Analysis: Canada v Mexico

As per the name of this blog and in light of the stinging disappointment in the result the other night against Mexico, a post-mortem seems necessary. The jury has been out for what seems an eternity on manager Benito Flores despite a very poor Gold Cup and similarly unconvincing Olympic qualifying tournament.

He’s maintained his position though and the squad has been bolstered by new passport holders rather than depleted by those who could’ve played for us but jumped to a faster moving ship sporting a prettier flag (of convenience). So with many saying this is the strongest Canadian squad in years if not ever and a home win against Honduras followed up with an away draw in El Salvador, the stage was set for what I think can clearly be called the biggest national team game played in Vancouver: Canada vs Mexico in front of a (pretty much) capacity crowd.

Squad selection decisions

The manager’s job here is to navigate us through six games in such a way that we finish second and advance to the final qualifying round known as the Hex. We are not going to finish first so the key is hegemony over El Salvador and Honduras. We have that so far but those teams had already played Mexico once each. They’d lost those games so clearly if we could take any points off Mexico that would be a massive edge and if that was going to happen the smart, not so smart and outright daft money was on it happening in the home game at BC Place.

That didn’t happen. We lost 3-0 to a clearly superior side. But did it have to be that way? Was there maybe a better approach we could have taken that would have at least made Mexico sweat a bit for the points rather than playing like a team vastly overestimating its abilities after perhaps gorging on their own press clippings a bit too much?

Here’s the 23 man squad that Flores selected for these two games (the next being on Tuesday at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City).

1- GK- Simon Thomas | NOR / FK Bodø/Glimt
2- FB- Nik Ledgerwood | CAN / FC Edmonton
3- CB- Manjrekar James | HUN / Diósgyöri VTK
4- CB- Dejan Jaković | JPN / Shimizu S-Pulse
5- CB / M- David Edgar | ENG / Sheffield United
6- M- Julian de Guzman | CAN / Ottawa Fury FC
7- W- Iain Hume | ESP / SD Ponferradina
8- M- Will Johnson | CAN / Toronto FC
9- F- Marcus Haber | ENG / Crewe Alexandra
10- W- David Junior Hoilett | ENG / Queens Park Rangers
11- W- Tosaint Ricketts | Unattached
12- CB- Doneil Henry | ENG / West Ham United
13- M- Atiba Hutchinson | TUR / Beşiktaş JK
14- M- Samuel Piette | ESP / Deportivo La Coruña
15- CB / M- Adam Straith | NOR / Fredrikstad FK
16- M- Scott Arfield | ENG / Burnley FC
17- FB- Marcel De Jong | CAN / Ottawa Fury FC
18- GK- Milan Borjan | BUL / PFK Ludogorets Razgrad
19- CB- Steven Vitória | POR / Benfica
20- FB / CB- Karl W. Ouimette | USA / New York Red Bulls
21- F- Cyle Larin | USA / Orlando City SC
22- GK- Kenny Stamatopoulos | SWE / AIK Fotbol
23- W- Tesho Akindele | USA / FC Dallas

Here’s who started:

First, let’s look at where and how much the defenders on the squad are playing

Doneil Henry has played four games since he went to West Ham in August 2015. He has ping ponged between the Hammers and Blackburn due to two loan spells. Injuries have also limited his availability for selection. The bigger concern though is he a central defender as confirmed by the CSA’s official roster.

Flores found himself in this situation as he opted to pick six central defenders and just two outside backs. Karl Ouimette is listed as being able to play both but when he plays for the Red Bulls, which is a bit less than half the time, he plays in the middle.

Steven Vitoria, one of the four ‘recent’ Canadians along with Arfield, Hoilett and Aird (not in the squad for these games despite being what appears to be a badly needed right back who is actually playing games) is also a central defender but hasn’t played a game since his loan to the Philadelphia Union from Benfica expired at the end of the MLS season.

Adam Straith plays in Norway for Fredrikstad in the Norwegian First Division which is of course actually the second tier of play there. That is an April to November league though so he has also not played recently. Nik Ledgerwood is due to join up with Edmonton FC of the NASL for the start of their season after these games against Mexico.

Marcel de Jong, long a lock at left back has also not been playing having finished a year in the MLS last season after a respectable career in Europe. He will play with Ottawa Fury in the NASL this season.

Of the others, Manjrekar James, who has just three caps,  is playing a reasonable number of games for Diósgyőri in Hungary and Dejan Jakovic is signed to Shimizu Pulse of the J League 2nd division. He has not played yet this season.

That leaves, of the defenders, David Edgar. Only Ledgerwood has more caps than him among the central defenders but perhaps more importantly, Edgar is actually playing and with a team that is in season. He’s played in 31 league and cup games for Sheffield United this season in the English Championship.

So wrapping up this overly long precis on the defenders in the squad,  the picture should be getting clearer here. Loads of centre backs to choose from and very few outside backs. Most of the defenders are either in their off season and haven’t played for their club in months (Straith, Ledgerwood, De Jong, Ouimette) or are with clubs but not playing (Jakovic, Vitoria, Henry). That leaves the inexperienced Manjrekar and the experienced, currently playing Edgar.

Edgar didn’t see the field on Friday against Mexico. Henry started at right back, de Jong at left. Jakovic and Straith were the starting centre backs. All four played 90 minutes. Of our starters, none are currently playing club soccer. Now there could be a good reason we are not aware of for why David Edgar was not chosen to start but to be honest it would have to be a very good reason.

I’m not going to go through the rest of the squad in the same manner but it should be noted that Julian de Guzman is the closest the team has to a true holding midfielder but he doesn’t play there. The problem being that he has been without a club since the end of the 2013-14 season and just turned 35. He started. Will Johnson can fill the role but is also the closest the team has to a box to box midfielder. He is more adept at the attacking end of midfield. The team’s long marquee player, Atiba Hutchinson, starts for Besiktas. He is the creative force in the team, capable of scoring but more capable of providing the service to others enabling them to score.

Choosing the tactics

So, as with all teams, managers have a set of resources at their disposal. The most critical resource is the players. After that, it’s things like home field advantage, knowledgeable staff, favourable weather, etc. National team managers have the good fortune to be able to change their roster selections between games, or groups of games, much more readily than club managers but club managers have a considerably wider pool to draw from as they are not bound to take players of a particular nationality.

Player selection is then clearly the primary task of the manager and from that flows what are hopefully options in terms of how you play.

What managers in Flores situation need to take stock of is whether to simply find a way to get your eleven most effective players on the field in the pursuit of winning and then work formation and tactics around that or to gauge what the goal, the realistic goal, of the upcoming games the team has is and pick a starting eleven and approach that will maximize the chances of getting that result.

My approach

When your end goal is to finish ahead of El Salvador and Honduras and you know they have each already lost the first of their two games against Mexico and thus a solitary point against El Tri is in essence a victory, I think the approach you must take as a manager is to maximize your chances of a realistic goal and that would be to play for a draw from the outset even though the game is at home. To that end, I would play 4-5-1 and pick players who are in form, positionally sound, mentally determined and have tremendous game sense.

  • GK: Borjan (easiest pick of the lot)
  • RB: Henry; CB: David Edgar and Dejan Jakovic; LB: Marcel de Jong
  • HOLDING MIDS: Adam Straith and Atiba Hutchinson
  • RM: Will Johnson; CM: Scott Arfield; LM: Julian de Guzman
  • STRIKER: Cyle Larin

This would look like a 4-5-1 out of possession with a very low block (Larin dropping to the halfway line and the others compact in behind. In attack it would look like a 4-2-3-1 with de Guzman, Arfield and Johnson in support of Larin but only to the point where they were still able to deny balls getting behind them in transition. If Mexico were quickly getting mids and attackers able to run at our back four and holding mids then just one of the three mids would venture forward. This is designed to get a 0-0 draw, not excite fans.

Subs would likely be Hoilett in for de Guzman and Akindele in for Larin at some point in the second half. Piette and Ricketts would be used only in a pinch. I think there’s fairly serious question marks about Fraser Aird in 1v1 defending situations and his ability in the air but he’d make a decent alternate to Will Johnson as the right midfielder, a position he has played with Rangers in Scotland. Russell Tiebert’s energy and determination would also be a decent fit to defend against Mexico’s quick, technical midfielders so he may be a better fit there than the slower but positionally sound Adam Straith. He’s injured at the moment though and not in the squad.

I felt strongly this would be the best approach before the game and that opinion was buttressed while watching it live.

Run and gun or park the bus

What we did though was quite different. We opted to try to play run and gun with the Mexicans. We pressed high with up to four players at a time in the first half. This was one of three things fans, including myself, groaned about during the game. The others were Henry at right back and the half-assed attempts to play out from the back on goal kicks that led to Borjan lumping the ball up the field when it was passed back to him under moderate pressure. These were minor considerations though in comparison to the general approach of setting out to score and press high.

Watching the game a second time has proved interesting. I can definitely see now that the 4-3-3 with a high press had its merits. Until Mexico scored Canada clearly had the best chance to score, Hoilett blasting over from twelve yards out, and a second chance (Larin from an angle on the left trying to shoot with the outside of his right) that was as good as anything Mexico had had to that point. We were definitely outplayed all over the field but it cannot be denied that we had good chances and squandered them. Even with Tosaint Ricketts about as AWOL as a player can be from a game, Hoilett, Larin and Hutchinson all carved out good chances to score in the first half and it came from either a high press (Hutchinson) or getting numbers forward (enabled by starting three forwards). One would hope that the plan was to nick a goal and then drop. If Hoilett had scored, I’d have taken Ricketts off almost immediately and added another midfielder. A 1-0 lead would clearly have been generous and didn’t negate the fact that 70% of the game was being played in our half to that point.

I’m more hesitant now to say Flores got it wrong. If the goal was to get at least a point out of the game, his approach to push for a goal (with the assumption we’d park the bus if we got one) would’ve looked like genius if one of our two good early chances had gone in. My suggestion to start conservatively and stay that way may have worked as well. Both can be classified as long shots though given the defensive concerns detailed above. You can’t expect that a player who won three straight Bundesliga player of the month awards isn’t eventually going to find a way to score against defenders that have barely played in five months or more and when they do play do so in the lower divisions of what are already second tier leagues.

Doneil Henry was not bad

The other opinion that I’ve re-assessed in light of a second viewing is Doneil Henry. We all latched on to the fact that he’s not a right back and let that narrative convince us that he played poorly. He didn’t. He didn’t get forward like de Jong but he managed the defensive duties capably in the first half. De Jong meanwhile is one of those caught in transition on the second goal and not in a position to recover.

On the third goal he gets to the cross first and gets a 6/10 on the clearing header. He gets it out of the box but some height would have been nice. Not his fault that Johnson is beaten to the knockdown and a brilliant first time ball is played diagonally to the player he left to get to the header. Biting on the fake shot and sliding in won’t look good on his resume but that immediate pressure at least forced X inside towards what should have been a better coordinated effort by the remaining Canadian defenders to block the shot.

Our goal kicks: why?

The goal kicks though were poorly conceived and don’t look remotely clever the second time around. Still unsure what the intent was except to maybe draw a couple more Mexicans into pressing before launching through Borjan to the middle third where the numbers may have been more favourable for knock downs. Didn’t  happen though and looked amateur-ish as a result.

Breaking down the goals

Mexico’s first goal:

The genius in this is that both Chicharito and the guy crossing the ball recognize that Jakovic has managed to get himself turned around the wrong way. His feet are going back towards his own goal and he’s looking over his left shoulder to where the cross is coming from but he’s in no position to mark up properly. Chicharito senses this and accelerated forward for two steps. This pushes Jakovic even further towards his own goal. Chicharito holds up and Jakovic’s momentum makes the space for the cross to be delivered into bigger. The crosser, recognizing Jakovic cannot possibly get turned and attack the cross quick enough whips a ball in and Chicharito gets an uncontested header from about nine yards out. Note that Straith demonstrates better body shape by keeping his back to goal so he can both see play developing and see who he’s marking while still being in a position to attack the cross if it comes towards him.

It’s really inexcusable for Canada to have nine players back within 25 yards of goal and not be in a position to pressure the crosser and have a spare defender as the cross comes in (it ends up 3v3).

Mexico’s second goal:

Touched on this above but with three forwards and de Jong pushed up this situation was eventually going to happen. Mexican middle third pressure forced an underhit pass by Hutchinson to Johnson that was intercepted and after a very quick give and go Lozano simply breezes by Straith, catches Borjan leaning to the far post and rips one past him into the near side.

Being outnumbered in midfield led to the turnover and we were simply a distant second best in transition. This was always going to be the concern if we were going to play this way. Committing players further up the field means you are sacrificing numbers in the middle third and exposing a back four with little game sharpness to more situations that could be called dangerous.

Mexico’s third goal:

Again, aspects of the third goal are touched on above when looking at Doneil Henry. The goal is the very definition of defenders at 6’s and 7’s. We have numbers back yet are unable to deal with the outnumbered Mexican attackers. We have a chance to clear but it results in a very smartly set up second chance which is convincingly taken.

Looking to the Azteca on Tuesday

It would have clearly been an advantage to have played at the Azteca first and then coming to Vancouver. If we lost the first game, it would put Mexico all but through and perhaps led to some players being rested or kept off the turf. Our odds of getting a result in Vancouver were poor. Our odds of getting a result at the Azteca are a half shade this side of laughable. I’m really interested to see what Flores opts to do. Will he dare to play the same way he tried to at home or will he sense that gambit was a long shot at home and pure folly at altitude away from home? I hope it’s the latter. As I said, I have more respect in retrospect for the gamble taken in trying for the opening goal at BC Place. I doubt I’ll feel the same way if he perseveres with this approach in Mexico City. None of these players have played at Azteca. We need to be smart and that means being conservative. Keep in mind that goal difference could end up deciding who advances as the second place team. Honduras lost by two at home to Mexico. El Salvador lost by three in Mexico. If a draw at home was going to be viewed as a victory; a one goal loss in Mexico will be the same at this stage of the competition.

 

Posted in 2018 Concacaf World Cup qualifiers, Canadian soccer, canMNT | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Park the drones: practice what you preach in training

1

“There’s really no great secret. From time to time I bring friends along to watch us train. We invite them here and they think they are going to discover some great secrets and what they see is four cones, and exercises that concentrate in retention and touch of the ball – nothing else, really”. – Gerard Pique.

2

“For a young player, technique is more important than speed, strength or physique. Thierry already had great balance and co-ordination, but some bad footballing habits. So we worked on his technique for three years.” – Christian Damiano, one of Thierry Henry’s coaches at Clairefontaine’s

3

“Everything’s been strategically periodized. We haven’t played much soccer. We’ve been in the gym. We’ve been running.” – Carmelina Moscato

4

“The Girls Elite REX staff recently set up a drone camera at their training sessions, which allows Canada Soccer REX director and U-17 head coach Bev Priestman to watch live from home.

“She keeps a heavy hand in what we’re doing to make sure they’re developing as she’d want them to,” Humphries said.” – Whitecapsfc.com

 

Keep these quotes in mind as you read the rest of this.

When you watch the sort-of documentary, Rise, a film about the Canadian Women’s National Team, it shows them as they progress from coming last in the 2011 World Cup through to getting a bronze medal at the Olympics and then their focused preparations for this World Cup. Throughout the film you get glimpses of the lengths that the team has gone to prepare. Loads of off-field gym work, fitness testing, ensuring proper sleep, ensuring the team bonded well and outlining how communication flowed between players and coaches to ensure harmony. A few times, without much explanation but seemingly as a tool to teach them to focus and/or stay calm, it showed players hooked up to a laptop running BrainPaint.

It was made clear several times by Herdman that the team’s style of play needed to improve if they were to be contenders at the World Cup. “The end goal in 2015 and 2016 is getting on the podium. We’ve gotta take our game forward. And to do that we’re gonna have to go backwards. We’re gonna try some new things. We’re gonna try some new players and hopefully (in the 2015 World Cup Final) we will play a brand of football that people will go, ‘Wow, this is fantastic.’ I’m just asking the country to be patient…when we’re here (in BC Place) in 2015, that’s when it matters.”

The country was patient because the reality is that interest in the team dips massively between Olympics and World Cups. They had the luxury to try to re-invent themselves in a three year down cycle when expectations were almost non-existent because there’s barely anyone tracking how they do in things like the (untelevised) Cyprus Cup or tournaments in China that draw crowds, at best, in the hundreds.

Herdman went so far as to tell his team they were going to try to play like FC Barcelona and gave each of them a Barcelona player to model themselves on. At some point two things must have become apparent to Herdman. Not enough of his current players were going to transition to their Barcelona persona in time for the World Cup and there were not enough young players coming through that were good enough technically to replace them.

What we’ll probably never be able to ascertain is whether there was enough of a commitment by Herdman and his staff to improve technical skills to the point where they could play a possession based game against the best women’s team in the world or was there too much time spent on fitness, GPS monitors, relaxation exercises…

Herdman had realized they simply had not been able to transition to playing anything like Barcelona. So the messaging changed. The goal now was to be the fittest, most tactically organized and connected team in the tournament. That’s pretty much a direct quote from Herdman.

I’ve often defended John Herdman and agreed that he had to try to move the team from a style of play that would see it languish off the pace the best were setting and get them moving towards the French and Japanese national teams. I still contend that he’s been let down by the fact that we don’t have enough 17-23 year olds coming through the system that can play this way and evolve into key national team players. He’s been here for less than four years. Our development programs are not sufficient and that can’t be pinned on him when he’s had to qualify for an Olympics, go to the Olympics and play, as host, in a World Cup since he’s been here.

But we clearly all know now that our women’s team is nowhere near as good technically as the top countries in the world and every day that is spent focusing on anything other than being on the field improving technical play and decision making is a waste of valuable time. The players don’t need gimmicks, things that ‘may’ slightly improve an ability of secondary or tertiary importance in their game. We don’t have that luxury at this point. We need players who want to be flawless with a ball at their feet and we need coaches who are willing and able to facilitate that.

That’s not an anti-technology rant from an old-school coach running around saying, “It was good enough for us in the 80’s, it’s good enough for them now.” There’s a role for technology. It’s to supplement and complement. It should not be a shiny bauble that is the focus of preparation. Herdman pitched the “four corners” philosophy of needing to attend to players in four areas.

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 2.36.38 PM

Techncial/Tactical, Physical, Social/Emotional and Psychological/Mental. I’d be interested to know how this was interpreted by the Canadian Women’s National team staff. We’ve seen and heard lots of reference to being the most “connected” team at the tournament (social/emotional and psychological/mental) and we’ve seen and heard lots to do with the gym workouts, fitness tracking and desire to be the fittest team at the tournament (physical).

But if you want to transform your team to being something like Barcelona, 80% of your effort has to be in developing technical skills. Plain and simple.Our issue was not fitness and if we were so connected why are stories leaking to the press about player unrest regarding playing time? If you can’t receive a ball under pressure and pass to a teammate, NONE OF THE OTHER STUFF MATTERS.

Park the drone, disconnect the GPS gear, stop working on your quads in the gym. Get a ball and stay on the field until you’re better. I hope that’s the overwhelming emphasis of the CSA’s REX programs. That’s what we need in general in this country and that’s what the women’s national team needs specifically. And that’s what they do in Barcelona.

 

Posted in 2015 Women's World Cup, Women's soccer | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

WWC: Into the quarters – how they got there and who should win

The storylines get much more focused once you get down to eight teams. It’s easier to keep them all in your head and not be distracted by the incessant barrage of fluff stories revolving around potential upsets, cinderella stories, individual battles against odds. It’s simple now and a good opportunity to take stock of the teams that got here, who looks poised to continue and who may be a bit bewildered at the company they are keeping.

Old guard represented

First thing worth noting is that we have not seen a changing of the guard. In the previous six World Cups, the USA has won two, Germany has also won two and Japan won the last one in 2011. The only previous champion to not make the quarter finals is Norway who won it in twenty years ago in 1995.

In fact if you include all the countries that have been second, third or fourth as well, the only other ones not represented in these quarter finals are Sweden and Brazil, both of whom were eliminated in the round of sixteen.

Flipping that around there are two debutantes in the quarter finals who previously have never placed in the top four; England and Australia. Canada’s sole top four appearance was a fourth place finish in 2003.

So familiar faces abound. My preference would have been to see Cameroon advance but few others can really feel hard done by.

How they got to this point

China: They entered with low expectations based on the ‘rebuilding’ trope abetted by tales of a key injury to their leading striker. Their last minute loss to Canada put them behind the eight ball but a win against the Dutch and a draw, aided by the bizarre attempt at time wasting by their manager Hao Wei, against New Zealand saw them through to the second round. In that game against Cameroon they were second best in every stat aside from goals scored and went through 1-0. In other words, hardly convincing and heavily reliant on keeper Wang Fei.

USA: Naturally there’s been no shortage of coverage of the USWNT. What has been perhaps most surprising is that the star in supposed decline, Abby Wambach, has not only played ahead of a younger, more dynamic group of strikers in Alex Morgan, Kirsten Press and Sydney Leroux but has outshone all of them and quieted many, including myself, who thought she would be more of an anchor than a lifeline for the team given the necessity of playing to her strengths (ie. in the air) if she’s going to be on the field. Rested against Sweden, it’s telling that the team has not scored a goal while Wambach has been on the bench.

But the focus has really been on Wambach more than it should. Megain Rapinoe is a fantastic player and clearly making a bid to be considered the best female player in the world at this tournament. And while we like to go on about our own Kadeisha Buchanan, fledgling American centreback Julie Johnston, who just turned 20, is giving Buchanan a run for her money as best defender at this World Cup.

But it’s really been paint by numbers for the team so far with little flair beyond Rapinoe and a reliance on Wambach that at some point may become an over-reliance. But when the Plan B attacking mode (Press, Leroux, Morgan) has proven to be slow out the gates, it’s not a surprise that manager Jill Ellis is going to stick with Wambach and the aerial attack that plays to her strengths.

Germany: Only tested by Norway (1-1 draw) in their round robin group, the Germans topped their group on goal difference but that arguably gave them a tougher opponent in Sweden in the round of 16 than second place Norway, who still managed to lose to England in their game. The Germans clearly found their game against Sweden and embarrassed Pia Sundhage’s team 4-1. Credentials re-asserted, their quarter final fixture against France is actually the game I thought would be the final. Germany will need keeper Nadine Angerer to be on form as France have scored fantastic goals from both in close and from distance.

France: The French have been two different teams in their four games so far. Sluggish against the English in their opening 1-0 win and then fully asleep against Colombia in a two-nil loss, reality jolted them back to their strengths and they piled misery on top of Mexico scoring three times in the opening 13 minutes on their way to a 5-0 win. In the round of sixteen another early blitzkrieg against South Korea put them up two-nil after just eight minutes. They won three-nil and all three goals were among the best you’ll see at the tournament. They are on form and a treat to watch when this is the case.

Japan: It was hard to tell in Japan’s round robin games if they were deliberately playing in second gear or if the team’s good-enough-to-win approach was an indication their star power was fading. The second round match against the Dutch clearly answered that as an emphatic performance capped by a wonderful second goal signalled they were indeed the defending champions and were not going to be rolling over.

Australia: I watched Australia train when they were in Vancouver. What looked like a team of wickedly athletic Pellerudians at the time was really just them preparing for their first game against the Americans. They played 10v9 on a three quarter field attacking one goal and every time the ball got played out to an assistant coach filling in at right back he woofed a 40 yard ball into the mix for the centre backs to battle for against strikers. Clearly, in retrospect, they knew this was what they’d be facing in a Wambach led American attack and they were right. While they lost that game 3-1, the Aussies their win over Nigeria and draw with Sweden allowed them to finish second, thus avoiding Germany and getting Brazil. Seeing they were more sophisticated than mere long ball merchants, I picked them (on Twitter) to beat Brazil who had looked unconvincing in an easy group. Now they face Japan in what will be a strong contrast in styles.

England: Aside from Lucy Bronze’s cracking winner against Norway, England have relied heavily on set pieces. A fortunate free kick against Colombia resulted in their first goal (off the rebound from the shot) and an even more fortunate penalty sealed victory. Two goals against a sub-par Mexico can’t disguise the fact that, like Canada, the goals are scarce and seldom the result of deliberate, inventive build up play. Factor in that their keeper, Karen Bardsley, imported from California, has run the gamut from shakier than Shane MacGowan on the wagon for a month to decidedly…competent and they will have their work cut out for them if they want to advance.

Canada: Of course we’ll leave Canada for last. I really want to be positive. I do. I went to the Switzerland game and I’ll be at the England game on Saturday. I get excited every odd half chance that comes along and felt really happy for them when they held on against the Swiss to advance. But in the cold light of a computer screen reality trumps all that. The simple truth is that while we did win our group, if we had missed our penalty against China in the opening game and New Zealand had scored theirs against us rather than hitting the crossbar, all other things unchanged, Canada would not have advanced. We would be out and the same inquisition that followed the three and out performance in 2011 would just be gathering steam. That’s how thin the margins were. We have scored three goals in four games. A penalty, a fortuitous bounce from a deflection off a Dutch defender that led to an Ashley Lawrence side footer from ten yards and a nice finish from forward slash defender slash forward Josee Belanger off of what was either a very quick thinking set up from Sinclair or a flukey touch off her boot as she was pressured by a Swiss defender. Three goals in four games no matter how you slice it. On the positive side, we’ve only given up one goal and that came as a result of having to leave a crucial clearance to someone other than Kadeisha Buchanan. Rough few days for Carmelina Moscato what with Latham-gate but she had to do better than bash that ball off the Dutch attackers shins. It broke in behind her and the Dutch finished nicely.

What are the positives for Canada? Pretty obvious really. Buchanan has been outstanding every game. Alyssha Chapman has been almost as good but has had some luck surviving a couple of desperation tackles that could well have been penalties (she conceded the penalty against New Zealand) or free kicks in critical areas. Erin McLeod has been a rock when she’s had to be. The players you need to be solid rather than liabilities have for the most part held their end of the bargain. Playing Belanger at right back has proven to be a smart decision by John Herdman. Desiree Scott is getting stronger as the tournament goes on. Ashley Lawrence has not let us down. Kaylyn Kyle has been commanding when she has come on and when she has started. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the team’s run to the quarter finals is that they have done it with their two best players being non-factors. Sophie Schmidt has been unable to find her form and Christine Sinclair, aside from laying off the ball to Schmidt for the shot that got blocked and fell to Lawrence for the goal against the Dutch and perhaps assisting on Belanger’s goal against Switzerland has done nothing but miss three chances against New Zealand. As I said in an earlier article though, we cannot expect Sinclair to carry this team. Those days are done. She needs a supporting cast and that has to be led by Schmidt. I struggle to think of a single pass Schmidt has made that has released Sinclair for even a sight at goal. It has to happen now that Canada is actually facing a legitimate challenge in the form of England.

Jonelle Foligno has been passable. Melissa Tancredi and Adriana Leon have been poor, in over their heads at this level really. What was really unfortunate was that Jessie Fleming, after a non-descript game against China when she came on, was just starting to be influential against the Dutch when she was taken off. She didn’t feature against the Swiss so it’s hard to see her get time against England but she’s still one of the few who can operate with a bit of inventiveness in the attacking third. Beyond that, Rhiann Wilkinson is not going to light the world on fire and has been caught out once on a long ball over her head in limited minutes but she is a good choice at right back as it allows the burgeoning Belanger to play as a forward on the right rather than Leon or Tancredi. Lauren Sesselmann is clearly not 100% game fit after her ACL tear but Herdman will likely persist with her.

The match-ups

USA v China. Even without suspended Rapinoe, the only thing standing between a comfortable win for the States is an excellent performance from the impressive Wang Fei in the Chinese goal. This should not be a difficult game for Ellis’ team. Prediction: 2-0 USA

Germany v France. Really a toss up as far as I’m concerned. Whichever team’s strikers and keepers are most on form will likely win it. No prediction just a hope that it turns out to be as great a game as these two teams are capable of delivering.

Japan v Australia. Australia is a bit like the Atletico Madrid or Olympic Marseille of the women’s game. You just don’t look forward to playing them. The longer they keep it close the more difficult physically and mentally it becomes to match them and you run the very real risk of being upset if you’re Japan. Prediction: Japan by one.

Canada v England. A pre-tourney exhibition between the two teams in Hamilton would best be described as 89 minutes of drudgery and a fantastic goal by Schmidt. England have impressed me for 45 minutes but that was the most important 45 of the tournament so far: the second half against Norway. I wish I could say Canada have impressed me for a full 45 minutes but again their best performance was likely the last 20 minutes of the first half against the Swiss and the first 15-20 minutes of the second half in that same game. In a game that will likely be settled by set pieces, even penalty kicks after extra time, I’ll go with my pre-tourney prediction where I said Canada would only advance to the semis if the drew England in the quarter finals. Canada by one.

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CanWNT: now what?

The buzz is building now as teams head into their last round robin games. Most groups are still pretty wide open if not in terms of who will advance then in who will take top spot and get the smoother road through the knockout rounds.

In my post on the eve of the Women’s World Cup I laid out two scenarios for the Canadian women’s team. The one I predicted was that they would win their group and thus gain a relatively easy second round game before being tested in the quarter finals. The corollary to that was what it would look like “if the wheels fell off”. What I didn’t anticipate was how paper thin the difference between these two outcomes actually is.

While I wouldn’t call the penalty decision against China dubious or even soft, it was highly fortuitous both in terms of being both unintentional (don’t think she meant to strike Leon in the face) and incidental (Leon was not in a dangerous position about to score) as well as the fact that it occurred in injury time. Still, it meant we got three points and China got none. We avoided the “nervous draw” I referred to, although Canada were far from firing on all cylinders.

A rough game pretty much bereft of tactics against New Zealand remained scoreless so Canada tops the group on four points after two games. Still, China has three and the Dutch have three so first place is still wide open.

And we haven’t scored a goal from open play yet. If we didn’t score on the penalty we’d be on two points with no goals scored and panic would definitely be setting in.

In a tournament like this you don’t get much time to second guess yourself in terms of player selection. Three round robin games with three subs in each. You really need to make quick, accurate assessments on who is doing well, who isn’t, who needs rest and what the changes are in the areas that aren’t working.

Here’s what’s gone well for Canada in the first two games…

Erin McLeod has been very good. Aside from one semi-whiff on a corner against New Zealand that fortunately hurtled past a charging Kiwi (well marked it should be added) at the far post, she has not been caught coming for balls best left to others. Always able to command her back four, she is clearly an asset to the team.

Alyssha Chapman gave up a penalty. That’s one of only two mistakes she’s made so far. The other was remaining adamant it wasn’t a foul. It was and it’s better to accept that and learn that those will be called eight times out of ten. Would be nice to see her get forward a bit more but overall very strong, very energetic and very smart in her decision making defensively.

Kadeisha Buchanan has been outstanding. Beyond a few misdemeanours she has been for me perhaps the best defender I’ve seen in the tournament. To put that in perspective though, she’s played against the youngest team in the tournament (China) and a team with almost no redeeming attacking features (New Zealand). The Dutch will be a stiffer test as will all games after that.

Ashley Lawrence is deputizing for Diana Matheson as the narrative goes but it may well be a changing of the guard. Consistently competent is not the top of the mountain in terms of superlatives but if we’re looking at realistic expectations for a 19 year old then I think that’s what we should be pleased with. She’s looking like she could be around for many years.

And now it gets thin, especially if we’re measuring players against the potential we know they have. Lauren Sesselmann gets a pass because she’s likely not 100% fit coming off a serious knee injury. Desiree Scott’s work rate across the field to break up attacks has been very good. I just don’t remember her getting possession nearly as much as giving up throw ins. Turnovers in the middle third go a long way in the women’s game to establishing hegemony. Great holding mids win the ball back as opponents start attacks and commit players forward and start the ball moving the other way. Maybe I’m being too harsh but I think Scott and Schmidt are crucial to how we do in the next two, hopefully three, games.

So on to Sophie Schmidt. I said she’s the best player on the team and she herself has publicly said she feels they have let Christine Sinclair down by not providing her with the support and service that the USA provide Wambach. So get her the damned ball in areas she can work with. Every time I see Sinclair drop back into midfield it’s a clear sign Sophine Schmidt is not doing enough. I’ve already lamented that if we’re going to score, we can’t have much expectation from Tancredi (missed two years to go back to school; showing the effects of that), Foligno (just doesn’t score enough period) and Leon (not good enough yet) and if the burden of scoring is once again going to fall to Sinclair, let her conserve energy and focus her movements in areas where she can receive and shoot without having to beat players. It’s not easy when teams are focusing on her and Schmidt clearly is going to be her primary source of opportunities but it just has to happen. Schmidt has got to find ways to get past the first opponent she comes across, confront opponent back fours and force them to adjust to the degree that Sinclair can find space to receive. Jason de Vos pointed at half time in the New Zealand game that Ashley Lawrence had an opportunity to release Sinclair in just such a situation but didn’t. We have to accept that won’t happen as much with a young midfielder. It has to happen with Schmidt.

As for the others Belanger has been good and justified Herdman’s gambit of putting her in for the injured Rhian Wilkinson ahead of the two outside backs (Nault and Gayle) he has on the squad.

Heading into this World Cup,Kaylyn Kyle, for me, has been symptomatic of the fact that we don’t have enough midfielders who can link with forwards but that we still need to play because there’s no one better. In both her substitute appearances though she has been much better in terms of her willingness to look forward and connect with attackers. She may be on the verge of playing herself back into the starting eleven.

I’m not interested in running down Melissa Tancredi but it’s clear she’s in the twilight of her national team career and asking her to play a prominent role in this campaign is just a bridge too far. Tancredi, along with Foligno have, unsurprisingly, been peripheral though.

Before moving on to a suggested lineup for the Dutch game, I just want to make note of the odd substitution patterns Herdman has gone with the first two games.

In both, Kyle, a midfielder, has come on for Foligno, a striker around the 60′ mark. At both times, conventional thinking would suggest we should be looking at attacking options as we need a goal. While Kyle did get forward a touch more than normal, we ostensibly went from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 for ten minutes before Scott was taken off in both games for an attacking player (Fleming in the first game, Leon in the second). The only other subs have been straight swaps with Leon going in up front for Tancredi in the first game and Moscato coming in for Sesselman at centre back.

It’s an interesting tactic, briefly going away from 4-3-3 before going back to it and quite honestly I don’t understand what the rationale for it is other than perhaps the real-time metrics being gathered from the gear the players are clearly wearing under their shirts indicating that some are fatiguing and need replacing. That still doesn’t really explain why Leon, rather than Kyle, doesn’t replace Foligno. Perhaps Herdman is hoping to draw a tactical response from teams as they see Canada switch to a 4-4-2 and then force another adjustment or make their burn a sub in their response as he switches back to 4-3-3 with Kyle now in the holding mid position and a fresh forward on the field. Hard to say.

One thing that is clear is that while we look solid and fairly composed at the back, we are lacking ideas and guile up front. We are predictable and not particularly worrisome for opponents. I’d like to see some different faces in the starting lineup and the ability for Schmidt to play higher up the field.

I think moving to a 4-2-3-1 is a good solution for the game against the Netherlands. No changes in goal or to the back four but add Kyle next to Scott as two holding mids and then play with Fleming on the left, Schmidt in the middle and Lawrence on the right. Sinclair would of course play up front. This frees Schmidt from some of the defensive responsibilities and puts her in a better position to service Sinclair in the attacking third. Fleming has to be given the chance to play. We are getting virtually nothing from Tancredi, Foligno and Leon and while she’s only 17, Fleming has vision and technical ability that could see her unlock the Dutch back four a few times. It’s time for that change if we want to (a) beat the Dutch and ensure first place in the group and (b) establish that we can maintain possession and create chances.

Another drab attacking performance means we limp into the second round in either second or third place. Not only do we face the prospect of a tougher opponent but we do so with diminished confidence if we persist with the same look for three games and end up with nothing but a converted penalty to show for it.

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A reality based preview of the Canadian Women’s World Cup team

This will not be like “Rise”. There will be no #HolySchmidts. No fawning, no talk of role models and inspiring the next generation of female players. This is about whether they can play and compete for a World Cup. I’ve always felt treating this team with kid gloves and giving them a pass on accountability is patronizing to them and to female athletes in general.

So who should play? Who should not play? What do they need to happen to be successful?

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Tactical adjustment thru technical refinement and decision making

[I already don’t like the title of this. Overly complicated when the theme is really that simple adjustments to familiar drills and games can help players recognize and solve problems]

My U13 team is doing very well this year. They are first place in league play and have succeeded with a short passing game in a 4-3-3. It’s a team of thinkers for the most part who have been encouraged to be confident and comfortable on the ball even in the defensive third. Because we got a lot of time with them in the spring to work on shape (it’s their first year playing 11 a side on a full sized field) and played a fair number of games against teams a level above them they were ready for the start of the regular season in September and were regularly winning by large margins against teams that still hadn’t adjusted to the bigger field.

Fast forward to last Saturday and we are playing a team that we’ve already played twice. Their approach was really intelligent. Having seen us play they had realized that while we were adept at playing through the thirds on the ground we still had players at the back who struggled a bit under pressure they played a 3-4-3 with a high, aggressive press. Despite the fact we actually went up 1-0 after 3 minutes and scored a second goal 10 minutes after that they stuck with the tactic and it caused us a lot of problems. 2-0 definitely flattered us as the high press with three forwards forced our defenders to try to find midfielders quickly and their four midfielders locked onto to our three with a great work ethic. We turned the ball over repeatedly in a 2o minute span and our keeper was forced to make an excellent save while it was still 1-0. Our forwards, not used to the lack of service to their feet reacted by becoming immobile for stretches which definitely didn’t help.

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UBC women’s soccer coaching job: a huge opportunity for right person

I’ll be honest. If I didn’t have the job that I have now, which I truly enjoy, I’d be interested in the UBC Women’s Head Coach job. Who wouldn’t? Any coach with a desire to step in and define a program would love this job given where it’s at and the potential that is building for a new era of success.

The other caveat, for any qualified candidate, would of course be that it would have to pay market value for the Vancouver area and UBC will struggle to do that on their budgets. So since the reality is that I’m happy where I am and the pay for the UBC job is simply not going to hit market value, I’m comfortable writing this as I won’t be a candidate.

This is a program that is seething with potential to take a huge step forward. There’s a perfect storm coalescing around the UBC Athletics department and the team itself. UBC have got to realize this and spend some time deliberating on how to attract top candidates to apply and then make sure they get the selection right. My suggestion to them is to make sure Mike Mosher, UBC Men’s Varsity Coach, is in on the interview and final decision and at least one other informed soccer person, preferably from the Whitecaps or CSA, for reasons that will soon be obvious, be involved as well.

Here’s why I think this is one of the most interesting soccer jobs that is going to come available in the next few years.

We go on about Vancouver being a world class city when it’s really on the periphery of that status. It’s a great place to live and is pretty to look at. Little else suggests world class but UBC is indeed a world class university. Highly regarded in North America, Europe and Asia, it draws students from everywhere and regularly lists in the top 50 when noted publications publish lists of the world’s best universities. So for starters, the new coach will be working at a highly credible institution that any prospective student who realizes that where they do their degree still matters will put in their plus column when picking a school they want to play soccer at.

Next, the construction for the new Whitecaps FC training facility has already begun at UBC. A new turf field to the north of Warren field is being constructed. This will be the new home of Varsity turf, currently located 100m to the east. Once Varsity has been relocated, the Whitecaps training facility will be built on the old site and will comprise about 120m x 120m of top notch grass to train on. It will be somewhat enclosed and while it is almost exclusively for the Whitecaps, the UBC Varsity teams will get some time on it.

The second part of the Whitecaps facility at UBC will be a building that will house their coaching staff’s offices, dressing rooms, physio and trainer rooms, etc. It’s quite likely UBC Athletics will also get some space in this building. Factor in that one of the lead architects on the job is Alex Percy, former UBC Varsity player (and pal of mine; we played centre back together for years at UBC), and you can ensure that player focused touches will feature in the final design.

All in all, this really will be one of, if not the, pre-eminent soccer training facilities in the country.

The missing piece of the puzzle, going back to when this venture was first announced by the Provincial government (the ones putting up the vast majority of the funding) and the Whitecaps is the presence of the Canadian Soccer Association and their teams. It’s gone quite quiet on that front but I was told at a recent meeting for stakeholders regarding the facility  that that is entirely between the Whitecaps and the CSA now.

Should a deal be struck you would have a great critical mass of people invested in soccer in general and should the women’s national team start using UBC as a base and the Whitecaps look to get involved again in women’s soccer in the form of an NWSL franchise you would have all the ingredients for the UBC women’s team coach to play a substantial role in amidst all this.

The days of the players on the women’s national team being precocious teenagers with cannons for legs is over. You just need to look at the average age of the current squad to see that most are on the back half of their 20’s.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 12.25.24 PM

The above roster of the 22 players selected for the recent game against Germany is a bit fuzzy but all you need to know is 17 of those 22 are aged 22 or older. In other words, the vast majority are older than the average university graduate. In even more other words, a career in post-secondary soccer can still be used as a launch pad to the national team from a demographics point of view if the training and development aspect can be improved to the point that the coaches can get their teams back on CSA radar.

Quick segue to the UBC Swim team and their incredible success within CIS. Why does UBC Swimming do so well? The answer is coaches. Coaches that over the year through their own personal excellence as coaches and connections to the national swim team were able to establish UBC as the virtual home of the national swimming program for years at a time. That ensured that every top swimmer in the country either came to UBC or gave serious consideration to doing so. Establishing the UBC women’s soccer program as a similar hub for higher level opportunities within the sport would similarly be a massive recruiting tool for the team.

That’s what’s on the table in the coming years for whoever gets the job. A fabulous set of tools that can be used to mould opportunities to make the UBC Women’s Soccer Program the jewel of women’s post-secondary soccer and a launch pad to professional and national teams.

Being an outstanding coach is the prerequisite to the job. Definitely, But to leverage these tools the right candidate will have to have the people skills to be able to develop relationships, patiently, with the CSA and Whitecaps to increase the likelihood of the Whitecaps rebuilding their women’s program and the CSA setting up shop for not just the women’s national team but the U17 and U20 teams. They will need to be able to identify, develop and then be willing to share resources with these allies, provide opposition for them in controlled 11v11 scrimmages, exchange data on players, etc.

There is no other women’s soccer environment in the country outside of the national team program that can facilitate quality, almost daily, training than university soccer teams in this country. The knock has always been that the season is too short to be a serious development opportunity. That’s true and it would need to change. There is nothing in CIS rules that dictates what teams can and can’t do in the soccer off-season. While you do need to respect that student-athletes are students first and have course loads that can interfere with training at certain times of the year, it can be accommodated. The right program, that would work in harmony with Whitecaps women’s programming and CSA national teams would be a huge draw for the top graduating high school players. Huge enough to offset  scholarship offers from the States in some cases and in combination with Sport Canada funding and UBC scholarships be just as financially beneficial.

Players would benefit from the collective efforts of UBC Athletics and their renewed promise to provide the best available sport science resources to the teams they consider top tier. A strong relationship with the CSA and Whitecaps would help move the women’s soccer team towards that category. In the mean time the players still benefit from the resources and expertise that the Caps and CSA would bring to the table and the exposure from training at the same facilities.

So, prospective applicants, here’s a review that can serve as a cheat sheet for your interview:

  • Define a program; make it a destination as UBC Swimming has done. Stress the opportunities that are currently fomenting.
  • Use Whitecaps potential interest in NWSL and resurrected women’s programming in general to create opportunity to work together. This will help recruiting.
  • Get CSA to work with Whitecaps to ensure the facility is used by women’s national teams. Further that relationship with CSA if it happens. Again, this will help recruiting.
  • Extend CIS season to make UBC women’s soccer a true development environment for those with aspirations to play at a higher levels

With the mess that was the last hiring procedure for this position you can be sure that this one will be under many microscopes. My hope is that the hiring committee has several people who understand women’s soccer in this country and where it’s currently at (ie. a crossroads, as other countries catch up to us) and that they understand what a top soccer coach actually does. This program needs to get the right person and give them remuneration that will keep them there for the three to five years it will take to build the program into a true force that will be very hard to compete with thereafter.

To do that in this city means they will have to offer real money. Unfortunately that is unlikely and as most of us live in financial realities that preclude taking pay large pay cuts in our prime earning years, it will be a difficult task finding the person who can take on what is both a great opportunity at a great institution and an onerous task for a good five years on modest remuneration.

Good luck to all who apply and a sincere wish that this program gets the coach it deserves to take it to the levels I’ve described.

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