When Jozy Altidore's head came in contact with the ball in the 40th minute, you knew where it was going. The ball struck the back of the net, giving the United States a 2-1 lead over their arch-rivals from Mexico. This was Altidore's first career goal at the senior level for the United States, quite the accomplishment for the 18 year old New York Red Bulls striker. As the ball hit the back of the net, the pro-Meixco crowd fell silent, except for a small contingent of American fans behind the net, who went crazy. Altidore ran over, looked at them, and kissed the American badge. This was a moment that American fans will remember for years to come, and will no doubt become accustomed to over the next 15 years.
It was hard, as a Canadian soccer fan, to not feel jealous. Watching Altidore direct the ball into the back of the net was tough, because Canada has no Altidore, a soccer prodigy. The future of Canadian soccer was put on display this summer, when Canada hosted the 2007 U-20 World Cup, a gathering of the worlds top young soccer players. As usual, the host nation had high expectations, Canada was expected to move past the group stage and advance to the knockout round of the tournament. However it was clear that the Canadian team was outmatched from the very start. In the first game, a 3-0 loss to Chile, Canada was completely dominated throughout the game. From there, Canada would go onto drop games against Austria and Congo. Canada's performance was no fluke; they were completely outmatched in every game, our so called "top players" performed poorly. It was clear that Canada had no prodigy on their team, nor did they have solid talent throughout their system. If the performance at the U-20 World Cup is not an indicator of our lack of talent at the U-20 level, then I really don't know what is.
Jozy Altidore on the other hand, was dominating the tournament along with his American teammates. Altidore was a force up front for the Americans, who opened the tournament with a 1-1 draw against Korea. From there, however, the Americans would start to play up to their potential. A 6-1 thrashing of Poland came next, where Freddy Adu netted a hat-trick. Then the Americans would go onto defeat Brazil on the back Jozy Altidore's two strikes. A win against Uraguay in the round of 16 came next, when Michael Bradley netted the winner in the 107th minute. For those who don't know anything about Bradley, well you should probably get used to hearing his name. The Heerenveen midfielder has been a hit overseas, playing an integral part of the Dutch clubs midfield. Bradley recently broke the record for most goals scored by an American in a European first division, and has received interest from many top clubs around the world.
The Americans would eventually lose to Austria; however they had let the world know that North America was no longer a laughing stock. Freddy Adu would finish the tournament as one of the top players, scoring a number of fantastic goals. The former DC United player would prove the critics wrong, and show the world why he is one of the better young players to be playing the worlds game. His performance at the U-20's would catch the eye of many top European clubs, with Benfica coming out on top in the end, signing the Real Salt Lake prodigy. Altidore would score one more goal against Austria, bringing his total to four, one more than super kid Alexandre Pato. Danny Szetela would tie Adu's three goals, showing fans that there was more to the team than Bradley, Adu, and Altidore. Chris Seitz gave the United States another top young GK to add to their arsenal, along with players like Brad Guzan and Tim Howard. The country seems to be produce top goalkeepers by the minute.
Oh yea, North Americas other entry, Mexico, made the semi finals. Wonder kid Gio Dos Santos wowed fans with his skill, leading the Mexicans throughout the tournament. Dos Santos, a key member of Spanish side Barcelona, will be one to watch in the future. It will also be fun to watch Dos Santos and Altidore face off against each other over the next 10 years, and see who can come out on top as the best player. Players like Carlos Vela and Pablo Barrera also suited up for Mexico, showing that Mexico certainly has a bright future ahead of them.
You're going to be hard pressed to find any Canadian player who has made an impact as big as the players mentioned on the Mexican and American U-20 teams, or with their clubs. There was one player who could have been Canada's Altidore/Vela/Bradley/Adu/Dos Santos, but he's playing for some team called the Oranje. Judas De Guzman could have been Canada's first true superstar in the sport of soccer; the Feyenoord midfielder is currently one of the top young players in the world, as he has consistently been one of the Eredivisie's top midfielders. Outside of De Guzman, Canada had little to look forward to, however De Guzman offered Canadian fans a flicker of hope that maybe, just maybe, we would have a new star to watch. Well that flicker is gone, and the candle hasn't been lit by anyone else.
Our supposed top young players have failed to make strides similar to those made by their continental counterparts. In fact, you could argue that some of them have taken steps back. If people believe we are catching up, then you must be mistaken, we are indeed falling behind. Even at the senior level, it's hard to be optimistic at some points.
The state of the sport of soccer in Canada may not be at an all time low, but it is very close to it. This could obviously be argued, with the fact that we very recently were robbed at the Gold Cup, where a berth in the final was taken away by Benito Archundia and his linesman. However, the results on the pitch since that missed call have been very average. Canada came out of the Gold Cup with their first friendly against Iceland, an island of around 313,000 people. Iceland was ranked at number 117 in the FIFA World Rankings in August of 2007, and the fact that Canada could only manage a draw against the secluded island, is fascinating to me. How does a country that dwarfs Iceland only manage a draw against them? It just shows how much work really needs to be done if Canada wants to improve on the world stage, especially when you compare the situation to our neighbours to the south at the senior level. The United States is quickly becoming a force, while Canada continues to fight to stay with Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago, Guatemala and Honduras.
Next Canada would come home to Toronto's BMO Field (or the National Soccer Stadium), the home of Toronto FC. A sparse gathering, mostly situated in south end of the stadium, watched their national team battle the Ticos for 90 minutes. A 1-1 draw would be the final, a respectable result. After that, the Canadian team traveled to a continent rarely touched by the Canucks, Africa. A friendly was played against South Africa's B team, a sure win in most fans eyes. The match did not go as expected; the Canucks gave an absolutely terrible effort. It was hard to watch.
Most recently the Canadian Soccer Association organized the "winter camp", a gathering of Canada's rejects, well maybe that's not very nice, the Canadian B team (a few first team players were there). Canada would battle world superpowers Martinique and Danish club Vejle Boldklub, securing wins in each match. You were probably happy we did not drop either game, but to take any sense of accomplishment away from either game would be laughable. Oh and uh, just a reminder, who has the United States played over the winter? Sweden and Mexico. But that's the CSA's fault, another reason to feel terrible about the future. Oh well. Maybe the CSF will change things, maybe...
Back to our players
Canada has an outside shot at qualifying for the World Cup; it will be a tough road to South Africa for the Canucks. If we do indeed qualify, I along with every Canadian soccer fan will be over the moon. I would no doubt travel to South Africa to cheer on our boys. But who takes over from there? The United States can hand over the team to Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu, Michael Bradley, Brad Guzan, etc. Mexico can hand it over to Gio Dos Santos, Nery Castillo, Carlos Vela, Andrés Guardado, Guillermo Ochoa, etc. Canada to... Jamie Peters? David Edgar? They just don't match up. Canada has to get their act together, or the next 20 years might end up being a tough couple of decades for Canadian soccer fans. The rest of North America is improving rapidly, but Canada isn't.