thanks to FIFA’s format, even with Japan out in qualifying it’s probably impossible to balance what Canada boss John Herdman calls the “tier 1” teams of the United States, Germany, France, and Japan fairly. In 2012 Canada got lucky with the draw and in 2016 we didn’t. Such is life.

With the rewards for second place being so great, the attitude of the Canadian supporter was unusual. No result against Germany, however disastrous, could have eliminated us from the tournament, and the pressure was off. I don’t think any fans went so far as to say we should deliberately lose today; this isn’t the NHL. But there was a definite feeling of “not necessarily losing, but losing if necessary;” that while we shouldn’t give Germany the three points, we could put ourselves in a position where it would be easier for Germany to take them. I think John Herdman agreed. Christine Sinclair, the best player in the history of women’s soccer, started on the bench. So did Janine Beckie, the leading scorer of the Olympics so far, and Ashley Lawrence, Canada’s presumptive 2016 player of the year. They joined Kadeisha Buchanan, the 20-year-old world-class centreback who had been suspended thanks to a yellow card against Zimbabwe that definitely looked deliberate, and Erin McLeod, one of the five best players in Canadian history but out for as long as two years with a knee injury, on the shelf.

As for the Germans? The senior Canadian women’s team first played them July 27, 1994 in Montreal and lost 2-1, giving up two goals to a debutante named Birgit Prinz who would become the best female player in European history. Since then Canada has played Germany in three World Cup games and nine friendlies, and lost every single one. Our women’s U-20s have also lost every game against Germany, including the 2-0 German victory in 2014 that eliminated us from the U-20 Women’s World Cup at home, and our U-17s can boast only a single 2-2 draw on March 15, 2014, when Jessie Fleming and Marie Levasseur got us a precious point at the U-17 World Cup. By any measurement, at any age group, Canada is hugely inferior to Germany. There is no improvement with context and no space for an asterisk. The Germans have played us more than a dozen times and dominated almost every one. Canada plays Germany, Germany wins easily, and we walk away thinking “we did okay, considering.” That is how it works.

Now, the remorseless calculus I detailed above applied to Germany as well. They wanted to finish second in their group as much as Canada did, but there was a hitch. In a shock result on Saturday, Germany managed only a 2-2 draw against Australia. As a result, while a draw would have suited the Germans very well, a loss might have been a problem as there was a possibility they’d finish third in the group and life would suddenly get a little too interesting. Besides, when you’re Germany, the prospect of facing France isn’t quite so intimidating.

Therefore Germany did not dare run out the full “B” squad. Anja Mittag, the closest German equivalent to Sinclair, started. So did skipper Saskia Bartusiak, legendary midfielder Melanie Behringer, and defender Annike Krahn, one of the best defensive players to ever live. Their second-best forward, Dzsenifer Marozsán, started, but their best, Alexandra Popp, did not. Call it an A- team against Canada’s full B. A boring 0-0 would have been fine by Germany’s lights, and when Behringer converted an early penalty (well-deserved by the lovable but aggressive Allysha Chapman) to put Germany up 1-0, that should have been that. Canada wouldn’t mind losing, Germany might give up one the other way but no more than that, the two teams would fight about the details but that would be all. As a truly competitive fixture this would be done.

That’s where we were wrong.

I don’t mind tooting my own horn here. On Twitter and this past weekend’s episode of 99 Friendship I was unequivocal: I wanted Canada to go for it and beat Germany, if we possibly could. Sure, it would give us a tougher quarterfinal game, but the rewards in terms of morale and pleasure would be well worth it. Canada doesn’t beat “tier 1” teams, except for the bronze medal match at London 2012, and that game has lived forever. To do it again, albeit in a somewhat lesser context; yes, that would be worth giving up a good shot at a fourth-place finish.

But if I brag, you’ll take it in context. Because the one thing I believed more fervently than “we should beat Germany if ever we can” was “Melissa Tancredi should be nowhere near the Canadian starting eleven.” In fact I wouldn’t have taken her to Rio at all. 34 years old, slow as hell, uninspiring even against Zimbabwe, having never recovered her accuracy or reflexes from when she took time off to get a fake chiropractic degree, she didn’t belong in the same universe as a national soccer team. The jokes I made about her were actually cruel, and though I sometimes tried to temper it with “but I remember when she saved our asses in 2012…” I didn’t always. 2015 was ever-so-much-more-recent, after all, and had we taken Janine Beckie instead of Tancredi that World Cup might have gone very differently.

It wasn’t personal. Big, humble in both attitude and origin, always giving her 100%, and willing to be a complementary player while also being unafraid to take the team on her back, Tancredi is everything you want a Canadian athlete to be. Her flaws are age and athleticism and neither is her fault. But this is high-level sport, and so I was right out in front saying Tancredi should be given a fake “retirement game” in which she plays six minutes then gets put out to pasture without so much as a handshake and a plaque. God love her but she’s useless. The idea of her taking minutes from a Janine Beckie, a Deanne Rose, or a Nichelle Prince is an actual insult, and while friendship and connectedness are all very well, this is a business and John Herdman needs to make a business decision once in a while. When the Canadian Soccer Association announced that both Sinclair and Diana Matheson were sitting, and that Tancredi was not only starting but taking the captaincy for the day, I reacted badly.

If ever you read this blog again, please remember that I am an idiot.

Forget the goals. Tancredi started great. She launched a beautiful flick-on header to Josée Bélanger, then swept another one-touch ball to Bélanger off her foot, in the first ten minutes. Neither amounted to anything because, as I said above, Germany is excellent, but Tancredi was all over the shop in the best way. Making herself available for passes, playing the pass accurately when it arrived, looking like the woman of four years earlier. It was inspiring stuff, even before she’d troubled the scorers, even when Behringer had converted that penalty and Germany was outchancing Canada ten to one. Even when it looked like we were about to lose 3-0 and not mind too much. You couldn’t say Tancredi had done a thing wrong, come what may.

Then the game changed. Desirée Scott (another popular whipping girl for the past few months) pushed the ball forward through an open channel to Tancredi, and am I crazy or did Tank take it out left, try the shot, and miss the ball? Hahaha! She’s so old! She’s so awful! Janine Beckie would have scored! Except one of the advantages of her experience is that you know how to compose yourself when things don’t go just right, and Tancredi was going for another shot before Germany had realized their chance. This time she got it just right, sliding it low into the corner, and Canada had tied the game.

Now, at this point it was 1-1 in the first half and Germany was still playing well. Tancredi was in line to be Canada’s man of the match but no more than that: a “she exceeded my expectations, fair play to her,” a footnote in history, a little “hey you remember when Tancredi…” in five years’ time. She kept working hard, giving the German defense fits, and throwing herself around the field to make plays, but that’s no more than even her most fervent haters would have expected.

What changed the game was not, without diminishing her accomplishments, Tancredi as an individual. It was that her teammates picked up on her energy and raised their own level to meet it. An old, popular player was absolutely on form against a marquee opponent, and which of those Canadians was going to give anything less than her best and cause Tanc to lose face? Which of them would dare be responsible for turning what might be their friend’s last great game into a lowly piece of trivia? The long-time comrades of Tancredi’s, like Rhian Wilkinson and Sophie Schmidt, certainly felt it. But so did the solid Rebecca Quinn and relatively recent re-introduction Josée Bélanger. Maybe we shouldn’t make fun of #99friendship and the #mostconnectedteam so cavalierly, because that game was a demonstration of its value.

We sat down to watch a meaningless scrimmage, and an all-time classic broke out. Germany was still on their game, still pushing, but Canada was a step ahead and slowly gaining the ascendancy. At half, jokes about “well, what if Canada wins and has to play France?” had suddenly become a little more serious and a lot less terrifying. The spark of magic was in the air, and Tancredi getting her head to a bombed-in free kick from Quinn was only justice. 2-1 to Canada! It was the first time Canada had led against Germany in over a decade, when Charmaine Hooper and Kara Lang staked Big Red to a 2-0 lead on September 4, 2005 that they’d subsequently blow for a 4-3 loss.

We didn’t blow this one. Tancredi was a massive reason why, clearing defensive headers from our own box on set pieces. So was Diana Matheson, who came on as a substitute and immediately threw herself into slide tackles like she was playing for two medals at once. Steph Labbé, another player I think I may have said a few bad words about, not only shagged some crosses but made a dandy save late in the second half to preserve a 2-1 lead. The Germans brought out Popp, threw everyone forward, went like hell to get a draw and a point that might be precious. In reply, John Herdman sent on Nichelle Prince for Deanne Rose, and I would bet a million dollars that, before the game, Herdman had conceived that move as “Prince for Tancredi.” But a good coach knows how to adapt to the situation, and it wound up being a good move in its own right. Prince showed an unexpected level of defensive intensity, winning the ball in the climactic minutes of stoppage time to get Canada that 2-1 win and its first ever point at the senior level against the Germans. A relatively new player, but she wasn’t going to let her friends down either.

As a result, Canada will face a quarterfinal of death against France. There will be no restraint in France, no “well a draw would be better…” They will be too happy to avenge their loss in the London 2012 bronze medal game. We played them very hard in a recent tune-up friendly, but France held some of their stars back and still won 1-0. The bookies will make them big favourites to beat us and, let’s be honest, squinting through the haze of victory, they’re probably right. If we’re dispassionate, odds are that despite playing much better than we did four years ago, Canada’s 2016 Olympics will end in the quarterfinal.

And you know what? I don’t care. For the first time ever Canada beat Germany. They did it without Buchanan, without McLeod, without Sinclair. They did it to a German team that, notwithstanding some early uncertainty, definitely wanted to stop us and ran out every gun they had. They did it in the Olympic Games, and in women’s soccer it’s debatable whether the Olympics rank behind the World Cup at all. I hope we can beat France, keep this wonderful run going, but even if we do lose it’ll be worth it. We beat Germany, fair and square. That’s one to tell the grandkids about. And Melissa Tancredi was the heroine, reminding us all that you don’t get to the pinnacle of sport if you can’t prove the haters wrong once in a while.

(notes and comments…)

99 Friendship Episode 1

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · July 10th, 2016 · No comments

Welcome to the first episode of 99 Friendship! This podcast is dedicated to mostly-Canadian women’s soccer, and features Carolyn Duthie and Ben Massey rambling on about all the latest, and maybe all the most tired inside jokes, in CanWoSo. As the European Championships conclude and a new club season revs up across the ocean, what better time to discuss our ladies and get those big page views?

On this episode, we run a thought experiment on what would happen if the women’s Olympic soccer tournament was run along the same rules as the men’s. We also discuss Canada’s U-17 roster as it heads off for an obscure tournament in China and, of course, we find time to make fun of the NWSL for deciding to play a regular season game on a tennis court in New York. Plus plenty of the digressions, jokes, and candid hot takes which make things such fun.

Be sure to follow 99 Friendship on Twitter.

Reaction to That #CanWNT Roster, in Full

By Benjamin Massey · June 20th, 2016 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

You know those women you thought were going to the Olympics? They’re going to the Olympics.

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.

Sabrina, the Keeping Hitch

By Benjamin Massey · May 30th, 2016 · No comments

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

When John Herdman announced his roster for the coming WNT friendlies in Toronto and Ottawa there was one, and only one, surprise. Which was not surprising. Herdman gives his big tournament teams away in advance; there are no Theo Walcotts or Julian Greens in his philosophy. Usually, three or so fringe players battle for two spots but that’s it; even the much-discussed Selenia Iacchelli was a well-established part of the roster before the World Cup. Yes, he’ll find players we didn’t expect a few months in advance, but the best of them will stay with the team all the way (Iacchelli and Allysha Chapman for the World Cup, Deanne Rose for the upcoming Olympics) and during the proper tournament prep period there will be no shocks.

This is pretty much entirely a good thing. For all the Twitter jokes, the Canadian women’s national team really does look like the #MostConnectedTeam and that is to their advantage. They know each other, are happy for each other when things go well, and fight for each other when things go badly. When you’re less talented than the Olympic podium contenders that’s an important edge. No, of course personal chemistry and being intimately familiar with your teammates doesn’t make up for a skill deficit, but it helps, and the example of London 2012 shows that sometimes that help is enough.

However, this approach has downsides. We saw one of them last summer. Lauren Sesselmann had been through the wars with her friends and adopted countrymen, was one of the biggest reasons we won the London bronze medal, had suffered a horrible knee injury, worked like hell to recover for the World Cup, and in every moral sense deserved a chance to play Canada 2015. But only in the moral sense. A year later, respect for her past achievements makes it cruel to dwell on this, but had Herdman been relentless rather than loyal, a Mourinho rather than a mentor, Sesselmann would have been out, replaced by Rebecca Quinn say, and Canada would probably have beaten England in the quarterfinal. It really was that important. (This is without even entering into the Iacchelli question.) That said, Herdman had form with bringing a much-loved, hard-working player struggling to recover from a knee injury who, on form, arguably should have been left at home, and Diana Matheson did okay in London. Moreover, we can never know whether a team run by the sort of person single-minded enough to cut Sesselmann would have achieved anything. Carolina Morace was that sort of coach and her teams always, always let you down.

This is relevant because of that one surprise on the friendly roster: goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo. I like D’Angelo. In fact I believe that, with Erin McLeod’s nightmarish multi-year injury, D’Angelo should start the Rio Olympics as Canada’s number one ahead of the more experienced Stephanie Labbé. However, a couple weeks ago D’Angelo fractured her left wrist during warm-ups with the Western New York Flash. The current word from the Flash is that she’ll probably be healthy by the Olympics but is unlikely to play any league games before then[1]. When signing autographs with teammates at a Toronto Sportchek yesterday, D’Angelo still had her cast on[2]. This is not a case of “well, if the doctors clear her and she trains well we might get her in for a half.” D’Angelo is injured and will not play. This has been obvious to the public for a week, and hopefully has been known by John Herdman for longer than that.

A fractured wrist is a simple injury but a goalkeeper sort of needs it to be 100%, complications happen, and the margins here are extremely tight. If, God forbid, D’Angelo is unfit for Rio, 20-year-old Kailen Sheridan will back up Labbé. In light of Herdman’s aforementioned unsurprising rosters we may take this as a given. However, Canada will need to carry a third goalkeeper on the so-called “taxi squad.” This goalkeeper will not normally be available but, if Labbé or Sheridan is hurt, will step in to the eighteen-woman roster. Who will that goalkeeper be?

Marie-Joëlle Vandal, who backed up Sheridan at the 2014 Women’s U-20 World Cup, recently with the Université Laval and now starting her professional career in lower-division Sweden? Rylee Foster, our 17-year-old starter at the most recent CONCACAF U-20s and FIFA U-17s? Erin McNulty or Justine Bernier, who attended senior camps as late as December 2014, have relatively recent professional experience, and were mentioned by Herdman on a press call just this morning[3]? Rachelle Beanlands, unseen for a few years but whose clean sheet at the 2011 Pan-American Games was the last senior appearance by a keeper other than McLeod, Labbé, D’Angelo, Sheridan, or Karina LeBlanc? Hell, what about Karina LeBlanc? Fans keep asking her to unretire, if it gets that desperate maybe she’ll say yes! She’s going to be in Rio anyhow, may as well bring her gloves!

Of the three favourites, Foster hasn’t even attended a senior training camp yet and is an unknown quantity at this level. McNulty and Bernier are obviously still in Herdman’s contacts list but it’s been a year and a half since they spent time with the team. Alternate goalkeeper is not a high-pressure duty and any of those three would probably discharge it fine. But as the current injuries to McLeod and D’Angelo should remind us, you never need your third-string goalkeeper until you really really do, and this is the best opportunity John Herdman could ask for to run the rule over one. Two home friendlies with a week of training in the middle, a pair of good games guaranteed even if the third goalkeeper only watches them from the bench, both coach and player would learn a lot, and if the first choice fails there’s just time to test another. Instead, Herdman calls upon D’Angelo, who right now can contribute nothing besides friendship and connectedness. She could have hung out with the team had Herdman named another goalkeeper anyway, but instead our strategy seems to be “D’Angelo will be fine and if she isn’t it won’t matter.” At this late stage better not to add a stranger to the mix, even if that stranger might be nominally needed.

And you know, that strategy is probably right. If by some mischance D’Angelo does miss out then in five years we probably won’t even remember the third goalkeeper’s name. Foster, if Foster is the heir presumptive, has plenty of time to show her stuff. (Though a Bernier, a McNulty, or a Vandal would probably have killed for a few days in the shop window.) Still, we don’t often get to expand the player pool without cutting a sister from this happy few while protecting ourselves against a remote but real contingency. We’re missing out.

EDIT, 10:30 AM: thanks to Eric de Sousa via Twitter for informing me that Marie-Joëlle Vandal has recently signed with Swedish third-division side P18 IK A.

(notes and comments…)

Obligatory Canadian Soccer Paranoia Post

By Benjamin Massey · February 18th, 2016 · No comments

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Sir,

I beg to report that CanWNT should have this one in the bag. Our redcoats assault Costa Rica Friday afternoon at 2:30 Pacific (Sportsnet One), winner advancing to the Olympics, after a round robin which saw us dispatch the opposition contemptuously efficiently. The “B” team running up a 10-0 score against Guatemala on Tuesday was merely the most gratuitous display of our dominance: no Christine Sinclair, no Erin McLeod, no Josée Bélanger, no Desiree Scott, limited Diana Matheson, and Sophie Schmidt taking a 42-minute turn at centre back. There was a hat trick from a defensive midfielder who hadn’t previously scored for her country. Nichelle Prince got to do this. You could not have asked for three better Canadian matches. Everybody is healthy, nobody is suspended, everybody save third-string keeper Sabrina D’Angelo got useful playing time, several players are in form, and our victories have been nearly flawless. This is a campaign hagiographers will glorify after John Herdman becomes Emperor.

As to our adversary, Costa Rica, they have never taken a point from the full-strength WNT in nine tries. Only twice could they limit their loss to a single goal. Both were Olympic qualifiers, one was in Costa Rica, the other saw a legitimate Sinclair insurance goal called back. In those nine games Costa Rica led for two minutes: from Shirley Cruz’s 28th-minute opener to Christina Julien’s 30th-minute equalizer on October 18, 2011. Costa Rica was lauded for their two draws at the World Cup, but in both they were outpossessed and flagrantly outshot. The Costa Ricans beat Canada outright, 2-0, at last summer’s Pan-American Games, but (controversially) the Canadian Soccer Association has never considered those full internationals. It was a Canadian U-23 lineup, lacking key players even for that age group, against the full Costa Rican side and the fighting was still reasonably equal. A single Canadian from that match, central defender Shelina Zadorsky, is likely to start Friday, with maybe a one-in-three chance for Janine Beckie. In this very tournament Costa Rica lost a staggering 6-0 to the Americans. Myriad though Canada’s struggles against the United States have been, they have not handled us so roughly since 2008.

In short, by any rational judgment we may book passage to Rio de Janeiro.

I remain, Sir, your faithful and obedient servant,
Benjamin Massey.

Now. Permission to speak freely?

Of course I’m worried. On paper, Canada should thump Costa Rica with gratifying ease. The Mexican team that Costa Rica deservedly beat, 2-1, has been struggling since at least the end of 2015 World Cup qualifying. They were never great but you couldn’t take them for granted; now they take vicious body blows. Winless in the World Cup, including a discreditable 1-1 draw with hapless Colombia[1]. 0-3 to Canada, 2-4 and 0-6 to Brazil, too-close wins over countries like Argentina and Trinidad and Tobago that they really should have been able to stroll past. Their program has failed to keep pace with the rest of CONCACAF and their development system is now almost entirely “cap-tie Americans with dual citizenship.” Maribel Domínguez is still their one forward worth a damn and she’s 37. Costa Rica’s win surprised most of us, but the Mexicans are unquestionably on the down-swing.

Yet there’s more to fear than “they don’t play these games on paper.” While Canada last played on Tuesday, Costa Rica had an extra 24 hours off. This is to a degree alleviated by the fact that Canada rested many stars, but only to a degree. Jessie Fleming, who ran everywhere against the Guats, might be called upon as an impact substitute. Ashley Lawrence, not far removed from a nasty head-clash, had three meaningful games and could start Friday. Centrebacks Kadeisha Buchanan and Shelina Zadorsky started each match, even if they never had to work hard. Diana Matheson had a role in every game, is constitutionally incapable of not trying to run through brick walls, and has what I think we can now call “a chronic knee problem.” Though not part of most fans’ best eleven, Melissa Tancredi played extensively against Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala. She did particular damage to the latter, and John Herdman has always been eager for an excuse to play the 34-year-old.

Most importantly, Canada’s round robin matches were scrimmages. Guyana, for about half an hour, put up something resembling a fight defensively, chucking nine women into the box, whipping legs in front of crosses, and praying for rain. None of those three teams showed any serious interest in attacking Zadorsky and Buchanan, playing their first tournament as a unit. Costa Rica will attack with Shirley Cruz, probably CONCACAF’s best crap-country player, as well as respectable second-rankers like Raquel Rodríguez and young Melissa Herrera. Each of them is far, far superior to anybody Guyana, Guatemala, or Trinidad and Tobago could dream of throwing at us. They’re not too good for Canada, of course they aren’t, but they’ve been testing themselves against Mexico and the United States. Rodríguez scored twice against Mexico, including a perfectly confident penalty, and is in fine fettle. Canada hasn’t been tested against anybody at all since Brazil rather humbled us in December.

Again, in the group stage we were not attacked. The one serious scoring chance we conceded in 270 minutes was when Desiree Scott made an atypically dopey turnover against Trinidad and Tobago. Meanwhile, we scored goals by shooting them through incompetent goalkeepers and having the gigantic Tancredi wander around the enemy six-yard box entirely unmarked, letting the goalie drive clearances straight into her boot. Costa Rica’s defending is usually garbage but not that garbage, not demoralized-metro-league-team garbage. Maybe even the rather slack passing we’ve evinced, confident that our stronger, faster, and more skilled players will be able to get the ball back anyway, will come back to haunt us. Even the coaching has been complacent, Herdman happily embarking on positional experiments rather than ensuring his best players are comfortable with each other.

None of this adds up to giving Costa Rica even odds or anything. The betting shops have las Ticas 10-to-1 to win in 90 and that’s about right. Yet the incredible weakness of Canada’s group, which seemed such a boon when they were drawn, may impart the slightest vulnerability, the faintest crack in the fortifications of a young Canadian team that, compared to 2012, is more “potential” than “achievement.”

(notes and comments…)