Monday, August 29, 2011

Canadian soccer groupthink: An experiment

Being part of an experiment: better or worse than being a Canadian soccer fan?

In advance of Canada's six-match first round (officially CONCACAF's second round) of World Cup qualifying, I'm conducting to an experiment to determine whether the aggregate of Canadian soccer supporters functions as an all-knowing and predictive hive mind.

The data point I've chosen to focus on is the total number of goals scored by Canada over the six matches: 2 each against St Lucia, St Kitts and Puerto Rico.

If you'd like to be a guinea pig (or lab rat) for me, tweet your guess (just the number is fine) to me @o_o_t, or if you haven't joined the twittersphere, leave a comment to this post. Just don't do both with different handles or I'll be royally confused.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Changes to Canada roster for St Lucia, Puerto Rico

Predictably enough, Stephen Hart has been forced to make changes to his original roster for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers due to injuries to 3 of his selections.

The injured players are DC United central defender Dejan Jakovic, Wehen Wiesbaden midfielder/right back Nik Ledgerwood, and on-form striker Olivier Occean, of Greuther Furth in Germany.

The replacements offer an injection of youth in the form of Burnley defender David Edgar, who earned good reviews for his first full match of the season this past weekend, St Johnstone striker (and ex-Whitecap) Marcus Haber, and Preussen Muenster midfielder Jonathan Beaulieu-Bourgault, and oft-called but seldom-used utility midfielder.

A lot of Canadian fans have been clamouring for David Edgar to play a bigger role within the squad for years, even if Jakovic-McKenna is likely the best central pairing we can offer. Looking at the squad selected, a pairing of Andre Hainault and Kevin McKenna is the most likely, though I'd like to see a back four of (L-R) Klukowski - Edgar - McKenna - Hainault.

The most disappointing development is the injury to Occean, who was been scoring at nearly a goal-a-game clip in the 2.Bundesliga. It will be interesting to see who Hart selects as the target forward if he sticks with a 4-3-3/4-5-1 with Simeon Jackson and Josh Simpson on the wings.

Nik Ledgerwood would likely have been looking to stake his claim for the right back position. Now we are likely to see Jaime Peters start in that spot. He is not the solution there, and really needs a career re-set overall. As I noted above, I prefer Hainault at right back, as he fills the role quite well for Houston in MLS, but I'm afraid Stephen Hart will feel differently.

The changes probably weaken the team somewhat, and leave the group with less experience overall, but Hart should still have more than enough at his disposal to take care of these very winnable matches.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Canada roster for September WCQs

The CSA today released the 19-man roster that will take on St Lucia and Puerto Rico this September in Canada's first matches towards qualification for Brazil 2014.

Stephen Hart will hold a press conference later today to answer questions about the selections and the upcoming matches. For now, here are the players selected and a few of my thoughts thereupon:

# Player Pos. Team League
1 Lars Hirschfeld GK Vålerenga Fotball Norway
2 Nik Ledgerwood D SV Wehen Wiesbaden Germany
3 Mike Klukowski M Manisaspor Turkey
4 Kevin McKenna CB FC Köln Germany
5 André Hainault D Houston Dynamo MLS
6 Julian de Guzman M Toronto FC MLS
7 Terry Dunfield M Toronto FC MLS
8 Will Johnson M Real Salt Lake MLS
9 Tosaint Ricketts M/F Politehnica Timişoara Romania
10 Simeon Jackson F Norwich City England
11 Josh Simpson M Manisaspor Turkey
12 Ante Jazic D Chivas USA MLS
13 Atiba Hutchinson M PSV Eindhoven Netherlands
14 Dwayne De Rosario F DC United MLS
15 Dejan Jakovic D DC United MLS
16 Olivier Occean F Greuther Furth Germany
17 Iain Hume M/F Preston North End England
20 Jaime Peters D Ipswich Town FC England
22 Milan Borjan GK Sivasspor Turkey

  • The biggest surprise inclusions are Atiba Hutchinson and Ante Jazic. Atiba is Canada's best player, but Hart had earlier cast doubt upon his health readiness for these matches. Jazic is 35 years old and last played for Canada in January 2010. He has played only 2 matches for Canada since 2007, but is a solid MLS performer.
  • Possibly the biggest omission is Augsburg's Marcel de Jong. He is the only Canadian getting regular minutes in a big 4 league. Unless there is an injury, the most likely explanation is that he feels he needs to establish himself in the first team.
  • I don't think anybody is excited about Canada's depth at right back, but for now you'd have to think it's Nik Ledgerwood's job to lose. Hart seems to prefer Jaime Peters as a sub, and I can't say I disagree.
  • There is a school of thought that Canada should use these easily winnable matches to work some younger players into the system. Hart must not share that philosophy, or is at least waiting until the later games when advancement has more or less been assured. Backup keeper Milan Borjan is the youngest of the players selected at 23 years old. Peters and Tosaint Ricketts are both 24.
  • This is very much a first choice squad. If Canada advances to the hex, the key players are likely among the 19 selected (with the exception of De Jong).
  • By league/country: MLS (7 players), Turkey, England, Germany (3 each), Netherlands, Romania, Norway (1 each).
I'll update with any pertinent info from Hart's interviews later today.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Confirmed call-ups for September qualifiers

The list will grow as word leaks out from a variety of sources about players being selected for Canada's matches against St Lucia (home) and Puerto Rico (away) on September 2nd and 6th respectively.

Pos Name Club Age Caps Goals Source
F Olivier Occean SpVgg Greuther Fürth 29 19 2 [link]
M/F Dwayne De Rosario DC United 33 60 17 [link]
D Dejan Jakovic DC United 26 11 0 [link]
F Iain Hume Preston North End 27 28 2 [link]
GK Lars Hirschfeld Valerenga Oslo 32 34 0 [link]

If you have any sourced info about other players called up, leave a note in the comments.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Canada WCQs at home: All-time host cities

As a follow-up to Monday's post about home field advantage in World Cup qualifying, here's a (mostly) just-the-numbers look at how Canada has fared in the different cities that have hosted at least one WCQ match:

City Date Opponent GF GA result wins 5
Edmonton 2008-10-15 Mexico 2 2 draw draws 3
Edmonton 2004-09-04 Honduras 1 1 draw losses 1
Edmonton 2000-07-16 T & T 0 2 loss points 18
Edmonton 1997-10-12 Mexico 2 2 draw win % 56%
Edmonton 1997-06-01 Costa Rica 1 0 win pts % 67%
Edmonton 1996-10-13 Cuba 2 0 win

Edmonton 1996-10-10 Cuba 2 0 win

Edmonton 1996-08-30 Panama 3 1 win

Edmonton 1993-07-31 Australia 2 1 win

City Date Opponent GF GA result wins 2
Kingston 2004-06-16 Belize 4 0 win draws 0
Kingston 2004-06-13 Belize 4 0 win losses 0

points 6

win % 100%

pts % 100%

City Date Opponent GF GA result wins 1
Montreal 2008-06-20 St Vincent 4 1 win draws 0
Montreal 2008-06-09 Honduras 1 2 loss losses 1

points 3

win % 50%

pts % 50%

City Date Opponent GF GA result wins 2
St John's 1985-09-14 Honduras 2 1 win draws 0
St John's 1972-08-20 USA 3 2 win losses 0

points 6

win % 100%

pts % 100%


City Date Opponent GF GA result wins 4
Toronto 2008-08-20 Jamaica 1 1 draw draws 4
Toronto 2000-11-15 Mexico 0 0 draw losses 2
Toronto 1993-05-09 Mexico 1 2 loss points 16
Toronto 1992-11-01 Jamaica 1 0 win win % 40%
Toronto 1985-08-17 Costa Rica 1 1 draw pts % 53%
Toronto 1980-10-18 Mexico 1 1 draw

Toronto 1972-08-24 Mexico 0 1 loss

Toronto 1968-10-17 USA 4 2 win

Toronto 1968-10-06 Bermuda 4 0 win

Toronto 1957-06-22 USA 5 1 win

City Date Opponent GF GA result wins 6
Vancouver 2004-10-13 Costa Rica 1 3 loss draws 3
Vancouver 2004-08-18 Guatemala 0 2 loss losses 4
Vancouver 1997-11-09 USA 0 3 loss points 21
Vancouver 1997-04-13 Jamaica 0 0 draw win % 46%
Vancouver 1997-04-06 El Salvador 0 0 draw pts % 54%
Vancouver 1996-11-03 El Salvador 1 0 win

Vancouver 1993-04-18 Honduras 3 1 win

Vancouver 1992-11-15 Bermuda 4 2 win

Vancouver 1992-11-08 El Salvador 2 3 loss

Vancouver 1988-10-15 Guatemala 3 2 win

Vancouver 1980-11-01 USA 2 1 win

Vancouver 1976-10-10 Mexico 1 0 win

Vancouver 1976-09-24 USA 1 1 draw

City Date Opponent GF GA result wins 2
Victoria 1985-04-20 Guatemala 2 1 win draws 0
Victoria 1985-04-13 Haiti 2 0 win losses 0

points 6

win % 100%

pts % 100%

City Date Opponent GF GA result wins 1
Winnipeg 2000-10-09 Panama 1 0 win draws 1
Winnipeg 2000-06-11 Cuba 0 0 draw losses 0

points 4

win % 50%

pts % 67%

wins 23
draws 12
losses 7
points 81
win % 55%
pts % 64%

As always, it is a bit of a chore to comb through the stats on the CSA site. A number of matches played in Kingston, Jamaica, were listed as being played in Kingston, Ontario. Swangard Stadium seemed to move from Burnaby, BC to Vancouver almost weekly. But I am fairly confident of the numbers posted here.

I promised to refrain from reading too deeply into these numbers. The main reason is because they stretch over a period during which Canada's strength within CONCACAF has varied significantly. However, some items of note:
  • Only Edmonton, Toronto, and Vancouver have hosted more than 2 matches. Of these, Edmonton has the best record (56% winning percentage, 67% of available points). Vancouver (46% / 54%) and Toronto (40% / 53%) have done worse. Vancouver has hosted the most matches with 13 (Toronto 10, Edmonton 9).
  • Canada's all-time percentages (55% winning; 64% of points) compare favourably with CONCACAF's numbers over the last two WCQs (57% / 63%). However, a disproportionate number of wins came earlier in our history. We all know that our record is much worse in recent years.
  • Canada is unbeaten in WCQs in 4 cities: Kingston, St John's, Victoria and Winnipeg.
  • Canada's home record against the region's power, Mexico, is 1 win, 4 draws and 2 losses. The only 2 losses were in Toronto.
Any further interpretation of these stats is welcome in the comments.

Monday, August 08, 2011

On home field advantage

Much was made, a few weeks back, of the decision to host all of Canada's round 2 World Cup qualifying matches at BMO Field in Toronto. The outrage from the rest of Canada (as much as that can be used to describe a story that only the most hardcore of soccer fans paid any attention to) was as predictable as the backbiting from the partisans living within the golden horseshoe. Reasons for staying in Toronto offered by defenders of the choice, and by head coach Stephen Hart, tended to focus on the logistical (travel considerations and pitch availability) as well as the desire to see the development of a pro-Canadian crowd.

This past Friday, I had the pleasure of watching the Canadian Football League's Winnipeg Blue Bombers dismantle the Edmonton Eskimos in front of a loud and sold-out crowd at CanadInns Stadium. In the pointyball version of the sport, crowd support can offer a tangible tactical advantage: making noise while the home team is on defense can disrupt the communication of the visitors' offense, leading to delays, penalties, and confused plays. In soccer, however, any lift provided by the crowd is of a purely emotional nature.

While I agree it is imperative that Canada is supported by a loud and boisterous pro-Canada audience during the upcoming rounds of World Cup qualifying, it is worth looking at how important it is to defend points at one's home field. The axiom regularly trotted out is that in qualifying, you need to win your home matches and take what you can get on the road. The numbers would appear to bear that out. Consider the stats from the semifinal and hex rounds of qualifying for 2006 and 2010 in CONCACAF:

Competition W D L Winning %* Points %
CONCACAF 2010 41 11 12 64.06% 69.79%
CONCACAF 2006 34 13 19 51.52% 58.08%

* Winning percentage here refers to the percentage of matches won. Period. Points percentage tallies the percentage of points gained by the home team as a percentage of the theoretical maximum.

Particularly in qualifying for Germany 2010, the home team held an overwhelming advantage, and Canada's failure to defend home turf (we earned only 2 of a possible 9 home points) was our ultimate undoing.

These numbers deserve some context. Combining the semifinal and hex rounds of qualifying for 2006 and 2010, and comparing to some domestic pro leagues reveals the following:

Competition W D L Winning % Points %
CONCACAF WCQ 75 24 31 57.69% 63.85%
Eredivisie 2010-11 160 70 75 52.46% 60.11%
EPL 2010-11 179 111 90 47.11% 56.84%
MLS 2010 116 63 66 47.35% 55.92%
Bundesliga 2010-11 141 63 102 46.08% 52.94%

With data enough to provide statistical significance, we are able to conclude that home field advantage is stronger in CONCACAF qualifiers than in most other competitions.

It would be foolish, however, to ascribe this home dominance to intimidating home atmospheres. For one, of the other competitions the league with the most enthusiastic diehard support, Germany's Bundesliga, had the poorest home records of all. Second, it is easy to forget that only a handful of Latin American cauldrons offer intimidating crowds; the likes of Cuba, Jamaica, Suriname, USA, and especially Canada have typically offered fairly tepid home support.

A more likely factor is the competitive balance of the competition. The Bundesliga is famously even, with few obvious weak sisters and many wealthy teams. The MLS, with its salary cap, also crows about its parity. These numbers serve to debunk the myth, at least for the year 2010, that it's a tough league in which to win on the road. On the other hand, even the final two rounds of CONCACAF qualifying includes teams with a wide gulf of quality between them: Mexico and Suriname, USA and Cuba, etc.

The lesson here? Home field in World Cup qualifying provides inherent advantages besides vocal support, and if Canada squanders these the Brazil dream will be over soon enough.

Obviously Canadian supporters would do well to get out and support their team, and to that end, should start buying up tickets for the three home games in Toronto this fall.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Know your enemy #3: The Sugar Boys

Pop: 50,314
Canadian city of comparable size: Shawinigan, QC (49,236)

Did you know? SK&N has their own little separatist problem, with the N having pushed for independence from the SK for some time now.

National team nickname: "The Sugar Boys"
Best ever FIFA ranking: 108th (July 2004)
ELO ranking: 158 (as of 3 August 2011)
National team coach: Lester Morris

The Sugar Boys were among the top 24 sides in CONCACAF as of March 2011 and were thus exempted from the first knockout qualifying round. Their most recent match was a 1-0 win on October 26th against Group D mates Puerto Rico.


# of players on team that I've heard of: 1. Atiba Harris is a winger/forward with the Vancouver Whitecaps who scored 2 goals in 5 games earlier this season before getting injured. He has 9 goals in 25 games for his national team. I'll need a Whitecaps fan to let me know whether he's expected to be healthy by the time of this year's qualifiers.
Best players, judging by professional pedigree: Apart from Harris, only a handful of players even have club sides listed on the national team's wikipedia page. None are clubs that I've heard of. However, Keith "Bleeding" Gumbs has scored an impressive 47 goals in 131 caps (impressive, that is, until you remember those goals have been scored against the likes of St Lucia, Aruba, Turks and Caicos, etc.)

Canada's history against St Kitts and Nevis: Canada has never played against St Kitts and Nevis.

PREDICTION: In both sets of rankings, the Sugar Boys rate as the toughest opponent Canada will face in this round. But I have a hard time imagining a team that features Atiba Harris as far and away their best player giving Canada too much trouble. Maybe they might nick a goal at home, but frankly if Canada doesn't take the full 6 points from St Kitts and Nevis, and at least 15 points in the group, I'll be quite disappointed.

The two matches will be the last two of the group, so if things are done and dusted by then, the competitive balance might shift a bit, but not so much as to make a Canada loss a realistic possibility.

DATES (home team first)
11 November 2011: St Kitts and Nevis vs Canada
15 November 2011: Canada vs St Kitts and Nevis (BMO Field, Toronto, ON)

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Know your enemy #2: The Blue Hurricane

Canadian city of comparable size: Between Montreal, QC (3.3m) and Toronto, ON (4.8m)

National team nickname: "The Blue Hurricane"
Best ever FIFA ranking: 97th (March 1994)
ELO ranking: 188 (as of 2 August 2011)
National team coach: Colin Clarke is currently national team coach. However, during Sunday's Montreal Impact broadcast it was mentioned that we would not be coaching the team during World Cup qualifying. Take that for what it's worth.

Puerto Rico were among the top 24 sides in CONCACAF as of the March 2011 rankings, so they did not have to compete in a Round 1 two-legged playoff. They last played a competitive match on 26 October 2010, a 1-0 loss to fellow Group D members, St Kitts and Nevis.


In spite of the stars and stripes font, a pretty ballin' jersey, if I do say so myself.

# of players on team that I've heard of: 0. If I had paid closer attention to the Impact-Islanders game on TV last Sunday, I would have recognized a bunch. We all know about Marco Velez, who is listed as national team captain
Best players, judging by professional pedigree: According to wikipedia, the last edition of the national team features 5 members of the NASL's Puerto Rico Islanders. The rest is a smattering of NASL, college, other domestic players and lower division American leagues, plus two players in Europe on teams I've never heard of. Nobody stands out.

Canada's history against Puerto Rico: Canada has never played against Puerto Rico.

PREDICTION: Although rankings may suggest otherwise, my own feeling is that Puerto Rico is Canada's most dangerous opponent in the group. If they bring a strong contingent of Islanders players, they may be a more cohesive bunch that can set out to stall the Canadian attack. Therefore, my expectations are more in the neighbourhood of 2-0 or 3-1 victories, rather than the heavier blowouts I'm hoping for against the other teams.

DATES (home team first)
6 September 2011: Puerto Rico vs Canada
11 October 2011: Canada vs Puerto Rico (BMO Field, Toronto, ON)