As soon as I got back from Florida, I was in a state of ennui.
I'd traveled across the continent to watch Canada play, I had a great time with some very friendly and welcoming American supporters, and then Canada won. Normally that's all I could ask for and, indeed, I came home with a smile on my face. Didn't regret a thing. Good time.
Yet, from that moment on, I was certain Canada wouldn't be good enough.
I don't want to say I told you so because I didn't. In my Gold Cup preview I put Canada in the tier of teams behind Mexico and the United States and put Panama nowhere (although I did nail my prediction of United States - Panama being a surprisingly exciting game). I fell into the trap many Canadians fall into, of looking at the team and assuming that this is finally the year it equals the sum of its parts.
Injuries didn't help. Poor Atiba Hutchinson. The guy's 28 years old and has capped 54 times, but this is the first time he's really been the alpha male of Canada in a major tournament. It's always been someone else we were looking to as the star and the leader until now, when it was Hutch's turn... and he promptly got hurt against the Americans and missed the only two games that really counted. Marcel de Jong was injured too, although that at least gave us the chance to see Michael Klukowski return to Canadian colours as if he had hardly missed a step; a little older and shockingly starting to go a bit grey, but an all-CONCACAF left back even now.
Still. It wasn't there. Dwayne De Rosario was in vintage form: he scored one hundred percent of Canada's goals in the tournament but was never, ever a threat from open play as he rampaged around the field without heed for his ten teammates. Josh Simpson, who I know is a great player because I've seen him be one, spent three games looking like Shea Salinas. When Canada desperately needed a result against Panama he wound up getting pulled for Tosaint Ricketts and that really said it all. Not one of the guys we were counting on stepped up: not Simeon Jackson, not Julian de Guzman, not de Jong, not Will Johnson (at least not in the attacking half: he is an all-CONCACAF defensive midfielder who forgets how to move the ball when he's wearing red).
What team wins when its best players are overwhelmed? Not Canada, that's for damned sure. It was inevitable.
The annoying thing is that the team actually got good play from the scrubs. Terry Dunfield made a few majestic tackles and nobody ever got by him in central midfield: he gave the ball away a couple times but still kept possession better than any of his teammates. Nik Ledgerwood, who plays in the German third division, gave Canada its best performance at right back since 2008 and actually set my mind at ease a little. Milan Borjan handled his first international tournament with aplomb (and no, I don't blame him for that equalizer against Panama: somebody, anybody, in the defense has to do something about Perez on that chance, up to and including superkicking him into a goal post).
As ever, it was the talent that let Canada down. I think that's part of the reason I keep hoping 37-year-old Tomasz Radzinski makes for our national team again: the guy obviously has less passion for the national team in his whole body than Rob Friend has in his big toe and yet, for whatever reason, Radzinski consistently hauls ass against whatever country he deigns to appear against. We can't say that about enough of our players.
Some of them, like Simeon Jackson, were full of effort but not results. If Jackson had buried that clean break he had in the first half against Panama instead of driving it high and to the right of the goalkeeper, maybe we have a different game. I can't blame his hustle and he even played some defense: the guy just didn't seem to have the instinct to battle which gets results against chippy, shoulder-to-the-back pain-in-the-ass teams like Panama.
There were guys like Josh Simpson who did not, visibly, care. Simpson is an ace scorer in Turkey with a playmaker's instincts. With Hutchinson out, Simpson ought to have taken Canada on his back. Instead he played himself into trouble and never had a plan to get out of it, which ought to have been familiar to we Whitecaps fans. He actually reminded me of why, for about five years, I thought Simpson was a completely overrated player: the guy never had a plan "B". Other quintessential Canadian underachievers like Rob Friend and Julian de Guzman did what they do best. Kevin McKenna gave his all and wore the captain's armband with honour but is getting old.
Please don't fool yourself saying how unlucky Canada was. If we were unlucky we wouldn't have gotten either of those penalty chances and we'd have left without a single goal in the tournament. If El Salvador had beaten Cuba by less than the 6-1 score they achieved, we would have gone through to the quarter-finals on goal difference. But Canada's record of 1-1-1 with a -1 GD wouldn't have been enough to advance in the 2009 or 2007 (the current format was introduced in 2005). El Salvador's beating at the hands of Mexico in the first round made Canada's chances look better than they should have been.
The outlook is dark. This team was a veteran-laden bunch and barring a miracle like Junior Hoilett committing to the maple leaf there are no talents on the near horizon. Some frustrated fans are calling for the coach's scalp but Stephen Hart is the best boss we've had since Bob Lenarduzzi's heyday. There's no brilliant replacement waiting in the wings: the best that could happen would be that we replace Hart with another unqualified nobody and we desperately hope he can somehow learn his way around the team before World Cup qualifying starts later this year. If the Gold Cup will be typical for this team then the 2014 World Cup campaign is already over: better to bring in youngsters like Russell Teibert, Adam Straith, and Joseph DiChiara and at least hope for a miracle of youth rather than the plotting mediocrity of experience.
There are no positives to take from this tournament. No "well, we tried hard"s. I can't even say that it's a matter of just making one adjustment or getting one player back who we were missing. Canada played to their own level: we're about as good as Panama. World Cup, here we come.