As Canadian soccer thrives, the sport reckons with a deep failure
National-team success coincides with a painful time for women's soccer
This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports' daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what's happening in sports by subscribing here.
For soccer fans, it's the best of times and the worst of times
It appears we've entered a golden age for Canadian soccer. The women's national team are Olympic champions for the first time after their thrilling shootout victory in the gold-medal match in Tokyo. Today, Olympic heroes Jessie Fleming, Ashley Lawrence and Christine Sinclair were nominated for the Ballon d'Or for world player of the year. Meanwhile, the men's team is looking more and more like it might reach the World Cup for the first time in three and a half decades.
Last night's 1-1 draw in Mexico City by the men was huge. In sports, you'll sometimes hear a tie described as a "moral victory," and that certainly applies here. Canada, ranked 51st in the world, went toe-to-toe with the No. 9 team in its own stadium and came away with a point. Not just any stadium, either, but dreaded Estadio Azteca — located a lung-shredding 7,200 feet above sea level and packed with notoriously hostile Mexican supporters who've been known to chuck literal bags of pee at opposing players and yell unspeakable insults at them (sure enough, last night's match was briefly suspended because of homophobic chants from the crowd). Mexico rarely loses, or even settles for a draw, there. When Jonathan Osorio scored the equalizer in the 42nd minute off a pinpoint pass from young superstar Alphonso Davies, it was the first goal by a Canadian man against Mexico at Azteca in 41 years — the same amount of time since Canada left this torture chamber with anything but a loss. The Canadians were outscored 16-0 in their past four visits.
But this is a new Canadian men's national team. Led by Davies and brilliant forward Jonathan David — already superstars at the ages of 20 and 21, respectively — Canada is playing in the final round of regional qualifying for the men's World Cup for the first time in more than two decades. And not just playing, but thriving. Through four of its 14 matches in this stage, Canada sits alone in third place with a record of one win and three draws. The top three teams qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, while the fourth-place team can still get in by winning an intercontinental playoff matchup. Another great sign: Canada's road games vs. the top two teams in the region — Mexico and the 13th-ranked United States — are already out of the way, with Canada earning a draw in both. Canada also beat 65th-ranked El Salvador 3-0 at home. The only result you can't feel good about so far was a 1-1 home draw vs. 63rd-ranked Honduras.
Next up is another away match, against 59th-ranked Jamaica on Sunday at 6 p.m. ET, followed by a home date vs. No. 68 Panama on Wednesday in Toronto. In the November window, Canada hosts Costa Rica on Nov. 12 and Mexico on Nov. 15 at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, where chilly weather could work in the home side's favour. Yeah, it's still early, but it's hard not to be excited and optimistic about Canada's chances of winning a surprise World Cup berth right now.
And yet, it's difficult to feel unbridled joy from this sport at a time when so much darkness has descended on the National Women's Soccer League. If you haven't been following the avalanche of devastating news over the last week or so, here's a synopsis:
Last week, The Athletic published a story by Meg Linehan in which two former NWSL players accused coach Paul Riley of multiple instances of sexual coercion and various other forms of harassment. Sinead Farrelly alleges that Riley coerced her into a sexual relationship that weighed so heavily on her that she eventually suffered a mental/emotional breakdown that left her unable to play. Farrelly and Mana Shim both allege that Riley sent them lurid pictures of himself, and that he pressured them into kissing each other. Farrelly, Shim and several others who played under Riley on the Portland Thorns from 2014-15 say he also made inappropriate comments about their weight and sexual orientation. Shim filed a complaint with the Thorns' front office after the 2015 season and, after a team investigation, his contract wasn't renewed. But he was soon hired by another team. Farrelly and Shim say that when they asked the NWSL for a new investigation into Riley's behaviour earlier this year (Farrelly's allegations weren't part of the 2015 Thorns probe), commissioner Lisa Baird told them the matter was closed.
In the Athletic story, Riley called the majority of the allegations against him "completely untrue." Nevertheless, he was fired by the Courage last Thursday. Coaches with the Utah Royals and Washington Spirit have also been removed from their jobs over the last year or so for allegedly making inappropriate comments or verbally abusing players. But Riley's firing seems to have touched off a long-awaited reckoning for the NWSL. The next day, commissioner Baird resigned and that weekend's matches were called off as players condemned the league for ignoring their complaints about abusive behaviour by coaches. When games resumed this week, players met at midfield and linked arms in the sixth minute — representing the six years they say it took for the allegations made by Farrelly, Shim and others against coaches to be heard. On the same day, Portland agreed to its players' demand that the team's GM be placed on administrative leave for not doing enough about the allegations against Riley years ago. Washington's CEO stepped down this week as well. Canadian national team captain Christine Sinclair, who plays for Portland, has called the league's failure to protect its players "unacceptable." The NWSL is currently under investigation by FIFA, U.S. Soccer and an independent probe commissioned by the league.
Underpinning all these troubles is the NWSL's power structure, which can be very unfavourable to players. As Linehan details in her story, three quarters of them make less than $31,000 US a year, and they're often fearful that the nine-year-old league could collapse at any time. This makes it very difficult to stand up to a prominent coach, like Riley, who has the power to make or break careers that are already perilously short.
For a long time, players seemed to have little choice but to accept the toxic environments this power structure can create. But now they finally feel empowered to take matters into their own hands to help build the league they deserve. Clearly, no one else was going to do it. That's what the walkout, the mid-field protests and the demands are all about. The players want a say (a "seat at the table," as the Thorns put it in their statement) in how their league is run and how they're treated at work. It's clear now that their safety and well-being depends on it. No one can ignore them anymore.
Canada's top tennis players are ready to take the court at prestigious Indian Wells. The four highest-ranked Canadian singles players — No. 7 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime and No. 8 Denis Shapovalov on the men's side, No. 16 Bianca Andreescu and No. 23 Leylah Fernandez on the women's — were all granted first-round byes for what some tennis fans call "the fifth Grand Slam." Unseeded Canadian Vasek Pospisil joined them in the second round with a victory over American J.J. Wolf last night, and will now face Shapovalov on Saturday. Auger-Aliassime will also meet an unseeded opponent in the second round. Fernandez, who's playing for the first time since her stunning run to the U.S. Open final last month, takes on unseeded Frenchwoman Alizé Cornet tonight at 11 p.m. ET or later. Andreescu, who won Indian Wells in 2019 and is still the defending champion because last year's event was cancelled, faces unseeded American Alison Riske tomorrow. If you missed our Indian Wells preview earlier this week, read about what's at stake for the top Canadians here.
The WNBA Finals tip off Sunday. The matchup will be finalized tonight at 9 p.m. ET when the No. 2-seeded Las Vegas Aces and No. 5 Phoenix Mercury play the fifth and deciding game of their semifinal series. Las Vegas forced the rubber match with a 93-67 blowout on Wednesday night that saw Phoenix lose guard Kia Nurse (the only Canadian left in the playoffs) to a knee injury in the opening minute. She's been ruled out for the season with a torn ACL. The winner will face the No. 6-seeded Chicago Sky in the Finals, which begin Sunday at 3 p.m. ET. Chicago survived two single-elimination playoff games before upsetting the top-seeded Connecticut Sun in four games in the semis. Two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker, 35, is still going strong for Chicago, averaging 13 points, eight rebounds and five assists a game in the playoffs for her hometown team.
This weekend on CBC Sports
Here are the live events you can watch on TV and online:
Beach volleyball — World Tour Finals: Canada's reigning world champions Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes completed a perfect 4-0 round robin today to win their group and advance directly to the women's semifinals. Those start Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET, and you can also stream the quarter-finals starting at 8:30 a.m. ET. The final is Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET. Watch them all as part of CBC Sports' live streaming coverage of the women's and men's tournaments here. The Road to the Olympic Games show on Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on CBC TV also features the World Tour Finals.
Junior hockey — Rouyn-Noranda Huskies vs Shawinigan Cataractes: The second of six Canadian Hockey League games being broadcast on the CBC TV network this season features the reigning Memorial Cup champions. Rouyn-Noranda won it in 2019 before the tournament was cancelled the next two years because of the pandemic. The Huskies are off to a 2-1-0 start to the QMJHL season, while Shawinigan has suffered a pair of shootout losses. Watch the game live Saturday at 3 p.m. ET on CBC TV, the CBC Gem streaming service, the CBC Sports app or CBCSports.ca.
You're up to speed. Have a good long weekend. Talk to you Tuesday.