Friday, March 30, 2012

A glimmer of hope?

A propos of nothing (hint: not really nothing), here's Canada's last 10 results against Mexico outside of Mexico.

LOCATION DATE COMP CAN MEX WDL?
Edmonton 2008-10-15 WCQ 2 2 D
Toronto 2000-11-14 WCQ 0 0 D
San Diego 2000-02-19 GC 2 1 W (aet)
Edmonton 1997-10-12 WCQ 2 2 D
Toronto 1993-05-09 WCQ 1 2 L
Los Angeles 1993-06-10 GC 1 3 L
Los Angeles 1991-03-14 Friendly 0 3 L
Vancouver 1990-03-13 Friendly 2 1 W
Victoria 1988-04-12 Friendly 1 0 W
Vancouver 1988-04-14 Friendly 1 1 D

3 wins. 4 draws. 3 losses. 50-50.

Sure, these are matches for the full national teams of both countries, not U23 or other youth sides, but these results show that Canada has been competitive against the region's strongest nation when the Mexicans are playing away from home.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Revisiting right back

Atiba Hutchinson's role with the national team has been debated ad nauseam since his move to PSV, at least in the circle I roll in. The genesis of this debate was Atiba's move from FC Kobenhavn of the Danish Elite League to Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven.

PSV's best right back
Upon his arrival at Eindhoven Atiba, who until then had mostly played as an attacking wide player, deputized for a half season at right back for injured regular Stanislav Manolev. After the winter break he moved into midfield, where a hole had been created by the departure of FC Barcelona afterthought Ibrahim Afellay.

Atiba endured a disappointing fall campaign where injuries suffered while playing for Canada kept him out of all matches. Upon his return he slotted back into midfield to mostly poor reviews.

The whole club was earning poor reviews from the fans, and more importantly, from ownership. Coach Fred Rutten was shown the door just last week and has been replaced by PSV and Oranje legend Philip Cocu.

It's still early days, but the team has enjoyed success under Cocu. A big league win at the weekend, and a comfortable 3-1 victory today in the semifinals of the KNVB Beker have provided stability to a campaign that looked to be going off the rails. The team is within shouting distances of table-toppers AZ in the Eredivisie, and will likely meet the same opposition in the final of the Beker.

The biggest changes Cocu has instituted in the squad? Swapping keeper Tyton for Anders Isaksson, and inserting Hutchinson at right back for a lacklustre Manolev.

Unlike his recent stint in midfield, Atiba's play at right back has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Here's some twitteraction from today:


Translation: "Hutchinson played like a boss, Assaidi (the opponent on his side) was hardly dangerous."


Translation: Hutchinson is 1000x better than little Manolev.

I'd offer some negative reaction as a counterbalance, but after 15 minutes of reading tweets, there was none to be found.

The consensus is that Manolev may have lost his job to Hutchinson, so if Atiba is getting playing time the remainder of this season it will be at right back. PSV prefers men of vision and precision in midfield, qualities of which Hutchinson does not have a surplus. It is hard to imagine Hutchinson getting regular minutes at any other position for Eindhoven in the short- to medium-term.

As a Canadian fan, and a big fan of Atiba (or any Canadian doing well in the Eredivisie, the league I follow most closely) I'm thrilled. But what does this mean for Canada?

The best Canadian right back
It's not the first time the idea has been floated, nor is it even the first time I've proposed the idea, but it's becoming abundantly clear that Atiba Hutchinson ought to be considered as a prime candidate for the right back role for Canada.

The usual reaction to this suggestion is that the damage to the midfield's effectiveness in the absence of Atiba outweighs any contribution he'd make to the backline and right flank. I'm beginning to doubt that's the case.

First, let me emphasize what a disaster the right back spot has been for Canada has been in the last two years. Here are the starters at the position from Canada's last 10 matches, beginning with the most recent: Adam Straith, Nik Ledgerwood, Adam Straith, Nik Ledgerwood, Nik Ledgerwood, David Edgar, Jonathan Beaulieu-Bourgault, Nik Ledgerwood, Nik Ledgerwood, Nik Ledgerwood.

With all due respect to these 4 gentlemen, those names hardly inspire confidence. If you're scoring at home, you have 9 starts by players who toil in the German 3rd tier, all of whom are not regular right backs with their club (Bourgault and Ledgerwood are defensive midfielders while Straith patrols the centre of defense). You've also got an improving Edgar, again playing out of position.

In fact, of all the players called up in the last two years by Canada, the only man other than Hutchinson that has been getting minutes at right back with his club has been Andre Hainault, who Stephen Hart insists on playing in the middle.

If you've got an argument that Atiba Hutchinson is not the most talented Canadian at the right back position, I'd like to hear it. If there were two Atibas, putting one of them at right back makes Canada undeniably better than they have been.


Is Canada better with it's best right back playing right back?
Which brings us to the crucial question: How much would it hurt Canada to lose Hutchinson as an attacking force in the midfield?

If I seem to rely heavily upon tweets and forum posts from Dutch fans of PSV Eindhoven, forgive me. The news outlets are less prolific in their praise and criticism of individual players.

That said, the common refrain regarding Atiba as a midfielder is that he's a hard worker and athletic, but "kan niet echt voetballen". That expression means that he lacks the ability to pass, control, and move off the ball in a typically Dutch, totalvoetbal kind of way. He breaks up attacks and makes the easy pass, but is not one for creativity or midfield derring-do.

Canadian fans of Hutchinson are fond of remembering his goal against Ukraine, his disallowed goal against the USA in 2007, and a few other brief moments of inspiration when they imagine him as some sort of attacking impresario.

What they all too infrequently ignore is that Hutchinson has never played in the typical #10 role with any club. With Kobenhavn he played mostly on the wing, and when he played centrally it was as a deep-lying midfielder. His overall competence sometimes comes off as something approaching offensive genius in comparison with some of the lesser lights (I'm looking at you, Dunfield) that occasionally patrol the middle for Canada.

There's something to be said, too, for playing a player where he is most comfortable. Given that 75% of his minutes over the last two years have been played on the right side of defense, and that for nearly all of 2012 up until the USA friendly and qualifiers against Cuba and Honduras he will have been thinking as a right back, am I wrong to suggest that some of Atiba's midfield instincts will have been dulled?

I'm also not convinced that midfield is such a weakness for Canada that the loss of Atiba in that position would be so catastrophic. Surely in road matches against Panama and Honduras, when Canada will be massive underdogs, keeping things tight at the back is more important than being settled in the attacking third.

Furthermore, I am of the opinion that the strengths of Atiba Hutchinson as a midfielder overlap significantly with Julian de Guzman's strongest suits, and having both in midfield is at times redundant. De Guzman is no longer at Hutchinson's level, but with both men in the middle of the park you have an excess of defensive positioning and a deficit of true attacking flair.

I am less and less a fan of manager Stephen Hart, but I still believe he's intelligent enough to at least have considered the possibility of putting the team's best player in the position that is currently weakest.


Allow me to summarize
1. Atiba Hutchinson is in a good run of form right now and is widely credited as one of the keys to PSV's recent turnaround. He appears to have won the full-time job at right back.
2. I'm frankly tired of trotting out the 3.Bundesliga all-stars in a critical position on the field and pretending it won't be a problem.
3. Atiba Hutchinson's attacking gifts have been overstated by many Canadian fans, though he is undeniably a class apart from most of Canada's other midfield options.
4. I think Canada is a better team, particularly against a stronger opponent, with a top flight right back, rather than an above-average midfielder.


Josh Simpson's latest red card

I'm not normally one to get up in arms about officials' decisions, but this is bullshit.

Monday, March 19, 2012

What's WSA Winnipeg up to?

There's been a fair bit of search activity to the blog lately regarding WSA Winnipeg and their upcoming season. These searchers will have been largely disappointed, as they've mostly stumbled onto year old news or, if they were lucky, the team's 2012 PDL schedule.

More relevant, and more immediate, are the following two items.

New kit for 2012

No less an authority than Ben Massey of Eighty Six Forever has been raving about the new Mondetta-designed jerseys for the 2012 season.

And with good reason.

The home and away shirts

The jerseys are sharp, stylish, and unlike the jerseys of a certain national team I follow that wears red, have an original and unique design.

I wouldn't expect the kit of a PDL team that only gets a few hundred fans a game to be a big seller, but at least supporters won't have the excuse that the shirts are ugly. Good job.


Friendlies with FC Edmonton

Of more immediate importance are the friendlies for this weekend against newish NASL side FC Edmonton.

There are two matches scheduled: Saturday, March 24th, at 6:00pm at the Indoor Soccer Complex (U of M) and Sunday, March 25th, at 2:00pm at the same location.

The teams also met last year in late March with FC Edmonton coming away with an easy 5-0 victory. Coach Eduardo Badescu is hopeful of a better result this time:
"Last year when we played [FC Edmonton] we didn't really have a team yet." said Coach Badescu. "This year, we have a core group of players returning from last year who know what it takes to play at this level"
Also working in the home side's favour is that the Eddies will be missing several key contributors who are away with the Canada U23 team that is in Nashville attempting to qualify for the 2012 Olympics.

I won't be attending these matches, nor will I attend any WSA matches played indoors, but I am looking forward to the outdoor portion of their schedule.



Also, you can listen to head man Eduardo Badescu in an interview with Red Nation Online's Steve Bottjer. Of note, Badescu says the club aims to join USL Pro or NASL within 2 or 3 years.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Terry Dunfield's gut: A story in pictures

Despite the incredible result at the end of Wednesday's Galaxy-TFC match, I remain obsessed with a particular moment in the 50th minute of the 2nd half.

Terry Dunfield, who had entered the match at halftime, was ordered to the sideline for some kind of wardrobe infraction.

Was the double jersey à la Hassli the problem? Stupid, perhaps, but it would appear not.

Seconds later, though, however ridiculous it was to be wearing three layers in Los Angeles, all thoughts and explanations were pushed to the sidelines. This boob shot had my full attention.

Oh my Lord!


This is the money shot (if you're into that sort of thing). When I saw this gut I was flabbergasted. This is a professional athlete.

Now, to be fair, this is no Kyle Wellwood situation (and to be fair to Kyle too, he's enjoying an excellent season for my Jets). And Terry is probably fitter than 90% of you that are reading this post. He was also quite effective, in a very Dunfield-y way, in that Galaxy match, breaking up attack after attack.

Still, the fact that this was the one moment that I'll remember forever from Toronto's biggest win in 5 years suggests that his physique is truly astonishing.


In case you're wondering, this isn't the first time I've featured a shirtless national teamer on this blog. I've also got a bare-torsoed Tomasz Radzinski striking a pose (I used the same picture two years later in another memorably titled post).

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Cancon 2012: Week 1 report

After week 1 of professional soccer action involving the Canadian teams, the Canadian content percentages are as follows:

Team %
Toronto 18.18%
Montreal 8.18%
Vancouver 0.00%
Edmonton n/a


TORONTO FC

3/7/2012 vs LA Galaxy
Ashtone Morgan 1
90
Terry Dunfield 1
89
Matt Stinson
1 1
Total Mins 990 Cdn Mins 180


If you told me a year ago TFC would be in the quarter finals of the Champions League, and they had two Canadian starters I would have put heavy money on those two being Julian de Guzman and Dwayne De Rosario.

Expect Ashtone Morgan to see a lot of action this year. Aron Winter thinks enough of him to have withheld him from Canada's Olympic qualifying squad. Matt Stinson and Terry Dunfield are both depth options in midfield; de Guzman should start this week when he returns from suspension.

MONTREAL IMPACT

3/10/2012 at Vancouver
Patrice Bernier 1
81
Total Mins 990 Cdn Mins 81

Patrice Bernier was the lone Canadian on the pitch during the VAN-MTL match, until he was subbed off. Then there were none. He acquitted himself well enough, but he'll need to do more in what may be a long season for Impact fans. He'll be the lone Canadian for Montreal most weeks -- I don't think we'll be seeing much of Evan James or Greg Sutton, the only other Canadians on the Montreal roster.

VANCOUVER WHITECAPS

3/10/2012 vs Montreal
none

0
Total Mins 990 Cdn Mins 0

None was one of the leading Canadian participants for Vancouver last year: there were 15 matches where Canadian players did not see a single minute of action. Don't expect this year to be much different.

Vancouver's Canadian quota is made up of just 3 players: Swiss international Alain Rochat, whose minutes don't count for this project, and youngsters Russell Teibert and Bryce Alderson. Teibert was scratched from last night's game day squad because of an injury, and Alderson didn't make the bench. Both Alderson and Teibert will miss the next several weeks as they will join Canada for Olympic qualifying.

FC EDMONTON

The Eddies don't kick off their NASL season until April 7th. They did play a friendly last night, and their Canadian contingent in that match included Michael Misiewicz, Diaz Kambere, Dominic Oppong, Kenny Caceros, Paul Craig, Niko Saler, Michael Cox, Elvir Gigolaj, Chris Kooy, Kyle Porter, Matt Lam and John Smits.

American teams with more Canadian minutes than the Whitecaps and Impact this week
DC United 180 (De Rosario 90, Jakovic 90), Houston 90 (Hainault), Chivas USA (Jazic 90)

Next week


Wednesday, March 14th
Toronto at Los Angeles / 10 pm et (CCL) / Sportsnet 1

Saturday, March 17th

Chicago at Montreal / 2 pm et / TSN
Toronto at Seattle / 10 pm et / Sportsnet 1
Vancouver at Chivas USA / 10 pm et / Sportsnet West and Pacific

Monday, March 05, 2012

Tracking Canadian content in 2012

With Toronto FC only two days away from their first competitive match of the season, and with the Whitecaps and Impact getting things under way on the weekend, it is as good a time as any to remind my readers that I'll by tracking Canadian content again in 2012.

As in previous seasons, this blog will be publishing a ranking of the on-field Canadian content of Canada's pro teams.

Shortly after each match day, the sidebar should feature an updated listing of the teams ranked by their percentage of minutes played by Canadian players. If you click on details, you'll be taken to a Google Docs spreadsheet with a match-by-match breakdown for each team, listing the players to take the field and their individual minutes played.

Followed me (@o_o_t) on twitter for weekly updates of Canadian content if you can't be bothered to check in regularly here. I'll also be publishing a few mid-term grades and an end of year report.

While you're waiting for Wednesday's big match, you can check in with some previous tallies:
  • 2011 (FC Edmonton highest with 77.3%)
  • 2010 (Montreal, 35.4%)
  • 2009 (Vancouver, 42.1%)
  • 2008 (Vancouver, 56.4%)

Expect FC Edmonton, who play a tier down from the three MLS teams, to be the runaway leaders in this category again in 2012. But the battle between the other three teams will be interesting; I'd expect TFC to come out on top.