What's Next for Canadian Soccer After a Long and Emotional Summer?

Peter Galindo@@GalindoPWFeatured ColumnistJuly 26, 2015

A Canada fan reacts after Canada's Cyle Larin missed a shot at goal during the first half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer match against El Salvador, Wednesday, July 8, 2015, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Almost three years have passed since Canada infamously lost 8-1 to Honduras in third-round World Cup qualifying. This humbling defeat was supposed to spark significant change within the Canadian Soccer Association. 

The CSA hired ex-Real Madrid coach Benito Floro to take over the senior men's national team. He was handed one of the most difficult tasks he's ever undertaken, but he had full backing from president Victor Montagliani (via Red Nation Online's Steve Bottjer):

Benito Floro is renowned for his tactical and strategic approach to the game and his influence in implementing a more attacking style of football in Spain. We are confident he will provide a strong leadership in the development of Canada’s Men’s game, as well as complement and elevate the work that our technical department, lead by Tony Fonseca, is already doing.

Fonseca, a former player with Benfica and other Portuguese sides, has been Canada's technical director since 2012. He coached the Vancouver Whitecaps, headed the Canadian under-23 side and was an assistant with the senior national team in the past.

Fonseca arguably has a tougher job than Floro right now. As technical director, the Portuguese "will be responsible for the overall management and direction of the technical growth and development of soccer in Canada," said Montagliani in 2012, per Dave Rowaan of SB Nation.

Montagliani went on to say that "[Fonseca] will be in charge of setting a vision for all aspects of the game, including coach education, long-term player development, elite player development and all other technical-related or sport specific initiatives."

The coaching education and player development have been two of Canada's biggest issues for many years. This is why Fonseca has a tough job on his hands.

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Tony Fonseca might have the most difficult job in Canadian sports.
Tony Fonseca might have the most difficult job in Canadian sports.Adam Pretty/Getty Images

The CSA implemented Long-Term Player Development (LTPD) in order to fix these problems.

Part of this plan involves the removal of league standings from U12 and below, which is a tremendous idea. Many coaches at the grassroots level in Canada focus more on winning than they do on the kids. If a child isn't having fun or improving, then he/she will likely stop playing.

Daniel Squizzato ⭐️ @DanielSquizzato

If you’re willing to follow their lead and work to give the kids a fun playing experience, clubs can use you. Trust me. #canMNT #canWNT

Daniel Squizzato ⭐️ @DanielSquizzato

We don’t need more hockey dads who never watch soccer, but coach their kids’ soccer teams and don’t take advice from anyone...

Daniel Squizzato ⭐️ @DanielSquizzato

We need more people who care about the game and are committed to playing their role in the system and giving kids a good experience.

The success of LTPD has a lot to do with coaching. There have been a few promising players who have become professionals such as the Vancouver Whitecaps' Russell Teibert and Toronto FC's Jonathan Osorio.

Brampton, Ontario’s Cyle Larin was the No. 1 pick in this year's MLS SuperDraft and has had a productive season for Orlando City SC. He's scored six goals in 14 appearances and was called up to Canada's U20 and senior squads this year.

However, the U20 team finished fifth place out of six teams in Group B at the 2015 CONCACAF under-20 Championships. It was a highly touted squad and was supposed to qualify for the U20 World Cup, but it flopped.

The Gold Cup squad was even worse. Canada finished bottom of Group B with two points and zero goals scored. Les Rouges conceded just once the entire tournament, which was a last-gasp winner for Jamaica.

Floro was blamed for the scoring woes and this criticism was warranted. He kept Teiberta fast, hardworking, technical playmakeron the bench and only substituted him into the game when it was too late for him to make any real impact.

Russell Teibert, center, could've given Canada a creative spark at the Gold Cup, but barely saw the field.
Russell Teibert, center, could've given Canada a creative spark at the Gold Cup, but barely saw the field.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The same problem occurred with Osorio. He started the final match but was taken off for defender Andre Hainault when Canada needed a goal to stay in the tournament.

On the other hand, Canada was missing a few key players. Veteran Atiba Hutchinson was injured, as was young West Ham defender and TFC academy graduate Doneil Henry. Midfielder Will Johnson also would've given Canada a box-to-box midfielder that it lacked.

However, the Gold Cup disappointment can also be blamed on poor finishing. Larin missed a sitter against El Salvador in Canada's opening game, which would've likely clinched all three points.

Marcus Haber also wasted a terrific opportunity versus Costa Rica. He fired a shot from point-blank range right at goalkeeper Esteban Alvarado.

Hainault also hit a shot right on net when Alvarado was caught out of position late in the second half of the same game. The opportunity for an open net goal was foiled when Hainault’s shot hit a defender, and Canada couldn't take advantage.

It's no wonder why Canada is currently riding a six-game goalless skid at the Gold Cup. It also hasn't won since the 2011 edition of the tournament. 

The mediocrity in Canada is difficult to fathom. The CSA claims to have 850,000 registered players and estimate that "within next two or three years" that number will surpass 1 million. When compared to the United States' 3 million as of 2014, those Canadian figures are impressive.

Viewership for the 2014 World Cup set records across the country. The 2015 Champions League final drew around 230,000, and Canada's opening game at the Women's World Cup drew some impressive numbers, per Chris Zelkovich of Yahoo Sports Canada.

Canada's women's team was well supported as the host. More than 54,000 attended the quarterfinal against England, per Neil Davidson of the Canadian Press (via CBC Sports), but the fans were left disappointed after the English triumphed 2-1.

Like the men, Canada's player pool wasn't deep enough compared to teams like the U.S., Germany and France. The Canadians looked much slower, their first touches were heavier and defensively they conceded too many mistakes.

The bright side for the women's team is the impressive display at the Pan American Games. Canada made it to the bronze-medal match despite choosing a younger squad. The Canadians lost to Mexico in that game, but the main focus was on the youngsters to determine who can gain call-ups to the senior side.

Canada's women's national team received tremendous support during the 2015 Women's World Cup on home soil. The men's side would also receive plenty of fanfare if it qualified for the big stage.
Canada's women's national team received tremendous support during the 2015 Women's World Cup on home soil. The men's side would also receive plenty of fanfare if it qualified for the big stage.Rich Lam/Getty Images

The men's U22 team at the Pan Am Games didn't perform as brightly as the women. Canada scored just one goal and failed to win a single game, but the likes of FC Edmonton forward Hanson Boakai and Toronto FC II's Molham Babouli demonstrated their technique and quickness during the tournament.

Herediano's Keven Aleman was supposed to be one of Canada's creative sparks, but his minutes were cut due to injury. However, in the final group match, Peru's defenders could hardly contain the 21-year-old after he came on as a substitute. He even set up a couple of quality scoring chances and one of his own.

LTPD should help produce more players like Aleman, although it will take years and maybe even decades until Canadian soccer starts reaping the rewards.

Canadian MLS clubs now have strong academy systems and USL affiliates, which allows young players to earn meaningful minutes in a competitive environment.

Ex-Canada international and current TSN analyst Jason deVos feels that this is a positive step forward, but it won’t fix the national team program overnight.

"I think the more professional environments we can create in Canada, the better," deVos told Bleacher Report. "However, a top-down approach will have limited impact, because it doesn't address where our greatest failures lieat the grassroots level. 

Daniel Squizzato ⭐️ @DanielSquizzato

And to anyone who’s been frustrated this summer: Be part of the ongoing change. Get involved at the grassroots level. #canMNT #canWNT

Daniel Squizzato ⭐️ @DanielSquizzato

Find your local youth club or academy, and get involved to help move player development along.

"We simply do not do a good enough job of converting the hundreds of thousands of youngsters playing the game recreationally in Canada into a handful of elite, international-caliber players.

"There are skill sets that players need to acquire at the grassroots level to enable them to progress to the highest levels of the game, and that simply isn't happening with enough players because it has, up to now, been left to chance. That has to change."

"It is really not as difficult a fix as some would lead us to believe, though. It is all about creating the right development environments across the country so that talented youngsters get identified at an early age and get the proper training and education in the game. Leaving it until players are 15-16 years of age is far too late."

Due to this flawed system, the player pool is thin and the country underachieves. But it wasn't that long ago when Canada won a meaningful tournament. The Canadians won the 2000 Gold Cup after defeating Colombia in the final.

DeVos scored in that match, but according to the former defender, the player pool wasn't much deeper at that time, either. "I don't think our squad in 2000 was much, if any, deeper than our current pool of players," deVos said.

"What we did have, though, was a core group of players who had established themselves in decent leagues in Europe, and who were 'battle hardened' by competing in CONCACAF. That mental resiliency is what saw us through, along with some wonderful goalkeeping from Craig Forrest and the goals of Carlo Corazzin."

Canada doesn't possess an established goalscorer at the moment, even though Larin has some promise. Les Rouges’ No. 1 Milan Borjan isn't a Premier League regular like Forrest was during his career, either.

In addition, very few players on the current roster have established themselves in Europe. As recently as January, five squad members weren't even under contract to a professional team, per Sportsnet's John Molinaro.

Now with Larin, Teibert, Osorio and defending MLS Rookie of the Year Tesho Akindele, there are some younger players establishing themselves at professional clubs in the United States and Canada.

However, once one generation of players retires, just like the 2000 Gold Cup team did, the national team declines. LTPD should ensure that this doesn’t happen in the future, but improving the grassroots levels of Canadian soccer is dependent on quality coaches who are focused on education.

"An increase in the quantity of high-caliber coaches at the grassroots level is the single biggest thing that we can do (in the short term) to improve our player development system in Canada," said deVos. "We need to have a complete rethink about what coach education means to us. At the moment, it is more about accreditation and less about educationand that needs to change immediately.

"We must take a more holistic approach to coaching soccer in Canada and be able to recognize that there is more than just one way to teach the game. We have willing students who want to learn to be great coaches, and it is up to us, as a nation, to educate them.”

However, there are crucial decisions being made by unqualified people within Canadian soccer. DeVos wrote about the subject after the U20 squad’s abysmal showing at the CONCACAF Championships. This is why it’s important for every facet of Canadian soccer to be on the same page. Coaching and finances can only go so far if their bosses can’t make the correct choice.

Peter Power/Canadian Press

“There is no question that at almost every level of the game, crucial technical decisions are being made by individuals who are simply not qualified to make those decisions," deVos said. "Our problem is really one of education; getting everyone who is involved in soccer at every level to understand what their role is and how they can be most effective in their rolethen letting the technical experts make the technical decisions.

"There is no question that there is a valuable resource of knowledge in Canada that is currently not being utilized.

"Our former players, coaches and administratorsboth male and femaleneed to be embraced and put back into the field where they can give so much back to the game. That simply isn't being done enough right now."

A former MLS player was actually interested in the Canada job before Floro was hired. Current New York Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch wanted to lead the national team in 2012, per Goal.com's Nick Sabetti.

Hiring Marsch would have been a wise choice for the CSA. The 41-year-old nearly guided the Montreal Impact to the MLS playoffs in their inaugural season in 2012, and he's done remarkably well with New York in his first season. The Red Bulls are in third place in the Eastern Conference despite having the league's lowest payroll, per ESPN FC.

Marsch was also an assistant with the U.S. men's national team under Bob Bradley and has extensive knowledge on other CONCACAF nations.

That being said, it's still too early to judge the Spanish tactician. However, with potential World Cup qualifying matches against Mexico and Honduras, it will be easier to determine if Floro is the right fit with the national team going forward.

Canada will likely lose out to the Mexicans and Hondurans if it progresses past Belize. However, with more focus on coaching at the grassroots level and knowledgeable people making significant decisions, the nation can aspire to even greater heights in the future.

Peter Galindo covers MLS, U.S. and Canadian soccer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @GalindoPW.

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