Duane Rollins

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News today that England has fired long-time women’s head coach Hope Powell has some fans in Canada nervous.

That’s because John Herdman is an Englishman, one who charmed a lot of folks back home last summer when he coached Canada past Team GB and on to a medal at the Olympics. One journalist went so far as to call him the Jose Mourinho of women’s football, based on his charm, tactical abilities and, one assumes, his ability to make small talk with a Wayne Rooney puppet.

That last bit is a stretch, but then again so is comparing Herdman to Mourinho. If the English press do one thing well it’s hyperbole, so expect these rumours to heat up.

Herdman is a desirable candidate. The English would be silly not to put a feeler out to the CSA about his availability. The question for Canada is: is there enough if a pull here to keep him around?

Although readers may not want to hear it the answer to the question is maybe.

That’s better than an outright no, but ambiguous enough to cause some stress to those inclined to believe that bad things always happen in Canadian soccer.

The good news is that he’s under contract until the end of the 2015-16 cycle. The CSA is under no obligation to allow him to talk to England during that time.

Also positive is that he appears to have settled into Canadian life well. He’s recently moved his family to Vancouver and was hired by TSN to do some studio work during the recently completed Womens Euro 2013 tournament.

Of course the biggest positive is the fact that the 2015 World Cup is here. Not many managers get the opportunity to manage the host nation in a World Cup. It would seem a bit rash to give up that opportunity, especially since England is could struggle even to make the tournament.

Still, the cynical Canadian fan will worry. It’s England, right? The Three Lions, home of football and all that. Surely the call of the homeland will be too loud for Herdman to ignore.

For its part the CSA isn’t saying anything. The official stance is that they don’t comment on rumours. Fair enough, that’s pretty common PR policy.

It might not hurt though for them to try and get in front of the story. Otherwise you’re going to have panicked fans and confused potential investors. The next year will be crucial for the CSA as it pushes for corporate money for the World Cup and they will want their best salesman to be out on front of the camera. With all due respect to Christine Sinclair or any other player, no one on the team can come close to Herdman on the charisma front.

The CSA needs him. In fact, he might be the single most important in Canadian soccer right now.

When you take a step back and critically evaluate whether Herdman might leave there are very few reasons for him to do so. He’s still young. If England is truly an ambition then the opportunity will likely come around again in his career.

Money might be the only thing England could use to pry him out of the Canada job. Herdman is suspected to make somewhere south of $300,000 a year now. If the English offer considerably more the CSA might have a tough question to answer.

However, this is all speculation for now. The search to replace Powell has just started. Instead of worrying about losing Herdman, Canadian fans should focus on the fact that, for once, they have someone in demand.

Masai Ujiri Press Conference

In a way, you have to hand it to Toronto FC. The club is audacious. Despite being arguably the least successful first division club in the world (literally – find us a worse one), it has made offers for both Carlos Tevez and Diego Forlan this summer.

Legitimate offers for big money. The information comes from too many credible sources and is just too absurd to have been made up.

There is the silly season and then there is the certifiably insane season.

The Reds were, obviously, laughed out of the room in both cases. It’s unclear what the club could offer to two players that are both looking to be in Brazil next year and, in Tevez’ case, still with several good years left before they’d be looking to come to America.

What may not be as obvious is that it’s also unclear what TFC would have gained from bringing in either of the two players.

On the surface, the fact that it’s a blessing that the Reds are too much of a mess to attract world class players might seem ironic. However, those types of players would be wasted on TFC in its current set-up.

Just this past off-season, Torsten Frings was gently shown the door because his cap hit was too high. Toronto had all kinds of holes in its line-up and it was suggested that it would be too difficult to fill them with that type of salary burden.

Eric Hassli and, later, Darren O’Dea were moved for the same reason. Their salary was deemed too high in a tight salary cap league.

So, if Toronto is constantly dropping salary money—and constantly making reference to the salary mismanagement of the previous management—why would they start down the same road of paying large portions of the cap to a single player?

That question is especially pertinent when you consider that TFC has made all kinds of noise about the need to stay young in its current rebuild.

It’s at this point that one cannot ignore that the big signing rumours coincided with the arrival of new MLSE president Tim Leiweke. Famously, Leiweke bought David Beckham to MLS and he’s been upfront about his desire to bring a similar player to Toronto.

He went so far to suggest that Toronto has self-handicapped itself by bring in what he called second tier DPs. Leiweke said that Toronto was acting like a small market club rather than a team based in the fourth largest city in North America.

It’s unclear whether Leiweke has consulted with TFC GM Kevin Payne about his feelings on DPs. If he has and Payne has given his blessing to the strategy then it would represent a radical change in thinking. If that’s the case it would also appear that the manager, Ryan Nelsen, hasn’t been included in the conversation.

Nelsen has consistently talked about the need to get the team’s core sorted out before adding a marquee signing. With just two wins on the year, it would appear that we are still a ways off from TFC being sorted.

Therein lies the most concerning thing of all about these offers. From the outside it looks like the president is acting on his own to bring in a player that the manager doesn’t necessarily want, while the GM straddles the middle while talking out of both sides of his month.

It’s reminiscent of the final days of the Aron Winter v Paul Mariner power-struggle. Not everyone in the club appears to be on the same page.

The truth is that no one knows whether bringing in a big name right now would help. Although four of the six MLS Cups won since the DP rule was brought in have gone to teams without a DP, it can be argued that the 2011-12 LA Galaxy were the best MLS club of all-time. The Galaxy had three DPs, including Beckham himself.

There is more than one way to build a MLS team.

However, what’s clear is that the wrong way to run a team is to have conflicting philosophies at the top. We’ve seen it in Toronto with Winter and Mariner and Leiweke has seen it as well while he was in LA. The Galaxy only saw success once before Alexei Lalas, who was never fully on board with the DP plan, was replaced.

Hopefully Leiweke learned a lesson from that experience, but current evidence in Toronto suggests that he may not have.

Canada v Martinique - 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup

It’s not the CSA’s fault Canada lost to Martinique.

Well, more accurately it’s not the current CSA’s fault that Canada lost to Martinique. So, fans can put the pitchforks down and stop their march toward Ottawa.

The reason that Canada lost to an non-FIFA member island of 400,000 (that is actually much better than most wisecracking Canadian journalists realize and, not subject to FIFA’s rules on player caps) has to do with the CSA of the late 1990s, early 2000s.

Back then the CSA was a carnival of good times. Keven Pipe was the ineffective ringmaster overseeing a hodgepodge of self-interested provincial directors. Fred Nykamp, hired from Basketball Canada with great fanfare (most of the celebration coming from Basketball Canada, it must be said) only to be fired less than a year later, added to the zoo-like atmosphere.

Nycamp suing the CSA for wrongful dismissal (it was settled out of court) was likely the low point of a comically bad decade that also saw the high profile defection of Owen Hargreaves, likely the most accomplished Canadian-born player in history.

When people scream for the CSA’s collective heads, it’s this era that they are thinking of.

They are right to scream for their heads. Nothing positive happened in Canadian soccer during that time. There was no development, no reform, no hope. It’s telling that for a brief while Canadian soccer fans were holding onto the hope Maple Leaft Sports & Entertainment, Toronto FC’s owners, might save them.

The result of that rudderless period is a gap in talent at the national team level. A solid, if at times selfish, generation that was born during the peak years of Canadian soccer (early 80s) and who benefited from a surge in interest in the sport, is getting past its prime.

That next generation just isn’t there. The best Canadian player in those gap years is likely Will Johnson. He’s from Chicago.

So, Canada currently has two choices. It can either continue with the same players that have failed in World Cup qualifying twice and who will be too old in 2016 when the real work starts again. Or, it can put out a team that is mostly made up if players that emerged at the end of the lost years.

That next generation, which has now gone to two straight U17 World Cups, arrived in the era of MLS. There is some promise there that in time some quality will emerge.

But, it’s going to be very bleak for the next few years. It always was going to be. Martinique just reminded us of that, is all.

However this failure shouldn’t be put on the current CSA. Today’s leadership is focused on elite development. And, it does recognize the need for profound change, both in leadership structure and in grassroots delivery.

Today’s CSA is standing up to the provinces. Long Term Player Development Plan principles are being pushed. When Quebec ignored a directive from the CSA it was slapped down.

Change is happening.

So, as much as a loss to Martinique hurts it’s important to keep things in perspective. Demanding wholesale changes at the top of the CSA right now is, at best, pointless. At worst, it might be counterproductive.

What’s needed is an understanding that it took years to create this mess and it’s going to take years to dig ourselves out if it.

In the meantime fans need to enjoy the small victories (I.e. the u17s qualifying to UAE) and for those involved at the grassroots to keep pushing to get better.

Canada has the resources, both manpower and financial, to get back to football relevancy. Hopefully it has the willpower and patience needed as well.

FBL-JPN-CAN-FRIENDLY

It’s hard to imagine a time when there has been less interest in the men’s national team in Canada than today.

It will take a long time for the stain of 8-1 to wear off the Nats and even the most loyal of fans is struggling to get up for games as they go through the motions following the end of the county’s (naive) Brazilian dream.

This is the environment in which interim manager Colin Miller is operating in as he put the final touches on a makeshift and exceptionally untested Gold Cup line-up, which was released yesterday.

Eight of the players named to Canada’s 22-man (there is still time to add one additional player) will be making their Gold Cup debut. Additionally, four of those called-up play for that long-standing provider of Canadian talent, Unattached FC.

The Canadian men’s reigning player of the year, Atiba Hutchinson, and the all-time scoring leader, Dwayne DeRosario, will be watching from home.

Combine that with what is likely the toughest group in tournament (hello Mexico and Panama – along with trickier than many imagine Martinique) and, well, it could get ugly.

The question is, then, does it matter?

Considering that the general level of interest is so low and that this Gold Cup features mostly second choice line-ups and factoring in that we are still two years away from the games that really matter (and three from when CONCACAF qualifying gets tricky for Canada), maybe a weak three matches and out should be expected and accepted for Canada.

It’s defeatist thinking, but one can appreciate how someone might entertain the idea.

Except the truth is Canada cannot afford to embarrass itself again. That 8-1 loss is too fresh and the punch lines cut too close to the bone.

The Canadian national team risks becoming irrelevant to fans if it goes down to the tournament and bombs out. All of the gains that were made over the last four years in terms of home support will be go away. The new fans that came to the program will likely abandon it, their suspicions about this country’s place in world football confirmed. And, besides, this is our confederation championship. That alone should be enough to motivate both players and fans alike.

It will not be easy, but most understand that the challenge is great. In announcing the roster, Miller suggested that a quarterfinal appearance would be an acceptable building block for the program.

He’s right, with one caveat. Regardless of the final standing, one would hope that this group of young Canadians will win or lose with a bit of pride.

Pride was something that was desperately needed in Honduras and Panama when the heat, fans and pressure caused players that were supposed to represent this country’s best chance at a World Cup birth in a generation to wilt.

So, maybe it isn’t such a bad thing that so few of that crew is part of this Gold Cup roster. It’s a fresh start and it can’t possibly be worse than if was the last time they played a meaningful game.

England v Belgium - International Friendly

Let’s start with a basic fact.

Denying soccer to a single child, whether black, white, brown, rich, poor, able bodied, disabled, English, French or otherwise is wrong.

Dead wrong. It is not debatable and it certainly shouldn’t be a talking point for political debate. Yet that’s what I has become in Quebec, where the QSF refuses to back down from a stance that the vast majority of people in Canada, Quebec and around the world find appalling.

The of the root of the conflict is as old as Canada – the French minority resisting directive from the English majority. And, many people are using the conflict to reopen 50-year-old conversations about sovereignty and federalism.

This is neither the right conflict to frame such debates, nor is a soccer specific website the right venue for such a conversation.

So we aren’t about to have one here. Not in the body if the article, nor, should we, in the comments that follow.

Rather, we’re going to stick to what’s relevant to this space and it’s readers: the football.

Specifically, what the conflict says about CSA reform and the possibility of its success.

In the Fall of 2007 about 500 people wore black t-shirts to a Canadian men’s friendly at Toronto’s BMO Field, emblazoned with the call to “Sack the CSA,” a call for governance reform within the Canadian Soccer Association (as full disclosure I took an active role in organizing the protest and assisting the main organizer, Dino Rossi, with media relations during the event).

It was the first grassroots expression of a long felt frustration with the CSA. It was widely believed that the organization was too regionally focused to the detriment of the nation as a whole.

Simply put, provincial (both meanings of the word) attitudes were holding Canadian soccer back. The provinces had all the power and so long as that was allowed to continue Canada would continue to struggle to compete internationally.

It took five years, but that was the beginning of the end for the old boys network of provincial cronyism ruining (no, not running) the game.

The CSA is now moving to a much more professional and centralized leadership structure. It is attempting to implement national standards such as the Long Term Player Development plan and, as we are seeing now, exerting control to ensure that the same standards are kept from coast to coast to coast in Canada.

They should have expected push back, and this is one instance.

You cannot take power away from groups that have literally never experienced federal control before and not expect resistance.

We are seeing it at the local level with resistance to aspects of the LTPD plan (which is a discussion for another day) and we are seeing it now from Quebec.

The message from Quebec is clear: We do not accept the idea that we should take directives from the federal body. The Quebec Soccer Federation believes that it should be allowed to make its own rules. The province was the only one to vote against governance reform candidates in the last CSA president election and they are using the turban ban as an opportunity to fight for a return to the bad old days of the tails wagging the dog in Canadian soccer.

They are betting that the CSA will back down and the erosion of federal power will begin. You can bet that there are some in other parts of the country that are cheering them on for their own selfish reasons.

The CSA appears to understand the importance of not backing down from the first major challenge to the centralization of power in Canadian soccer. By suspending the QSF they have demonstrated they mean business. In the past they likely would have thrown their hands up and let Quebec do its own thing (like it did when the same battle was fought -and lost- by Quebec over the hijab).

It’s likely that the QSF has underestimated the resolve of the CSA to maintain control. Regardless, the federation could not have chosen a worse hill to die on.

The CSA is on the side of history here. The world doesn’t much care about the petty regional politics if Canada. It does, however, care about religious discrimination.

The QSF will not win this fight. Quebec’s soccer governing body would be best to move on and work with the CSA to ensure that it is allowed to operate independently when it comes to issues that truly are unique to the province.

Fighting to keep Sikh children from playing the game isn’t a unique problem facing Quebec.

It’s just wrong.

Olympics Day 13 - Women's Football Final - Match 26 - USA v Japan

On the surface the Canadian men’s and women’s programs could not seem further apart.

The men are coming off a disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign, scrambling to find anyone willing to play them and unable to get teams to release their players.

The result of all this was a tepid 1-0 loss to a Costa Rica B-side Tuesday in Edmonton last night. Just 8,102 fans bothered to show up for the first men’s game in Western Canada in almost 5-years (although it should be noted that the 6 p.m. local start and construction around the stadium made it difficult for fans that wanted to go to actually get there).

Meanwhile, the women are coming off an Olympic bronze medal, are announcing new corporate sponsors and are preparing to play the world’s most famous women’s team at BMO Field on Sunday.

There will be far more than 8,102 fans at the game. BMO sold out in less than 4-hours and tickets are being sold off-market for around $200.

The capper, of course, is that the women are guaranteed a berth in the next World Cup as hosts. The Canadian women are darlings of the Canadian sports world, while the men are like your drunk Uncle at Christmas dinner—barely tolerated once a year before you go back to ignoring them.

The future seems limitless for the women. Folding the program on the men’s side has merits, some might say.

The problem with that type of thinking is that it ignores a lingering fear of those that closely observe the sport in Canada: the women’s program may not be in any better shape than the men’s.

In fact, it might be in worse shape, especially when Christine Sinclair decides to retire.

On the surface that claim seems absurd. How could a top 10 program that produced an Olympic medal-winning side be in worse shape than the punchline that is the men’s national team?

However, when you start to put the two programs in context it becomes clearer. The harsh truth is that there are currently no more than, at best, 15 countries in the world that take women’s soccer seriously. That’s a terrible indictment of the inherent sexism in world football and we all should dream of a day when it isn’t the case.

That doesn’t change the act that it is the case though. So, when you critically evaluate Canada’s world ranking on the women’s side you find that it isn’t much different than what it is on the men’s side, where pretty much the entire world takes the game seriously.

In recent years we’ve seen nations like Japan and North Korea put their full resources (or, something close to that) into the women’s game and, as a result, they’ve moved past Canada. Project that trend over another decade – especially among UEFA sides, which are starting to see the light – and Canada might be looking way up at the top sides.

As on the men’s side, the issues have to do with a lack of vision on development. Head coach John Herdman said as much last week when he announced the roster for the US friendly. In defending his choice to call-up American-born, trained and living-her-whole-life-in fullback Rachel Quon, Herdman said that there simply wasn’t a Canadian that could fit their needs. He stressed the need for a “development pipeline” to constantly challenge the full national team.

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about improving the development pathway. What change that has occurred has happened on the men’s side of the game, and is largely the genesis of the three MLS teams.

No one seems willing to take a risk on the women’s side of the game and the modest success its had has blinded people to its problems.

Independiente Argentina v Toronto FC

It hasn’t been the best couple of weeks for Toronto FC (or months, or years). With a win-less streak now stretching to eight games, and with just one win in its last 24 MLS games, the Reds are in danger of slipping even further into irrelevancy in the Toronto sports market.

For those that were around in the early years, it’s staggering to see the fall from grace. This was a club that wasn’t just the darling of the Toronto sports scene but for much of MLS for a while at the end of last decade. There wasn’t an empty seat in the stadium for almost three straight years, despite struggles on the pitch.

In fact, what seemed like “struggles” then were only a taste of what was to come. Little did TFC fans realize that those first three years would represent a high water mark for the club. They improved each of the first three seasons, finishing 2009 just one point from a playoff spot.

On the morning of October 24, 2009 Toronto FC was a middling team that was one win away from making its first playoff appearance. Fans had reason to hope.

Then, in a driving rainstorm, Macoumba Kandji scored for the New York Red Bulls just three minutes into the Reds’ final game of the year. New York, a club that was 21 points behind Toronto at kick-off, would go on to score four more goals that night to deny TFC a spot in the playoffs.

The enduring image of the night was interim head coach Chris Cummins standing on the sideline, shoulders slumped with rain pouring off his black trench coats. He didn’t even have the energy to shout instructions to his players any longer; his mind may have been on catching the first flight back to Heathrow.

Cummins remains the most successful of Toronto’s eight managers. The club has lost 52 times since that night, with only 21 wins. Along the way they have been forced to cut season ticket prices to year one levels and watched as a once vibrant and sold-out stadium turn into a cynical, often half-empty shell. What was once fan passion is now mostly anger. That is if the club is lucky. At least if the fans are angry they still care. Increasingly there is less anger.

So, what happened? How did Toronto FC become so very bad? It’s indeed puzzling, as the Reds have the financial resources to compete and ownership has invested in both players and infrastructure. Yet, the team just seems to get worse and worse.

The simple answer – and the answer most want to point to – is that the investor/owners in Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment don’t know what they’re doing. It’s increasingly difficult argument to challenge, even if it appears a tad simplistic. The truth is, there has been one consistent element to the club and that’s ownership.

What’s even more baffling about that is that, in isolation, most of the moves MLSE has made to support their franchise in that time made a lot of sense. In 2006, MLSE recognized that they didn’t know how to run a soccer team and so looked to hire a guy that had the experience they didn’t. In retrospect, hiring Mo Johnston as coach and eventually director of football was a terrible idea, but at the time it was pretty uncontroversial.

When it became clear that Johnston wasn’t the right guy for the job, MLSE reached out (and opened their pocket book) to one of the biggest names in the game in Jürgen Klinsmann to assist them in the search.

Few criticized MLSE’s hiring of Klinsmann. So, when he came back with the name of Aron Winter as the right man to bring TFC back from the dead, most fans were excited. After all, this was a guy that had played at the highest levels and was part of one of Europe’s most storied clubs.

Instead, things got worse. A lot worse. So MLSE listened to the prevailing advice of the day and sought out a “MLS guy” to run the show.

Enter Kevin Payne, an experienced manager from the club that was only associated with success in the league’s earliest days. Again, next to no one questioned the hire.

It’s too early to evaluate Payne, but not to point out his similarities with other MLSE hires. Payne was an attractive candidate; he combined brash talk with a long and impressive resume. When MLSE hires someone it almost always tends to be an industry name. You rarely see the company put its trust in an internal employee, or in allowing a young executive to grow in its role.

With MLSE style seems to matter more than substance. It plays better with fans and media, but, as history tells us, it rarely seems to work.

There is a certain arrogance in the philosophy. It suggests that Toronto is too big a market to be appropriate for an entry-level managerial candidate.

That might point to the biggest problem of all – arrogance. Despite two decades of losing, MLSE continues to believe that it is a major player in North American sports. It continues to make the same errors and it continues to get the same results.

And, all fans can do is hope against hope that they eventually will learn from their mistakes and bring the city a winner, and that hope is running thin. Worse, it’s turning into indifference.