I would be amiss to not address the elephant in the room. The Tavern is not an apolitical place – it so happens sometimes that we discuss politics of the day and other world issues, in between our KFA cynicism and Lee Seungwoo fandom.
Obviously, last night, the world was shook by a Presidential result nobody saw coming. I can only speak for myself, but it’s far from the result I had wanted. Even as a Canadian, American elections often have innumerable consequences on Canada, our political climate and our economy.
So let me just say this: my personal emotions about this result are no more or less important than the emotions of those who support the President-elect. We all have felt left out, or left behind, or ignored and betrayed by those in power. But we’ve soldiered on. And yeah, maybe our side didn’t win last night, and maybe we’re scared about what lies ahead. We need to soldier on. And it is obvious that the United States and the world is a very divided place right now. But we need to soldier on. Together.
Why am I saying this? Because I need to clear the air. If you’re reading these lines on this site, it’s quite possible you too are feeling confused and terrified by what has transpired. We at the Tavern are just going to carry on. We’re going to grumble about the KFA and worship Hwang Heechan and Lee Seungwoo’s holiness.
Peace, love, and Korean football. It’s the best antidote.
So, the Korean national team is taking on Canada on Friday at Cheonan Stadium! We’ll get into the implications and how Korea will approach this game in another post, but for today, we turn to a good friend of mine (and fellow Daejeon Citizen supporter!) Namu Yoon who will give us a primer on the Canadian national team.
1) Canada and Korea actually have a little bit of history, going back to the Gold Cup. Can you elaborate?
When Canadian soccer fans think of Korea in footballing terms, the first two words that come into mind for many fans are “coin toss”. Canada and Korea last faced off in 2000 and 2002, with both fixtures coming at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which serves as the biennial continental championship for North American, Central American and Caribbean nations.
Korea was invited to both the 2000 and 2002 editions as guests, where they were put in a 3-team Group D with Canada in the 2000 edition, with their group stage match ending in a 0-0 draw in Los Angeles. A 3-team group unfortunately left open the possibility of the two nations being tied on every single tiebreaker used at the tournament for advancing into the quarter-finals.
With all tiebreakers exhausted, Canada and Korea faced off in a coin toss, which Canada won to advance to the knockout stages, as they went on to win the whole tournament in the national team’s arguably 2nd greatest triumph in history, with the biggest triumph being winning the 1985 edition of the CONCACAF Championship to qualify for the 1986 World Cup, which counts as Canada’s single WC appearance to date.
Korea and Canada faced off once again 2 years later in the 2002 edition of the Gold Cup, as Korea was invited once again as a guest to the tournament, which served well in the preparation for the 2002 World Cup. The two sides faced off in the third place match at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, as an early goal by Kim Do-hoon was overturned by an own goal from the Korean striker and a strike immediately after from Dwayne De Rosario, as Canada came away with a 2-1 victory.
To sum up the initial reaction that Canadian fans had when they learned of an upcoming friendly with Korea, one prominent fan asked if we could settle any draw in this fixture with another coin toss.
2) But it was yet another unsuccessful World Cup qualifying campaign for Canada (sniff, sniff). What happened? What went right and what went wrong?
Under Benito Floro, the well-travelled Spanish manager and the most recognized international name Canada has had at the helm in recent years, the men’s national team (MNT) breezed its way into the 4th round of the 2018 WC qualifiers in CONCACAF as expected, after dispatching Dominica and Belize, respectively, in the 2nd and 3rd round of WC qualifiers. Facing a group of Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, Canada came a single point short of a 2nd place finish and qualification onto the 5th and final round of the qualifiers, to much chagrin, leading to Floro’s resignation after Canada’s elimination.
Among the things that did go right over the last qualifying cycle, Floro has been credited for bringing a more professional and sophisticated training regime since he took charge in 2013, as national team players have praised often in various interviews, while the team gradually morphed into mainly a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 formation that emphasized collective defense first and foremost.
In addition, the presence of Floro has been credited for the relatively recent commitment of older UK-based players such as Junior Hoilett (Cardiff City FC) and Scott Arfield (Burnley FC), among a number of other players previously wavering on their commitment, to the Canadian program. Finally, Floro was happy to integrate exciting new talents into the team that he felt deserved a starting berth, including Cyle Larin (Orlando City FC) and Tesho Akindele (FC Dallas).
However, despite some relatively high optimism, things did not go right for Canada in the end. Floro’s regime started with 5 consecutive matches without a goal for the team, immediately earning him a reputation as an ultra-conservative tactician. While results in later friendlies and qualifiers leading up to the 2015 Gold Cup led to some optimism, Canada crashed out of the group stages on home soil without scoring a goal, once again leading to scrutiny of Floro’s tactics, despite the new offensive weapons he had in his arsenal.
With his reputation as a dour tactician, further hindered by his unpopular mid-match decisions, and the unpopular continued omission of Jonathan Osorio (Toronto FC), a highly popular attacking mid talent, Floro entered the 4th round of qualifiers against regional powerhouse Mexico, along with mortally hated Honduras and wild-card El Salvador, with many of the fans baying for his head, or at the least, with reserved expectations.
A home win against Honduras to start the group stage in Nov 2015 put many fans to relief and cautious optimism, but an away draw at a highly weakened El Salvador, followed by two hammerings against Mexico, put the team needing a draw away at San Pedro Sula, Honduras to have a realistic chance of being able to progress to the fabled “Hex”, the 6-team 5th round of WC qualifying in CONCACAF. Despite taking a lead away, Canada was outclassed in a 2-1 loss in September, leaving Canada with a highly difficult scenario to qualify through its last group stage match. The result, a 3-1 home win vs El Salvador, was not enough, and academic to boot.
A deeper look at Canada’s failings
The biggest failures that many fans may point to may be the unpopular decisions that I have pointed above, and what I noticed was a lack of any effective overlapping fullback play, particularly on the right flank, or the lack of a killer instinct or composure in the final attacking third by the forward 3, was quite apparent while watching the team play. But in my opinion, those factors were of smaller consequence than two other factors that Canadian fans do recognize as a major long-term structural issue.
The first is that Canada is unable to, for a myriad of reasons, enough competitive matches, particularly those away in Central America, where Canada has suffered its biggest heartbreaks. CONCACAF has stated recently that it is exploring a revamp of the WC qualifying format to ensure that more nations have more meaningful matches to play for a longer period of time.
The second is that Canada as a whole has a domestic club scene that has potential but still has much blossoming to do. The two ways that most fans recognize this needs to be improved is:
a) Canadians need to be recognized by MLS, a league in which the 3 biggest Canadian cities compete in, as domestic players in non-Canadian MLS clubs, as opposed to their current foreign status, and
b) Canada as a whole needs a greater number of professional clubs beyond the 5 it currently has in MLS, NASL and USL, the top 3 levels of the U.S. soccer league system that Canadian teams currently participates in (in addition to the 3 reserve teams in USL and semi-pro/amateur teams further down the system).
A greater number of pro clubs in Canada could be achieved through either gradual expansion in the 3 aforementioned leagues, or through a number of expansion clubs in a new stand-alone domestic league in Canada, which if happens would likely be called the Canadian Premier League (CPL). The outgoing CSA President, and the newly-minted CONCACAF President, Victor Montagliani, has stated in previous months that work is ongoing on this massive project.
3) So then, what’s the point of this friendly for Canada?
This friendly was welcomed in Canadian circles as a much-needed tough technical opponent that qualifies regularly for the World Cup, the type of tough opponents that Canada needs to face often to ensure that it is facing quality opposition throughout the year, even as we have crashed out of the qualifiers and now only has the 2017 Gold Cup to look forward to.
Floro resigned after the conclusion of the 4th round of qualifiers, with interim manager Michael Findlay keeping the 4-3-3 shape in 2 friendlies in October, a 4-0 win over Mauritania in neutral territory (Morocco), followed by a 0-4 away hammering in Morocco, a sobering reminder of the gap that Canada has to close.
However, the drawback of this friendly is that Canada has not or been unable to schedule a 2nd friendly for this international window, and added to the fact that Canada does not have a truly meaningful fixture for 6 months at least, this has given little incentive for the coaching staff to ask players playing regular or important minutes in Europe or in the ongoing MLS playoffs to come to the camp.
With that in mind, a large number of regulars have not been invited, including Arfield, Hoilett, Osorio, Akindele, Milan Borjan (Ludogorets Razgrad, Bulgaria), Simeon Jackson (Walsall FC), Nik Ledgerwood (FC Edmonton), Tosaint Ricketts and Will Johnson (both Toronto FC), or will be absent through injury, including Hoilett and Doneil Henry (West Ham United), while captain Atiba Hutchinson (Besiktas) is pondering his international future at the moment. This has given opportunity for some youngsters to be given an opportunity to shine against Korea.
4) It goes without saying that Korea is on a higher technical level than Canada, but who could cause the Koreans some problems? What does Canada have to do to conjure up a shocking and embarrassing result?
5) Any idea of what Canada will do tactically? In other words, what kind of opposition is Canada to Korea?
Due to the nature of the roster composition, as described above, Canadian fans are generally not holding their breath against Korea, even though I am reading that Korea is also likely to rest some of the key players for the all-important qualifier against Uzbekistan. If Canada had its full A team at hand, I would have pointed to Junior Hoilett at LW as the obvious danger man for Canada, the one player who has a level of decisiveness in his dribbling, passing and movement off the ball that I have not seen from many other Canadian players. Atiba Hutchinson has had some fine seasons as captain at Besiktas, and his main strength is his incredible calmness on the ball and ability to shield the ball using his physical frame.
With these absences in mind, the main thing I will be looking for from Canada for this match will be the overlapping play of Marcel de Jong (Vancouver Whitecaps FC) from the LB position and his service to Cyle Larin, who is just 21 years of age but has proven himself to be a poacher extraordinaire in MLS. The combination of de Jong and Hoilett on the left flank, in my mind, was Canada’s most dangerous weapon during our last round of qualifiers, and Larin, who needs improvement with his link-up play outside the penalty area but can finish like no other inside the box, will be tasked with getting on the end of any ball that comes between Korea’s keeper and 2 centre-backs. This, combined with a focus on collective defense from all 10 outfield players, will be Canada’s likeliest and best route to an away result in Cheonan.
I would be surprised if Findlay deviated away from the 4-3-3. Don’t panic in the attacking third or in midfield, or in the back 4, pretty much anywhere on the field, by the speed of Korea, and Canada will have to take advantage of its strength in set pieces, particularly from whoever makes up the CB pairing for this match.
I believe reading that Korea asked Canada specifically for this friendly as Canada had played Uzbekistan in a June friendly before the all-important qualifiers, in a 2-1 win for Canada in neutral Austria.
6) Finally, a lineup / Score prediction + final thoughts?
I would like to see Canada in this lineup, and I think it’s a fair expectation as well:
(4-3-3) Leutwiler; Aird, Vitoria, Jakovic, de Jong; Piette, Edgar, Straith; Haworth, Haber, Larin
The wild card among the subs, or as a potential starter, could be Marco Bustos, a 20 year old attacking midfield talent who spent the season with the reserves of Vancouver Whitecaps FC, in USL. I will tell you though, writing out that starting XI made me wince just a bit, as Canada is missing a good ten players that could push for a spot in a best starting XI. For reference, I will put my ideal XI below.
(4-3-3) Borjan; Ledgerwood, Edgar, Jakovic, de Jong; Johnson, Hutchinson, Osorio; Arfield, Larin, Hoilett
My final thoughts would be that I hope Korean and Canadian fans enjoy this match, but not to expect anything spectacular out of it, as both sides are or will very likely be missing a good number of its star players. I do predict Korea will come away with the win, but anything can happen in sports, and the experience for the Canadians will be a boost in preparation for the 2017 Gold Cup, especially those in the camp who will be looking to impress the coaching staff during the absence of many of the regulars.
I want to give a shoutout to the Voyageurs forum (thevoyageurs.org) for its incredible depth of information on Canadian footy and knowledge among Canadian soccer fans, as well as the supporter group itself. To Koreans and other readers interested in reading more about Canadian footy, check out RedNation Online, Canadian Soccer News, Northern Starting XI and the Voyageurs. To Canadians interested in reading more about Korean footy, check out the Tavern of the Taeguk Warriors, K-League United, Korean Footballers Abroad, and the Red Devils, the Korea NT’s supporters group. And last but not least, the infamous BigSoccer.
For me personally, it is an honour writing this article on behalf of all my good Korean-Canadian friends who love footy and have made so many friends in Canada because of the sport. And lastly, I hope that this match can provide some much needed show of peace and unity in a world that is increasingly going away from these ideals. I believe soccer, despite its shortcomings, unites the world like no other, and to have the two nations play each other means a lot to me and many Koreans and Canadians, and we all hope that the two of us will be able to face off in even greater meaningful competitions in the future.
You can find Namu Yoon on Twitter at @namujyoon