DENVER – Canadian soccer has spent the last 27 years looking forward to the next World Cup appearance. It has never arrived. And with good reason.
For most of that period, the Canadian Soccer Association could not facilitate a coherent way to pursue those goals. It failed to implement a cohesive and effective structure to cultivate and retain players or manage its own affairs in a professional manner. Any success on the field – and the wonderful Gold Cup triumph in 2000 certainly falls into the category – came in spite of those inherent limitations.
The lingering effects of those missteps rose to the fore once more after this abortive and painful trek through the Gold Cup. Interim boss Colin Miller and his willing players entered this tournament with little to no hope of making a deep run given the resources at their disposal. The absence of several key figures – including the departures of Will Johnson and Russell Teibert during the middle of this brief run and the omissions of several regulars from the squad entirely for one reason or another – exposed the utter lack of depth and quality within the ranks and underscored the substantial construction process ahead for incoming coach Benito Floro.
It is a task worthy of a former Real Madrid manager in both scope and size. He must mold the existing pieces into a competitive unit and nurture the next generation as he does it. And the past three matches – scoreless and toothless with intermittent spells of competency mixed with desperate periods of inadequacy – underscored the monumental nature of that brief.
If there is a silver lining to the slog over the past week, it is that the potential squad members during the Floro regime gained precious experience at the international level. Whether the touted prospects develop enough to warrant a regular place under the new administration remains uncertain, but this brief period offers them some context as they attempt to advance their claims.
“It's such a big learning curve,” Miller said after the 0-0 draw against Panama on Sunday. “The more that we can put our younger players into this sort of environment so it almost becomes second nature to play in front of big crowds and, I have to be politically correct here, not the most consistent officiating in the world. This is what you deal with in CONCACAF. These guys have experienced it on the big stage, playing against good teams. Those 18-year-olds have played in front of [28,000] against a very good Mexican side and they've acquitted themselves very well.”
While the last observation should spark a lively debate about the merits of the Canadian displays in the tournament, the overall point hits the right note. Every match – even those peculiar friendlies in distant lands and these turgid games with a tattered group missing its top performers – matters right now for these younger players. The budding stars may or may not meet the necessary standards over the next few years, but their success or failure will not come down to a dearth of exposure to challenging circumstances.
Miller cited the pressing need for these players to feature regularly in the first team as a crucial factor in their continued growth. It isn't a simple path to traverse for most of them. Nor will the road get much easier on the international level as Floro installs his system and raises the bar for the current crop of players.
Only time will tell if the likes of Kyle Bekker, Doneil Henry, Jonathan Osorio, Samuel Piette and others can contribute at the expected level over the next few years. The early signs aren't particularly encouraging, but the prospect of a new coach and the utility of the experience gained during this peculiar Gold Cup run foster some hope that the players – even if they are found wanting in the end – will receive the necessary preparation to state their cases over the long haul.
“I think the future looks bright,” Miller said. “Sure, we'll have some teething problems along the way, but there's a core – a really strong core – of players here that will be considered to help move the program forward.”
It will not take much to advance from this point, but it will require quite a bit more to move Canada toward its preferred perch near the top of CONCACAF. And if this hectic week in the United States contributes one iota toward fulfilling that objective in the future, then the short-term pain – embarrassing and galling as it might be – could actually prove somewhat worthwhile in the end.