For Canadian soccer, 2011 turned out to be a down and indifferent year.
Pro teams didn’t do well, national teams crushed hearts, and even the selection of Dwayne de Rosario as MLS MVP was sullied and dulled by his petulant, childish departure from Toronto FC.
There were huge, positive changes behind the scenes, with the passage of CSA governance reform. But those reforms have yet to be implemented, so the jury remains uncomfortably out on just how huge – and positive – the final results will be.
But there’s a reassuring rule in sports, economics and life in general. When something underperforms that broadly, in that many areas, for that long a time …
… It might just be time to buy in.
In many ways and for multiple reasons, I believe 2012 is going to be a vastly better year in Canadian soccer.
Let’s start with the pro teams:
The Vancouver Whitecaps learned some very hard lessons in 2011, most to do with the actual enormous gap between D1 and D2 soccer in North America. Their dispiriting, largely dismal debut campaign in MLS proved – again – that no matter how prepared you believe your organization is to make the transition, there is an ugly wall out there that is going to get roundly smacked.
I continue to have considerable respect for the minds who guide this team – although it certainly doesn’t help that GM Tom Soehn was just named the Canadian Soccer News Villain of the Year for 2011. I want to believe they will rebound nicely in the new year. But enough to end up in the playoffs? Hard to say. No Canadian side has ever accomplished that, and the gap didn’t exactly narrow over the past 12 months.
Over at Toronto FC … well, it’s never easy to assume the captaincy of a ship that is listing badly, and taking on gouts of water. But that’s what Dutchman Aron Winter did after the persistently myopic minds at MLSE finally realized that former admiral Mo Johnston was trying to empty the flood by jackhammering new holes in the boat to let the water back out again.
Criticism of Winter was constant – never coached before, not from here, no one in MLS plays 4-3-3, why is he playing all those academy kids so much? – but the imposition of a system, and the willingness to use local players instead of buying endless aging retreads, has actually appeared to have righted the ship.
Lord, there’s a way to go yet, but 2012 should see a significant firming-up of TFC’s on-field presence. The Reds could easily miss the playoffs yet again, but they’ll be less likely to pose meekly for their fate. Look for a speedy, scrappy, daring side, which at the very least will be a whole lot more fun to watch.
Up in Montreal Impact country, however, alarm bells are ringing. This team doesn’t seem nearly as well prepared for the jump to MLS as Vancouver did a year ago. And Vancouver got their faces paved.
I see erratic ownership, constant drifting and a planless annual June firing of the head coach. I see a stadium way behind in its redevelopment, and an interim home (Le Chasm Concrete) that it nothing less than the worst, coldest, most uncomfortable large stadium on the continent.
Dead atmosphere, limited talent, and an organization with no proven ability to play the long game. There’ll be a lovely bounce in rivalries, with Toronto-Montreal certain to be special. Ah, but the security guards have wrecked games up there before, and there’d better be some serious commitment to reign them in now.
Entering the new year, I am optimistic about Canadian soccer in general. But not Montreal – in particular.
And out on the plains, down in the B-league, it’s second time around for FC Edmonton. A feel-good playoff story a year ago – however brief – they now face that toughest of obstacles for new Canadian soccer sides – year two.
This almost always becomes a leadership issue. So far, so good in that department, but this is when the backroom backwash has been known to burst the banks.
They won’t tell you 2012 is a survival year. But history does. We’ll see.
On the national front, any Canada that finally wises up and hires Nick Dasovic to coach the youth team has to be doing better. Nick has always been a guy you can point out to young players and say “Be like him.” His hiring is long overdue – and a good sign of relative sanity going forward.
For the women’s team, things couldn’t be simpler. Qualify for the Olympics, then do better there than they did under Carolina Morace at the Women’s World Cup. The distraction and cult of personality are gone. The rest of the team has to find a way to turn Christine Sinclair’s talent into tangible return while Christine Sinclair is still young and fit enough to be Christine Sinclair.
And then, of course … the men.
It’s very simple. They either make it to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying – “The Hex” – or they don’t. Getting there will be a huge success. Failure will certainly mark the end of Stephen Hart as Canada’s head coach.
They’ll never have a better chance to pull this off. After a numbing series of consecutive bad random draws, Canada actually avoided both Mexico and the United States, and only has to finish top-two in a group with Cuba, Panama and the dreaded and always difficult Honduras.
The new year will dawn with renewed hope that Jonathan de Guzman may – finally – abandon his Dutch dreams and take his place in the Canadian starting eleven. He’ll have to want it and mean it, though. Stephen Hart is not going to waste his time (and everyone’s hopes) on a player who doesn’t sincerely want to make the trip. The fact that Jonathan’s brother Julian is already a Canadian fixture certainly isn’t going to hurt.
To get anywhere, though, Canada absolutely must perform better against Panama than they did in last spring’s Gold Cup exit – and that was the Panama scrubs.
I think they’re due, and that it’s going to be a rough, rocky, harrowing but ultimately triumphant year.
Behind the scenes, CSA governance reform will be ushered in. How much and how quickly is still somewhat up in the air, but that’s the story I’ll be focusing on from now until the elections and appointments take place in May.
And as for talk of a new, all-Canadian D-2 league … I’m still far from sold on this, as I still don’t believe the ownership is out there. I’ve been told otherwise from a couple of directions recently, but we’ll see.
One thing is for certain. With the exception of the Montreal and Toronto academy teams, the D-3 Canadian Soccer League is useless for developing pro players. If you’re 23 and still playing CSL soccer, you have no chance – ever – of making it to MLS.
A lot of good steps were actually taken in 2011. I see some fine strides forward coming in 2012.
Happy New Year!