You only get one chance to make a first impression. That’s not good news for the Canadian men’s national soccer team.
With future manager Benito Floro watching purely as an observer, Canada showed how much work the former Real Madrid and Villarreal manager has to do to turn around his new team’s sagging fortunes, dropping its CONCACAF Gold Cup opener 1-0 to unranked Martinique.
And for good measure, the loss came in particularly heart-breaking fashion.
It seemed as if Canada would escape with a draw, a disappointing result in itself, given that Martinique went into the contest with just one win in a Gold Cup history that encompassed just three tournaments (1993, 2002 and 2003). But that disappointment suddenly turned into disaster.
In the 93rd minute, Martinique substitute Fabrice Reuperne was standing just outside the penalty area when the ball deflected to him after a scrum in front of the goal. Reuperne, who had missed a penalty kick during Martinique’s quarterfinal loss to Canada in the 2002 Gold Cup, would finally earn redemption, rifling a shot off his left foot into the upper-right corner of the net.
Canada’s best opportunity for a win in this tournament – and likely any chance of advancement – was gone.
Even after the disheartening loss, Canada goalkeeper Milan Borjan chose to focus on the positives when asked what he thought his future coach’s impression of the match might be.
"I think he saw a good group of guys, playing good together," Borjan said.
Perhaps. But only if he was watching Martinique.
Floro, who was named the team’s manager on Friday although he will not officially begin his duties until August 1 after the completion of the Gold Cup, probably saw something very different.
He saw a Canadian team incapable of mounting any sort of consistent offensive effort, despite playing against a squad making its first Gold Cup appearance in a decade. He saw a team that probably deserved to lose by more than just the 1-0 margin, given the staggering number of scoring opportunities it surrendered – Martinique managed 13 shots on goal, eight of them coming after halftime – in spite of its conservative game plan.
In short, he saw a team that’s not yet ready to compete for upper-echelon status within CONCACAF, let alone achieve its lofty goal of ending nearly three decades of World Cup futility and qualifying for the 2018 Cup in Russia.
"I think we are going through a real transition period," interim coach Colin Miller said. "What happened today is not just because of what’s happened over the last week to 10 days. This is a culmination of a lot of different things that have been going on for years in Canada. It’s a massive rebuilding process at the moment. It’ll be some time before we’re able to fix it."
Even as he was, in his own words, "as close to desperate as you can imagine" for his first win in two tenures as the country’s interim manager, Miller appeared resigned to starting that rebuilding process against Martinique.
Almost half of the Canadian Gold Cup squad (11 of 23 players) had fewer than 10 international caps to their credit. On Sunday, Miller started both teenager Samuel Piette and 20-year-old Russell Teibert and brought on 21-year-old Jonathan Osorio as a late substitute.
But the problem with youth movements is exactly that. Canada looked every bit as inexperienced as the birthdates on its official roster might suggest, consistently surrendering possession at the slightest resistance while allowing Martinique to run free in the Canadian half of the field time and time again.
"We’re not 89th in the world or whatever we are because we’re fantastic at everything we do," Miller said.
And unfortunately for Canada, this was the easy part of the competition.
"The good thing is we’ve got a nice easy fixture with Mexico to look forward to," Miller said with a resigned smile.
The bad thing? There are only two more chances to try to impress Floro before Canada’s Gold Cup appearance will almost certainly come to an ignoble end.
"You know, we just have to get the young guys a chance to play, the experience, get them ready for the next qualification for the World Cup," Borjan said. "That’s our goal. … We’re trying to do something here. We’ve got a new coach. We’ve got a young team. So we’ve got to build it now."