It wasn’t as dramatic as Canada’s mens national team losing 8-1 in Honduras in World Cup qualifying last October, but the recent failure of the Canadian men’s U20 side to advance to the World Cup in Turkey should cause fans as much concern as the disaster in San Pedro Sula.
It’s possible to look at the 8-1 loss and blame it on the mistakes of the past. The current group of senior national team players is a reflection of where Canadian soccer was 10 to 15 years ago, not where it is today. There have been changes at the Canadian Soccer Association and there do seem to be some positive signs.
However, that argument can’t be made about the U20s. Built from a core of players that did go to a World Cup as U17s two years ago, much was expected from this group. Instead, they limped home with a tepid 1-2 record.
Against Cuba the Canadians were out-muscled, and they played scared. Against the United States they were defeated in all aspects of the game.
Most troubling, this was a team that played without spirit and direction. There were rumblings about discontent in the camp and no one seemed all that broken up by the fact that they weren’t going to Turkey for the World Cup.
Losing is pro forma for Canada. The country is in danger of slipping even further into soccer irrelevancy.
What’s especially frustrating about the U20 capitulation is that this cycle of players was supposed to represent Canada’s new, professional approach. The majority of the players came through the MLS academies of Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps. Having those environments in place is supposed to streamline the talent identification and it’s supposed to speed up the development of the players.
There is limited evidence that the latter is happening and the former point remains as politicized as ever.
Limiting the conversation to Ontario, it doesn’t take much searching to find someone in the Toronto soccer community eager to bash the TFC academy. The complaints made about TFCA hardly matter. What’s important to understand is that there is a reluctance to view TFCA as the legitimate top of the pyramid in Ontario, despite the urging of governing bodies.
The result of that reluctance is TFCA not getting the best of the best. Rather, because of its free-to-play philosophy, it’s getting the best players that can’t afford private academies. If ever there was an argument for the desperate need for elite development leagues in the county’s biggest markets it’s right here.
Since the professional academies have replaced the provincial teams as the main gateway to the national teams, we are still stuck in a damaging cycle where it’s unclear whether the best players are getting fair looks from the national team.
Politics, as ever, remains a destructive force in Canadian soccer.
The professional academies aren’t innocent here either. There are legitimate things they could do to improve the relationship they have with other clubs and academies that, in theory anyway, should be feeding into them. However, there remains a disconnect between the two sides.
There needs to come a time when everyone involved in the game puts aside their personal agendas to find a way forward. As much as clubs and academies might have a legitimate gripe with TFCA, for instance, it will never be solved by passive aggressive whisper campaigns.
A good way to start a positive dialogue would be for stakeholders to actually stick their neck out and speak on record about their concerns. As it is now, it’s hard to separate legitimate grievance, from bitter jealousy.
Canadian soccer has come a long way in the last seven years. However, it’s going to take a lot more work if it is to fully dig itself out of the mess it created over decades of infighting and pettiness.
A good way to start that healing would be to move away from its bitter past.