I quite like Canada. I may make fun of it, but that is only because I'm not that clever so I need all the easy jokes I can get. In reality, they have a bunch of really cool fans and are our neighbors, making them a possible rival. They also have several fantastic cities -- Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver -- all of which I would love to visit for a United States vs. Canada World Cup qualifier.*
* I know they play all of their matches in Toronto, but I can dream of a packed BC Place in Vancouver so I will.
So as the U.S. gets ready to play Canada tonight in a friendly, I checked in with Duncan Fletcher from Waking the Red to get some insight into the Canucks. They lost 8-1 to Honduras with a spot in the Hex on the line so what exactly do we make of this team and where do they go from here? Duncan shared his thoughts.
1) How much of a mental blow was the 8-1 loss to Honduras on the last day of qualifying with a spot in the Hex on the line? And how do people respond to that blow? Is it something that cripples the team or something that is a motivator?
It was a big blow, and it should be really interesting to see how the team themselves respond to it. Mental toughness isn't something I generally associate with this particular generation of Canadian players so I doubt it's one of those things that will make us stronger. Stephen Hart quit and still hasn't been replaced full time, Olivier Occean did an interview blaming Hart and the coaching in general, Hart recently did one where he fired back, it's not looking like there's some kind of new determined fire that was stoked by that loss.
One good thing is that it forced people to fully realise Canada's current position in the world, which may not have happened if Canada had squeaked through an easy group (Honduras and Cuba were probably 5 and 6 out of the 6 seeded teams) into the Hex. There's more discussion about what long term changes need to be made as far as LTPD, infrastructure, a Canadian D2 league and more are concerned so that's a good thing, that will hopefully help, though any impact from this is probably a long way away still.
As for the fans, well there was a growing momentum behind the team, in Toronto at least (the decision to play all the games there last year wasn't quite so well received in other parts of the country) that had the air sucked right out of it. Casual fans who'd been convinced into giving the team a look have left with their suspicions confirmed, while the more hardcore have now have another layer to their cynical 'won't be fooled again' armour.
2) There is a bit of an age gap with the Canadians right now, with several players likely retiring from international play after last year's qualifying elimination, others like Dwayne De Rosario up there in age and then a slew of young guys. What's the direction of the team right now in terms of going young or sticking with the older guys and how does the team reconcile a lack of players in their prime?
It is a huge problem, there's very few of the team that played most of last year's games that should be improved and close to their peak in 2016/17 when qualifying gets serious, and none of them are the established stars, Will Johnson and Simeon Jackson are probably the best of a small group. Jonathan de Guzman would have helped, but his many years spent holding a boombox under the bedroom window of the Dutch national team have paid off with a call up for a friendly, so that seems pretty much dead now, and not making the Hex can't help our chances of landing Junior Hoilett when he eventually makes up his mind either. Looking at the squad for this game, or the under 23 squad from last year, there's very few sure things that you'd be confident will be making an impression in the first team either.
I think at this stage, the direction has to be to bring the youth in and hopefully find a core of players who could be at or around their peak for the Qatar cycle, hopefully players like Russel Tiebert, Kyle Bekker, Ashtone Morgan or Lucas Cavalini could be those guys. Then we have to hope the next generation bears fruit as well, that the MLS academies will be useful for prospects like Caleb Clarke or Jordan Hamilton to reach their potential.
3) What does Canada most have to improve in the next three years before World Cup qualifying starts up again if the are to make the final round and have a chance at qualifying for Russia 2018?
Look at our results last year, and that 8-1 game aside, Canada kept 4 clean sheets in 5 games, plus another against the US, so the obvious answer to that question is that Canada has to improve it's ability to score goals. Simeon Jackson plays sometimes and scores occasionally in the Premier league, but he's never really found his place in Canada's team. Yes Dwayne de Rosario is prolific in MLS and yes he's actually Canada's leading scorer ever now, but his goal against Panama was his first that wasn't a penalty in 4 years. Someone needs to come from somewhere who can reliably score goals.
The main thing though is we have to get tremendously lucky with young players fulfilling their potential. A lot of the old guard will be moving on, there's a few prospects, but for Canada to be competitive they'll need to have a much higher than average success when it comes to progression from prospect to star, which given the lack of infrastructure at the national team level and within the game as a whole here, seems very unlikely. Also, if the ones with options could stop choosing the other option, that'd be helpful too.