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Veterans lead the way as Canadian soccer team looks to pick up the pieces

Canadian men's national soccer goalie Lars Hirschfeld stretches during a practice session in Scottsdale, Arizona on Thursday Jan. 24, 2013. The hangover from Canada's 8-1 loss in Honduras lasted through the remnants of Hirschfeld's club season in Norway. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Neil Davidson

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - The hangover from Canada's 8-1 loss in Honduras lasted through the remnants of goalie Lars Hirschfeld's club season in Norway.

It sapped his enthusiasm. "It gutted me," he said.

And when he finally put it behind him, he came home over the holidays to visit family and friends in Edmonton where he was quizzed all over again about the ugly loss that crashed Canada out of World Cup qualifying.

An injured Dwayne De Rosario watched the Oct. 16 game in San Pedro Sula on his laptop from his home.

"There were tears. I'm not going to lie," said the D.C. United star.

For both, the loss meant having to once again start from the bottom in pushing Canada's soccer boulder up the World Cup qualifying mountain.

And yet both have returned to Canada's first camp since the Honduras loss. The two 34-year-olds are helping mentor a new generation of young players auditioning for the senior squad.

Both answered the call because they believe representing your country is an honour.

Even when those back home value soccer down the pecking order and you're sandwiched between Albania and Belarus at No. 64 in the world rankings. When a lone reporter turns up to watch the national team takes its first steps away from the soccer crater that was San Pedro Sula.

Upcoming friendlies — on Saturday against Denmark, ranked 23rd in the world, and Tuesday against the U.S., ranked No 28 — are a massive ask for this young Canadian squad, even if both opponents — like Canada — will field lesser teams due to the fact the games don't fall on FIFA international days.

"What's important is the guys learn from their mistakes and they're working towards building for the future," said interim coach Colin Miller, who has been around long enough to know the challenge facing the young Canadians.

Hirschfeld and De Rosario's combined 116 caps account for more than 60 per cent of the Canadian squad's total of 193.

Despite their commitment, Hirschfeld and De Rosario are anything but Pollyanna-ish when it comes to the national team. They have a list of things that need to be done, starting with more home games to build the fan base.

And they point fingers at themselves.

Hirschfeld says the players ultimately have to take the blame for the failed World Cup campaign, absolving former coach Stephen Hart of any blame.

The setback was especially painful since De Rosario and Hirschfeld had both seen signs of Canada finally removing the disconnect between fans and the national team. Supporters were getting on board and relishing the kind of soccer being played under Hart.

Unlike some fans, Hirschfeld does not see the Honduras game as a day that will go down in soccer infamy. He views it as a painful, freakish one-off that turned into a soccer snowball as Honduran confidence rose and Canadian emotions sank.

The real smoking gun was Canada's 0-0 tie at home to Honduras in June — home points tossed away. The goose was probably cooked well before Honduras.

Both Hirschfeld, who plays for Norway's Valerenga, and De Rosario are missing part of training camp with their clubs to be here.

Clubs officials at D.C. United are undoubtedly crossing their fingers after seeing De Rosario go down with a knee injury on international duty last year. De Rosario credits manager Ben Olsen, a former U.S. international, for understanding the passion of playing for your country.

For Hirschfeld, it means time away from a new manager putting his stamp on the club. But he also sees it as a worthy cause, even if the long trip here required a trip to an Arizona chiropractor to ease the kinks out of his sore back.

His soccer career has taken him to England, Scotland, Germany, Norway and Romania, where he has rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest players and clubs in European cup play. Hirschfeld has seen corruption in the sport and been victimized by bad management.

At times, he seems older than his years as he rubs his shaved head, detailing the bumps in his road. Then he catches himself and smiles at living in Oslo with his wife, listing the opportunities his sport has given him.

There's a book in Hirschfeld. Or maybe a song. He brought his guitar with him to camp.

No ordinary athlete, Hirschfeld drives a vintage VW Beatle or a Vespa back in Oslo. Wherever he goes, he makes a point of getting involved in philanthropic causes. He believes in giving back. And that includes soccer players who have made it to the promised land of European soccer.

Hirschfeld believes he has a debt to replay to Canadian soccer.

De Rosario is much the same.

The attacking midfielder has taken some stick in the past for appearing selfish — witness miming writing a cheque after scoring a goal to underline a contract dispute with Toronto FC.

But he has been nothing but team-oriented at this camp. When fullback Andres Fresenga was writhing in agony after being scythed down in a tackle, De Rosario was there to see if he was OK — even though he was on the opposing team.

After the session, he made a point of connecting with every single teammate.

Miller asked De Rosario, Hirschfeld and 30-year-old Toronto FC midfielder Terry Dunfield to lead by example at this camp.

They have each done it their own way. For Dunfield, it's been tough love.

Just ask midfielder Emmanuel Gomez, who was hobbled by a devastating Dunfield tackle, only to be snapped at by De Rosario who — having not seen Gomez's dance of pain — was unhappy at Gomez's lack of movement when he was trying to find someone to pass the ball to.

The youngsters in camp could do well to listen to De Rosario, who is a study in soccer doggedness.

Held back by not holding the right passport, his dream of playing in Europe never came to fruition. So he set his sights on conquering MLS.

He has done it all in the North American league.

The slick playmaker-scorer has won championships, led the league in scoring, and been named league and MLS Cup MVP. He is a member of the select club of 100-goal snipers in the league. He even set a record for fastest league hat trick (goals in the 22nd, 27th and 31st minutes against Real Salt Lake in 2012).

But ask him if he can close the book on his soccer career and be happy with what he's accomplished and the answer is no.

The World Cup is a gaping hole on his resume. Soccer's biggest showcase has eluded one generation after another of Canadian players.

Miller, one of only 22 Canadians to play in the World Cup (goalkeeping coach Paul Dolan is another), has made a point of telling his players to make the most of their opportunity, because the chance to pull on a national team shirt may never come again.

Gomez, a 25-year-old Argentine-Canadian who plays for third division side Club Atletico Griffa in Argentina, went to his club president to personally ask that he be allowed a crack at his first Canadian cap.

Uncapped striker Frank Jonke said he was speechless when he got the call-up.

"I was ecstatic," said the 27-year-old from Pickering, Ont., who plays for FF Jaro in Finland.

The Canadians in camp have been so pumped that Miller has had to slow them down.

"Take your time. It's not a race," has been a common refrain.

Miller, in his second stint as interim coach, is once again picking up the pieces. After Holger Osieck left in 2003, Miller found himself in charge of a team facing games with the Czech Republic, Finland and Ireland. Canada lost all three and was outscored 11-3.

Canada could end up being smoked by both the Danes and the Americans.

But it won't be for lack of trying or lack of pride from this young group, ably led by a handful of committed veterans and a canny coach.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2013
The Canadian Press

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