Watching Canada’s men’s program struggle through another Gold Cup group stage, without scoring a goal, makes me wonder whether the program will ever get it right. Canada once made a World Cup in 1986, won the Gold Cup in 2000, and has produced some great talents such as Jason DeVos, Dwayne DeRosario, Paul Stalteri, Atiba Hutchinson and many others. With a country as diverse as Canada is, and with a population base as big as it is, why does this program continue to fall flat when it should be reaching newer and greater heights?

Most everyone understands that soccer is not the preferred game of choice in Canada. Even saying that, the costs of playing hockey are rising yearly, and the number of young people spurning Canada’s national sport for basketball and soccer are increasing. Even then though, the link from the talented youth dotted around Canada’s major cities to the few club teams are frayed or, in many cases, destroyed. The culture of clubs and youth soccer in Canada is not something I’m as familiar with, but those who know it better have painted a picture that makes the raggedness of the US development pyramid seem like La Masia.

It hasn’t helped that Canada has been left at the altar by talented players either produced domestically, or born in the country and have chosen to wear the colors of another nation (Canadian fans avert your eyes now). Some names include Owen Hargreaves, Jonathan De Guzman, Asmir Begovic, Junior Hoilett and the list goes on. It was a mild surprise to see Tesho Akindele choose Canada over the US after Jurgen Klinsmann passed a few admiring glances his way. The problem for the current generation of Canadian soccer is much the same as it is for the US in some ways: the lack of a core of players aged 26-30 to bridge the gap between the older hands and the talented youngsters on their way.

Canada’s core group of players in that age bracket can be summed much too quickly for anyone’s liking. There are a few players like Will Johnson, Marcel De Jong, David Edgar and Simeon Jackson in that group but that is a shaky foundation to build upon. Atiba Hutchinson is on the wrong side of 30, and Julian De Guzman is reaching retirement age rapidly. Marcel De Jong is 28, and has only seen his career revived by a MLS stint in Kansas City. Elsewhere? The future of this time is incredibly bright, as seen by Cyle Larin, Tesho Akindele, Jonathan Osorio, Russell Teibert, Doneil Henry, Samuel Piette and the list can go on. But, they have been forced into the spotlight so soon because of the lack of adequate bodies in front of them.

That development gap, as Duane Rollins of Canadian soccer news has put it many a time, is “from our own sins”; meaning the lack of a league in Canada in the early 2000’s, never mind the lack of teams, and relying too much on the fading embers of a generation drifting towards retirement. The addition of MLS clubs has helped produce talented youth, but they have had the spotlight thrust upon them so quickly because there just aren’t better options out there. Once this generation ages into that sweet spot bracket, Canada may find themselves in a much better position. But until then, the struggles, or “paying for the sins of our past,” continues as was seen in this Gold Cup.

The rumors of a solely Canadian league must be music to the ears of long suffering Canadian soccer fans. Not only do the myriad of Canadian players drifting around the lower leagues in Europe now have a chance to play at home, younger Canadian players can be guaranteed playing time they desperately need. The quota of only 3 Canadian players per Canadian team in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver is window dressing; it doesn’t do much since the Canadian player until recently that would play in MLS was probably asking for too much money. The shameful decision to not also count Canadians as domestic players on US based teams is also damaging the Canadian national program, although it doesn’t behoove the USSF and MLS to do anything about it (which too, is shameful). 

The 8-1 loss in Honduras still haunts the program 3 years later. And now, their inability to find that one moment of magic also seems to be haunting them as well. There have been signs of growth under Benito Floro, but time is not his friend. Canada will be back at World Cup Qualifying in September, and then face the daunting prospect of breaking through the semifinal round of qualifying should they get there. It is possible for Canada to make their first Hex since 1998 Qualifying, but they may need a little luck to reach that goal.

Canadian soccer has many ills from the federation on down, and only now are they starting to be cured. The Canadian presence has increased in MLS and NASL, and with the prospect of a domestic league on the horizon, the future is bright. But in a world of instant gratification, patience is not something that many watching the program from the outside or inside have in spades. 

Is this Gold Cup exit that bad? No, considering four surefire starters were missing from this team. Does it reflect well on the program? No, it doesn’t. But, the youth that is coming through gives reason for optimism. The success of their Olympic qualifying campaign may show more much about the strength of the program than this Gold Cup has. It should be in the interest of everyone in CONCACAF to see that Canada has a strong program, since it will make all the others around them better.

When the US made the leap from after-ran to important soccer nation, it needed a little bit of luck and good fortune along the development road. Canada has had none of that. Without it, time may be their only friend… and enemy.

There is a light at the end of this dark tunnel. It may just not be getting as close as previously thought. 

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