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.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge

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

Al Quintero/Canadian Soccer Association

Al Quintero/Canadian Soccer Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s where we were wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(notes and comments…)

Sabrina, the Keeping Hitch

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

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(notes and comments…)

The Canadian Messi

By Benjamin Massey · February 12th, 2016 · No comments

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Yesterday, 16-year-old Deanne Rose of Alliston, Ontario took Guyana to school. In her first competitive start for her country Rose scored two goals, had an assist, and would have added to her total had John Herdman not subbed her off in the sixty-second minute. Canada beat Guyana 5-0 (thanks to Ashley Lawrence recording the most overlooked hat trick of the century) and seldom have we faced an opponent so hopelessly out of their depth. Usually it’s Canadian teams that look like that, defending in desperate fear, putting eight women in the box, hoofing without even trying to maintain possession, their only hope of a goal being Lauren Sesselmann apparating at centreback and backpassing up a storm. But the Guyanese team is mostly Canadian, so that makes sense[1].

What a shellacking. By the end of the game Guyana looked like they just wanted to go home. (To Toronto.) Canada had 80% of the possession and 100% of the shots. Despite spending the first half crossing so badly even John Herdman was obliged to notice, Canada was constantly in control and treated the minnow as a minnow deserves. Without some awkward non-finishes and a great save it would easily have been 8-0. It wasn’t always pretty, but our dominance was absolute even with Sinclair, Schmidt, and Matheson jogging, Chapman and Belanger launching runs for the six-yard box like over-excited U-8s, McLeod visibly bored, and Herdman practically screaming “hell with it, it’s Guyana” as he played some real-life FIFA 16 and brought on Jessie Fleming for a fullback.

The kids played like they had something to prove. Gabby Carle shot from everywhere, Fleming tried to play keepaway, Lawrence scored a goal or three or something, Buchanan and Zadorsky were both fine on those rare occasions they were in the picture, and the real star of the show was Rose. As is tradition, I am using a handful of games against mostly second-rate opposition or worse to formally anoint her the Canadian Messi.

Rose’s best comparable is Christine Sinclair, who surely would have named the Canadian Messi herself had Uncle Leo not been a 13-year-old with Newell’s Old Boys. Sinclair’s first senior goal for Canada came on March 14, 2000, when she put one past Norway in a 2-1 loss at the Algarve Cup. She was 16 years, 9 months, and 2 days old. When Rose scored her first two goals yesterday she was 16 years, 11 months, and 8 days old, the fifth-youngest scorer in Canadian senior women’s history and 13 days younger than her teammate Jessie Fleming[2].

The pity is that Rose was substituted out after only an hour before she could complete her hat trick. With Guyana’s defense impotent on the flanks another goal would have been almost probable. Carle had a good fistful of chances off the left wing but struck them just wide or into the keeper. She very nearly got a piece of Lawrence’s first. Had Rose managed another goal she would have been the second-youngest hat trick hero in Canadian history behind Aysha Jamani. Well ahead of Sinclair, whose first hat trick came at the age of 17 years, 26 days against… Guyana, finished with two quick goals in the 73rd and 76th minutes.

With these omens, not to mention speed that left the Guyanese gasping and technical ability which isn’t limited to South American minnows but looked interesting last December in Brazil, it is clear that Rose is the future of Canadian sport. Anybody who said “who’s Aysha Jamani?” in the last paragraph and thinks that maybe we should reserve judgment on young goalscorers is clearly a pessimist.

Poor Ashley Lawrence. Sure she scored three, but the first ended in a gratuitous defensive miscue by Guyana’s Kayla de Souza (from Scarborough and normally a midfielder at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology), inexplicably standing a foot and a half behind her own goal line when she attempted a last-ditch “clearance.” The second probably should have been an own goal, though Lawrence played it well. The third was a terrific finish made possible by Sinclair’s munificence. She’s twenty years old, by our standards an old lady, and has scored before – at a World Cup, no less. Yawn. Make way for the new generation, Ashley.

Some talk, as Steven Sandor did in relation to another Canadian Messi, about the dangers of over-hyping a young player. But how on Earth do you over-hype a Canadian woman? The Houston crowd watching Rose’s excellence probably didn’t amount to a hundred people. The game was webcast by CBC with Andi Petrillo, Karina LeBlanc, and Nigel Reed taking it half-seriously from a studio in Toronto, and that was unusually major coverage. News and blog articles, raving over Rose, have come exclusively from the usual suspects. As of this writing the CBC’s recap of the match isn’t on the front page of their sports site, although the Jerome Valcke ban is, and if you go searching in the bowels of their page you’ll find only Gavin Day’s story for the Canadian Press. The die-hards who watched the Brazil tournament last December already had a pretty good idea that Rose was worth following, and said so, but it didn’t amount to a hill of tweets in this crazy world.

What Canadian girls have been talked up at all by the general public? Sinclair, who became the greatest female forward ever to live. Kara Lang, who could have been a superstar if not for her knees. Jessie Fleming, more recently, but there’s no sign that a couple interviews during the Women’s World Cup or her young goal against Scotland have ruined her. She hasn’t been seduced by the cash, the 24/7 media frenzy, the fast cars, the supermodels, because none of those bloody things exist and she’s going to UCLA this fall. She missed a recent training camp because she had to study. 20-year-old Kadeisha Buchanan won the Holy Grail by scoring against the Americans and bulldozing Abby Wambach in a wildly-attended 2014 home friendly, being Canada’s best player at a home World Cup, and becoming the only defender nominated for 2015 FIFA World Player of the Year. Even she, among the world’s best defenders and as widely-covered as any non-Sinclair Canadian, has fewer than half the Google hits and 4% the Twitter followers of, say, Jay DeMerit.

No of course Deanne Rose isn’t on the verge of succeeding Christine Sinclair. She has so much more work to do it’s unbelievable. But that doesn’t mean we fans should restrain ourselves from getting excited out of some misplaced sense of caution that we will ruin potential by our applause. Any young woman whose head fatally spins from the infinitesimal Canadian woso hype machine never had the mentality to succeed anyway. Let’s have fun, and allow ourselves hope, and give a young player her due for a great game entirely without self-consciousness.

(notes and comments…)

Christine Sinclair: The Greatest Female Forward of Them All

By Benjamin Massey · December 16th, 2015 · No comments

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Last Sunday, Christine Sinclair #ChasedMia to ground. Canada’s totemic heroine buried an 85th-minute goal against hapless Trinidad and Tobago at the Brazilian Torneio Internacional de Futebol Feminino in Natal. It was a well-taken goal against demoralized opposition, our unmarked superstriker sidefooting Josée Bélanger’s cross over the keeper with perfect accuracy, and it tied Sinclair with Mia Hamm on 158 goals as the second-highest scoring woman in the history of international soccer.

Christine Sinclair is no longer one of the three best women’s soccer players alive, not even the best Canadian, but like an aging but wily tiger she holds dangers for the unwary. Earlier in this tournament she would have had a hat trick against the generally-decent Mexicans if Cecilia Santiago hadn’t gone full Camarón in the second half. At the Women’s World Cup Sinclair scored two goals and played better than her numbers. 32 years old, Sinclair can still catch Abby Wambach, who is 26 goals ahead entering her retirement match today. Wambach scored her 158th goal on her 207th cap as part of a four-goal frenzy against Korea on June 20, 2013, two weeks after her 33rd birthday. Sinclair has 230 caps but is some six months younger than Wambach was. After an unproductive 2014 Sinclair has ten goals so far in 2015 including three against England, three against China, and one against France. Not Canada’s player of the year, no, but not washed up either.

She is, in fact, finishing her case as the greatest female forward in soccer history.

Besides Sinclair, three of the top five scorers in women’s international history are American and the fifth is German immortal Birgit Prinz. These four played on the best teams in the world. But Sinclair is undisputed champion for women from more modest countries and that’s a considerable point in her favour. Not only has she got a decent chance of retiring as the leading scorer of all but she does it while playing without the support of her rivals. Abby Wambach, Mia Hamm, and Kristine Lilly were, year in and year out, the beating heart of the unparalleled American attack. For all that Sinclair boasts a strike rate per game superior not only to Hamm and Lilly (and Prinz) but today’s Americans in their primes: Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Sydney Leroux, take your pick. Only Wambach has scored at a higher rate than Sinclair and she’s been fed by Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Heather O’Reilly, etc. etc. ad nauseum. Early in her career Wambach had the support of Hamm; lately it’s been Morgan and Press. Sinclair’s best fellow forward was Kara Lang and since 2011 she’s mostly partnered with Melissa Tancredi, who scores a goal every five games. Sophie Schmidt and Diana Matheson are good midfielders but neither gets World Player of the Year buzz as Lloyd, Rapinoe, and even Shannon Boxx have. It’s impossible to deny that Wambach is among history’s pre-eminent finishers, but you and I would bang in a few goals if we had her kind of help. Wambach was also more limited in every field other than scoring goals; she could afford to be, there were ten elite women behind her. Sinclair stands alone.

The top strikers from lesser nations are Sinclair, Scotland’s Julie Fleeting, Italy’s deathless Patrizia Panico, the Chinese duo of Sun Wen and Han Duan, and South Africa’s Portia Modise. Panico has been around so long she flew Sopwith Strutters against Austria-Hungary in 1917 and never had a world-class strike rate. Fleeting pillages European minnows like a Panzer division but rarely beats anybody good: Sinclair has more goals against England for God’s sake. Modise reaped bushels of goals from extraordinarily bad African teams, some of the weakest opposition in the world, but was hurt by disputes with the South African federation over her lesbianism and played only one major tournament. At London 2012 she got on the highlight reel but was generally unsuccessful. Modise is a great “what if?”s but you can’t say she was immortal on the field. Han Duan was rather average but Sun Wen can argue she belongs in the Sinclair/Hamm/Wambach class. She won the Golden Ball at the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the start of the modern era of women’s soccer, and was an important factor as late as 2003. In my books too many of her achievements were pre-historic; twentieth-century women’s soccer was so inconsistently competitive that relatively modest players on well-trained teams could knock up pinball-machine totals against teams which only assembled every two years. These are all good forwards, but “greatest of all time?”

Serious countries today need a balanced attack, so gaudy Wambach/Sinclair-style totals are falling by the wayside. Modern Germans have nobody good for more than a goal every two games. France’s Marie-Laure Delie and Japan’s Yuki Ogimi are both terrific, as good as anyone today, but not Sinclair level, Spain’s Verónica Boquete doesn’t play enough, and as for the interchangeable “look out for!” media terrors who roar out of assorted Asian shitstates to fall apart on the world stage, come on. There is one challenger under thirty, and it’s Marta.

Like Sinclair, Marta plays for a nation that’s good enough to be respected but isn’t a true women’s soccer power. Unlike Sinclair, Marta has a World Player of the Year award – five of them, actually, a dominant total in a meaningless award. Marta has scored more against Canada than Sinclair has against Brazil. Marta has ten goals against the United States, Sinclair has eleven in more appearances. Hell, Marta just scored five goals against the Trinidadians Sinclair beat once. Marta’s strike rate, nearly a goal per cap, is terrifying: she would have reached her century already were the Brazilian federation not so slapdash. Statistically Marta is well ahead of Sinclair, and when you compare countries they’ve both played frequently Marta probably has her nose in front.

But the devil, as always, is in the details.

In recent years Marta has shown that she isn’t quite Marta anymore. Up until 2010 she genuinely was a force of nature, but since the 2011 Women’s World Cup reputation has served her as well as skill. The same is true of Sinclair except it happened to Marta some three years earlier. 29 years old is awfully young to lose your prime, and it’s an open question whether she can have a late career on the level of Sinclair’s and Wambach’s. There’s more to all-time greatness than peak value.

Brazil has a lot of weak opposition, and it’s partially their fault. No, they can’t help being the only country in South America worth a damn, and they play the Americans a lot. However, the Brazil women’s budget is not consistent with their talent, meaning the European tours where Sinclair and the Americans prove their mettle are rare treats for Marta. Marta has actually never scored against France or Japan and has only one against Germany; Sinclair has two, five, and three goals respectively.

Besides that, a much greater proportion of Marta’s games, and goals, come at home than Sinclair’s. The Canadian women’s national team travels as much as any first-class formation in the world, with two or three home friendlies per year at best whenever we aren’t hosting a World Cup. CONCACAF Olympic and World Cup qualifying tournaments are held in individual countries, which usually means the United States. Home field advantage applies to Marta’s raw numbers in a way they don’t for Sinclair.

Finally, Brazil’s got Cristiane, maybe the best second forward outside the United States and France. Canada has never had such a luxury. Kara Lang should have been but wasn’t. I place a lot of emphasis on this point, but any observer of the Canadian women’s team over the past decade will know how many miles above her comrades Sinclair has truly been. A forward’s achievements rely on her teammates, and Sinclair started a step behind.

As it happens, Marta and Sinclair play each other today in Natal and are guaranteed a rematch in Sunday’s final. Two games with the two masters. Marta and Sinclair have met loads of times and two more won’t settle anything, but in an obscure, irrational way they could be an indicator. Marta has to catch up to our Canadian. If Sinclair is better on the day, why believe Marta will reel her in? It might change very soon but today, at this moment, Christine Sinclair is the greatest forward in the history of women’s soccer.

Canadian Soccer Studies

By Benjamin Massey · November 27th, 2015 · No comments

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Yesterday Canada announced its roster for CONCACAF Women’s U-20 World Cup qualifying[1]. There are many interesting names on it – senior national team fullback Sura Yekka, Calgary talent Sarah Kinzner, promising 16-year-old Pan-Am Games veteran Sarah Stratigakis, and two 15-year-olds in Vancouver’s Emma Regan and Brampton’s Shana Flynn – and many interesting names absent. Marie Levasseur, Gabrielle Carle, Deanne Rose, and Kennedy Faulknor are all eligible for the U-20 team but are staying in Vancouver with John Herdman and the senior team. More importantly, wünderkind Jessie Fleming is nowhere, left off both the senior and U-20 rosters.

We freaked out when the roster was announced yesterday and we noticed she was missing. (And I mean “we;” me and Carolyn Duthie.) It took hours for the explanation to come, but when it did it was good. Canadian women’s soccer journalist Sandra Prusina reported[2] that Fleming is staying in school but will join the senior women for an invitational tournament in Brazil starting December 9.

Who can blame her? Fleming is in Grade 12 and expected to play for UCLA in the next NCAA women’s soccer season[3]. However, women’s soccer is not football: you can’t snatch a full-ride scholarship with a fractional GPA and a bogus major. You have to be a bona fide student, and Fleming’s missed more class than a juvenile delinquent. Focusing on the Women’s World Cup during the middle of exam season is tough enough; how about two-week trips to Cyprus and China, or friendlies across western Canada and the US, all in Grade 11? It’s not like she can shrug off scholastics for a lucrative professional career; there are no professional women’s soccer clubs in Canada and those in the United States don’t pay well. Even marquee NWSL players paid by the Canadian Soccer Association earn McDonald’s wages, and an ordinary office worker’s salary will get you on a list of the ten highest-paid women’s soccer stars[4]. Careers are short, and benefits aren’t great, and to start a family you quite literally have to retire.

So yes, Jessie Fleming, please take a week now and again to do your homework. Your teammates did and they turned out all right.

Many Canadian female internationals have honest four-year degrees, but often in sports-related subjects. After their playing careers they go into coaching or physiotherapy. Others enter the sports media: as with many men below the international level, soccer is what they know and they stick to it. However, this is not the rule, and I wonder how many of the world’s major teams have been as well-rounded as the Canadian soccer women. For example, until earlier this month Selenia Iacchelli and Emily Zurrer operated a food truck in Vancouver[5]. Selling frozen yogurt out of a van sounds goofy but few professional athletes have such humble side businesses; Zurrer has a degree in advertising, for heaven’s sakes, and how much less of a prototypical jock can you be? Well, you can be Erin McLeod, who not only has an advertising degree from Penn State herself but is a professional artist when not busy being the best money goalkeeper in the world.

Diana Matheson, the beating heart of Canada’s midfield, has a bachelor’s in economics from Princeton, which has led to many “microeconomist” jokes over the years. Melissa Tancredi holds three degrees and memorably missed almost a year of games to finish up a doctorate in chiropractic. Stephanie Labbé has a degree in Early Childhood Development and Education, Shelina Zadorsky’s is in psychology. Kadeisha Buchanan, already one of the ten best female defenders alive, is an honours student in criminology at West Virginia. According to Sportsnet’s Kristina Rutherford, Fleming aims to study science or engineering at UCLA[6], hopefully bringing a little STEM rigour to what has been a very soft-science-focused locker room.

Among former players, Dr. Clare Rustad (45 caps from 2000 to 2008; scored against Brazil at Commonwealth Stadium in 2002) had a BSc in molecular biology from Washington during her playing days and is now a real doctor. (Christine Sinclair is also a doctor, but an honourary one; her real degree is in biology from the University of Portland.) Silvana Burtini, a former national player of the year and the third-most-capped Canadian of all time, is a police officer and holds the British Columbia Police Award of Valour. Countless former Canadian national teamers have gone on to productive careers outside soccer, from advertising to yoga. After all, they had to.

This is because of an unequal system. Elite athletes who, if they had penises, could count on prosperous careers and six-figure salaries instead spend their glory days with one eye on the future. Elite male athletes doing well in school have an “insurance policy;” for a top female player, like the rest of us, it’s necessary to put food on the table. Only your Sinclairs and Alex Morgans will earn enough as players to save for retirement, and full-time coaching gigs are very thin on the ground. Their performance as athletes suffers, for nobody does two things at once perfectly, and adds to the stress of their lives. It’s unavoidable economics, and not even unfair, but it’s the way it is.

However, speaking strictly as a fan, there is a bright side. The Canadian women’s soccer team is embraced by those who, like your humble correspondent, stand quite outside the mainstream of women’s sport. It’s not just the usual platitudes about girls being inspired and these women work so hard and they’ve proven they belong etc. etc. ad nauseum, it’s that our national teamers are genuinely interesting people. Your average top athlete got there by being so consumed by his sport that he was able to succeed in the most cutthroat environment in the civilized world; there’s no time to develop a personality, and if one does come through it’s usually bad or boring. An NHL player can become a cult favourite with a sense of humour that’s tiresome and derivative at an office party.

Our women are a cut above. We can relate to them on a personal level. While you can’t get to know a professional athlete from afar, any fan young or old can see there is someone there to know. Catch them outside the bubble of an active player and they can be interesting company. Journalists like talking to them (though it’s not always reciprocated). Even Sinclair, who’s spent twenty years learning to mouth platitudes on demand to microphone-wielding strangers, flashes genuine personality to the world just often enough to notice. They’re people, with varying interests and intellects and ideas. We like people! We want the athletes we cheer for to be people, and because we cheer for them and spend so much money on them we create a system where those athletes become automatons under constant pressure to suppress whatever glimmers of positive individuality they may possess. It is destructive, and self-defeating, and unavoidable.

Canadian women’s soccer has not yet reached that point. Let us be grateful, and let us be glad when Jessie Fleming hits the books like any other 17-year-old, just as we are when her shots hit the target.

(notes and comments…)

Candace Chapman Officially Retires

By Benjamin Massey · May 29th, 2015 · No comments

 

So farewell then, Candace Chapman. Probably the best defender the Canadian women’s program ever had, Chapman’s retirement was officially announced in a press release today by the Canadian Soccer Association. In truth she’s been off the field for some time, not being heard of as a player since the Washington Spirit waived her at the beginning of 2014. Her most recent work has been as a coach for the Washington, D.C.-area Arlington Soccer Association, as well as helping the CSA for recent youth training camps. However, this announcement will allow one of Canada’s best players to be honoured in today’s national team friendly in Hamilton, only an hour and a half from her adoptive hometown of Ajax, Ontario.

Freestyle/Canadian Soccer Association

Freestyle/Canadian Soccer Association

Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, the Chapman family emigrated to Ajax when Candace was six years old. Her’s was a soccer family and it wasn’t long before Candace began to star with Ajax United where her father, Gerard, was an assistant coach. Chapman was a perennial leading scorer for Ajax and led them to the girls U-16 Ontario Cup title in 1998. Soon she was nosing her way into our international youth teams. Chapman’s first appearances for her adoptive country came in Len Vickery’s May 2000 U-17 camp, alongside Erin McLeod, Clare Rustad, and Sasha Andrews. Many more were to follow.

Starting in 2001 Chapman attended the University of Notre Dame, and it was that year that she really started to rise up the Canadian ranks. She was very much an all-rounder, and 2001 included the slim consolation of scoring Canada’s only goal in an 11-1 loss to the United States. Chapman won her first senior international cap at the 2002 Algarve Cup and, aged only 18 years old, started all four matches of one of the world’s most prestigious women’s soccer tournaments, lining up for the first time with Burnaby teenager and national team wünderkind Christine Sinclair.

Chapman had five senior starts when she hit the grass at Commonwealth Stadium for the 2002 FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship. Under head coach Ian Bridge Chapman was a key player, handling multiple roles and was, as would become her trademark, playing every second of the tournament. Her finest match was the semi-final against Brazil; she held down a strong Brazilian attack that included Marta and Cristiane, destroyed Brazilian skipper and long-time international star Daniela with a thunderous bodycheck, traumatized a talented Brazilian midfield through regular and extra time, took the first Canadian penalty, and was stopped only because goalkeeper Giselle was three strides off her line. But she earned plaudits for her performance against the United States as well, helping to blank an extremely strong American team for agonizingly close to two hours. While Sinclair, McLeod, and Kara Lang were the headline-makers of the Canadian team, Chapman belonged up there with anybody: seldom seen on highlight reels, but without her the marvelous Canadian run would have been impossible. She faced an variety of responsibilities unmatched by the other, more one-dimensional Canadian players and mastered them.

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