Thursday, September 02, 2010

Home Friendlies Shed Light on Serious Problems for Canada

It has been more than two years since the Canadian Men's National Team kicked off their short and unsuccessful World Cup qualifying campaign, and now the team is back at it again. For the first time since the qualifiers in 2008, Canada is playing on home soil with friendlies against Peru and Honduras this upcoming week in Toronto and Montreal respectively. With a new coach at the helm in the form of Stephen Hart there appears to be a fresh new beginning for the men's national team, but a closer look reveals the only real change is in the declining optimism of Canadian supporters.

In 2008 Canada boasted what many supporters believed to be the best squad since Canada's 1986 team which yielded the country's only appearance in the World Cup to date. Midfield stalwart Julian De Guzman was coming off a career year with his club team Deportivo la Coruna in Spain's La Liga, Dwayne De Rosario was ripping it up in the MLS, Canada's aging defensive core of Paul Stalteri and Richard Hastings had proved themselves in the 2007 Gold Cup, the team looked ready to take on the best CONCACAF had to offer. They went on to finish with just two points from six games in qualifying and were eliminated without coming anywhere near the form expected of them.

Now that Canada is returning home the shine has long faded off this generation of Canadians, but a close inspection of the rosters selected for Canada's upcoming games reveals the only difference between this team and the 2008 team to be four players and two years. Toronto FC defender Nana Attakora-Gyan, relatively unknown Greek-based midfielder Gianluca Zavarise, promising centre back Adam Straith, and keeper Haidar Al-Shaïbani are the only players involved in this set of friendlies that played no role in the 2010 qualification campaign.

England has been holding on to their "Golden Generation" for years as the results keep on deteriorating and based on the evidence of this squad Canada may be following in suit. There are some players who have impressed in the past two years who were involved but not ready in 2008 and have benefited from these two years of experience. The two players that immediately come to mind are the English-based duo of Jamie Peters and Simeon Jackson who have both progressed at a quick rate and will be in contention for starting places this weekend. However on the whole the last two years have not been kind on Canada's Golden Generation. De Guzman appears to have regressed since his move to Toronto FC, De Rosario still has yet to perform with the national team, German-based striker Rob Friend has never translated a solid goal-scoring record at club level to Canada, and Hastings has returned to being a major liability at the back. Not looking so Golden anymore. Despite two years of sub-par performances from some of Canada's most talented players, they are still the best options Hart has or is willing to gamble on in these two friendlies.

The main story lines leading into these two exhibition matches from the main stream media include the controversial issue of taking Toronto FC players away from a competitive fixture, the chance for Stalteri to earn a Canadian record 82nd cap and the simple fact Canada will be playing in front of their home supporters. The elephant in the room is that Canada enters this pair games without a win in over a year, and with only one goal in their last six matches. This is a Canadian team that is close to an all time low during a period where soccer is generally on the up in Canada with Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver all to be competing in the MLS by 2012.

The good news? Canada has plenty of time and stability plus a solid amount of preparation to come. By the end of 2010 Canada will have played six friendlies, the most Canada has played in one calendar year since they matched that total in 2005. Canada has a solid full-time head coach in Hart who plans to be with the team right through the 2011 Gold Cup and World Cup Qualifying. Best of all Canada is getting friendlies against the type of opposition they will be playing in the CONCACAF region. Canada played CONCACAF rival Jamaica earlier this year and are facing Honduras in Montreal in the second of these two friendlies. They will also have played three South American teams by the end of the year who play a similar style to many of the teams in CONCACAF.

Canadian supporters across the country, especially those based in Toronto and Montreal, are excited for a chance to welcome home their team after a two year absence but the occasion can only serve as a short term distraction to the many challenges facing this team.

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