THE WORD is MLSsoccer.com's regular long-form series focusing on the biggest topics and most intriguing personalities in North American soccer. This week, contributor Daniel Squizzato examines the beleaguered history of Canadian soccer and tries to explain the many reasons why the country has not qualified for the World Cup in nearly 30 years.
In the narrow tunnel beneath the Estadio Nou Camp in León, Mexico, players are so close they can almost hear one another’s heartbeats. It was here, back on the sunny afternoon of June 1, 1986, that the butterflies truly began churning in Bob Lenarduzzi’s stomach.
Inches to his side were the French players he idolized from watching them on television: Michel Platini, Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse, Manuel Amoros. But straight ahead of the Canadian defender was history: his nation’s first-ever appearance at the FIFA World Cup.
The nerves took hold early. Within 10 minutes of the opening whistle, Lenarduzzi was at full sprint to chase down a French attacker, who deftly stopped in his tracks to invite a collision. As both players went down, Lenarduzzi desperately eyed referee Hernan Silva Arce, who was surely going to point to the penalty spot. But to the relief of Lenarduzzi and his shell-shocked teammates, the call never came.
Canada's James Lowery tries to evade French defenders during the teams' opening match of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Says goalkeeper Paul Dolan: "Little did I know that we would never get back again.” (Canadian Soccer Association)
That early escape buoyed the Canadian side, disciplined and organized under head coach Tony Waiters. Most of them had played together in the old North American Soccer League before its dissolution in 1984. A few had international experience, but others – including 20-year-old goalkeeper Paul Dolan, who got the surprising start against France – were straight out of the amateur or youth ranks.
“We all understood that none of us was more important than the other, and in order to have success, we’d have to buy into our coach’s plan,” Lenarduzzi recalls. “We wanted to be difficult to play against; we wanted to try to smother the opposition.”
That plan worked for 78 minutes against the powerful French until Jean-Pierre Papin finally broke the deadlock. The 1-0 defeat was the closest Canada came to earning a result at that tournament, and subsequent 2-0 losses to Hungary and the Soviet Union sent the team home without a point – or a goal.
Still, spirits were high amongst the tight-knit team, who’d made a historic breakthrough for the country. Dolan had seen Italian legend Dino Zoff play in the previous World Cup at age 40 and had grand ambitions about following in those footsteps.
“At the age of 20, I thought, ‘Geez, we can be back for two, three, four, five … I could play in five World Cups for Canada!’” Dolan recalls. “Little did I know that we would never get back again.”
Figuring out why Canada has never returned, however, isn’t easy. Earning a berth in the World Cup finals has certainly been elusive, but nailing down the reason why is nearly impossible.
Honduras striker Jerry Bengtson celebrates during his team's 8-1 win over Canada in San Pedro Sula during CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in October 2012. The loss eliminated Canada from contention for the World Cup. (REUTERS)
Carlo Costly’s group-stage goal on June 20 against Ecuador was of little importance in the grand scheme of things at this summer’s FIFA World Cup. But for him, his Honduran teammates and his nation, it was a definitive moment: Yes, we belong.
For many of the eight million people living in Honduras, life is difficult and dangerous. According to a 2013 report in Global Finance Magazine, Honduras is the second-poorest nation in the CONCACAF region behind Nicaragua. Five years ago, it endured a military coup. And in recent years, an influx of drug-related crime has seen Honduras earn the unwanted title of murder capital of the world, with 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people there in 2012, according to the United Nations.
Yet Los Catrachos have qualified for the last two World Cups, and three weeks ago in Curitiba, Costly gave the country its first World Cup goal since 1982. Honduras lost all three of their games last month, but it’s not lost on Canadians that they would consider losing all three games in the World Cup, as long as they qualified.
After all, Honduras have been the ones to knock Canada out of contention for each of the past two World Cup cycles. While an infamous 8-1 result in San Pedro Sula during the CONCACAF group stage in October 2012 is surely an anomaly, the question still eats at Canadian supporters: How can a country of Canada’s size and wealth perpetually sit on the sidelines while nations like Honduras find a way through to the World Cup?
“Never mind the heat or the altitude at some places and the conditions themselves; you’re playing desperate teams,” says Dolan, who has been through multiple qualifying campaigns with Canada, first as a player, then as the team’s goalkeeper coach. “It just means absolutely everything to them, and to the players to make their way out of that poverty and tough way of life. Soccer is their way out; it’s their be-all and end-all.”
Another possible explanation is that Honduras and its Central American neighbors do everything possible to maximize their home-field advantage.
Canada's Atiba Hutchinson trudges off the field in San Pedro Sula, Honduras after the team's loss in October 2012. "Our best young soccer players still want to play in the NHL,” says one former Canadian player. “We lose our best players to other sports – usually to hockey." (REUTERS)
Think of former Canada head coach Tony Waiters having to push his way past armed Honduran guards so that Canada could take its allotted training time at the stadium during qualifying for Mexico 1986. Two years ago in Panama City, local revelers held an all-night party outside Canada’s hotel to try and disrupt the visitors’ sleep.
Fans in Costa Rica throw limes. Fans in San Pedro Sula hurl water bottles and worse.
“[Fans are] drinking beer or water or whatever it is, and they don’t want to lose their seat,” says Dolan. “So that’s where the urine ends up, and it gets chucked out on the field.”
But neither Dolan nor any other player who’s been through the crucible of qualifying in CONCACAF is looking to use tough conditions as an excuse for why Canada have not even reached the final round of regional qualifying since 1996-97. After all, had Canada beaten Honduras in Toronto in June 2012 (rather than drawing 0-0), Canada would have reached the final stage of qualifying for Brazil 2014, clinching their spot before the fixture that produced that 8-1 loss.
Canada just needed one special player on that day, one man with the right finishing touch at the right moment, and things could have turned out so much differently. But perhaps that magical bit of soccer skill, the potential to be that difference-maker for Canada, is forever locked up inside someone who gave up the game long ago.
“Our best young soccer players still want to play in the NHL,” says Dolan, who himself considered abandoning soccer at a young age in order to pursue hockey. “We lose our best players to other sports – sometimes to basketball, sometimes baseball, usually to hockey. There’s still that dilution where our best athletes aren’t playing soccer. That’s not the case in Honduras. Every single athlete in Honduras wants to play for their national soccer team.”
After two straight World Cup appearances, why wouldn’t they?
Colin Miller knows exactly how much it can mean to a young player to be given a chance.
Back in 1982, Toronto Blizzard manager Bob Houghton – an Englishman who went on to coach for more than 40 years – saw enough in the 17-year-old Miller to put him in the lineup. Two years later, Miller signed with Glasgow Rangers, kick-starting a professional career that eventually included more than a decade in Europe and more than 60 appearances for Canada.
“I was the youngest player playing in the old North American Soccer League,” recalls Miller, now head coach of FC Edmonton in the new NASL. “It took Bob to be brave enough to give a Canadian kid a chance, and we now have to have that sort of vision.”
Miller has endeavored to have such vision in his time with the Eddies, particularly with rising star midfielder Hanson Boakai, who earned his first NASL playing time last year at the age of 16.
An ad for TSN's coverage of the old Canadian Soccer League. The league kicked off in 1987 before it eventually shut down after the 1992 season. (Canadian Soccer Association)
“Hanson’s played in the [Under-17] World Cup for Canada, and now he’s playing regularly in our first team,” says Miller. “If [Canadian players are] not ready yet, we don’t play them. But if it’s like for like, I think we should be playing a Canadian player.”
In the old NASL days, coaches had plenty of such courage, and the Canadian national team benefitted as a result. The core of Canada’s 1986 World Cup team – as well as its 1984 Olympic team, which lost to Brazil on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals – competed in that league, going up against some world-class talent on a regular basis.
Though the old NASL folded in 1984, Canada’s run at Mexico 1986 spurred the creation of a national Division I league. The Canadian Soccer League kicked off in 1987 with teams in four provinces, then expanded to five in 1988 and six in 1991. The league enjoyed sponsorship deals and a television contract – and, most importantly, provided consistent playing time for many of the national team’s regulars.
But after a tumultuous six-year existence, with multiple teams coming and going, the old CSL ceased operations at the end of the 1992 campaign. While other North American leagues – such as the A-League, which later became the USL First Division – had Canadian teams and another group began using the CSL name – a league that lost its sanctioning earlier this year – no true successor to the old CSL has emerged.
“When we were at our best, we had guys playing at a good level, and they were first-team regulars,” says Miller. “When I was in charge of [Canada] at the  Gold Cup, we had five or seven players that were unattached at the time; in some cases, the only first-team football they were getting was when they were coming in and I was playing them with the national team. That’s definitely not a good sign.”
Canadian players celebrate a 2-0 win over Colombia in the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup final. "It was a group of players who came together and had a tremendous work rate," says former player Jason deVos, "a tremendous bond as a group that translated into success on the field." (Getty Images)
It was a day that was never supposed to happen.
An ugly, soggy February day at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, with 7,000 mostly disinterested fans battling the elements in a cavernous stadium built for 10 times that many people. A CONCACAF Gold Cup contested between an invitee from another region and an underdog team that, according to the competition’s press release, was unlikely to even score a goal.
But in the end, score they did. Canadian captain Jason deVos rose above the Colombian defenders to head home a corner kick just before halftime. It stood as the winner in a 2-0 result that made Canada the surprising champions of the 2000 Gold Cup.
“It was a group of players who came together and had a tremendous work rate, a tremendous bond as a group that translated into success on the field,” says deVos, who now works as a broadcaster for TSN.
DeVos, like Miller, was given a chance early in his career by a Canadian team: He started as a pro for his hometown London Lasers in the old CSL at age 16. After a few seasons with the Montreal Impact, he went on to play in England and Scotland for more than a decade, racking up 49 national-team caps along the way.
Since the end of his playing career, he has been one of the country’s most outspoken proponents of change, on everything from CSA governance reform to grassroots player development issues. He feels Canada’s long World Cup drought comes down to one fundamental truth.
Canada midfielder WIll Johnson has proven to be one of the country's success stories in Major League Soccer, but he's never played club soccer in Canada. "If we were a wonderful nation at producing international-caliber soccer players," says one former player, "all three Canadian MLS teams would be full of Canadians.” (USA Today Sports)
“We wring our hands and shake our heads at, ‘Why aren’t we in the World Cup again?’ And yet we’re never in a position to be willing and able to do anything about it,” he says. “The grim reality is this: We don’t do a good job of producing soccer players in our country.”
DeVos says Canada’s real priority should be on fixing a broken system – where local clubs, provincial associations and the national governing body have rarely been on the same page – so that success for the men’s national team is a regular expectation, not just a happy one-off.
“If we were a wonderful nation at producing international-caliber soccer players, all three Canadian MLS teams would be full of Canadians,” he says. “As it is, you’d be lucky if you can get one or two of them in the starting 11. That’s not good enough, and it comes down to a collective failing of the entire system.”
The CSA has taken steps in recent years to rectify some of its critics’ most longstanding concerns, ushering in various governance-reform measures and endeavoring to finally harmonize standards among its various constituencies.
Earlier this year, it introduced the Canada Soccer Pathway – with the support of the country’s MLS and NASL teams – as a means of strengthening the connection between youth and professional clubs, to help ensure promising players that could help the national team do not slip through the cracks.
“The player pathway, once implemented, will have a huge benefit to players and the infrastructure within our country,” says CSA general secretary Peter Montopoli.
Part of that infrastructure includes the academies of the country’s five professional clubs, which have begun churning out regular first-team MLS players such as Toronto’s Doneil Henry and Vancouver’s Russell Teibert.
For Lenarduzzi, now president of the Vancouver Whitecaps, it’s a sign that the system is finally working the way that it should be.
“What we want to be is a conveyor belt,” he says of the Whitecaps, who began operating their residency program in 2009. “We want to have as many players come through, play with our first team and then, ideally, beyond that, represent our national team.”
But while the three MLS academies appear to be bubbling with youngsters who could be battling for national-team spots in the years ahead, nothing is ever certain when it comes to player development. Even if the CSA’s long-term player development plan and Soccer Pathway bear the sort of fruit their proponents hope they will, the results will not be seen for many years.
“We have to take a long-term approach to fixing this problem, because it requires a long-term solution,” says deVos. “Anyone who says any differently is lying to you.”
Canadian midfielder Julian de Guzman reacts to his team's loss to Martinique in the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup. A noted journeyman who has played for seven different teams in his career, de Guzman says "European football now, for Canadians, it’s been a lot harder than it was before." (REUTERS)
There’s a joke amongst fans of Les Rouges that the most popular club team for Canadian players is Unattached FC.
Indeed, the word “unattached” has been a startlingly frequent feature of Canadian rosters in the past five years. While every national team occasionally fields out-of-contract players, Canada’s reliance on players in tumultuous club situations has been an understandable source of consternation.
“The biggest challenge Canadian football is going through right now is: What are the players doing at their clubs?” says Julian de Guzman, a midfield stalwart for the national team.
De Guzman has played in Europe for more than a decade, after having first been plucked from a Toronto youth club at age 16 by scouts from Olympique Marseille. From France, he moved to Germany and Spain before a four-year interlude in MLS and an eventual return to Europe.
Now 33, de Guzman realizes his days with the national team are limited and accepts his role as a mentor for the next generation of players. That upcoming crop includes several players who have established professional beachheads in Europe, like teenagers Samuel Piette (Germany) and Michael Petrasso (England).
But in today’s globalized soccer environment, nothing is ever guaranteed, and nothing can be taken for granted.
“European football now, for Canadians, it’s been a lot harder than it was before,” says de Guzman. “Perhaps it’s due to our [FIFA] rankings, perhaps it’s due to the economy of football and how’s it changed in Europe. It’s getting harder for a lot of foreigners to be involved with. Talking to a lot of these young guys, my best advice for them is to get at a stable and steady club level, whether it’s MLS or overseas.”
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Canada’s three MLS clubs have indeed provided several members of the national-team player pool with the chance to re-stabilize their careers at various points – de Guzman in Toronto, Terry Dunfield in Vancouver, Patrice Bernier in Montreal.
But for younger players, or those without established resumés in Europe, finding stability in MLS can be more difficult. For 16 of 19 MLS teams (18 of 21, once Orlando City and NYCFC join next season), signing a Canadian means using an international roster spot, which some believe serves as a disincentive for the majority of the league’s teams to take a chance on Canadian players.
Of course, that did not stop the Galaxy from signing Rob Friend this season. It did not stop Andre Hainault and Dejan Jakovic from productive tenures in MLS. It surely did not hold Dwayne De Rosario and Pat Onstad back from becoming all-time MLS greats.
Still, the CSA’s general secretary would like to see more leveling of the playing field.
“It’s no secret we’ve been in discussions with MLS,” says Montopoli. “Those three [Canadian teams] are in the top five in terms of attendance and revenue. So obviously we’re providing our fair share of revenue in that league. It stands to reason that from a player-development point of view, that we should have our fair share – and currently, the way it’s structured, we don’t believe we’re having our fair share.”
Toronto FC midfieler and Toronto native Jonathan Osorio lines up next to TFC forward and former English international Jermaine Defoe. At 22 years old, Osorio is one of the most promising young Canadian players in MLS. (USA Today Sports)
MLS Commissioner Don Garber was asked about the situation during a televised interivew on Canadian network TSN in 2013 and stated that the intention of the league's rule is not to hinder competition or development of Canadian athletes, but to ensure equal treatment for other international players on US-based MLS teams.
“In the United States, if you are considered an international from a labor perspective, you can't discriminate between one nationality and another," Garber said. "So we would have a challenge if a Colombian player believed that they were treated differently than a Canadian player."
Regardless of the reason, all the hand-wringing about the lack of playing time for Canadian players inevitably draws one back to the question that has been asked countless times since the demise of the old CSL 22 years ago: Shouldn’t Canada have its own professional soccer league?
In 2011, the CSA commissioned a study to answer exactly that question. It turned to a sports consultancy firm run by James Easton, a former Canadian national-team player whose previous clients include MLS.
The goal of Easton’s study was, in the CSA’s words, to determine “if a national Division II-type league would be economically and logistically viable in our country.”
“We did the analysis, we talked to pretty much anybody and everybody in Canadian soccer,” says Easton. “The general feeling after getting all this feedback was that it couldn’t be done at that time.”
Instead, the Easton Report recommended the creation of a number of regional, semi-professional Division III leagues under the same umbrella, along the lines of the model used by the Canadian Hockey League. The winners of those leagues would meet for a national championship (analogous to the CHL’s Memorial Cup) and, perhaps, gain entry into the Amway Canadian Championship.
The CSA accepted the report’s recommendations, and its leaders have spoken openly about the potential of expanding the field of teams competing annually for the Voyageurs Cup. In May, play began in League1 Ontario, a league that features the Toronto FC Academy as one of its teams and aims to fit into the framework outlined by the Easton Report.
“For the great majority of people we connected with, this is what they thought would be an ideal model for Canada,” says Easton. “If this is something that can be laid down and works and improves the opportunities for young Canadian players coming through, and they can use that as a stepping stone to MLS or Europe or wherever they may play, that would be fantastic.”
Canada fans cheer on their team during the 2013 Gold Cup in Seattle. The Canadian Soccer Association is currently mulling over a bid to host the World Cup in 2026, a move that could jumpstart interest in the country. (REUTERS)
Canada, of course, has one sure-fire way to get back to the World Cup that would not entail worrying about the depth of its player pool, struggling to find opportunities for young players or losing sleep thanks to all-night Panamanian street parties.
Just host the thing.
It’s an idea that the CSA brain trust has been mulling since 2011, when the country was awarded hosting rights for the 2015 Women’s World Cup. While the details of bidding for the 2026 men’s tournament are mostly unknown at this point – the host will not be selected until 2017 or 2018 – Canada’s interest has moved far beyond the realm of mere speculation.
“We like to consider ourselves a serious bidder, at the moment, for the 2026 FIFA World Cup,” says Montopoli, adding that he feels it is in Canada’s best interests to bid on its own, not in a joint bid with the US or any other nation.
While the proposed bid has been met with incredulity in some circles, most involved in the game here agree that hosting the senior men’s World Cup would have a tremendous impact on the game in Canada.
“Qualifying for the men’s World Cup, either through the traditional process or qualifying as the host, would be the single biggest boost to the game of soccer in our country imaginable,” says deVos. “Look where the United States are, compared to where they were back in 1994, and they are arguably the powerhouse in CONCACAF. Perhaps hosting the World Cup would be the same sort of starting point or a seedling for us.”
Canada's Marcus Haber (11) celebrates after scoring a goal during an international friendly soccer match against Japan in Doha in March 2013. Canada's next meaningful competitive game will come during the 2015 Gold Cup. (REUTERS)
But as the 1986 World Cup and the 2000 Gold Cup have shown, one good performance at a tournament does not guarantee prolonged success. If Canada hopes to end its 28-years-and-counting World Cup drought – and prevent such extended absences in the future – it will come down to finding a way to translate the country’s massive interest and participation in the sport into a consistently deep and active pool of national-team players.
For Dolan, who once dreamed of representing Canada at multiple World Cups, it’s all about ensuring the right coaches and programs are in place at the grassroots level – and giving aspiring young soccer stars something to look up to, right in their own backyards.
“The reason I wanted to play for Canada and play in the Olympics or the World Cup or the Vancouver Whitecaps in the NASL is because that team existed,” he says. “It was aspirational for me, as a 10-year-old going to my first game. If there wasn’t an NASL or a Vancouver Whitecaps, then I would have never thought of wanting to play professionally. Without that kind of aspirational team in Canada from [the end of the old NASL] to 2007, at the highest level, I think really took away a lot of that interest for younger players wanting to be professional soccer players.”
But these days, that gap has closed – youngsters in five of Canada’s largest cities can watch their local heroes compete for the Voyageurs Cup and a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League every year. They can watch their friends and teammates get scouted by a local pro academy and possibly get themselves on the men’s national team radar.
And, if the CSA’s plans come to fruition, they’ll get to watch the world’s greatest players – and yes, their home team – compete in the World Cup on Canadian soil in 12 years’ time.
“Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but at least it’s the start of something that is a dream,” Dolan says of 2026. “If you don’t dream big, you’re not going to ever achieve anything.”