Canadian soccer endures a year of change, disruption and disappointment
It was a year of change and mostly disappointment in Canadian soccer.
Captains Christine Sinclair and Atiba Hutchinson called time on their distinguished, talismanic international careers. John Herdman quit Canada to take over beleaguered Major League Soccer team Toronto FC.
The Olympic champion Canadian women disappointed at the FIFA World Cup in Australia, exiting after the group stage. But Bev Priestman's team rebounded in September to dispatch 40th-ranked Jamaica and qualify for next summer's Paris Olympics.
The Canadian men, meanwhile, collapsed in the CONCACAF Nations League quarterfinal against No. 55 Jamaica in November, losing the two-legged series on the away goals rule — a setback that necessitates a March playoff against No. 96 Trinidad and Tobago to qualify for Copa America and earn a date with World Cup champion Argentina next summer.
"All eyes will be on the team. It's global exposure for the players," interim Canada coach Mauro Biello said of Copa America, where No. 1 Argentina, No. 35 Peru and No. 40 Chile await the Canada-Trinidad winner in Group A.
Both Canadian teams see brighter days ahead.
"It's going to be a hard year, obviously. It's a transition year," said FC Porto midfielder Stephen Eustaquio, voted Canada Soccer's Men's Player of the Year. "Everybody knows that … It's a transition process but I think we're good. I think we have a solid team."
"I think for us there's a recognition that not every year is not going to be your best year as a team," added Chelsea midfielder Jessie Fleming, named Canada Soccer's Female Player of the Year. "Definitely a disappointing summer from us. But I think since the summer it's been really positive with the group and I think we have good momentum going into the new year."
But 2023 ends like 2022 did, with a labour black cloud hanging over Canada Soccer and its two marquee teams.
Hutchinson, 40, called it quits at the CONCACAF Nations League Finals in June in Las Vegas, coming off the bench in the 76th minute of Canada's 2-0 semifinal win over Panama for his record 104th cap.
He was a spectator at the final, where the Canadian men were blanked 2-0 by the United States. Hutchinson, who was 19 when he made his senior debut in January 2003, played in six Gold Cups and a Canadian-record 38 World Cup qualifying games.
Sinclair ended her 23-year senior international career in early December in a pair of wins over Australia in her B.C. backyard. The 40-year-old from Burnaby leaves with a world-record 190 goals and 331 caps, second only to American's Kristine Lilly's 354 caps.
Unlike Hutchinson, Sinclair plans to play one more season with her club team, the NWSL's Portland Thorns.
Veteran midfielder Sophie Schmidt (226 caps) and goalkeeper Erin McLeod (119 caps) also announced their international retirement.
"When I look back to myself and when I first started out, they welcomed me and other players with open arms," fullback/midfielder Ashley Lawrence said. "They allowed us to just flourish, spread our wings and be able to grow into the players that we are today."
In late August, Herdman announced he was leaving the national team to try to lead Toronto back to the MLS promised land after several dismal seasons. He had had enough of the politics and financial challenge of working for Canada Soccer, a governing body in both transition and turmoil.
Nick Bontis, under pressure from provincial and territorial soccer leaders, resigned as president in February, acknowledging change is needed to achieve labour peace. General secretary Earl Cochrane followed him out the door in April, with former Canada captain Jason deVos taking over on an interim basis.
A permanent general secretary is expected to be announced early in the new year, with a men's head coach to follow. DeVos. who declined to be interviewed, and Biello are both candidates for the respective jobs.
Canada Soccer's financial woes contributed to the men having to sit out the FIFA September window and play just once in October, outclassed 4-1 by No. 17 Japan in Niigata.
The Canadian men went 5-4-2 on the year, losing to the U.S. (twice), Japan and Jamaica. They started the year ranked 53rd in the world, after dropping 12 spots in the wake of losing all three of their matches at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and were 48th in the rankings released Nov. 30.
The Canadian women were 7-5-1 in 2023, starting the year sixth in the rankings and finishing it in 10th.
Labour unrest overshadowed the SheBelieves Cup in February, with the women's team briefly boycotting training only to return under the threat of legal action from Canada Soccer. Canada (1-2-0) finished last at the four-team tournament, hardly ideal prep for the World Cup.
On the plus side, the women ended the year with five straight home games, winning four of them. And Canada Soccer earned some rare kudos for its packaging of Sinclair's farewell international games.
The CONCACAF W Gold Cup in February is their next challenge.
Forge FC won the Canadian Premier League title for the fourth time in the league's five-year history, edging regular-season champion Cavalry FC 2-1 with all three goals coming in extra time at Hamilton's Tim Hortons Field. Each of the goals was remarkable, with Tristan Borges' 111th-minute winner via an Olimpico — a goal scored directly from a corner kick — a worthy finale.
Canada's poor record at the FIFA U-17 Men's World Cup continued in November with the Canadian men exiting after the group stage following losses to Mali (5-1), Spain (2-0) and Uzbekistan (3-0).
The defeat dropped the Canada's record to 0-20-4 in eight trips to the tournament. Canada has scored just 11 goals — one of which was an Argentine own goal — while conceding 70 over that span.
Canada failed to qualify for the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup on the men's side but has made it to the 2024 women's edition, finishing third under coach Cindy Tye at the CONCACAF Women’s U-20 Championship in June in the Dominican Republic.
Toronto finished last in MLS with a 4-20-10 record, firing Bob Bradley as head coach and sporting director in late June. Captain Michael Bradley retired at the end of the season and joined his father in Norway as part of Stabaek's coaching staff.
CF Montreal finished just below the playoff line at 12-17-5, firing head coach Hernan Losada in November.
Vancouver had the best season of three Canadian clubs, defeating Montreal in June to win the Canadian Championship and qualify for the revamped 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup. The Whitecaps (12-10-12) finished sixth in the Western Conference, losing to Los Angeles FC in the first round of the playoffs.
NJ/NY Gotham City FC won the NWSL title with a 2-1 win in November over OL Reign and Canadian internationals Jordyn Huitema and Quinn, who goes by one name.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 18, 2023.