As I type this, Canada's men's national team is training in Ukraine, preparing for a match against the Ukrainian national team. It's cold and the training is hard, at least acclimatizing this batch of Canadians to future World Cup qualifiers in Edmonton in November. The roster is largely experimental, with six players having fewer than three senior international caps: David Monsalve, David Edgar, Pedro Pacheco, Jonathan Bourgeault, Julian Uccello, and Marcus Haber. Of these, most are considered only secondary prospects for national duty in the 2014 qualifying cycle. Monsalve is sometimes considered a future backup keeper, and depending on who you ask any of Edgar, Pacheco, Uccello, or Haber might show up on the bench, but if any of the new players got a single start in the 2014 cycle it would be a surprise.
With such a modest lineup against the powerful Ukrainians, most previews to this point have fretted about how badly Canada is going to get killed. Out of Touch and the Canadian guys have already begun the traditional tecall of "a draw would be lovely, wouldn't it?" As much as I'd love to turn contrary and argue how Canada could beat Ukraine, they're right: odds are it's going to go badly for us.
Friday's friendly really is about the performances, but fortunately for us there are a lot of players whose players will be worth monitoring. New members of the senior national pool as well as veterans whose performances, either internationally or with their club, have been suspect enough. Far be it for us to spend 5,000 words analyzing every member of this roster (hey, did you hear Paul Stalteri is old?), but after the jump, an analysis of these more interesting players.
First off, a great big hello to David Edgar. Lovely to see you again, my friend. Edgar was last heard of in a Canadian uniform back in 2008, when he rode the bench for one of the most desultory performances in Canadian soccer history: a 3-0 loss in Jamaica with our "C+" team that marked the last gasp of the Dale Mitchell era. Since then, Edgar hasn't wanted to come when called, and when available he hasn't been called. He's also played a combined total of eleven league games since leaving Newcastle in 2009, signed with Burnley, never played, stuck with Burnley when they were relegated to the Championship, and still can't even get onto the bench. A loan to Swansea last season where Edgar saw some action and did well raised hopes, but Brian Laws continues to ignore Edgar in Burnley.
Once, Edgar was Canada's top prospect. At age twenty-three it's impossible to write him off, but all the same central defenders Adam Straith and Nana Attakora are both younger and, by popular acclaim, now better than Edgar. It's good for Canada to get a good look at Edgar, of course, but hopefully if he sees action he'll also impress another club in Europe to pry him from Burnley's cold dead hands and show him first team action once again.
The man I'm most looking forward to see in Canadian strip is striker Julian Uccello (the Canadian Soccer Association says he's a midfielder, but the Canadian Soccer Association says lots of things). Uccello turns twenty-four at the end of the month and has taken a long, winding road to the Canadian national pool. He capped twice for our U-20 setup in the 2005 CONCACAF U-20 championships but was dropped by Canadian soccer visionary Dale Mitchell for the 2005 Youth World Cup later that year. Mitchell instead went with Andrea Lombardo, who is currently toiling in Portugal. No, sorry, with Portugal F.C. in the Canadian Soccer League.
Uccello, meanwhile, started at the bottom and just worked his way up through hard work and ability. He is in many ways an Italian Simeon Jackson: older and less accomplished, but a similar career path. Though he trained with AC Milan's academy, his first professional experience came all the way down the Italian totem pole in Serie D. He got out of there the only way a striker can: by working his tail off and scoring in quantity. Last year he was in the Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, the old Serie C2, where he bagged ten goals for Bellaria and helped them to a credible mid-table finish. This season he has leapt up to Serie B, and while he has featured only sporadically with FC Crotone early reviews have been enthusiastic.
An irregular Serie B substitute is not going to pull Canada into the World Cup on his own, but Uccello is still improving as a footballer and as a strong, accurate, stout and powerful 5'11" target man, he gives Canada the raw finishing ability with the ball on his foot we normally only get from Ali Gerba. Everyone raves about his work ethic and determination, two features which ought to endear him to both fans and coaches. If he gets on the pitch in Kiev, more than one Canadian might have a new favourite player. If he scores...
There has been controversy around Lars Hirschfeld and his future role with the national team. The question around Hirschfeld is "when was the last time he made a really big save for Canada?" The book on Hirschfeld in the old days was that he's sometimes spectacular but inconsistent. Yet, as he's gotten older, Hirschfeld has seemingly lost his ability to make the spectacular save but also his inconsistency. The heat he's taking is mostly from allowing some tough but, perhaps, stoppable shots in the friendlies against Peru and Honduras. It's harsh criticism from a goalkeeper who once did this.
Maybe we should have him re-grow the mullet. The brutal fact is that Hirschfeld is Canada's only goalkeeper starting at any sort of professional level; unless you want to go way down the line and start chasing CSL goalkeepers (or Hirschfeld's old Edmonton Drillers indoor teammate Pat Onstad), it's Hirschfeld, backups, or Jonathan Bourgeault for us. There are more and more promising signs from the likes of Michal Misciewicz in Poland and Robert Stillo in Italy that are nudging towards the first team, but for now Hirschfeld is the only one who's made it. It's true that Canadian goalkeepers have a history of coming out of nowhere: Hirschfeld himself bounced between indoor soccer, the ill-fated Calgary Storm, a backup for the Vancouver Whitecaps back when the Whitecaps were by no means very good, and then somehow Tottenham (I still haven't figured that one out). Canada's probable number two, Haidar Al-Shaïbani, went straight from the North York Astros to Ligue 2. All the same, this doesn't seem like a development path we should be relying upon. Even if Hirschfeld has been unspectacular lately, there's a lot to be said for having a goalkeeper you can rely upon and forget about. It's a luxury Canada hasn't always enjoyed since Craig Forrest retired.
Forget about whether Lars Hirschfeld's great saves gave gotten him on the highlight reel lately. I can't remember the last time Lars Hirschfeld's howlers got him on the highlight reel either. That'll do.
Finally, there's the story of my former Canadian soccer man-crush, Dejan Jakovic. Dejan is the only player from the North American leagues on this friendly roster, as DC United had been long eliminated from playoff contention and Jakovic would be more than available. Jakovic's form for Canada has always been magnificent, and with Kevin McKenna out we're going to need all of that magnificence against Ukraine's high-octane attack.
Unfortunately for Canada, part of the reason Dejan Jakovic has been playing for such a poor MLS team has been, by all accounts, Dejan Jakovic. A quick trip over to Black and Red United reveals dispiriting phrases associated with Jakovic such as "quit making crucial mistakes every week" and "for the second week in a row, I'm forced to put the most blame on Dejan Jakovic for the loss." I don't like the sound of those. I'd e-mail Martin Shatzer looking for his input, but I'm writing this early in the morning and also I'm really really not sure I want to know. I don't think I can live in a world where we can't count on Dejan Jakovic. I really, really don't want to live in a world where our central defense is an erratic Jakovic and David Edgar against a rampaging Andrey Shevchenko as thirty thousand lusty Slavs chant whatever's Ukrainian for "kill! kill! kill!"
Still. Jakovic has to be there, partially because his form for Canada has been great and partially because I think the next centre back on the depth chart would have been Richard Hastings. Nobody wants to see him again.