Copa América | Canadian team may never be the same again

(Arlington, Texas) One by one, Canada’s players left their locker room. Some arm in arm. Others with cold cans of beer in hand.


Published at 1:08 am

Updated at 7:00 a.m.



joshua wise

The New York Times

Ismael Koné, who scored Canada’s shootout winner in their Copa America quarterfinal victory over Venezuela on Friday, carried a loudspeaker above his head blaring hip-hop music as he paraded past dozens of stunned Venezuelan journalists.

You couldn’t mistake the strange, new feeling this represented.

Less than two years earlier, Canada had been eliminated by Croatia in its second game of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The Croatian team had descended on the mixed zone, where reporters wait to talk to players after games, blasting music from a loudspeaker to remind everyone which team had won.

So as Koné and his teammates danced in style, the feeling Canada had long sought was clear: unbridled, deserved pride and joy.

For years, this Canadian team had been defined by promise. Its players were rich in talent but devoid of experience. Their biggest win had come in CONCACAF. But outside that region, and even in the elimination rounds within that region, Canada stumbled. The Canadians would learn the hard way, with Croatian pop songs stuck in their heads.

Now, with a signature victory, Canada can proudly march to the sound of its own music. It has finally become the team it has wanted to be for so long.

At the Copa America, Canada, ranked 48e in the world, lost 2-0 against Argentina (1is) – his opponent in the semi-final –, beat Peru (31e) 1-0, drew 0-0 with Chile (40e) and eliminated Venezuela (54e) in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 tie. It was Canada’s first victory in a penalty shootout since beating Martinique a generation ago in the 2002 Gold Cup quarterfinals in Miami.

The story of Canada’s Central American adventures has usually ended the same way: returning home with its tail between its legs. A sloppy, crushing 8-1 loss to Honduras in 2012, when the country needed only a draw to advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying, was the norm, not the exception.

But this time, Canada didn’t wither under the noise. No more teachable moments. After years of disappointment, the win over Venezuela showed that the Canadians have acquired the kind of mental toughness it takes to win a championship.

“It takes all these other experiences, these World Cup games that we lose, to get here,” midfielder Jonathan Osorio said.

PHOTO JEROME MIRON, ARCHIVES USA TODAY SPORTS

Jose Solomon Rondon and Jonathan Osorio

What Canada has been through for years has been necessary for its evolution. For generations, a lack of interest has engulfed this team, born largely from a lack of results and the dominance of hockey as one of the country’s national sports. The 1986 World Cup trip, Canada’s first, is more of a mirage than a memory in the minds of Canadians. Now, they will host a World Cup on home soil in less than two years.

Here, we need to separate the men’s and women’s teams. The latter has enjoyed the kind of success – including an Olympic gold medal in 2021 – that its male counterpart has lacked.

But while the women’s team was on the rise, the men’s team stagnated. The sport grew in popularity throughout the 2000s. Canada’s men, unfortunately, didn’t produce enough results to make them relevant to a wider audience.

Things were different under John Herdman in 2018. There was a new star in Alphonso Davies and a forward-looking culture that Canadians took notice of. Qualifying for the 2022 World Cup was a start, but three disappointing losses in Qatar had bars and basements across the country saying it was “the same old Canada.”

Especially in tournaments, what is the point of the process if the results don’t come?

Winning in a shootout in what was essentially a road game – in front of a very pro-Venezuela crowd in Texas – could be Canada’s biggest leap toward a broader conversation across the country.

“We’re reaching a wider audience than just the football fanatics in Canada. And that’s what you want to do,” said defender Alistair Johnston. “We’re inspiring a lot of people and a lot of people are really listening, saying, ‘Wow, not only is this team going to these kinds of tournaments, they’re competing.’ That’s something the guys can be proud of.”

Victory could, and should, change the narrative around this team.

The Canadians were without Tajon Buchanan, their best player at the 2022 World Cup, after he broke his leg in practice, casting a shadow over this team’s chances. But rather than knocking them down, it fueled them. When Jacob Shaffelburg pulled out a Buchanan jersey to celebrate his goal, Canada’s determination reached new heights.

PHOTO CHARLY TRIBALLEAU, ARCHIVES AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Jacob Shaffelburg pulled out a Tajon Buchanan jersey to celebrate his goal last Friday.

The talent is certainly there. More kids play soccer than hockey in Canada. The sport is relatively inexpensive and a diverse population can blend its roots from soccer-loving nations with Canada’s ever-expanding fields.

Yet the Canadian Premier League was only founded in 2019. Major League Soccer’s three Canadian teams and their academy systems are only just emerging from their embryonic state.

Talent will still slip through the cracks.

That’s what almost happened to Koné, who grew up playing in Montreal parks rather than organized academies. And to Shaffelburg, who was born in Nova Scotia.

But the dramatic victory over Venezuela served as a reminder of what those deeply involved in Canadian soccer have been saying for years: There’s more to soccer in Canada than Davies, and there’s more to this team than its stars.

Because this team leaves a different impression. While they didn’t get respect in the past, they should now.

“Probably not,” new head coach Jesse Marsch said when asked if Canada gets enough respect.

But it will take time. Respect comes in many different ways, but the best way to get respect is to win games.

Jesse Marsch, head coach of the Canadian team

“When you have those moments, the key is to stay focused and capture the energy around the team. That’s what we did. Within this group, there was focus and concentration to keep going.”

Even with Argentina still in the semifinals Tuesday night at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Canadians can now feel like they belong in the game in a way they never have before. That means the Canadian national team may never be the same again.

“I think people have to realize that it doesn’t happen right away,” Osorio said. “You have to learn and take steps forward. And that’s what we did. And that’s why we are where we are today.”

This article was published in the New York TimesThe Canada-Argentina semi-final at the Copa América will take place this Tuesday at 8 p.m. and will be broadcast on RDS.

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