Football in Canada: The struggle to score goals

Believe it or not, in many countries around the world, football, or soccer as they may refer to it, is not the most popular sport. Shocking isn't it? Well, despite this rather surprising revelation that may have rendered you speechless, some of these countries still manage to thrive in the beautiful game. Nations such as Australia, New Zealand and USA have all qualified for World Cups in recent times and even picked up some highly commendable results whilst there. One country that has not managed to follow this trend however is Canada.


Canada have qualified for only one World Cup in their entire history. This was way back in 1986 when they were knocked out in the group stages suffering three defeats and failing to score a single goal... and I thought being an England fan was tough.

 

You may think that with the popularity of Ice Hockey and other winter events that football is perhaps a neglected past time in Canada that struggles to even scratch the surface of public interest, however the success of the women's national team appears to blow this argument out of the water. In stark contrast to the men, the women's team have won two bronze medals at the Summer Olympics, the first in 2012 and most recently in 2016 where they beat Brazil in their own back yard to secure their second Olympic football medal in history. A defeat in the quarter finals of their home World Cup in 2015 will have disappointed them but this only further highlights the disparity between the men's and women's national team and their measure of footballing success.

 

This huge difference between the two national teams is really quite unique in the footballing world. Whilst the women are regulars in the top 10 of the FIFA world rankings, the men are languishing at a lowly 103, below the likes of Haiti, Kenya and Botswana. So where is it all going wrong? Why can the men not follow the fine example being set by the women and at the very least qualify for a World Cup? As a bit of a footballing nerd I often look out for the results of Canada at each international break because I am truly baffled by their inability to achieve. Maybe I am being to hard on them and expecting too much, but for a country that has a higher population than Belgium, Portugal, Uruguay and Switzerland combined (yes, you read that correctly, combined!), I guess I just expect a little bit more of an impact on the world stage.

Their recent history of results goes a long way to explaining why their ranking is as low as it currently is. The 2015 Gold Cup (the North American version of the Euro's for those that are unaware) was nothing short of a national sporting disaster. There were echoes of their ill fated 1986 World Cup campaign as they failed to score a single goal in any of the three group games. Two goalless draws and a defeat later and their tournament reached its underwhelming end, just six days after it had began.

 

The manager that oversaw this rather shameful display was Spaniard, Benito Floro and guess what, he is still there. That may not mean much to you so let me reveal a little more about Floro's reign and enlighten you to the situation that is currently plaguing Canada's national team. Floro took over in August 2013 and it was his first major managerial role since being in charge of Villarreal from 2002 until 2004. A couple of smaller jobs later mixed in with some sports commentary and he somehow found himself in charge of a national team for the first time in his career, but hey, this guy managed Real Madrid back in 1994 so he must still have it, right?


Unfortunately it would seem not. Floro took over when the national team was in disarray. The inability of the Canadian FA to find a permanent manager for almost a year had seen results suffer terribly. Floro arrived and his first five games in charge ended in defeat with Canada unable to score a single goal. It was a sour end to a forgettable 2013. It was thirteen months after taking charge that Floro was able to register his first win as the Canada boss, a 3-1 victory over Jamaica in Toronto. Finally something for the fans to celebrate!

 

The Canadian FA had brought Floro in to give them a better chance at qualifying for the 2018 World Cup but all he had achieved so far was guiding Canada to their lowest FIFA ranking in their history. Results did pick up and prior to that 2015 Gold Cup disappointment they had won four games in a row. Then in 2016 the wheels fell off yet again as Canada were knocked out in the fourth round of World Cup qualifying for the CONCACAF region and as a result will not be appearing in Russia. A goalless draw away at El Salvador will be the game that many look back at as the two points dropped that would have seen them advance to the final qualifying round.

 

As mentioned earlier, Floro remains in charge for now, but of course it is unfair to lie the blame solely at his door. The countries mentioned right at the start of this piece have usually been able to produce someone who can make a difference, whether it be Clint Dempsey, Tim Cahill or Chris Wood, they usually have that one player that can put the ball in the net to turn a 0-0 into a 1-0 victory. From the first 900 words or so of this piece, you have probably picked up on the fact that Canada have always had a problem scoring goals. That certainly would be the correct conclusion to draw at this point!

 

The all time leading goalscorer for Canada is Dwayne De Rosario with 22 goals across an 18 year career in which he won 81 caps. It hardly sets the pulse racing does it? De Rosario retired in 2015 and so Canada now have one active player who has managed to score double figures at international level, Tosaint Ricketts. Ricketts is somewhat of a journeyman striker who has played his club football in Norway, Israel and Turkey before joining Toronto in 2016. Not exactly prolific at club level and being aged 29 means he is hardly the next generation for Canada, but all is not lost, there is a glimmer of hope, a light at the end of this long, goalless tunnel.

Tosaint Ricketts for Canada
Tosaint Ricketts playing for Canada

Cyle Larin is the man that despairing Canadian football fans will be hoping can change their future for the better. At just 21 years of age, Larin already has 19 caps and five goals. He was the number one overall pick in the MLS Superdraft in 2015 and went on to win rookie of the year that season after scoring 17 goals in 27 games for Orlando City. Players like Larin are clearly what Canada need more of. Success breeds success and the Canadian FA must be hoping that young kids will see Larin performing so well in MLS and be inspired into believing that they can follow in his footsteps. The modern day icons of Canadian football such as Atiba Hutchinson and Julian De Guzman are hurtling towards the end of their careers and it is names such as Cyle Larin, Michael Petrasso, Russell Tiebert and Tesho Akindele who need to step up and fulfil every last bit of potential they have if they are ever going to experience a World Cup.

 

The final problem in Canada is the absence of a professional football league. The three biggest and most well known clubs Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact all play in MLS with FC Edmonton and Ottawa Fury playing in the second tier NASL. Of course this may well be of benefit as the clubs play against stronger opposition and can likely generate more revenue being in MLS than they could in a Canadian league. This is all well and good as long as a healthy portion of that revenue is being put into grassroots football back home to help develop young talent. The drawback of course is that there are just five clubs with professional status for young Canadians to play for without leaving the country. Participation rates in football are actually very high and so I am sure that the raw talent must exist but the bottleneck at the very top of the Canadian game cannot be helping matters. I am certain that there must be young players who are being missed by the scouts of these five clubs. I wonder how many players similar to Chris Smalling and Jamie Vardy are being missed because they aren't ready for the professional game at 18 or are late developers. With only five clubs keeping an eye out, I dread to think.

 

There is much to ponder at the Canadian FA about how they move forwards from a World Cup qualifying campaign that failed to see them reach the final six of the CONCACAF region. Based on the results that they have achieved under Benito Floro, it is hard to argue that their current predicament should be any better than it is. The 1-1 draw with Azerbaijan in June 2016 (the same Azerbaijan that laboured to a 1-0 victory over San Marino just a few weeks ago) seems to indicate that three years after Floro took charge, the situation has not improved at all. With an underachieving manager, players that can't score goals and no professional league system, perhaps the Canadian fans will have to wait a little while longer before they can go one better than they did in '86.

 

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