Saturday, February 09, 2013

January friendlies in review

Two weeks ago, Canada played the first of two international friendlies in the southern USA. Three days later it played a second. Eleven days following that match, I have a few words to say about them both.

DENMARK 4 - CANADA 0

Lars Hirschfeld (Simon Thomas 46), Doneil Henry, Nana Attakora, Dejan Jakovic, Ashtone Morgan, Nik Ledgerwood, Terry Dunfield (Philippe Davies 77), Kyle Bekker (Jonathan Beaulieu-Bourgault 67), Dwayne De Rosario (Evan James 60), Russell Teibert (Kyle Porter 68), Tosaint Ricketts (Mason Trafford 85)

The scoreline in soccer does not always reflect the play on the pitch. Even on a regrettable afternoon in San Pedro Sula, Honduras probably did not deserve by 7 goals. However, Denmark's throttling of an experimental Canada side on a re-purposed baseball diamond in Arizona was fully deserving a 4-goal victory. In particular, Andreas Cornelius of FC Copenhagen. He scored 3 goals against Canada, and a fourth a few days later against Mexico. He is the leading scorer of the Danish Superliga at 19 years old, has two appearances for the full national team (the side Canada faced is branded as the Danish League XI) and has been garnering interest from much bigger teams in Europe.

I watched the entire match (thanks to Sportsnet for providing a web stream), despite my better judgment.  The team looked very much the ragtag assortment of MLS trialists, rookies, national team journeymen, and national team cameo-makers that it was.  In particular, the defensive right side of Nana Attakora and Doneil Henry was a mess, and was collectively at fault for at least 3 of the goals.  It was hard to pick a Canadian player who delivered a creditable performance, though Simon Thomas looked decent replacing an injured Lars Hirschfeld for the second half, while there was some buzz about Toronto FC rookie Kyle Bekker's performance in the centre of midfield.

As much as Canada was outclassed talent-wise, they also played far too open. Foraging runs by Ashtone Morgan and Henry were quickly punished on the counter, and the gaps between midfield and defense, and between wide and central players, were easily exploited. It was a day that we were all thankful that Colin Miller's appointment is only an interim one. Whatever germs of chances there were, Tosaint Ricketts and the rest quickly squandered.

CANADA 0 - USA 0

Simon Thomas, Nik Ledgerwood, Nana Attakora (Doneil Henry 63), Dejan Jakovic, Ashtone Morgan, Terry Dunfield (Matt Stinson 51), Jonathan Beaulieu-Bourgault, Kyle Bekker (Kyle Porter 90+), Dwayne De Rosario (Frank Jonke 81), Russell Teibert (Evan James 89), Tosaint Ricketts

A short trip to Houston and a few days training later, Canada earned the same 0-0 result they had 7 months earlier at BMO field. But that previous friendly was of an entirely different sort; the centrepiece of the CSA's centennial celebrations and the kick-off to a summer of World Cup qualifying matches that ended in the most 8-1 of fashions.

Juergen Klinsmann and the USA were using the match as a testing ground to see which depth players would accompany the team to its (then) upcoming qualifier in, of all plays, San Pedro Sula. (If you're wondering who made the grade of the players that took on Canada, Omar Gonzalez, Graham Zusi, and Eddie Johnson all featured against Honduras while several more were on the bench. This was better than a USA B-squad).

Compared with the team that was demolished by the Danes, the only lineup changes Miller made to start were to replace the latterly criticized Doneil Henry with Nik Ledgerwood at right back, and to move Jonathan Beaulieu-Bourgault into Ledgerwood's holding midfield role alongside Terry Dunfield. While I am not normally a fan of Ledgerwood in that spot, he has plenty of experience there for Canada and one would expect him to perform better in that role than a 19-year old natural centre half.

Canada had the game's first, and ultimately best, chance when a Dwayne De Rosario strike was saved by the foot of Sean Johnson.  Of De Rosario, more later. The rest of the match lacked somewhat for entertainment value, but did provide an interesting test of Canada's bunkering abilities, one which it failed last year in Panama and Honduras.

Craig Forrest and Gerry Dobson were full of praise for Ledgerwood's running, first as a right-sided defender, and in Dunfield's spot after Matt Stinson took over as right back. Doneil Henry was even able to redeem himself somewhat as a second half substitute for Nana Attakora. No doubt playing in his natural position helped (one wonders if he will get many chances to play there for TFC this season).

But ultimately the man of the match, for both teams, was Dejan Jakovic. The experienced DC United centre back has been the forgotten man at the position behind Kevin McKenna, Andre Hainault and David Edgar but with McKenna retiring from international duty, he will have a bigger load to carry in the future. Kyle Bekker, for me, was better than he was against Denmark.

Canada failed to score and, aside from De Rosario's shot and some threatening set pieces from Russell Teibert, didn't generate much offense at all. That was hardly the point. One has to walk before one can run, and this collection of players needed to show they could stay in a game without embarrassing themselves before doing anything more tactically adventurous.

After watching (most) of the match, you could colour me cautiously encouraged.

FINAL THOUGHTS

  • Despite my encouragement at the USA result, probably the man who did himself the most credit in that match is the one with the shortest future for Canada. Colin Miller got his instructions right with a midfield and defense that was compact and organized and was rarely broken down. Klinsmann, as would also happen this past week in Honduras, failed to break down a disciplined opponent.
  • Dwayne De Rosario recently spoke of wanting to remain in the Canada picture as long as he can (I believe the phrasing was "as long as I want to play" which is a bit presumptuous). Despite my regular criticism of his play, the lack of offensive talent among younger Canadian players leaves an opening for Dwayne. It will be interesting to see if he will accept a Gold Cup call in the middle of an MLS season.
  • Apart from De Rosario, the better offensive talents (Teibert, Lucas Cavallini) are a few years away. I think we've all seen enough of Tosaint Ricketts as a starter for Canada. He is far too wasteful of chances and his lone asset, his speed, is much more useful coming off the bench. Stephen Hart's failure to employ another option (Simeon Jackson, among others) was one his biggest failings last year.
Canada's next match is a March friendly in Europe against Japan, though another engagement has been rumoured. Many questions to be answered, including who will be in charge, which, if any, North American players will be selected, and how badly the team will lose.