It’s been a while since this level of excitement has engulfed Canadian soccer.
Following directly on the heels of the women’s Olympic gold medal soccer win in Tokyo last summer, the men now find themselves leading the CONCACEF World Cup qualifiers standings with eight of the fourteen legs in the books.
For the benefit of those who do not eat, breathe and drink soccer on a daily basis, the top three finishers in the eight team pool will qualify for Qatar in late 2022 – the fourth place team will play a sudden death match against another fourth place team – with Canada having qualified once and once only for the World Cup of Soccer, back in 1986.
On hand for every single one of the eight games played to date has been former GSSC (Greater Sudbury Soccer Club) administrator Matt Spina, currently serving as Equipment Management and Logistics Support Coordinator for the squad.
The team is preparing for their next critical three game set sees Canada hosting the United States (Jan 30th), that contest sandwiched between trips to Honduras (Jan 27th) and El Salvador (Feb 2nd).
“I am just happy to be in the here and now with them and doing whatever I can to contribute towards that qualification,” said Spina, the Brock University Sports Management program graduate home for the holidays, heading off to Fort Lauderdale on January 6th as the lads assemble in advance of another important slate of games.
For the record, while Canada tops the standings with 16 points, the USA is just one point back, with both Mexico and Panama one more point back of the Americans. It’s been quite the ride for the former St Charles College Cardinal who is still completing a contract with Boxing Ontario after spending a little over a year with Ontario Soccer.
As one might expect, every step the young man has taken to date created the foundation for this opportunity. “First and foremost, they had to ensure that I had the technical capabilities to do this job, in this setting,” said Spina. “A small mess-up on my end can have massive waves.”
“Building those capabilities traces back to my days with the GSSC, understanding the logistics that go into running a minor youth league. Just understanding that structure was enough to help get me into Ontario Soccer, where I ran a larger league and also began to understand some of the nuances that I would not have known otherwise.”
And, as in any team setting, the qualities that go well beyond simply technical abilities are huge, at least in the eyes of the man of the very top of this Team Canada pyramid. “That second piece relates to (head coach) John Herdman, who is ultra focused on the culture fit, more than anything else,” said Spina.
“He wants to bring in people who support a positive and encouraging environment for the team – and John’s mentality has kind of a trickle-down effect within the entire organization.”
The on-field product has been nothing short of sensational, with Team Canada still unbeaten more than halfway through this set of playdowns. That is something that cannot be achieved without a complete buy-in, right across the spectrum of all those who are involved.
“The planning and preparation that goes into these camps is incredible,” said Spina. “And it’s not just focused on the guys on the field. It’s focused on the guys on the field and the team behind the team. We all play such an integral role. It’s not something I realized, the impact that we could have, before taking on this job.”
“We all understand that perfection is not easily achieved, if achievable at all,” he continued. “But it’s our job to get as close to that as possible.”
The very nature of his work brings Spina in touch, on a regular basis, with the athletes who are creating memories for thousands of Canadians. It’s not something that he takes for granted. The uniqueness of each and every one of those athletes is just one part of the fascination of his work.
“We would have white board sheets, floor to ceiling, with not only what we need to prep, but also what we need to prep for each player and their preferences as well,” he said. “It’s all about the importance of planning.”
His first taste of what was to lie ahead came courtesy of the Gold Cup last summer, an in-house CONCACEF tournament, hosted in the United States, in which Canada dropped a 2-1 semi-final decision to Mexico (who were then beaten, 1-0, by the USA, in the final). “That camp was an incredible experience, just because I learned so much,” said Spina.
“I learned what the responsibilities were to support the execution of the match prep, helping to create the proper atmosphere around the players.”
Among his favourite memories to date have been both epic battles against Mexico in the qualifiers, with Canada earning a 1-1 draw in the fabled Estadio Azteca, site of some of soccer’s greatest international highlights, as well as the subsequent 2-1 win for the home side in Edmonton in mid-November.
Suffice to say these battles were more than a little testy.
“I’m an emotional guy; I get swept up in the emotion of the game,” said Spina.
We’ll leave it at that.
While some may envy the Florida sunshine that awaits Spina and company later this week, the long days leading into the end of the month encounters allows for little to no time to enjoy the getaway climate. Even game day involvement may offer only glimpses of the action on the pitch.
“We’re there maybe four hours before the guys to prepare the dressing room,” said Spina. “The other half of our team (the off-field unit that he refers to as a “corner”) is preparing for transition. Often times, we will send a staffer to help pack the plane.”
It is hard work, being the scenes, with the overwhelming majority of Canadian soccer fans completely unaware of the efforts of the support staff.
Matt Spina is more than fine with that.
If Canada advances through to Qatar and World Cup 2022 - Spina might be inclined to say “when Canada advances” – the local soccer product will know that he played a role in making it all happen.
That is acknowledgment enough.