Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Canada vs France preview

Would it be overstating the case to declare that Canada's match tomorrow afternoon against France represents the most important encounter of any Canadian soccer team that will be played in 2011? I don't think so.

I think we can quite fairly put to bed any claims from other Canadian national teams, men's, junior, or otherwise might make to footballing importance. A Gold Cup final for the men would have been a big deal, but never came close to materializing. The u17 World Cup is recently ended, for Canada, but success there would still be a blip on the radar. Canada's best known pro teams have a big match on Saturday, but are known more for coaching turnover than success on the pitch in 2011.

The Women's World Cup, however, is getting the full treatment from CBC/Sportsnet and the team is getting the attention it fully deserves. Christine Sinclair, first of the wonder goal, and now a masked avenger, has become a cult hero on twitter and has even landed a fellow blogger of Canadian soccer a spot on The National. (Since I recorded a forgettable pod with those Canadian Guys back in December, can I claim one degree of separation with the true Greatest Canadian, Peter Mansbridge?)

Eat your heart out, Eustace Dauger!

If tomorrow's match with France was Just Another World Cup Match™ (if such a thing exists) perhaps I'd cool my jets (ahh, my Jets!) a little but the difference between a win and a loss tomorrow is likely the difference between a wide open run to the semis (or better!) and an inglorious first round exit.

Canada loves a winner, and I can easily see a growing national enthusiasm, fueled by Canada Day patriotism, for a team on a knockout round run. This is a match that Canada should win. A quick look at the Women's World Cup betting lines shows Canada as a slight underdog, but most informed observers on this side of the Atlantic would give the edge to Canada tomorrow. The line should swing heavily in Canada's favour of Christine Sinclair is declared fit to play.

I won't now get into the consequences if Canada fails to get the result tomorrow. It's a position we're in far too often as Canadian supporters and I don't know who is helped by anticipating this collective wailing and gnashing of teeth.

I know where I'll be tomorrow afternoon (actually the morning over here). Downing a pint or two and getting behind the ladies in Canada's biggest match of 2011. And I know where you should be too.

FIFA rankings: June - Paint by numbers

Formula for the formulaic article to accompany the monthly release of FIFA's rankings of men's national teams:
  1. Begin by stating that the #1 team is still #1 (Spain)
  2. Talk about any movement significant within the top 10. (Mexico with a big jump, England up to #4?!)
  3. Briefly mention Canada's placing after their most recent drop (down to 83).
  4. Never fail to state which two afterthought countries between which Canada is currently sandwiched (Hello, Latvia and Jordan).
  5. If you're lucky, you'll get the only bit of info that occasionally matters, which is Canada's ranking among CONCACAF teams (no such luck this time, but we're 8th).
Canada's slide results from failing to defend ranking points from previous Gold Cups that have recently been devalued (2009) or gone off the books entirely (2007). Canada's only win in the tournament, against Guadeloupe, does not factor into the calculations since Guadeloupe is not a FIFA nation. Which makes it all the more ludicrous that they're allowed to compete, but you know...

Unless something changes Canada's slide, though regrettable, won't matter for the upcoming qualifying campaign. By all reports, the seedings for the WCQ 2014 have already been set.

Still, when you have England climbing to #4, people are starting to catch on that these rankings aren't worth the bits and bytes they occupy in the ether. So says no less of an authority than the Guardian.

Gold Cup Goals Pool: Final standings

Remember those days, long ago back in the beginning of June, when you were excited to watch Canada play in the 2011 Gold Cup? Yeah, me neither.

Frankly I kind of forgot the tournament was still going on after Canada's inglorious exit but there was in fact an important bit of ongoing business apart from Mexico's dismantling of the USA at the Rose Bowl.

That business, of course, is totting up the results and concluding this blog's 2011 Gold Cup goals pool.

Without any further ado, here are the final standings.


ENTRY GLS
SB 27
Trevor 25
jamonty
21
feardafred 19
Pompey Canuck
18

You can see which players were selected and how many each scored in one of my beloved spreadsheets here.

Since there were only 5 entries, the prize won't be the most lucrative, but it will be a fun one that I've awarded before. So, SB (you know who you are), get in touch with me with your mailing address and you'll be receiving this:

A 2" Radzinski

You're welcome.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Canada's Gold Cup: A post-mortem

Last night Canada made an inglorious exit from the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup with a 1-1 draw against Panama.

So it ends.

Let's get the weak excuses out of the way:
  • Canada's players aren't used to the kind of heat they faced in Tampa and Kansas City, unlike their Caribbean and Central American opponents.
  • The injury to Atiba Hutchinson disrupted much of what they wanted to do in the midfield.
  • The team can feel hard done by on account of the flaky best-3rd place system when other groups got to beat up on the likes of Cuba and Grenada.
We'd normally throw CONCACAF officiating into that list, but in this tournament that was one of the lone bright spots for Canada.

The players: Should any of them feel good about their performance?

I don't think I'm speaking out of turn by saying that a number of players did not perform well in this Gold Cup. We had the glaring error from Lars against the USA. We had the uninspired midfield play from, well, almost everybody. There were defensive lapses. Gilt-edged chances were missed.

Let's start from the back.

Lars Hirschfeld: His one mistake cost Canada a goal, so despite an otherwise decent performance against the USA he goes in the bad books. D
Milan Borjan: He was solid against Guadeloupe and for most of the Panama game. But when it counted late, he made a critical mistake. He also has been scored upon on corners in 2 of his last 3 starts against much shorter teams. He shows a worry tendency to charge for balls he can't get to, and his trouble organizing his defence. B-
Marcel de Jong
: Was repeatedly out of position against the USA, then injured himself in his sleep. D
Mike Klukowski
: A breath of fresh air, as he actually seemed to know what to do when he had the ball, and combined well with Simpson. Good defensively too. B+
Andre Hainault
: I felt that the centre backs were the least of our concerns. He even seemed to get the notion into his head to get forward with the ball a bit when Panama was leaving acres of space. B
Kevin McKenna
: McKenna, our captain, seemed to win almost everything in the air and was rarely caught out of position. B+
Nik Ledgerwood
: I thought in the first half against Panama he was among Canada's best players, but he did not have a strong tournament. He was decent defensively, but apart from the first half against Panama, offered little bringing the ball forward. This position is a point of weakness and I'm almost be happy to see Stalteri back there. C-
Terry Dunfield
: I tend to look too kindly on players who always make the easy pass instead of trying too much on losing possession (De Ro). Dunfield didn't give away the ball cheaply, but rarely did much useful with it either. He is likely a bit out of his depth at this level, though he did a lot of good defending against Panama. D+
Atiba Hutchinson
: A credible performance against the Yanks, then forced by an overbearing PSV to withdraw due to a minor injury. B+
Dwayne De Rosario
: It would be hard for me to go negative on a guy who scored both of our goals if they weren't both penalties. He drifted in and (mostly) out of games, gave away possession, and was generally sulky. He was better in the early going against Panama, as was most of the team, but I'm beginning to question if he has any future with Canada. C-
Will Johnson
: I feel a bit badly for the guy. When he was played in his natural position, in front of the back four, he did well. When we was pushed into a more attacking role out wide he looked lost. I'd rank him lower if it weren't for the many times I saw him break up an attack tracking back on a full 50 yard sprint. C-
Josh Simpson
: Considering his performance in the Ecuador friendly and the opener against the USA the rest of his tournament was a disappointment. Partly this must go down to coaching, but he must also try something different if every flank run ends with him turning and passing the ball back. B-
Julian de Guzman
: I thought he was good to very good against Panama. The other matches were poor. D
Simeon Jackson
: His best moments came when he worked from the outside in to create chances for himself and others. Unfortunately, he failed to finish any of those chances. The most glaring mistake was the clear cut breakaway early yesterday when he failed even to hit the target. We expect better from a premiership player. C-
Ali Gerba
: The probably had the team's best scoring chances from open play. Unfortunately they came in the last 30 minutes of a match against the U.S. where Canada was already down 2-0, and he was trying to shoot past the keeper in the tournament. He did not rise to the occasion against Guadeloupe, and lacked the fitness even to get into the match against Panama. C+

The other players didn't see enough time on the pitch to leave an impression.

Whither Hart?

My initial reaction yesterday was that Stephen Hart needs to go. World Cup qualifying, albeit an easy preliminary stage, begins in the fall. Canada will not advance to Brazil playing the way they did last night. Tactically, the team seemed to lack the know how necessary in order to create chances in the final third. Hart did not seem to make adjustments.

But like most fans, I know less of tactics than he does. What was most disappointing was the lack of urgency in the team. The players are too comfortable with Hart, not surprising since they were involved in his selection. There is a right situation for a players' coach but Canada is not it. We need a hard-ass.

If I thought there was any chance that the CSA would pony up for one of those interchangeable Dutch, Serb or Turkish coaches that always seem to be coaching Central American and African teams in the World Cup, I'd dump Hart in a second. He's had his chance to impress and hasn't grasped it.

But that's seems impossibly unlikely. The best we can hope for, I suppose, is that Hart learns from this experience and applies those lessons once we come up to qualifiers. Even if I'm almost ready to give up on Hart, I'm not ready to give up on 2014 since it represents our best chance to qualify for the next decade. In case you haven't noticed, Canada has few if any prospects aged 20-24 that you'd expect to form the core of the team when we get start qualification for 2018 in 2015-16.

I hope your evening last night was better than mine.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Canada vs Panama preview: When you really must win a must-win game

Given the dearth of posts on this blog during the first week of the 2011 Gold Cup, we'll let this post, ostensibly a preview of tomorrow's vital Group C clash between Canada and Panama, serve also as a review of Canada's two earlier performances in the tournament against the USA and Guadeloupe.

First, a look back . . .

USA 2, Canada 0: What else did you expect?

Any impressions that I garner about the mood of Canada and its fans in the lead up to a big game is inevitably a gauge of the online chatter, since none of my regular social circle cares much for our national team. To me, it seemed from the posts and tweets that I read that there was a quiet confidence that Canada could achieve a result. Perhaps some had translated the excitement of Ontario fans being able to travel in numbers to an important match into optimism about the result itself. Others no doubt took the 2-2 friendly draw against Ecuador as a sign that Canada was ready. We were probably too quick to ignore that Ecuador, although likely better than its FIFA ranking (64), is not as strong as the USA and was missing its best player to boot. And the score of the match itself likely flattered Canada, with Dunfield's wonder strike and a shrewdly taken quick free kick late masking Canada's lack of chances.

The Americans are not the class of CONCACAF. That title rightly belongs to Mexico, even a Mexico side depleted by tainted chicken. But they are firmly entrenched as second best, with a bevvy of class players in midfield. Against such a lineup Canada could not afford any mistakes but that was exactly what they got when keeper Lars Hirschfeld whiffed on a Jose Altidore strike to put the team down 1-0. Despite the fact that the Americans failed to score for the rest of the first half, they appeared completely comfortable with the lead. The second half produced a more positive Canada performance that at times threatened, but just as they were working their way into the match Clint Dempsey sliced home an Altidore cross and the match, for all intents and purposes, was over.

The Americans really are just that much better.

With not much left to play for the Americans sat back a bit and Canada produced a few scoring chances. Twice substitute (and my man of the match) Ali Gerba forced Tim Howard into difficult saves. Gerba's insertion shuffled Simeon Jackson back to his wide right role, from which he appeared to be much more dangerous. It seemed Stephen Hart had discovered one way of helping his team to be a little attack minded.

There were some poor individual performances (Hirschfeld on the first goal, obviously, and Marcel de Jong, notably) but this match was evidence that it's tough to beat a team filled with much better players playing in front of their home crowd. We knew that already.

The remaining matches would and should tell us more about this Canada squad.

Canada 1, Guadeloupe 0: Opposite world?

Canada has, over the years, employed a wide variety of different ways to lose matches in CONCACAF. One of the most maddening, as a supporter, is the match where they outplay an opponent for long stretches, but due to a lack of finishing and often some dodgy officiating Canada ends up losing.

This match was just the opposite.

Canada was given a gift mere minutes into the match. Will Johnson was scythed down by a Guadeloupe defender who was subsequently shown the red card. The gift was not the decision to hand out the red; that looked harsh at first but on replay it was a crazy tackle fully deserving of the ejection. It was a thoughtless lunge by the defender against a player as normally non-threatening as Johnson, who was able to return after a few minutes and finished the match.

Jean-Luc Lambourde's moment of madness

Stephen Hart, in his approach to the match, seemed to regard the oppressive Florida heat as his main opponent, rather than Guadeloupe. He held two of his best players, Atiba Hutchinson and Simeon Jackson, out of the starting eleven. Hutchinson was left out of the team entirely with a minor injury. For the players on the pitch, Hart's instructions seemed to be to run minimally and possess the ball, regardless of whether said possession produced any chances.

Canada did dominate possession, as well they should have playing up a man for nearly the entire match. But on those occasions when Guadeloupe did mount an attack, they were the more threatening team and forced a number of good saves out of Milan Borjan, who replaced Lars Hirschfeld and may or may not now be cap-tied to Canada.

Canada's break came in the second half when Ali Gerba had his jersey pulled in the area and went to ground. Probably too easily, and likely not deserving of a penalty, but that was the decision. Dwayne De Rosario converted, the only bright spot in the match for a man who was otherwise Canada's worst performer. A number of late substitutions (bring in Friend and Jackson) suggested Hart did in fact want to press for more goals, but it seemed the team couldn't manage the energy or will to do much about it.

The immediate reaction to the match among the fans was justifiable disappointment, verging on disgust, with the apparent apathy and lack of attack of this Canada team. Such was my reaction as well

But I'm beginning to feel differently.

Hart was right to be worried about the heat. Canada had been in this same situation before, playing Guadeloupe in south Florida, and ended up falling 2-1 to the island (non-)nation in a match where Canada's legs simply weren't there in the second half. Having got the result, Hart now has the advantage of two of his most important players (Jackson and Hutchinson) being well-rested ahead of the Panama match tomorrow. These are the types of results, inspired or not, that will need to be earned in some godforsaken Central American dorp or Caribbean sauna in the near future. Lessons have been learned. We hope.

Canada vs Panama: A must-win match

The math is rather simple. Barring a highly improbable set of results, Canada needs to win this match in order to finish 3rd in the group and advance to the next round. Canada needs to win big (2 goals, or is it 3?) in order to avoid Mexico in the quarter finals. In order to survive in this tournament, Canada needs a win.

But I think in the bigger picture, which inevitably means that I'm talking about World Cup qualifying, this match takes on an even greater importance. The first stages of the WCQs, which start this fall, aren't likely to trip up Canada. But Canada will want to enter those stages with confidence. A quick exit from the Gold Cup, without producing a single credible performance, would be a crushing blow to Stephen Hart and his team, but Hart especially.

Qualifying will be full of must-win or virtual must-win matches (home dates against anybody but Mexico or the U.S.) and we must see evidence of Hart being able to pull one out to have any confidence he can do so when the stakes are so much higher. But given the performances last week, is there any reason to hope he can do so Tuesday in Kansas City?

Sure. Here are a few:
  • The stakes in this match are so much higher for Canada than they are for Panama. Panama, by virtue of their upset win over the U.S., have clinched a spot in the next round, and need only to avoid being spanked in order to avoid Mexico. Canada needs this match. Big time.
  • Canada's performance against Guadeloupe was ugly. Really ugly. But that same match did contain a few glimmers of hope. For me, the biggest was the combining and overlapping play of Mike Klukowski (who replaced de Jong) and Josh Simpson on the left side, who will be teammates next year at Manisaspor in Turkey.
  • Hart's willingness to take lineup risks. It almost seems foolish to say this because in many ways he's been rather rigid in his approach. But he rested Hutchinson (I'm sure he would have overlooked the minor knock had the opponent been tougher) and Jackson to start against Guadeloupe because he knew he would need them at their best vs Panama. He swapped out Hirschfeld for a 23-year old in his first competitive match for Canada. He played Klukowski, a guy who hasn't laced them up in a while because of a contract dispute, over de Jong, who was poor in the first match. Some are calling for him also to ice right back Nik Ledgerwood in favour of Jaime Peters, though I'm not convinced (Peters has been a shocking defender when he was played in that spot for Canada). The real test, of course, will be whether he is willing to sit the woefully underperforming De Rosario.
There is much to be concerned about but I am not ready to write this team off. Yet.

For a variety of reasons, the lineup I feel gives Canada the best chance is (4-2-3-1)

Gerba
Simpson - Hutchinson - Jackson
De Guzman - Johnson
Klukowski - McKenna - Hainault - Ledgerwood
Borjan
What's yours?

The match details:

CONCACAF GOLD CUP GROUP C MATCH
CANADA vs PANAMA
LiveStrong Park, Kansas City, Kansas
June 14, 2011
7 pm et / 6 pm ct / 5 pm ct / 4 pm pt
sportsnet 1/ sportsnet.ca / goldcup.org

If you want to watch the match with beer and like-minded Canadian supporters, check out the viewing parties thread.

Gold Cup Goals: The pool so far

As is far too often the case, this blog lapses into inactivity, or rouses belatedly from an ill-timed slumber, just as Canada's national teams start playing important matches. This often happens because these matches tend to occur in summer, and I tend to spend a good chunk of the summer off the grid, and on the water or trail.

For example, I expect that when the re-scheduled final match of this year's Nutrilite Canadian Championship is played, I'll be paddling the waters somewhere along the Manitoba/Ontario border. Such is life.

But I do feel badly when I give short shrift to my readers, especially those who have taken the time to interact with the blog by entering a contest. Particularly a contest that demands the readers take the time to delve into the Gold Cup rosters of the likes of Cuba, Grenada and Guadeloupe in order to pick the most likely goal scorers.

These (5) active readers deserve the courtesy of an update in the standings for the CONCACAF Gold Cup goals pool.

Here they are:

ENTRY GLS
SB 17
Trevor 14
Pompey Canuck 12
jamonty 12
feardafred 9

The devil, as always, is in the details. All the readers, for example, picked Javier Hernandez and his five goals to date. However, only SB had the foresight to select El Salvador's Zelaya (3 goals) and it is largely on the strength of that pick that he sits in first.

Search for that devil in the details here [all entries and selections]

Later today: When a must-win really is a must-win - A Canada-Panama preview

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Canada 2 : 2 Ecuador

THE MATCH

For much of the game, this had the look of a typical Canada match. Canada started brightly and could argue they were the better team for most of the first half. The midfield moved the ball around, and the team had a lot of success attacking down the left flank. A good team buildup, begun by Atiba Hutchinson winning the ball in the Ecuador half, and finished by Josh Simpson laying off to Terry Dunfield for a 30-yard blast, resulted in the first goal.

It all seemed to change at the half. Dunfield was wisely withdrawn, likely for fear of picking up a second yellow card. Julian de Guzman, his replacement, played a reasonable half, but didn't close down his opponent on Ecuador's second goal. Just before their second goal, Ecuador scored their first on a corner. The small-ish Christian Benitez headed home between a couple of much taller, but inattentive, Canadian defenders. Going down a goal seemed to wake up the Canada squad, which seemed to take a while to adjust to some of their own substitutions. The team sustained pressure, but it looked like one of those nights where a decent effort would go unrewarded.

That all changed in injury time. A late foul outside the Ecuador penalty area drew the protests of half the Ecuadorean squad. The team surrounded the Jamaican ref. Sensing an opportunity, Julian de Guzman alertly set the ball down and played it to substitute Tosaint Ricketts, who slotted the ball home. This is just the sort of thing that might come in handy against some of the more theatrical sides in CONCACAF

The match, in the end, was a thoroughly entertaining affair and Canada probably got the result they deserved.

THE HIGHLIGHTS

youtube clip, in Spanish

MATCH VIDEO

[1st half] [2nd half]

THE PLAYERS

One viewing of a match is not enough to rate the players individually. I'd like, however, to give special attention to a few who stood out:

Atiba Hutchinson - A few times he was let down by his fellow midfielders, but throughout the night it was apparent that Atiba was a class apart from the rest of the 22 on the pitch. His calmness and alertness on the ball opened up space for others, and his anticipation of the play allowed him to break up numerous attacks. Canada fans have been clamouring for him to play a more advanced role, but I honestly believe playing as one of two defensive mids allows him to contribute the most to Canada.

Josh Simpson - I have rarely seen a Canadian player with the determination and ability to run at players and beat them. (De Rosario often seems determined to do so, but typically lacks the ability). He set up the first goal with some good skill on the ball, and nearly set up a second a moment later with his speed and skill only to have Will Johnson blast the ball wide of an open net in front of him. It is no surprise that Canada seemed to suffer when Simpson was removed in the second half.

Simpson and Hutchinson are Canada's best players now. This should be apparent to anyone who has watched Canada's last half-dozen matches.

Other players offered a more mixed performance and produced more questions than answers. I'll keep my thoughts brief on each one:
  • Dwayne De Rosario had a few moments, but too often gave the ball away cheaply.
  • Will Johnson is tireless and likely saved a goal with his tracking back but does not offer enough on the attack to be played wide right.
  • Simeon Jackson as lone striker is not the answer. He offers more to Canada in the position where Johnson started yesterday.
  • Canada had much success attacking down the left flank, but Marcel de Jong's runs too often left the central defenders exposed.
  • Dejan Jakovic's injury could be a tough one for Canada to deal with if he's not available for the Gold Cup.
  • Milan Borjan made some good saves and could be staking a claim for the #1 job.

THE CROWD

As is often the case, Canada fans were outnumbered. On the other hand, the diehard support did a good job of making themselves heard throughout the match. I don't want to read too much into the support (or lack thereof) since the match was a friendly, but Gerry Dobson does a good job of calling out some of the weak excuses in a blog post for Sportsnet. On the bright side, the announced attendance of 14,000 should have produced a tidy profit for the CSA.

My own view is that friendlies should be placed where they will sell the most tickets and earn the most money. If that means Ecuadorean fans are paying the CSA's bills, so be it. It is only when World Cup qualifiers roll around that large pro-Canadian crowds are an absolute must. It remains to be seen whether such crowds can consistently be found in Toronto or Montreal.

NEXT CANADA MATCH

GOLD CUP GROUP C
CANADA v USA
Ford Field, Detroit, MI
Tuesday, June 8th, 8 pm et
sporstnet one