The last 25 years have been kind to CONCACAF soccer nations.
Mexico are on the verge of becoming a legitimate world power. The United States have qualified for the last six World Cups, made the knockout rounds in three of them and finished in the top three of two Confederations Cups. Jamaica, Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago all made their first appearance in the World Cup.
Dwight Yorke became a star on one of the best loved, and best remembered Champions League winners (the 1999 Manchester United side). Rafa Márquez had his stay at the top with Barcelona, while Hugo Sánchez became a legend in Madrid. Brad Friedel is still going strong in England. David Suazo scored more than 100 goals in Italy.
And then there’s Canada.
Few remember it now, but up until the late 1980s, Canada were actually in better shape than the US. They were hardly a juggernaut, but they put together enough pieces and developed enough of a soccer culture so that, when they qualified for the 1986 World Cup, it wasn’t a total shock.
DeRo named May's Player of the Month
What is shocking is how inept the Canucks have been in World Cup qualifying since then. The only time they came close was in 1994, finishing second to Mexico.
In the four subsequent cycles, the best they did was dead last in the 1998 Hexagonal, scoring just five times in 10 games.
They were eliminated in 2002’s semifinal round as they scored just once. Four years later, again in the semis, they finished bottom of the table behind Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras. And Canadian futility reached an all-time low in the 2010 cycle, as they managed to go winless in the semis just one year after looking like the breakout team at the 2007 Gold Cup.
US fans who think they have it tough should look north for a bit. It’s not easy being a Canadian soccer supporter.
The most brutal part about it, though, is that this generation’s team has consistently been so much less than the sum of its parts. Dwayne De Rosario is one of the five best players in MLS history; Atiba Hutchinson was the best midfielder in Denmark for five years, and is now a starter for PSV Eindhoven; Julian de Guzman is a quality tempo-setter who was the best player at the 2007 Gold Cup; Olivier Occean led the 2.Bundesliga in scoring this season, and led his side to promotion in the process.
The list goes on. Simeon Jackson is a super-sub goal scorer for Norwich City in the English Premier League; Kevin McKenna has more than a decade of experience in Germany’s top two leagues at central defense; Michael Klukowski has played north of 200 games for quality teams in Belgium and Turkey; Will Johnson, Iain Hume, Ante Jazic, Dejan Jakovic, Andre Hainault ... all of these are quality players. All have been around the Canadian team for years.
This is, on paper, the third-best team in CONCACAF. And there’s precious little to show for it.
Nobody would have guessed that would be the case after that 2007 Gold Cup. Those Canadians stretched the US to the limit in the semifinals, and only an (highly dubious) offside call on a late Hutchinson would-be equalizer gave the Yanks the 2-1 win. It probably should have gone to extra time, with the Canucks up a man and tilting the field more or less at will.
The 2010 qualifying cycle was supposed to be their chance for redemption and – in the eyes of some – revenge for a flag-happy linesman. Instead they flopped, finishing 0-2-4 with six goals scored and 13 conceded.
The Canadian national team has been adrift since then, and Sunday’s friendly against the US is the beginning of this group’s last chance to make good on their collective talent. De Rosario, de Guzman, Occean, McKenna, Klukowski and Jazic are all on the wrong side of 30, while Hutchinson is 29 and Hume is 28.
The window is closing. Head coach Stephen Hart needs to ditch the ultra-conservative tactics that left his side impotent in last summer’s Gold Cup and show some faith. Let DeRo be DeRo. Let Jackson run off of Occean’s shoulder. Put de Guzman and Hutchinson in the same central midfield. Take the fullbacks off the tether, and trust McKenna to keep the central defense organized.
It’s time for Canada to go at teams with gusto rather than caution, because caution simply hasn’t worked.
It’s been a long 25 years for Canadian soccer. This generation was supposed to change it.
If they’re going to do so, it has to happen now.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com.
PREVIEW: USA vs Canada