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Canada's Captaincy Candidates: FIGHT!

Kevin McKenna's the best, but Kevin McKenna's getting old and worn out. So who else can take up Paul Stalteri's mantle as Canadian captain? (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Kevin McKenna's the best, but Kevin McKenna's getting old and worn out. So who else can take up Paul Stalteri's mantle as Canadian captain? (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

For a while there, the question of who was to captain Canada's men's national team was a very real one. Paul Stalteri was left off the initial roster, cast into German exile for being without a club for too long and no longer effective enough to justify being carried anyway. Many of us were taking it as read that Kevin McKenna, Stalteri's usual vice-captain and still a core player on the team, would probably take over the duty, but a back injury he suffered was having trouble healing and he pulled himself out of the squad at the last minute, replaced with Adrian Cann. There was some hubbub over who would take the armband from Stalteri and no clear winner.

Then, in weekend club action, both Marcel de Jong and Niklas Ledgerwood injured themselves and were out of action for the Greece friendly on Wednesday. Head coach Stephen Hart needed an immediate replacement for at least one of them, and on such short notice the player would have to be very, very available. Enter Paul Stalteri once more, stepping into the breach in the most inglorious manner. Canadians will debate whether he should start or whether he should even play as anything but emergency cover, but the old captain is back for one more kick at the can. Even if it's just because he was literally the last man left standing, the Diesel will make cap 85 after all.

So that makes the whole argument of who is to be the captain academic. Or does it? Stalteri's national career certainly seemed to be over a mere few days ago, and even now being called in as an emergency replacement doesn't exactly count as a renaissance. It's hard to imagine Stalteri ever captaining Canada in a critical match ever again, so the question of Canada's captain still stands. The question is even more acute if McKenna continues to break down: he is thirty-one years old, by no means an automatic first-team player with FC Köln any longer, and has suffered both serious knee and back injuries this season. Even with Stalteri around, Stephen Hart might be well-advised to hand the armband off to somebody else and begin cultivating a new generation of leaders.

Besides. I already had this article written on the weekend.

So after the jump, a preview of Canada's possible future generation of captains.

To avoid the impression of bias, I will tackle the most likely candidates in alphabetical order. And that means that I will first evaluate a candle-sniffing parasite who captains one of the worst-run teams in Major League Soccer during his spare moments between running around Europe trying to abandon his teammates and whining that he deserves more money to spend on haircuts that are frankly embarrassing on a 32-year-old man.

Okay, maybe I'm a little biased against Dwayne De Rosario. That doesn't mean he isn't a serious contender for the armband against Greece, though. He's the most accomplished player on the current roster, having scored fifteen goals for his country over a twelve-year career. He's (obviously) the captain of Toronto FC, Canada's most widely-supported soccer team. He's also been captain before in a relief capacity, although infrequently. In another place, another time, De Rosario would be a no-brainer for the captaincy, maybe even if Kevin McKenna was healthy.

This isn't another place, nor is it another time. De Rosario has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, including threatening in an off-the-cuff interview a couple weeks ago to hold out if Toronto doesn't give him a significant raise. I actually gave De Rosario the benefit of the doubt on that one at first: reports made it seem like his threat was very much drawn out of him and not a product of due consideration, but he's taken his sweet time denying it. He's expanded on his old reputation as a player who is for himself first and the team nowhere and even Toronto writers have suggested that his recent behaviour means he should no longer captain Toronto FC. De Rosario's commitment to the national team has been sporadic in recent years, skipping most friendlies and the 2009 Gold Cup. I don't want to belabour the importance of a soccer captain: it's pretty common and defensible to name your captain just because he's the best player, or for the sake of public relations. But De Rosario's relationship with the fans is at an all-time low and at 32 years old he's far from our best player. Quite the contrary, this team will be at its best if De Rosario realizes that he's not the alpha dog and plays the good team game of which he is capable but in which he seldom indulges.

I know how it looks when the president of the Dwayne De Rosario Hate Club says that he doesn't want MeRo captaining our national team. But in this case, no matter how objectively I look at it I can't see a case for handing De Rosario the captaincy. He's neither our best nor our most important player as even the most died-in-the-wool Toronto FC fan would admit. He's unlikely to garner respect in the dressing room with his selfish antics, and Canada's fans certainly aren't going to rally around him. Believe me, if De Rosario keeps his head down, trains hard, and plays a great game in Greece using the rest of his team to their fullest ability, I will be the first to celebrate.

An interesting possibility that isn't getting much consideration is goalkeeper Lars Hirschfeld. The 32-year-old goalkeeper has 32 caps, more than any of our other defensive players now that McKenna is out. By all accounts he's an affable guy as well as an important player and our presumptive number one goalkeeper going forward unless Milan Borjan steals his lunch. While by no means a world-class keeper, Hirschfeld is still solid, has ironed out many of the gaffes that plagued him as a youngster, and has considerably improved in form since finally getting a regular club ride in Vålerenga. He's also the only man on this list who's bought me a drink, and I'd be lying if I said that didn't help his case.

Important player, positive personality, pays for booze, and has an intimidating chrome dome that will keep ruffians in line? Sounds perfect! And indeed he might be in the long run, but for this match he's probably not who I'd pick. In fact, it's questionable how much of the pitch Hirschfeld will see given the arrival of Milan Borjan. While I still rank Hirschfeld ahead of Borjan on my personal depth chart just based on experience, I think it's much more important to see what Borjan can do against the Greeks and show him early that it's not worth switching back to Serbia because we are actually going to play him. Ideally, your captain should get more than half an hour of playing time. So while I'd probably come back to Hirschfeld in the future, this isn't his moment.

The most popular pick so far seems to be Atiba Hutchinson. Hutchinson is strong and tall, he's dazzling with the ball on his feet, he's humble, he's willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win, and he's also probably our best player. He's my pick, both as the player who deserves it and as the one who Stephen Hart will actually name. If Hutchinson has a flaw, it's that he sometimes takes being a team player too far. His best performances have always been without Julian de Guzman or Dwayne De Rosario in the lineup, not necessarily because of anything those other two players do but because Hutchinson defers to them too readily. Against Ukraine, Hutchinson was clearly the alpha dog and played like he deserved it, putting a very good defense back on its heels. But de Guzman and De Rosario are more established stars and, in the past, when he's played with them Hutchinson has been quite happy to "take one for the team" and settle into a supporting role, not realizing that the team is actually much better when he takes the reins.

Since Hutchinson last played with De Rosario, of course, he made a major transfer to PSV Eindhoven in the Eredivisie where he has been a spectacular success. Not long after leaving Copenhagen, Hutchinson was also named player of the year for the Danish SuperLiga. He won both Canadian individual honours, taking Voyageurs' Men's Player of the Year from the supporters and Canadian Player of the Year from the Canadian Soccer Association and the media[1]. He's now got a collection of gongs large enough to buck up anybody's ego. Hutchinson may be modest but he's also a smart guy, and Stephen Hart has made it quite clear that he relies upon Atiba.

We know that Hutchinson is willing to step up and be The Guy; he proved that in Ukraine. We just need to know whether Hutchinson is willing to step over older, still-confident players to do it. There's a lot more than just his suitability as a captain riding on that. Frankly, I'd give him the armband in any case just in case it would provide a little kick to his confidence and tell him that he's the man now, dog. Because he is.

Now, it's not unanimously accepted that Hutchinson is Canada's best player. Josh Simpson placed very strongly in every player of the year vote from both the media and the Voyageurs, and he's had some blinding performances for the national team. He was our top player in that desultory Peru match and by far man of the match in the ensuing Honduras victory. It can easily be argued that, while Hutchinson's peak might be higher than Simpson's, Simpson has had more strong, consistent games for the national team than Hutchinson in the last three years. Simpson was one of very few Canadians to emerge from World Cup qualifying in 2008 with any credit (because he didn't play) and had an excellent 2009 Gold Cup which really put him on the national radar. He's also been on sterling domestic form since joining Manisaspor of Turkey in 2009, ranking among the Turkish Süper Lig's leading scorers[2].

I don't object to Simpson on the grounds of his skill (which is considerable) or his attitude (commendable). Plus he's a Victoria boy; always a good sign. The problem with Simpson is that, although he's been with the national team since 2004, he's only recently become a key member of the international picture. He showed hints of promise in the past but it was literally years before potential turned into reality: for most of his national career Simpson was a bit of a floater, an aimless marauder who was completely ill-suited for international duty and always seemed to underachieve at his club too. I wasn't a Josh Simpson fan for the longest time; the 2009 Gold Cup started to convert me and the 2010 friendlies finally convinced me that he'd found his way. At the same time, though he's a veteran who boasts thirty caps at age 27, he spent too many of those caps as an international wastrel for me to vote him as captain.

Of course, there are other contenders. Pedro Pacheco is captain of his club, Santa Clara in the Portuguese second division. His only real downsides are a lack of international experience and the fact that, as far as anybody knows, he is fluent in neither English nor French. Adrian Cann, recently named to the squad to replace Kevin McKenna, is a professional veteran and a likable blue-collar guy. Rob Friend, for all I rag on him, seems like a nice enough person and the captaincy would be a good way to make him do something useful.

Me, I'll hitch my horse to Hutch all the way.

[1]: For those who are curious, the Canadian Fan's Choice Men's Player of the Year, as voted by dudes on the CSA's mailing list e-mailing Richard Scott their picks, was... Patrice Bernier. That's always been the problem with the Fan's Choice award; it's been more-than-usually prone to ballot stuffing because of the small number of voters. The women's player of the year, Josée Belanger, was also hilariously and completely unjustifiable. Belanger plays in a world where Christine Sinclair is alive and therefore automatically doesn't deserve to win, and as for Bernier... well, I could name a dozen Canadians more deserving of Player of the Year than him. In fact, I will. Atiba Hutchinson, Josh Simpson, Simeon Jackson, Adrian Cann, Tomasz Radzinski, Adam Straith, Kevin McKenna, Nana Attakora, Dwayne De Rosario (wince), Mike Klukowski, Marcel de Jong, Lars Hirschfeld, Martin Nash... damn, that's thirteen. I guess I got a little carried away. The point is, if you never see anybody take the Fan's Choice award seriously this is why.

[2]: So far this season, Simpson is joint fourth in the league scoring race despite playing for a lower-mid-table side. With nine goals, he's three back of the leader, 48-time Brazilian international Alexsandro de Souza. He has one goal for Canada, which is pretty Rob Friend-ian, but the difference is that these days Simpson looks good and Friend looks awful.