Not long after Carolina Morace was presented as head coach of the Canadian women's soccer team, men's coach Dale Mitchell was given his walking papers, accompanied by a terse statement thanking him for his years of service. No replacement has been announced.
It is safe to say that Mitchell's tenure was not a successful one. In fact, in the 20 months that he was in charge, the national team won only four out of sixteen matches, beating St. Vincent & the Grenadines (twice), Martinique, and a club team that had just been relegated to the second division of the Danish League. And, for the third straight time, Canada went out of World Cup qualifying at the first group stage. To be fair, it was an extremely tough group, featuring Honduras, Mexico (against whom Canada actually played quite well), and Jamaica, but the team's failure to win even one of the six group matches was depressing (Canada have won a grand total of two of the last eighteen group stage matches). There was even an element of farce thrown in when former national team defender Jason de Vos got up on television and beaked off about the tactics employed by the women's team, earning him a withering response from Christine Sinclair. In short, Mitchell's time in charge represented a continuation of what has been a fairly dismal decade for the Canadian men's team.
So how do we go about fixing this? And believe me, it is fixable. As recently as nine years ago Canada were CONCACAF champions (i.e., champions of North and Central America and the Caribbean), with invitations to play in both the Copa America (the South American championship) and the Confederations Cup (a tournament contested by the various continental champions), and seemed poised for, if not greatness, at least respectability. So, here are some suggestions for how to get back there:
- Resist the urge to promote from within the CSA: In the short term at least, that well has been thoroughly poisoned, and it is time to bring in somebody new.
- In fact, don't hire a Canadian at all: The coaching reigns of Mitchell, Frank Yallop, and Bob Lenarduzzi, all stalwart performers for the national team in their day, were not terribly successful, although Lenarduzzi did better than the other two. Conversely, it was an Englishman, Tony Waiters, who took Canada to the World Cup in 1986, and a German, Holger Osieck, who won the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2000. As discussed yesterday, the Canadian women have enjoyed their greatest success under Even Pellerud, who's Norwegian. Yes, there are patriotic reasons for wanting to see a Canadian coach for the Canadian national team. However, if the English Football Association can swallow its pride long enough to hire a foreign coach for the English team not once but twice, then the CSA can do likewise. Fortunately, it appears that the CSA is not at all averse to the notion of foreign coaches.
- Hire ambitiously: And if we're going to go after a foreign coach, let's go big. Bora Milutinovic has made a career out of getting lesser soccer powers to the World Cup. Sven-Goran Eriksson was the first foreigner to coach England. "Big Phil" Scolari has in fact actually won the World Cup as a coach. I mention those three as hypothetical possibilities (and because all three are currently unemployed), and am aware all have cons to go with their pros, but that's the stature of coach that I'd like the CSA to look for.
- Set lofty goals, and insist that they be met: For example, "As of right now, it is completely and 100% unacceptable for the Canadian national team to lose a match in Canada, ever, to anyone, for any reason, period, full stop. If it happens, there is going to be shouting, feelings will be ruthlessly hurt, and there will be some new faces in the lineup next time out." I'm not asking for anything unattainable here; for much of the 1990s, Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton was a virtual fortress for the national side, and there's no reason why that can't be recreated, both at Commonwealth and elsewhere around the country. There has been a tendency, albeit an understandable one, not to demand very much from the men's national team, and I think that that mindset needs to be replaced.
- Try to keep the players in North America: Oddly enough, fifteen or even ten years ago my opinion on this was the exact opposite. And it's still rather heartwarming to see a Canadian kid go overseas and make it in one of the big European Leagues. However, that sort of thing does come with a cost to the national program. First of all, it's costing the program players. Most recently it was Jonathan de Guzman, who hails from southern Ontario but went overseas to play for Feyenoord Rotterdam. He subsequently obtained Dutch citizenship, and now turns out for their national side (his brother Julian, pictured above, elected to play for Canada, and this may represent the only instance of two brothers representing different countries). Secondly, having the national team players scattered all over the globe makes it very difficult for the coach to get any kind of tactical system in place. And finally, it's no longer necessary. There's a perfectly decent professional league in North America, with one team in Canada at the moment and more to come. And yes, the calibre of play in MLS is not that of the English Premier League, but it's a lot closer than one might expect.
There is cause for some optimism. The talent is there in the men's team, and the new coach will have a bit of time to get his system in place before qualifying for the 2014 World Cup begins. However, it seems to me that a change in the culture surrounding the team is going to be required before it can move forward.