Soccer on the rise in Canada as national team set to face U.S. in KC Gold Cup match

Rob Notenboom lives on the vast prairies of central Saskatchewan, Canada, a far-reaching region whose topography not unlike much of the American Midwest. There’s a common joke in Saskatchewan that you can see your dogs run away for two days.

And in the provincial capital of Regina, where Notenboom lives, lows during the winter are often below zero.

Not exactly prime soccer conditions.

Still, that’s the sport Notenboom has devoted much of his life to, despite what he’s called a “lonely fandom” in the Great White North. He doesn’t care much for hockey, Canada’s national sport. The soccer pitch is his preferred place, to where he’s even became a member of a loosely-organized group of Canadian national team supporters, The Voyageurs — Canadian spelling of the word and all.

There was a moment in particular for Notenboom — the 1986 World Cup, the last one Canada’s men’s national team qualified — when he knew that despite his location in secluded western Canada that he was going to be hooked.

Canada finished last with zero points in Group C that tournament, failing even to score a goal, but the impact for Notenboom’s and some others of his generation was groundbreaking.

“I’ve always been a fan, which is strange, because I grew up on a lot of small towns on the prairies,” Notenboom said. “There was not really anything soccer-wise going on, but I was drawn to it. I remember watching Canada when they went to Mexico ‘86 and I was kind of keen, and then in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I would pick up anything I could find on TV as (soccer) was kind of rare.

“I didn’t know anybody else that was really interested in soccer that much. … Fandom was always (in Canada). It was just belated, I suppose, because there was nothing to watch.”

Canada, which faces the United States as its final Concacaf Gold Cup Group B opponent at 4 p.m. Sunday at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan., appears to be on the cusp of entering a new era for soccer in the country.

Having not made the final round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying since 1997, Canada defeated Haiti 4-0 in a two-legged playoff last month to advance to the octagonal stage, where they’ll play 14 matches (in home-and-homes against the other seven teams in the group) over the next few months to decide who moves on to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. If Canada finishes top three in the group (or finishes fourth and wins an inter-confederation playoff), it’s in.

The sudden rise can be heavily attributed to the talent of one man, 20-year-old winger/defender Alphonso Davies, who grew up in Edmonton, Alberta and is a Champions League starter and winner with German superclub Bayern Munich. Though having one of the world’s brightest young stars helps, Canada isn’t limited to Davies. Striker Jonathan David scored 13 goals in all competitions for French champions Lille this past season, while fellow forward Cyle Larin was the top scorer in 2020-21 for Turkish Super Lig winners Besiktas.

With momentum rising in the sport across Canada — though Canadians interviewed said that while growing, it’s still a niche sport — a return to the World Cup would be monumental for Canadian soccer, especially as co-hosting rights (with the U.S. and Mexico) for the 2026 World Cup await. Still, there are reservations: Voyageurs member Alex Ho of Ottawa, Ontario, is optimistic, but he also remembers how excitement can sharply turn to anguish.

“We’re probably on an upswing right now,” Ho said. “The problem with Canada is that we didn’t have any success in World Cup qualifying. There was a buzz (in 2012), when we had a chance to get to the last round, and there was a lot of hype around it. It was on national television, on our version of ESPN, and we went to Honduras and lost 8-1.

“I would say it’s only recovered the last few years. … I think that momentum (came from) seeing some of our players playing in the Champions League, being champions of France, Germany, Turkey, Scotland, that type of thing, and people who are aware of that know about it.”

Davies and David aren’t in Kansas City for the Gold Cup as they recover from injuries ahead of their club seasons, but Canada has still brought a strong squad. Both Canada and the U.S. have qualified for the knockout rounds with wins over Haiti and Martinique, setting up a Sunday showdown where the winner takes first in the group.

The Voyageurs won’t be there to see it, and not by choice.

Since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the Canada-U.S. border has mainly been shut down for non-essential travel, with the Canadian government stating that it wants 75% of eligible citizens fully vaccinated before easing restrictions. Canadians can fly into the U.S. with a negative COVID-19 test, but the hurdles to jump through upon re-entry, which could involve quarantining dependent on vaccination and a variety of other factors, still remain a hassle.

There were hopes earlier this year among some Canadian supporters that a trip to Kansas City would be possible as vaccination rates climbed, but Canada’s government did not fully ease the tourism restrictions.

Notenboom stated that there’s been hesitancy among Canadians to travel, anyway.

“COVID has really thrown a wrench in all of this,” Notenboom said. “People are not really keen to travel, they want to stay safe. … I’ve got about a dozen buddies who might come out and watch a game at our local soccer club.”

Meanwhile Children’s Mercy Park will host a sold-out crowd of around 18,467 for Sunday’s match.

Though the Gold Cup, while still a major tournament, pales in comparison to the likes of World Cup qualifiers, some — like Voyageurs member Aubrey Lustig of Toronto — see the images of full crowds in American stadiums and grow envious.

“I don’t even know if we’re going to be able to host qualifiers in September,” Lustig said.

In a way, it’s almost as if Notenboom is isolated again in his Canadian soccer fandom, unable to share his love with his fellow countrymen the way he wants as pandemic restrictions limit travel and gatherings. But steam is gaining in the sport for Canada now, and coverage has evolved to supply that need right back.

Whether the team rewards that unwavering support with a Gold Cup run (or better, a World Cup berth) remains to be seen.

“(This group doesn’t) have that hangover of failure,” Notenboom said of Canada’s current team. “They don’t have that, it’s like that culture isn’t even in their DNA. Some of these guys, they’re just going out and doing it. And that’s so refreshing as an old guard.

“… And I know several people in my generation who I talk with regularly, we also are very cautious. … However, there’s just so many things that are pointing in a positive direction. These guys are young, they are very hungry, but they are also winners.”

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