Anybody who spends much time watching football knows 8-1 is an outlier. An extreme outlier. This scoreline isn't about shortcomings in long-term player development. And it isn't about how in three years Stephen Hart never really got this Canadian team playing to even its limited potential. Perhaps there were clues in the insipid performance at Panama City last month, but everyone from the players to the coaches to the administrators assured us that the lesson had been learned and there would be no repeat.
I've spent the past three days reading quotes attributed to veteran Canadian players saying this match was the biggest one they would play in their lives. And then this. It defies reasonable explanation, though you are welcome to add your voice to the comments below and try.
Injuries and suspensions to players like Dwayne de Rosario, Ante Jazic and Olivier Occean put Canada at a disadvantage, but not a seven-goal disadvantage. It seems odd Marcel de Jong wasn't playing, but again, the absence of Marcel de Jong does not explain a seven goal loss.
Lack of physical preparation? Lack of mental preparation? That comes down to the coaching staff, but at the end of the day it's pretty simple. You get in an airplane, fly to Honduras, practice once or twice and then on the day go play a fucking football game. These are grown men who have been doing a similar routine their entire lives. The one thing this team had (sort of) going for it was its ability to hold a clean sheet, game in Panama excepted.
Perhaps there was not a lot of collective experience in terms of coming from behind as a group. But again, all these guys play club football and all these guys have played in situations where the home team has scored quickly and all these guys didn't then suddenly forget the fundamentals of defending - the fundamentals of soccer, really - and go on to allow eight goals over the course of 90 minutes.
Perhaps you're noticing a theme here. Lots of questions and no plausible answers.
It's now two hours after the final whistle on a game in which the soccer team I care about most has once again crashed out of World Cup qualifying, in a way I could never have imagined. Now is clearly not the time for reasoned thinking about "what's next" for Canadian mens' soccer, but there are two streams of thought swirling inside my head to which I keep returning.
First, support for the Canadian mens' team. It may not be reflected in attendance numbers at BMO Field or audience numbers on Sportsnet, but anecdotally at least, I've sensed a palpable desire on the part of Canadian sports fans to believe in this team. Real, recognizable journalists were talking about Canadian mens' soccer; colleagues and casual acquaintances would bring up World Cup qualifying in conversation in ways I've never previously experienced. And hell, #CanMNT spent time trending on Twitter, for what that's worth.
Maybe that's just residual from the outpouring of support for the womens' team this past summer at the Olympics. Maybe it's due to a fanatical group of hardcore supporters using social media to amplify "the buzz," or maybe it's just media outlets cluing onto the idea that ramping up the patriotism quotient - in any sport - can lead to a rating bonanza.
Some will say this horrifying scoreline "sets the program back" and perpetuates the idea that Canadian soccer is a joke. And they're right. But memories are short. Nobody beyond a handful of crazies will give a shit about this team at the 2013 Gold Cup (people rarely do anyway), but in four years' time, if Canadian soccer can give people a reason to believe, I'm convinced the Canadian public will do so once again.
And on that subject, the head coach. Everyone on the Canadian soccer beat - from hobby bloggers to seasons journalists - should probably spend a few days reflected why we didn't raise more questions when the CSA named a man with no experience coaching senior mens' soccer at the club or international level as the person to lead the country into the 2014 World Cup. It sounds preposterous when you read that. One result - yes, even one result that's an 8-1 loss - can't be used to judge Stephen Hart, though it will unfortunately remain forever attached to his name as a black mark. What can be used is a consistent failure to coax better results out of a group of players who had the talent to qualify for the Hex. He is a good man and one the players consistently spoke highly of, and that of itself is something for any manager to be proud of. But going forward we need to do more as a community to hold the CSA's feet to the fire when it comes to who will be the next manager of Canada's senior mens' team.
We only need look to the example of fellow CSN writer Ben Knight, who single-handedly dragged the CSA's reform process into a brighter spotlight and sparked the impetus for positive change. The talent pool for 2018 qualifying doesn't actually look that great (subject of a future post) but it's time for a manager with results.
We don't need high-powered talent for temporary hire from Europe, but we could certainly use a European with experience coaching at the international level outside of Europe. Someone aware of the challenge and excited to work with it. I've long advocated for a manager with a Concacaf pedigree and perhaps a Latin American background. Not a firebrand who smokes on the sidelines and battles reporters, but someone who has won in Concacaf or Conmebol qualifying, or has won in the Concacaf Champions League, or has won in Latin American club football. Someone who has won for Christ sake. Someone who has revived a program and can point to it and say, I did this.
As for how to fill your time between now and the end of the 2014 World Cup, you can start by brushing up on Canada's Concacaf rivals and make the effort to watch some of the football that takes place in the Hex. It's often wildly entertaining and over-the-top passionate. It's a pity that once again, you won't watch Canada be part of that. But as long as you're reasonably young, you exercise and eat your greens and live out the average live expectancy of someone born in a developed country, you will eventually see Canada in the Hex. And that's about all you can grab onto right now.