Yesterday morning, the Canadian Soccer Association announced the twenty-man roster for our upcoming senior men's friendlies against Peru and Honduras. Unusually for the Stephen Hart regime, which has usually seem at least one real surprise per roster, this friendly roster is pretty close to what most of us would pick if we were to grab it: a mixture of known quantities and acceptable compromises. The biggest absense, Mike Klukowski, is currently fighting on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean to entrench himself with his new club, MKE Ankaragücü. But there are no other, or at least very few other, big names left off. Indeed, this Canadian team is far stronger than the one which Hart led into Buenos Aires and hazarded against one of the world's very strongest sides in a World Cup tuneup not so many months ago. It would certainly make minced meat of the gritty but talentless side that scraped a 1-1 draw against Venezuela the next week. It's probably even stronger than our 2009 Gold Cup squad: this is the greatest concentration of soccer firepower this country has boasted since World Cup qualifying.
And for what? Two unglamorous friendlies with bad ticket sales against opponents most of us can't get worked up about. Oh, the Canadian die-hards are chafing at the bit for another shot at Honduras in Montreal, but we Canadian die-hards are a rather odd and above all small group of people. Peru, meanwhile, has attracted most of its human interest in that a rather prominent Voyageur happens to be a Peruvian-Canadian. Apart from that, they're just two more opponents, and given how uninspiring our form in friendlies has been of late one can forgive a little cynicism.
But these aren't ordinary friendlies. They're home friendlies, the first for the senior men's team since the 2007 opening of BMO Field. The first time the team has even played in North America this year, and the first senior men's international of any sort in this country since October 15, 2008. Who can blame Stephen Hart for wanting to put on a good show? Peru and Honduras are worthy opponents and if Canada get a couple wins it won't only help our starving FIFA ranking but show the country that we're capable of winning against credible opponents when our best players are finally together.
Hart has by no means assembled a perfect roster. But there are a few extremely pleasant developments on it, as well as few mild disappointments and the smallest handful of glaring weaknesses. And, being something of an over-obsessive Canadian soccer supporter as I am, I shall leap in after the jump to explain them all.
Dismayed by: Ali Gerba, Gianluca Zavarise
It's hard to believe that Ali Gerba is being left off yet another friendly roster. Canada's top active goalscorer is a big part of the reason Stephen Hart even has the Canadian coaching gig as his Gold Cup goals helped Canada to a surprisingly strong performance and took the "interim" off of Hart's title. For the Venezuela and Argentina friendlies, the excuse was that Gerba was without a club even though we were so short on players Hart was phoning guys like Gavin McCallum (admittedly, that worked out well). This time, has Hart even bothered to explain ignoring his most productive striker? While I can't argue with bringing Friend or Jackson in, a third option (who isn't Kevin McKenna) is a bloody good idea.
Unfortunately, Gerba may have fallen into the same trap with Hart that he has with some Canadian fans. He has a reputation for being a constantly doughy pile of mediocrity with his club who only scores against minnows (never mind the fact that Jackson and Friend don't score against anybody and Gerba's record against only competitive teams in CONCACAF is better than any other Canadian's record against everybody). So this false reputation follows him around: he hasn't been proven against the big clubs so for heaven's sake don't give him a chance to prove himself. By all means, though, drag Rob Friend out of his German coffin and let him shamble ineffectively in front of goal while blaming the fact that a fat man can score and a tall man can't on the tall man inexplicably "not getting service" even though they play with the same teammates.
Again, I wouldn't have left Friend off and as Canada's finest young striker Simeon Jackson is an obvious must-have. But the absense of Gerba, who is Friend's age and several times superior an international scorer, is not so much bewildering as infuriating.
The addition of Gianluca Zavarise is less serious but still strange. Zavarise is one of the many, many mediocre Canadian central midfielders plying their trade in Europe these days, and it was certain at least one of them would get the nod if only to make up the numbers. Everybody's favourite adopted Portuguese son Pedro Pacheco has been fighting fitness concerns at the beginning of the season and so he is sensibly unavailable for a trans-Atlantic flight. But Zavarise is both not very good and not very young, so picking him is bewildering. Why not open the spot up for a third striker like, for instance, Ali Gerba (or Tosaint Ricketts if you're not a fan of the big man)? Or if you want a midfielder, how about Jonathan Bourgault, who is at least Zavarise's equal and a few years younger? I'd have even seen a guy like Terry Dunfield than Zavarise. And if you're loading up a bit on experience and trying to win friendlies for the home crowd, call upon Martin Nash to give the team some skill and dead ball ability rather than the largely valueless Zavarise. Grab a stud from the Impact - Leonardo di Lorenzo has to be close to getting a Canadian passport, hasn't he? Or go elsewhere in the USSF D2 ranks.
The problem with a guy like Zavarise isn't that he's bad (although he is), it's that there's no prospect of his adding to the value of the Canadian national setup in either the short or long terms.
"Drat!" towards: Tomasz Radzinski, David Edgar, Junior Hoilett, Teal Bunbury
Tomasz Radzinski, currently toiling with Lierse SK in Belgium, does not like crossing the Atlantic Ocean. He skips almost every Gold Cup and any North American game short of World Cup qualifying. He hasn't even been called to many European dates lately, short of last year's match in his native Poland that took on the characteristics of a semi-testimonial by the time Radzinski was through. But he appeared in a friendly at BMO Field in 2007 and the two World Cup qualifying preparation friendlies in the United States back in 2008. He'll make the trip from time to time. It's true that, at age 36, Radzinski may not have a lot to offer the national team in qualifying for 2014, but at age 36 he was still our best player in Poland and was, in fact, virtually the only standout of the 2008 qualifying campaign.
Don't stop calling Radzinski just because he's getting old. Call him when his play starts to deteriorate. If he doesn't want to answer the call that's one thing, but it would still be lovely to see him again.
A player it would be lovely to see in another sense is David Edgar, former Canadian golden boy, bench player for an Nforce Championship team, and the latest young Canuck who has decided to stop returning the national team's phone calls. This is probably the least surprising development in Canadian soccer history. Edgar is eligible for England, though we probably don't have anything to worry about on that front: it would appear he's either a young man whose career is under stress and hasn't yet built the moral fortitude to tell Stephen Hart no directly (which is possible - plenty of good people Edgar's age struggle with that sort of thing!) or he's just decided not to represent his country.
Either way, it's questionable Edgar would win the start in Toronto on merit. Straith and Jakovic have to be ahead of Edgar on everybody's depth chart at centre back, and he's probably behind Attakora as well. He's played at left and right back for Burnley, where Canada needs help, but, then, he's also played quite badly at those positions. Stalteri, Attakora, and Peters can look after the right side between them, and even with Klukowski gone nobody would start Edgar ahead of Marcel de Jong on the left unless he was playing to lose. This isn't a Bosnian keeper situation: having Edgar in the national fold would certainly be helpful but after three miserable years in England and Wales nobody is counting on him anymore.
The two more concerning omissions are Junior Hoilett and Teal Bunbury. Both are said to be "focusing on their clubs", the classic Canadian excuse of the young traitor-to-be. Hoilett is clearly going to need more than a friendly to bring him into Canada's fold, if indeed he ever picks a side: his attitude towards the Jamaican team is even less welcoming, and he may just decide to skip international soccer altogether. Losing Teal Bunbury, the son of the greatest striker in our history, to the United States would be on an emotional level the most horrifying of the many, many defections this country has absorbed from the ungrateful and unpatriotic over the last decade. But Bunbury is a young man in the middle of his first MLS season. His excuse rings hollow, but it does not necessarily follow that he has stars and stripes in his eyes. For now, all we can do is assume the traditional Canadian posture of mingled hope and dread.
Delighted for: Dejan Jakovic, Nana Attakora, Adam Straith, Lars Hirschfeld, Dwayne De Rosario, Julian de Guzman
What a joy it will be to see our young core of defenders, together at last. Dejan Jakovic and Nana Attakora are two fine centre backs in their early twenties, probably two of the best players at their position in Major League Soccer, and absolute key components to any success Canada aspires to in both the short and long term. Victoria United and Vancouver Whitecaps product Adam Straith, now with Energie Cottbus in the German 2.Bundesliga, is the youngest of the three and the sole foreign-based representative but was probably Canada's most valuable player in the two South American friendlies and has won many, many fans on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
But surprisingly, these three have never played as a combination at the senior international level. Jakovic and Attakora missed the South American trip where Straith made his debut. Attakora's one senior appearance, this January in Jamaica, took place on a team with Jakovic but Attakora only got nineteen minutes playing with the elder stateman from DC United. Dejan Jakovic's 25 years make him seem like a positive elder stateman (he's two years older than international teammates Jaime Peters or Marcel de Jong), but he was something of a late bloomer internationally before emerging as Canada's best player at last year's Gold Cup. With at least two World Cup cycles left in him, Jakovic is as key to Canada's aspirations as Attakora or Straith.
It's a delight to see Lars Hirschfeld back. Lars played twice with Canada in 2009 while looking for a club but skipped the Gold Cup: Greg Sutton put in a commendable yeoman's effort but Hirschfeld may have been able to save the day against Honduras in the quarter-final. At thirty-one years old, Hirschfeld will have to be Canada's goalkeeper for 2014 World Cup qualifying as Father Time will inevitably come to collect Pat Onstad sooner rather than later. The young generation of Canadian goalkeeping talent has wandered astray, with only David Monsalve and Haidar al-Shaïbani really in the conversation. But neither is even within hailing distance of Hirschfeld's level. We need Lars in the national team, and we need him as much as possible.
Finally, one has to mention the Toronto FC contingent. Nana Attakora should have made the trip to both friendlies, one way or another: he's a young man who'll play a key role in a couple of World Cup cycles and no price is too high to get him firmly established in the national setup. But bringing in De Rosario and de Guzman, while welcome, may not have been worth alienating Preki and the Toronto FC staff.
Too many Toronto FC supporters have taken every Canada match as an opportunity to complain about Canada possibly daring to want their players (who happen to include three of Canada's very best - Attakora, Julian de Guzman, and Dwayne De Rosario) to represent their country for anything short of the final match of the World Cup, and even then if they only play 45 minutes each. Last year, only one of Toronto FC's players, Kevin Harmse, represented Canada at the Gold Cup and that player was in the process of being traded to Chivas USA. I've got no sympathy with those aghast at the idea Canada might call upon its best players for an actual tournament: suck it up, buttercup.
However, I do have a bit of time for those who are willing to see Toronto FC give up their best and brightest to help the national team win competitive matches but who are more hesitant for a friendly. Even these friendlies, which fall on FIFA international dates, will be problematic for Toronto in a league that doesn't respect the international game. Although winning friendlies, impressing the home crowd, and moving up the FIFA rankings is important, if Stephen Hart made enemies out of Preki and Mo Johnston that might be a poor tradeoff.
Luckily, I don't believe Stephen Hart is that tactless. He's making noises about sparing his Toronto-based players from too much action in the Honduras match (which falls the night before a Toronto FC game) and neither Preki nor Mo have publicly shit any bricks. Hart may have simply impressed upon Toronto the need for Canada to put on a show at home and earned the grudging acceptance, if not the enthusiasm, of the FC brass. Even if they're not happy, I think I'd rather see Hart and the Canadian Soccer Association showing too much ambition rather than not enough.
And One Last Word on a Grand Old Man:
If Paul Stalteri plays in both matches of this friendly season, he will pass Randy Samuel as the most capped player in Canadian men's history.
Nobody will have deserved it more. Stalteri is one of the great warriors in Canadian history. He was a critical component on the 2000 Gold Cup team, the most important Canadian soccer squad of my generation. He's still a minor legend with his former German club Werder Bremen even though he hasn't played there in over five years. He's been the captain of the national team for over three years. As much as it would hurt to see Samuel (who is both a former Edmonton Eagle and a former Vancouver 86er) kicked out of the record book, there's no denying that Stalteri deserves the honour, and reports that the Canadian Soccer Association is preparing a modest tribute could not be more welcome.
The issue I have is with the assumption that this is Stalteri's swan song: he'll be allowed to pass Samuel and then ride off into the sunset. It's true, he's become something of a non-entity at the club level, rarely even making the bench for Borussia Mönchengladbach's recent fixtures. He's a guy who could do with a move to MLS or at least elsewhere in Europe, perhaps one of the Scandinavian leagues or even Belgium, where old Canadians go to die. He is also pretty clearly not Canada's best player.
But he's our best right back, if only for want of other options. He has a few miles left on his tires before they start to blow and he's never particularly had any injury problems. He keeps himself madly fit. There's no reason to believe that Stalteri couldn't be a contributing member of the national team, even if it's off the bench, up to cap number one hundred. Getting rid of him now because of his age would be making a critical mistake.
Cuauhtémoc Blanco just played in the World Cup for Mexico at age 37. When the 2014 World Cup rolls around, Stalteri will be 36. Seems positively reasonable now.