Coaching the competitive recreational team

I’ve always bristled at the idea that teams are either elite/high performance or recreational/grassroots. I think there’s a substantial group of teams that don’t tidily fit into these two categories. I’d call them competitive recreational teams and they fit closer to elite/HP than purely grassroots.

The parameters

So what do these teams look like? What distinguishes them from the other two categories? Let’s start with this:

  • Players are not playing at the highest level available either by selection or choice
  • Generally training twice per week; sometimes three times
  • Players accommodated when it comes to playing other sports as long as soccer remains at least on par with other sport(s)
  • Liberal playing time policy, usually mandated by club but where not, the coach adopts this

In addition to being the Technical Director for a large Vancouver youth club I also coach my son’s team. They recently started the U15 season. They play at the third level of play. It’s called Gold and follows after BCSPL (BC Soccer Premier League; 8 teams in the province, six of which are in the Metro Vancouver area) and the MSL (Metro Selects League; usually 10 to 16 teams depending on the age group; all teams in Metro Vancouver). I should note that our club, despite being one of the largest is not allowed to put teams in MSL unlike almost all other clubs in Metro Vancouver. This is down to the fact our District, gatekeepers for determine how MSL will function among its clubs, has opted to put one, ostensibly, District run team in to represent it. We are in the process of challenging this and requesting to be given the option to put teams into this second tier of play. BC Soccer has stated that the only High Performance levels in the province are Whitecaps Residency programs and BCSPL. All others are grassroots.

That sets up where our club fits in and helps explain why we created a program called Gold Plus for our U11 and up Gold teams. Sometimes players don’t end up at the level they want and want to stay within touching distance of that through a program that provides extra club based support. This is what Gold Plus does. It’s perfect for the competitive recreational teams at our club.

The last things I’ll make clear are…

1. I have gone out of my way to proactively contact coaches at both MSL and BCSPL about players on my team that I think are capable of playing at those levels of play. I’m on my third kid and my 17th season coaching kids professionally. I’m over the vanity kick that sees coaches horde players to win titles at lower levels of play. Besides, it’s my professional responsibility to move players on to higher levels and I take that seriously.

2. Because I have coached professionally a long time, have played at a high level for many years before that and have a life that is thoroughly immersed in the game, my teams should do well, should win leagues and do well in Cup play. Again this is not intended as anything other than a road map to the many other coaches with similar level teams that might not have coached as long or have the background in the game I’ve been fortunate enough to have. I have motivated players, many of whom could and/or should be playing higher but choose not to. Im making no claims to being a coaching genius. I’m aware of the inherent advantages I have in terms of relative experience as a coach and relative pick of players.

The approach

Here’s what I’m trying to do with my 2002 boys.

1) Our focus

At this level you are doing well if you can count on getting a quarter turf field twice per week. If you’re lucky there’s three of you on the field at the same time and you can rotate getting a half field every third session. That is huge and should be planned for.

Last year we were that team that trained twice per week on a quarter field. About half the team (I carry 15) opted for a third Academy session through the club. Median attendance was about 12-13. The year before when we were U13 we were able to rotate through a half field with two other teams both nights we trained. As the players were new to 11 a side at U13 that and the fact that we were able to play a lot of games in the spring helped us tremendously.

Our sessions were either in 75 minute slots or 90 minute slots. Ball rolling time is paramount and a near obsession for me. I want to wring as much out of those minutes as possible. Water breaks are 30 seconds tops and they het just one, maybe two. As much as possible, sessions are planned, accounting for the space we have, to flow from one element to the next with a minimum of set up between them. As much set up as possible is done before the players start.

Here are the key aspects that we have focused on:

Initially at U13:

  • Spacing and general roles and responsibilities in a 4-3-3
  • Confidence on the ball and encouragement to maintain possession and play through opponents’ pressure as much as possible
  • Early decisions on and off the ball (recognizing situations and acting on them)
  • Quick ball movement

Then on top of that at U14:

  • Adaptability to other formations
  • Breaking lines with passes (in all thirds)
  • Deception in passing
  • More sophisticated movement in attacking third

Now at U15:

  • Engaging training sessions that create game-like scenarios via SSG’s
  • Creating a strong team identity
  • Giving them the confidence to dictate how games are played

Playing out from the back as a first option is so heavily engrained in them that when we were playing a Coastal Cup quarter final game against one of the top MSL teams and protecting a 1-0 lead with ten men (we need to work on the coach’s son avoiding stupid red cards) our CB’s were still splitting wide and our keeper was throwing to them despite a four to five man press at the top of our box. I won’t lie. I told him to “mix it up” after a few of those (while wildly gesticulating to pump it over their press). We ended up winning 2-0 but in retrospect it was a defining moment for them. Despite playing against one of the better teams from a league above them they showed the composure in a difficult situation to play through pressure. Lumping the ball down the field had become such a foreign concept to them that it didn’t dawn on them to fall back on it.

Players who had been with me in the past had already been subjected to my thoughts on teaching positional play (link) and I had purposefully favoured intelligent players over physical players as I knew I would be expecting them to develop confidence in possession and that comes primarily from soccer specific intelligence, even before technique. We have players that still, mainly through physical growth issues, have a touch that would suggest they play down a level, yet are very effective on a team that has the won the league both the years they’ve played 11 a side because they have an understanding of the game that is beyond the average player they play against both at their own level and when they play MSL teams in tournaments and Cup play.

2) Fitness (is a waste of time)

Literally. I had my players in training for 2.5 hrs per week last season. Dedicating time to fitness exercises without a ball is counter-productive. If I felt it was important to improve them substantially in terms of aerobic fitness, I’d really need to commit at least 20 minutes of each practice to that. A bit less for anaerobic but it would still be a chunk of time given the rest periods between work. My experience is that it’s a waste of time.

These players have never run a lap under my watch. They’ve never done doggies/suicides/shuttles. There’s no time or need for that at this level. They get their fitness, game fitness, from the small sided games and the insistence that the tempo stays high with few breaks. When we play SSG’s, there are always balls within easy reach. My asst coach and I fetch them if necessary so the players can keep playing. We keep spares in our hands and throw them in to keep play moving. Again, we carried fifteen players both seasons. We played many games with one or two subs. We won the league by 19 points in a 16 game season. That may suggest we are clearly at the wrong level but the reality is that we only won three games by more than one goal. We lost one and tied one. The games were competitive but we consistently rallied and/or hung on to get wins and out of shape teams don’t do that.

That 20 minutes spent playing 3v3 with a two touch restriction is giving them similar fitness plus touches on the ball, combination play, physical strength from 50-50 balls and shielding and hundreds, not exaggerating, hundreds of opportunities to sense, calculate, consider, decide and act.

3) Very little time on set pieces

Almost all work on set pieces was based on playing out from the back on goal kicks. Next was short corners. Direct free kicks were either direct shots at goal or keeping possession with a short pass if we were out of shooting range. Wide free kicks were played in for headers (which very rarely materialized).

I’d guess two thirds of our corners were played short. We scored three times last season off of short corners. We didn’t score once on long corners.

Direct free kick don’t need much in the way of contrivances. The keepers at these ages are still very small relative to the full size goals they protect. Identify players who can strike a ball well, know their range and have them hit for goal when they’re within that range. Nothing fancy.

4) Don’t create divisions

I touched on this in another thing I wrote here. I don’t pick team captains and I don’t pick MVP’s after games or after the season. They’re peers. They’re teammates. They’re teenagers. It’s hard enough being a teenager these days. They don’t need a hierarchy imposed on them by adults to maintain a competitive edge in training. They don’t need an adult telling them one or two are special and are the ‘captain’;  particularly when it’s really just a ceremonial title and serves little function. It just serves to divide and categorize them. Even if you let the players pick the captain themselves. I  italicized let because you’re actually telling them they have to vote for a captain. They are not choosing to do so and by turn you are forcing them to pick some over others and create the division between them themselves.

5) Check in with them

They’re playing at a competitive recreational level but it doesn’t mean that’s what will always work for them. Some of them may be ready to try to make an elite level teams. Some may want to drop down to more grassroots level. Your job is to discuss this with them and their parents and, if a move up or down is plausible, to try to facilitate it. We don’t own players. They are not chattel. We coach to serve them and their needs.

6) Miscellaneous

  • Nothing in training should involve standing in a line for more than ten seconds. This follows on the idea of treating training time as being very important and maximizing what you can get done in that done.
  • Keep your phone in your pocket. You want them to focus? You have to set the example if you want buy in.
  • FIFA 11+. I’ve been doing it as an injury prevention warmup for the last 7-8 years. I have found it really effective and I have insisted that our U11 to U18 teams at our club do it as well. You never know, with certainty, in the end what factor is responsible for injuries occurring or not occurring but I definitely feel this has been a contributing factor to very low injury rates on my teams. I don’t have them do any stretching unless they have been told to do so by a physio to aid recovery from an injury.
  • Small Sided Games (SSG). There is nothing that will get you as much bang for your buck as well chosen, conditioned SSG’s that bring out the elements of play that you are targeting. At U13 and up, learning principles of play, positional roles and responsibilities, fitness, tactical awareness and technical refinement can all be done most effectively and organically through SSG’s. Possession games fall into this category as far as I’m concerned even though most aren’t necessarily directional (ie attacking a goal, defending another goal).
  • Be demanding. Tell them the truth. Both the good and bad. It’s far more important that your players trust you rather than they are your pals. They need to know you are on their side when it comes to helping them improve as a player. When they see that your critiques are honest but delivered empathetically, they will concomitantly take praise to hear more rather than seeing it as just meaningless platitudes. I had a parent tell me the players were tired of a coach who relentlessly praised everything the kids regardless of whether it was right, wrong, good or bad ‘to boost their confidence’. They just ended up tuning him out. They were old enough that it just felt patronizing after awhile.
  • Have a session plan. On paper and on you during practice. Have variations you can quickly go to if you end up with fewer players than you were expecting (sadly more common than ending up with more players than you were expecting). Make quick notes on how to improve or add to what you’re doing based on how its going. Being adaptable is necessary at this level. Your commitment level isn’t as high as it is for elite level teams so you need to be able to adjust if the numbers don’t match what you need for your plan.


If you’re coaching a competitive recreational team you probably have multi sport athletes that see soccer as either one of two or three priorities or that its a secondary priority for them. Your job is to respect this and try to make it work for the individual while they have to respect that they are part of a team. Issues around commitment are most common manifested around playing time. This is where I find a smaller squad is handy. Finding appropriate playing time for those that are at every practice is much easier. If you’re operating within club policies on playing time (ours is half a game minimum every game in the absence of discipline problems and unexplained absences from training) then its much easier to do this with fewer players. With 15 on the squad, I average 13-14 each game. Two to three subs is very manageable. I generally just roll them through every 15 minutes or so. It lets me keep some players on the whole game if necessary while ensuring everyone else is getting two thirds to three quarters of the game. And when you do end up playing the odd game, or half a game if some get injured during a game, its not a big deal for 11 of them to play the whole game with no subs. They’re already close to doing that .

If you’re aware of the environment you’re coaching in and attuned to what’s realistic for your players you will win the battle to keep them playing. If your training sessions are appropriate for the age and level, progressive in terms of equipping them with confidence and ability  you will win the majority of the battles on the field. Note that they are related. If you can retain players who have been following a plan you have laid out you will have success on the field and that success will tie the players to the team and also help reduce attrition.

Get them to U18 and if they’re confident, capable players who want to continue into adult soccer,  pat yourself on the back. You’ve done a good job.

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The Euro…avec famille

This is way longer than it should be. I did a TL;DR (Too long, didn’t read) summary at the bottom

  • The cast: Myself, my wife (aka L), my 20 year old daughter (C) and 14 year old son (T)
  • The locations: Marseille, Port Grimaud, Nice, Lyon, Saint Etienne, Aix-en-Provence and a few other spots in Provence.



Only been on the plane an hour when the iPad scrabble came out and I came out guns a blazing with this beauty

We leave Vancouver on the Friday night and are overnight into London before connecting to Marseille. We’re supposed to arrive three hours before the England v Russia game that we have tickets for. We’re also meeting our daughter who’s been away for six months studying in Lyon and then travelling the past seven weeks with friends around Europe. One of her parting remarks to me was, “You’re getting fat. Seriously, you better lose some weight and get in better shape.” Nice kid. The plane arrives an hour late and for the first time ever in the 200+ flights I’ve been on, our luggage has been lost by BA. Another delay.

After a quick bus/metro combo from the airport, we emerge within 5oom of the stadium to a throng of people hawking tickets for the game. Dozens of them. The crowds along Avenue du Prado leading to the Stade Velodrome are a mix of tense people trying to navigate through to the stadium and bellicose drunks both Russian and English. I recall telling L that the safest place to be would be inside the stadium as the security will be stifling. I’d resolved that I would quietly ensure that we avoided crowds and minimized time in airports and train stations. You find yourself in helter skelter crowds heading to games though and you realize whatever plans you have do not jibe well with reality on the ground and you just go with the flow.

We’d fortunately found a place to stay for that night in a hotel that was all but touching the stadium. Couldn’t have been closer so after our brief, joyous reunion with C where it was clear that the 25lbs I had lost since last seeing her had somehow found its way onto her in the form on Pain de Raison, croissants, souvlaki and booze. I couldn’t help but laugh.

Security was as expected but still not quite as overwhelming in terms of its presence as the World Cup in Brazil was. Ill say this though. The police and military that were working….were working. They were focused on their job and taking it very seriously. Into the stadium 45 minutes before kick off and England fans are everywhere. We have great seats 20 yards from the touchline and 11 rows up. The designated area in one end zone for the Russian fans is full as is England’s but the English have got at least two thirds of all the other seats in the stadium and dominate by colour and volume. It really is something to see England play in international tournaments. Especially in their first game when there’s still all that unwarranted optimism competing with alcohol in the bloodstream of the hordes from Albion, Hull, Croydon, etc.


ENG v RUS; just before kickoff and 90 minutes before it really kicked off in the stadium.

We had a great view of Dier’s goal for England.

We were very fortunate to be at the other end of the stadium post-game when Russian ‘fans’ charged into what was ostensibly an area for neutrals but had a large percentage of England fans. This was nasty and flew in the face of my repeated statements to L that the stadiums themselves would be safe and secure. I kept repeating “I’ve never seen this happen at a game I’ve been at.” What you can’t quite see in the video below is that as people were rushing to the right to escape Russians there was a high retaining wall and while it was possible to get over people were getting crushed against it for a minute or so before security got ahold of the situation. In the end, from a ‘my family’ point of view,the only thing that took a hit was my credibility.

Planning this trip had been an exercise in negotiating various agenda. My wife’s interest in soccer approaches zero if her kid isn’t playing but she stuck on a smile and joined in on the “Allez les Bleues” chants. She was tolerating the games as interruptions to the various Provence excursions she had planned but definitely came away glad to have experienced them. I’m still not sure if her repeatedly calling it the ‘World Cup’ was a passive aggressive piss take or not. She actually copped to briefly falling asleep, standing up, at the England-Russia game. Jet lag? I have my doubts.

T’s agenda was simple. See as many games as possible and return home with a pair of the newly released Nike Hypervenoms that he was sure wouldn’t arrive in Canada for another six months. I’d researched likely places we could buy them and really wanted it out of the way early so it didn’t become a source of tension. This is a kid who knows which players wear which boots, when they’re released and what the YouTube reviews for all new boots say. He knew exactly what boot he wanted and was fine with the fact that getting them would mean stacking what I’d normally spend on boots for him on top of the full weight of what would generally be spent on his birthday present.

So while L & C had a sleep in after the England v Russia game we were up early to get into Marseille to go to JD Sports. Plan was to take the Metro, get the boots, pick up the rental car on the way back, pick up L & C and then head out of Marseille. I looked up the JD Sports map for their Marseille store and we headed off. For some hilarious reason, the map shows the location as being 5km from where it actually is.


Hypervenom Pursuit Fail #1

We asked four or five locals where it was when we were standing right where the map showed and they couldn’t figure it out. We sought wi-fi and eventually figured out the problem. A short metro ride later we triumphantly arrived to find that it was closed on Sundays despite the website saying it would be open.

Fortunately, picking up the car rental was smooth. I was worried that two speeding tickets I picked up in Portugal and Spain in 2011 (both sent to me in Vancouver by registered mail; both ignored) might pop up on the Europcar computer as I used them back then as well. Nope. Got a spanking new Renault Kadjar SUV and was feeling pretty stoked as T and I got in. Then I remembered it was manual and the last time I’d driven anything but automatic was that time in Europe five years previous. Naturally, my re-introduction to 5 speed transmissions was a quick right across the sidewalk from where it was parked followed by an immediate left onto Marseille’s busiest road. We were twenty seconds and two lurches into the trip before T pronounced, “We’re totally gonna die.”

I’m pleased to say that in the course of driving that car about 1200km, I only stalled once and disappointed my family many times in the process of not stalling and lurching far more than that thus negating their opportunity to ridicule me.

Our base for the next week was Port Grimaud near St Tropez. You’ve heard of St Tropez but likely not Port Grimaud or the neighbouring town of Grimaud. Simply put, don’t go to St Tropez unless you have an obsession with high end brand boutique stores, staring slack jawed at $50m yachts and/or a desire to bump into Russian oligarchs while sipping your $6 bottle of Coke.

Instead go to Grimaud and Port Grimaud. So much less crowded and other worldly. You still get a beautiful beach and I’ll take the town of Grimaud in terms of beauty over St Tropez every time.

We were hooked up with AM Sport Tours through local soccer mastermind, Chris Murphy, for accommodation in Port Grimaud. They had teams coming through two weeks at a time for all inclusive trips during the Euro that included playing games, seeing Euro games as well as accommodation, meals and transport. These guys totally know what they’re doing and the place in Port Grimaud was a perfect choice. We were very happy to glom on for the accommodation side of things.

Left: C & L at the beach in Port Grimaud. Top right: Us at the castle in Grimaud. Bottom right:  From the electric boat you can inexpensively rent to tour the canals at Port Grimaud and where L’s hat flew off her head and into the water just as we were docking causing considerable screaming and panicking as she tried to back the boat up to get it only to see a larger tour boat run right over it, sinking it pronto. 

Port Grimaud was a great place to relax and have some beach time but the reality was that we had a packed itinerary and we were on the road a lot. First on the list was a day trip to Iles d’Hyeres. Short, fast ferry took you from the mainland to laid back island with travel brochure water.


IMG_2978Beach at Iles d’Hyeres

Great afternoon then back to the car. France, by the way, has a parking lot system I haven’t seen before. Get your ticket when you come in then put it in the slot as you leave. Machine tell you what you owe and you put your credit card in the same slot to pay. Gate rises and you’re gone. All done in ten seconds. No attendant. First time I saw this was where we parked to go to Iles d’Hyeres I was so impressed it overwhelmed my urge to vomit at how much I’d just paid to park.

So now it was time for our second game: France v Albania back at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille. When I got the tickets in the mail and saw we’d be in Row 72 I was worried about us falling off the back of the stadium. No need to be concerned. There were at least another 25 rows behind. Cool perspective too if you’re a coach. We were almost on the halfway line. T’s second demand after getting me to buy him the ugliest, most expensive boots on the planet was to ensure that we got to the stadium at least an hour before kick off. Bad weather worked to T’s favour on this day as a plan to visit Cassis and then hike the famous calanques around there was abridged to just Cassis leaving more pre-game time. It also meant we’d have more time to get to JD Sports again before it closed.

The Albanians were in full throttle party mode in the port area of Marseille. Where the English and Russian supporters had staged full on battles four days previous the scene was now French and Albanians together trying to out sing each other.

Hung around for a bit there and then off to the (open!) JD Sports who had a DJ playing at the front door and freestylers doing their thing on the pedestrian mall out front. Awesome! Where’s your boots? “We only sell football boots online. Not in the store.”  To offset the sting of not getting the boots, again, we went by an Olympic Marseille store and picked up a ball (T gets the equivalent of the DT’s if he has to go more than a few days without a ball at his feet). Cool looking OM ball and picked up an even cooler t-shirt for myself.

Top: My Bielsa t-shirt. Guy at the France v Albania game in front of us rocking no less than three cameras. Middle: View of France v Albania from row 72. Bottom: 90 minutes before kick off and there’s already about 12-15000 Albania fans in the stadium. T and the OM ball that would last less than 24 hours. Yes, that’s a CANmnt hoodie.

Got to see late, quality goals by Griezmann and Payet and then it was back to the car. My fingers were quietly crossed as we made our way back (by the way, full kudos to the French for the efficient way they got crowds in and out of the stadium and on their way; 68 000 at this game and we waited maybe 10 minutes to get on a Metro). After we’d bought the ball and t-shirt, T and I walked back to the huge parkade we’d parked in nearby. On our way in, we heard an Albanian family, gathered at the intercom, loudly telling whoever was at the other end that their car had been broken into and all their stuff had been taken. Naturally this was the one day I’d had to bring my laptop with me as C was scheduled to register for her courses at UBC after the game and couldn’t miss her time slot. Crossed my fingers and told T to just keep that to ourselves so we could just enjoy the game.

By the way it was truly a Jetsons moment on the drive home. Zooming down the excellent French highways while my daughters iPhone streamed songs on Apple Music via Bluetooth through the car speakers while she simultaneously used her hot spot to connect my laptop to the UBC course registration page. I reminded everyone that when I did my big round the world back packing trip, I had to send a telegram when we got to Nepal as it was the only way to communicate with our families back home. Meanwhile C paid just 20 Euros/ month for her French phone package and got unlimited calling and texting (including to Canada) and 50GB of data.

Highlight of the next day was kicking around our new Olympique Marseille ball. Smiles all around until I tried to chip it over a stout palm tree and it got stuck 20 feet up. No problem. We found some rocks and pelted it until it looked like it had to fall. I knew there may be a problem when it clearly looked an ornament hanging from a Christmas tree. It was defying gravity. One more solid hit with a rock and it fell to the grass. Totally deflated. A very sharp palm frond had pierced it as if a very large hypodermic had been jammed into it. Done. T made it clear I owed him a new ball.

Writing about going to Nice is difficult now given the light tone of this and how it just doesn’t fit at all with the tragic attack on innocent people celebrating Bastille Day on the very road we drove along.  I’d worried, like most, about some sort of attack while we were there and L’s sisters were none too pleased about us going but we talked about it and came to the conclusion that the odds were very low, that we would take precautions to avoid crowds and that, in the end, you just can’t live your life hiding under a rock waiting for doom to descend on your life.

Spain v Turkey was the only game that I wasn’t able to get via directly so I went through Louie, a local ticket broker who worked all the high profile events world wide. We got one of our Brazil World Cup games through him so I knew the deal. 50% deposit up front and then the rest in Nice where he would give me the tickets. Unfortunately, one of the first texts I got when we arrived was from my friend Dale who let me know that Louie had been tossed in jail for selling tickets at the France v Romania opener the night before. I had no idea how that was going to affect getting the tickets but it got sorted out in time and one of Louie’s associates got the tickets to us when we got to Nice. That ended up being the lesser of our logistical challenges for that game.

After a fruitless third and fourth attempt to get T’s Hypervenoms at stores in Nice, we touristed about Nice and then met up with Dale and his family to watch the rest of the Italy v Sweden game. We had a vague plan for a fifth quest for the new boots but I’d got a taste of Nice traffic on the way in and decided it was best to just give us lots of time to get to the stadium as it meant getting from the waterfront up to the north east of the city. Only 10km away and the stadium only held 35000 but better safe than sorry. We left at 6pm. The pain began at 6:10pm once we got off Promenade des Anglaises. Our parkade exited to it and it had been closed to traffic in advance of the game in anticipation of crowds coming down to the fan zone area to watch the game. Once off our private road we hit the very definition of gridlock. If I’d known how bad it was going to be from there on in, I’d have parked the car and walked the 10km. There were 20 minute stretches where we moved two car lengths. It seemed our strategy to head a bit east and then north to the highway before going west to the stadium to avoid cutting through the central part of the city was not my most original  thought. While it lightened up once we got to the highway it was still two hours plus before the stadium came into view. Now picture cars arriving from various directions and all trying to park. Europe doesn’t do stadium parking the way most North American cities do. In the end I had to go tap into my inner action movie star and pull out of the crawling traffic being heavily guided by police and take advantage of the SUV’s high clearance to muscle up onto a sidewalk taking a hard right between people walking to the stadium through a just wide enough pedestrian entry to a small gravel parking lot that seemed to be for staff or VIP’s as its regular entrance was closed off and patrolled. At this point I had no idea if there was any space to even park but we found literally the only real estate big enough to fit in and then to our joy, realized we were just 400m from the stadium entrance.

There must have been anywhere between 4-8 police who saw all this but they were not concerned. The traffic cops were in ‘no harm, no foul’ mode and the security cops had bigger fish to fry.

Got to the stadium with 30-40 minutes to spare. Even had time to pick up something from the souvenir stand. Patiently waited behind a Turkish guy with his son who was impatiently waiting for an older guy who was clearly trying to re-enact a Monty Python skit with his purchase. He took at least ten minutes from the time I joined the line and the Turkish guy accelerated from fuming to full on yelling, “This is not normal! You have been here 30 minutes! This is not normal!”  So now a manager comes over to calm him down. As they start talking, Michael Palin shuffles off after changing his order eight times and having two credit cards not work. I seize the space at the counter, “Large Spain shirt, please.” and hand over exact change. Out of their in seconds while the Turkish guy is still being told he’ll have to calm down or they won’t serve him.

Left: The Nice waterfront. Right: T and I playing soccer table tennis in the fan zone on the Promenade des Anglaises and action from the Spain v Turkey game.

Got to watch the Spain game in the Spanish supporters section behind the goal which was pretty cool. Got a text from another friend, Fred, once the game had started, asking if we’d made it in. I knew he was going to this game too. I let him know we’d made it. He let me know he was still on the highway, moving at a crawl. I felt terrible for him. In the end they made it in before half time and he had to pull his own version of ‘how to creatively park you car’.

Two days later, as scheduled, we met up with Fred and his family at the 17th century farmhouse they had rented in Aix-en-Provence. Set on four acres with a gorgeous swimming pool it gave us a nice change of pace and a chance for the kids to hang out, kick a ball around (yes, I bought a T a replacement ball in Nice) and pretty much wander about agog knowing we were in a house that was built the same year the first white man laid eyes on Lake Erie. 

It was everything you want in a stay in Provence. I pictured two idyllic days watching games on TV, drinking local wine, lounging around the pool and having some laughs. Then someone with a seriously maladjusted sense of adventure and/or humour suggested we all ‘hike’ Montagne Sainte Victoire. See in the pictures below how happy we are as we start? That was the only picture where we look like that. Naturally we started the festivities around 3pm to take advantage of the full brunt of the summer sun. It was nearly 30 degrees celsius and your best chance of shade was to hope some kind of flying insect shadowed you as you went up.

Take the Grouse Grind, double the length, remove any and all semblance of shade, add long patches of scrabbly rock and then mock people with signs that tell you you’ve gone the ‘easy’ (facile) route. That’s the approach trail makers took here. We bumped into a group of Americans who had tried the ‘difficile’ route and turned back. “There was ropes and shit. Part of it you had to free climb.” Thanks for the comprehensive warning sign, mes amis!

I moan and wish I could say I jest but it was really, really hard. Nine of us set out. L, C, Fred’s wife and youngest turned back about halfway through due to a combination of heat, lack of water and common sense. Fred, who had summited before on a previous trip, then back tracked to make sure they got back to the bottom all right. That left me, T and Fred’s two eldest sons, aged 14 and 17.

None of us had enough water and their ages combined were still 5 years shy of mine. I powered through using mumbled obscenities as fuel. The summit is marked by a huge concrete and steel cross. Upon reaching it, my attitude changed entirely and we took pictures of what is now clearly my favourite non-soccer memory of the trip.

Top left: Nine enthusiastic, smiling people near the base. Top right: Two signs. One understated, one underestimating.  Essentially two lies. Bottom (L-R). At the summit. Don’t care what your sign says. The boys heading back down. Para-sailers mocking our efforts with their grace.

What saved us in the end was the well located within the deserted chapel 200m from the top. The sign said the water wasn’t drinkable but we saw a French guy drinking it and asked him if it was safe. He shrugged and gave it the old, “Je ne sais pas mais c’est froid!” That was enough for us. After about a litre each of cold, not entirely clear water we had enough to clear and cool our heads and happily make our way down. Ordered loads of pizza on the way back. As per French custom in the region, it came with a free bottle of rosé wine.

Clockwise from top left: Pool chez Fred in Aix-en-Provence, the house Fred’s family had while there, the massive-est fireplace you’ve ever seen, fantastic vinyl vendor at the outdoor Monday market in Aix-en-P, me and L in Aix-en-P (with replacement hat).

Our time in Aix-en-Provence wrapped up at what Fred’s wife said was the best public market in Provence. They were previously in Aix for a year so she knew and was right. L & C went early with her while Fred and I joined later on. It was great weather and it really was impressive. Could’ve gone nuts at the vinyl vendor’s stall but that stuff doesn’t pack well.

I’d booked every night’s accommodation before we left except for the one following Aix-en-P as I’d wanted to keep open the option of getting Sweden v Belgium tickets and selling our Portugal v Hungary ones in Lyon. The price never wavered on the SWE v BEL game though and there was no market for selling my POR v HUN ones so we opted to head north a bit, find a place to stay in the Vaucluse region at the north end of Provence and then get to Lyon the day after in time to see our game. I was left to book a place with instructions from L to get something nice with a pool. I almost cheaped out and got a room at an Ibis by the highway but instead we got a place as close to what we’d enjoyed chez Fred as was possible. Seriously, if you want an authentic Provence experience try to spend a day or two at Hotel L’Hermitage just north of Pernes Les Fontaines. The rooms are decent enough but the grounds and the setting for breakfast are what make it special.

Hotel  l’Hermitage; clockwise from top left: Breakfast outside, beers by the pool, the view of the hotel grounds we woke up to from our window in the morning, hotel patio.

We were into the final days now. A quick sprint up to Lyon, check in at a blah business hotel halfway between downtown and the stadium (Lyon’s new stadium looks great but is way out in the sticks and not serviced by the Metro). This was where C had spent the winter semester studying here as part of UBC’s Go Global program and had really enjoyed her time here. She wanted to show us around and we were happy to have a knowledgeable guide with rock solid French. She’d already seen the Olympique Lyonnaise v Olympique Marseille game there, the second ever league game played there so the stadium wasn’t new to her.

Portugal v Hungary was a game I picked up in the UEFA lottery before the draw. Having seen Portugal twice in the World Cup I wasn’t too jazzed and had been hoping to dump the tickets and get in to see Zlatan against Belgium but it wasn’t to be. Our expectations were low and we’d already seen three really entertaining games so we were probably due a dud.

In qualifying, Portugal managed to score 11 goals in their 8 games. That got them first place and automatic qualification while Hungary’s 11 goals in 10 games meant they had to go through a back door home and away with Norway. So, no, we didn’t see a 3-3 thriller coming. It stagnated a bit when Austria tied it up against Iceland in the group’s other tilt. Portugal realized the 3-3 draw would carry them through to the second round and Hungary realized it would win them the group. But what a first 65 minutes. Every game had seen great support for both teams but this one brought out the noise from both sets of fans more than any other. Those that say going to a 24 team tournament bloated it and the minnows diminished the quality really needed to be in the stadium to see the excitement that we saw from Albanian and Hungarian fans and how bringing four of six third place teams into the second round made every final round robin game meaningful.

C had advised us to get a place in Presqu’île so our last three days were there and it really was the place to be. Beautiful downtown area. Huge chunks in and around Lyon have been declared UNESCO Heritage sites including all of Presqu’île. Many refer to it as a more liveable version of Paris and I’d find it hard to argue against that. It’s also considered the culinary capital of Lyon, as C’s new circumference can attest to. Yes, if you get a chance to go to France you really have to see Paris at some point but get down to Lyon if you can. It’s excellent. Nice has the ocean and a great little area in behind but if I was going back, Lyon’s the first city I’d return to.

Once we were into our new digs in Presqu’île we had business to attend to. We were in our last major city and still had Hypervenoms to find. SO Foot looked like our best chance and it was less than a ten minute walk from the hotel. The four of us set off. Again, you have to appreciate that T’s favourite landmark in London was The Boot Room. In Barcelona, after the Camp Nou, it was FutbolMania. This is not at all an exaggeration. For this trip, when pressed, it’s quite likely that his favourite landmark in all of France may be SO Foot.

 Top: finally! Middle: Boots in the bag. Trip is officially a success. Bottom: not staged.

It was a pretty great store for fanatics like us. Not only did they have all the stuff you’d expect, they had more French national team kit than anyone else and large sales racks for adidas (50% off), Nike and Puma (40% off each). I almost bought some French sweat pants that would have cost more than any pair of dress pants I’ve ever owned. C agreed they were top notch but I didn’t pull the trigger.

Our last game was the second rounder between Poland and the Swiss. While we’d been hoping France and Germany would stumble in their round robin games and come second so we’d get to see them play, the odds were always low and being fresh off the surprise six goal thriller we happily hopped on the train from Lyon to Saint Etienne and figured anything could happen.

Of course what did happen was the goal of the tournament. Shaqiri’s acrobatic side volley to tie it up happened almost right in front of us. We were thirty yards out and 13 rows up both on the side and end that he struck it from. It was a perfect end to the five games for us.

I caught the fan reaction right after the goal including T’s stunned face.

Clockwise from top left: Ticket to the Sociology of Football exhibit at a museum in Lyon, beers in Old Lyon with freiends, action from Switzerland v Poland, just a couple of Poland fans sitting behind us in Saint Etienne…

So post-game we made our way back by Metro and train, grabbed a quick dinner and set about packing for the trip home. The last of the Irish fans were making their way to Lyon as well ahead of their second round game against France the next day. You were more likely to hear the Irish fans before you saw them. They were there for a good time and given they were up against the French probably knew it wasn’t going to be for a long time. We were in the heart of the bars and restaurants of Presqu’île and despite being eight floors up the noise from the fans below boomed up towards us. We had to be up before 6am to get on our way to the airport to catch our flight so we passed on going down and joining what were awesome festivities. I almost jumped out of bed around 1am when I heard what sounded like every French and Irish fan down below joining in on a extended version of the Yaya/Kolo Toure song but figured by the time I got dressed and got down it would be over.

Here’s a quick video shot from our room of the French singing their national anthem to give you some idea of what it was like.

And that was it. A very long layover in Heathrow let us catch most of the Ireland v France game and even the first bit of the Germany v Slovakia match. Then it was homeward bound. In tact, smiles on our faces and very fortunate to have seen five entertaining games and had some great day trips. To tie in with being to spend time with friends over there made it even more memorable. Unlikely a trip like this will happen again for us unless of course Canada qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Two days later T discovered that his boots were available at Sport Chek…

All pictures and video copyright Gregor Young


TL;DR version


  • Go to Provence with your family. It’s a pretty easy trip and the people are hospitable
  • Buy tickets for games and not worry if it’s two teams you’re not excited to see
  • Stay at Hotel l’Hermitage in Pernes des Fontaines
  • Go to Lyon and stay in Presqu’île
  • Leave for the stadium three hours early for big games in Nice
  • Climb Montagne Sainte Victoire



  • Go to St Tropez
  • Expect to find good beer anywhere in France
  • Believe that violence never happens inside the stadium anymore
  • Kick soccer balls into palm trees
  • Pay attention to how much you’re paying for parking and road tolls
  • Climb Montagne Sainte Victoire




Posted in 2016 Euro, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

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


“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.


“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


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


“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.” –


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.

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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.


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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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