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DAVIDSON: Mitchell takes over Canadian soccer team


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Mitchell takes over Canadian soccer team



TORONTO (CP) - Dale Mitchell wore his heart on his sleeve Thursday when he was introduced as Canada's new soccer coach.

Mitchell, who has spent the last five years running the Canadian under-20 team, called it "an honour and a privilege" to be named head coach.

Therein lies part of Mitchell's appeal to some - stellar playing and solid coaching career aside. Imported talent may see leading the world's 94th-ranked team as a paycheque. Mitchell, who first played for his country at 18 and helped take it to the 1986 World Cup, sees it as a mission.

While some clamoured for a foreign coach to lead Canada out of soccer's wilderness, the 49-year-old Vancouver native spoke eloquently about the advantages of looking within.

"I think the best always hire their own," Mitchell told a news conference at BMO Field.

"When you hire your own people, you keep your identity. And I think that that's important. We all accept that in club soccer players come and coaches come from all the world. It's about the best and it's about money.

"I think national teams have to be about something more. . . . I would never be against having a foreign person on my staff, if that person could help us. But I think there's something to the entire group all being from the same country and all being from the country that they're representing when they go into battle in those qualifying matches."

Mitchell calls it "the pride factor."

"To have been somebody that has been there, been through the process, (who) lives in this country, it means a lot. I don't know what it would to a foreign person. I don't know what it would mean to me to coach another country, but I don't think it would mean as much as being able to coach Canada."

That kind of togetherness helps when you are in Honduras, with four dirt bikes circling your hotel to prevent players from sleeping the night before a game. Or entering an enemy stadium to a sea of abuse - or a torrent of coins, fruit or bags of urine.

Patriotism aside, Mitchell will be judged on how many games Canada wins under his guidance - especially in World Cup qualifying.

He knows the math.

"If you can win enough of them, then you get a chance to compete in the greatest sporting event in the world," he said.

"This job to me is essentially about two things," he added. "It's about Canadian players, and it's about CONCACAF where we have to compete. I've been involved with those two things during the last 30 years."

CONCACAF covers North and Central America and the Caribbean, with three automatic qualifying berths for the World Cup and a shot at a fourth via a playoff with a South American team.

The U.S. and Mexico traditionally boss the confederation with Canada, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Panama and Trinidad & Tobago vying for the leftovers. Canada is currently ranked 11th in CONCACAF, although a few wins at next month's Gold Cup should change that.

Mitchell will have to win over skeptics, who think the CSA took the easy - and cheap - way out by hiring from within. "Mitchell wrong choice for national coach" was the headline over a Toronto newspaper column Thursday.

Others hopefully will judge Mitchell on what he does with the team.

Under-17 coach Stephen Hart, the other Canadian finalist for the job, was named an assistant coach with Mitchell handing him the keys to the senior side for the Gold Cup.

Mitchell will assume his new duties Aug. 1 after leading his under-20 team at the world championships. His first game will be Aug. 22 in Reykjavik against No. 96 Iceland.

Canada has been without a coach since last June when Frank Yallop stepped down to take over the Los Angeles Galaxy. Hart has served as interim national coach since then.

Mitchell was a skilful attacker as a player, brimming with vision, technique and guile. As a coach, he is reputed to be clear, concise and well-prepared.

"It'a good appointment," said Tony Waiters, who coached Canada at the 1986 World Cup. "Unfortunately the CSA haven't handled it very well again, have they?"

That's because CSA president Colin Linford seemed to suggest in late March that he had one high-profile candidate in mind. The name of Brazilian Rene Simoes surfaced, but the CSA board resisted and opted to go Canadian.

It proved to be a messy, confusing hiring process that took entirely too long.

The CSA still has to appoint a technical director and chief operating officer. While Mitchell's focus will be short-term - making it to the World Cup finals - the technical director will have to find ways to help future coaches.

Canada has been unable to harness its grassroots talent, in part because it does not have the flourishing pro club system that exists elsewhere to funnel and nurture young talent.

There are ways to get around that. The U.S., for example, has a under-17 residency program that brings 40 top players together for year-round instruction. The CSA has no such option, although the Vancouver Whitecaps have just announced their own residency program.

Mitchell, who took his under-20 side to three world championships, inherits a team that has talent but is short on depth, something he says is gradually changing.

Former national team coach Bob Lenarduzzi believes Canada can qualify for the 2010 World Cup if it takes the right approach.

"We're not going to win games by going toe-to-toe with the more talented technical countries right now," said Lenarduzzi.

"We have a good core of players. And the trick will be to get that core of players and to get them to all buy into a philosophy that is team-first."

Mitchell seemed to be thinking along the same lines when he described his style.

"This is a results-oriented business. And certainly when it comes to qualifying games it's all about finding a way to get results. People interpret that in a lot of different ways.

"To me it means you have to be resilient and hard to beat defensively, and tight and organized and on the same page. You have to have a commitment to defending, you have to have an ability to hit teams quickly in today's game. You have to be able to play the transition game."

Mitchell pointed to Jaime Peters, Will Johnson and Andrea Lombardo as players on his under-20 side who have the ability to move from defensive to attacking mode quickly.

He noted Canadian teams are also working on the ability to hold the ball and build up once the opposition team gets organized. Losing possession has been a problem for Canada.

Mitchell always prided himself as a player at bringing other players into the game, and taking care of the ball.

As national team coach, Mitchell noted he has limited access to his players. The goal will be to maximize the time he has with them, filling available international dates with as many games as possible.

Canadians are playing in the Champions League, England's Premier League, Spain's La Liga and Major League Soccer, he noted.

"The Canadian player has developed," Mitchell said, while cautioning so have other CONCACAF countries.

He also said he will be looking to pick players who have the temperament and discipline to play in CONCACAF.

Mitchell included "Canadian mentality" on his wish list.

Notes: The Canadian Soccer Association also announced that the senior side will play a friendly June 1 in Venezuela. ... Mitchell's contract runs through 2010.

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