Days like this I'm glad I don't have to write on deadline.
If I'd talked about Canada's 2-0 defeat to the United States right after the game, I'd have been spitting mad. I'd have been calling for Lars Hirschfeld's execution by roasting and suggesting that Stephen Hart should be deported for what could only be high treason: why didn't he start Ali Gerba? Why? Why? As for Nik Ledgerwood, Marcel de Jong, Simeon Jackson, and Dwayne De Rosario, I'd have been content with shooting them in the back of the head and billing their families for the ammunition, pour encourager les autres.
All this over a 2-0 loss to the United States! Canada doesn't beat the United States in soccer, and the guys actually performed reasonably well after a rough start, but that's irrelevant. Losing to the second-best team in CONCACAF in a well-fought game on their home soil in the first game of the Gold Cup and, yesterday, I was all but calling for the War of 1812 to be resumed with that game as the casus belli. Failure must be met with death, destruction, the ruin of the world.
I have since calmed down. The cold light of dawn shines on a Canadian national team that's last in their group and yet in pretty good shape. They've proven, thoroughly and comprehensively, that they aren't ready to win this tournament. They don't have the stones, at least not yet. There's no unstinting belief in themselves which characterizes the upset champion. They've proven that, tactically, this team needs to adjust against good sides or they're not going to get results. They've also proven that they have bags of skill and that the holes on this team are less deep than first feared. There's ability there, some perseverence, some strength. There's a team that can almost assuredly beat Panama and Guadeloupe (barring catastrophe) and coast into the knockout stages.
I can sit back in my office today with some satisfaction. I've seen the Canadian national team play bad games before and that wasn't one of them. It was a weak game, a game which proved how far some of these players have to go. Yet it was almost good enough to get a point off the United States and it would have been more than good enough against any other non-Mexican team in the tournament. It was a marked improvement over the Ecuador game. If we see the improvement continue, we have a very respectable Gold Cup ahead of us.
Most of this team's problems were mental. At first, the Canadians played like they were mental. The United States seemed fired up and Canada seemed content to let them be. That's the time to pull a Guatemala: start crashing passing lanes, getting physical even at the cost of fouls or cards, and trying to disrupt the American rhythm as much as possible. When you do get the ball, slow the game down rather than trying to counterpunch and try to let the American players exhaust themselves charging an impregnable bulwark. Ironically given his later performance, Lars Hirschfeld understood this better than anybody. Terry Dunfield and Will Johnson also looked relatively good at the stage, simply because they kept their heads.
Eventually the United States did wear down but only after putting a weak goal past Hirschfeld (more on that later). Slowly, Canada started to assert itself. From about 25' on, Canada was the better team. Not long after Altidore scored, we had a Vancouver Whitecaps-esque 32% of the possession. We finished with 46%, which isn't great but will show you the improvement. Clint Dempsey's goal at 62' came during a brief American spurt in the middle of a Canadian surge, and from that point on les Rouges rammed the ball down American throats.
So why didn't we get anything? Mostly Tim Howard, who should thank the devil for the infernal powers which allowed him to stop two thundering shots from the foot of Ali Gerba. Yet also because Canada lacked killer instinct. Josh Simpson had the advantage over Steve Cherundolo all day, yet he didn't show enough audacity. Atiba Hutchinson looked like the best midfielder on either team and you could see, in spurts, just how fine a player he is, but at no point did he start challenging the American offensively or start taking chances. They respected the Americans too much. They were so petrified of getting caught by superior American skill that they failed to capitalize on their own superior position. It's a classic trick of lazy writers to bemoan a team's lack of killer instinct, but Canada lacked killer instinct.
The arrival of Ali Gerba at the sixty-fifth minute turned the game around, even if it was at least twenty minutes too late. Ali Gerba is a very complicated man and thousands of words have been wasted trying to figure out his inscrutable motivations, but he always comes to play for Canada and he isn't afraid of anybody in this world. So, oddly enough, did the arrival of Rob Friend. Up top with Gerba and Simeon Jackson, Friend didn't have to work as a target man and, in his ten minutes, played the best soccer I've seen from him in five years. He charged American defenders, closed them down, tried to take the ball. He reached out and concentrated on getting and maintaining possession rather than going for goal. He'd do the physical stuff then lay it off to a more talented man to do the skilled work: the sort of Emile Heskey role that Friend seldom tries but, it turns out, is reasonably good at. I don't think this team has enough scoring power to let Friend play that role full-time but I was very interested by my glimpse of it.
I will of course address the question of Lars Hirschfeld. He absolutely should have had Jozy Altidore's goal well under control. It was a bit of a tricky angled shot, but frankly that's a reflex save a keeper of a professional standard should make in his sleep. I don't think fans who say that we would have gotten a 0-0 draw without that goal are quite right, since the concession seemed to wake the team up something fierce. We should also remember that Hirschfeld made some pretty dandy saves.
Any time a goalkeeper concedes a goal like that, the goalkeeper had a bad game. It's a hard truth of goaltending that one awful non-save cancels out several great stops. We should remember the good moments, though, and hesitate to write Hirschfeld off. This has always been the Lars Hirschfeld way: he allows the occasional howler but is generally good enough that, in the long run, you forgive him. We mustn't be precipitate because Hirschfeld just got his bad goal out of the way early this year. Bear in mind that he's more experienced than Milan Borjan, he's played at a higher level, and he knows this defense far better (an important edge, as we saw against Ecuador). I would start Borjan against Guadeloupe to cap-tie him, see what he can do in competition, and reward him for his loyalty, but Hirschfeld remains an option
The team has work to do. Gerba must start, obviously: not just against Guadeloupe but for as long as his body will let him. Stephen Hart should also consider abandoning his 4-3-3; the team's offensive strength increased massively with two strikers when the team was hell-bent-for-leather on a goal. I'd suggest a Teitur Thordarson-style 4-4-2 with Simpson and Johnson as high wingers, using Jackson and Gerba as thunder and lightning up front. Finally, he must take a long look at his fullbacks. Everyone knew Nik Ledgerwood would be a problem and luckily "everyone" included Nik Ledgerwood. The German third division journeyman wound up having a tolerable game simply because he knew his limitations and focused above all on holding his line defensively. On the left, Marcel de Jong looked like he'd been eating paint chips for the last two years. His passing, usually a strength, was hideously errant. His shooting was a non-factor and his defense made life far too easy for the Americans. I know Michael Klukowski's fitness is a real worry but it's time to give him a run against Guadeloupe and see what he has. I can live with Ledgerwood; the only alternative to him is Jaime Peters and he's a weird right back.
The game was promising enough that I can forgive the team's mistakes. The day will come when Canada is again up against a strong opponent, though, and perhaps a stronger one. They had best improve quickly.
Man of the Match: Deliberating on this award was actually one of the major factors that held this article back for so long. Terry Dunfield, Atiba Hutchinson, and Ali Gerba were all in strong consideration. Eventually I gave the nod to Atiba Hutchinson; his two-way performance was the best on the team, he stayed relatively mistake-free, and at times he sprung good Canadian opportunities with his keen eye. He wasn't as dominant as I'd like but we saw some good stuff for him. Gerba was, of course, the best man in Detroit when he was playing, but it just wasn't for long enough.
Most Disappointing: For all the reasons mentioned above Marcel de Jong carries the wooden spoon today. There was no area of the field in which he was even acceptable. Of course, playing the Americans is hard to do, but he was rough against Ecuador as well. Let's at least give Klukowski an opportunity against relatively low-powered Guadeloupe. If he's not fit enough to handle it, at least we'll know.
Next Up: Canada arrived in Tampa, Florida early today, where they meet Guadeloupe on Saturday. The game will again be on Sportsnet One and streamed live on sportsnet.ca and CONCACAF.com.