Canada's U-23 men's national team drew 0-0 with El Salvador in Nashville, Tennessee yesterday. I won't review those 90 dreary minutes, which saw El Salvador recover from a decent Canadian start and own by far the bulk of the chances. I will review what caused that dreariness.
For once it's not on the players. There was a lot of tremendous effort from almost every player and goalkeeper Michal Misiewicz was heroic. The team was overwhelmed but up for anything; they could be criticized for lacking aggression but not spirit. The team's troubles began long before kickoff: they were sunk by their own coaching.
The leading theory is that Tony Fonseca intended to save his best players for Saturday's match against the United States (4 PM PDT, Rogers Sportnet Ontario). Thus, his leading striker Randy Edwini-Bonsu, one of his better defenders in Doneil Henry, probable captain Philippe Davies and one-time senior national team call-up Samuel Piette all started on the bench.
If Canada's second-stringers somehow eked out a result against El Salvador, then our best got points off the United States and did the job against Cuba, Canada would finish top of the group and probably avoid a semi-final match against Mexico. The finalists advance to the London Olympics: an easier win in the semi-finals is worth any cost.
But if that was Fonseca's plan he overestimated his strength. Canada is one of the youngest teams in this tournament. Marcus Haber was the only 23-year-old in Canada's starting eleven and only Nana Attakora, Shaun Saiko, and Carl Haworth were even 22. Seven out of Canada's eleven starters were at least two years underage; Russell Teibert, Bryce Alderson, and Matt Stinson are teenagers.
Canada's best hope was to beat El Salvador and Cuba, guarantee advancement to the semi-final, and hope for a miracle. If Mexico finished second in their (remarkably tough) group, we'd be golden. If they didn't, we'd still have a chance to fluke out a win in the semi-final. Cuba should be a bit of a cakewalk but as we've seen El Salvador is much, much too good to take for granted by playing second-stringers. In a fair world, where Michal Misiewicz wasn't channeling Craig Forrest, we lost that game 3-0.
A second-place finish would already be tough if we concentrated our best players against El Salvador and Cuba. Concentrating them against the United States seriously hurt our chances of finishing second in exchange for a very slim shot at finishing first; it was like blowing your paycheque on lottery tickets.
If El Salvador and Canada both lose to the Americans (which they will) it comes down to goal differential; who can concede the fewest to the United States and knock the most past Cuba. Canada's got the horses to score goals but they were offensively impotent against El Salvador. Why yes I am blaming the coaching for this as well.
Two of Canada's three starting teenagers were played out of position. Both Teibert and Stinson have served at fullback, but neither has done well: Stinson gave me Jeb Brovsky flashbacks and Teibert's foibles at left back under Tom Soehn were well-chronicled in this space. Stinson would be a little out-of-his-depth at this level at any position but would have been far better at central midfield, while Teibert could have provided attacking spontaneity either on the left wing or centrally. If you have players who are four or five years younger than their opponents, don't further screw them over by playing them out of their best positions. This is so obvious I'm shocked I actually needed to say it. (Alderson, playing his usual role, did very well indeed; he, Misiewicz, and perhaps Kyle Bekker were the only Canadians to come out of the game looking better than when they went in.)
Canada's depth at fullback at the U-23 level got worse when Toronto FC prevented Ashtone Morgan from playing at this tournament. However, Antonio Rago of FC Edmonton would have been a better choice on the right-hand side than Stinson, and Montreal/Edmonton alumnus Alex Surprenant had a good NASL campaign on the left. Those are just players I'm familiar with and willing to vouch for: one hopes the CSA would have greater scouting resources than me. Instead, both Teibert and Stinson played very poorly having been forced into situations where they could not possibly do well.
Teibert was caught out-of-position fairly frequently, as you'd expect. He was prone to nasty turnovers because he seemed reluctant to show his usual aggression: whereas normally he'd cut inside or try to beat his man on the dribble, he preferred trying to pass the ball from the touchline with no tricks or pizazz. He was playing it safe and therefore doing the most dangerous thing possible: playing to his weaknesses rather than his strengths. He wasn't helped, of course, by the fact that the left-side winger James gave him very little support.
James failing to track back gave El Salvador their best chance; a wide-open shot from their right-hand side where Teibert was actually playing correctly and covering a man near the penalty mark. A winger roamed forward going for a chance and James had to step back into coverage; instead he was well up the field in no-man's land.
Another problem was playing Marcus Haber forward as a target man. Haber is big and skilled; this arouses the "play him high" instinct in many a coach. But we all remembered how much Haber struggled with the Whitecaps in 2011 when he didn't have an inspired Charles Gbeke doing the dirty work, and the way he duplicated those struggles in England's lower leagues while trying, and failing, to catch on with West Brom. I bashed Haber plenty last year and even compared him to Rob Friend; the ultimate insult in my books.
But St. Johnstone manager Steve Lomas rather cleverly uses Haber in a withdrawn role, making plays and holding the ball up with scoring as a secondary objective. This exploits Haber's good footwork and patience while minimizing his surprisingly mediocre heading and sometimes poor shooting instincts. As a result, Haber has proven me wrong and played excellent soccer. Haber appears regularly, has a couple of goals this year, and while he doesn't put up gaudy numbers is one of the stronger members of a team that might make next season's Europa League.
Naturally, Tony Fonseca played Haber right up top. The team actually has some good forwards: in addition to Haber there's the fantastic Edwini-Bonsu, little Sherif El-Masri who's been doing well in Singapore, and the oversized, interesting Babayele Sodade. Any of them could have moved higher up, exploited the space and time Haber would create for them, and probably gotten some good chances. Instead it was the same old isolated striker style the senior men's team has completely failed with.
Canada's hopes are by no means sunk. On paper, this team can score some goals against Cuba and if Misiewicz has another heroic game against the Americans then we might keep a good goal differential. The door to the semi-finals remains ajar, but poor coaching means that door is no longer wide open.