There are times when us fans underestimate a minnow opponent. The underdogs come out with fire in their eyes, they play a plucky game, they get in every passing lane and interfere with every play, and they're athletic enough to do some damage. All of a sudden what should have been a walk in the park has become a tough soccer game.
Last night was not an example of that. The St. Lucian national team was, unbelievably, worse than advertised. Their goalkeeper dropped balls, one of their centre backs hammered a near-own-goal off the crossbar, they didn't complete three consecutive passes for the whole ninety minutes. They weren't quicker than the Canadians, they weren't stronger than the Canadians, they obviously weren't more talented than the Canadians. They passed my Test of Soccer Incompetence: any team which wastes time when they're losing is a team which knows they're outclassed and just wants to go home.
I'd expected something like professional quality from St. Lucia, but instead I left convinced they wouldn't be a competitive team in the VMSL Premier. If we'd sent the Challenge Cup winner instead of our national team, we might have seen a better scoreline.
Take my moaning in context. I was worried about a 1-1 draw for a while but I never really thought St. Lucia might win, nor did I ever doubt who the better team was. Canada looked lousy but they never looked worse than their opposition. The good guys put thirteen shots on target; St. Lucia managed one. We had almost 78% of the possession. Canada was obviously stronger and more fit, which theoretically should have given them the advantage later in the game (and did). The first half was terrifying but from then on it wasn't close. Canada did the job.
They just looked lousy doing it. Strange to say, a 4-1 home win made me feel worse about my team's chances.
Lars Hirschfeld's been a popular scapegoat because of the goal he allowed to St. Lucia's Tremain Paul. He was off-balance and slow off his feet, they say. But Hirschfeld was being perfectly screened by Kevin McKenna: he was trying to lean around McKenna to get a look at the ball on Paul's feet and didn't see it released until it was too late to do anything about it. Much more importantly, the goal was entirely Jonathan Beaulieu-Bourgault's fault, who was ground into the earth and turned around like an orange pylon by Paul and generally had a catastrophic game at right back. It takes a lot for a professional player in Germany to look way out of his depth against St. Lucia but Beaulieu-Bourgault pulled it off.
Dwayne De Rosario, the legendary "MeRo", continued his five-year streak of "Awful Games for Canada in World Cup Qualifying". It looked like he woke up yesterday morning and said "I'm going to score four goals!" then went off to try and do it. He passed but seemed to view it as a last resort: instead he'd do things like leave his feet to try and get a fraction of a toe on a cross when Iain Hume was four feet from him in much better position to rifle the ball home. DeRo apologists say how he has to do everything himself, but he doesn't: we saw far more effective opportunities from the quality team play of Josh Simpson, Iain Hume, and even Marcus Haber. He got a goal on a cheap penalty to put him one goal closer to becoming our country's all-time leading scorer, passing people who knew what teammates are for. He never hit a single corner that was even decent, he wasted shots, he wasted passes, he wasted my time, and he's been doing this consistently in qualifying games since Dale Mitchell seemed like a great coach. I don't understand why he keeps starting in important games: it's always the same. Why do we put up with him?
MeRo was the worst part of Canada's lineup but he wasn't the only dud. After all, at least De Rosario's individualism and selfishness produce the occasional goal: Julian de Guzman is just washed-up and a bold manager would have stopped calling him; none of his mistakes led to a goal against but at time it seemed like it might. Simeon Jackson struggled badly. And the whole team had a bundle of positioning breakdowns, leading to moments like conceding a free kick on the edge of the box because Jackson was the closest thing to a defensive midfielder available since de Guzman had been caught in nowhere land.
So the team struggled. They kept trying to drill crosses into the box even though this has never worked for Canada (full marks to Chivas USA veteran Ante Jazic, who I made fun of for being old and who promptly played a rather fine game: not only was he solid as the left back but he realized when the crossing attack wasn't working and tried to go up the middle in the second half). When St. Lucia's tired legs and total lack of skill finally caught up with them, Canada was able to finish the job. Whatever Stephen Hart said at half to get their killer instinct up, it must have worked. There are so many weak points in that team, though, that I don't want to imagine how it would look against Honduras.
It was a good game for Western Canada, anyway. Victoria, BC's Josh Simpson was Canada's most effective player by leaps and bounds: his first goal came on a hideous gaffe by error-prone St. Lucian goalkeeper Iran Cassius but his second made up for it. Edmonton, Alberta's Tosaint Ricketts was brilliantly effective in his cameo appearance and his header to set up Will Johnson's goal was truly world-class. Vancouver, BC's Marcus Haber had a good scoring chance and another Vancouverite, Terry Dunfield, was glued to the bench and thus looked good compared to de Guzman.
There were other bright spots. We won, obviously: we did it with hardly a trace of style of substance but three points are three points. Atiba Hutchinson was good, although you'd expect him to be in the circumstances. Toronto brought 11,500 fans into BMO Field, which is comparable to the 11,502 fans who filed into Montreal's Stade Saputo for a 2008 qualifier against St. Vincent and the Grenadines. There were gatherings to watch the game at pubs around the country: a couple dozen in Winnipeg and a hundred at Doolin's Irish Pub in Vancouver, a large enough crowd that I showed up twenty minutes before kickoff and wound up settling for a seat where I had to lean like Lars Hirschfeld to see the TV screen. On the other side of the continent, St. Kitts and Nevis drew Puerto Rico 0-0, the best possible result for our aspirations.