Is Canada the Soccer Rival the U.S. Needs?

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Rory Smith subs off this week for James Wagner, who will be reporting on the United States men’s national team around its World Cup qualifying match at Canada on Sunday.

By most measuring sticks, Dwayne De Rosario enjoyed a successful career in soccer. He played 14 seasons in Major League Soccer, earning a most valuable player award, a league scoring title and collecting four M.L.S. championships. He represented Canada in the world youth championships, won a Gold Cup with its senior team and, although retired for years now, he still shares the title — for the moment at least — as his men’s national team’s career goals leader with 22.

But in De Rosario’s mind, there will always be a hole in his résumé: He never fulfilled his childhood dream of reaching the World Cup.

“I’ve always said that if I played in one World Cup game and I retired, I would have been done,” De Rosario, 43, said in a phone interview this week. “I would have been happy with my career because that was always my goal.”

No Canadian men’s soccer player, though, has achieved that goal since 1986. That trip to Mexico was the first — and to date still the only — time Canada qualified for world soccer’s showcase championship. For several generations of Canadian fans and players, then, World Cup memories consist only of watching other teams play in it.

That streak should end, at least, this year: Canada currently sits atop its qualifying group, and probably needs only a couple of wins in its final five games to punch its ticket to the finals in Qatar in November.

“It has been a long struggle, but thankfully we’ve been able to bounce back and take advantage of a new golden generation that has come about,” said Julian de Guzman, 40, whose record for appearances for Canada’s men’s team was recently surpassed by the squad’s current captain, Atiba Hutchinson.

For years, talk of supremacy in North and Central America and the Caribbean has centered around the United States and Mexico. Other teams would muscle in on that duality from time to time, but the top two usually remained the same. Mexico pushed the United States to get better, and vice versa.

Canada’s sudden emergence from a decades slumber, though, is changing that calculus, and that conversation, in real time. And its immediate future, powered by young stars like Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Tajon Buchanan, Cyle Larin and an increasingly deep and talented core, suggests this new kid on the Concacaf block may be here to stay.

“This is the legitimate team with legitimate players that are playing among, if not the top team in Concacaf at the moment, no doubt it’s a top two or three team in the region,” said the former Canada player Paul Stalteri. “And that’s over a consistent basis. It’s not just a bit of a lucky stretch. This has definitely changed the landscape.”

On Sunday, Canada — the only Concacaf team that has yet to lose a game in qualifying — will face its latest test when it plays the United States in Hamilton, Ontario. Both teams will be coming off victories on Thursday night. Both will feel they have earned the top spot in the group.

“It’s refreshing,” De Rosario said. “If you look at the size of Canada, compared to Honduras or Panama, why are we not consistently up there with the U.S. and Mexico or in the top three? We should be a top-three dominant force.”

The rise of Canadian soccer has come about for many reasons, former players said. It certainly wasn’t overnight. They pointed to a number of changes, among many: the coaching of John Herdman; more resources for the national team; more talent groomed in professional environments; and the proliferation of professional soccer throughout the country.

Canada has always produced talented players, De Rosario said, pointing to players like Hutchinson, 38, who has played in Sweden, Denmark and now in Turkey; Stalteri, the first Canadian to score in the Bundesliga; and de Guzman, the first Canadian to play in Spain’s top division.

The difference now is that players have more outlets for development, including M.L.S.’s three Canadian teams — C.F. Montréal, Toronto F.C and the Vancouver Whitecaps — and their academies. Among the current national team players who either emerged through those systems or play there professionally now? Larin, Buchanan, Samuel Piette, Jonathan Osorio, Doneil Henry, Liam Fraser and Sam Adekugbe. And that list doesn’t even include Davies, the Bayern Munich star who will miss this window’s games while recovering from a Covid-related heart issue.

Growing up, Martin Nash, a former national team player and the brother of Brooklyn Nets Coach Steve Nash, said the path for a Canadian was less clear, and often required leaving home and taking the risk of trying to land a job in Europe. Now, because there are about a dozen professional teams in Canada — from M.L.S. to Canadian Premier League and more — there are more ways to develop and get noticed.

“There’s just more routes to the professional game now than there ever was before, which I think is a big thing because, if it’s not visual, you lose a lot of the better athletes to bigger sports,” said Nash, 46, who is now the head coach of York United F.C. in the C.P.L. “You know, hockey and baseball and basketball or American football. The better athletes, like my brother, went to a sport that you saw more on TV.”

To de Guzman, the proof of Canada’s growth is in its depth, a trait he said was lacking in the past. Even without Davies, Canada had little trouble beating Honduras, 2-0, on Thursday.

“When you talk to people in Europe about soccer, whether it’s in Germany or Holland, there’s a different type of feeling now and respect you get when you talk about coming from Canada,” de Guzman said. “That’s kind of been the duty and objective for myself as a player: putting Canada on the map. And we’re finally there.”

Stalteri called this Canadian team fast, dynamic, and strong on both ends of the field. The biggest difference from past squads is its scoring ability, though, something he said had long been a knock against Canadian soccer. De Rosario said he appreciated how the diversity of modern Canada was reflected on both the roster and in this team’s style of play. He said the 1986 World Cup team he watched as a child was more European in its ancestry, and in its ethos on the field.

Coming up through the youth national team program, De Rosario, who parents immigrated to Canada from Guyana, said he had a tough time adjusting to the more direct style Canada employed at the time. He grew up around West Indians and his father had taught him to play the South American way, with flair, attacking and a penchant for dribbling. “We brought a different seasoning to the pot,” he said of his generation of national team stars.

“Now,” De Rosario continued, “we’re seeing us keep possession and attacking, move the ball around and dissect them, and express yourself, which is refreshing because we have the players that can do that now. If you look at demographic of Canada Soccer now, it’s very diverse and very multicultural. That’s beautiful because it speaks to the state of our country.”

Stalteri notices the change most whenever he is coaching his son’s teams or spending time around other youth players.

“There’s a number of these kids now not just wanting Messi or Ronaldo jerseys but they legitimately want the Canadian jerseys,” he said. “And that’s where you start to see a difference. It’s not just footballing people excited about this.”

Five games remain in the final qualifying round, and there remains much work left for Canada, the United States and Mexico, which now trails both in the standings. But De Rosario admitted he could already feel the pride bubbling up, and the possibilities for what is to come in Qatar and beyond.

“There should be no looking back after that,” he said. “It should be automatic now, right down to our youth teams.

“The World Cup should be the standard.”


That’s all for an abbreviated newsletter this week. Rory is on a brief hiatus — just like Set Piece Menu, actually. But he is still reading emails, so get in touch at [email protected] with any hints, tips, complaints or ideas, or look for him on Twitter, where he should definitely not be spending his time away but probably will be found anyway.

Have a great weekend.

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