On the eve of Canada’s first CONCACAF Gold Cup match against the United States, the Canadian men’s national team is at a crossroads.
Having failed to qualify for every FIFA World Cup since their only tournament appearance in Mexico in 1986, the team hasn’t exactly captured the imagination of the Canadian public. Every four years, the streets of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are filled with large crowds of people celebrating other national teams in the World Cup, with the Maple Leafs conspicuous in their absence.
There have been glimpses of success over the past 25 years, though, especially in the Gold Cup. Eleven years ago, a rag-tag group of Canadians scratched and clawed their way to an improbable CONCACAF title, and to this day they remain the only nation besides regional powerhouses Mexico and the United States to have claimed the continental championship.
In subsequent tournaments, Canada have been predictably inconsistent — from a third-place finish in 2002, to failing to advance out of the group stage the following year, to the exciting run to the semifinals (and the accompanying drama in that match) against the Americans in 2007.
But overall, it’s been a disappointing generation for the Canucks, with each World Cup qualification campaign seemingly worse than the previous one despite the individual talent level rising.
With all of that in mind, the Canadians now have a chance to grab the attention of their countrymen and women in a way that hasn’t really happened since their fleeting Gold Cup glory in 2000 momentarily got the nation to stand up and notice.
Simply put, awareness for the domestic game is on a whole new level in Canada, arguably more so now than even the heady days of the lone Canadian World Cup appearance 25 years ago.
The club game is thriving in the country’s three biggest cities, with large, enthusiastic crowds creating an excitement for local soccer unseen since the original North American Soccer League. Since it was a stable of NASL stars that led Canada to their only World Cup appearance back in ‘86 (pushing the domestic game to heights unmatched before and since), it seems logical that the next step forward for the sport to really grab a foothold in the Great White North is for the national team — supported by a handful of domestic-based stars — to find some sustainable success on the field like they did a generation ago.
That all starts with the players, and despite what many inside and outside of the country may believe, there is some serious talent emerging from Canada.
Everyone who follows Major League Soccer knows of Dwayne De Rosario, the New York Red Bulls midfielder and five-time MLS Best XI selection who is arguably one of the best players ever to suit up in MLS.
And most league observers are familiar with the exploits of Toronto FC’s Julian de Guzman, a veteran of the Bundesliga and La Liga who has struggled at times to find his form with TFC, but has excelled in the red-and-white of his national side.
But it’s a bit of a shame that a talent like Atiba Hutchinson — the PSV Eindhoven midfielder whose silky-smooth skills have earned him plaudits in Europe — is likely better known outside of this continent rather than by his fellow Canadians. Midfielder Josh Simpson, a speedy left-sided player with a keen eye for goal, was a breakout star in the Turkish SuperLig this past season, yet he’s largely anonymous in his home country.
Hutchinson and Simpson — along with MLSers De Rosario, de Guzman, Will Johnson and Terry Dunfield — make up a supremely talented midfield corps that is arguably the best the country has ever produced. Add in others like Norwich City darling Simeon Jackson, rising goalkeeping talent Milan Borjan and Bundesliga trio Kevin McKenna, Marcel de Jong and Rob Friend, and you’ve got the makings of a side that can make some serious noise in CONCACAF — not only in the Gold Cup, but also in the impending World Cup qualifiers.
Of course, talent is only part of the equation, and Canada have managed to underperform in recent years compared to their skill level. Should the Canadians get over that hump and make some waves on the international level, it could represent a huge leap forward for a country that seems ready, willing and able to finally embrace the national team as their own.