Let me hit you with this. Suppose that none of the things we say are good for Canadian soccer actually are.
In recent weeks, the Canadian men’s U-23 team beat their American counterparts 2-0 for the first time since we burned down the White House (good for Canadian soccer!). Toronto FC is the second Canadian team in four years to etch a maple leaf into CONCACAF in lines of fire (good for Canadian soccer!). The Vancouver and Toronto academies have each contributed a couple players to that U-23 effort, while the Montreal Impact academy… erm, also exists (good for Canadian soccer!). Going back further, Canada made a respectable showing in the group stages of the U-17 World Cup, where Quillan Roberts made himself a YouTube sensation.
What we celebrate are such minor milestones that, to a jaded eye, they’re almost laughable. Canada’s U-23 team won a game against a team that subsequently blew it against El Salvador and finished third in their group. Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal produce useful players, but bragging about three academies in a country of over 33 million people (plus FC Edmonton’s nascent and limited residency efforts) just makes us look like more of a joke.
Enjoy such little triumphs while they’re happening, but don’t wave one around the next day. If there were any justice in the world we wouldn’t even be counting them as achievements. Canada’s qualified for Olympics and U-17 World Cups; there have been fewer good Champions League runs but that’s only because we just recently became eligible. Back in the NASL days, our teams produced good Canadian players. Should we delight in duplicating the successes of the past, a past in which we were also a pretty crappy soccer country? “Congratulations, Canada! We’re where we were twenty years ago! We have not passed ‘Go’ and we have most certainly not collected $200! Bring me a gushing 1,500-word article on our genius!”
Of course, beating a more-hapless-than-usual American team is better than losing, and I’d rather have one professional academy per 11 million Canadians than zero. So I suppose these things are all good for Canadian soccer in the same sense as Andre Hainault making a clearance off the line for Houston. But that’s not what people usually mean with these delusions that our little half-measures are in some way going to make all the difference. We shouldn’t celebrate them any more than we’d celebrate painting one wall of a crack den.
Everyone says “we have much more work to do” at times like this but it’s blurred out by the triumphalism over small achievements and events with no long-term impact. Then there’s shock when in spite of all these glorious events, we fail to improve in any meaningful sense.
You want a highlight for Canadian soccer? The American soccer development model to which we’ve hitched our second-hand wagon has failed to qualify for the Olympics not long after failing to qualify for the U-20 World Cup. Domestically-produced American youth are falling, not rising, on the world stage and Canada is sparing no effort to join them. Not unrelatedly, former FC Tampa Bay midfielder and Canadian U-23 pool member Mozzi Gyorio recently turned down a contract from Sporting Kansas City because they wanted to put him on MLS’s risible developmental scale. He could make more money selling washing machines than he could playing at our nation’s highest level, so he’s holding out for either a better offer or another opportunity. No number of U-23 draws to Cuba makes up for players settling for a lower level because our highest is broken.
Real milestones shake the country to its foundations; they don’t become meaningless six months after they happen. Three teams in MLS, with their every game broadcast around the country? That’s big. One game never is. The Montreal Impact packed Olympic Stadium to see Santos Laguna, then sold about as many season tickets as the year before. Toronto FC packed Rogers Centre to see the Los Angeles Galaxy but drew less interest for the bigger semi-final match. Canadian academies bring in players who are already halfway through their youth soccer careers and offer them their choice of barely enough money to live on, traveling North America in desperate hope (in a system where Canadians are officially discriminated against by 16 of 19 first division teams), or getting a real job. That’s not something to celebrate, that’s something to cringe at and improve on!
By all means, fans of Toronto FC, enjoy your team’s good run and if you win party until you can’t see straight. If Canada’s U-23 team beats Mexico on Saturday I’m liable to wake up in a dumpster with Russell Teibert’s name tattooed on my face. But unless it leads to something more sustained and long-term than a hangover, it’s not a great moment for anybody but you.