Thursday, September 01, 2011

On fan expectations

There should few Canadian supporters, if they are being honest with themselves, who will have great worries about Canada's ability to progress from this preliminary group stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Any pessimism is more instinctive, a residue from years of failure, than logical.

It should go without saying (but I'll repeat it anyway) that Canada's opponents for this round are not at our level. Despite Canada's disappointing performances on the world stage, St Lucia, St Kitts and Puerto Rico are teams we should comfortably beat.

Canada's players and coaches seem to be saying the right things and avoiding overconfidence. This excellent compendium of interviews conducted by Red Nation Online features head coach Stephen Hart, as well as forwards Iain Hume and Tosaint Ricketts, defender Andre Hainault, midfielder Dwayne De Rosario and keeper Milan Borjan. To a man they point out the need to just get results. Nobody gives voice to the notion that they'd love to put 4 or 5 goals past St Lucia this Friday at BMO, even if they might be thinking so.

And that's just fine. Players and coaches need to balance optimism with motivation and heady expectations undermine a coach's ability to leverage greater effort from the team.

But fans deserve the opportunity to engage in speculation and, dare we say it, cheerful confidence about margins of victories, not just hoping to scrape by against truly terrible soccer teams. Canadian fans have been conditioned to expect the worse, but I am curious how many are able to balance that pessimism against the sheer magnitude of the gulf in talent and experience between Canada and its opponents this round than the FIFA rankings would suggest.

Country FIFA ELO
Canada 102 58
St Kitts 122 159
Puerto Rico 144 188
St Lucia 184 181

The Elo ratings present a more accurate picture of the strength of national teams.

In order to test the confidence of Canadian fans I've been soliciting, via twitter and on this blog, predictions about the total number of goals Canada will score in this round of matches. My sample size is hardly healthy, but surely enough to engage in some unscientific analysis.

My expectation was that predictions would follow a fairly simple bell curve distribution centred around 15 or 16 goals, and falling off to either side with possibly some high-number outliers. This turned out not to be the case.

Rather than using an inelegant workaround to construct a histogram with OpenOffice, I used an even more inelegant low-tech workaround

According to my research, then, the pessimists still dominate. Although nobody predicted Canada would score fewer than 9 goals (an average of 1.5 / game) fully two-fifths of respondents offered a prediction of 12 or less (2 goals / game).

Is this reasonable? Who's to say. I figure myself to be a reasonable guy, and I figured the most reasonable prediction was in the range of 15-17 goals, somewhere between 2.5-3 goals per match. Yet this prediction was the least favoured by Canadian fans, proving perhaps that we are an immoderate bunch.

At least the pessimism of the leftmost column was tempered somewhat by some more enthusiastic speculating at the other end. The maximum prediction was 25 goals, requiring an average of more than 4 goals / game. Canada has scored more than 4 goals in a match only 3 times, once against USA in the 1950s, and friendlies against China and Malaysia in the 80s and 90s respectively. Such a sustained scoring outburst would be unprecedented.

But that's just the thing. The stretch of matches ahead for Canada is a new deal entirely. Never before has our national team faced so many mediocre opponents consecutively. Canada tomorrow will face an opponent, St Lucia, who are 20 to 1 underdogs.

As an aggregate, at least, our conflicting impulses are cancelled out. Depending on which measure of central tendency you favour, Canadian fans together are expecting 15.4 (mean) or 14.5 (median) total goals.

Whatever your orientation, whether hypercautious (9 goals? Really? Against these teams?) or ebullient, make sure it translates to passion for the team. In the stands, if you're so fortunate to live within reasonable distance of BMO Field, or other more local expressions of your Canadian fandom.

Because we'll need it. Not now, really, but when Honduras and Panama come calling.


Fred said...

Didn`t Canada beat Malaysia 5-0 once?

J said...

So it would appear. Thanks for catching this oversight. I also had the decade wrong for the China friendly. I've made the change to the post.

The Malaysia match was part of the Merlion Cup, in which 4 Canadian players were found guilty of match-fixing.

Steve said...

Canada need to win by at least 5 goals tonoght to have any sort of respectability