I sensed great angst and disappointment from some American fans and pundits regarding the 0-0 tie recorded by the USA and Canada Sunday night.
Sure, a goal and perhaps a win would have been desirable, but rarely is the last game prior to a major competition or, in this case, the start of World Cup 2014 qualifying much more than a final tune-up. That’s how the Americans approached it, with Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey operating at about 75 percent capacity and Michael Bradley deployed deeper as more destroyer than creator. Injuries, regardless of the result, are to be avoided at all costs, and the last-minute scratch of dynamic left back Fabian Johnson also crimped the U.S. team’s psyche.
These late tune-ups are perplexing. Is Russia’s 3-0 defeat of Italy more or less relevant than France’s 4-0 thrashing of Estonia? Obviously, both Canada and the USA took this more as a warmdown than a showdown.
Yet I expected more from Canada; not so much the Canadian team, since for all the hope that a rabid rivalry will resume between the border nations it too is about to embark on a qualification quest. It played a decent game and on the balance of chances a victory wouldn’t have been unjust, especially since a phantom foul robbed it of an apparently legitimate goal in a recurrence of past Canadian losses to the USA.
But I thought BMO would be sold out; instead, just under 15,247 fans got red and rowdy. That’s a good turn-out but not the stirring send-off that Coach Stephen Hart, his players, and the Canadian Soccer Association would have wanted. Still, a home qualifier against Honduras is set for the same venue on Tuesday, and this is the match the coach and his players, as well as the fans, are pointing toward. In the past home games, be they at BMO or anywhere else, haven’t borne the needed victories.
Though the addition of three Canadian MLS franchises in the past six years has triggered spectacular support in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, it remains to be seen whether the hockey-mad country can take to its national soccer team robustly. Failure to win Concacaf World Cup qualifiers at home has plagued Canada for more than a decade, which has stagnated efforts to drive up support. In the semifinal round leading up to the 2010 World Cup, for example, Canada started off with two home games, but after tying Jamaica, 1-1, and losing to Honduras, 2-1, never got into contention.
“It’s really hard to get anything going in this country that doesn’t involve a hockey stick,” says former Canadian international keeper Pat Onstad, himself an avid fan if not quite a true rink rat. “You just look at the differences between Canada and the United States in terms of facilities, and resources, and programs, and you can see how big the gap is.”
Not since the 1986 competition has Canada played in a World Cup, and not since 1997 has Canada gotten as far as the Hexagonal, the final round of qualifying. The occasional triumph, in particular winning the Gold Cup in 2000, hasn’t translated into World Cup qualification. There are hopes that the return of top-tier professional soccer to Canada and a new leader of the national association will spur greater national-team success.
One of Hart’s predecessors, Quakes head coach Frank Yallop, hopes better days are ahead under the new CSA president elected last month. Like Yallop, Victor Montagliani is a longtime resident of British Colombia, and the pair also worked together from 2004 to 2006, when Yallop coached the national team and Montagliani served as CSA vice president.
“We used to talk for hours about everything,” recalls Yallop, who left the initial MLS version of the San Jose Earthquakes to take the reins of Canada after winning a second league title in 2003. “At the time, with Canada we were doing things the way they were done 15 or 20 years before and you see what’s happened since then.
“Whether it was not preparing properly and guys coming in late, or not playing enough games, we weren’t doing enough to be competitive. Now you see Honduras, El Salvador, Trinidad, Panama, they’ve all taken strides to do things the right way and we haven’t.”
Prior to the Canada-USA friendly Sunday, Yallop recalled that during his tenure Canada didn’t play a single friendly at home. Those players based in Europe were reluctant to travel, and at times those who did join up with the national team complained about accommodations, travel arrangements, etc. Right next door, U.S. Soccer was spending millions each year to train and prepare its national teams and elite Canadian players weren’t reluctant to point out the discrepancies.
Yallop said the problems deteriorated to the point that a few players weren’t willing to leave their European clubs even for friendlies scheduled in Wales, Northern Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg. “I shouldn’t have to be begging for players to play for the national team,” said Yallop. “Some of them didn’t want to leave their clubs and go back, if they had a big [club] game on the weekend, and I’m thinking, ‘You should be willing to swim back.’
“I won’t name names, because I never do, but it caused us a lot of problems. I hope Stephen does well. He’s a good man, and a good coach, and with some help I think he and Victor can get things moving in the right direction.”
Montreal Impact midfielder Patrice Bernier, who played against the USA in a 2007 Gold Cup semifinal that is recalled bitterly north of the border because of a disallowed Canadian goal, believes regular meetings between the rivals can play a vital role. “There was a rivalry back in the 80s, and it kind of died out because now it’s been Mexico and the United States,” says the Montreal native.
“We don’t play that much. In my eight years with the team I think we played the States three times, maybe four. I know the States are on another level and are playing higher-ranked teams, but I would like to play the States on a regular basis. It would be nice to get that rivalry back on the soccer standpoint.
“It is a big rivalry in hockey and it would be great to have an agreement to play at least once a year.”
Of course, if both teams reach the Hexagonal, they would play twice in 2013. That would really ratchet up the rivalry.