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Today, Canada begins its chase for the FIFA World Cup. The Canadian men's national team are in Toronto preparing to take on mighty St. Lucia (5 PM PDT, Rogers Sportsnet One; live viewing party downtown at Doolin's Irish Pub, 465 Nelson).
St. Lucia! What a powerhouse! Surely Canada will get through them with hilarious ease.
For all I whine about the quality of the Canadian national team there should be no doubt about this one. If Canada comes away with fewer than three points we should set Dwayne De Rosario on fire pour encourager les autres. Optimism is high, as it is at the beginning of any qualifying cycle: Canada has two easy groups, the most cream-puffiest first opponent possible, and seemingly a red carpet laid out all the way to the final round of qualifying.
Of course I'm optimistic about the game. But I'm not optimistic about the team. Predictions of 5-0, 6-0, and even 7-0 victories seem way off the mark. This is the weakest side Canada's brought into a qualifying cycle in ten years.
You don't believe me? I took the time to look back at every team Canada's run out since the Gold Cup victory of 2000. After the jump, a trip down Depressing Memory Lane.
|Caribbean/Central American Playoff|
|4/6/00||CUB||0||1||CAN||Havana, Cuba||de Vos|
2002 World Cup Qualifying
Key Players: Carlo Corazzin, Kevin McKenna, Paul Peschisolido, Martin Nash, Jim Brennan, Jason Bent, Paul Stalteri, Mark Watson, Nick Dasovic, Jason de Vos
Goalkeepers: Pat Onstad
Coach: Holger Osieck
This is the team that won the 2000 Gold Cup so you'd expect it to be competitive. It wasn't. Canada beat Cuba (CUBA!) 1-0 on aggregate to advance to the semi-final stage where they got killed. There were good moments... okay, there was one good moment, where Canada beat Panama 1-0 on a Jim Brennan goal long after the team knew they weren't going to the World Cup.
There was enough misery to last a century. Canada 4-0 loss in Trinidad and Tobago might just be the most disappointing game in Canadian national team history: this was during Trinidad and Tobago's Jack Warner-fuelled heyday but they never should have been four goals better than Canada. They also lost 2-0 at home to Trinidad and Tobago (my first ever Canadian national team game, incidentally), drew in Panama, lost in Mexico, and were never in contention for a spot in the hex.
There are those (like me) who are big fans of Holger Osieck but this qualifying cycle was a catastrophe. Then again, the team wasn't great. Journeyman Carlo Corazzin, then a 29-year-old with Oldham Athletic, was an automatic starter but failed to score for the entire cycle. Paul Peschisolido was in his prime but always struggled for goals with Canada, perhaps because the midfield was such a paltry collection of middling talents plying their trades in the less exciting English leagues. Tomasz Radzinski was in exile after his last-minute no-show at Gold Cup qualification. It says something that Martin Nash and Jim Brennan were the two best midfielders Canada could muster and Brennan would up making his bones as a left back. Canada's leading player, Craig Forrest, did not make it to a single qualifying game.
At the time, these games felt like the worst thing that had ever happened. However, hindsight allows us to see just how mediocre that team was.
This team just had problems. You know Robbie Aristodemo got seven caps in this period? Robbie Aristodemo! He played for the University of Tulsa! Of course, Canada was by no means the only team in CONCACAF struggling for depth in the year 2000; the story of the past decade has been that our competition has improved by leaps and bounds while we've improved by baby steps. But even by the standards of the day, some of Canada's rosters were spectacularly sub-standard. The backup goalkeeper in most of qualifying was Mike Franks, one of many Albertan goalkeepers who made their mark on the national team in the 21st century, a backup in Scotland, and somebody who Osieck had so little faith in that he just refused to play the guy even as he called him up to back up almost every qualifying game.
De Rosario 2
|4/9/04||CAN||1||1||HON||Edmonton, AB||de Vos|
|8/9/04||CRC||1||0||CAN||San Jose, Costa Rica|
|9/10/04||HON||1||1||CAN||San Pedro Sula, HON||Hutchinson|
|13/10/04||CAN||1||3||CRC||Burnaby, BC||De Rosario|
|17/11/04||GUA||0||1||CAN||Guatemala City||De Rosario|
2006 World Cup Qualifying
Key Players: Dwayne de Rosario, Tomasz Radzinski, Paul Peschisolido, Jim Brennan, Kevin McKenna, Mike Klukowski, Daniel Imhof, Paul Stalteri, Mark Watson
Goalkeepers: Pat Onstad, Lars Hirschfeld
Coach: Frank Yallop
In hindsight, this was the team that should have made it. It featured Dwayne De Rosario in his prime, young Julian de Guzman kicking some butt, Paul Peschisolido was getting the occasional goal again and still had enough legs to be useful. The defense was anchored by Jason de Vos and Paul Stalteri, both of whom had plenty of legs left. Useful role players like Jim Brennan, Kevin McKenna, Daniel Imhof, Ante Jazic, and Adrian Serioux were doing well; even Sandro Grande earned his time. U-20 World Cup heroes Atiba Hutchinson, Josh Simpson, and Iain Hume were also getting minutes; Hume in particular was the original Canadian Soccer Jesus.
Sadly, the team was coached by Frank Yallop who had odd ideas sometimes. Ideas like "hey, Nevio Pizzolitto should start this game!" and "a 17-year-old Jaime Peters is an asset any international manager would be proud to have". Poor Jaime Peters; Yallop really got his international career off on the wrong foot. The kid is still just 24 years old but he's been around forever.
It didn't go well for us. After demolishing Belize 8-0 in two qualifiers at Kingston's Richardson Stadium, Canada finished rock bottom of what ought to have been the Group of Life with Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras. Two of Canada's three home games were on the excellent grass of Burnaby's Swangard Stadium, which ought to have given Canada a tremendous advantage if you believe the ignorant, yet they lost both of them ugly.
Given that Frank Yallop is one of two Canadian coaches to have any career of consequence in recent years, we should emphasize how badly he botched this team. He played favourites and did a bad job of it. You couldn't count on the best players being on the pitch whenever Yallop was coaching because he'd always be tempted by some young pup with great pace and mediocre skills. One of the toughest parts of becoming a credentialed members of the Vancouver Whitecaps press corps was that I knew I'd eventually see Frank Yallop and would have to try not to punch him in the dick.
Yet for all of that, Canada still had a very real chance. They threw away two winning positions against Honduras and made CONCACAF refereeing famous. Canada had a 1-0 lead late at Commonwealth Stadium thanks to a Jason de Vos goal, but a referee of certain ill repute by the name of Benito Archundia called a penalty against de Vos that was never a penalty but was converted. Archundia then disallowed Olivier Occean's last-millisecond winning goal on a bogus foul call and sent Paul Stalteri off when Stalteri threw a water bottle onto the field. The draw at San Pedro Sula was less openly corrupt but no less heart-wrenching as Canada allowed an equalizer at 90'+1 after controlling much of the play.
Canada's sole win came when it was too late to do any good, a 1-0 victory in Guatemala. thanks to a Dwayne De Rosario goal. Funnily enough, Canada played an awful roster in that game; I mean, Félix Brillant and current Victoria Highlander Tyler Hughes were on the bench.
This team should have been so much better than it was it's not even funny. Frank Yallop ruined my childhood. I'm still upset about this cycle. Let's move on.
|15/6/08||VIN||0||3||CAN||Kingstown, VIN||Gerba 2,
|20/6/08||CAN||4||1||VIN||Montreal, PQ||De Rosario 2,
|20/8/08||CAN||1||1||JAM||Toronto, ON||de Guzman|
|10/9/08||MEX||2||1||CAN||Tuxtla Gutierrez, MEX||Gerba|
|11/10/08||HON||3||1||CAN||San Pedro Sula, HON||Hainault|
2010 World Cup Qualifying
Key Players: Julian de Guzman, Patrice Bernier, Rob Friend, Ali Gerba, Atiba Hutchinson, Tomasz Radzinski, Paul Stalteri, Mike Klukowski, Kevin McKenna
Goalkeepers: Pat Onstad, Lars Hirschfeld
Coach: Dale Mitchell
This team ruined my adolescence. I still haven't decided whether Dale Mitchell was worse than Frank Yallop or not; I mean, say what you will about Mitchell but he at least tried to play his best players. He'd do things like put Iain Hume on left wing and use Rob Friend as a target man even as he limply headed the ball straight into the goalkeeper's chest but he was trying. Hindsight proves that there was really nobody Mitchell should have relied on that he didn't.
Basically, he was Tom Soehn. "Positions? What are positions?" He also deserves credit for giving Ali Gerba an opportunity and relying on Patrice Bernier when he was by no means popular, although injury sapped Bernier of much of his skill later on. He also didn't play Kevin McKenna at forward.
This team looks a lot worse today than it did at the time. We know now that Julian de Guzman was actually the world's youngest washed-up man, that Rob Friend really was that useless, that Paul Stalteri really was getting old and tired, and that Pat Onstad really is the sort of keeper who'll punch corner kicks into his own goal. Dwayne De Rosario was the only guy who we know should have been better, but in 2008 he was into the worst years of his me-me-me phase: I don't think any coach could have managed him. Bear in mind that Mitchell managed to coax some great performances out of Tomasz Radzinski, as individualistic a player as any who have ever worn the red and white.
The players revolted against Mitchell, of course, but those players were me-first prima donnas like De Rosario and Jim Brennan. A vocal minority of Canada's players are world leaders at making excuses for why they lose and satisfying their whims has never improved our performances before. Canada's had a weird habit of cheaping out on hotel rooms and quality flights for their players but then folding like cheap suits whenever they have a problem with the team: the results have been awful, and the last Women's World Cup showed that our ladies are getting in on the act.
The time may be coming for a bit of revisionism on the Dale Mitchell era. The results were there but he was always in the games and his players probably weren't as good as we all thought. Stalteri was a little old, Radzinski was a lot old. De Rosario was 29 and should have been leading this team: instead he farted about petulantly and was a liability at all times. The quality of the team was a marked step down from Frank Yallop's squad, and the results were no better.
2014 World Cup Qualifying
Key Players: Dwayne De Rosario, Atiba Hutchinson, Josh Simpson, Dejan Jakovic, Andre Hainault, Simeon Jackson, Kevin McKenna, Will Johnson, Marcel de Jong
Goalkeepers: Lars Hirschfeld, Milan Borjan
Coach: Stephen Hart
You've read those last three teams and you're looking at this one. Let me ask you: how do we expect this team to do better than the ones which have preceded it?
Josh Simpson and Atiba Hutchinson are in the best years of their careers; Simeon Jackson's a little young but getting there. The central defense is as strong as it's ever been (and I mean ever). We have two quality goalkeepers. The coach isn't Frank Yallop. All of these are good things.
But the midfield is Atiba Hutchinson and pray for rain: Julian de Guzman is so washed up it's literally unbelievable, Terry Dunfield is Terry Dunfield, Will Johnson is a capable defensive midfielder but his ball moving on the international stageis a serious problem, and Simeon Jackson is a forward goddammit no matter what Hart says. Both Jackson and Simpson have struggled to match their club form with their international performances. There are very few young players who we can look forward to: Tosaint Ricketts, maybe David Edgar... anybody else?
This team should get through its group easily and may not concede a single goal. That defense has a lot of value and these games will do them a world of good; their only problem has been chemistry. But will they get enough goals to reach the hex? Dwayne De Rosario is 33 years old. Simeon Jackson has two goals for Canada and one of them was an accident. Atiba Hutchinson is a two-way talent but as the only skill player in Canada's midfield he's been too hotly engaged to add much to the offense. Ali Gerba hasn't been 100% healthy for the last year and just had a knee operation. Rob Friend is Rob Friend, plus he turns 31 in January.
If this team's going to pick up some goals, they'll have to come through the likes of Iain Hume, Olivier Occean, Ricketts, and De Rosario. That's why I'm not getting on the "anything less than a 4-0 win is a disappointment" bandwagon for today's game. This team just hasn't got that much offensive talent. The human resources are not there.
Canada's always been sketchy at developing strikers. Even our U-17 and U-20 teams are short on quality talent. But I don't think I can remember a crop this bad in all my years following the Canadian national soccer team.
We'll win tonight; I'm not running up the white flag. The defense is good, the goalkeeping is fine... but this might be the worst Canadian World Cup qualifying team since Holger Osieck.