Tuesday, December 22, 2009

2009: The year in blogging

He said to the bystanders, “Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.” (And they said to him, “Lord, he has ten pounds!”) “I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

Luke 14:24-46

Or, the rich get richer. Depends on your point of view I guess.

In that spirit, please revisit my top 10 most popular posts of 2009. Not sure why they ended up as most popular; read them again to find out!

  1. Two of my least favourite Canadians: A handshake seals a Faustian bargain. Which one is the devil?
  2. Santos-Impact: 2nd leg live blog: Both Jason de Vos and I selected this game as our low moment in Canadian soccer in '09. But looking back, you'll see that it all started with so much promise.
  3. Nutrilite Canadian Championship pool: The beginning of the most popular contest to date on this blog. Congrats to our eventual winner, squizz, of some canadian guys... (honest, it wasn't fixed).
  4. MLS vs USL-1: Head to head: Arguments about the relative strength of MLS and USL-1 teams seem a bit quaint now, given that the two strongest franchises of the former USL-1 are MLS bound, and the lesser league has recently imploded. But it's the kind of argument that deserves some numerical analysis, which I provided.
  5. The next traitor?: I try to guess who the next player will be to switch national allegiances. My guess? David Hoilett. While he may yet choose another country, two other players have jumped ship in the 9 months since this post: Asmir Begovic and Jacob Lensky. So take what you read on this blog with a pretty big grain of salt.
  6. Montreal Impact - Santos: Monday preview: A preview of the first leg of that epic CCL quarterfinal.
  7. The treason scale: Where does Begovic weigh in?: A scientific measurement scale for opportunism and disloyalty.
  8. The Lensky interview: Back when we still cared about this guy, he did an interview with the Dutch press, when he couldn't quite decide what to do with his life. I applied my considerable linguistic talents and translated.
  9. Soccer 360 magazine review: I had to return a Christmas present and bought a soccer magazine for the bus ride home.
  10. Does CONCACAF deserve more World Cup representation?: Numbers again. Just a week old, this post looks at the performance of the weak sisters of world football (AFC, CAF, CONCACAF) in the last 4 World Cups.
Happy reading.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Monday cup of coffee: Christmas edition

Christmas is a wonderful time of year for people to spend time with their families and loved ones. But at times like these it is important not to forget that we live in a world full of pain, suffering and injustice.

And nothing lately seems quite so unjust as blonde-haired Natalie's Survivor win over oil tycoon Russell. Never in the history of that beloved game has a person controlled matters so utterly as did the lovable liar. The jury was stupid, no doubt, as testified to by the fact that the former Galu tribe members, despite their immense numbers advantage, ended up on the jury and not in the final three. Perhaps one day this wound will heal. But until then, let's remember Russell.

On to the good stuff, in a relatively newsy week for late December.

Simeon Jackson named POTY

This CSA award, voted by media and coaches, has been won in the past by Dwayne de Rosario (2005-2007) and Julian de Guzman (2008). Jackson was announced as the winner, narrowly beating out De Rosario. The full results:
1. Simeon Jackson (18.2)
2. Dwayne De Rosario (17.6)
3. Julian de Guzman (17.4)
4. Mike Klukowski (10.9)
5. Will Johnson (10.7)
6. Atiba Hutchinson (8.2)
7. Nevio Pizzolitto (7.5)
8. Ali Gerba (3.9)
9. Kevin McKenna (2.3)
10. Ethan Gage (0.6)
10. Charles Gbeke (0.6)
10. Tomasz Radzinski (0.6)
Allow me to discredit the intelligence of the assembled voters. Ethan Gage, who only played about half of the games for the Whitecaps, is a clear homer pick. Gbeke had a monster goal scoring season but does not belong in the same league as most of the other players. Clear homer picks.

Nevio Pizzolitto probably earned a few Montreal-based votes too, but has a better case to be on the list. He was probably included in the short list because of his excellent career, and as the preeminent Canadian player on a USL-1 champion team.

But how did De Rosario score so high? Sure, he was the most productive player on Toronto FC, but this is a team that missed the playoffs. Again. And he didn't play a minute for Canada.

I'm not so crazy about the Jackson selection either. He scored a bundle of goals in 2009, but more than half of those were in the first half of the year when he was playing for a League Two outfit. To his credit he showed up for Canada, but apart from his single goal against Cyprus he appeared not quite up to the challenge of international play.

To my mind, the most deserving players are those who won something (UEFA qualification for Klukowski and Hutchinson, an MLS title for Will Johnson). You also see the usual offensive player bias in this list as well: Andre Hainault (Houston), Dejan Jakovic (DC United) and Pat Onstad (Houston) all had better MLS campaigns than Gerba or even de Guzman (admittedly abbreviated).

Speaking of de Guzman, how does a guy who played maybe 20 games total in the entire year get on the list? From 2005 to 2007 he had a hard time getting his name to the top of the list, despite being Canada's best talent by far, but now that he's switched shirts, he almost wins without playing. Coincidence?

The Voyageurs' 2009 POTY as well as the CSA Fans' Choice are both awards I give more credence to, and I suspect we'll see a more thoughtful selection of players.

Canada to play Jamaica

As is its custom, the CSA doesn't spill the beans until all the details have been ironed out, but Canada will be playing Jamaica in Kingston (Jamaica, not Ontario) on January 31st. The Jamaican press have been all over this, and it is listed on Canada's FIFA page, suggest it is more or less a done deal.

From the linked article (Jamaica observer):
Burrell, also a member of the Jack Warner-led CONCACAF Executive Committee, explained that the deal with the Canadians has a reciprocal element where the Boyz are due to travel to Canada for a return match in 2010 or 2011, whichever is more convenient for both associations.
This I like. The Canadian association has promised two home friendlies for the men's team in 2010, and while not without skepticism, I am hopeful this promise will be fulfilled. Getting Jamaica into BMO should sell tickets, and frankly, I could care less about the ratio of Jamaican to Canadian support, as long as its money in the bank for the CSA.

The article also confirms a week long camp in Ft Lauderdale for Canada, which I'd imagine would also include some sort of kickabout, such as a closed door friendly or match against some Euro team on a tropical winter break.

Canada's all time record (W-D-L) against Jamaica is a healthy 7-3-6.

Canadian soccer blog post of the week: Read a great collection of soccer writers and commentators, and one total hack, in the SCGTAS roundtable (pt 1 / 2 / 3)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Does CONCACAF deserve more World Cup representation?

I find myself in the uncomfortable position of hoping that Honduras does well at next summer's World Cup in order to strengthen the argument that CONCACAF is not, in fact, the weakest of confederations, and therefore deserves an extra half spot. You know, to make qualification for Canada a sight easier. Having 4 teams qualify directly might also cause CONCACAF to reconsider its ludicrous qualifying format where 80% of the teams are eliminated after a year.

Ostensibly, the allocation of spots is based, at least in part, on performances at past World Cups. The best way to compare the weak confederations (Africa, Asia, North/Central America) is to measure the group stage performances of the qualified teams, since so few advance to the later rounds.

I ran the data for World Cups back to 1994, and here are the results:

Points per team in group stage
UEFA 4.84
OFC**** 4
CAF 2.65
AFC 2.43

**** This mark is based entirely on Australia's 2006 performance.

The standard arguments given against further participation from CONCACAF is that the region has only one strong team, Mexico (more recently, two). I dispute the merit of the argument, but even if we accept that argument, removing Mexico's results from the picture yields a CONCACAF number of 2.13. If we do the same for the best African side over that period, Nigeria, and the best Asian country, Korea, those confederations put up 2.29 and 2 respectively.

Population as an argument doesn't hold water: the most populous Asian countries (China, India, Indonesia) have done nothing at all at World Cups, and as federations go, CONCACAF is only marginally smaller than Europe.

Do I think CONCACAF deserves 4 full spots? Of course I do. Asia doesn't deserve what they're getting, and I'll be shocked if they don't prove to be the worst performing confederation at South Africa.

Who's with me?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Year-end stats: newly capped players

Coming as it did at the premature end of a world cup qualifying cycle, 2009 ought to have been a year for Canada to evaluate and develop some new talent for the national team. With 4 friendlies on the schedule, there was ample opportunity to try out new players.

How did Canada do? Well, these are the 5 players that earned their first senior cap for Canada in 2009:

Simeon Jackson (Gillingham, League One, England, 22 years old)

Jackson made the most of his first opportunity by scoring in the friendly in Cyprus in March. So much did he impress the then-interim gaffer, Stephen Hart, that he saw the pitch as either starter or substitute in each of Canada's remaining 7 matches in 2009. It certainly didn't hurt that he has continued to score at the club level. He clearly has a future for Canada, but as evidenced by his performance against Macedonia, has some work to do before he is of the necessary quality for CONCACAF qualifying.

Simeon was the only newly-minted national teamer to play in more than one match.

The rest:

Eddy Sidra (Energie Cottbus, 2. Bundesliga, Germany, 20 years old)

Of the other newly-capped players, Sidra was the only one to start and go 90 minutes, also in the Cyprus friendly. More or less an emergency callup because regular RB Paul Stalteri was unavailable, Sidra must have played well enough, considering the team maintained a clean sheet, and he wasn't pulled off by Stephen Hart. He may have a future, but for the time being he isn't even the most promising Canadian defender on his own team. He's been surpassed by 19-year old Adam Straith, who has lately been starting for the 2. Bundesliga side.

Tyler Hemming (Charleston Battery, USL-1 [last year, at least], 24 years old)

USL players don't generally get called up for European friendlies, but Hemming made his debut against Cyprus in May. I don't know where he'll end up playing next year (Charleston will be playing in USL-2 next season) but he'll need to make a move if he wants to remain even on the fringes of the national team picture. He has a useful skillset, if lacking a bit in quality: a central midfielder with defensive knowhow, perhaps in the mould of a Daniel Imhof.

Speaking of Imhofs . . .

Dominic Imhof (FC Tuggen, 1. Liga, Switzerland, 27 years old)

This younger Imhof brother is no Daniel. He plays in the Swiss second or third tier, and was likely the first player to answer the phone after an injury in camp leading up to the Cyprus match. We won't be hearing of him again.

Jonathan Beaulieu-Bourgault
(FC St. Pauli, 2. Bundesliga, Germany, 21 years old)

If you have memories of JBB, it's probably of him pulling on the goalie shirt after newly-minted asshole Asmir Begovic was red carded against Congo in the 2007 U20 World Cup. He was given a courtesy run-out in the late stages against Macedonia. He might have a future for Canada, but at his age should soon be moving into the starting ranks somewhere.

Players that should be capped soon: Nana Attakora (TFC), David Hoilett (Blackburn, if he'll have us), David Edgar (Benchwarmer FC), Marcus Haber (Whitecaps/West Bromwich Albion)

Who else do you want?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Year-end stats: players

The players who made it onto the pitch for Canada in '09:

Kevin McKenna 8
Atiba Hutchinson 7

Julian de Guzman 7

Mike Klukowski 6
Paul Stalteri 6
Patrice Bernier 5 1 499 2

Josh Simpson 5 3 493

Dejan Jakovic 5

Greg Sutton 4 1 405

Jaime Peters 4 2 369

Will Johnson 5

Ali Gerba 4 1 368 4

Simeon Jackson 3 5 364 1

Richard Hastings 3 1 315

Marcel de Jong 4 2 283 1

Lars Hirschfeld 2

Issey Nakajima-Farran 1 2 138

Josh Wagenaar 2

Adrian Cann 1 2 111

Andre Hainault 1
Eddy Sidra 1

Nikolas Ledgerwood 1

Rob Friend 1 1 90

Tomasz Radzinski 1

Iain Hume 1 1 64

Tyler Hemming
1 22

Andrzej Ornoch
1 9

Chris Pozniak
1 7

Jonathan Beaulieu-Bourgault
1 2

Dominic Imhof
1 1

TOTALS 88 27 7932 8 5 0

A few thoughts:
  • The total number of minutes should be 7920 (8 matches x 11 players x 90 minutes), but I just cribbed stats from the CSA site so obviously they goofed.
  • Average age of the top 6 minute-getters in '09: just over 29 years old. Which is too old.
  • A total of 30 players were used in the calendar year
  • Of these players, only the immortal Dominic Imhof is unlikely to ever play for Canada again. The other marginal types are either too young (Beaulieu-Bourgault, Ornoch, Sidra), too versatile (Pozniak), too ageless (Radzinski), or too domestic-based (Hemming, Pozniak again) to be ruled out entirely.
  • The players likely to form the core of future teams (Johnson, Jakovic, Simpson, de Jong, Jackson) got a pretty fair chance to show what they can do in 2009. Only Hainault probably deserved more time.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Year-end stats: matches

I'll be publishing some year-end stats of the men's national team during what's left of 2009.

First up: Canada's matches this calendar year:

Date Opponent Location Type CAN Opp Result
30/05/09 Cyprus Larnaca Friendly 1 0 Win
30/06/09 Guatemala Oxnard, CA Friendly 3 0 Win
03/07/09 Jamaica Los Angeles Gold Cup 1 0 Win
07/07/09 El Salvador Columbus, OH Gold Cup 1 0 Win
10/07/09 Costa Rica Miami Gold Cup 2 2 Draw
18/07/09 Honduras Philadelphia Gold Cup 0 1 Loss
14/11/09 Macedonia Strumica Friendly 0 3 Loss
18/11/09 Poland Bydgoszcz Friendly 0 1 Loss

8 7

Wins 4

Draws 1

Losses 3

The record and goals for and against are respectable. As for trends, keeping a clean sheet for the first 4 and being kept off the scoreboard for the last 3 are the first things that jump out at you.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Tuesday cup of coffee

A round up of recent news and events.

CSA press conference: No news is no news

I don't think we learned anything that was terribly interesting from yesterday's slightly ballyhooed CSA presser in Toronto. Stephen Hart was confirmed as full-time head coach (we more or less knew that already), and the CSA plans to host two friendly matches in fall (I'll believe it when I see it).

The 24th minute takes the NASL/TOA angle and worries about the present non-sanctioned state of the new league and potential problems for CONCACAF Champions League qualification should the Whitecaps or Impact win the Nutrilite Canadian Championship, but I think its a bit premature to get into a panic about it. The USL-1 owners have played all the wrong cards so far, and I think the USSF is quite happy to see them punished for it.

World Cup loose ends

I have already filed a brief report of my thoughts on the World Cup draw. I'd not be half the blogger I claim to be if I didn't also make a set of irresponsible and incredibly premature predictions.

So, in that vein, the teams to advance will be:

Group A: Mexico, France
Group B: Argentina, Greece
Group C: England, USA
Group D: Germany, Ghana
Group E: Netherlands, Denmark
Group F: Italy, Paraguay
Group G: Brazil, Portugal
Group H: Spain, Honduras

Not really going out on a limb, except with the Honduras pick. Which I'd love to see. You'll notice I only have one African team advancing out of the group stage, and no Asian teams.

Frankly, I believe we always overrate the African sides. But the historical evidence is stacked against them:
  • Exactly 1 African team, Ghana, advanced past the group stage in '06 (no Asian teams),
  • Exactly 1 in '02, the surprising Senegal (only the 2 Asian hosts, Korea and Japan, made it through).
  • How many African sides advanced in '98? Exactly one, again. (No Asian teams either).
We'll come back to these predictions in 7 months time.

AZ report: Advocaat swoops in

Advocaat is a Dutch liqueur, made from egg yolks, sugar, and brandy. Dick Advocaat is the Belgium national coach.

Advocaat and Advocaat.

Both are currently in season: Advocaat goes well with a bit of whipped cream and spices, and is kind of like a Dutch egg nog. Dick Advocaat is in the news because he has taken on an interim job with my boys, AZ, who finally fired the rather incompetent yet still somehow employable Ronald Koeman. (This man ruined AZ's 2009-2010 campaign, as well as Ajax's 2004-05 season when I was living in Amsterdam.)

The homo sapiens Advocaat will take over at AZ after tomorrow Champions' League finale against Standard Liege. Which is in, of all places, Belgium. A win qualifies AZ for Europa League; any other result ends their European year. It might not be all bad if they are forced to focus on domestic results: they are currently 19 points behind leaders Twente, who are now in a two-horse race with PSV. Mounir el Hamdouai will likely be available as a substitute Wednesday, which should provide further punch to the sputtering AZ attack.

Democracy now!

It seems we've gone a while now in this country without an election, but if you're itching for some polling, don't fret. Vote for me (or anybody else: the actual best blog in the sports category is probably the Drunk Jays) in the Canadian blog awards. You can vote daily until Saturday, so please make the most of this opportunity.

Also, if you're registered on the Voyageurs forum, you can also vote for the Vs player of the year for 2009. On my ballot were, in order, Mike Klukowski, Will Johnson, and Atiba Hutchinson.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

World cup draw: Better late than never?

Now that the dust has settled on the World Cup draw (yes, it's only been two days), most of the cogent points about the resulting groups have already been made. I'm not so egotistical to claim that I have anything unique or insightful to add (instead, I just vote for myself in the Canadian blog awards -- sports category -- every day).

Not bad for an MRF.

But the loyal readership probably is wondering by now how I feel about the Netherlands' Group E and a few other happenings.

The inevitable discussion after the drawing of groups for any big tournament is about which group is the Group of Death. If Group of Death is understood to mean a group with four highly competitive and high quality teams, there is none this time. Full stop.

Here are the groups:

A France 7 1122

Uruguay 15 901

Mexico 19 931

South Africa 86 377

Averages 31.75 832.75

B Argentina 8 1085

Greece 12 1028

Nigeria 22 848

Korea Republic 52 625

Averages 23.5 896.5

C England 9 1063

USA 14 980

Algeria 28 823

Slovenia 33 756

Averages 21 905.5

D Germany 6 1170

Serbia 20 900

Australia 21 863

Ghana 37 739

Averages 21 918

E Netherlands 3 1279

Cameroon 11 1035

Denmark 26 835

Japan 43 709

Averages 20.75 964.5

F Italy 4 1215

Paraguay 30 816

Slovakia 34 755

New Zealand 77 433

Averages 36.25 804.75

G Brazil 2 1592

Portugal 5 1181

Cote d'Ivoire 16 927

Korea DPR 84 399

Averages 26.75 1024.75

H Spain 1 1622

Chile 17 926

Switzerland 18 924

Honduras 38 738

Averages 18.5 1052.5

Group H, by either measure (rank or FIFA ranking points), is the group with the most quality overall. Yet most have pointed to Group G, with powerhouse Brazil, consistently strong Portugal, and always threatening Cote d'Ivoire as the toughest. Team Kim Jong Il is the punching bag.

If we accept the argument that a Group of Death can be the result of three strong teams, it's worth measuring which group has the best trifecta. The answer? Group G, of course. The script is flipped, and Group H ranks as the next toughest.

There is much better statistical analysis happening elsewhere:
  • The outlandishly named Voros McCracken does some mathematical thingamajiggery to determine the winners and losers of the draw. Biggest winner? England. Loser? Brazil. Somehow I still think Brazil goes further.
  • Climbing the Ladder examines the odds, based on a number of ranking alternatives to the FIFA list.
  • World Cup Draw Math Geekery from Mark McClusky (h/t @footiefool). He tackles the group of death question as well, making the very valid point that we should be looking at the rankings of the third place teams, as well as the delta (difference in rank) between the 2nd and 3rd ranked in each group.
The Dutch got an OK group. They don't have any pushovers (hello, New Zealand!), but there are no teams in that group who should strike fear into the heart of a top opponent. I don't fear Japan at all, and Cameroon is one of those African sides that is persistently overrated. Denmark might be a tough nut to crack, but it's unlikely they'll score enough to worry the Dutch. Plus we all know that this team doesn't crap the bed until the later rounds. It's premature, and I haven't fully explored all the permutations, but I hear we could see a Germany-Netherlands clash before the final if everything falls right.

(Ask me if you don't know why I care about the Oranje in these international tournaments).

As for the Rest of Canada's fallback option, England, what a pattycake group. Is there any way that both England and the USA can lose in their Matchday 3 confrontation? Please?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

CSA Fans' Choice Award

Before I rail unnecessarily against the CSA for what is, at most, a minor technical issue, let me point out how immensely gratifying it is to see correct apostrophe placement in the press release for the CSA Fans' Choice Award (assuming, of course, that the choice is being made by more than one fan). Correct grammar and punctuation can get you a long way with me, and the correct use of the plural possessive is far too rare in this world.

That said, how amateurish is it that the voting mechanism for this award is a free, ad-supported online survey site, on a page that doesn't even list the nominees. Even last year's personal email to CSA PR guy Richard Scott was less off-putting.

This year's choice is far more difficult than last, and the list of nominees for the men's side, which is the same list for the Media/Coaches award, isn't terribly helpful.

The options:
Male Nominees from the Men’s national team / Joueurs en nomination de l’équipe nationale masculine senior
- de Guzman, Julian M Scarborough, ON, CAN CAN / Toronto FC
- De Rosario, Dwayne M Scarborough, ON, CAN CAN / Toronto FC
- Gerba, Ali F Montréal, QC, CAN CAN / Toronto FC
- Hutchinson, Atiba M Brampton, ON, CAN DEN / F.C. København
- Jackson, Simeon M Mississauga, ON, CAN ENG / Gillingham FC
- Johnson, Will F Toronto, ON, CAN USA / Real Salt Lake
- Klukowski, Mike D/M Oshawa, ON, CAN BEL / Club Brugge KV
- McKenna, Kevin D/F Calgary, AB, CAN GER / 1. FC Köln
- Pizzolitto, Nevio D Montréal, QC, CAN CAN / Impact de Montréal
- other selection/ autre
Of course, we fans are given the helpful reminder that our vote is to be based upon popularity. However, I'd rather heed the set of instructions given to the much better informed media and coaches, who are directed to vote based on "their 2009 achievements with both the national team and their respective club teams".

This combination of club and international success is rare for Canadians in 2009. By that token, I think we can dismiss Julian de Guzman and Nevio Pizzolitto immediately. Nevio had tremendous success, captaining the Montreal Impact to the (last ever?) USL-1 title. But he hasn't earned a cap since 2004, and was likely only nominated as the most prominent Canadian for Montreal. De Guzman only played about a dozen games between Deportivo and Toronto FC, and his teams were anything but successful.

By the same token, Ali Gerba, who scored 4 times in 5 matches in '09, lost his club job in England, and then failed to make any kind of impression in Toronto, except at the city's buffet lines.

Others in the list:
  • Kevin McKenna mostly played well in his 6 matches for Canada, but lost his starting position with his club
  • Will Johnson and Simeon Jackson both emerged as solid players with a bright future, but it's important to be careful not to overrate young talent, a common Voyageurs affliction
  • Dwayne de Rosario put up numbers, but on a bad team, and didn't show up at all for Canada.
For me the players who combined consistent club play at a relatively high level and solid contributions for Canada are Mike Klukowski and Atiba Hutchinson. And since Atiba is the kind of guy that would drift in and out of matches for Canada, I'm siding with Klukowski.

This fan's choice (yes, that is also correct apostrophe placement) for the CSA Award.

I'm sure nobody is surprised about that.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

World cup seedings announced

The pots for Friday's World Cup draw are out. The surprise is that October's FIFA rankings were used as the basis for seeding teams in Pot A, instead of the previous formula, a complicated metric based largely on performances in previous World Cups.

For my boys*, the Netherlands, this is great news, since while they consistently fail to perform on the big stage, the Oranje also have maintained a consistently high FIFA rank over the last few years.

The pots:
Pot 1: South Africa, Brazil, Spain, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Argentina, and England.
Pot 2: Australia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, New Zealand, Honduras, Mexico and USA.
Pot 3: Algeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.
Pot 4: Denmark, France, Greece, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland.

I hacked together a quick python script to simulate a random drawing. With Netherlands in pot 1 instead of the European pot 4, the likelihood of a true "Group of Death" is diminished.

Upon first electronic drawing:
Group A: South Africa , USA , Paraguay, Slovakia
Group B: Brazil , Japan , Nigeria , Greece
Group C: Spain , New Zealand , Algeria , Portugal
Group D: Netherlands , Mexico , Uruguay , Serbia
Group E: Italy , South Korea , Chile , France
Group F: Germany , North Korea , Cameroon , Denmark
Group G: Argentina , Australia , Ivory Coast , Slovenia
Group H: England , Honduras , Ghana, Switzerland

To be honest, there aren't too many groups where it would be tough to pick out the top 2. I'm sure our southern neighbours would be thrilled with this draw.

In case you were wondering, the worst possible group, by FIFA ranking:
South Africa (86), New Zealand (77), Paraguay (30), Slovakia (34)
We'll see what we get on Friday.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Eredivisie contest: End of November update

November's up, winter hasn't quite arrived yet in Winnipeg, and the Riders lost because they can't count. All is right with the world.

Things are beginning to look a little more right with our Eredivisie contest as well. Here's how things stand:

Pompey Canuck 118
Headhunting Canuck 114
J 108
Lord Bob 85

And in detail:

AZ 25 Mounir el Hamdaoui (AZ) 7
Ajax 35 Luis Suarez (Ajax) 17

TOTAL (PTS + GOALS x 2) 108
Headhunting Canuck
AZ 25 Luis Suarez (Ajax) 17
PSV 39 Balazs Dzsudzsak (PSV) 8

TOTAL (PTS + GOALS x 2) 114
Pompey Canuck
PSV 39 Luis Suarez (Ajax) 17
Ajax 35 Jon Dahl Tomasson (Feyenoord) 5

TOTAL (PTS + GOALS x 2) 118
Lord Bob
Ajax 35 Keisuke Honda (VVV) 5
FC Utrecht 26 Mounir el Hamdaoui (AZ) 7

TOTAL (PTS + GOALS x 2) 85

AZ seem to have stabilized their season, which is somewhat gratifying. Their Champions League hopes have been dashed, and their ticket to Europa league is hanging by a thread (that thread is a road win over Standard Liege on the last Champs League matchday). Instead, they seem to be focussing on the domestic campaign, which has yielded a string of good results.

Jeremain Lens (7 goals) has taken over the scoring burden for the almost-healed Mounir el Hamdaoui, and they have stopped leaking goals.

FC Twente continue to lead the league, thanks largely to the goal scoring exploits of Costa Rican forward Bryan Ruiz, but I don't expect that to last much longer. PSV are the class of the league, and Ajax keep scoring 5 goals a game against mid-table sides.

Things are close enough at the top to keep things interesting in the 7th or 8th best league in Europe.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Instant pick-me-up

If you're ever feeling down, I'm sure this video will cheer you up:


Friday, November 20, 2009

Weighing in

Everyone has an opinion on the Thierry Henry handball. (What's the saying about opinions and assholes again?) Reaction to this incident has been anything but conservative, so much so that even soccer neophytes have an asshole opinion about it.

I wouldn't be worth my bloggerly salt if I didn't at least weigh-in on this issue.

First, let me make it abundantly clear: It is entirely regrettable that this happened. Games ought to be decided by the players on the pitch, not a missed referee's decision. As much as penalty kicks are a poor way to decide, on account of the significant element of chance and randomness, there is some skill involved there (just ask Simeon Jackson or Iain Hume). Going out due to an officiating mistake is brutal, and any Canadian fan will have felt this kind of sting by now. Nothing compared to the sting of Irish fans, though.

Ireland were hard done by, and I'd have no big complaints if the replay was granted. I'd also have no complaints if it wasn't. This is sport and things like this happen.

What I do have trouble with are the following:

1. Thierry Henry being outrageously piled on for being a "cheat"
I've played soccer. So, probably, have many of you. I've been guilty of the occasional handball. Everyone has: it's an instinctual act when the ball comes near to you. Sometimes I was caught, others I wasn't. I can tell you for damn certain that when I managed to get away with it, I didn't stop playing and call over the ref and inform him of my misdeed.

A handball, in case you were wondering, is an infraction on the laws of the game. However, the laws of the game are filled abundantly with lists of other infringements. I could go on ranting about this, but Vs poster Jeffrey S kills it in his analysis:
The game of soccer does not distinguish between the majority of rule breakages, they are almost all the same. Only a few are considered worse and get cards, and a few are even worse and warrant sanctions and suspensions. But they are all rule breakages and the game only conceives playing by the rules and breaking the rules. So for even those mistakengly calling rule breakage "cheating", a deliberate foul is cheating, as much as a deliberate hand ball, a deliberate push, a deliberate jumping off the defensive wall and attacking the ball on a free kick before the whistle is blown. All boot tackles and elbows, all shirt tugging, all diving, even taking off your shirt to celebrate a goal. It is all the same, they all consitute breaking the rules. Which is how they are treated, and should be treated, as rule breakages, nothing more.
Henry is under immense scrutiny because his action resulted in a critical goal, but if he had gone unpunished for a deliberate handball in the 38th minute that didn't result in a goal, nobody would be calling for a lifetime ban or any of the other ridiculous sanctions I've heard thrown about.

There are people to blame here, but not Henry. I nearly puked after hearing smarmin' Sharman get way up on his high horse on this issue during yesterday's Footy Show podcast (or maybe it was because I buried myself on a bike ride when I am clearly no longer in cycling shape).

2. The attitude that Ireland "deserved" to go through
Guess what: this is sport. People don't deserve anything. You either win or you don't.

What I detected (call me crazy) is a certain prejudicial undertone that people would rather have a bunch of hardscrabble and hardworking pale-skinned gingers who never see the sun advance to the World Cup on the strength of their pluck and moxie; over a clearly more metropolitan and talented group of players that are massive underachievers. It's like the Don Cherry syndrome in hockey, a man who'd rather have a team of plumbers than virtuosos.

It's as if people equate diligent hard work with fair play. And they're right! After all, we all know that Ireland protested the result after they were gifted this shocking penalty:

Oh wait, they didn't? But you said . . .

I'm more inclined to listen to Roy Keane on the matter (as much as it pains me):

"They can complain all they want but France are going to the World Cup. Get over it.

"If I'd been there in the dressing room after the game, I wouldn't be talking about the handball. I'd focus on why the defenders didn't clear it. They should've cleared it.

"I'd be more annoyed with my defenders and my goalkeeper than Thierry Henry. How can you let the ball bounce in your six-yard box? How can you let Thierry Henry get goal-side of you? If the ball goes into the six-yard box, where the hell is my goalkeeper? These are skills and lessons you learn as a schoolboy.

"Ireland had their chances in the two games and they never took them but it's the usual FAI (Football Association of Ireland) reaction - 'we've been robbed, the honesty of the game...' It's rubbish."

He's a bit harsh, but as often is the case, also correct. He cites the same penalty decision in the article, and the FAI are rightly cast as hypocrites.

This much is fact: Ireland were the better team for at most one half of soccer over the two-legged tie. They lost at home, and couldn't tack on an extra goal after they scored early in Paris.

I don't mean to argue the inverse: that France deserve to go through. The "deserve" argument should be dead and buried. But if you're beholden to it, there's no way you could argue that they deserve any less to be in the World Cup than do Ireland.

For my money, France are a more interesting team, but that has nowt to do with any of this.

Hey, look over there: New FIFA rankings!

Canada dropped 4 spots to 57th (in case you're wondering, Poland and Macedonia remained in 56th and 66th respectively). We're also 5th in CONCACAF, though I'd need Pompey Canuck to tell me whether this is high enough to avoid the bad juju come the draw for the next qualifying round.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Macedonia and Poland: What did we learn?

Like everyone else, I was as excited as I was shocked to learn that Canada had booked itself two friendlies in this November international window, considering the lack of important matches on the horizon. It signalled that the CSA might in fact consider not cheaping out, and giving its coach time to develop a team for the critical tournaments two and three years down the road.

As with all things Canadian soccer, the payoff was less than the promise. The games itself against 66th ranked Macedonia and 56th ranked Poland (at least until the new rankings tomorrow) were dire and dour respectively. Canada failed to score, showed themselves to be vulnerable in defense, and were largely uninspired in midfield.

So, what did we learn?

1. Canada is lacking in creative attacking players

Tomasz Radzinski, who is almost 36, was our most dangerous player over the course of the matches. Enough said.

2. Canada is not dangerous from the wide positions.

Whether it was the wing players from the run of play, or set pieces, Canada could only manage a few semi-dangerous balls from out wide. The most tantalizing crosses generally came from defender Mike Klukowski, both on set pieces and open play.

3. Canada needs new blood at the back

We all know Paul Stalteri will keep getting called until he breaks the caps record. I'm fully on board with this and largely share this man's opinion. Soon after though, he should be put out to pasture. We need new options at right back. Stalteri was called for a penalty against Macedonia, and while it was likely a dive, it was still a reckless challenge. In the centre of defense, Kevin McKenna and especially Richard Hastings are too slow to be of much use. Dejan Jakovic looks like he's a man for the future, but we need other options.

I personally hold very little hope that David Edgar will amount to much (I know I'm alone in this position) but he should be tried, along with Nana Attakora, and even Adam Straith.

4. English lower division strikers should not be our penalty takers

No need to explain.

5. Goalkeeping depth is an issue

Lars Hirschfeld showed his rust and was a disaster for the first 60 minutes of the Poland match, but his shot-stopping instincts saved the day until he got his head into the game. Josh Wagenaar was adequate against Macedonia, but needs a full-time starting gig. It certainly doesn't help that none of Canada's pro teams start a Canadian in goal.

6. Julian de Guzman is not the same as he was in 2007

Whether Julian is permanently in decline or just not in form is yet to be determined, but he looked like TFC Julian in these two matches, not Deportivo/Gold Cup MVP Julian. He looked uninspired, a step slow, and not as strong on the ball as we are used to seeing.

7. Canada is disadvantaged by the CONCACAF qualifying process

Unless you make the Hex, you only get 8 WCQ matches. In Europe you get 10 over a much shorter period. The teams Canada played against clearly showed the kind of mettle and team toughness that is earned over a series of high-pressure matches.

8. Polish internet streaming video is better than Macedonian internet streaming video

9. I need to swear off live blogging

I had fun both times, but I've now blogged five losses in a row for my favoured teams (Canada x2, Impact x2, Whitecaps x1).

Your thoughts? I'm looking forward to seeing what matches are scheduled in 2010 (even home dates!?!) and finding out the composition of the squad for the annual January Caribbean holiday. We need new blood.

To wit:

We can stop calling: Kevin McKenna, Paul Stalteri (once he gets the record), Richard Hastings, Tomasz Radzinski (unless he wants to keep playing)

Probably could do without: Patrice Bernier, Iain Hume

That's almost half of the starting lineup from Macedonia.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Canada - Poland live blog

Despite the poor record of teams subjected to my liveblogging (chronicled here) there really is no better way to be taking in a midweek friendly from eastern Europe.

The details:


Bydgoszcz, Poland

Wednesday, 18 November 2009
5 pm local / 11 am et / 10 am ct / 8 am pt

Join the fun.

On Radzinski

For those few that will be writing stories about tomorrow's Canada-Poland friendly in Bydgoszcz from a Canadian perspective, the best storyline in the game is Tomasz Radzinski. He was born in nearby Poznan, moved to Canada as a teenager, and has had a successful career as a professional and international for nearly two decades.

So what are we to make of Tomasz Radzinski, Canada international?

We could do worse than to start by looking at the numbers. For the full national side he has 45 caps (43 starts), and has scored 10 goals in those appearances. Both numbers are smaller than they might have been.

Radzinski's finest Canada moment, so far?

Let's start with the goals: for a striker who has scored against such teams as Man United, a 1 in 4.5 games strike rate for Canada is hardly impressive. But we know that under some of Canada's previous managers, Radzinski was (mis)used in a wide midfield position. This limited his scoring influence and definitely rubbed him the wrong way.

This tactical snafu may also be a contributing factor in the low cap total for a man who earned his first 14 years ago. Radzinski never liked this role, and famously refused to answer a call from Holger Osieck and was out of Canada's plans from 1998 to 2001. Before there were Whoregreaves and Judas de Guzman, there was the Rat, a man vilified by Voyageurs for his seemingly me-first attitude.

But he has come back and has most definitely been embraced by the Canadian soccer fan. Heck, the now-fan favourite even put on one of the Voyageurs "Sack the CSA" t-shirts back in the last WCQ cycle. That the Vees would decide to welcome Tomasz back into the fold suggests to me that a one-time turncoat like Jonathan de Guzman could even be welcomed back should he choose to come into the Canada fold, though I should allow for differences between refusing to play and selecting another country.

Did he know what he shirt he was putting on?

It is sad that Radzinski in his prime did not play for Canada. But it is simultaneously gratifying and discouraging that at nearly 36 years old he remains Canada's best attacking player. When he made the move to lower division Belgian side Lierse in fall of 2008, it seemed a step into semi-retirement. Yet he is that team's best player, and I fully expect him to be Canada's best tomorrow as well.

So, in a long winded way, we've come to the crucial question. Is Radzinski's potentially emotional return to Poland his last act playing for Canada? It would certainly be a fitting gesture for a man likely too old to be of much use by the next time Canada plays an important competitive match in 2011.

But there is evidence to the contrary, first and foremost of which is the product on the pitch. In two of his last three matches (vs Mexico in Edmonton, and vs Honduras in Montreal) Radzinski was far and away Canada's best player, and his injury after being dumped into the ad hoardings at Stade Saputo spelled the beginning of the end of Canada's World Cup qualification hopes.

And now this, from Stephen Hart:
“Tomasz has been a big influence for our national team, but more importantly he is an excellent role model for our younger players,” said Hart. “Historically, Canada has not had the strikers of Tomasz’s quality. For me it’s never about the age but more about how the player performs. As long as he continues to perform I will gladly continue to call him.”
If at one point he let his selfishness get in the way of representing Canada, that is now hardly the case, and he is the consummate professional. Given the rash of defections from the Canadian setup, it can hardly hurt to have a role model like Tomasz at every camp from now until he decides it's no longer worth it for him to show up.

I know I have mad man-love for Mike Klukowski, but I can make room in my heart for another Polish-Canadian.

(You surely noticed that both of the pictures of Radz I picked have him semi-clad . . .)

Related: Another man with love for Radzinski, and who is more effusive with is prose.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday cup of coffee: Missed penalty edition

Before we get any further, please watch the video. The wisdom of this wealthy child of Peruvian-American immigrants abounds, and would surely have turned the result of Saturday's friendly with Macedonia on its head. The feature on celebrations was particularly groundbreaking. I can only hope one of our Canadian lads will be breaking out the "Arm Thrust" in the near future. [insert masturbation joke here]

On to the soccer . . .

Canada - Macedonia redux

Remember that time we all huddled around our laptops in the early morn, some of us in bed and hardly clothed, watching amateur boxing from a Macedonian junior high cafeteria until we figured out what channel the game was on. It doesn't seem so long ago, does it?

At the risk of sounding wistful, despite the woeful result -- a 3-0 loss -- I enjoyed the entire process (I'm referring here to the live blog). Waking up hours before the good Lord (not Lord Bob) intended, assembling a quorum of the most like-minded diehard Canadian supporters, and watching the choppiest of streams from the sloppiest of Balkan soccer pitches.

I'm not much in the way of proper detailed match analysis, but here are some quick thoughts in that most preferred of high school modes of expression -- point form:
  • Dejan Jakovic's injury was bad news, further aggravated by having Richard Hastings as our only CB cover. One can only hope DJ is fit for Poland on Wednesday.
  • Can't decide what was worse: the first half Macedonian shooting gallery, which remained scoreless by a combination of finishing and Josh Wagenaar; or the lopsided penalty shootout stretched over 40 minutes of football in the second.
  • Simeon Jackson's career may be on the upswing, but he is not ready for prime time if prime time is understood to mean playing as a lone striker. If it's not Radz and Friend to start against Poland, I'll eat my hat.
A quick summary of the penalties:
  • A hand-to-ball situation, or the right call? Perhaps among my readers we have armchair or real-life refs who could tell me. It didn't matter though: Iain Hume missed the net entirely.
  • This one looked a dive, though I can't vouch for much that I saw since the stream, struggling under the weight of the Canadian diehard, was a slideshow with audio for much of the game. In any case, Paul Stalteri was whistled, and Goran Pandev scored.
  • The one I did see clearly was Rob Friend's heel being clipped from behind. Simeon Jackson gave an anemic effort and it was easily saved.
  • Kevin McKenna could have no complaints for being called for a bodycheck in the area, but that didn't stop him from trying. Pandev converted again, this time in injury time.
In all honesty, this was a game Canada deserved to lose by 1 or 2 goals, not 3, but results at this point don't count for much. It's what you take from them. Player-wise, the only bright spots for Canada were Wagenaar and Mike Klukowski, who now looks to be the team's best player. Biggest disappointment for me was Julian de Guzman, who seemed as rusty as he did at the beginning of his TFC stint.

With Klukowski always among Canada's best, and with a 36-year old Tomasz Radzinski poised to be Canada's best player on Wednesday (I have no doubts about this whatsoever!) I think Canada would be a real juggernaut internationally if we selected only Polish-Canadians playing in Belgium. Think about it.


On live blogging, generally:

I enjoy running a live blog, and the interaction it often generates. I even entered the 21st century, abandoning my vanity and my need to amass hundreds of pageviews, by adopting one of those ultra-interactive liveblogging formats.

The ScribbleLive blogging outfit is not too bad to use, and Canadian to boot. I learned about it watching Dragon's Den, where they scored a sweet 3-dragon deal for some cash, only to learn that the deal fell apart after due diligence was carried out.

This initial enthusiasm followed by mild disappointment is par for the course when it comes to livebloggin' it. My last four liveblogs:

Date Match Desired outcome Result
14/11/09 CAN-MKD friendly Duh! 3-0 MKD
17/10/09 USL-1 final 2nd leg Vancouver win Montreal win
18/06/09 V-Cup: TFC @ MTL Anything except a Toronto win by 4 or more goals 6-1 TFC
05/03/09 CCL: Impact @ Santos Impact, or small loss 5-2 Santos

That said, I'll probably be around on Wednesday for Canada - Poland.

Other internationals of note this weekend

THE GOOD: Portugal 1 - 0 Bosnia

Good for one obvious reason. Would loved to have seen a few more goals from Portugal (it hurts even to type this).

THE BAD: Italy 0 - 0 Netherlands

Ok, this was only a friendly, and it was only really bad for Robin van Persie (broken ankle) and Arsenal fans, but choosing to watch this match over taking a nap was a bad move for me.

THE UGLY: New Zealand 1 - 0 Bahrain

New Zealand is in the World Cup. The teams they beat to qualify, and current rank of those teams:

Team Rank
New Caledonia 141
Fiji 108
Vanuatu 159
Bahrain 61

Done puking? And they actually lost one of those matches with Fiji.

MLS playoffs

Houston lost in extra time to the LA Galaxy, after a seemingly legitimate goal by Canadian Andrew Hainault was waved off for a phantom foul (start watching at 3:45 to see the disputed goal)

On the bright side, Real Salt Lake are through after upsetting Chicago Fire in a penalty shootout. Canadian international Will Johnson scored a vital goal in the shootout (at 5:50 of this video) and celebrates appropriately with a combination of "The Airplane" and a shushing motion.

I have to admit that I really dig RSL and all things Utahn, likely because of a recent Big Love kick I was on, which itself was due mostly to the hotness of Bill Paxton's youngest wife. I also was a big Utah Jazz fan in my younger years, probably because of a subconsciously racist satisfaction of seeing a successful basketball team with so many white players. (Stockton, Hornacek, Ostertag, oh my!)

If RSL can compound Landon Donovan's heartbreak (yes, he dumped, or was dumped, by this hot piece of ass) by beating him and Becks in the finals, I'll be over the moon.