Archive for the ‘Canada’ Category

4156447

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.

Canada's Kara Lang looks dejected after

Pundit and former Manchester United player Gary Neville told a story recently in the Daily Mail about his one-time team-mate at Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo. When Neville asked him once why he seemed to take it easy on his final two runs of a hard eight run exercise, Ronaldo replied “Too much water kills the plant.” Ronaldo took seriously the importance of knowing when to push himself, and when to rest.

The importance of balance in training and in life runs counter to what many of us believe about what it means to be a an athlete in peak form. When we imagine the difficult path young players take on their way to becoming world class stars for example, we see images that wouldn’t be out of place in an Adidas or Nike ad. Parents driving in the dark to take their kids to practice. Kids rapt while watching their sporting idols on a flickering TV screen. Endless hours on a treadmill, running up and down flights of stairs for hours at a time, taking a thousand wrist shots in a row, running, more running, the treadmill again perhaps with a poster of a sporting great on the wall, getting up early, focusing on a dream, going to bed late, eschewing friends or fun, more training, hard work, and then voila! Sporting greatness.

These images are meant to motivate athletes to work harder, but for most elite, world class players, the motivation part isn’t the problem. I was reminded of this when I spoke last week with former (and possibly soon to be) star forward for the Canadian national women’s team, Kara Lang.

Lang, you might remember, was forced to retire in January 2011 at tender age of 24 after several failed attempts to rehabilitate an ACL and knee injury. Despite the early end to her career, Lang’s accomplishments eclipsed those of players who stay in the game for decades. She holds the record for the youngest ever woman footballer to score in a full international, for Canada against Wales in March of 2002 at the age of fifteen. That was the same year she became an idol to youth players when she scored a semifinal shootout penalty in the U19 World Cup to put Canada in the final. Nine years and many incredible footballing feats later, she end her career with 34 national team goals in 89 senior caps.

That’s why many eyebrows were raised when the National Post first reported this past June Lang was working with CWNT head coach John Herdman and a Montreal-based sports business group called B2Ten to make possible a return to the Canadian roster, as early as October of this year for a friendly against South Korea.

While Lang was understandably cautious about the idea of coming out of retirement to play competitive football, the staff at B2Ten sold her on on a vision for a recovery.

“I think the biggest thing for me is when they said, ‘We’re not in the business of bringing people back to how they were before they got injured, we’re in the business of making people better than they were when they were injured,’” Lang says. “I mean, when you hear that, you’re like, okay, where do I sign?”

B2Ten, with whom Lang has been training since this past March, have an impressive track record. They’ve worked with successful Canadian athletes like Olympic medalist Jennifer Heil and figure skater Tessa Virtue. Their approach, in their words, is to take a “…comprehensive analysis of each athlete’s specific requirements. We then deploy expertise, resources and services to eliminate limitations to success.”

Lang says they don’t take just anyone in their program. “I think a lot of people would be surprised by some of the athletes that they haven’t chosen to work with.” Clearly the group, along with Herdman, saw reason to think she could step out onto the pitch again despite her recurring knee problems.

They were up front with Lang that it wouldn’t be easy. “[B2Ten] were like, ‘You’ve got to give us a year, and it’s gonna suck.’ And it does. I’ll be honest. Basically everyday I’m doing all the things I suck at over and over and over again.”

Lang says it’s a slow process, and she’s only gradually begun to work more with the ball. “They know, as soon as we just give you a ball and let you do whatever you want, you’re going to throw everything you learned out the window, because your focus will be the ball, not how you’re moving.”

This appraoch ran counter to her hardwired instinct in training growing up as a soccer prodigy, which was to push herself as hard as possible to improve. For Lang, as with many elite athletes, motivation to train was never the problem; the challenge was learning the importance of balance, both in work and rest, but also between her soccer life and her personal life. Her drive in training caught up with her after ACL problems kept returning.

“I was like, if I can go seven days a week I’m going to go for seven days a week, but it’s only sustainable for so long. And I also was so young that I didn’t maybe speak up when I should have. And so for a long time I was playing under 19 and full women’s team. So I never had a break. When the women’s team would be in training camp and then they’d have a few weeks off I’d go training with the U19s. And it’s just not sustainable, like that will catch up to you.”

Lang says that mentality played a role in her failed rehabilitation prior to her retirement two years ago. “I worked my ass off. I was diligent and committed. But I was doing the wrong things. Which is almost worse. That’s so frustrating because you’re doing all you can and it doesn’t work.”

In contrast, B2Ten emphasize a slower, more repetitive, more precise approach.

“They’re so much about quality, doing things well and with precision, because it doesn’t make sense to do it fatigued. For me, I feel like I need to get a good sweat on, I want to feel like I need to puke to feel like I’m working hard, but with them it’s just a completely different mindset. It’s like your hard work and dedication will show in doing everything right even if it means you do four reps instead of ten.”

Despite knowing what she does now about the importance of balance in training, she doesn’t regret her initial diagnosis or her decision to retire, if only because it gave her perspective on “life after soccer.”

“There are a lot of players out there who didn’t start as young as I did, and grew up dreaming of being here,” Lang says. “And that was something that I missed out on, because it was almost like I just was THERE all of a sudden. I never had that longing…it was almost like the opportunity presented itself before I even had time to dream it up.”

In this archived CBC Radio interview from ten years ago, a 16 year old Lang describes how strange it is to be signing autographs for girls who recognize her on the street. Growing up, she had no idols except the sport itself, which consumed much of her off-school hours. Now she says the hard work of making a comeback has finally given her an idea of what it is to dream to play. “That’s what I’m living now. I feel like I can relate to those young girls who are like, ‘I want to do that one day.’ Because that’s me now.”

Her nearly-three year hiatus from playing also changed her perspective on the sport itself, particularly in her work as a television analyst in Canada.

“I went from watching soccer to where I would only ever watch the strikers and it was only ever a learning experience for me, to becoming like a fan, where you’re watching the whole game, you see the whole field, you look at it from an analysts’ perspective, you’re following formations and things like that. And I think that it’s just a completely different kind of knowledge of the game. I hope that it helps.”

Not that Lang thinks it will be easy to step out on the field after nearly three years out of the game.

“A few times the trainers in Montreal have sat me down because they can see me getting frustrated,” she explains. “And they’re like, listen, this might be very frustrating, but you need to be ready, because when you start training with the ball it’s going to be even worse. Basically what we’re doing, or what we’re hoping to do, is give you a new body. You’re going to feel uncomfortable with the ball at your feet, not just because you haven’t played for so long, but because essentially you’re trying to move in a new body. And you know, getting from A to B for you, you might be doing it more efficiently, but it’s a new vehicle you’re not used to driving. Then you throw a ball into the mix, and if like, you’re movement patterns if everything goes right will be different. So you’re going to feel uncomfortable.”

John Herdman’s trust in Lang, and his emphasis on good sports science and fitness, and his respect for her life outside—and after—football has given her confidence that her return will be handled in the best way possible.

“He’s all about balance and that’s the key to pretty much everything he does. And that’s a big reason why I’m stoked to work with him because he believes in balance both in terms of how much time and energy you put into your training, and also just balancing your life. I think this is the first time in a long time where that team has been able to able to have lives outside soccer because he knows that if, you know, happy players are good players. They’ll produce on the field if they have balance.”

Lang’s lesson in balance should be heeded by those who still believe elite performance is a matter of working oneself to the bone in monastic seclusion. Elite players don’t need to be told to train hard; they do it naturally. They do however need to be told when to give themselves a break, when to sacrifice the short term high of training for their long term health.

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-CONCACAF GOLD CUP-CANADA-MARTINIQUE

During the earlier, happier portion of my weekend, I reacquainted myself (yet again) with Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 German war epic, Das Boot. And, as ever, one particular scene still evoked the same, familiar frisson: after working his crew for 16 hours to repair their U-Boat against all odds, the ship’s captain, exhausted but euphoric from the news his ship has been patched up, declares: “You have to have good men. Good men, all of them.”

The same obviously applies to football teams. And this is the reason, ultimately, that I’m not going to go into a tailspin of anguished self-disgust over Canada’s 1-0 loss to Martinique, a game in which the non-nation nation of 400,000 could have and perhaps should have won 3 or 4 nil.

For one, it came in the Gold Cup. For two, the team is under the guidance of an interim head coach.

But most importantly, it’s important to put this loss in a wider context. Martinique after all holds a special place in recent Canadian soccer history: in 2008 the mens national team took a boat there to play a friendly there that was literally beyond the reach of media (save for Martinique’s local radio station) and statistical monitoring (details were only posted after the game). Dwayne De Rosario scored the winning and only goal.

That friendly is a reminder that the utterly lack-lustre, awful team that lost in extra time yesterday was not conjured up by a call-up, but in decisions or lack thereof made or not made by the Canadian Soccer Association in the years it was run by the provincial associations, who, naturally, cared more about the interests of their soccer associations than the national team. Political energy that could and should have gone into modernizing the Canadian national program to compete with the ascendant United States was instead diverted to petty squabbling over the location of the next meeting and the recipient of the next historical recognition.

And so in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, the Canadian Soccer Association didn’t do the difficult but necessary work of nurturing young talent, providing them with a solid foundational platform, and making a reasoned, visionary case to both government and private interests in the geopolitical and cultural importance of investing in Canadian soccer. It didn’t work to build a professional foundation on the grass-roots leagues in the provinces to give younger players a chance to play together before leaving for brighter pastures. It didn’t establish a national development pathway for young players, or national standards in coaching education to prevent “angry dad” effect on youth soccer pitches throughout the country. It didn’t live up to the standards set by its forebears over a century ago.

It didn’t do it then, but it’s doing some of these things now. I grant you, it has waited far, far too long. But, as Andy Murray’s win at Wimbledon yesterday, the first British man to win the trophy in 77 years, better late than never. So don’t judge the state of the national team based on a single humiliating loss to Martinique. Judge it on the work it is doing today, across the country, to help ensure those just born or to be born will have something very real to hope for in playing the Beautiful Game in their home and native land. That work will not come to fruition without your help.

floro-benito-2005

Well, he’s been everywhere. Everywhere.

A start as a semipro coach at fourth division side Silla in 1979-80, then off to Torrente in the 5th division, then CD Denia in the 4th division, up to CF Gandia in the 3rd division (runners up to the Francoist-sounding Generalitat Cup), along to UD Alzira (same division), along to Onteniente (where the club accomplished niente, HA HA!).

Then fully pro in 1987-88 with Olimpic de Xativa in the segunda (runners up); Albacete the next year where he would stay until 1996, a club with which he won promotion, took the team up to 7th, then to the Spanish Cup semi; Real Freakin’ Madrid in 1992-93 where he took the club to second place and won the Spanish Cup and the Spanish Supercup,; Sporting Gijon after that for a single season,; Vissel Kobe in Japan for a single season; CF Monterrey in Mexico for two seasons (champions); Villarreal for two seasons in which they won an Intertoto UEFA Cup; Mallorca after that for a year, Real Madrid sporting director in 2006 (until Florentino Perez was ousted in a palace coup vote by Ramon Calderon); Barcelona (in Ecuador) for a season in 2008-09, then finally landing in Morocco just last year with Wydad FC.

And now…Canada.

Floro, officially unveiled in a CSA press conference earlier today, believes that “football is the same everywhere” and you can kind of see how he got that impression taking red eye flights from Madrid to Tokyo, Ecuador to Morocco. Your view on this and what it means for Team Canada will likely depend on how you answer the following questions:

1) Do you think that a manager needs experience within CONCACAF in order to win those crucial away matches and finally take Canada through to the Hex where, as CSA president Victor Montagliani put it, “anything can happen”?

2) Do you think it’s important for a national team coach to speak the language of the national team players (Floro required a translator to answer questions today)?

3) Do you consider a long international managerial CV a sign of a respected football person in global demand, or someone bouncing from club to club selling hope to a bunch of desperate suckers?

4) Is it important for Canada to appoint a Canadian coach?

Before I answer these questions (because my opinion matters goddamnit!), let me first say I don’t really think this appointment means anything. As we’ve seen over several decades, the managerial position has relatively little long-term impact. If you care about the future fortunes of the national team, you need to focus on what the CSA is doing to develop a national coaching curriculum and create a better, national player development pathway. Insofar as Floro generally helps technical director Tony Fonseca in his job (and insofar as Tony Fonseca is good at his job), it will be a success. Okay, there, I’ve ground my ax.

Still, the margins are not so great between making it and failing that a few little things won’t help Canada get to that crucial Hexagonal stage and then, who knows? So, in a sense, this does matter? A lot even. Which means I’ve just completely contradicted myself. Good.

As far as my answers to the above questions go:

1) Kind of, but I think it more depends on the approach and standard of the manager. Winning away is often more about developing a mentality of togetherness that a manager only has so much control over. Friendlies with the same core of guys might be a better approach.

2) Floro said he knows he needs to improve his English. So, good?

3) I think that Floro isn’t a World Cup winning manager, and I fear he may have a tactically outdated approach that will be caught out at the business end of a difficult qualification round. But I don’t know the guy from Adam. And neither do you. This is the best place to be! Blank slate!

4) What matters is the success of the national team. Winning is what matters. Points are what matters. Short sentence cliches are what matters. We can talk about better coaching education to widen the pool but that is a separate conversation. Actually it’s probably far more important than any blog post about Floro.

The timing of the CSA press conference was accidental—the Canadian Soccer Association almost certainly would have wanted to make the announcement after the Gold Cup but Marca’s leak left the national association with little choice. But it’s also kind of fortuitous. Today is free agency day in the NHL, so the story will be buried. A lot of regular presser guys were absent. The Gold Cup starts this weekend and Floro will be a friendly observer.

So any doubts about Floro’s pedigree won’t make it to the surface. Some of the more familiar tropes won’t get much airplay either, including Floro’s first language, his nationality, and the distraction his appointment might pose to the players (which is kind of a dumb argument).

Will he be any good? Who the hell knows? And that’s kind of a fun place to be.

FBL-MEXICO-CONCACAF-TROPHY

I honestly don’t know. I promise this is not going to be a classic troll job in which I get high and mighty about which tournaments are legit and which are not because I somehow know better than you, but seriously: what is this thing for?

Yesterday on the Counter Attack Podcast, Sean Keay made a very good case for why winning the Gold Cup would be the worst possible scenario for Canada. I know, I know.

But you can instantly see why: here’s a team with a bunch of Unattached FC stars, some fairly significant absences, and an interim national team coach who is now about an hour away from transforming in front our eyes into a lame duck (Watch it happen LIVE on Sprotsnet 1080). If Canada wins the damn thing (don’t worry, ain’t going to happen), then suddenly the nation convinces itself that all is well, and efforts to reform the national program are ignored and the pressure is off for a while.

If instead they do as expected and do okayish before going out in ignoble fashion, then Canada are further derided as a national embarrassment and the classic, familiar, soul-crushing apathy kicks in. Maybe we go back to the days when the nats play “away games” at BMO Field.

And then there’s the Klassik Kanada option: a spirited, if sloppy, team performance. Some incredible bright lights shine. Will Johnson becomes the tournament’s goal-scoring leader (somehow). Then the team goes out to, oh, I don’t know, the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in the semifinal on the back of some incredibly dodgy calls. Conspiracy theories ensue. Self-loathing comes after that. Annnnd: scene.

And then the final, as it is already engineered, will be a glorified friendly between the US and Mexico. The US will lose, there will be some tepid comparisons to the fall of Bob Bradley and the questionable pedigree of Juergen Klinsmann, and then no one will speak of the 2013 Gold Cup ever again.

I am willing to put money down on ZERO available Getty images on the tournament prior to the final, always the canary in the coal mine for relevance. I’m not saying they should scrap the Gold Cup, but dignity please. We’re in the midst of an MLS summer season, there are, as ever, bigger fish to fry. Something needs to be done.

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.