John Herdman.

By Benjamin Massey · January 8th, 2018 · No comments

Bob Frid/Canada Soccer

I believe it was John Molinaro who broke it, but as soon as it was broken the news rushed through Canadian soccer like water through a breached dam. John Herdman, the most accomplished coach any Canadian team has ever had in any sport other than hockey, is out of the Canadian women’s senior national soccer team… and in for the Canadian men’s senior national soccer team. Octavio Zambrano, after nine months as men’s coach, a Gold Cup quarterfinal that was relatively a success and objectively a failure, and enough enemies in Canadian soccer that every dialed-in media person in the country was saying “well that part wasn’t a surprise” before the ink on the tweets was dry, is out.

This is the most surprising thing that has ever happened. Not just to us fans, though we’ve spent several hours of our Monday evening trying to get our heads around the news. Our players seem just as taken aback. Stephanie Labbé, the starting goalkeeper for the women’s team for almost a year now, kicked things off with:

Diana Matheson, one of our best ever players and possibly still a member of the national pool if she ever recovers from her latest knee injury, had this to say:

And, while all teammates are equal, we know in our hearts that some teammates are more equal than others, so take a moment to realize that Christine Sinclair, the best player in women’s soccer history, used her first Tweet since November to give every indication of having found out about this through the press release:

This was handled abysmally. A good rule for the Canadian women’s national team is the “is this going to make Christine Sinclair speechless” test, and this failed1. The new women’s coach, Kenneth Heiner-Møller, was already a first team assistant as well as the former boss of Denmark. He is a familiar face and, professionally, no joke. From the perspective of keeping the women onside he’s probably the safest appointment this side of telling Sinclair “sorry, this happened suddenly and we had to get it out before Sportsnet did, we didn’t have time to ask if you wanted to player/coach.” But my God this is going to be a hard one to swallow for a team that, as of January 7, 2018, was one of the five favourites for the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

In the interests of equity I looked through some Canadian men’s national teamers’ Twitter accounts for their reactions. Scott Arfield, Milan Borjan, Junior Hoilett, Nik Ledgerwood, Atiba Hutchinson, Anthony Jackson-Hamel, Samuel Piette, none of them seemed to be bothered. They surely have thoughts and reactions, but aren’t exactly rushing to their cellphones2. Which makes sense. The men’s national team is only a very small part of a player’s life. Julian de Guzman recently retired as the Canadian men’s national team’s all-time appearance leader with 89 senior caps. This would not be anywhere near the women’s leaders: Christine Sinclair has 262 and counting. Women’s players, by various means, almost always get most of their income and exposure through the national team. For men’s players the national team has, if anything, been an impediment except at the best of times.

Which is bad news for John Herdman. Herdman has done some very good things in the conventional coaching arena. His players are consistently fit, which was not always the case under Carolina Morace or Even Pellerud. He is responsible for a couple brilliant innovations, such as the Ashley Lawrence Fullback Experiment, and a bevy of young players who stepped right into the first team and looked like established parts of his tactics. But his greatest strength has always been forging a team that would run through brick walls for each other. That is not a skill that translates to the international men’s game. Training camps are short and infrequent, and you never have the same team for two in a row: player A prefers his club commitments, player B is unattached and trying to find work, player C would love to come but it’s not a FIFA window and he’d have a 19-hour flight with seven connections between Oslo and Fort Lauderdale and his coach told him that if he tries he’ll be training with the junior handball team. And it’s hard to become devoted to your soccer family when half the times you play somebody ranked north of El Salvador you get your ass kicked. It’s also hard for a male Ashley Lawrence to become a world-class fullback when he’s trying to learn with 360 minutes of MNT soccer every year, 180 of which are against countries you forgot were countries. And while Herdman’s tactical history is good, he can get stuck in his ways and has never looked like a Football Manager-style genius who is going to turn an awful team into a great one.

Herdman’s team-building will be an asset for, even if he can’t get the full 99 friendship, he can at least avoid some of Octavio Zambrano’s more flagrant pratfalls—provided he can connect with young men who are only with him because they couldn’t make Portugal and earn $500,000 a year in the same way he can communicate with young women committed to their country doing it for an ordinary middle-class salary. His history with youth players is also positive in the MNT context, and of course he knows how to deal with Canada Soccer and Canada Soccer knows how to deal with them. He and youth development supremo Jason de Vos have a mutual admiration society that can only be beneficial. I would go so far as to say that Herdman will not be any worse than Zambrano, or Benito Floro, or Stephen Hart, or Dale Mitchell, or any of the other coaches who underachieved and did things wrong and left in disgrace. But probably not any better.

Molinaro’s Sportsnet article implies, and Duane Rollins outright says, that he would otherwise have taken the vacant England women’s job; he was certainly being pursued by the FA. While my preference would have been for the Canadian Soccer Association to write Herdman the biggest cheque the bank would cash for him to stay at the WNT, if Herdman was out of the women’s team regardless this may have been the least bad option. Even giving them the benefit of the doubt, the transition was handled incompetently: if they couldn’t give Herdman a signed contract promising him the MNT in 2020 if he guided the WNT through the World Cup and the Olympics, they could have at least sacked Zambrano today and pushed the Herdman announcement back long enough for all the women to be informed3. This is 1990s CSA stuff, and if it pushes Sinclair twelve months closer to retiring in disgust it’ll hurt us as badly as the actual coaching change did.

Yet even in the best-case scenario, Herdman being “promoted” from the excellent WNT to the abysmal MNT will quite fairly feel like an insult. Many Canadian soccer fans, including me, like the WNT either as much as the MNT or a bit more, because they’re nicer and win a lot. The women get higher attendances (against, admittedly, superior opposition) and have a stronger national fanbase. Objectively, on a national level in 2018, the Canadian women are a bigger deal than the Canadian men. However, John Herdman is not Canadian, he is English. The English women, though quite good, are not a bigger deal than the English men. Herdman’s gaze is not consumed by the maple leaf. World-wide being a good men’s coach is a much bigger deal, with much more fame and enormously more pay, than being the best women’s to ever live. Like any of us he wants to rise to the top of his profession, which is “soccer manager.” Not “women’s soccer manager.” And that would mean coaching men.

I quite understand Herdman’s logic. If he wants fame and fortune outside this humble dominion this is the greatest opportunity he will ever have. There’s been talk that Herdman wanted to coach men going back to after the London Olympics, but I don’t think he imagined he would be thrown straight into the shark-infested waters of a reasonably serious, if lousy, senior men’s national team like it was an entry-level job. Yet he is also forfeiting the best chance he will ever have, barring miracles at CanMNT that lead him to Real Madrid or something, to win silverware: the 2019 Women’s World Cup and 2020 Olympics with the best team in Canadian women’s soccer history.

Soccer coaches have flipped genders at the professional club level, with mixed success. Harry Sinkgraven will be the name best-known to Canadians: the former SC Heerenveen women’s boss went on to briefly coach the FC Emmen men, disastrously, before joining FC Edmonton and accumulating a legacy of failure. Prior to her Canada days Morace coached A.S. Viterbese Castrense, then of the Italian men’s Serie C1, and French legend Corinne Diacre had a respectable spell with Clermont Foot of the French Ligue 2. Hong Kong’s Chan Yuen-ting led powerhouse Eastern Sports Club to the first division title in 2015–16. But all three were all-time great players in their own countries. Morace and Diacre went back to women’s soccer in the end, and anyway none were coaching men at a level anywhere as high as even the Canadian men4. To my knowledge Herdman’s path, from no playing career to speak of to elite women’s coaching to elite men’s coaching, is absolutely unique.

You can’t blame him for trying. You can’t blame the Canadian Soccer Association for resorting to this if it keeps him. The players are shocked but if it works out they’ll be fine, and this is not the fragile group of 2011. The great thing about a team of friends is that they don’t actually need a coach to keep them together; perhaps they will discover the magic was in them all along. And yet this whole affair feels distinctly shabby, in the way only Canadian soccer can.

Chasing Abby or Catching Abby

By Benjamin Massey · December 1st, 2017 · No comments

Kyle Thomas/Canadian Soccer Association

For Canada’s women’s national team, 2017 was an intermission. No Olympics, no World Cup, no qualifying, 365 days of the calendar you got out of way to prepare for the next thousand. 2018, 2019, and 2020 are what count: Jessie Fleming, Deanne Rose, Rebecca Quinn, Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan, and hopefully players we didn’t expect developing into the most competitive lineup Canada has ever had. If we’re ever going to win some gold these are the women who’ll do it.

However, there’s another piece of history Canada is chasing for which 2017 mattered a great deal. In our last game against Norway Christine Sinclair scored the 169th goal of her international career and fourth of the year. She needs 16 more international goals to pass Abby Wambach for the most in the history of soccer.

16. Not that many, not with CONCACAF World Cup qualifying bringing games against Haiti and Puerto Rico and that lot next year. But Sinclair is 34, old for her position and her sport. It’s not certain she has enough time left.

The good news is we don’t need to put the old lady on the ice floe yet. Sinclair’s scoring rate over the past two seasons is better than Adriana Leon’s career rate and basically tied with Deanne Rose. Behind Nichelle Prince, but Prince has 1,013 senior minutes and hasn’t scored in the last 655. More importantly Sinclair’s been piling up the assists: seven in 2017, four in 2016, four in 2015, our leading playmaker each of the last two years. On a roster that despite Herdman’s improvements can get very direct, Sinclair and Janine Beckie are the only forwards moderately capable of holding up the ball and Beckie has better things to do. Sinclair would be in the eleven on merit if her name was Jane Smith and her idea of leadership was telling Sophie Schmidt “your she-man-bun looks very nice.”

You couldn’t say that about Abby Wambach at this stage of her career. When she retired at age 35 nobody, American or otherwise, argued it was too early. But then her team was a lot deeper. The American attack her last year included world player of the year Carli Lloyd, a not-very-broken-yet Alex Morgan, and Christen Press, with Crystal Dunn the coming woman. Running the attack through Wambach made no sense, using her off the bench rather than Dunn or the Amy Rodriguez/Sydney Leroux depth players of the future set seemed unwise and out of her character. If anything most of us seemed to think she’d gone a year or two late. But selfish old Abby was a much better goal-scorer than kind old Christine.

This graph compares Sinclair and Wambach’s goalscoring records in the seasons in which they turned a given age. For example, Christine Sinclair turned 34 this year, so 2017 was her age 34 season. Abby Wambach turned 34 in 2014, so 2014 was her age 34 season.

Sinclair and Wambach were both early June babies so we are truly comparing their performances at the same age. That’s only the first coincidence; it’s weird how closely they trend together. Right down to both slumping at 31 and bumping back in their age 32 seasons. Of course, when Wambach “slumped” in her age 31 season she started the year ice cold and ended it with four goals in six matches at a FIFA World Cup. Sinclair, with nothing much to play for in 2014, scored once.

My co-podcaster Carolyn reminded me that, as recently as 2009, Wambach and Sinclair were within a few goals of each other. Wambach made her century on July 19, 2009 at age 29 against, coincidentally, Canada. Sinclair scored her hundredth five months later, on February 20, 2010 against Poland despite being three years younger. Sinclair had 130 caps, Wambach had 129. It was only in old age that Wambach pulled away.

All through their thirties, Wambach outproduced Sinclair very heavily. Wambach’s worst 30+ season (2011 at age 31, 0.566 G/90) was essentially identical to Sinclair’s best 30+ season (2015 at age 32, 0.570 G/90). Wambach’s advantages included more home games, more easy qualifiers that Canada skipped for 2015, and teammates who deferred to her on scoring chances. Big goalscorers past their primes can make a lot of hay against CONCACAF minnows. Wambach’s age 30-34 seasons included an Olympic qualifying and a World Cup qualifying campaign, running wild both times. Sinclair only had 2016 Olympic qualifying, where she was mostly injured. But for the moment we aren’t asking who was the better player, but who put the ball in the net more. The good news is that Wambach’s production did not decline much from age 30 to age 35, and if Sinclair can do the same she might win on endurance.

In her last two years, Sinclair has scored 0.439 goals/90 minutes clip. That would put her 3,278 minutes away from goal #185 and immortality, or just about three years. Assuming she isn’t injured any more often, and scores at the same rate, and gets just as much playing time every game. As she goes from her mid to her late thirties none of those assumptions are safe. Healthy and productive 2018 Olympic and 2019 World Cup qualifying runs will help Sinclair; age, wear, and tear will hurt.

History’s best female strikers tend to retire around Sinclair’s age. Wambach was 35, Birgit Prinz, Tiffeny Milbrett, and Carolina Morace all 33, Mia Hamm only 32. The exceptions have either been multi-position stars like Kristine Lilly or Michelle Akers or, encouragingly, super-annuated veterans for second-rate countries who still had roles into old age. Scotland’s Julie Fleeting is 36 and still active. Italian Patrizia Panico hung on until age 39. The late 30s are not quite unexplored territory.

Canada’s second-best all-time goalscorer, Charmaine Hooper, not only kept going up until age 38 but provided value. Playing second and sometimes third fiddle behind Sinclair and Kara Lang, Hooper played 1,683 minutes over 24 games from age 36 and up, scoring 11 times, which for Sinclair would do nicely.

Alas, Hooper’s old age flatters to deceive. In her last eight caps Hooper hit one final vein of form, scoring eight times including a hat trick against Sweden to wind up with 71 senior goals in her career. But that was another age. When she last played in July 2006 (it would be inaccurate to say she “retired”) women’s soccer was still young. Today, give-or-take the inevitable blunders, decent teams can basically defend a savvy but unathletic striker. In 2006 players with sometimes questionable fitness could play 90 minutes every night and chip in multi-goal games. Melissa Tancredi got a miracle brace against Germany at the Olympics, but 2016 Melissa Tancredi was Alex Morgan in her prime compared to some of the forwards you saw ten years earlier.

On the other hand, Sinclair’s a lot better than Hooper was.

The odds may still, just, favour Sinclair. Barring injury or the unforeseen, the natural arc of Christine Sinclair’s career will close after the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, when Sinclair will be 37. It’s hardly likely she’ll hang on for another cycle into her forties, but it would also be surprising for her to retire after an Algarve Cup or something unless life makes her. Moreover, and I’m touching wood just typing this, Canada’s 2019–20 team might be highly competitive: the best Sinclair’s ever had, and worth hanging on for at the end of an endlessly frustrating international career. If Sinclair does play through 2020, and has a couple productive qualifying campaigns, that’s just enough time. She’ll never come close to Wambach on goal rate but she might show the fortitude to hang around and catch Abby with sheer guts and longevity, to say nothing of being popular enough that her teammates won’t freeze her out when they don’t need her anymore.

Which, come to think, would be pretty appropriate for a Canadian heroine.

Blooding the Pups

By Benjamin Massey · November 21st, 2017 · No comments

Prior to the Canada – US friendly in San Jose, California on Sunday, November 12 I had never attended a United States women’s national soccer team match in person. The experience was instructive.

In every way the show played to national stereotypes. The northern Dominion has insurance companies moving adorable families to sweet seats, Karina LeBlanc pumping us up on the video board, and Big Shiny Stadium Tunes 1867 on the PA. Modern enough for me, in my “kids these days” fashion. The Americans are exactly what someone who knows the United States only from television would expect: brasher, brassier, and louder.

Pregame and halftime were the private property of a just unbelievably incompetent video host who, in between condescending to teenagers and mispronouncing difficult names like “Rapinoe” and “Abby,” tried like Henry Ford to sell us US Soccer merchandise, memberships, and “upgrades.” It was so loud that in an empty section I had to yell to be heard. Seldom do I get to use this phrase correctly: it was literally unspeakable.

Anyway it got worse. A DJ, with pink hair, whose name I have no excuse not to remember since she displayed it on the Jumbotron a lot, “energized” the “crowd” with dance remixes of crappy teen songs including proud American Justin Bieber1. This lasted something like half an hour, with frequent exhortations to get on up and make some noise which every man jack in my section, at least, ignored pitilessly. The Band-Aid company made teenagers smile awkwardly for a really long time to support the USO, then asked all current or former military to stand up and be applauded at. Carli Lloyd appeared in public service announcements. Whoever sang the anthems massacred the Canadian one so badly that Maegan Kelly, who isn’t even from here, grinned with as much bewilderment as long-time Canadian Christine Sinclair. But don’t be offended: “The Star-Spangled Banner” got it in the neck as bad. It was awkward. And noisy.

I was blown out by sensory overload and ready for a nap. This was all before kick-off which, by the way, was twenty minutes late. And I didn’t even have to play.

Imagine being a young Canadian player in that situation. Not just Ariel Young, Julia Grosso, or Jayde Riviere, the 16-year-old debutantes. Imagine Jordan Huitema, who had only ever played in Canada before 20,000 friends or in Portugal before 20 strangers. Or Kelly, making her second Canadian cap against people she must have hoped would be teammates only months ago. Or Lindsay Agnew, fresh off a 291-minute rookie professional season, marking a scorching-hot Megan Rapinoe at the unfamiliar position of right back before an amped-up and hostile crowd. Even Olympic bronze medalist Janine Beckie had never played in the United States against the USWNT before, and as an American-born former member of the US youth pool this was probably an Occasion.

The crowd, though disorganized and smaller than BC Place (from our section we heard one American Outlaw and heard her a lot), was enthusiastic and admirable. The field, on the other hand, was among the worst I had ever seen for an international. Patchy, frequently divoted, with rugby lines highly visible, US Soccer kindly provided their Canadian guests with a first-rate advertisement for artificial turf even before players started slipping on it and Christine Sinclair nearly suffered a serious non-contact injury.

So the new players were in trouble from the start. Kelly, not a native fullback, was torn to shreds by Rapinoe, and was redeemed only in hindsight by even-less-of-a-native-fullback Agnew looking even worse (but with a darned good excuse). Young, who had probably never before tried to mark anybody tougher than Jade Kovacevic, was awkward against Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd, though a couple lovely balls forward showed that she definitely has something. Julia Grosso actually looked good but that was in garbage time down two goals. Deanne Rose, for her half-hour, couldn’t accomplish anything including “get out of her teammates’ way.” Beckie did one very good thing indeed but otherwise was hard to notice for the second game in a row. Even Jessie Fleming, who has done it all if any teenager has, put in probably the worst game I’ve ever seen her play, turning the ball over with the generosity of the stereotypical Canadian on tour, although with the caveat that by the end of the game she was trying to play three positions at once.

Even the veterans could let us down. Shelina Zadorsky made mistakes. Christine Sinclair, who once put in the single best day’s work for Canada against the United States since Sir Isaac Brock, was up high to hold the ball up but aerially against defenders of the Sauerbrunn standard is now sound and fury signifying nothing. You can see her winding up to go for a jump from space, and she doesn’t get a hell of a long way anymore. Ashley Lawrence hurt us worst by jetting back to Paris and not being around to help Canadian woman of the match Allysha Chapman hold things down at fullback.

On the bright side, Adriana Leon, though clumsy in her usual way, was trouble. Chapman was up for both punishing runs from left back and some murder. Stephanie Labbé, after getting kicked in the head by Megan Rapinoe, had the crayon in her brain that made her treat the ball like quantum physics knocked loose and was positively brilliant both distributing her kicks and coming out. And Nichelle Prince, who I could have sworn would be the answer to a trivia question someday, has begun compiling an undeniably substantial highlight reel.

Never get carried away praising any match in which Canada was dominated as thoroughly as the Americans dominated us. Looking on the bright side is Canada Soccer’s job but their so-called “signal to the world” has been rightly mocked. I wouldn’t care to take this team to the 2019 Women’s World Cup if I could help it. But there were, in context, more good things than bad on display. Now John Herdman has a year and a half to test options like Jenna Hellstrom or Amy Pietrangelo, and fire his squad in the crucible of an occasional intense friendly. We play the Americans in the United States too seldom. There are lots of good national teams, but the United States are unique in providing talented opposition plus a crowd that sort of wants to kill us. Even for a fan, that atmosphere takes some getting used to. Let’s give the players as many chances as we can.

Raising the Middle

By Benjamin Massey · November 12th, 2017 · No comments

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Canada’s women’s national soccer team drew a close-to-full-strength United States 1-1 at a very well-attended, if atmospherically indifferent, friendly in Vancouver last Thursday. This we’ve done before, twice in the John Herdman era. What’s unique is that we really, really deserved it!

The Americans were, as they have been for the past two years, mediocre. Shelina Zadorsky probably committed a penalty that went uncalled in the second half. And we would have lost anyway had Steph Labbé not made a miraculous kick save on a deflection. That said, Jordyn Huitema had a foul called against her late in the game for getting her head busted open in the penalty area, the American goal only happened because of a Labbé punching mistake, and we made a veteran-laden American team featuring Rapinoe, Lloyd, Morgan, and Press look incapable of retaining possession for, and I am being absolutely literal here, the first time in Canadian history.

Therefore, that game was automatically a Very Good Time. ESPN named tireless Jessie Fleming the woman of the match. Deanne Rose mauled Megan Rapinoe so severely that after Rose came off Pinoe broke up with her girlfriend by text. Huitema looked plainly inexperienced at this level but was a net contributor all the same and played great off Christine Sinclair. She survived her head wound, which contrary to what condescending writers would clickbait you into believing, is exactly what an elite athlete like her should do. Then she celebrated with a post-game ginger ale because she’s nine. Our wünderkinds were, by any fair standard, wunderful.

But everyone talks enough about them. We’re so enthusiastic that Huitema wearing a bandage becomes Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. That’s good, really; Fleming, Huitema, and Rose deserve support. The trouble is that we risk forgetting our solid but not headlining prospects. In a way, they should excite us more, because that indicates that something we once did wrong, we now do right. But I am damned if I can figure out what.

Even our worst youth teams, coached by mad Italians losing to Mexico and Costa Rica, have provided interesting players, but the leap from U-20 to senior soccer has been a long way. Even players who came into the senior team as useful pieces at a young age have tended to remain only useful. I am thinking particularly of Brittany Baxter (née Timko), Jonelle Filigno, even Sophie Schmidt. We would have been poorer without them, but they never seemed to make the leap they should have made. Their games did not evolve.

In the past few years, this has begun to change, a long, slow process whose fruits are only beginning to appear. If we exclude the obvious deities the best mortal on the pitch Thursday was Rebecca Quinn. Never as preternaturally gifted as her confrere Kadeisha Buchanan, Quinn has always gotten good reviews after coming into the national team at a young age. She recalled a young Emily Zurrer, the very archetype of the useful young player with a long way to go to become a star.

The difference is that Quinn keeps getting better. Born a centre back, she is now a safe starting option in defensive midfield and has an Olympic qualifying hat trick in her scrapbook. Boasting a new, 2015-Sophie Schmidt-like haircut, Rebecca looked like a new woman on Thursday… but in fact it was the same Quinny, only improved, facing threats as varied as Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, and Andi Sullivan with equanimity. She was better than her defensive partner, Shelina Zadorsky, who has a few seasons’ NWSL experience and has herself improved a bit the past couple years. And Quinn’s best position may be in defensive midfield, where she has, implausibly, surpassed Desiree Scott on many fans’ depth charts.

And Quinn’s not even the most impressive mid-lister. The gold medal for development goes to Adriana Leon, who at age 25 should surely not be classed as a prospect at all. In two years when most players’ destinies are fixed Leon has gone from an on-field liability and one-time Twitter malcontent to a magnificent opposition-bothering impact sub and scorer of two fine senior goals this year. I cannot explain how this possibly happened. After an indifferent NWSL career, not much for the senior WNT, and being changed for a better thing, she went to FC Zürich in 2016. With that underrated little club she showed well in Switzerland, had a three-goal-and-two-assists game in the Champions League, returned to both Canada and the NWSL, and was suddenly pretty good. Thursday’s goal-scoring turn against the Americans was only the most entertaining moment in seven months of good form.

A lot has changed since Adriana’s early days: she was the star striker on that U-20 team Carolina Morace got eliminated very early indeed. But John Herdman and company can’t take credit from a technical perspective: they didn’t see her for over a year. The person most responsible for Leon’s mid-career development spurt must be Adriana Leon. But the country did something right, insomuch as it remembered her and let her stay in the game, and brought her back when she was ready.

These things never used to go so well. For decades the classic Canadian role player was a physical specimen rather than a technically developed, versatile contributor. Changing this was a conscious goal of many coaches and administrators throughout the country. Now that it is happening, and the results are before our eyes, we are so blinded by Roses and Huitemae that we can’t see it. Leon, a hard-charging bull in a china shop, and Quinn, who is tall, would both in a different era relied upon their obvious physical powers too heavily. In November 2017 they look like soccer players.

We are not World Cup champions yet. Quinn has learned much of her trade at Duke, Leon picked up her magic boots in Europe; the path to long-term success requires a road through Canada. Nor has everybody been equally successful, because that never happens. But we’re going the right way. Leon scoring against the US because Quinn hit the crossbar bodes just as well for our program as Jessie Fleming descending from heaven.

Soccer as Extended Warranties

By Benjamin Massey · October 30th, 2017 · No comments

Canada Soccer/Mexsport

The other half of 99 Friendship and I are visiting San Jose in a couple of weeks to watch the Canadian women’s national team lose to the United States. Canada’s senior team has not beaten the United States since a 3-0 win at the 2001 Algarve Cup. In our last ten attempts we have eight losses and two draws with a goal difference of -15. Canada Soccer has been promoting the Vancouver leg of this two-friendly series with a “#Top5 #CanWNT v #USWNT moments” featuring two meaningless draws and three heart-shattering losses.

Will we succeed where the best Canadian teams ever have failed? Diana Matheson is still injured. Due to European or NCAA commitments an enormous list of players is doubtful: Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan, Sophie Schmidt, Deanne Rose, Rebecca Quinn, Shannon Woeller, plus potential dark horses like Amy Pietrangelo, Jenna Hellstrom, Gabrielle Lambert, Genevieve Richard, and Emma Fletcher. We might get Erin McLeod back after a long injury layoff, partially because she no longer starts for her club in Sweden. The Americans are without the injured Mallory Pugh, but except for Crystal Dunn every man jack of their team plays in the NWSL and should have nothing better to do.

What I’m saying is,a we know what’s going to happen, we are spending a reasonably substantial amount of money for a virtual guarantee of unhappiness, and the only reason I can imagine is that Carolyn and I are degenerates. (Also that the game is in San Jose which is basically San Francisco and neither of us have been to San Francisco before.)

But by US Soccer standards we are apparently emblems of sanity. Earlier today US Soccer sent me an e-mail offering a chance to buy “upgrades” and “make [our] matchday even more memorable.” For $141.91, for example, I could own the 1’x8′ photoboard used in the pregame photos of the starting eleven that nobody ever looks at except the players who were in them. Should that seem too dear, $37.16 would win me “a photo of yourself in the goal after the match, taken by your own phone.” But for a more exclusive memento, an astonishingly reasonable $380.01 (why one cent?) buys an official match ball, with the combating teams emblazoned on it and everything, from this nothing November friendly. It goes without saying that no upgrades “include any interaction with the USWNT or Canada players,” so if I want Alex Morgan to autograph that ball I have to go to Epcot.

In the few hours since I got this e-mail, multiple upgrades have sold out. A chance to take two post-game penalty kicks, no goalkeeper, has gone for $46.68 a piece. I was too late to even price out “Pregame Field-Level Access,” where you can “watch from field-level as the USWNT warms up.” This once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Lindsey Horan passing the ball in a circle was lost to me in ten-odd minutes between my receiving the e-mail and opening the link. As of this writing the photoboard is still available but act fast.

US Soccer has mastered gouging their supporters. Every first world soccer association will sell you a t-shirt or a kit; the Americans will sell you a $2,850 US Soccer watch. Don’t worry, you can save money by buying a “US Soccer Federation membership.” Only $55, not only do you get 10% off swag but you earn elite status by buying more match tickets. It’s just like everybody’s favourite experience, commercial air travel. Spend the surplus on a US Soccer fantasy camp, for only a $3,995 “donation” (half tax-deductible, so your fantasy is subsidized by single moms working at 7-11s).

The commercial principles here are highly sound. American fans are second to very few in overall spending power. Soccer associations, especially in CONCACAF, go to even more than the usual efforts to accommodate visiting American fans. The American Outlaws, the major US supporters group, have even poached the Voyageurs’ (and the Vancouver Southsiders’) usual pre-game pub. When our city was overrun by US Soccer fans during the 2015 Women’s World Cup, their official fan party was at the Commodore, a club downtown. This “#FanHQ” featured separate queues for walk-up admission, people with tickets to the party, and “VIPs” on the guest list. The place, needless to say, was absolutely packed.

Some of the point of this post is to laugh at the vulgar, cash-obsessed Americans and their comical penny-ante greed. I am Canadian and as vulnerable to our sins as anybody. More important, however, is the cautionary tale. Canada echoes the United States in many trends, and like all echoes we are late and inferior.

Our soccer association is not a natural at profiteering. Until more recently than you think it was actually very difficult to buy a Canadian soccer kit in most of the country. Despite holding the pursestrings of the most popular participant sport in the country the Canadian Soccer Association was habitually short of money and endearingly awkward trying to make a commercial proposition out of just about anything. Even the famously successful 2002 Women’s U-19 World Championship was fueled by free tournament passes to the youth soccer players of the Edmonton area, though in the case of one attendee, at least, the CSA has more than recouped that investment.

But times are changing. A Canadian soccer friendly is no longer automatically a money-losing proposition; over 22,500 tickets have been sold for this Canada – US affair, guaranteeing us one of the ten best-attended home friendlies in Canadian history a week and a half before kickoff. Nearly every equally-successful friendly has been in the past six years. The Canadian Premier League is said to be coming, and for many fans and businessmen part of that should be a soccer marketing organization akin to the United States’ SUM, who have proven so adept at taking advantage of patriotism and partisanship. We aren’t where the Americans are today, but we are thoughtfully eying the same roads.

Saying “this is what happens when the games get big” is lazy excuse-making. I have been to sold-out Gold Cup and Women’s World Cup games, games much larger than any November friendly, where my pregame was drinks in the pub with like-minded supporters and “upgrades” meant splurging on merchandise at the stadium. Nobody would call FIFA or CONCACAF altruistic, but while there were opportunities for fans to spend those events stayed on the right side of “crass.” For their many sins they never fell into the trap of trying to upsell status symbols to supporters like some soccer version of Best Buy.

Canadian soccer will grow. This will—already has—cost those of us who have followed it for a long time some of the intimacy we have enjoyed. Too bad, but the advantages are worth it. What’s not worthwhile is turning supporters into columns in a SQL database, to be statistically analyzed for profit potential down to the penny, like any old business nobody could ever get on an airplane to cheer for. As an old fan this is not what I signed up for. If you’re a new fan I bet one photoboard this is not what you signed up for either.

May Canadian soccer resist the lures that have ensnared our American brothers and sisters.

Josée Bélanger, the Most Improbable Heroine of All

By Benjamin Massey · May 29th, 2017 · No comments

Kyle Thomas/Canadian Soccer Association

So farewell then, Josée Bélanger. At a small press conference Monday, Bélanger announced that she is retiring from professional soccer two weeks after her 31st birthday. She will reportedly open a soccer school, and has already done youth coaching around her native Quebec[1].

This announcement, while sad, has surprised nobody. Bélanger took the year off from the NWSL[2] and has publicly contemplated her post-soccer future. She told the Orlando Sentinel last September that she wanted to be a mother and alluded to the wear and tear soccer’s put on her body which might not make that easy[3]. It is a dilemma male players never have to deal with, and guarantees respect for the early departure of a rare Canadian who can make an honest living playing soccer.

It turns out Bélanger’s last ride was, appropriately, February’s bronze medal celebration match in Vancouver, where she provided 57 minutes of effective right-back work before giving way to Rhian Wilkinson. Wilkinson, along with Marie-Eve Nault and Melissa Tancredi, were being honoured for their many contributions in one last pre-retirement bash. Bélanger was not. When she left the Canadian national program for good it was to a chorus of applause, but the applause was aimed at Wilkinson because all thought, or at least hoped, Josée would be back. Bélanger had earned an individual tribute, but flew under the radar again.

Bélanger hangs them up with a modest 57 senior international appearances, seven goals, one Olympic bronze medal (she missed London 2012), and a forgettable club career. She was twice Quebec professional of the year, ranks with Nault and Isabelle Morneau as the best female French-Canadian players of all time, and has a devoted following in her home province, but to the rest of the country she was never a first-tier star. But when the time comes to write the history of the great Canadian WNT of 2012 to the present, the best national team Canada has ever produced, Bélanger will deserve a chapter.

First off, she scored one of the great Canadian goals, when at the 2015 Women’s World Cup she gave Canada a 1-0 win over Switzerland in the round of 16. Vancouver would have cheered her out of that celebration friendly for the sake of this moment alone.

In more ways than one she was not supposed to be there. She had never been one of the golden girls, playing CIAU soccer at Sherbrooke, USL W-League in Laval, getting a few appearances in the youth programs, and being rated promising but not brilliant. Her debut in 2004 proved premature, and at the end of 2010 she had a run as a regular on the senior team under Carolina Morace. She played regularly in World Cup qualifying, scored a few goals, badly injured her ankle, came to camp for the Cyprus Cup and the Yongchuan Invitational without getting on the field and, like many a young striker of that era, went straight to obscurity.

Though she’d left the highest level Bélanger hung around, playing more W-League in Laval and Quebec City. She did some youth coaching in Sherbrooke. She met her boyfriend and got into Crossfit. She even had the hidden blessing of missing the 2011 Women’s World Cup, one of the worst things ever to happen to Canadian soccer. By all accounts she was content. John Herdman was interested in her when he took over after the 2011 debacle but Bélanger stayed in Quebec, trained kids, Crossfitted, and got on with her life. Until, in November 2013, she returned to the national fold for a first-team training camp. Even then she was the forgotten woman, because the other returning player that camp happened to be Kara Lang.

Lang’s comeback, enormously hyped-up, amounted to not much. Bélanger’s, hardly noticed except by the hardcore, was for real. She made her twelfth cap, and her first in over three years, on January 31, 2014 against the United States. As Canada began its run up to 2015 Bélanger became a regular; she went 90 minutes only twice but routinely started and came on as an early substitute when she didn’t. Her performances, when she appeared on TV, were admirable. Eyes turned in her direction.

But here is the other way in which Bélanger was not supposed to be there. To that point she had been an attacking player for both club and country. With Lang’s injury ending her career for good and Janine Beckie not yet in the senior picture Canada was shallow up top. But when Bélanger returned to senior Canadian soccer she was our right fullback. We’ve since grown used to John Herdman turning forwards into fullbacks through the success of Ashley Lawrence, but in 2014 it was an innovation. Bélanger was not only competent defensively, but her attacking brio and dynamic crossing down the right flank gave Canada a totally different look than that long-provided by veteran Rhian Wilkinson.

Wilkinson entered the 2015 World Cup injured so Bélanger made her long-belated World Cup debut, aged 29, on a backline with Allysha Chapman, Kadeisha Buchanan, and Lauren Sesselmann at Commonwealth Stadium against China. Next to Buchanan Bélanger was the defensive standout, as the Chinese refused to say die until nearly the last kick of the game. Not only was Bélanger’s defending effective but she nearly won the match herself in the first half, hitting the crossbar after a muffed Chinese clearance. She chipped in to the clean sheet against New Zealand and, in Montreal, started at right back before moving up top for the last ten minutes, a virtual offensive substitute as Wilkinson returned from injury and Canada tried unsuccessfully to win a 1-1 draw against the Dutch.

Had it ended there, Bélanger would have been a pleasant on-field surprise and an excellent feel-good story. But as we know there was more to come, and the forgotten woman of 2011 became the hero of 2015 by returning to forward and defeating the Swiss. If she did not get the full sports-movie ending with that 2-1 quarterfinal loss to England, she had still done enough to make sure she would never be forgotten again.

That was the high point of Bélanger’s career, but she had many other contributions to make. She had a brief but fruitful run with European powerhouse FC Rosengard and was a highly-popular member of the Orlando Pride alongside fellow Canadian Kaylyn Kyle. At the 2016 Olympics she was less vital than in 2015; Chapman and Lawrence were the first-choice fullbacks, Beckie, Sinclair, and Deanne Rose had locked down the front three, and when Bélanger did draw in she got herself suspended for the semifinal. That semifinal was, not coincidentally, the only game Canada lost, and when we won she mattered. She had a strong supporting role in The Melissa Tancredi Game against the Germans, played super-sub for the injured Chapman in the quarterfinal against France with a vital clearance, and in the bronze medal match, against Brazil, killed the game off excellently as a substitute. It did not capture the national imagination to the same degree, but the Rio 2016 bronze medal was a greater achievement than London. It is typical of Bélanger that she missed immortality, then helped win something less fêted but more difficult.

The most recent Canadian camp in Europe saw the remarkable return of Shannon Woeller, a 27-year-old defender whose last appearance came before the 2012 Olympics. Woeller had been all-but-forgotten, scraping out a decent career in Germany, and was not even named to the national team roster before showing up more-or-less because she was in the neighbourhood. Then she got on the field against the Germans, and now she’s one of two veterans at our Vancouver pre-training camp. If Woeller fights her way back into the national picture it will be one of the most unexpected comebacks of all time. But, she can think to herself as Bélanger leaves with such respect, not an unprecedented one.

(notes and comments…)

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.