Soccer could be so much bigger here - The Province

VANCOUVER -- Two of the best soccer teams in Canada - the Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact - are about to collide in the semifinals of the United Soccer Leagues First Division playoffs. It will be a regional home-and-home tussle and be underplayed by the national media. Until the Canadian Soccer Association can rebuild its national team, soccer is going to be viewed as a niche sport in this country, even if both the Whitecaps and Impact were accepted into Major League Soccer to join Toronto FC. Attempting to get to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in the CONCACAF Group 2 qualifier, the Canadian national team is winless in three games and its only home game left is against the superior Mexicans. Canada's only point has come from a home 1-1 tie against minnow Jamaica. It will take something along the lines of the Miracle On 34th Street for the Canadians to advance. It isn't a case of this country being unsupportive of world class soccer - stadiums across the country were repeatedly sold out last summer when Canada played host to the Under 20 World Cup - it's a case of the national team simply not being competitive. "If that had been hockey," said Whitecaps president and former national team coach Bob Lenarduzzi, "it would have be big, big news. People would be talking about it. And what to do about it." As Lenarduzzi pointed out, the only time Canada has made the Olympics in soccer was in 1984 and its only World Cup appearance was in 1986. Those high-water marks just happened to coincide with the heyday of the North American Soccer League. "The key to that group of players was the NASL," said Lenarduzzi. "I was fortunate enough to be one of the players. I remember Bruce Wilson and Tino Lettierri and Dale (now national team coach Mitchell). I had come back from Redding (England) and had watched Alan Ball as a 13-year-old and now I was playing beside him. You had to get better as a player. "Where we are right now, I see this as an opportunity." What he means is if the CSA brass will take the opportunity to recognize the fact that the pro teams in this country are the ones developing the players. All three of them have started residency programs that are already producing results. The Whitecaps, who just eliminated Minnesota in the first round of the USL playoffs, for instance, have started 17-year-old Ethan Gage of Cochrane, Alta. And other residency players Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Dever Orgill and Navid Mashinchi - all still in their teens - have seen action with the big club. "Ninety per cent of what the CSA does is on the recreational side," figures Lenarduzzi. "I think the CSA has tried to do its best, but the way it's set up right now it's just not going to work. When I got fired (in 1997), I kept my mouth shut because it would have sounded like sour grapes. And here we are 11 years later and four or five more coaches and we're worse off. It can't be the coach's fault every time. "Now they have quality people like (Whitecaps owner) Greg Kerfoot, Joey Saputo (Impact owner) and Maple Leaf Sports (Toronto FC owner). If there isn't interest in the CSA (about seeing how the pro organizations can help out), their heads are up their a-es. And you can quote me on that." That, dear readers, is a sidebar to this week's USL activity. The Whitecaps and Impact will meet for the sixth (in Montreal at Stade Saputo on Friday) and seventh (at Swangard Stadium Sunday evening) times this year to see which goes to the final. Vancouver Province