Things are looking up
Canada's national teams struggled in 2004, but there's plenty to look forward to on the pitch in the coming year.
Bounced from men's World Cup qualifying, derailed on the road to the Olympics, disappointed at the women's world under-19 championship.
It was a rough 2004 for Canadian soccer, especially when the flagship men's side ends the year looking up at Togo in the world rankings at No. 90.
But there are still positives.
National teams are in good hands in coaches Frank Yallop (senior men), Even Pellerud (senior women), Dale Mitchell (men's under-20) and Ian Bridge (women's under-19).
The 2007 World Youth Championships were awarded to Canada. An outdoor stadium suitable for soccer is finally in the works in Toronto. And a major sponsorship deal was struck with CIBC.
On the field, the senior men's team ended the year on a winning note, with a 1-0 victory in Guatemala in World Cup qualifying.
Pellerud and Bridge continue to unearth such young female talent as 14-year-old Sydney Leroux and 15-year-old Jodi-Ann Robinson. The future of the women's program is bright with the likes of thunder-footed Kara Lang, who just turned 18 and already has 43 caps for the senior side.
Striker Brittany Timko won the Golden Shoe as leading scorer at the world under-19 championships in Thailand. World Cup team star striker Christine Sinclair of the University of Portland is one of three finalists for the M.A.C. Hermann Trophy, considered NCAA soccer's equivalent to the Heisman Trophy.
On the men's side, fullback Paul Stalteri won the league and German Cup as a starter for Werder Bremen. Striker Dwayne DeRosario was honoured for the goal of the year in Major League Soccer. Midfielder Sandro Grande made a forceful entry on the men's national team scene. A camp in Vancouver led to contracts with England's Millwall for defender/midfielder Josh Simpson and midfielder Adrian Serioux. Look for a bigger club to snap up 21-year-old Tranmere forward Iain Hume at some point. And 17-year-old midfielder Jaime Peters burst on the scene and is now said to be mulling over offers from England's Chelsea and Ipswich.
The Montreal Impact won the A-League while the Vancouver Whitecaps captured the women's W-League, fitting rewards for two model franchises. The Toronto Lynx remained committed to the cause, although A-League teams in both Edmonton and Calgary called it quits in 2004.
Canadians made it to the finals of the NCAA soccer tournament, with Katie Thorlakson, Melissa Tancredi and Candace Chapman helping Notre Dame to the women's championship.
Greg Sutton of the Montreal Impact was named A-League MVP and goalkeeper of the year. Impact teammate Gabe Gervais won top defender honours.
Ottawa Fury forward Kelly Parker was chosen W-League MVP while Vancouver's Sasha Andrews was co-winner of the top defender award.
That was the good news. Now the bad.
Taking over from the departed Holger Osieck, Yallop had little time to prepare the senior men for the start of World Cup qualifying in June. There were a pair of 4-0 wins against outgunned Belize before qualifying started for real in mid-August against a tough group consisting of Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica.
A dreadful 2-0 loss to Guatemala in Burnaby, B.C., followed by a 1-1 draw with Honduras in Edmonton left the Canadians in a hole from which they never emerged.
Injuries, defensive errors and some bizarre officiating did not help Canada's cause. But bottom line, the Canadians did not deserve to go through.
Still Yallop is already making a mark. Taking over a national program that was shedding players rather than attracting them, he has treated players like adults and they have responded by returning to the fold.
As for 2005, a game against Northern Ireland in Belfast has already been announced for Feb. 9. The Gold Cup is set for July south of the border.
Yallop is also looking at exhibition games in London against Jamaica and possibly Australia. Bulgaria is a possible opponent in January. In all, the coach hopes to play more than 10 times in 2005.
There will be changes. The international careers of goalkeeper Pat Onstad and defender Mark Watson are over. Former captain Jason deVos is likely to concentrate on his club responsibilities.
All three deserve thanks for their considerable loyalty and contribution to the national team, even if Watson retired for a time rather than play for the abrasive Osieck.
The next year will be one of transition for Yallop's squad as he looks ahead. That means probably allowing veterans like Tomasz Radzinski and Stalteri some leeway in focusing on club duties while Yallop tests other talent.
"What I want to do is obviously not be weakened but I want to give some of the young guys chances to prove themselves, like in Guatemala (where) they did great," Yallop said.
"I want to see what they're made of," he added. "I can't be, in three years' time, guessing or wondering how they're going to play. I want to know."
Sutton and fellow goalkeeper Lars Hirschfeld, defenders Simpson, Gervais, Kevin McKenna and Atiba Hutchinson, midfielders Grande and Serioux, and forwards DeRosario and Olivier Occean will get plenty of playing time.
They will need support -- both moral and financial -- from the Canadian Soccer Association. The 2005 budget of $11.1 million has just $850,000 earmarked for Yallop's team.
Yallop has never complained about his lot, but he says questions need to be answered.
"In the next eight years, Canada needs to really internationally decide if they really want to go for it or not. And I think this is the start. I want to play as many games as possible. I want to get some things going in the youth setup, like a residency program. All these things that I know that we need to get before we can get better.
"Playing lots of games is going to help us, but it needs to get the full backing of everyone involved."
Plus Yallop's bosses and Canadian soccer have to sort out a vision for the domestic club scene. Is putting all its eggs into one MLS team basket the right way to go? That's if someone steps up with deep enough pockets to buy a franchise.
Young Canadian talent needs to be nurtured at home. No one has yet found a viable, comprehensive answer how to do it.
The year saw more soccer than ever on Canadian TV. Most of it was of the foreign variety, however, underlying the structural problems that plague Canadian soccer.
In other Canadian national team news, Mitchell's under-20 team heads to Honduras in late January to join the host side, Jamaica and Mexico at a qualifying tournament for the 2005 World Youth Championships in the Netherlands. Two teams will advance.
The early word is the Canadians look to have a solid defence but will need to work on creating and scoring goals. Canada has done well at this level, but this qualifying tournament could be a challenge.
The men's under-17 side will also take the next step in world championship qualifying at a regional tournament with host Mexico, Honduras and Haiti in either April or May. The group winner will advance to the 2005 world championships in Peru while the runner-up has another shot to move on via a playoff.
Like the Olympic under-23 competition, the under-17 championship has proved to be a tough nut for Canadian teams to crack.
The men's Olympic side stumbled early in 2004, finishing last at a qualifying tournament in Mexico in a group that included Honduras, Panama and the United States. Olympic coach Bruce Twamley, another loyal servant to Canadian soccer, subsequently stepped down.
The women's senior side also failed to make it to Athens after suffering a 2-1 loss to Mexico on a dry pitch in Costa Rica in early March at the CONCACAF qualifying tournament. "It's not a performance we're proud of," Pellerud said at the time. "Our team is devastated."
The senior women were essentially put on the shelf for the rest of the year, as money intended for Athens preparation was funnelled elsewhere. The women only played three more games, losing to the U.S. 1-0 in July before going 1-1 on a short summer tour of Japan paid for by the Japanese.
Consider it a lost year. The women finished 2004 where they started it, 11th in the FIFA women's rankings.
Games against Germany in Vancouver and Edmonton beckon in the new year.
The under-19 women showed tremendous character in dethroning the world champion Americans at the CONCACAF regional qualifying tournament. And the team demonstrated even more spirit in bouncing back from a 3-0 deficit to tie eventual champion Germany 3-3 in a preliminary-round game.
But the Canadian run ended in a 3-1 quarter-final loss to China, crumbling after a first-minute red card to goalkeeper Stacey Van Boxmeer.
On a sad note, former national team forward Domenic Mobilio died of a heart attack. He was just 35.