TORONTO — The Canadian Men’s National Soccer Team continued its way along the road to relevance on Tuesday night, and the occasion was a reminder of how long the journey will be.
Canada was matched against Dominica at a chilly BMO Field, and it was not much of a fight. Dominica is a tiny island way down there in the West Indies, or the Lesser Antilles if you prefer, and in terms of size and population it was though Canada was playing against greater Charlottetown. That’s not an exaggeration for comedic effect: the whole of Dominica has about 71,000 people while Charlottetown and environs checks in about 69,000 and change.
Here are other things I learned about Dominica on Tuesday: it’s pronounced “Domin-EEK-a,” a nod to its French settler roots, and it has a fine-looking parrot on its flag. Its national soccer team is ranked 177th in the world and it has never qualified for the World Cup, although it has twice made the Caribbean Cup. It has scored three goals in that competition and surrendered 26. Still: nice parrot.
The disparity between the two sides was evident from the opening moments in Toronto. Canada almost scored on its opening touch when teenage wunderkind Alphonso Davies whipped a cross into the box from the left. In the third minute he tried that again, and this time Jonathan David got a foot on the ball to direct it into the top corner. Junior Hollett scored again for Canada in the 14th minute and then the home side was awarded a penalty kick four minutes after that. Lucas Cavallini took the spot kick and scored with a cheeky chip shot that he almost put over the bar. Bit of a jerk move, frankly. At this point only the final score was left to be determined. Having been gashed open, Dominica marshalled its defensive forces, limiting the damage to only two more goals over the final 70 minutes.
It wasn’t a stirring display of soccer, particularly at a stadium that has hosted two MLS Cup finals in the past two seasons. But for the small crowd on hand, very generously announced at more than 10,000, or about a seventh the size of Dominica, is was pretty much as expected. This is what Canada has gotten itself into. After crashing out (again) before the final stage of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, the men’s team is now amid qualifying for the CONCACAF Nations League, a new tournament that will provide a more regular schedule of international fixtures in the region. Because Canada didn’t make the final six of CONCACAF teams for the World Cup held last summer, it is now among the 34 teams that are being sorted out for the Nations League that begins next year. The men’s team, ranked seventh in CONCACAF, is a relative powerhouse among these nations, a collection of developing countries, small islands, and various former colonies and assorted protectorates. After thumping the U.S. Virgin Islands by a score of 8-0 last month, and handling Dominica 5-0 at BMO Field, Canada will venture to St. Kitts and Nevis next month and will finish its qualifying round in the spring against French Guiana. That team lost to St. Vincent and the Grenadines last week, but they thumped Anguilla 5-0 last month. It’s like that old saying goes: don’t sleep on French Guiana.
Anyway, it would take a disaster of calamitous proportions for the Canadian side to not finish in the top ten of this qualifying round, which would put them in the top pool of CONCACAF Nations League teams and also qualify them for next year’s Gold Cup.
And that’s where the real work for the men’s team would begin. John Herdman, the beloved former coach of the Canadian women’s national team who was brought to the men’s program in hopes he could finally be the one to sort it out, is using the qualifying round to get some young players game action, which has the side benefit of getting next-generation talent permanently attached to the Canadian team. That might actually be the primary benefit: among those who appeared on the pitch for Canada on Tuesday were goalkeeper Alessandro Busti, who plays for the under-23 squad of Italian giants Juventus, Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla, who plays on Barcelona’s reserve squad, and Zachary Brault-Guillard, a member of the reserve team for Olympique Lyonnais. They are all still teenagers, and should be in the prime of their professional careers when Canada plays a hosting role in the 2026 World Cup. (Qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has yet to begin.)
The men’s team, which still only has the one World Cup appearance, in 1986, to its credit, is playing the long game this time around. Nine players on the roster on Tuesday play for one of Canada’s three MLS teams, and next year there will be a new Canadian Premier League as a club-level training ground for soccer in this country. The evidence at BMO Field is that they are starting young, and hoping to build from there. It will take time.
For now, it’s on to St. Kitts and Nevis. Population-wise, it’s about the size of Fredericton.