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The Eh Game

Stephen Hart steps down as Canadian men’s soccer coach; can CSA find the right replacement?

Andrew Bucholtz
Eh Game

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Stephen Hart, seen coaching Canada in a 8-1 loss in Honduras Tuesday, resigned Thursday.

Some of the least surprising news possible came out Thursday; in the wake of Tuesday's 8-1 debacle in Honduras that eliminated the Canadian men's soccer team from World Cup qualifying, head coach Stephen Hart has resigned. Make no mistake about it, Hart had to go; although he was a capable assistant coach and technical director, he was underqualified for the head job, his team was underprepared, uninspired and completely unmotivated Tuesday, and he just turned in one of the most embarrassing defeats in Canadian soccer history. The only surprise is that it took this long for him to fall on his sword. Yet, there are deeper issues involved in Canadian soccer's struggles, and merely switching coaches alone won't fix things, especially if the Canadian Soccer Association picks the wrong replacement. This is a tremendous opportunity to change the entire conversation around Canadian soccer, and getting the right person in the role of men's national coach is a critical part of that.

First, although having a Canadian in that role would be ideal from a loyalty and patriotism standpoint (they're not as likely to leave for another role after finding success), at this point, that isn't even worth legitimate consideration. While there are talented and up-and-coming Canadian coaches out there, there simply aren't any with the proven track record of high-level international success that's required right now. That doesn't mean that will always be the case; in fact, 20 or 30 years down the line, the best option for the job may well be a proven Canadian. At the moment, though, going with any of the Canadian options would be making the wrong decision in the name of blind patriotism.

After removing the nationality issue, it's easy to get right down to what's needed in the role. From this standpoint, the ideal candidate would be a combination of the traits shown by Canadian women's team coach John Herdman and American' men's coach Jürgen Klinsmann. Herdman's path to success is obvious; he's a talented, young and ambitious coach, and one who was unafraid of a challenge. Last year, he left a promising up-and-coming and reasonably safe job as New Zealand's coach to lead the Canadian women's team, a much tougher job especially given the pressure on them and the program's recent dismal showing at the 2011 Women's World Cup. Herdman picked the job because of the talent that was in place and the high ceiling, though, and he's already done spectacularly well, leading the team to a remarkable bronze medal at this summer's Olympics.

What's also notable about Herdman is his adaptability. Rather than force his team into a particular style, he got the most out of the players he had, combining physical play with technical virtuosity. Many of those same traits will be required for the new men's coach; it has to be someone who picks this program based on its potential, not where it is right now, it has to be someone who can handle high pressure, and it has to be someone who can get the most out of the limited talent Canada currently has available, not try and force existing players into a style they're unsuited for.

At first glance, what the new coach should take from Klinsmann isn't quite as obvious. Yes, Klinsmann (and then-assistant, current head coach Jogi Löw) found brilliant success in Germany, but his tenure with the U.S. has been widely criticized by many American fans. The team hasn't overwhelmed during qualifying, so that's understandable (although they are through to the final round and should make the World Cup). Moreover, Klinsmann doesn't have the greatest record as a consulting architect, either; heck, he suggested the dysfunctional management structure that played such a key role in Toronto FC's struggles this past season. However, what he was known for in Germany and what he's trying to institute in the U.S. is a comprehensive bottom-to-top approach to developing talent, one where national team coaches at all levels work closely together and are on the same page as the professional clubs and the academies, and one where the goal of every national team apart from the senior team is not to win their own small trophies, but to develop talent for the top level. That is vitally needed in Canada, and would be a huge step towards a better program in the long term.

The other crucial attribute to take from Klinsmann is his openness towards bringing in foreign talent. The Americans have long focused primarily on players born in the U.S., and while players born in your country should be at the core of your squad, smart teams pick up talent with ties to your country that isn't wanted elsewhere. Klinsmann's done that with great success, featuring players like Terrence Boyd, Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams, Timothy Chandler and Alfredo Morales who have American connections but were primarily born and trained overseas. Smart teams especially don't debate for a second if a talented player like Jonathan de Guzman says he wants to return after flirting with another country; fans' criticism of those flirtations is understandable, but talent is talent, and it's in such scarce supply that you grab every potential inch of it you can. Herdman's already done this on the women's side with talented American defender Lauren Sesselmann, a cross-border player who was crucial to Canada's Olympic success, and the new men's coach should be very open to grabbing whatever talent he can, regardless of where the player was born.

When's this going to happen, and who are likely candidates? Well, per Duane Rollins, the hiring process is about set to conclude six months from now, and the most likely candidates are successful club and national side coaches from Central America. That sounds about right; it's not going to be easy for Canada to nab a top European coach, and they might be more likely to fly the coup if they got a better job offer (club or country) in Europe, but the Canadian team could actually be a big step up for some successful Central American managers; yes, the initial team might not be as good as some Central American sides, but the resources, infrastructure and talent base here could provide the edges necessary to build a stronger team in the long run. Familiarity with various CONCACAF teams, venues, players and qualification processes would also be extremely helpful. Whoever's hired, though, they have to see this job as a great opportunity, be flexible and able to adapt, work to build a comprehensive national approach and take talent wherever it's found. It's certainly not going to be easy, but finding the right candidate here will be crucial to getting Canada back on track.

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