With Canada needing just a draw with Honduras Tuesday to advance to the final stage of CONCACAF qualifying and pull the dream of making the country's first World Cup since 1986 one step closer, visions of Brazil in 2014 were dancing in Canadian soccer fans' heads. Those visions were cruelly snuffed out by a giant foot, though, as the Canadian team rolled over and played dead right from the initial kickoff. They trailed 4-0 at the half, and it got even worse from there, finishing with an 8-1 loss that's certainly the worst in the last few decades and might be one of the lowest points this team has ever reached.
In pure score terms, this is the most lopsided loss the Canadian men's team has suffered since an 8-0 defeat against Mexico in the 1993 Gold Cup. On so many levels, though, this one's clearly worse. For one thing, the Gold Cup's a largely irrelevant competition (it's the North and Central American championship, but it only indirectly affects World Cup qualification through the changes it produces in the world rankings); the stakes here were much higher. For another, that was an impressive Mexico team; they went on to win the Gold Cup, beating the U.S. 4-0 in the final. Sure, Honduras made the 2010 World Cup, but the core of their team had aged significantly since then, and they'd struggled through qualification, needing a win against Canada in Tuesday's match to make it to the final round. Falling flat against them with so much on the line is incredibly embarrassing, and it might well mark one of the worst moments in Canadian soccer history.
That's hardly an isolated opinion today. On the broadcast, Sportsnet colour commentator Craig Forrest (a former goalie for the Canadian national team) said "You're talking about one of the worst defeats in the history of the Canadian national team," and described the loss as "Really a gutless performance for Canada." Winnipeg Free Press soccer writer Jerrad Peters called it "a complete disgrace" before half, and The Score's James Sharman said it was "pointless polishing a turd" when it was only 3-0, while TSN's Jason deVos (a former defender on the Canadian national team) said it "has to be up there" with the worst performances in national team history. It's tough to disagree with that. Sure, occasionally there have been games like that 1993 one against Mexico where Canada couldn't even get on the board, but it's hard to think of many cases where this team has so spectacularly imploded with so much at stake.
Where does Canada go from here? Well, the first move has to be firing manager Stephen Hart, who really should have resigned as soon as the final whistle blew. This is not all Hart's fault, of course; there are serious challenges with the Canadian Soccer Association, its leadership, its resources (Forrest said on the broadcast that Honduras spends more on its men's national team than Canada does) and with the way the game is taught and players are developed across Canada. It's also not Hart's fault that some of the best Canadian-born players like Jonathan de Guzman and Junior Hoilett have elected to wait and see how far Canada gets before committing to the country (and in de Guzman's case, see if they're able to play at the senior level anywhere else). Still, Hart had a squad that was more than capable of eking out a draw on the road in Honduras if properly inspired and managed; instead, they lost in the most embarrassing way possible. Some of that's on the players for coming up short, but a lot of it has to be on Hart. It's not all his fault, but the CSA has to start thinking ahead to qualification for the 2018 World Cup, and Hart clearly is not the man to lead this team.
Just axing Hart won't do it, though. Across the nation, a lot of work needs to happen. The CSA itself is making some progress, but there are still desperately needed reforms. The talent-development process is improving, particularly with Canada's three MLS teams all investing in academy systems and also with the improvement in the calibre of CIS soccer and the increased amount of Canadians going to top NCAA schools, but more still needs to be done, especially to encourage coaches of young players to focus on building their players' long-term skills over doing whatever it takes to win a few low-level games. A similar comprehensive strategy needs to be brought in for the national programs, too, with the U-17, U-20 and U-23 teams focusing on recruiting players who can make a difference at the senior level and developing their skills, not solely winning games at those levels.
Most importantly, though, the CSA has to put the right man in place to head the whole thing. They also have to be willing to go outside the country to do so, as there just aren't any Canadian coaches with the right mix of high-level experience at the moment. Going for competence over citizenship's paid huge rewards for the women's team with the hiring of Englishman John Herdman, who led them to an incredible Olympic bronze this summer and has that program firmly on the right track. The question is if the CSA will do the same on the men's side. If they don't, the run to the 2018 World Cup may not finish any better than this.