Those CanWNT Roster Announcement Thoughts, in Full

By Benjamin Massey · April 27th, 2015 · No comments

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

How great is it that Canada’s largest sports station just featured a roster announcement? We’re used to our national teams being all-but-ignored but TSN, not Sportsnet, holds the Women’s World Cup rights and they’ve been laying on the coverage. Jason deVos and Luke Wileman flew out to Vancouver and stood in the rain to tell us twenty-three names, twenty of which you would have guessed this time last year, that will represent Canada at this summer’s Women’s World Cup. A decent crowd turned out in the middle of a rainy working day to applaud our conquering heroines; since 2014 if not sooner the people Vancouver have enjoyed a powerful connection with their women’s team, and days like this show it off.

There are two names that will draw major comment. The first is Diana Matheson, not only trying to come back in a hurry from a left ACL tear but also, according to deVos, a broken bone in her right foot. Matheson is one of Canada’s three best players when at all healthy so fans will be staying up nights hoping she’ll be ready by June. (Remember that she was coming off a serious knee injury heading into the 2012 Olympics and only won us a bronze medal.) However, as Canadian supremo John Herdman pointed out on TSN, he can make changes to the roster up to 24 hours before the opening kickoff against China. If Matheson is even faintly fit she’s an automatic selection, and if she isn’t she can be replaced pretty much up to the last minute. In this context of course she was selected, and seeing her limp down the stone steps of Robson Square without crutches or a walking boot is hopeful.

The inclusion Selenia Iacchelli is the obvious surprise. Sura Yekka, Rachel Quon, and Janine Beckie are all staying home, and a midfielder with four caps who turns 28 the day before the tournament starts is coming. Iacchelli had a spell in the Canadian youth setup but after that fell off the face of the earth, playing part-time in the USL W-League and ping-ponging around Europe, until her return to the program in 2013. She’s had the injury bug bad and actually failed her physical with the NWSL’s Western New York Flash last spring, and while appearing on Canadian rosters she hasn’t actually played in 2015. I have seen Iacchelli play something like twenty minutes in my life; they were okay, but that isn’t much of a sample. Frankly, I doubt anybody outside the coaching or scouting communities knows much more about Iacchelli on the field, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Who loses by Iacchelli’s inclusion? Yekka is a bright young player but you hardly use a home Women’s World Cup as a development opportunity, and with Lauren Sesselmann getting healthy there wasn’t much room for her. Quon got headlines coming from the United States but has hardly seen action and wasn’t seriously expected to get a roster spot. Beckie was probably the best of the bunch: a young forward who was a regular off the bench at the Cyprus Cup, had a good U-20 Women’s World Cup, has scored for the senior team against South Korea, and is still eligible to play for the United States (she spent some time in the American program and, unlike her brother Drew, was both born and raised in Colorado). Canada has a surfeit of decent forwards: from the size and experience of Melissa Tancredi to the younger, quicker Jonelle Filigno. But Sinclair aside there are no stars, and Beckie’s technical quality seems to mark her out in a corps that’s long on all sorts of athleticism, but short on foot skills.

If it was my team I’d have taken Beckie and left Iacchelli. But then I’m not at training or in the locker room. John Herdman had made a catchphrase out of calling his players, including Iacchelli, “outstanding Canadians” (though that would leave Sesselmann out), and she certainly has a good reputation as a personality and a hard worker. The way she’s busted her ass to get back into the national team picture after half a decade in the wilderness, alone, speaks volumes about her character. Iacchelli playing a home World Cup is not only a great story but a suggestion that she has some of those “intangibles” everybody loves to talk about, and since any Canadian success will have to come through being a familiar unit of friends with loads of team spirit, rather than sheer skill, perhaps she can be justified.

The emergence of Allysha Chapman falls into a similar category. At the beginning of last year she was absolutely nowhere, grinding it out in Sweden on a just-promoted team nobody had ever heard of, then John Herdman called her up and “oh, she’s pretty good.” Undersized, aggressive, quick, and seemingly impossible to intimidate, Chapman’s made some mistakes as she adjusts to the pace of international soccer (particularly in Edmonton against Japan) but so obviously deserves to be on this team that nobody even commented when her name came up. She has started Canada’s last six matches, scored against Italy, and will be starting again. Iacchelli is the feel-good story, the stereotypical twenty-third woman who never lost hope and overcame all the odds. Chapman also slipped through the cracks, but has become such an important tool for John Herdman that we forget how quickly it happened.

Also interesting is Ashley Lawrence, one of three players (with Kadeisha Buchanan and Jessie Fleming) from last summer’s U-20 Women’s World Cup roster. Lawrence had a good, lively U-20 tournament, but wasn’t exactly outstanding. So, like Chapman, what’s remarkable about her being on this team is that it’s no longer remarkable. She’s played herself into a more prominent role every month: garbage time in a couple friendlies last fall, a few starts here and there, good minutes in the Cyprus Cup, culminating in the most recent match against France where she lined up against one of the world’s four best teams and didn’t look bad. She’s another good example of somebody who’s played her way into this tournament, and while I don’t expect her to get major minutes she’s got a bit of impact sub-style flair.

Finally, a word on Jessie Fleming. There was never any doubt she’d make this team. She was not only a fine player at the U-17 and U-20 levels but has looked promising on the senior team and was one of Canada’s stars at BC Place against world number ones Germany last year. She broke her international duck at the Cyprus Cup, has six starts in 2015, and only turned 17 years old a couple weeks ago. Most of the rosters aren’t out yet but Fleming will likely be the youngest player at the Women’s World Cup; she was one of the ten youngest at the U-20 World Cup and none of those younger are in any danger of participating this year. She’ll probably get minutes too, particularly if Matheson is ruled out. The hype is starting to build; Fleming has already been singled out for media coverage, and in an environment where relatively few pundits regularly watch the women’s national team there’s a risk of “the next Sinclair”/”soccer’s Connor McDavid” or other such inappropriate labels being applied. Be cautious. Fleming’s looked good against top teams, but had a bit of a rough time against France. She’s still very young and could definitely go either way. Personally I am very high on her, but it’s a long, long way from “prospect” to “Women’s World Cup”.

That said, a 17-year-old Kara Lang made her FIFA Women’s World Cup debut for Canada in 2003, scored twice, and helped Canada to a fourth-place finish. It was a different era, and Lang was a different player, but teenagers can still make a difference in the Women’s World Cup. How about Australia’s Caitlin Foord, who in 2011 put in a terrific tournament for an underpowered Matildas squad at only 16 years old? Or Norway’s Emilie Haavi, who had just turned 19 when she scored against Equatorial Guinea that same year?

Back in December I said Canada ought to finish fourth this summer. I see no reason to change that prediction now. The midfield, anchored by Sophie Schmidt, Desiree Scott, and hopefully Matheson, lacks any individual world-beaters but is a strong unit. The defense will grow stronger as Sesselmann gets fit (she struggled against France but fair enough, that was her return to action), the keepers are no problem. The forwards are the question mark, but we’ve started to see a little more from Christine Sinclair. She’s already scored five goals this year in eight matches; not quite London 2012 form, and generally against B-grade opposition, but an improvement. Last year there were a lot of times when she was creating chances but not putting them away, and while she turns 32 during the tournament and ain’t what she was the tank’s not empty. If Adriana Leon (who scored against Mexico in the Cyprus Cup) and Melissa Tancredi (who did everything but score against Italy) can punish defenders physically, and the midfield led by Schmidt can do its share, Sinclair could be still be a valuable part of an all-round attack. This is not what we are used to from Sinclair, who was once the best one-woman offensive show in world soccer, but given Canada’s easy bracket it might be enough.

Voyageurs Cup: An Easy Lead to Lose

By Benjamin Massey · April 23rd, 2015 · No comments

Steve Kingsman/Ottawa Fury

Steve Kingsman/Ottawa Fury

Yesterday’s Voyageurs Cup opener was not one for the purists. Sloppy soccer. FC Edmonton had absorbed a Sunday battering coming back from the dead against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Ottawa was better rested (second home game on the trot, extra day off), but it’s early in the season and their Minnesota game Saturday had been no picnic. A few players (hello, Julian de Guzman) still looked to be playing their way into shape.

God, but it was fun, wasn’t it? An hour of near-total Fury dominance which should brighten the day for the few fans who ignored a must-win NHL playoff game to come to Lansdowne Field. The second-quickest goal in Voyageurs Cup history by young forward/strangulation specialist Oliver* and very nearly a couple more. FC Edmonton actually saw a dodgy call at a Voyageurs Cup game in their favour, when referee Geoff Gamble gave a spot kick for a tough hand ball on Ottawa right back Ryan Richter; Richter clearly had the ball hit his hand but was trying to protect his face. All’s well that ends well: Lance Laing struck the penalty hard and sideways but at a perfect height for the goalkeeper, and Romuald Peiser made a fine save.

The missed penalty, though, marked the point where it turned from a one-sided battering into a real soccer game. From there on out the Eddies attacked hard and owned most of the good chances. They tied it up through Daryl Fordyce’s third Voyageurs Cup goal against the Fury, took the lead when Laing read Rafael Alves like a children’s comic and stripped the ball with almost casual ease, and made it a 3-1 win late in stoppage time when the Fury defense had already succumbed to despair and Laing hooked up with Tomi Ameobi. The Ottawa Fury commentators seemed bewildered that Laing hadn’t started but this was by far his best effort of the season: maybe Ottawa had been lulled to sleep by the general uselessness of Johann Smith, but this was the first 2015 performance worthy of Laing’s highlight reel. The final score was very harsh on the Fury thanks to the Eddies’ gutsy, magisterial comeback: rumours that Laurie Hawn snuck a rally rabbit into Lansdowne Park at half were not confirmed by press time.

So FC Edmonton heads home up 3-1 on aggregate. They have not lost a home game since July 27, 2014 (nine matches) and have not lost at home by two goals since May 3. They have an unfair scheduling advantage: Edmonton has this weekend off while Ottawa hosts Fort Lauderdale on Saturday. Ottawa’s actually a fairly good road team, and got three two-goal wins away from home in 2014, but this season has seen a very disappointing, referee-influenced loss away to Carolina and a draw in Atlanta where an unremarkable offense carved them open more than once. The Eddies, a decent defensive side on paper, have a schwack of away goals to cling onto like the last potato in Latvia. In short, everyone will call Edmonton the favourite next Wednesday for good reason.

Naturally I am less confident. Coming into yesterday’s game I’d never anticipated a Voyageurs Cup less: last year’s criminal refereeing, and the consequent Montreal Impact fellatio for a CONCACAF Champions League run they never earned, has made me jaded, cynical, and bitter. 90 minutes of classic Canadian soccer has helped cure me, and the old nerves are back. The thing about the Voyageurs Cup is that its gods are capricious, and absolutely anything can happen at any time.

You no doubt spotted me calling the Eddies defense decent “on paper”. Albert Watson is an implacable stalwart and former NASL Best XI, Mallan Roberts makes inexperienced mistakes but also does a lot right, versatile Eddie Edward is underrated outside Ottawa and Edmonton, and even the much-maligned Kareem Moses has apparently taken classes in poise and alertness this winter. However, there have been a lot of blunders from that crew so far in 2015. The Rabbits were humiliated in Jacksonville thanks in no small part to Johann Smith at left back, making the most horrifying debut since chlorine gas. But they easily could have allowed more than one goal to Carolina, and Fort Lauderdale passed the ball through Edmonton with effortless ease at time last Sunday. According to the official statistics Edmonton has allowed 16, 12, 16, and 15 shots directed against in their four matches this year. Those are big numbers. They have been outshot every game.

In goal, Matt Van Oekel has been a human question mark, and even if Colin Miller wants to switch to John Smits he can’t since last year’s number one is on loan at Montreal. Moreover, the Eddies have already allowed two first-minute goals this season and very nearly allowed a third. If Ottawa pegs the aggregate score to 3-2 early, watch for the small crowd at Clarke Field to grow awfully nervous.

On Wednesday, the Fury easily could have scored a field goal. Wiedeman had a couple good looks. Oliver could have added one or two to his tally. Even Julian de Guzman had too much space and nearly scored from distance. Paulo Jr. was highly erratic but in midfield could be big trouble. Now that Neil Hlavaty’s gone Edmonton doesn’t really have that pain-in-the-ass defensive midfielder; Ritchie Jones isn’t really that guy and anyway that night he was either tired or dogging it. Ottawa was the best team, by a long way, for a long time, until it all fell apart and Edmonton showed superior character and cohesiveness. It’s great for fans, and even better for their heart surgeons, but guts, glory, and going for it gung-ho are no long-term replacement for preventing shots and getting more chances than the other guys.

After the game Edmonton head coach Colin Miller said all the right things about acting like it’s 0-0 and taking the second leg seriously. Good, but easier said than done. As much as you can with a heavy margin coming home against mediocre opposition, the Eddies look vulnerable.


* — The quickest goal in Voyageurs Cup history was on May 20, 2009, when the Vancouver Whitecaps’ Marcus Haber scored 33 seconds in against Marc dos Santos’s Montreal Impact at Stade Saputo. The Canadian Soccer Association press release says Oliver scored 65 seconds in but I think this is a typo: the correct time was 56 seconds. According to the best available information Haber and Oliver are the only first-minute scorers since the Voyageurs Cup began in 2002.

Hurrah for Toronto!

By Benjamin Massey · April 1st, 2015 · No comments

If you believe Gerry Dobson, and you should, Canada’s men’s national team will play its first home World Cup qualifying match of this cycle at Toronto’s BMO Field Tuesday, June 16 against Dominica.

Some pundits, steeped in cynicism, will say this is another work of uncreative Torontocentricism by the Canadian Soccer Association. That Toronto gets far more games than is their due and giving them yet another home World Cup qualifying match, their seventh on the trot, is one more reason why the Canadian men’s national team’s grip will remain so weak outside southern Ontario.

In fact, despite the history, hosting this game in Toronto is brilliant.

First, if we look at the present rather than the past, this scheduling is perfectly fair. All Canada will enjoy a plethora of marquee international soccer games this summer. The Women’s World Cup final is being held in Vancouver, Canada will play two games in Edmonton and one in Montreal, Winnipeg is sold out for the Americans, even little Moncton will see more first-rate internationals in June than in the rest of the decade. The biggest Canadian city being left out of this nationwide party? Toronto, whose councilors preferred to focus their resources on the Pan-American Games. (And even the soccer for that is being played in Hamilton.)

Sure, Toronto will host Canada’s first ever home Gold Cup match in July. But a Gold Cup group stage game doesn’t register on the same level as a World Cup. Every two years some of Canada’s marquee players give the Gold Cup a miss; it just isn’t a priority. I suspect, however, that few women will skip the World Cup to concentrate on their club careers. The Gold Cup and the Women’s World Cup, in terms of media exposure, in terms of the expected attendance, and in terms of international profile, do not belong on the same level.

Putting the World Cup qualifier in Toronto gives Canada’s largest city a chance so many other cities will have in 2015: to cheer on their country in a critical, possibly do-or-die, game. (And one Canada is likely to win.) Who could begrudge Toronto that?

Second, many of Canada’s other venues would be unavailable for the men anyway. Commonwealth Stadium, BC Place, the Big O, Winnipeg, Ottawa, even Stade Moncton, all monopolized by the simultaneous Women’s World Cup. Regina is still building their new stadium. Even secondary venues in these cities, such as Stade Saputo and Clarke Stadium, are FIFA-reserved “training grounds” and barred to Benito Floro’s interlopers. That leaves few options. Calgary, I suppose. And Cowtown is long overdue for a visit.

But here we see the clever final bonus for playing this game in this city on this date. The men, according to Dobson, play on Tuesday, June 16. The women have their final WWC group stage match on Monday, June 15, in Montreal. An expensive flight to Calgary, but a cheap bus ride to Toronto.

Canada’s most passionate traveling supporters will be concentrated in one small part of the country. Dinner in Montreal, breakfast in Toronto, two of Canada’s biggest games a six-hour drive from each other. It could not be better. No major soccer stadium is both available and nearer to Montreal than BMO Field. We should be guaranteed two nights of first-rate, pro-Canadian atmosphere in the games where it’s most needed.

So three cheers for the CSA, and three cheers for Toronto. I’m looking forward to it already.

Fine, Buy That Scarf (With Reflections)

By Benjamin Massey · March 30th, 2015 · No comments

There’d be no need for this article at all if I hadn’t tossed off a Saturday morning quickie using the Whitecaps scarf scandal to promote southwestern British Columbia’s cup finals weekend. Funny ol’ world. A few hours after that post went up the Whitecaps announced they’d donate the proceeds from their controversial “Kings of Cascadia” scarf to the Vancouver Street Soccer charity[2]. A sensible compromise in time to save the Portland Timbers game (which the Whitecaps won), everyone was happy, good job.

However, I wish to raise three matters today.

First, how in God’s name were people calling this controversy “#ScarfGate”? I realize the “-gate” suffix has achieved a post-ironic cachet where it’s used simply because it annoys so many of us, but didn’t “scarf scandal” in that first paragraph look ten times better? If you must hashtag it in nine characters go with “#ScarfScam”. Bear that in mind if it ever becomes relevant again. Why didn’t I write this when it could have done some good? Because I’m shit, that’s why.

Second, consider a précis of what happened. The Cascadia Council – the group of Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver supporters who protect the Cascadia Cup after the 2013 trademark dispute – has a legal agreement with MLS wherein, if the Council fails to object to a proposed use of the trademark by MLS within a certain period of time, permission is automatically granted. Because the Cascadia Council e-mail listserv/spam filter/POP3 daemon/Christ knows what stopped working, the Whitecaps supporter representatives never heard about a proposal they would certainly have objected to and therefore, while the Whitecaps were (and are) legally clear to sell this scarf, many supporters were outraged.

We still haven’t heard the full story (what sort of e-mail breakdown? Are we sure… no, are we sure… that the e-mail didn’t go through but nobody read it?) And as I said on Saturday, this version of events leaves a neutral observer with a lot of sympathy for the Whitecaps. I’m not at all a neutral observer and I still calmed down a hell of a lot when I heard what “technicality” the Whitecaps had used to produce this scarf. It wasn’t a technicality; legally they did their duty and were absolutely in the right. The moral question is an open one and, honestly, there’s room for reasonable people to disagree.

That said, the Whitecaps knew very well that the trademark of the Cascadia Cup was the single most sensitive issue among their most passionate, influential supporters. They further knew this sensitivity was shared by the Timbers Army, who might well show solidarity over any exploitation. The Whitecaps front office is in constant communication with their supporters, and these channels (official and unofficial) were not used. If it was me, and I were genuinely interested in a respectful, cooperative relationship with my supporters, the supporters who make my entire marketing campaign possible, and I knew that I was about to try and profit off the one thing in the world they were most concerned about me profiting off of, I would have been very careful. I would have at least asked a representative “so, what do you guys think of the Cascadia scarf?” during one of our cold pizza meetings. To do otherwise would have been to risk the perception that I was sneaking it through, trying to crack the dam so the tide of commercialism could come rushing in. If I wanted my supporters onside and happy, this would have been absolutely the last perception I’d want to risk.

When the scarf dropped, the Vancouver Southsiders suggested a compromise similar to the one eventually adopted: the scarf would be sold but the proceeds would go to charity. This was not adopted until the supporters took the matter public, made their stand, and put pressure on the club hours before one of their marquee fixtures. This pressure produced the desired result. In short, the Whitecaps, having wounded their supporter relations for something like the billionth time, appeared content to let that wound fester until said supporters turned the wheel. The eventual outcome was highly creditable to all parties involved, maintaining both the supporters’ and the front office’s rights while boosting a charitable organization long supported by club and fans, but the way that outcome arrived was somewhat unsatisfactory.

Third, we should appreciate how close the near-revolt came to being a fiasco, for reasons entirely the supporters’ own. The averted sanction was almost preposterously mild. The Southsiders would not buy that scarf, encourage others to do the same, and sit down in silence for the first fifteen minutes of the Portland game. For the final seventy-five they’d be free to go nuts, as usual. I was worried this would be too soft and thank God I was wrong, but it was so short, so moderate, and so obviously aimed at the suits rather than the players that at least there was no room for anyone to object.

Naturally, many people objected. Among the most dedicated and hard-working supporters, support for this idea was not quite unanimous but probably as close as you’ll get in such a diverse group. Some dissenters made serious, cogent arguments against a protest on this particular issue, arguments that deserve respect. But among the less committed members of supporters sections, there was actual anger.

Let me quote from a popular post on the Vancouver Southsiders Facebook page. I promise I’m not cherrypicking: this post attracted huge comment and was “liked” as many times as the Southsiders’ founding president’s appeal in favour of action. All grammar and word choice as in the original:

I’m kind of embarrassed to be a Southsider at the moment. All I hear and read is how to protest a, albeit poor, business decision. Are you actually suggesting a silent protest?!?
I respect the Southsiders business practices and property. It has NOTHING to do with the players. Don’t buy the scarf, don’t buy beer, don’t buy food, don’t buy merchandise. All great protests. But, not cheering?!? Not making the atmosphere in our home stadium, in our first Cascadia match, ELECTRIC?!?
How preposterous!!!
Are we more worried about our relationship with the FO or how we look and act in the players eyes.
We will garner more respect with more proactive and respectful protests.

This was far from the only expression of this sentiment, right down to being “embarrassed” in a group standing up for its rights. Many said, while the issue was still in the balance, that they would break the sit-down strike on the same flimsy grounds: “it’s nothing to do with the players!”. Some were unaware even of how the Southsiders voted for their board members, but regardless felt their opinions on this subject were strong and informed. Had the Whitecaps called the supporters’ bet, we can’t be sure if their solidarity would have held. It would have been shattering if it hadn’t, a demonstration that we all roll over in the end.

It’s inexaggerably obvious this issue was nothing to do with the players. Likewise, when those same players came within an ace of going on strike a few weeks ago, it was obviously nothing to do with the fans. In both cases, an aggrieved party tried to get justice from a massive corporation by putting pressure on them in the strongest possible way. Only a dim-witted infant could have been confused by that, and in fact if you held your breath in the social media shitstorm for long enough you would have heard such infants saying “just get a deal done m8 ur business shouldnt hurt teh soccr”, as if there was no principle at stake whatsoever.

Anything which might impair these cretins’ ability to shout “BOOM!” on goal kicks for ninety minutes is “business” and therefore unacceptable. Questions of justice, of supporters’ culture, of being exploited are utterly irrelevant. Taking a meaningful stand is inherently a bad move because it shows disrespect for the players. The “players”, in this universe, are uninformed and incurious morons who live in cardboard boxes and take everything that ever happens as a personal affront. They hear silence around the cenotaph on November 11 and think “what did I do?” They are unaware that their supporters are humans and bewildered by the idea that they might have interests or desires. If the supporters section took fifteen minutes off, these mythical players would think “how dare they!” and not “hmm, I wonder what is going on.”

Such belief is a transparent facade for “hey, I’m just here for the party, don’t try to harsh my buzz.” We’re seeing this sort of thing around Major League Soccer. Even the most passionate and pressed-upon supporters groups are capable of only limited action, because as outraged and dedicated as their most important members may be there’s a mass of complacent selfishness behind them restricting their options. This has led to continuing encroachment on supporter privileges in many cities. Any “don’t buy merchandise or beer if you don’t like it” so-called sanction is unenforceable even by public pressure, ineffective, and ultimately still gives MLS what it wants.

Silencing the atmosphere at a major derby match is a public statement which reaches ears otherwise unengaged in club-supporter politics, and would-be scabs face the spotlight as they stand and shout while surrounded by seated silence. This is precisely what those “think of the players!” opponents dislike about it. But it is also, as we have just seen, a good way to get results.

I’m not promoting myself as a paragon of supporters’ culture here, and would be swiftly shot to ribbons if I did. We’re all ultimately dumb, selfish creatures who stand up and shout abuse at strangers because we like it. Making that good time bad to prove a point is a sacrifice, and not one that should be treated lightly. Standing up to a front office that’s exploiting you may, in fact, be the only valid time for a supporter to stop supporting. However, for such gestures to have any value they must be made in solidarity. Excuses to invalidate any serious protest show a selfishness that has no place in the collective culture of a soccer supporters group. If you’re that sort of self-absorbed fan then, by all means, attend all the soccer games you like, but don’t pretend you’re part of something larger than yourself.

(notes and comments…)

#DontBuyThatScarf. Support These Guys Instead

By Benjamin Massey · March 28th, 2015 · No comments

I’ll have more to say about the Vancouver Whitecaps profiting off a Cascadia Cup-branded scarf without the consent of the supporters who own the Cup at a later date. The issue is not totally black and white, the Whitecaps are legally in the clear and may have thought, at first, there was no problem. But after the Whitecaps’ majority owners, Major League Soccer, tried to steal the Cascadia Cup in 2013 tensions have run high. You’d think they’d be more careful and more open, not less, and want to avoid any hint of exploiting their supporters. This has not been the case.

This post is a public service to those who agree that this profit-grubbing inconsideration by the front office is unacceptable, but want to get out and support their local club in a big cup match this weekend. I am here to bring good news. It is finals weekend in British Columbia’s three ancient regional cups, and whereever you are on Vancouver Island or the Lower Mainland, first-class soccer without MLS chicanery is close at hand.

Vancouver Island’s Sir John Jackson Cup is celebrating its centenary year. The even older metro Vancouver Imperial Cup and the Fraser Valley’s Pakenham Cup, maybe the oldest trophy still awarded for soccer in Canada, will all be handed out on Sunday.

So you want to get out and cheer on your local lads, without being ruthlessly squeezed by money-grubbers who view supporters only as ATMs and marketing material? Here’s where to do it.

Pakenham Cup: Abbotsford United vs. Aldergrove United, Port Moody Town Centre Turf, Port Moody, BC, Saturday March 28 at 5 PM. The Pakenham Cup was first awarded in 1909 to Coquitlam and, apart from a break for the First World War and nineteen years when the trophy was lost (no, really), has been awarded ever since. Both these teams were semifinalists last year, and while Abbotsford ran a strong second in the FVSL Premier this season Aldergrove was mid-table and will be looking for some Cup magic. Aldergrove will be helped by Tyler Pedersen, the FVSL’s second-leading scorer this season but Abbotsford boasts three league all-stars on their back line, including former Fraser Valley Mariners and Whitecaps U-23 fullback Colton O’Neill. Not to mention Mark Village, another former Mariner and freshly-signed Whitecaps Reserve player, in goal; if he’s traveling with the Whitecaps Reserves then Aldergrove will be all the more optimistic about their chances. It’s a big day of soccer including youth and masters trophies, so well-worth seeing. For those outside the Fraser Valley, the match will be live-streamed. No, really.

Sir John Jackson Cup: Cowichan FC vs. Saanich Fusion, Royal Athletic Park, Victoria, BC, Sunday March 29 at 2:15 PM. As mentioned, this is the hundredth anniversary of the Jackson Cup and is sure to be a big show. Cowichan FC, headlined by former Victoria Highlanders skipper Tyler Hughes, is looking to prevent Saanich from defending their 2013-14 title. Admission $5, free for children. Show up early at noon for the George Smith U21 Cup final between two more Highlanders relics, the Mid-Isle Highlanders out of Ladysmith and the Highlanders U21 team. The Victoria Highlanders will join the PCSL this summer under new ownership, but only as a senior men’s side: this is the last gasp of what was once Vancouver Island’s most comprehensive youth setup.

Imperial Cup: West Van FC vs. EDC FC Burnaby, Trillium Park East, Sunday March 29 at 2:30 PM. VMSL powerhouses West Van might have an easy ride against a Burnaby team which finished only .500 in the VMSL Premier this year. But other teams have said that and Burnaby’s disposed of them all. West Van has some big names in local soccer, including Edmonton Aviators and Toronto Lynx veteran Desmond Tachie. But watch for Burnaby goalkeeper Hugo Vasquez, who’s drawn great reviews during the underdogs’ cup run behind a defense anchored by one-time Vancouver Whitecaps central defender Narcisse Tchoumi.

The Maple Leaf Forever! 2015 North American Soccer League Preview

By Benjamin Massey · March 26th, 2015 · No comments

Xaume OIleros/Power Sport Images/North American Soccer League

Xaume Oileros/Power Sport Images/North American Soccer League

It’s hard to view the upcoming NASL season dispassionately. Many fans have feared that, with their high spending, worldwide ambitions, and superior media profile, the New York Cosmos would become bigger than the league just as they did in the 1980s. But last year they were beaten in the regular season, didn’t get into the Soccer Bowl, and the world was instead treated to a marvelous tilt between founding NASL member Fort Lauderdale and high-profile expansion team San Antonio. The Scorpions won, under Canadian head coach Alen Marcina and captain Adrian Cann, and fans on both sides of the border could feel pretty good.

The Cosmos have apparently decided that this will not do. They spent something around one jillion dollars on new players, including Spanish legend Raúl, 37 years old but still the most prominent acquisition by any North American team since Thierry Henry, if not David Beckham. They also picked up Adam Moffat, who would be a headline grab for most NASL teams in most seasons. All this without losing anybody terribly important, and with the possibility of a fully healthy Marcos Senna wrecking havoc again. I would not like to be the New York Cosmos’ opposition.

But are the Cosmos so clearly the NASL’s best team in 2015? (Yes.) What about Minnesota United? (Not as good as the Cosmos.) Or do defending champions San Antonio match up? (No.) Will newly Brazilian-owned Fort Lauderdale fit Ronaldo for a jersey and a bib and challenge for the regular season championship, the Woosnam Cup? (No and no.) Below is one man’s prediction of how the 2015 North American Soccer League season will shake up, team by team, from first to eleventh, informed by a little table showing their 2014 statistics including TSR and PDO. You didn’t think I’d write a post this long without some tables in it, did you?

Note: this article contains many photos and without notes is pushing 10,000 words, which according to literary authorities is long enough to count as a “novelette”. The good stuff is therefore after the jump. Feel free to get through this in installments. Pack a lunch.

(more…)

Canada Snubs the NASL; Should the NASL Snub Canada?

By Benjamin Massey · March 22nd, 2015 · 2 comments

It’s been a rough week for those of us who worry Benito Floro is snubbing the NASL. Floro announced his roster for the senior men’s national team friendlies against Guatemala and Puerto Rico this month, and no NASL names were on it[1].

There are always excuses. The NASL teams are in preseason, though Edmonton’s camp is only a two-hour drive away from Canada’s. We are told that Floro wants to look at U-23 players for Olympic qualifying this summer and Ottawa’s Mauro Eustaquio, who should be in that pool, has been battling injury. I take the view that the time to examine U-23 depth is in U-23 camp and the senior team should worry more about the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying. But if Floro wants to run the rule over young players then why call Toronto FC reserve captain Chris Mannella and Hungarian league defender Manjrekar James? Neither has played a minute in a top league and both already have two caps. Mannella, a defensively-oriented central midfielder, joins a roster that is full of defensively-oriented central midfielders but lacks Hanson Boakai-esque attacking flair. If Floro is testing his top team neither player is yet near it.

Then, a few days later, defenders Sam Adekugbe and Andre Hainault were obliged to withdraw due to injury. Adekugbe is a youngster, though one who earned his call-up on merit and was finally getting MLS starts at Jordan Harvey’s expense. Replacing him with another kid is fair enough. But with Hainault gone Floro did not call another already-capped veteran like Nana Attakora or Mason Trafford. Nor did he call a veteran who he doesn’t know but really should, like Eddie Edward. Nor did he throw a bone to a player like Mallan Roberts, a good NASL centre back who could start for FC Edmonton this year, got his Canadian citizenship in February[2], and is very close indeed to giving up Canada as a bad bet and playing for his birthplace of Sierra Leone.

Instead the summons went to Jonathan Grant, out of the semi-professional League 1 Ontario. It’s great to see L1O getting a boost but Grant’s another player in a league below NASL level who Floro has already seen. The second injury replacement, Tyler Pasher, recently signed with USL Pittsburgh and is hoping to break though at a sub-NASL level after failing to stick in the also-sub-NASL Finnish second division. These decisions only make sense if the NASL is so, so low on Floro’s radar that anybody in the U-23 pool beats it.

Steven Sandor reports that Julian de Guzman has offers from NASL teams[3], so this might be his Canadian swan song. Too glib? Given that James, Pasher, and Grant apparently thundered past Attakora on the depth chart the instant young Nana joined the San Antonio Scorpions, I don’t see why.

This post’s purpose is not solely to gripe. As this NASL scorn continues for year upon year, we will see NASL fans murmur about playing Canadians at all. What’s the point? Unless our players manage to catch on in the Colombian second division like David Monsalve they won’t get a cap. Why play Canadians if the national team’s not interested? Already the proportion of Canadian minutes for both FC Edmonton and the Ottawa Fury seems set to decline in 2015.

The Canadian Soccer Association is not synonymous with Canadian soccer. Developing the domestic game, and domestic players, is certainly more rewarding when those players may join the national team. But domestic players are worthwhile for their own sake. Ex-Vancouver Whitecap David Morris and ex-Whitecap/Edmonton Aviator Gordon Chin became local favourites despite never making a senior Canadian team. Eddies fans didn’t love Shaun Saiko or Paul Hamilton the less for being left out of the national squad. Albertans succeeding at Clarke Stadium was enough.

Having Canadian players on professional Canadian clubs should not be the means to an end, it should be the end. Every player that winds up on the national team is a bonus and a credit to his club, of course, but the development of a serious domestic professional player base, the presence of local and regional players we can cheer on from Victoria to Moncton, should be its own reward for fans. It is for this reason we shouldn’t worry about the short-term player strength in a Canadian “division 1A” league. It will be weaker than the NASL almost by definition, but over years of full-time professional development the gap will narrow and someday, hopefully, it’ll be too good to ignore.

Until that league comes, let us apply the same philosophy to our NASL teams. The more Canadians the better, and if Benito Floro doesn’t rate them it’s his loss.

(notes and comments…)

A Canadian Perspective on American Problems (and “Problems”)

By Benjamin Massey · March 13th, 2015 · 9 comments

Noah Davis has been getting boffo box office for his detailed look at the American Outlaws, the United States national teams’ semi-official supporters group. Deservingly so. Go read it, I’ll chill until you’re done[1].

Some shocking stuff, isn’t there? Sexual harassment, ignorant central powers enforcing diktats on locals, the faint stench of minor corruption. It’s easy to shake our head at the Americans and, here in Canada, culturally obligatory, but we feel superior at our own risk. There are lessons about the risks of growth, the downside of the central organization many Canadian supporters want, and avoiding the point where fun nationalism turns ugly. Like many of you, I read Tanya Keith’s story of being felt up at a pre-match gathering and thought first “God, I hope that never happened at a Canadian supporters’ pub,” and second “God, if it ever did I hope we’d deal with it better.” Such offenses are possible up here, and the honest will admit it. But there are many fewer of us, who meet less often and mostly know each other. That means fewer opportunities for Canadian soccer support to give itself a black eye, not some sort of Nordic superiority.

Take racism. There have been racist incidents in Canadian soccer supporters sections (yes, really). I don’t mean nationalism, or even jingoism, or controversial chants like “show us your passport.” I don’t mean the sort of racism you accuse someone of when they disagree with you in the Student Union Building. I certainly don’t mean magical racist abuse imagined by an attention-seeking traitor which is invisible and inaudible on television. What I mean is no-doubt-about-it hollers of epithets that would have been a viral YouTube video in another life. Nothing organized, nothing audible enough to hit the press, executed by social lepers high on moonshine whose neighbours quietly text stadium security, but undeniable. Multiply the number of soccer supporters by ten, which multiplies the volume of incidents by ten, and see if it stays off the web for long.

To an extent these things happen when you combine young men, abundant alcohol, fervent tribalism, and encouragement to go, as the song sings, “fucking mental.” That doesn’t mean you tolerate them, Lord no, but you don’t pretend it can’t happen to us because we’re red and white and very polite while they’re crass Yanks. You don’t lose yourself navel-gazing about the root causes of all the hate in our society. You dispatch the racists from your ranks like a Soviet penal battalion being sent through a minefield and you make sure everybody affected knows it. Likewise with the boob-grabbers, the fight-starters, the vandals, the cornucopia of boys we’ve all seen who make us go “oh God” and hope somebody else deals with this. They have always been with us, and when we grow in numbers so do they.

That last paragraph was awfully masculine. There’s a reason for that: if you’re reading this site, you’re probably a man. Sports have always predominantly appealed to men; it has been thus since the Nika riots. In Canadian soccer especially supporters are usually young white males of the middle classes. Supporters’ groups, promoted on rowdiness, energy, and passion, trend young. Most Canadians are white, while many recent immigrants and their children cheer for their countries of origin. Young people more commonly have the desire and the stamina to pound beers for two hours then jump around singing for another two, creating the trademark supporters’ atmosphere. In Canada, mainstream acceptance of domestic soccer is a relatively recent phenomenon championed by twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings rather than what you see in hockey, where generations of fans have spent lifetimes cheering for the same team. Acting shocked when a soccer supporters’ group is largely a collection of young white males is like being amazed the sun keeps rising in the east rather than giving the other side a chance.

So how is this inevitable demographic predominance treated as an inherently bad thing? Scroll through Davis’s article on the American Outlaws and read phrases like:

There’s also the issue of inclusion. “I don’t think we’re in a position as soccer fans to exclude anyone,” [American Outlaws communications director Dan] Wiersema said. Still, the organization is demographically skewed heavily twenty-something males. AO doesn’t have specific demographic data, but co-founder Justin Brucken said the membership on Facebook is 80-20 male to female and the majority of its members are between 18 and 34 years old.

…or…

[Ex-American Outlaw Magdalena Barajas] said she wasn’t angry, but she had concerns about the future of the organization. “It ended well, I guess, in that I don’t hate AO and I hope things go well for them, but I definitely feel that if things don’t start to change, it’s going to limit the way it can grow,” she said. “The bro culture is not something you want to develop. And it’s potentially dangerous.”

[AO Phoenix chapter leader Tony] Hernandez agrees that the Outlaws “have a very ‘frat boy’ image” and that the group “should try to shake it off.” But it might be too late to control the rowdiness inherent to AO. That is, after all, part of what attracts the masses.

The natural population of a soccer supporters group in the United States is apparently a problem: not the most serious, but an “issue” to be addressed. An 80% male membership (not atypical in my experience) is sufficient to cast doubt on Wiersema’s pieties about inclusiveness. The risk is of “bros” and “frat boys”, not hooliganism. When Canadians got hold of Davis’s post some echoed this philosophy. People whose support for Canadian soccer is beyond question but know the Voyageurs are packed with penises think that’s bad. The implication is that there’s a better way, that the American Outlaws should emulate some supporters’ group out there with a good 50-50 gender mix. Possibly such a group even exists, but I’ve never seen or heard of it.

None of this is to imply supporters’ groups shouldn’t aim for inclusivity. When I started attending Vancouver Whitecaps games with the Southsiders there’d be, what, three women every match? Now the city’s largest sausage party has been enriched by more clams, some of whom have taken prominent roles in the organization. The unanimous opinion is that it’s been fine. More volunteers and die-hard supporters, great, couldn’t care less what their genitals look like. So be welcoming. If a member of your group repels half the human race by being a crass sexist, kick him in the balls. The more the merrier: that’s easy, obvious, and uncontroversial. Yet every group that has any personality whatsoever will be anathema to some perfectly reasonable people whose personalities clash.

Some fans want nothing more than to stand up, watch a soccer game with passionate friends, and occasionally yell encouragement. Others want to do research on the opposing goalkeeper and try to break him in half mentally like a stale pretzel, their chants filled with cheekiness and even obscenity. It is trendy in North American culture for supporters’ groups to be “big tents” that walk a middle ground, but people who want less of one or more of the other will have a bad time and do something else. Again there’s nothing weird here, just human nature. And treating human nature as a problem to be solved is very stupid.

(notes and comments…)

Four (Non-Playing!) Predictions for MLS in 2015

By Benjamin Massey · March 7th, 2015 · 3 comments

Many people are making their predictions for the coming 2015 Major League Soccer season. Unfortunately, I have no idea who’s good, who’s bad, who’s the best newcomer, whether Landon Donovan is dreamy or the dreamiest, or any of the other topics your garden-variety North American soccer writer preoccupies himself with.

However, I do have opinions. So here are four (non-playing) predictions for the coming MLS year.

MLS will continue to pick on its supporters. Back in January Los Angeles Galaxy supporters the Angel City Brigade were sanctioned by the league and the club[1] for the heinous and unprecedented crime of throwing streamers onto the pitch at the MLS Cup Final. For added justice, their punishment is also double jeopardy for earlier offenses that had already been dealt with. During the first eight matches of the season the Brigade will have no “supporters privileges” (a phrase which, itself, speaks volumes) and are forbidden streamers for all of 2015. If you think this overreaction is because the Galaxy supporters made MLS fans look too undignified in the league’s marquee event, you are probably being sensible. And if you then asked “hey, does MLS’s highlight video of that match have a bunch of approving shots of the Angel City Brigade with streamers and drums?” you’ve clearly seen these collective punishments before.

This very standard action by MLS met a very standard reaction from supporters. Various groups said “we stand with the ACB!” while spending huge sums on the single entity that majority-owns the Galaxy. The Brigade responded with “sanctions” of their own[2] that amount to not buying beer or merchandise from the Galaxy for four games. (Spend like mad at the fifth, of course!) Still buying tickets, still going to games and cheering their hearts out, still giving MLS much of what they want. That’ll show ‘em.

So business as usual in Major League Soccer. Supporters are great when they look good on video and do coordinated, family-friendly chants, but corporate disapproval may come from anywhere and the suits’ vengeance has no appeal. Naturally there will never be any suggestion that, if MLS insists supporters exist to entertain its billionaires and promote its product, said supporters should find another outlet for their money and passion. The great cycle continues.

Watch for the next spit in the face of its most dedicated fans from Don Garber and company! It’s a surer sign of spring than the flowers opening.

MLS will continue to be sleazy. Another easy one! We are all familiar with the way MLS’s ill-defined allocation rules shift and twist when a player everyone’s heard of wants to go to a certain city. It’s one of the great mysteries of the universe how no team ever says “actually, Clint Dempsey, I think you’ll find you’re playing for Chivas USA now.”

Recently MLS and their players’ union agreed upon a collective bargaining agreement. The deal has not been made public; nothing unusual in that. But there was a total blackout over official MLS sources during negotiations that came very near to ruining the start of the season. When Gary Bettman locks out the NHL every few years he at least has to face the press; meanwhile, in MLS the official league site is gagged and a handful of dedicated beat reporters need to wrangle not-for-attribution tidbits from players and agents just so fans can have some idea what the hell’s going on.

Meanwhile, news from New York: MLS is sabotaging the NASL New York Cosmos in their bid to get a privately-funded soccer-specific stadium.[3]. MLS interference has been rumoured for some time but went on the public record courtesy New York Assemblyman Francisco Moya. This on top of throwing an expansion team at Atlanta to try and kill the NASL Silverbacks, continuing to poach the NASL’s best teams whenever possible, and working with a USL that, despite soothing words, still views NASL as an inferior upstart[4]. It’s a different side of the same coin: MLS isn’t interested in growing its game, or in growing supporters culture, just in growing its business. And the thing about a single-entity league with no promotion or relegation is that it is all one business.

MLS punditry is easy. If you identify their lowest possible motive, you’ve more than likely identified the correct one.

There will be more bad news for Canadians playing on Canadian MLS teams. About ten years ago the Vancouver Whitecaps hosted the Toronto Lynx to open the 2005 USL First Division season at Swangard Stadium. As was too typical for the Lynx it was a bore 0-0 draw. The only thing interesting about that game, ten years later, is that fifteen of twenty-two starters, and twenty-one players overall, were Canadians[5].

Tonight, when the Vancouver Whitecaps host Toronto FC, each team might start one Canadian. The Montreal Impact have already been busy, with two CONCACAF Champions League games in which no Canadians saw the field. With World Cup qualifiers and a Gold Cup this year, our top professional teams fly the flag of the United Nations. Again.

I know very few of you give a crap. But after years of the Whitecaps telling their fans “it is completely impossible to sign a Canadian from Europe! They demand payment in elephants made of gold!”, Sporting Kansas City recently signed standout Canadian international Marcel de Jong. It’s not difficult, they just don’t want to.

In Vancouver some fans who do pretend they care point to the Whitecaps signing a larger-than-usual number of players from their Residency program as a promising omen. It takes time to develop Canadian talent and the Whitecaps have only had twenty-nine years. Surely, surely, these young Canadians will be given the opportunity to break into the first team like Phil Davies and Bryce Alders… shit.

The new MLS reserve teams will be the most overrated development of the year. Reserve soccer is useful, obviously. There’s no replacement for a real match, and even if it’s not for the full stakes of a first-team game before 20,000 fans that experience does matter. Nobody denies this.

But as you know, this season the Whitecaps and many other MLS sides have moved their reserve teams to the newly-rebranded United Soccer League. Some people seem to think this particular incarnation of the MLS reserve program is going to be magic. Playing the Seattle Sounders reserves is one thing, but playing the Seattle Sounders reserves and the Harrisburg City Islanders, whoa, buy World Cup tickets now lads!

I don’t mean to pick on USL, who know their own business. Nor do I mean to pick on MLS (this one time), since they have a reserve program in an established, independent league that won’t get bored and go home like MLS’s reserve divisions always do. But Jesus, some people’s expectations! Some fans seem to think that playing MLS reserve games has suddenly become a ticket to the Premier League just because the name of the league has changed. “Three new professional teams! Whole new opportunities for our players!” I have a spreadsheet of the Whitecaps’ 2013 reserve players. Seven Canadians are on that list who were then over twenty years old and not on MLS contracts with the Whitecaps. How many of them are getting first-team minutes anywhere in the world right now? None!

Gagandeep Dosanjh had a promising start with FC Edmonton until his knee decided to stop working; that’s as close as you’re going to get. A few of those players — Yassin Essa, Brett Levis, Derrick Bassi — may be on the 2015 Whitecaps Reserves roster. Levis only got a cameo, but Essa and Bassi have been part of the Whitecaps Reserves pretty much since we joined MLS. Three years of reserve soccer is not what player development’s usually about.

I can’t speak for Toronto or Montreal, but in Vancouver the Whitecaps have filled out their reserve roster with available or interesting Canadians since they joined MLS. It’s the sensible thing to do. And it has led them nowhere. More games will help, obviously, but it’s no bloody revolution. The opposition will, if anything, be weaker, since MLS teams will be unable to send backup goalkeepers and bench players away to Richmond the same weekend they’ll be needed on the first team’s bench.

By the way, the attendance won’t be great either, not even for USL. Reserve team attendances around the world almost never are[6]. It’s curious that many of these same fans assume that the MLS/USL partnership spells certain doom for the NASL when about half of the USL’s independent clubs are shaky, it’s impossible MLS will make a profit on these teams, and they’ve scrapped their reserve program for financial reasons before.

(notes and comments…)

Standing with the MLS Players Union

By Benjamin Massey · March 3rd, 2015 · No comments

The beginning of the MLS season is under threat. As I wrote this article, top pundits upgraded the odds of a strike by MLS players from “50-50″ to “near-certain”. Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hanson was fined by the league for calling the MLS Players Union’s demand for free agency “a go-nowhere conversation” and “a foolish waste of time”[1]. American federal mediators have been called in[2], as they were in 2010. These parties love extending negotiations to the last minute: that year a new collective bargaining agreement was signed five days before the season opener[3]. But as I write it is Tuesday, March 3, and the MLS season is due to start on Friday, March 6. This is cutting it a little close. Washington soccer reporter-king Steven Goff said that DC United players might skip their upcoming CONCACAF Champions League fixture without an agreement[4] and everybody in the MLS press, save the curiously mute league propagandists at MLSSoccer.com, is openly biting their fingernails.

We’re used to scoffing at “millionaires versus billionaires” when professional sports tangle with their unions, but that doesn’t apply here. MLS players put up with labour restrictions few would tolerate. The salary cap means that unless you’re a fancy imported designated player your wage is limited from the start. A player can be randomly sent to another country without their consent (or even advance knowledge) and no-trade clauses are unheard of. Not just trades but waivers, re-entry drafts, expansion drafts, weighted lotteries, the borderline-corrupt allocation process — small wonder few MLS players spend more than three seasons in one city. Their employment can be terminated without notice, for any reason, and they had to fight in 2010 just to get severance pay. The famous “2+2″ contract, two mandatory seasons and a two-year team option, means a player doesn’t know whether he’ll be working for two years or four. And when that contract finally expires their options are limited: MLS teams retain the rights to ex-players in the same fashion that went out of baseball and hockey in the 1970s. Even players who’ve never set foot in MLS are restricted by discovery claims and allocation orders.

In exchange for all this sacrifice, many MLS players are paid less than their fans. In 2014 seven Toronto FC players, three Vancouver Whitecaps, and eleven members of the Montreal Impact earned less than $50,000*: they’d have trouble affording decent season tickets to their own games. They also have shorter careers than your average footy-goer: even the best will be out of soccer at 40 years old, just the time an office worker’s earnings are starting to peak. Their “retirement” means going to work in a different field missing decades of workplace experience: small wonder most wind up coaching soccer at some low, and low-paid, level. If you want to get rich, playing in Major League Soccer is just about the last way to do it.

A player chasing his dream of being a professional athlete can be expected to sacrifice his liberty. Or sacrifice his financial well-being. MLS players are asked to do both. An NASL player may well bank $20,000 with no health insurance while working construction over the winter, and some sign half-season contracts promising a few months of nothing like stability. Quite a few of these cheap-ass contracts aren’t guaranteed, either (it’s negotiated by the player). An NASL union would get a pretty good hearing, at least from players who could afford the dues. But at least there’s freedom: no salary cap stomping on a player’s head, no reserve clause tying him down when his contract ends. If an NASL player has a good season he may freely sign elsewhere in the league and make good money, guaranteed, with control over his future. If he has a bad season he may try his luck in another town without persuading the team to trade a draft pick or allocation money for his rights. Despite MLS’s vastly greater financial clout, such simple options are unavailable there.

If the MLS was insolvent, perhaps its players could take one for the team. But it’s not the late ’90s: Soccer United Marketing fills swimming pools with tens of millions in expansion fees from eager investors. Big name talents like David Villa are paid league-record sums while new signings earn the wages of a McDonald’s fry cook. Last year, Jermain Defoe earned $6.18 million, Michael Bradley $6.5 million, Clint Dempsey nearly $6.7 million. Kaka, a past-his-prime player for an expansion team, will bank over $7 million. David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco are expected to both exceed $7 million total compensation. It is flatly impossible for MLS to cry poor, though God knows they’re trying.

Let’s compare them to another league with some strong teams, a fair few weak ones, and too much expansion. The top-paid NHL player in the 2014-15 season is Shea Weber, with a nominal salary of $14 million per season (slightly over the current maximum of $13.8 million). The NHL minimum salary is $550,000. So while the highest-paid NHL players are approximately twice as well-paid as their MLS counterparts, the cheapest NHL player makes more than fifteen times the salary of an MLSer on his league minimum, $36,500.

Last year the mean MLS player salary was $226,454.26, though that includes the marquee designated players. Remove the fifteen players making over a million dollars and that drops to $131,524.39. The median salary, $90,000, shows even more clearly how the biggest earners skew the numbers. Decent enough money for all that, but it leaves 145 players league-wide making less than $50,000[5]. The NHL average salary, by comparison, is $2.58 million[6]: more than eleven times better than his MLS equivalent even by the most generous measurement.

So the players have a superb argument against the league. Fans, on the other hand, might just want soccer to come back. In practice, that means cheering for the owners, and every Facebook call of “come on lads sort it out” seems to amount to “give up the fight, you’re paid to play a game and we’re waiting”. Labour disputes bring out the most jaded and cynical, especially in North America where athletes make stratospheric amounts of cash and (at least in the NHL) are locked out every couple of years. Such apathy is common, but this time could not be more misplaced. The fans have almost as much to gain as the players do.

A few benefits would be visible on the field. True free agency would inevitably increase the quality of the league. Players frozen out of MLS, rights were owned by a team unwilling to deal, would be able to return. This won’t affect top talent but can only mean an improvement for the bulk of the roster. Moreover, any increase in the market power of ordinary players results in additional spending on said ordinary players. A world where depth fullbacks make $80,000 instead of $50,000 is a world where more, and better, players are in your price range. The salary cap would have to increase, or DPs would have to lose out: bad news for overpaid has-beens who get millions because they’re good marketing value. Good news for most of the men on the field, and the fans who watch them.

In the end, though, such concerns will appeal mostly to the die-hard and have an affect that’s real, but relatively minor. The pitch is not the main battleground. This CBA battle is, ultimately, a conflict between a restrictive, centralized MLS that infuriates and even attacks those who should be most important to it and a players union that, even if by accident, is fighting for long-awaited liberalization.

Look at how the negotiations have lined up. As is standard with the league, obfuscation and misinformation has flowed like a river of sewage. Despite record attendances, enormous expansion fees, and spending like Qatari oil sheiks on new players, MLS commissioner Don Garber insists the league is losing over $100 million annually[7]. It would, of course, be unthinkable to reduce the $56,272,755.51 MLS paid its fifteen best-paid players in 2014, even though that’s just slightly less than the total guaranteed compensation for every non-Designated Player in MLS. Owners like Hansen and MLS PR flacks insist that free agency is impossible with a single-entity structure, but there’s no logical reason why. Goff (that man again!) said that MLS actually offered free agency restricted to incredibly limited criteria[8]; under this proposal, the entire 2016 free agent class would be Houston’s Brad Davis[9]. Fun though it is to imagine TSN’s MLS Free Agent Frenzy special, with Jason deVos and Luke Wileman texting Davis every couple minutes for four hours, you can’t call that a serious offer.

Insisting free agency is legally impossible, then offering free agency but restricting it to one guy. Oh, turns out free agency is possible after all, the owners just don’t want it. Saying that the league loses nine figures every year despite banking a reported $170 million in expansion fees for New York City FC and Orlando City, and enormous player spending that suggests somebody’s got cash. The official league press not mentioning the union’s stories, just in case MLSSoccer.com readers start to do some thinking (these negotiations have put paid, forever, to anybody crying “MLSSoccer.com isn’t propaganda!”). Does this sound typical of MLS yet?

Of course a victory for the players’ union won’t change MLS’s soul, to the extent it has one. But true free agency — no discovery, no allocation claims, no lingering rights in re-entry drafts, nothing — would inevitably mean a more transparent league. Who owns that guy’s rights? See whose roster he’s on. If he’s not on one, nobody owns them. Little room for uncertainty or even fraud: many fans have noticed how MLS’s allocation rules seem to change every time a marquee player should join a particular team. Secret laws and numbers cooked up in New York City conference rooms and never, ever shared with the public in case they detect inconsistencies affect every single MLS transaction. Nothing the players can do will change all of that this year, but every time they push on the door they let a little more light in. Eventually, not tomorrow but in ten years, it will be open. Provided the players are victorious.

(notes and comments…)