It didn’t take long for the anti-MLS forces on Social Media to sharpen their knives following the United States failure to qualify for Russia 2018. In fairness, it doesn’t take much for those knives to get sharpened by that bunch, as MLS is seen as an enemy to the game by those with short memories.
This is not to suggest that MLS is perfect, but the idea that the league – a league that is commanding massive expansion fees across the USA and exposing the joys of following club soccer week in and week out to hundreds of thousands of new Americans every day—is the reason the US failed to qualify is, to be diplomatic, simplistic.
To be less diplomatic, it’s absurd.
A few key points:
First, and this is key, IT’S NOT THE JOB OF A PROFESSIONAL LEAGUE TO BUILD A NATIONAL TEAM. It’s the job of a professional team to grow professional soccer culture in its markets (the clubs) and to entertain its customers (its fans). By doing that it can help national teams, but it cannot be its primary focus.
Second, if MLS is the problem how do you wrap your head around idea that MLS players played significant roles for countries that did qualify. Hell, Roman Torres and Alberth Elis scored the goals that sent their country’s to the World Cup. If you’re willing to look beyond the moment, you’ll also see that MLS has helped drive an increase in the American talent pool, which, in turn, has allowed the US to go to seven straight World Cups.
Third, there is no evidence that the structure of the league – i.e. the lack of promotion and relegation – has anything to do with anything. The argument that not having the threat of relegation somehow makes players soft ignores how few players on relegation teams play significant roles on more successful national teams. In fact, what would likely happen is that players would become less likely to commit to international football if they were consistently needing to fight to keep their team up. Fans romanticise the idea that players are going to prioritize playing for the flag, but the reality is fans aren’t paying the player’s mortgages. The clubs they play for are and those clubs are – and should be – the player’s No 1 concern. This is an idea that Canadian readers will be familiar with as it’s something players here have long battled with.
As said above, this is not to say that MLS can’t make some changes – changes that could benefit the league, as well as, indirectly, the national teams.
The one area that the MLS-bashers may have a point on is the lack of competition that currently exists for playing time among the national team players. There is also an argument to be made about MLS coaches not giving young domestic players an opportunity to break through into the first team. The solution to these issues might be counterintuitive and, on the surface, contradicting.
There is no doubt that older, American players are a premium in MLS. Because of international roster restrictions, an American (or Canadian in Canada) that can do a job is incredibly value. That leads to them likely being overvalued in salary and, in turn, more likely to get playing time.
So, get rid of international restrictions altogether. By removing the artificial restraints you will force domestic players to step up their game and earn their spot. That would address the complacency complaint that anti-MLS voices have. As an aside, it would also address Canadians complaints about the domestic status of Canadian players on American teams. The law MLS cites when it refuses to acknowledge Canadians as domestics league-wide only requires that all internationals be treated equally. Eliminating international restrictions accomplishes that.
Such a measure would likely cost a few domestic players their jobs, but the majority of roster spots would remain American (and maybe a more reasonable amount would become Canadian). It’s just easier and a better fit for domestic players to play domestically the world over.
Now, it’s more likely MLS goes the other way and becomes more protectionist, but that would be a mistake.
The issue of getting more chances for younger players is difficult without getting into quotas again. As outlined above, quotas could have a detrimental impact on development, so MLS would need to think long and hard before taking that step.
The solution here could be cap relief. Since the salary cap isn’t going anywhere, why not make any academy produced player cap exempt for the duration of his contract? Yes, that would potentially give an advantage to clubs with big academies, but there comes a point where protecting parity becomes, well, parody. If Salt Lake City can have one of the best academies in MLS, which it does, there is no excuse for any club that doesn’t follow suit. Incentivy them to make it so.
Make no mistake, MLS is largely a strawman in this discussion. But, there are a few small things that could be done that would benefit both the league and the national teams attached to the league.
For those with a sense of history, the bookending of the start and finish of the United States’ consecutive men’s World Cup appearance streak was fitting.
It started from Trinidad. It ended there too.
However, in the time between Paul Caligiuri’s “goal heard round the world (or at least in very specific parts of a largely indifferent at the time America)” and last night’s capitulation to a clearly inferior T&T side, so much has changed that the two events may as well have happened in different worlds.
Then the USA was a scrappy group of underdogs that hadn’t been to a World Cup in the modern era. They had no pro league and the 1994 World Cup had not yet been awarded to the USA. Hell, Canada was better than the US back then.
But that started to change that day. Over the next two decades the US established itself as a consistent World Cup maker and solid middle power. Famous wins came – Spain in the Confederations Cup, Mexico in the Round of 16 in 2002 – and what was largely a niche sports product became decidedly mainstream, at least when talking about every four years.
If you had been around prior to 1990, that rise was remarkable. If you came after, it was still impressive, but also frustrating. The United States is not used to being a middle power in sport. It’s not something that sits well with Americans, who want to be at the top of the world in everything that they do.
And they have reason to want that and to believe it possible. The USA is rich – spectacularly rich – both literally and in human resources. The country has amazing infrastructure that is the envy of more established football cultures. Those factors really should be enough to overcome the fact that the sport was not part of the country’s soul, like it is in much of the world.
But, it didn’t. After a solid upward trajectory that ended with a missed Torsten Frings handball that, if called, would have sent the US to a World Cup semi-final, things just kind of stagnated at a men’s national team level. There had been positive changes – MLS improved greatly, attendance at games massively increased and the women’s side of the game boomed – but there were still issues that were clear to anyone who was paying attention.
There was fractures in the youth systems, professional teams were sacrificing young domestic talent to bring in big, foreign names, too much of development was left to an inadequate NCAA system and, it appeared that profits – especially as it relates to pat-to-play -- were being prioritized over true technical work.
As with anything, the solution to those issues is not simple, but it starts with recognizing that there is a problem.
After a slip back to the pack in 2006, people were starting to have those hard conversations. It may not have reached a critical mass, but influential voices were starting to make themselves heard towards the latter part of the last decade.
And then Landon scored.
The last minute Landon Donovan winning goal over Algeria became the true “goal heard around the world” of US soccer. It happened not with a few football geeks watching, but with a nation of soccer bros cheering it on from packed pubs around the United States.
Donovan’s goal is, without a doubt, the single most memorable moment in modern American soccer history. It also might have been a little bit of unfortunate glory. It changed the narrative from “what are we doing wrong” to “we believe that we will win.”
The evidence didn’t back up the latter belief.
In hindsight, the USA’s 2010 World Cup is completely uninspiring. A point was saved against England because of a bizarre keeping error, two goals were allowed against unfancied Slovenia and it took 91 minutes to find a goal against an Algerian team that finished bottom of the group.
The US was two minutes from going home. As it was, they were home a few days after the exhilaration of Donovan’s goal, with Ghana finishing off a mediocre 1-1-2 World Cup for the USA.
But, the thousands of new fans that came into the fold that day don’t remember the fits and starts versus Slovenia and didn’t care about the systemic issues were there to see if you looked hard enough. They just saw the goal. And they were ready to see more.
So, seven more years have passed and the same issues that were there in the 89th minute versus Algeria remain. They’re just seven years deeper and more difficult to address. As many have pointed out those seven years are black hole in US development, with very few players developed during that time having a significant role in the current side.
Again, this take, like any, is overly simple. However, the narrative matters and American fans, observers and influencers are operating under a much different narrative today.
This time Landon wasn’t there to save the day and the next Landon won’t have an opportunity to do it on the biggest stage for another five years.
Believing that they will win is no longer going to cut it. It’s time for USA soccer to start working towards that.
What if you are being tested without knowing that you are being tested? It happens all the time, of course -- secret shoppers, Tinder profiles, your judgy Aunt at Christmas -- but is it fair. More importantly, is it accurate?
This is an important question for proponents of the Canadian Premier League to ask themselves because it's happening right now.
You see, Rangers are playing Benfica in Hamilton on October 6 at Tim Hortons Field in the 2017 Eusebio Cup. That's the basic story, anyway. The more complicated story is that this game is a test of the very business model that the CanPL hopes to use to entice more reluctant ownership groups into the fold. If you follow MLS, or have followed CSN's reporting of the CanPL, you'll recognize this model as the "SUM Canada" approach.
The idea behind "SUM Canada" is that, like MLS and Soccer United Marketing, owning a franchise in CanPL will also include an ownership stake in a separate soccer marketing company. The primary role of that company will be to bring big name clubs and countries into CanPL stadiums to play "high" profile friendlies. The profits from those friendlies would then be distributed among the CanPL owners to off-set losses from the main product.
It's worked wonderfully in the US. In fact, it's why claims of MLS owners that they are losing money still (and thus can't increase salaries) are a tad disingenuous. They are losing money on one very specific part of their ownership stake, but earning quite a bit on another.
So, make no mistake, this game in Hamilton is a test of the viability of the business model.
In general, it's a good model and one that most CanPL fans should be supportive of. However, it's fair to also have some questions about the execution of the model in this circumstance.
In the US they are bringing in truly huge clubs and countries. We're talking the Barcelonas, Real Madrids, Brazils and Argentinas of the world. You truly can't put a cap on how much people* will pay to see these teams.
*Even if it's not the same people that pay to see MLS games, as it often isn't
This is Rangers v Benfica, and probably not really a great representation of either as the game will take place during an international break.
Yet, they are charging prices that would barely be tolerated -- actually, they probably wouldn't be -- if the game was actually a competitive fixture. The low end price to get intro the stadium is $50 -- for standing tickets -- with the average price well over $100 and the high end price a mind-blowing $350. Put charitably, this is ambitious pricing. There are a significant amount of Benfica and Rangers fans in the region and even more Scottish and Portuguese ex-pats, but these are A) sophisticated fans that understand what the true value of a mid-season friendly is and B ) often working class folks that can't throw hundreds of dollars into 90 minutes of entertainment.
Compounding this is that the game is being sold in short order, in an unpredictable climate, smack dab in the middle of the busiest sports time of the year (with the local-ish MLS team playing out of their head, thus taking away attention.
And, this is without touching on the fact that the operators of Tim Hortons Field -- the Hamilton Tiger-Cats -- are not having a good PR month in the local community. Any general fans that might have been inclined to buy in a month ago are less so now.
As stated, ambitious.
Here's where it gets worrisome for CanPL fans. What if this is a bust? What if they've out priced their audience? What does it mean about the people that are running the league and their knowledge of the market.
I can't in good faith encourage anyone to spend money they don't have on this kind of game. I can, however, worry about what it might mean if people don't.
We now know the six Canadian stadiums and cities that are biding to host games in the 2026 World Cup.
Toronto’s BMO Field
Montreal’s Olympic Stadium
Vancouver’s BC Place
Edmonton’s Olympic Stadium
Regina’s Mosaic Stadium
Ottawa’s TD Place
There’s a not a lot of surprise on the list. Calgary declined to pursue the bid further, which may be bad news for their Canadian Premier League bid (as getting a stadium built is key to it and failing to bid now suggests that they are not yet sure if it’s going to happen).
With Canada set to get six games in total there is a certain logic to suggest that each city is likely to get a single game. Although the caveat to that is that Olympic Stadium will need serious work to be World Cup ready.
Another issue is that only one stadium – It’s almost certain that all of the five stadiums will need to put in temporary grass.
Of course none of this will matter if Morocco wins the bid.
It’s a bad day to be a soccer fan in Winnipeg or Hamilton. Ironically, the first two cities to commit to being part of the Canadian Premier League were the two notable cities not included on the list of cities Canada has approached to apply to be a host city in the 2026 World Cup.
Obviously, this will be a moot point if Morocco somehow takes the bid away from the hugely favourite United North America bid, but few think that will happen. So, it’s basically the end of any dream that either city will ever host a World Cup.
It’s a double blow for Hamilton in that they were also left off the Women’s World Cup rotation in 2015. It’s a shame because the city was a wonderful host to the Pan Am tournament and a women’s pre-tournament friendly between England and Canada.
It’s a bit baffling, actually. Tim Horton’s Field is only 24,000, sure, but it can be expanded to 40,000 (and possibly even more for a major event like a World Cup). Since it seems unlikely that the CSA is springing this on these cities blindly, it could be that the City of Hamilton turned down the chance to bid. In fact, that's the noise that many are suggesting -- that Hamilton turned down the chance to bid. That seems short-sighted, but I’m not a Hamilton rate payer.
Much of what was written about Hamilton can be extended to Winnipeg. Two new stadiums in cities that don’t traditionally get looked at to host major events….surprising, to say the least. And, once again, it appears that Winnipeg came to the conclusion on their own.
There weren’t a lot of shocks among the cities included. Both Toronto and Montreal were invited to apply with two stadiums – BMO Field/Stade Saputo and The Stadium Formally Known as SkyDome/Olympic Stadium – and the rest of the cities – Ottawa, Regina, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver are basically the default cities that pop up in these conversations.
The two biggest questions among the included cities might be Montreal and Calgary. The Big O is an old 43 years now. It’s hard to imagine it not being held together by duct tape and empty bottles of Old Vienna by 2026. Saputo is the smallest of the stadiums included. It would take a major renovation to get up to the required size (although with the Habs having never hosted an outdoor NHL game that might be of interest to the city).
Calgary has no legitimate option other than to build something new. McMahon Stadium is already 57 years old and it’s never been called anything other than functional, even by its fans. It seems likely that Calgary has been included to add further support to an ongoing effort to completely overhaul the city’s sports infrastructure. Calgary wants to build a new hockey rink, multipurpose stadium and host the 2026 Winter Olympics. Hosting a couple extra World Cup games a few months after the big party would be the icing on that very expensive cake.
Mexico only put three cities forward, so you’d imagine they plan an even split of games. That’s not in Canada’s nature – the games here will be split equally between the east and the west.
Julian de Guzman is getting a head coaching position a little earlier than most people would have thought. Also, earlier than the Ottawa Fury probably wanted, as it comes with the announcement today that Paul Dalglish has resigned from the position, effectively immediately. He had informed the club of his intention to leave the Fury at the end of 2017, but both sides agreed that it was best to leave immediately.
Dalglish had a 14W-16D-22L record in his season and a half in charge of the Fury. His was never a comfortable fit, taking charge after the hugely popular and successful Marc dos Santos. Making things even more difficult was that the Fury dumped a great deal of salary just before Dalglish took over, effectively stripping a Championship team to its bare bones.
Still, Fury fans never warmed to Dalglish. Stylistically, he preferred a direct brand of the game, trying to utilize longer balls directed towards tall target men. The tactics were considered boring by many Fury fans, and statistically provided mediocre results. The Fury scored just 59 goals in the 52 games Dalglish was in charge.
For his part Dalglish had positive words on his exit:
"I will always be grateful to OSEG, the Fury, my staff and players for the experience my family and I have enjoyed here in Ottawa," said Dalglish. "I also want to thank the fans for their continued support of this great club. I wish nothing but the best for Fury FC and hope fans get to enjoy playoff soccer in Ottawa this fall," he said.
It’s been speculated by many that he will take the head coaching position at the new Austin club, which will begin USL play in 2018. Dalglish played professionally in Texas and maintains roots in the region.
It’s a quick turnaround from player to coach for de Guzman, who retired just last year. In fact, he played a testimonial with the Fury last month. However, he’s been working on his coaching qualifications over the past couple years and has experience working with younger players at the national team level. During the last few years of his career, de Guzman effectively was a player-coach and was widely seen as having a future patrolling the sidelines.
Julian has proven that he will be a strong coach in this game," said Fury President John Pugh. "He has the attention and respect of the players and he has our full support."
De Guman will make his managerial debut Aug 16 against Orlando B.
Look at the photo above. That’s Estadio Merkatondoa, home of Club Deportivo Izarra of the Segunda División B. That’s the third tier of Spanish football.
Located in the Basque region of Spain you can never accuse it of not being beautiful. It’s incredibly charming, actually. I’d love to play in that stadium.
It would be appropriate for me to play in that stadium, as there are only 3,500 seats. It’s in every way a small, community-like stadium, like you find everywhere.
In this particular case it also plays host to a third tier professional team. The third tier professional team that Samuel Piette most recently played for.
Not that there’s anything wrong with it, of course. The third tier of Spanish professional soccer is about 60 times better than the level than likely everyone reading this played at. Well, unless someone from the Montreal Impact is reading.
The Impact, of course, represent Piette’s new team, having inked him to a deal earlier this week. It was the worst kept secret in MLS for a couple days as Piette’s 6,000 relatives in the Montreal area were telling anyone that wanted to listen.
Montreal fans badly wanted this signing to happen. The link started just after Piette played for the national team in Montreal in early June and intensified as the summer grew as long as the Impact playoff hopes.
Let’s take a step back for a moment. What I’m about to write in no way should be interpreted as me wishing Piette failure. Nor, is it meant to suggest that I don’t think Piette has talent. I, like many, am impressed with the player’s improvement over the last year or so and think a move to MLS is very good for his career.
However, I do have concerns.
As suggested off the top, Piette was not playing at MLS level before the move. The third tier of Spanish soccer is, despite the screaming of MLS haters, not at the same level of the Montreal Impact. Thus, why I’m happy for Piette. He’s making a move up. Awesome for him and awesome for the Canadian national team.
But…this is not a normal signing in that if Piette wasn’t a Montreal native it would have either flown under the radar or actually been criticised. If I was being cynical, I’d suggest that the Impact are caving to fan pressure to sign the local kid to distract from what is turning out to be a terrible season.
Kind of like when TFC signed Julian de Guzman all those years ago. Now, JDG was playing at a higher level than MLS at the time, so it’s not a perfect comparison, but the element of local kid comes home to play for struggling team is the same.
As is the fact that Piette isn’t a goal scorer. Many, many Impact fans are sophisticated enough to appreciate the subtleness of a destroyer’s game – comparing him to Donadel, as the Impact have, will help that. But, fans will always fan and some are going to want offensive production from a signing that got as much attention as Piette did.
It’s worth a reminder that Piette is just 22. He’s improved, but he’s still going to need to earn his time at MLS. Hopefully, the Impact made this signing with his best interests in mind and they have a plan to bring him up to speed.
Even more hopefully, he is already ready to make an immediate (sorry) impact for the Impact.
Stephen Appiah was 14 years and 322 days old when he made his senior debut for Ghana. He is the 8th youngest player to play a full international and the youngest to have played for a country that has qualified for a senior World Cup.
Although Appiah was never really a global superstar, his was a career that nearly any player would have been proud of. He had 67 senior caps for Ghana, scoring 14 goals. He won a FIFA u17 World Cup, was an Olympian and played in several AFCON tournaments. On the club side, he managed to find the field for one of the biggest clubs in the world, Juventus, where he made 10 Champions League appearances.
I can’t say that I remember what kind of hype Appiah had back on Nov 11, 1995 when he made his debut, but I suspect there was a lot of excitement about him. You don’t play a kid who isn’t even 15 yet unless you think he has immense talent and potential. However, I know this: If that debut had taken place even 10 years later we all would remember the hype. In November ’95 only geeks and the truly obsessive were using the Internet beyond checking their email and patiently waiting three hours for the pixels to reveal what that photo was going to show.
In 2005, everyone was on the Internet and we had started to move into the hype first, substance last world that we currently live in. I do remember talking about the soccer poster boy for lost potential, Freddy Adu, in 2005.
Let’s not pile on Freddy’s soccer grave here, but we can all agree that the hype of the mid 2000s never really panned out for him. In fact, Adu’s biggest contribution to modern North American soccer has been to become a lesson to point to when hyping up young players.
“Pump the breaks, we don’t want to see ____ become another Freddy Adu,” is something you consistently hear whenever a young player breaks through.
It’s something we’ve heard in relation to the 2017 Gold Cup Golden Boot and Young Player of the tournament winner, Alphonso Davies. At just 16, he continues to be protected at every turn by both the Whitecaps and the CSA. The shadow of Adu looms large, despite the fact that Adu wasn’t a product of this country, nor of the MLS academy era.
There’s some good in that. You do want to manage a young player to a certain extent. At the Gold Cup, Davies’ play did fade as the tournament wore on. The quarterfinal was probably his least effective game.
But, here’s the thing. For every Adu there’s an Appiah. There is no direct correlation between debuting young and failing. There’s not even a direct connection between hype and failing. So, we need to treat Davies like his own man (boy?) and let his story tell itself.
As fans, we can also allow ourselves to be excited by not just Davies but by all the young players that are stepping up for Canada on both the men’s and women’s teams. Jordyn Huitema, Raheem Edwards, Deanna Rose and Davies are the future and the future, for once, looks pretty good. Be excited. Celebrate their accomplishments thus far and dream of a future with even more glory.
Davies story isn’t just one that’s being noticed in Canada. You don’t win a Golden Boot at a Confederation Championship event without ears perking up around the football world. When he becomes eligible to be transferred the names that are going to be attached to him are going to make long-term Canadian fans dizzy. That’s in the near future.
But, in the meantime Vancouver and Canadian fans should enjoy the remaining time we have with this kid and stop worrying about whether we’re putting too much pressure on him. Talent finds its way.
In short, pump the breaks less and spread the wings more.
Back in the glory days of the 24thMinute.com (no one blogs anymore. It’s kind of sad, he says ironically) I used to publish a monthly projection of the MLS standings that was designed to take into consideration the massive swing in fortune between teams playing at home and on the road.
Many TFC fans got irrationally angry at such a suggestion because, at the time, they had seen no evidence of teams excelling at home. Man, weren’t those early days fun! However, the simply projections proved to be remarkably accurate throughout the years that I published them.
After a Twitter exchange with Kurt Larson and Doug Roberson of AJC.com earlier this week I was compelled to revisit my old tracking system. The impetus to the discussion and my curiosity was the fact that Atlanta has an absurd six game home stand in September. As with TFC’s absurd road trips to start 2015 and 2016 the reason for the long stretch at home is stadium related. The Falcons are building the latest shrine to the NFL (No, Tom Brady has not been invited to the grand opening) and Atlanta United is sharing in the spoils. By all accounts it’s going to be one hell of a stadium. It must be because it’s not exactly one of those Soccer Specific Stadiums Don Garber talks about when it fits his agenda.
At any rate, Larson felt that this long home stand, combined with a current solid run of form, meant that Atlanta was in the Supporters Shield race. Roberson, who covers the team for AJC.com, agreed, with the caveat that Atlanta was a difficult team to project in 2017.
I, the contrarian I tend to be, disagreed and I threw a whole bunch of those fancy stats at them to back up my opinion. Specifically they have the worst PDO in MLS, were 12th in xGoals, 19th in xGoals against and 12th in TSR.
For those who read the above paragraph as Greek – the PDO number means they are, statistically speaking, the luckiest team in the league, score way more goals than their possession and shot placement would suggest, let in fewer goals than the same against them would suggest and they typically give up more shots than they get themselves (which has proven to be a very effective measure of success in global football, albeit less so in MLS).
Now, part of the reason Atlanta’s numbers are lower might be because they’ve played more road games than home games (12 to 8), but it’s still dangerous to ignore them completely.
There’s little to no guarantee that a home heavy schedule will automatically mean that you can just automatically say 6 x 3 = 18 GO! Just ask 2015 TFC about that…
But, anyway. I decided to break it down into the simplest projection I could think of to try and factor in the home schedule of Atlanta’s to see how much of a penitential threat the upstarts are to TFC’s Shield run.
Before I present the table please remember that I fully understand that a projection based on past performance in no way guarantees that the same form will continue. It simply means that IF teams continue to play the way that they have this season thus far we can reasonably project that they will finish with X amount of points.
This isn’t a complicated formula (H pts / H GP x 17) + (R pts / R GP x17) = Projected final points.
Here are the results:
1. Toronto FC 66
2. Chicago 62
3. NYCFC 59
4. Atlanta 59
5. NYRB 54
6. Columbus 49
7. Orlando 45
8. Montreal 44
9. Philly 39
10. New England 39
11. DCU 30
1. Dallas 61
2. SKC 54
3. Houston 53
4. Seattle 50
5. Vancouver 48
6. Portland 46
7. San Jose 43
8. RSL 38
9. Galaxy 37
10. Colorado 31
11. Minnesota 27
Ok, maybe not, but the projection backs up the eyeball test that TFC remains the clear favourite to capture the Shield and it also suggests, as most eyeball tests have also suggested, that Dallas is the class of the West.
Another thing that it suggests is that if you’re under the red line in July, it’s going to be a fight to pull above it by October. It’s happened, but far, far less likely than the hype-masters at league headquarters would have you believe. The standings at the 2/3 point are usually pretty close to how things will shake out at the end.
In terms of Atlanta, it does show a very healthy return on points, but ultimately they are probably too far back already in MLS, where 6 points might as well be 20. Of course it all resets to 0 once the final 12 are decided.
As for TFC…maybe don’t plan the parade, but start sketching out the Shield winning tifo design. Quietly. You wouldn’t want to jinx it, after all.
I’ve often told the story about how the first soccer game I remember watching in its entirety was the high water mark of the Canadian men’s national team – the infamous day in St. John’s when a bunch of hosers qualified for the World Cup for the first and only time.
I’m the anti-Drake. I started from the top and now I’m here.
However, that’s not the first soccer memories I have. Growing up in a family with British heritage (my grandmother was born in Bristol, England, and I have family in the UK to this day), I was exposed to all sorts of English culture from a young age. I eat beans on toast, watch Doctor Who (although I picked that habit up as an adult – On The Buses and Are You Being Served? were more of my childhood staples) and, most relevant to here, have always had an affinity to sports played in the UK. Had soccer been on television more often in the early 80s, I’m sure my young self would have watched it. I know that I was aware of it though and I spent a great deal of time learning about British sporting heroes. I was likely the only person in my elementary school who knew who Sebastian Coe was.
I also knew who Wayne Gretzky was, obviously, because try as I might my English heritage was never going to overshadow my Canadian upbringing. Thus, when I stumbled upon that game in St. John’s oh so many years ago it was like a light-bulb went off in my head. Finally I had found something that was totally and completely mine – something that combined all aspects of my evolving self-identity into a single thing that was new and exciting and that spoke to a Canadian experience that seemed modern and different from the experience that my parents had had growing up.
Although at the time I probably just thought it was cool. I wasn’t that deep as a kid.
At any rate, these thoughts came back to me today upon reflecting on an anniversary of significance for Italians and for the city that I now call home. It was 35 years ago today that Italy won the 1982 World Cup. At the time this had limited impact on my life. As I said, I was aware of soccer, but watching the World Cup final was not something I would have considered important at that time (maybe if England was playing, but they weren’t and Italy had no personal connection to me in any way). But, what I do remember was being at my Aunt’s house the next day when the Toronto Star came to the door. Upon looking at the front page, which featured 500,000 people celebrating the win on St. Clair West, Auntie Mona let out an audible gasp – paraphrasing, she said something along the lines of “I can’t believe there are that many people here that care.”
I’m sure a lot of people in Toronto said the same thing that day. It was the last time they said it though because that was the day that would forever betray the idea that soccer wasn’t important to a great deal of Canadians. It was the day that Pierre Trudeau’s image of a multicultural Canada that blended traditions and passions of both here and there into one unique Canadian experience became real.
Moving away from the sociopolitical, it was also a day that changed the sport in this country. If you look back on the soccer participation boom of the 1980s, it likely started with that image of 500,000 people that cared. That was also the day that other cultures started to slowly tear away from the British dominance in managing the game. Soccer had always been here, but it started its march to the mainstream that day.
There were also a lot of young kids of Italian decent that watched that game that day and then traveled down to St. Clair West to celebrate that ended up getting deeply involved in the game. But, they did so with the same (if slightly more Mediterranean) outlook as I had. They were of Italian decent, but they were also Canadian. They too brought a blended experience to their soccer passion. It didn’t happen overnight, but eventually that lead to a soccer culture that is thriving now – a culture that instinctively understands that it’s possible to have duel (or more loyalties) and that there is something in the sport for everyone.
Obviously, the national team success is a different story (but not if you extend it to the women, where the North American mindset towards equality has allowed the New Country to surpass the Old when it comes to the women’s game – I guarantee there were people in that attached photo that also were also smiling in 2012 and 2016 when Canada claimed bronze), but on a participation level and a spectator level there absolutely has evolved a uniquely Canadian perspective on the Beautiful Game. A perspective shaped by Italy in 1982 and 2006 and Canada in 2012 and 2016 and by the arrival of a new domestic club culture starting in 2007 (and by hundreds of other moments from both here in Canada and around the world).
It doesn’t have the same length of history as you’ll find in other parts of the world, but the history it does have is every bit as real and reaffirming.
And it all started when 500,000 Canadians of Italian decent took to the streets and told us soccer matters.