VANCOUVER — Canada’s long World Cup drought continues.
After emotional highs and lows of CONCACAF qualification for Russia 2018, Canada’s national soccer team has fallen to its familiar place on the outside where it has been since its only World Cup appearance in 1986.
Facing long odds to advance before their final match of this round, the Canadians fought hard for a 3-1 victory over 10-man El Salvador on Tuesday night in front of 20,726 fans at BC Place. But they finished third in their group with seven points, one behind Honduras for the second and final berth in the hexagonal stage of CONCACAF qualification.
Although Mexico offered no assistance for Canada by playing to a scoreless draw with Honduras in Mexico City, the Canadians will have some serious self-reflection after losing control of their own fate and needing help to advance. Even if Mexico had won, Canada needed to close a goal differential advantage of five that Honduras held going into Tuesday. At times Canada looked capable of delivering as it created many chances, took 18 shots, had nine on target and Cyle Larin, Nik Ledgerwood and David Edgar scored.
Captain Atiba Hutchinson was noticeably upset long after the match when he met with the media. He said Canada came in with the right mentality to go for the win and get as many goals as possible.
“The other result didn’t go the way that we were hoping, but all you can really ask for is that the boys go out there and give their best performance, and that’s what they did,” Hutchinson said.
Asked what the program needs to do to reach that elusive Hex stage for the first time since 1998, Canada manager Benito Floro rubbed his forehead, let out a heavy sigh of exasperation and said, “lt is not a difficult question, but a question that needs a lot of time to explain.”
Trying to answer the big question briefly, Floro repeated his desire to see a Canadian league with upper and lower divisions for Canadian players to develop skills and better execute tactics.
“(Without this league) that means players don’t have the habit to create strong pressure, to do things to immediately recover the possession of the ball. This is a level of competitiveness,” Floro said. “This is not the problem of the CSA, this is (because) Canada doesn’t have a league.”
Not having its own league with a core amount of national team players is an impediment to Canada raising its quality to reach the level of advancing teams Mexico and Honduras, he said.
“Players who are playing in Honduras, who are playing in Mexico, who are playing in El Salvador they can make a clinic between weeks (of domestic league matches),” Floro said. “So for our team it’s impossible to do that because there is no Canadian league and the teams outside Canada are not going to allow us to make three days between Sunday and Sunday.”
Floro might not be back to see if the Canadian Soccer Association can achieve any progress with the national team in the next cycle, but he did not want to address his future on Tuesdaynight.
“This is not the moment to talk about that because we are finishing talking about the game. This is a matter for another moment,” Floro said when asked about whether he will remain as head coach.
His contract reportedly expires now that Canada has been eliminated from qualifying for Russia 2018, and the former Real Madrid boss’ lineup decisions and the inability to coax out a few more goals in past games have prompted significant criticism.
He continually played young Doneil Henry at right back instead of his usual centre-back, he left Will Johnson off the squad for the past two games after the Toronto FC midfielder played the previous four, and he used out-of-form Junior Hoilett for a full 90 minutes in the grueling heat of Honduras even though the former Queen’s Park Rangers midfielder is currently without a team.
Floro failed as so many of his predecessors have before as the Spaniard’s defensive posture, while a borne out of necessity, couldn’t prevent enough goals to overcome Canada’s continuous frustration when given opportunities to score. Les Rouges had two goals in the five previous qualification matches before breaking out with three Tuesday night.
Where there was once a feeling of optimism and progress back in November when Canada opened this round with a 1-0 victory over Honduras at BC Place, Les Rouges will linger in the lower end of the FIFA rankings. They’re currently No. 100, one behind North Korea and one ahead of Haiti.
While the six teams in the Hex (Mexico, Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, United States and Trinidad and Tobago) play games that matter, Canada is left to schedule friendlies with others from the also-ran scrap heap.
But the biggest shame of this World Cup qualifying was the further wasting of Hutchinson’s talents. One of Canada’s greatest all-time players is 33, so more qualification matches three andfour years from now are doubtful. The Brampton, Ontario, native and Beşiktaş J.K. midfielder earned his 78th cap on Tuesday. If it’s not his last, it’s likely one of his last.
Like Floro, Hutchinson wouldn’t say what his international-level plans are, saying “we’ll see what happens.”
Hutchinson said putting on the Canadian jersey has meant a lot to him and has been special every time, communicating his sincerity as he fought back tears when discussing his future.
But asked what he expects to see next from Canada’s national team, he turned more upbeat. Hoilett and Scott Arfield, who both joined Canada in the past year, energized the midfield and Man-of-the Match Larin is just 21 and should be the star striker to build around (now if only he can develop a shot with his left foot).
“It’s a bright future. There’s a lot of talent here, so we just have to continue to build on what we’ve been doing,” Hutchinson said. “We’ve been very strong at home and making sure we protect our home field, wherever we play in the country, that’s important for us. So if we just keep going in the right direction that way, then it’s not only the home games, but you have to start finding ways to win away from home.”
Unfortunately for the national team, however, it has to keep waiting to find its way onto the biggest international soccer stage.