Mark down Tucson, on a Saturday in early 2013, as where Canada officially kicked off its run at the 2018 World Cup. Perhaps fittingly, it started with a lopsided loss.
A young, outmatched Canadian squad lost 4-0 to a Danish side missing most of its stars.
Coming on the heels of an 8-1 humiliation last October in Honduras that ended Canada’s 2014 qualifying dream, it was a second straight beating.
There could be another Tuesday when the Canadian men meet the U.S. in Houston.
But in the wake of the Denmark defeat, interim coach Colin Miller pleaded for fans to take the long view.
“Let’s give whoever it is going to be the national team coach, give them the opportunity to rebuild something and then, when it’s been rebuilt and we’ve brought in a mixture of our senior guys and our top-quality guys from Europe in among these young guys, then we can start to be critical.
“But to just say ‘Oh, Canada gets hammered 4-nil,’ that’s an easy way. Let’s start to think and be a wee more productive about how we go about it. And I’m not fluffing over things. There’s nobody any more disappointed than Colin Miller. Let me tell you, it wasn’t for the Family Channel what I said at halftime to our players. And you saw a bit more response from that in the second half. We need to get that consistently and get better.”
With the game not falling on a FIFA international date, Miller was handed a roster that was brimming with under-23 players or younger mixed in with a smattering of veterans.
It was 2-0 after 11 minutes and 3-0 after 35. Both teams emptied their benches in the second half.
Miller gave first caps to Toronto FC rookie Kyle Bekker, who started in midfield, and second-half substitutes Simon Thomas, Evan James, Kyle Porter, Philippe Davies and Mason Trafford.
“It was a terrific experience for our young guys,” said Miller. “I’m not making any excuses but we finished up with a team there that could possibly have been an MLS reserve team ... Easy to be negative, easy to be slaughtering things all over the place but I’m afraid I’m not going to do that. I’m going to support the guys and try and get them ready for Tuesday night.”
Bekker, one of the bright lights from the Canadian camp, was unable to showcase his passing skills or vision since Canada was under the gun for much of the game. Canada was on the back foot for most of the game so was rarely able to show its skills.
Once again goalie Lars Hirschfeld played well, behind a leaky defence. He was mercifully substituted at halftime after having given up 11 goals in his last 135 minutes with the national team. And he played well.
The young Canadian side gave Denmark too much respect and too much space. The Danes took full advantage, swinging balls around to slice open the Canadian defence.
Andreas Cornelius, a 19-year-old FC Copenhagen striker who is joint top scorer in the Danish league with 14 goals in 20 matches, scored three goals for Denmark while Kasper Lorentzen accounted for the other.
“We’re disappointed certainly in the manner of goals we gave away,” said Miller. “It was boys against men at some times during the first half for sure.”
Midfielder Terry Dunfield, who captained Canada for the first time, said the team has to learn from the mistakes — and not repeat them.
Learning can be painful, he was reminded.
“It can be,” replied the hard-tackling Toronto FC midfielder. “But on the other hand, we probably have five (or) six years to get it right. So we’re at the beginning of the cycle right now. Players are getting opportunities and it’s up to them to take it.
“If they’re able to, they move on with the team. If not, they don’t.”
Denmark is ranked 23rd in the world while Canada is 64th.
But those numbers didn’t mean much on the day given the diluted rosters for both teams.
Canada’s starting 11 featured just three players — Hirschfeld, midfielder Nik Ledgerwood and striker Tosaint Ricketts — who started in Honduras.
It was essentially a B team for the Danes.
“They’re no mugs. It doesn’t matter who puts on a Danish jersey. These guys are playing at a very very good level of football,” said Miller.
“Their (soccer) youth and upbringing is far superior to anything that we can offer in Canada,” he added. “So let’s put things in perspective.”
While the final field for the 2014 World Cup is still being sorted, Canada is looking ahead from its position on the sidelines. With little of import on the horizon, Canada is auditioning young talent for the future.
Results aren’t really important at this stage. Depth is. As is learning how to swim in deep waters.
“We’ve got to keep going with these guys and put them into these environments as often as we possibly can.” said Miller.
Buckle up. It may be a bumpy ride.