FC Edmonton Academy Graduates Another One: Allan Zebie Joins Eddies

By Benjamin Massey · January 22nd, 2015 · 1 comment

Les Meszaros/Canadian Soccer Association

Les Meszaros/Canadian Soccer Association

Today, FC Edmonton announced the signing of former Academy fullback Allan Zebie[1]. Born in France buft trained in Canada, Zebie’s name may be familiar: he was a member of the Canadian U-20 pool in 2012 and 2013 and a non-playing substitute at the 2013 CONCACAF U-20 championship. Zebie spent most of last year trialling in Europe but returned to Edmonton in the fall, got more good reviews, and has now signed his first professional contract. His younger brother, Bruno, is a midfielder, a current member of the FC Edmonton academy, and has received some positive notice with appearances for the Canadian U-18 team.

A 21-year-old 5’9″ fullback, Zebie will provide cover on both flanks. As always see Steven Sandor for the best-informed take[2], but Edmonton’s roster has room for Zebie. The departure of Cristian Raudales Beto Navarro and the possibility of Lance Laing playing midfield means a need for depth fullbacks: as of today Eddie Edward is the first right back, either Laing or Kareem Moses will play left, and from there it’s wide open. No doubt more signings are coming but there’s a chance Zebie will have what many first-time professionals wait years for: the prospect of cracking game-day eighteens and seeing minutes.

Officially, Allan Zebie is the tenth player signed by FC Edmonton from their Academy since the first five in February 2013. Unofficially I count eleven. Six remain with the team in 2015 and two have become important, though none are yet everyday starters. This is an enviable record: not all of these players have been prominent first-teamers but many have played a part and one, Hanson Boakai, has already been called to the Canadian senior men’s national team. Though roster rules mean you shouldn’t compare raw numbers between NASL and MLS teams, this compares very well to more established youth academies in Vancouver and Toronto. Let’s take a look at those eleven players.

1. Midfielder Hanson Boakai is the most prominent Academy alumnus in the Eddies ranks to date. Boakai was one of the five “original” FC Edmonton reserve players to sign a first team contract in February 2013[3] and during that season became the youngest player in the history of the North American Soccer League. His star turn in the 2014 Voyageurs Cup drew national headlines and a call to a senior men’s national team training camp from Benito Floro, though he did not play. He was also the most electric, and most underutilized, Canadian player at the recent CONCACAF U-20 championships.

Boakai remains at Edmonton for 2015 and, still only 18 years old, will be looking to crack the first eleven (though competition is stiff). The 2014 season saw him become semi-regular, getting a handful of starts and more appearances off the bench, and he was very much the team’s twelfth man during its successful fall.

2. Rock-solid central defender Mallan Roberts was another one of the February 2013 originals. He’d earned a reputation in Edmonton as an amateur athlete, both as a take-no-prisoners defender for Jeff Paulus’s NAIT Ooks and the Eddies reserves, and as a junior football prospect eyed by the Edmonton Eskimos.

For all the Boakai hype, Roberts not only has more appearances for FC Edmonton but more goals, scoring twice so far in the NASL. His appearances in the first team have been marred by inconsistency, indiscipline, and injury but he’s shown upside as well, winning an NASL Team of the Week nod last year. In some ways Roberts recalls new West Ham United signing Doneil Henry, though citizenship problems have delayed the opportunity to play for Canada. He remains with the roster for 2015 and, turning 23 in June, will be expected to make big strides.

3. Strong forward Sadi Jalali arrived with a pallet of promise: while a member of Edmonton Juventus Jalali played the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup for Canada and scored against England. Despite interest from the Eddies Jalali visited Germany’s 1. FC Kaiserslautern academy, then the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency (where he was excellent at the USSDA U-18 level) before, finally and after a little controversy, signing with his hometown club. Thanks partially to injury Jalali hasn’t yet made a decisive impact on the NASL, but he scored his first goal last year against Carolina from the spot. He is on Edmonton’s 2015 roster but will be behind some solid veteran forwards in Daryl Fordyce, Frank Jonke, and Tomi Ameobi.

4. Montreal-born defender Chris de Guise, another NAIT alumnus, was one of the first five 2013 signings. Despite making the bench in the NASL a few times he has yet to see a professional minute and left Edmonton at the end of the 2013 season. De Guise remains in the game, making sixteen appearances last year for Quebec semi-pro league champions CS Longueuil.

5. Forward Ajeej Sarkaria, an Edmonton local, was the last of the “original five”. After starring in Maple Leaf Forever!‘s 2012 Worst Goal of the Canadian Year (So Far) Sarkaria signed first-team terms in February 2013 but did not appear in the Eddies eighteen. At the end of June Sarkaria was dropped back to the Reserves[4] and appeared in Reserve friendlies through the summer of 2014. He was also the leading scorer at the 2013 Canada Games, helping Team Alberta to a fifth-place finish. Though he hasn’t been heard from much lately, Sarkaria is 19 years old and still has time.

EDIT, January 24 10:00: thanks to John Anderson in the comments; Sarkaria spent last year redshirting at Grant MacEwan University.

6. Though not one of the original five, midfielder Edem Mortotsi joined the Eddies at the beginning of the 2013 season. Mortotsi was initially fairly prominent and saw a few games, including one start on November 3 in Fort Lauderdale. However, 2014 was a disappointment and he was released at the end of the season. Mortotsi also played a single Voyageurs Cup game, in 2013 against Vancouver.

7. Goalkeeper Norbert Janas, one of the original Academy members, signed with FC Edmonton in August 2013. Though he appeared on the bench a few times while Lance Parker was injured, Janas did not make an appearance before being dropped at the end of the season.

8. Lanky young central defender Marko Aleksic joined the Eddies before the beginning of the 2014 season. He’s already made a couple first team appearances when injury and suspension intervened, getting a half against Minnesota United and starting at home against Montreal in the second round of the Voyageurs Cup. Aleksic has also been a member of the Canadian U-20 pool, though he was not part of the team Rob Gale took to Jamaica this month. He remains on the Eddies roster for the 2015 season.

9. Goalkeeper Connor James signed with FC Edmonton in May 2014. This was almost openly an emergency signing: his contract was for the spring season only[5]. James got onto the bench once in the NASL and again in the Voyageurs Cup, but moved on after the spring season ended. He now plays at the University of Alberta, alongside other former Eddies and Eddies Academy players such as Tim Hickson, Ajay Khabra, and Niko Saler.

10. Another young goalkeeper, Christian Kaiswatum joined FC Edmonton’s first team in October 2014 after serving with the Academy and as a non-playing substitute for Canada at the 2013 U-17 World Cup. Kaiswatum has yet to make a first team appearance and is probably fourth on the depth chart for 2015, but he’s also turning 18 this season. According to his Canadian Soccer Association profile, one of his favourite goalkeepers is fellow Edmontonian Asmir Begovic.

11. Now, defender Allan Zebie joins the team. He’s the first fullback to come out of the Academy and the first youth signing of 2015.

The success of graduating Eddies Academy players hasn’t been universal, but Boakai, Roberts, and to an extent Jalali show that, even in these early days, there’s a chance to make a professional career in Edmonton. Good luck to Allan Zebie; our youngsters need to play somewhere.

EDIT, January 22: this article originally confused midfielder Cristian Raudales (still with FC Edmonton) with departed defender Beto Navarro.

(notes and comments…)

The Only Canadians in Jamaica Who Didn’t Get High

By Benjamin Massey · January 20th, 2015 · No comments

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

When Honduras’s Bryan Rochez buried a rebound from a spot kick in the 72nd minute of their CONCACAF men’s U-20 championship match against Haiti, he sealed the fate of the Canadian team. Coming off a 2-1 loss to the Cubans – appalling even by our standards – Canada is now eliminated with a game to go in the group stage. I was a pessimist before this tournament began and even I am horrified by this abject failure.

There’s a game left for Canada; not quite a dead rubber with Honduras playing for position, but to hell with it, the guys who count are done. What the flying fuck happened? This over-ballyhooed team, supposedly the best men’s U-20 crew we’ve ever assembled, produced our worst CONCACAF U-20 result since 1988, when we not only lost to Cuba but drew Bermuda. Even then we had a crumb of comfort: the Mexicans who won the group were cheating on their age. This year there will be no excuses.

Yes, two leading Canadians, Fraser Aird and skipper Dylan Carreiro, were held back by their Scottish clubs. This is trebly bad in Carreiro’s case, since he was pulled at the last minute and has been an unused substitute by Dundee all tournament long. But two players, however talented, should not be the margin of defeat to fucking Cuba.

We’re Canadians, and our tradition is to blame the coach. Rob Gale is making it awfully easy. His background is one some Canadian fans love to hate: English-raised and trained, a longtime Canadian staffer who was technical director of the Manitoba Soccer Association and bounced his way up the CSA ladder. Many fans believe Canada is so deficient technically that only outsiders, or at least Canadians with a non-CSA background, should be in responsible positions. This tournament will give them ammunition.

After the Cuban debacle, Gale made a couple curious comments in his press conference:

Unfortunately I think it was a case of that early mistake and the fragility of the team mentally after conceding late in the last game, and we didn’t put the heart and the effort in that is usually associated with us.

[. . ]

When they put in the effort and commitment and drive [. . .] that has to be the bare minimum at this level. And that’s where they’re looking at themselves now, and the mental fragility (again) of the players in these conditions, and against these oppositions.

So much for a coach protecting the team. Maybe Gale didn’t mean to blame his players but he went without a word of personal responsibility.

Frankly, who thought the Canadian players were dogging it? There was honest effort and few conspicuous slackers. The problem is that the effort was all individual: there was no linkage, the forwards were too high up, the midfielders were trying to beat everybody with their feet, the defenders lacked outlets, the closest Canada came to building an attack was playing it around the back for a while, then if they were very lucky driving down the flanks and flinging in a cross. There was plenty of possession, almost all meaningless. We were playing Cuba and we couldn’t turn the heavy artillery on them. Against El Salvador we kept punching against rampant time-wasting and dodgy tactics, but while we scored on a couple moments of individual brilliance the players’ inability to work as a unit was exemplified by the 90th-minute El Salvador winner. “Effort and commitment and drive” is an easy excuse, but only that.

Gale’s lineups were equally dodgy. With respect to two good young goalkeepers, I’ve spent a lot of time watching both Nolan Wirth and Marco Carducci, I know several other people who have spent a lot of time watching both Wirth and Carducci, and Rob Gale is just about the only guy in Canada who’d take Wirth over Carducci. Carducci, a full-time professional who’s played magnificently at the USL PDL level, started the tournament’s first game against Haiti, allowed a very bad goal, and has been benched ever since. Wirth, an NCAA amateur whose USL PDL record was mixed, did well against Mexico but had a horrible time against El Salvador. Yet while one bad goal finished Carducci, Wirth got the nod against Cuba… and made a back-breaking mistake for the first Cuban goal. “Squad rotation” won’t do; Cuba was Wirth’s third game on the trot. And if Wirth was “mentally fragile”, which I doubt, shouldn’t the coaches have caught that?

Then there’s Hanson Boakai. One of the few regularly-playing professionals in Gale’s arsenal, Boakai was coming off an injury in December and not fully match fit. Boakai did not play against Haiti (but was not needed) and saw only thirteen minutes against Mexico in an impossible situation. Then the Handsome Bowtie came in at half against El Salvador and nearly saved the game for Canada single-handed, scoring the Canadian goal of the tournament and providing Kianz Froese with a lovely marker. It was an electrifying display and surely earned Boakai a start in the effective must-win against Cuba. Yet he did not appear at all, with the final substitution going to the invisible Calum Ferguson. There have been rumours (and relying on the rumour mill for this is condemnation in itself) that Boakai aggravated his injury, but there are other rumours this is incorrect, and Boakai was listed as available. There was no “tomorrow” to save him for.

This isn’t to absolve the players entirely. Many highly-hyped hopefuls did nothing. Cyle Larin was in over his head. Jordan Hamilton pushed Haiti around but against determined opposition couldn’t find space. Sam Adekugbe’s tournament was hit and miss, but his utter pummeling at the hands of Mexico’s Hirving Lozano showed a gulf in class. Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé had a terrific assist against Haiti but that was his one moment of quality. Michael Petrasso got unjustly bad reviews: he was at least generating offense and getting into position but his shooting was wildly off, exemplified against Cuba when, undermarked, he stroked a B+ chance from within the eighteen into the Caribbean.

The thing is, these tournaments matter very little in themselves. What matters is the players they produce. Many of the Canadian individuals were up to snuff, at least compared to middle powers like El Salvador (Mexico throttled us but only the insane dreamed we deserved to compete with them). There were fleeting moments where Canada’s opposition lost cohesion and gave room for individual talents to work, and in those moments (I think particularly of the first half-hour against Haiti and much of the El Salvador second half) Canada kicked ass. Am I wrong to take hope from that? Disaster though we were, talented players will now return to clubs and coaches that seem to have done decently nurturing their abilities so far.

I leave this tournament as confident as ever in Petrasso and Boakai, a little more hopeful for Farmer, Serban, and Bustos, and with slightly larger question marks drawn beside a few names. I mentioned Canada’s 1988 team earlier: those U-20s were a disaster on the field but brought useful players in Paul Fenwick, Carl Fletcher, Eddy Berdusco, and most famously Paul Peschisolido. If the 2015 team generates a similar hit rate, which it easily could, we’ll look upon this generation of players with a smile.

Clearly, the Canadian Soccer Association needs to take this level more seriously. They got the U-20s a host of training camps and warm-up friendlies, including the prestigious Milk Cup, and the investment sunk without trace into a Jamaican swamp. A coaching staff of Paul Stalteri, Ante Jazic, and Bob Gale was an inexperienced crew: there was no professional hand on the tiller, not even a Pesch or a Nick Dasovic. It’s important for the CSA to develop its coaches as well as its players, but those coaches need somebody to follow and learn from. Even an out-of-season NASL coach like Colin Miller, Marc dos Santos, or Alen Marcina would have been useful. Failing that, even a college coach who knows young players like Alan Koch or Mike Mosher. Just not the same old Canadian Soccer Association echo chamber and a vain hope that our staff will learn on the fly.

Considering Canadian Priorities

By Benjamin Massey · January 8th, 2015 · No comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Compare and contrast. Yesterday, two major Canadian soccer bosses spoke to the media about domestic players on their teams. Here is Ottawa Fury head coach Marc dos Santos, as quoted by La 90e minute‘s Marc Tougas and translated from French by me[1].

“To be very honest, at first [using Canadian players] was done in a very conscious manner. I thought that by doing something like that, I was going to actually help Canadian soccer, I was going to help young Canadian players have another option to grow and all that. So it was in our hearts, in our minds. The intentions were good.”

“But ultimately, this is not something that is widely recognized. You do not get much praise at this level as we would have thought, not as much respect as one would think we’d have the right to from some people because of the work we did with Canadian players.”

Although the Fury came to exercise the contract options of two Canadian players, Haworth and Eustaquio, the order in 2015 will be more to pick the best players available, regardless of nationality.

“The fans, they want to win. And we, we are Ottawa Fury FC, not Mother Teresa FC,” said MDS. “What will make the fans happier: miss the playoffs with just Canadians, or win the championship with strangers?”

“So we had good intentions but now our intentions are to win as much as possible, with Canadians, Québécois, or players from other countries.”

Second, the words of Vancouver Whitecaps’ ashen-faced supremo Bob Lenarduzzi, quoted by AFTN Canada’s Michael McColl[2]:

“It’s nice when you look at [Whitecaps on Canadian youth national teams] and you look at the representations from the other professional clubs, it’s something at this stage that we can be proud of. But we’re not going to rest on our laurels. We’re going to continue to put the emphasis on development and I think as much as we want to be a club that develops players, we need for the coaching staff to play those players.”

[. . .]

Lenarduzzi admits that there isn’t too much point developing all this young homegrown talent if they’re not going to get too many minutes on the pitch and sees that as the next step for the Whitecaps to take.

“We’ve stayed the course and now we’re starting to see the dividends from it,” Lenarduzzi feels. “Ultimately, we will see the dividends from it when we have three or four or five of those guys in our first team on a regular basis but I’ve always suggested that development is time consuming. It takes time for players to come through and do what you want them to do at the first team level. You don’t just snap your fingers and have players go from not playing to playing. We’ll continue to do what we’re doing.”

[. . .]

But what of all those naysayers out there who like to say that the Whitecaps hate Canada and do nothing for Canadian football?

“It’s shocking to me, but that comes from a very small circle as far as I can gather,” Lenarduzzi said. “I don’t pay a lot of attention to that but whenever I hear that and I hear that we’re not playing Canadian players, what I often do is turn that question back around on the person that’s making those comments.”

“[I ask them] tell me of a player right now in Canada, that’s not in our Residency program, that should be playing in our first team? And more often or not I get silence. I also believe that if you’re going to make comments like that, you should also have the ability to back them up. A lot of people say it but a lot of people can’t back it up and that’s frustrating.”

Set aside whether it is better to win or to play Canadians. (The Whitecaps, I remind you, used to do both and now do neither.) Lenarduzzi makes good points, and it’s true that only a tiny minority cares about his team’s Canadian content. He also makes poor ones, saying a team founded in 1986 with a Residency program from 2005 needs more time to develop talent and implying the only domestics he can sign already play within Canada. I guess bringing Canadians home from Europe is for giants like Montreal and Edmonton, but if Bob wants my ideas for domestic-based Canadian players he need only ask.

Dos Santos rightly says the 2014 Ottawa Fury were the most Canadian team in the world without much credit from the public and no calls from the Canadian national team. He’s wrong sometimes too. Only a handful of the Fury’s Canadians were in any sense developmental projects (Phil Davies is 24 for God’s sake) and not many NASL fans I met in Ottawa were interested only in results; if they were they wouldn’t have been there.

So what’s the difference?

Last season, Marc dos Santos actually played his Canadians. According to the venerable Out of Touch, Ottawa’s Canadians saw 8,250 minutes in the regular season last year, 30.9% of the team’s total compared to Vancouver’s 2,209 minutes for 6.6%[3]. The most prominent members of the Fury’s Canadian contingent were defenders Mason Trafford and Drew Beckie, midfielder Philippe Davies, and forwards Pierre-Rudolph Mayard and Carl Haworth.

Most of these Canadians did not perform. The Fury defense was average, their midfield was saved only by their imports, and the attack was led by Brazilians Oliver Minatel and Vini Dantas with Mayard more a hindrance than an asset. Canadian bench players such as Andres Fresenga and Kenny Caceros saw the field but did nothing to stay there. Only Haworth and Trafford stood out positively and both are on the 2015 roster. I would take Beckie over Omar Jarun, but he didn’t exactly impress.

Some of these failures were predictable (seriously, Marc, Pierre-Rudolph Mayard?!), some were gambles that didn’t pay (if Phil Davies recaptured his 2010 form he’d have been perfect, but that was ever so long ago), but there were no clear cases of a Canadian performing below his ability. They were plain lousy players.

Even so, smart money says Ottawa will again be more Canadian than Vancouver in 2015. Trafford looks like a starter, Haworth and youngster Mauro Eustaquio ought to see more playing time, and with only nine players signed including five internationals* some of Ottawa’s additions will be Canadian through sheer necessity.

Meanwhile, as McColl points out, no Whitecaps Canadians look likely for the first eleven in 2015 and few will regularly make the bench. Lenarduzzi’s own comments shows he realizes Vancouver has Canadians on the roster but not on the field. The recent release of Bryce Alderson, member of many a Canadian U-20 national team, source of look-at-all-the-players-we’re-developing bragging rights, and player of zero MLS minutes, is merely the most recent example. While in Ottawa international players brought most of the quality, in Vancouver Canadians were and are ranked behind foreign flavours-of-the-month of indifferent commitment or limited skill. Mediocrities Jun Marques Davidson and Erik Hurtado played more as a Vancouver Whitecaps than every one of their MLS Canadians combined.

Dos Santos gave his domestic players a fair opportunity: his frustration comes from legitimate disappointment. Apart from, here and there, Russell Teibert, Canadians in the Whitecaps MLS years have not gotten the same chance. Obviously the Whitecaps have good intentions, but when Vancouver is compared to its rivals Lenarduzzi’s cavalier condemnation of concern seems less-than-earned.

(notes and comments…)

Considering Canada’s CONCACAF U-20 Chances

By Benjamin Massey · January 5th, 2015 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

Canada had been expected to announce their roster for the CONCACAF U-20 men’s championship tomorrow but, as ever, CONCACAF has stolen their thunder. The confederation announced all the competing rosters, including Canada’s, in a press release this morning[1] (thanks to Philadelphia reporter Jonathan Tannenwald for the heads-up). The Canadian Soccer Association made a slightly different roster announcement later in the morning[2].

For those keeping score at home, the Canadian twenty-man roster is:

GK Marco Carducci (Vancouver, MLS)
GK Nolan Wirth (Oregon State, NCAA Pac-12)
LB Sam Adekugbe (Vancouver, MLS)
LB/MF Jordan Haynes (Vancouver Whitecaps Residency, USSDA)
CB Luca Gasparotto (Rangers, Sco-2 on loan to Airdrieonians, Sco-3)
CB Alex Comsia (RC Strasbourg U-19, Fra-3)
CB Jackson Farmer (Vancouver Whitecaps Residency, USSDA)
CB Brandon John (FC Erzgebirge Aue U-23, Ger-3)
RB Rares "Chris" Serban (University of British Columbia, CIS Canada West)
MF Manny Aparicio (Toronto, MLS)
MF Louis Béland-Goyette (Montreal, MLS)
MF Kianz Froese (Vancouver, MLS)
MF Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé (Montreal, MLS)
MF Chris Nanco (Syracuse, NCAA ACC)
MW/FW Hanson Boakai (Edmonton, NASL)
MF/FW Marco Bustos (Vancouver, MLS)
MF/FW Michael Petrasso (Queens Park Rangers, EPL on loan to Notts County, Eng-3)
FW Calum Ferguson (Inverness Caledonian Thistle, SPL)
FW Jordan Hamilton (Toronto, MLS)
FW Cyle Larin (Unattached FC, Can-1)

The difference between the roster announced by CONCACAF and that announced by the Canadian Soccer Association is that, in the CSA version, midfielder Dylan Carreiro (Dundee, SPL) has been replaced by Whitecaps Residency defender Jackson Farmer. Despite only making his Dundee debut this weekend Carreiro has been kept by his club. With Canada facing a tough road that will call upon the team’s full depth, Carreiro’s presence would have made a difference.

“A tough road”? I say that but supporters expect great things this year. Expectations have never being higher for a Canadian U-20 team. In 2003 we were one of the co-winners of the CONCACAF tournament and went to extra time in the World Cup quarterfinal: that team was less eagerly-anticipated than this one*. The Canadian U-20 soccer version of pressure (a dozen mentally ill maniacs like me screaming black fury at a dodgy webstream) will be on.

Should we be so optimistic? Canada’s list is short of blue-chip prospects in the world’s top academies. Hanson Boakai is a terrific young player, if he’s recovered from the injury he reportedly suffered in training, but FC Edmonton isn’t quite Manchester United. Haiti has Bryan Alceus at Bordeaux and Stephane Lambese at Paris St-Germain. Honduras’s Júnior Lacayo is at Santos Laguna. Most of our opponents are less well-blessed, but majority of their rosters plays each other every week in a domestic league while the Canadian lineup, as ever, comes from all over Hell’s half-acre.

Yet there is reason for positivity. This Canadian corps is more accomplished than, I think, any equivalent group we’ve ever had. By my count twelve of these twenty players have experience playing full professional soccer against grown men. In a few cases this is only a game or two, but players such as Petrasso, Boakai, and Adekugbe have reasonably established themselves in a professional eighteen. The 2013 team included a few professionals such as Caleb Clarke and Doneil Henry but the large majority were collegiates or academy members (including Petrasso, the only returning member of the 2013 team). While Canada’s lineup is widely-scattered, we’re better off than some: eleven Canadian U-20s play in Canada, while only eight American U-20s play in the United States.

One of those professional players is Marco Bustos, who made his first team debut last summer in the Voyageurs Cup and will be on the Whitecaps’ MLS roster in 2015. You’re glad to see him here? Good. Yes, Bustos went flirting with the Chilean national team and we can never know whether Canada is his first choice. But that doesn’t mean we should assume the worst. I’ve always said Bustos’s Chilean aspiration should be forgiven by the fans if he shows commitment to the Canadian program going forward[3] and so far he’s passing the test. I’ll be cheering Bustos on as hard as Boakai, Froese, or any of my other favourites because what else is he supposed to do for us, break Teal Bunbury over his knee like the Iron Sheik? (Actually that would be nice; one thing at a time.) As a fan, I demand loyalty from our players but that’s a two-way street: when the players are doing the right thing they deserve my loyalty in return.

Notable by his absence is Fraser Aird, who has been teasing the Canadian program for years now and is now missing an essential tournament. There is a nice counterpoint to Marco Bustos. Aird has been in and out of the Rangers lineup and, according to Gale, was not released by his club. Maybe so. Some people always have an excuse.

The late naming of Jackson Farmer obviates one worry: the modest aerial powers of Canada’s back four behind Gasparotto and Comsia. I’m informed Brandon John is a centreback but he doesn’t seem to have the height for it: he’s the second-shortest guy in his row on the team photo and the Canadian Soccer Association lists him at 5’9.5″[4]. Sam Adekugbe has good height for a left back but Chris Serban is undersized and, though he can play anywhere on the pitch except possibly goal, Jordan Haynes is really a midfielder. Filling this hole was a sensible move by Rob Gale once he lost Carreiro. Farmer got the nod over FC Edmonton defender Marko Aleksic, another big (6’3″) CB who was involved in the U-20 program leading up to this tournament and has a half’s NASL experience under his belt.

Right back Serban is the only CIS player on the roster and a relatively new name to many fans. I believe, though I cannot prove, that Serban is the first CIS/CIAU to represent Canada in a U-20 tournament since Wilfrid Laurier goalkeeper Pieter Meuleman at the 2001 FIFA World Youth Championship. Serban was largely unknown to the wider community until he joined the Whitecaps Residency in February then spent the 2014 USL PDL season with the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s. There, he was very good against older, larger players at a level that was a huge step up. One of three Calgarians on this team (with Adekugbe and Carducci), Serban is an advertisement for how far the scouting apparatus in this country has to go: how is it someone at his level had to take such a round-about route to the Canadian national program? I’m not saying he’s a dominant player, but he clearly belongs on this stage and we’ll never know what we missed by not realizing that years sooner.

The forwards are getting a lot of hype. Jordan Hamilton is hugely popular out east, and scored prodigiously (a goal per 90 minutes) on loan to the USL Pro Wilmington Hammerheads. But a loan to Portugal’s second division was a disaster and he once again has a lot to prove. I don’t rate Hamilton as much as others: he’s played very well at times but I have yet to be convinced of his all-round game. Yet, the Portugal loan aside, he’s consistently earned results and that’s all that counts. Even with my doubts Hamilton is unquestionably in my starting eleven until someone else proves he’s better.

Alongside Hamilton is likely Cyle Larin, a 6’2″ forward late of the University of Connecticut. It’s hard to overemphasize how highly-touted Larin is by Canadian fans despite having never played a professional game and seeing his production at UConn drop from 2013 to 2014; he’s not exactly a golden boy but he’s close, helped by an American hype machine that loves fashionable NCAA players and the air of mystery that settles over those almost none of us watch regularly. In spite of rumoured European interest it now looks like Larin will settle for an MLS contract and an early pick in the upcoming SuperDraft[5]. He, too, has a lot to prove (actually, much more than Hamilton does). Larin has made three senior appearances for Canada off the bench and hasn’t looked bad, but it’s a long way between fifteen good minutes against tired defenders and being The Man at a full tournament. We will see.

No sign of FC Edmonton’s Sadi Jalali, who’s been a big part of this group, supposedly played well at the Milk Cup, and has U-17 World Cup experience. This was a tough nut to crack for Jalali: he was never going to get past Hamilton and Larin so that left him battling Calum Ferguson for the first forward spot off the bench. Jalali is a relatively compact player without much speed, and there are sharp disagreements on how highly to rate him. I think he has something, can make a reasonably effective battering ram when his work rate and confidence are high, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen in flashes from him (while acknowledging that the aggregate is not brilliant). Ferguson is also a small player but is more of an unknown quantity (he has yet to make his professional debut) and the coaches have seen a lot of him. Brody Huitema, who was a terrific USSDA player and seems to have all the tools but hasn’t put it together at Duke yet, is also missing out. It’s a twenty-man roster and something has to give, but how nice that we can have this sort of debate over depth.

What will Canada do? This format makes exact predictions difficult. The tournament is divided into two groups of six teams each. The first-place team from each group automatically qualifies for the U-20 World Cup and will play in the final. The second- and third-place teams from each group play off against each other, and the winner of those playoff games take the last two U-20 World Cup spots. This means, in short, that for us middling sides it’s going to be a fucking knife fight from kickoff to final whistle.

Canada has the tough group, headlined by Mexico and Honduras with strong second-ranker El Salvador and two of the best third-rate sides in Haiti and Cuba. The island nations are always mysterious, especially Cuba behind their sporting Iron Curtain, but as mentioned Haiti has a couple players in first-rate French academies and Cuba always seems to spring a surprise on somebody in these events. Haiti also has the potential advantage of playing Mexico last: if Mexico has cinched first place the Haitians may get a B-team. Mexico will be heavy favourites for first, and below this group could go absolutely anywhere.

Canada should be able to sneak into third or second. (If they can’t hang with Honduras then this team simply hasn’t got the quality expected.) This would lead to a winner-take-all playoff against one of the Group A teams, and apart from the pressure this won’t be so bad. With the Americans likely to win that group we’d be probably looking at Panama or Jamaica, maybe Guatemala. The downside is that, by this point, Canada will have spent two weeks competing in the Jamaican sun. The Central American teams will be more used to the conditions and may be fresher. If it’s Jamaica, the home crowd will be passionately behind them.

Even today, in early January, temperatures in Montego Bay can reach 30 degrees Celcius with humidity around 80%[6]. This doesn’t just impact the players but the field, as the natural grass at the Montego Bay Sports Complex will host a full twenty-four games during this 15-day tournament and, especially if the forecasted rain materializes, will inevitably be worn down. In such conditions it can become less a battle of skill and more a test of endurance which doesn’t favour a Canadian team that, for once, is short on pure athletes. This augurs very well for our future national team hopes but, looking narrowly at this one tournament, we will be at a disadvantage.

I like many of the players on this team, there’s a lot of skill at all positions, and I’m still not sure we have a 50% chance of getting to the U-20 World Cup.

(notes and comments…)

My 2014 Canadian Soccer Association Awards Thingy

By Benjamin Massey · December 26th, 2014 · No comments

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

I’ve made an annual habit of pretending to be a SRS MEDIA GUYY and giving my choices for the Canadian Soccer Association’s awardstravaganza. In December of each year the CSA hands out a trophy to the best male, female, U-20 male, U-20 female, U-17 male, U-17 female, and para soccer player of the year. The voting for the two senior awards is split between the press and registered Canadian coaches: the others belong entirely to the coaching community. (But I weigh in anyway, because I’m an arrogant shit.)

This year I give my answers long after the CSA released the awards’ results. Bad form. I realize that I am literally Owen Hargreaves as far as you are concerned, loyal reader: I can only fall on my knees and beg forgiveness.

Here are my posts from 2013 and 2012.

Women’s Player of the Year

Christine Sinclair won[1]. Spoiler alert.

Last year, I said Sinclair didn’t deserve to win but was probably going to on reputation[2]. She had a decent year, though, and snuck into my top three. This year even that level of reward is unavailable to us. For her club, Sinclair was the third-leading scorer on the Portland Thorns behind Jessica McDonald and Allie Long, and finished ahead of Alex Morgan only on the basis of more minutes. Sincy appeared to have appalling shooting percentage luck[3] but the repeatability of shooting percentage in women’s soccer isn’t known. For country, Sinclair scored once, all year, in the team’s final friendly against Sweden[4].

We mustn’t oversell this. Even without scoring Sinclair was a useful player for John Herdman, deserved more goals than she got, and contributed off the ball. She’s still a clear starter, and what’s more I expect a minor resurgence in 2015. Sinclair, in short, is no Abby Wambach[5]. But we’re looking at what she did, not what she could have done, and the numbers were not player of the year quality. Had anybody but Christine Sinclair posted them she’d never be in consideration. Sinclair will probably be the Canadian player of the decade, but that doesn’t make her player of the year.

The CSA press release said the women’s vote was “very close”. I suspect the informed ballots were split between Sophie Schmidt, Desiree Scott, Diana Matheson, and Erin McLeod, allowing Sinclair to sneak up the middle thanks to those who vote on habit. Some blame dastardly media guys who don’t follow the women’s team, but CanWNT had a home-heavy schedule this season well-covered by the press. We all know a few coaches who are dazzled by Sinclair’s iconic status and would vote for her leadership, her toughness, and her legend even if she scored three own goals and threw Diana Matheson into the crowd like a lawn dart.

Speaking of Canada’s favourite microeconomist, Matheson was certainly one of the strong contenders this year and I suspect enjoyed plenty of support. To an extent she was a reputation choice as well; I don’t feel she was quite as good in 2014 as in 2013 and wasn’t the straw that stirred the drink. But it was still an excellent year, worthy of being on everyone’s ballot. She was also the best attacking player on her NWSL team, the Washington Spirit, leading with six assists and running second with eight goals while playing the second-most minutes[6]. Some people don’t seem to rate club play in the women’s player of the year; I discount it heavily myself. But it’s a good way to gain perspective and break a tie. Matheson’s tremendous 2014 for her club, her second straight really excellent NWSL season, pushes her up the podium.

Desiree Scott had a few monumental games, such as her hometown show in Winnipeg against the United States and the second Japan match in Vancouver, but was also disconcertingly anonymous at times: still, a good Scott is very good indeed and she did it against tough opposition. Scott probably lost some votes because she was the only serious nominee playing club soccer outside North America, turning out with Notts County in England, and was therefore almost completely off the radar except when actually playing for Canada (find her stat line, I defy you). Erin McLeod had another good year and remains among the world’s best goalkeepers, but voting for a goalie is difficult to do especially when she didn’t really steal us any games, or none we could see on television. Fellow Albertan keeper Steph Labbé had a year that was in my books “a slightly worse McLeod.”

This leaves my first-place choice, Sophie Schmidt. I’ve enjoyed Schmidt’s play for a while now but she tailed off some in 2012 and even more in 2013. 2014 saw her back with a vengeance. She more than doubled her career tally with seven goals for her country this year, top of the pops, including all three of our goals at home, one against the best team in the world (Germany), and two against the reigning World Cup champions (Japan)[7]. Schmidt’s great weakness, her predilection for the turnover, has greatly improved, and I would say she was a more integral part of running the attack than Matheson. Sure, her NWSL performance declined, but such was her quality for Canada that I frankly don’t care. It was nice to be able to put Schmidt’s name next to the one on my ballot. It felt like the fulfillment of long-overdue promise. 1. Sophie Schmidt 2. Diana Matheson 3. Desiree Scott

Men’s Player of the Year

Long-time fans of Canadian men’s soccer will be familiar with voting for Atiba Hutchinson because he is the best player. In this respect, I’m too happy to defer to tradition.

Oh, Hutch. He only played for Canada four times this year[8] but that’s not bad in a season with no Gold Cups or World Cup qualifiers, and in those four games he scored a spot kick to fetch a surprising point against Bulgaria[9]. A decent show, though not a brilliant one and he missed his best chance to make his mark in the Colombia friendly. So let’s be frank: those of us who voted for Hutchinson are doing it on the strength of his club play.

I don’t watch a lot of the Turkish league, where Hutchinson plays with giants Besiktas. (Shock! Horror!) But after a 2012-13 being played all over the park to try and find a niche, Hutch has apparently settled in. More than that. In a Champions League match against Arsenal, Hutchinson ran the show in a losing cause and drew specific praise from no less than Arsène Wenger[10]. His stock has never been higher, and he’s been linked with the move to the English Premier League that he’s reportedly dreamed of for much of his career. He’s been healthy, effective, picked up a couple assists, been the Hutch we all know he can be on a consistent basis. Last year I voted for Hutchinson and had to hold my breath slightly. This year no qualms apply.

So who are “the rest”? On strong Canadian performances, Milan Borjan belongs on any list. I said above that it’s hard to vote for a goalkeeper unless he steals the show, well, Borjan’s done that, a couple times. I love Lars Hirschfeld but he’s rather in eclipse these days. Yes, Milan spent a lot of the club season on Canadian favourites Unattached FC, but he’s making a solid return to the domestic game: in September Borjan signed with Bulgarian side Ludogorets Razgrad as an emergency goalkeeper when they needed someone, anyone to stand between the sticks for a Champions League qualifier against Liverpool. At Anfield Borjan played very well indeed until he gave away a late penalty[11]. It was good enough, apparently: the emergency goalkeeper has stuck around, been a regular in the eighteen, and made a couple good league appearances. It’s so strange to see a Canadian get a lucky break and take advantage of it that I can’t help but vote for him.

David Edgar, my third-place vote, hasn’t done quite so well for club: he was a regular early this season after signing with Championship squad Birmingham, scored the easiest goal off a corner you will ever see against Ipswich[12], but has been on the outs since the relegation-threatened Blues sacked manager Lee Clark. He has, however, not been forgotten, seeing minutes here and there under new boss Gary Rowett. And for country he was clearly the best defender on the team night in night out. Yes, Edgar’s inconsistent even within a match, seems to trip over his own feet sometimes or get caught too high up the pitch with forwards getting in behind him. He’s not perfect. But he’s big, strong, confident on the ball, and our best heir to Kevin McKenna. 2014 was a nice year for him.

Who else could you have gone for? None of the MLS contingent was really in it this year: Jonathan Osorio regressed to the mean like a motherfucker, Will Johnson was hurt and didn’t make a single cap, Dwayne De Rosario was old, Russell Teibert was the second-best defensive midfielder on his team, Doneil Henry is still a “could be” rather than an “is”, Issey Nakajima-Farran is Issey Nakajima-Farran and you don’t get points just for participating. Iain Hume would have been a fun choice: he was just named Player of the Year in the first season of the Indian league[13]. How awesome is it that Humey is becoming the Carlos Valderrama of a nascent league in a country of a billion people? Extremely awesome. But many of his exploits came after the ballots were counted. Tosaint Ricketts is still Canada’s most consistently-scoring international striker and had a decent season in the Turkish second division, but “most consistently-scoring” in no way implies actual consistency and it’s the Turkish second division. Julian de Guzman actually played pretty well for Canada but that’s almost all the soccer he got. I’m pretty happy with the obvious choices. 1. Atiba Hutchinson 2. Milan Borjan 3. David Edgar

And the Rest Here on Lord Bob’s Island

The following awards are ones I am not eligible to vote for, but on which I have an opinion anyhow.

The women’s U-20 player of the year is Kadeisha Buchanan, because she’s the best. Janine Beckie deserved votes too, with a terrific U-20 Women’s World Cup (having joined the good girls from the American program) and a terrific season at Texas Tech, scoring seventeen goals[14]; like Buchanan, Beckie was an NSCAA All-American[15]. Nichelle Prince also had a good tournament, as did Emma Fletcher. Fletcher also boasted a good year at Louisiana State (alongside self-exiled Canadian should-be-star Summer Clarke), while after a fine freshman campaign Prince’s 2014 at Ohio State was cut short by injury. I didn’t rate Ashley Lawrence quite so highly but she certainly gets plenty of respect from more knowledgeable observers than I. Jessie Fleming, despite being a U-17, was nominated in this category… and to be honest, I’m having a hard time keeping her out of the top three; her U-20 tournament wasn’t the best but you could see the difference when she was injured, and she’s had some strong games on the senior team. The Canadians didn’t do everything we wanted at the U-20 Women’s World Cup, but a solid number of players looked very good indeed. Promising. 1. Kadeisha Buchanan 2. Janine Beckie 3. Jessie Fleming.

The men’s U-20 player of the year is Michael Petrasso, for the same reason as Buchanan. Petrasso spent most of the year ping-ponging around the English Leagues One and Two on loan and bagging a few goals along the way. While not a dominant player, he’s been getting results against grown men and that’s U-20 Player of the Year stuff for sure. I admit I’m not as persuaded by the opposition as some of you. Hanson Boakai, of FC Edmonton, played high-quality professional soccer and was one of the MVPs of the Voyageurs Cup yet wasn’t even nominated (!!!). Young centre back Luca Gasparotto is doing a thing or two on loan in the lower Scottish leagues but hasn’t cracked Rangers yet, Manuel Aparicio played a fair bit in USL Pro but if you see a lot there I don’t, Jordan Hamilton had quite a good USL Pro run but washed out of the Portuguese second division on loan (he, too, went un-nominated), and the rest are your usual youth players or amateurs. There’s a lot of optimism about the 2015 U-20 team which will try to qualify for the World Cup. And obviously there’s talent but I’m not feeling the love to the same extent. 1. Michael Petrasso 2. Hanson Boakai (write-in) 3. Manuel Aparicio.

I don’t frankly have much to say about the U-17 player of the year nominees: in years without a major tournament this age group is all-but-impenetrable to us outsiders. (That may be why they don’t let me vote on it.) The women played a decent but annoyingly short U-17 Women’s World Cup back in March: there were few real standouts. It’s frankly hard to imagine anyone being better than Jessie Fleming, who I keep writing good things about. I worry that she’ll fall victim to over-hype, as Kara Lang did before her; there are so many things that can go wrong at that age group. Simmrin Dhaliwal didn’t play full-time in the World Cup but is a nominee and gets good reviews in the Whitecaps system, and the increasingly-respected Sarah Kinzner I thought did very well, particularly in that knuckle-gnawing loss to Venezeula.

As to the men’s nominees, I have seen precisely one kid on the list: Vancouver’s Matthew Baldisimo. He is quite a good, versatile player, and I am always faintly surprised to see he’s still a U-17. I wouldn’t say he has any outstanding individual talents which makes me say “he’s playing professional soccer” but Baldisimo does a lot of things quite well. Does that mean I’d back him against a bunch of players I’ve never seen? (One of them’s at Fulham, that sounds pretty good!) Jean-Yves Tabla wound up taking the honour; I have barely heard of him but Sean Fleming’s blurb in the press release sounded complimentary[16]. No informed opinion is possible; this paragraph was a waste of your time. (To tell the truth, I’m not sure how Canadian coaches outside those who actually scout and coach the U-17 team can make an informed call either. Someone in Montreal might know Tabla and think he’s the bee’s knees, but what’s he going to know about the Fulham kid? I guess these awards have to be decided somehow but the history of the U-20 and U-17 player of the year awards more often suggests “a large region rallying around the best player they’re familiar with” than “a true national supertalent”.)

(notes and comments…)

Those Matt Van Oekel Statistics, in Full

By Benjamin Massey · December 18th, 2014 · No comments

Today, FC Edmonton announced the signing of veteran second division goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel[1]. Virginia native Van Oekel had spent his entire seven-season professional career with various incarnations of Minnesota soccer clubs, starting with the Thunder in 2008, and has been the starter for the Minnesota Stars/United since 2012.

Though seldom classed among the NASL’s best Van Oekel’s had some good seasons behind stalwart defenses. He’s also one of the league’s most stylish players, his various haircuts being a bit of a running gag in NASL circles, and will fill the niche left by the departing Lance “Blue Steel” Parker. Probably more importantly, Van Oekel also brings experience to what is a pretty young goalkeeping corps: John Smits is the most experienced of the bunch with his three professional seasons.

We haven’t done one of these in ages! Here is Matt Van Oekel’s career to date. As always, regular season only, NCAA statistics are unreliable, NASL statistics are dodgy especially in 2013, and though he was the starter I haven’t got his 2007 Rutgers numbers at all[2]:

GP Strt MIN G A PKG Sh Sv GA Sv% GA/90 Yl Rd
2004 Longwood NCAA 17 17 1522 0 0 0 148 107 41 0.723 2.42 2 0
2005 Rutgers NCAA 10 9 829 0 0 0 64 52 12 0.714 1.09 0 0
2006 Rutgers NCAA 14 14 1279 0 0 0 64 52 12 0.813 0.84 0 0
2007 Rutgers NCAA statistics not available
2008 Minnesota USL-1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 nan nan 0 0
2009 Minnesota USL-1 1 1 90 0 0 0 5 4 1 0.800 1.00 0 0
2010 Minnesota USSF D2 6 5 474 0 0 0 29 19 10 0.655 1.90 1 0
2011 Minnesota NASL 1 1 90 0 0 0 2 2.00 0 0
2012 Minnesota NASL 25 25 2250 0 0 0 107 77 30 0.720 1.20 0 0
2013 Minnesota NASL 18 18 1620 0 1 0 27 1.50 1 0
2014 Minnesota NASL 20 19 1720 0 0 0 81 62 19 0.765 0.99 0 0

Van Oekel’s college career began in 2004 at Longwood University. Those bold Lancers were taking their first step into NCAA Division I and were massacred like Russians at Sevastapol. But you mustn’t blame Van Oekel: the freshman started all seventeen games, got a tonne of work, and posted surprisingly reasonable numbers for a guy who conceded 41 times.

Sensibly, rather than get shell-shock as the college soccer equivalent to Ben Scrivens, Van Oekel promptly bailed to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, a cavalry motif apparently suiting Van Oekel just fine. As a sophomore he fought Lubos Ancin for playing time and saw action October 8 at Louisville, a team that included his new Eddies teammate Frank Jonke. Jonke scored twice on Ancin so Van Oekel rolled out of the bullpen for his first action in seven matches; Jonke almost immediately beat Van Oekel to get his hat trick. But the Jonke show against Ancin established Van Oekel as Rutgers’s starter for the rest of the year. Truly, this was a partnership meant to happen.

Though it’s hard to tell because of Rutgers’s inability to post statistics for his senior year, and a pre-season ACL injury hurt[3], Van Oekel ended his college career in 2007 with a good record but few accolades. He was left off the MLS Combine lists and ignored in that year’s SuperDraft despite a weak year for goalkeepers. (It’s not like his program was overlooked: his teammate in 2005 and 2006 was Nick LaBrocca, while 2007 featured a young Dilly Duka.)

Patience is a virtue, even for Lancers and Scarlet Knights, and soon Van Oekel got his chance. Prior to the 2008 season Van Oekel went on trial with the USL First Division Minnesota Thunder and impressed enough to win a contract[4]. The Thunder had a decent veteran team but were weak in goal: Joe Warren had just retired and Nic Platter would see his first season as a pro starter. A great opportunity for Van Oekel, though Platter played every minute in 2008. Still, Van Oekel’s option was picked up for 2009, and on September 13 he made his professional debut at Stade Saputo, stopping four shots to help Minnesota earn a 1-1 draw with the Impact.

The 2010 season was a big one for American second division soccer and it was big for Matt Van Oekel. The United Soccer Leagues and North American Soccer League were having their acrimonious divorce, playing one last campaign together as the United States Soccer Federation Division 2 Pro League. The Minnesota Thunder were no more: the team dissolved, but their hosts at the National Sports Center created a new club known as the NSC Minnesota Stars stocked with former Thunder players. Van Oekel was not signed but stuck around on amateur terms, and while Platter showed interest in the new team[5] he soon went to Martin Rennie’s Carolina Railhawks. The Stars replaced Platter with two veterans: ex-DC United man and Liberian international Louis Crayton[6], already a seemingly washed-up wanderer at age 32, and, seemingly crazily, 35-year-old ex-Thunder goalkeeper Joe Warren, who had actually been retired for the past four years.

Crayton ended his professional soccer career 45 minutes into the Stars’ first game on a bonehead play at Swangard Stadium when he tried to fake out Dever Orgill for no obvious reason, collided with the young Jamaican forward, and blew out his ACL[7]. Warren came on in relief and began one of the more improbably successful second acts in American soccer history. With Crayton gone, Van Oekel was officially added to the roster, saw a few games, and did well enough to earn a contract for the inaugural 2011 NASL season as the badly under-financed Stars mounted a surprisingly decent run. For 2011 Warren remained the starter and Van Oekel played only one match, in (quite pleasingly) Edmonton on May 23, where the Stars lost 2-1 to a Kyle Porter brace. It was hard to blame coach Manny Lagos for sticking with Warren: after a dodgy regular season the Stars surprised everyone by taking the first NASL championship thanks in no small part to Warren’s heroics. The veteran goalkeeper retired for (presumably) the final time after 2011, though, and Van Oekel’s option was picked up.

In 2012 Van Oekel finally ascended to the starting job for his fifth season in Minnesota. With his only competition being rookie Mitch Hildebrandt, Van Oekel was assured the bulk of the minutes, and though Hildebrandt impressed when he played Van Oekel was Manny Lagos’s man. Minnesota, Van Oekel included, was inconsistent but (stop me if this sounds familiar) rode a mediocre regular season to a stirring playoff run that ended only with a defeat on penalties to Tampa Bay in the NASL final. Van Oekel also took part in a memorable US Open Cup giant-slaying when he and the Stars knocked off MLS title contenders Real Salt Lake 3-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Van Oekel’s 2012 season was good enough to earn him an extended trial with MLS’s DC United[8]. It didn’t work out, and while Van Oekel signed a two-year contract with Minnesota the newly-rebranded United also grabbed veteran keeper Daryl Sattler, holder of the NASL Golden Gloves[9]. The good news for Van Oekel was that Sattler was injured midway through the spring season: the bad news was that both Van Oekel and Minnesota played poorly, conceding 14 goals in six games with a pretty lowly 0.611 save percentage. In the fall results improved, though we haven’t got the shooting data to say more: in any case Van Oekel played every minute between Sattler’s injury and the last two games of the year, when United was out of the running and Hildebrandt started.

Van Oekel hadn’t proven he was good enough to start for an elite team, but he hadn’t proven he wasn’t either. At the start of 2014 Mitch Hildebrandt had only played four NASL games and third-stringer Andrew Fontein, recently signed from Tampa Bay, was equally inexperienced. Manny Lagos stuck with Van Oekel through the first seven games , but an injury brought Hildebrandt in for the last two games of the spring. Van Oekel returned to the eighteen in the fall but Hildebrandt continued to play until August 9 when, in a game all Eddies fans will remember, he was sent off and Van Oekel took over. With Hildebrandt suspended Van Oekel played the next week against Indy and remained the starter for the rest of the season, apart from one game in Edmonton.

Now Van Oekel will face the first change of scenery of his professional career. For the second time he’s competing for a spot with the Golden Gloves winner: John Smits took the 2014 award for lowest goals-against average. Then again, goals-against average is not very meaningful as a statistic. Then again again, Van Oekel’s most successful seasons have come behind strong defenses. His 2012 was fairly good but nothing remarkable, his 2014 quite nice (in relatively limited minutes), but 2013 and his backup years showed little to get excited about. Van Oekel’s Minnesota teams have been consistently well-coached and solid under the tutelage of Manny Lagos; Edmonton is also quite a good defensive side but there’ll still be an adjustment there.

Van Oekel has struggled with consistency, which is probably the main reason Minnesota looked for other options while he was there. That said, the younger John Smits is no picture of consistency himself, and some of his mistakes have been high-profile ones. Certainly Van Oekel has the quality to fight for a starting job: equally certainly, neither he nor Smits will want to be the backup. Given FC Edmonton’s long and glorious history of serious goalkeeper injuries, getting veteran cover makes sense for Colin Miller. But the one team we thought would regularly start a Canadian goalkeeper in 2015 is now far from a sure thing.

(notes and comments…)

Canada Should Finish Fourth in 2015

By Benjamin Massey · December 6th, 2014 · 1 comment

I have already been accused of excessive optimism for tweeting this, but to hell with it. My provisional prediction for Canada at the 2015 Women’s World Cup is fourth place.

This is not a reflection of Canada’s superlative skill, particularly. To me the teams this World Cup shake out into tiers roughly as follows:

Clearly better than Canada: Germany, France, Japan, the United States
About equivalent to Canada: England, Brazil, Sweden, Norway, South Korea
A cut below Canada: China, Australia, Mexico, Spain, Nigeria, Ivory Coast
More than one cut below Canada: Cameroon, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Colombia, Ecuador, Switzerland, Thailand, Costa Rica

As discussed, Canada is in Group A with China, New Zealand, and the Netherlands. Obviously anything can happen, but to me Canada finishing A1 is more likely than any other outcome. We are, by a reasonable margin, the most competent and the most accomplished team in Group A, even if Diana Matheson is unavailable.

If we finish A1, Canada gets a round of 16 match against a third-place team from groups C, D, or E. None of these are likely to fall into the “about equivalent” group. The best likely team is Australia, with Sweden perhaps coming our way if the tricky group D goes against them. So in all probability, I make Canada the favourite in our group of 16 match.

If this happens, the quarterfinal would be against the winner of B2 and F2. B2 isn’t going to amount to much: Norway, probably. F2 is likely England. Both these countries are in my “equivalent” basket, with Norway very borderline. But Canada will have two key advantages: first, an extra day’s rest. Second, less travel. The B2-F2 game is in Ottawa; the winner flies to Vancouver. If Canada is A1 they will already be in Vancouver for the round of 16 match and won’t even have to pack their bags. Canada will also have played two of their group stage matches in relatively nearby Edmonton while England or Norway would have spent more time flying across Hell’s half-acre. Thirdly, there’s the obvious home field advantage, especially in Vancouver where we may count on the most pro-Canadian crowds of the tournament. This leads me to saying that, while Canada might split the points with England on a neutral site, in tournament terms a rational judge would make us favourites.

In short, Canada would reach the semi-final without needing a single upset. In the semi-final we would more than likely meet Japan, and that’s when the dream would probably come crashing down. (Probably.) But that’s still top four, right there, going entirely by the book.

The FIFA gods have been kind to us. Finish A1 and we are in a far easier “southern half” of the knockout bracket. Japan, the really dangerous team there, is in a group so easy they’re highly unlikely to slip to second and accidentally saddle us with a killer match early. “Fourth place” sounds like an aggressive prediction, but I don’t think we need any amazing performances to make it happen.

Of course, if we finish A2 we’re screwed. The round of 16 match is an easy one against nobody at all (C2; Switzerland? Maybe Cameroon?), but now we’re in the “top half” of the bracket facing a quarterfinal against, probably, the United States. We’re traveling a lot more, dealing with additional fatigue. Even if, by some miracle, we knock off the United States in the quarter we still get a semi against Germany or France and the show’s over anyhow. So certainly finishing first in the group will determine a great deal. (Depending on the breaks we might be better off finishing third than second: if we get the “southern half” third-place spot then it’s a very difficult round-of-16 against Japan, but win it and it’s relatively smooth sailing with all our games out west.)

Now, the standard disclaimer. It is very early indeed, anything can happen in these short tournaments, you’d be a fool to wager your house on any favourite, etc. etc. ad nauseum. But doesn’t this make sense? As Canadians, we have become used to writing ourselves off in soccer terms. “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong” we say. But when the facts are laid out before us, doesn’t a bit of optimism make sense?

One Man’s Instinctive Reaction to Canada’s World Cup Draw

By Benjamin Massey · December 6th, 2014 · No comments

Since Canada was ranked A1 as host country, we were almost guaranteed a survivable group by FIFA fiat. That said, there’s survivable and then there’s winnable. There were a few very strong non-seeded teams who could have made Canada’s margin awfully thin. Get England or Sweden, South Korea, and basically any one of the dodgy African teams, and all of a sudden there are some big questions.

In the event, our draw was neither great nor horrifying.

Pot 2we got: New Zealand

Better than: Nigeria, Ivory Coast

Worse than: Cameroon

Twitter was a little more worried about this draw than I was. Pot 2 was a weird one for Canada. Costa Rica is one of the weakest teams in the tournament, but as a fellow CONCACAF country Canada could never get them. Ditto Mexico, who I think are a little underrated on the world stage. So it was New Zealand or one of the Africans.

The Africans are weird. They’ve historically done very well at the youth levels but have seldom brought it forward to the open ages; I’ll let my readers draw their own conclusions about that. By consensus, Nigeria is the best of the African countries and Ivory Coast not too far behind, with Cameroon being a team that (at the senior level) consistently handles Africans well and travels terribly. In this maelstrom of African uncertainty, New Zealand settles nicely somewhere in the middle.

Jason de Vos put it best. They pose some challenges, but we expect Canada to beat them. They’d get a bit less than draw odds with Norway, a bit more against Italy. New Zealand’s had a full international schedule over the past couple years and we can say with confidence where they belong: below Canada. Not at the bottom of the group, I don’t think, but if we fall to New Zealand than we frankly don’t deserve Kristian Jack.

I’d rather have New Zealand than the stronger African teams. The problem is that the Africans are obscure, hard to scout, hard to estimate, prone to busting out unpleasant surprises. Their games aren’t televised, the media coverage is unreliable, and you know John Herdman didn’t fly out to watch them play. New Zealand you can predict a bit better. Particularly for Herdman, who once coached them.

I can live with this easily.

Pot 3we got: China

Better than: South Korea

Worse than: Australia, Colombia, Ecuador, Thailand

Pot 3 is where we really could have made inroads, containing three of the tournament’s weakest teams. Instead we got the thoroughly decent Chinese. Darn.

China’s a good team: past their salad days but rising again with a young lineup (almost the whole team is younger than 27) and coming off tough games against some world elites. At the 2013 Yongchuan Four Nations, a near-annual tournament hosted by the Chinese, China fell 1-0 to Canada but beat South Korea, then in 2014 China took all nine points against New Zealand, Mexico, and North Korea. They’re on their way back up. I ranked them below South Korea but am by no means sure of that.

Once again, we come down to “Canada should beat them.” Their World Cup will be 2019, not 2015, and any achievements in Canada will be a bonus prior to the tournament they hope to take by storm. Yet they pose by far the most formidable risk to Canada, and out of a pot where we could have drawn some real cupcakes that hurts.

Pot 4we got: Netherlands

Better than: England, Sweden, Norway, Spain

Worse than: Switzerland

But the gods smiled on Canada in Pot 4.

Had we gotten either England or Sweden, we would have had a problem. Sweden is a historically good team and England has been looking more and more dangerous every week. Their presence automatically defines a Group of Death. Norway is solid enough to be frightening, coached by former Canadian boss Even Pellerud. Even Spain, while not belonging with the real competitors, has an upset in them.

Men’s fans will know the Netherlands as a top country, but their women’s program doesn’t amount to much. This is their first World Cup and have only recently been qualifying for Euros. While they’re still a young team, their top players such as Dyanne Bito and Anouk Hoogendijk are getting to the end of their ropes. They have one potentially terrifying youngster, 18-year-old striker Vivanne Miedema, but that single generational talent shouldn’t swing the group.

The Dutch got to Canada through a decent effort in an easy group then knockout wins over Scotland and Italy. Italy is the only country that should even be discussed on the world level and they’re a little worse year on year. The Netherlands’ exorbitant FIFA ranking flatters them; they don’t handle world-class teams well. They’re not bad, don’t get me wrong, but they’re another one of those teams where we can say “if Canada can’t beat them then we don’t deserve to get to the round of 16 anyway.”

So On Balance…

Canada should win this group.

But Stop Being a Homer. Really…

No. Canada should win this group. China is a threat but they’re not totally ready yet. If we give points away to either New Zealand or the Netherlands, we’ve done something very wrong.

No pressure, ladies!

Professional Soccer’s Responsibility to Canada

By Benjamin Massey · December 3rd, 2014 · 1 comment

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Very early indeed this morning, your friend and mine Michael McColl published over at AFTN Canada a post explaining his opinion that MLS has no obligations to Canadian soccer[1]. As someone whose opinion notoriously runs the other way, I have been called out to reply. I will oblige.

I do not mean to address McColl’s preference for club over country; that’s personal. (And he’s Scottish so, y’know, he’s responding to the incentives he’s got.) What I’m discussing is his argument that the Canadian MLS teams have no responsibility, and should have no responsibility, to develop Canadian talent.

These sorts of arguments always come down to two things: GIT DAT MONEY and WIN DOZE GAMEZ. Weird things for supporters to say. We all want our team to win, obviously, but that’s clearly not the most important thing: if it was we’d all cheer for Bayern Münich. We certainly wouldn’t be fans of the MLS Vancouver Whitecaps, a team proud of barely finishing in the top half twice in four years. There’s got to be something beyond numbers on a spreadsheet that keeps us coming to the park week in, week out. This is, in fact, the point.

And then there’s the financial argument. “Did Canada put any money into the MLS teams?!” Well, as it happens, yeah[2]. These self-sacrificing MLS team owners who only want to turn a wee little profit have by no means paid their own way. In terms of dollars and cents the Canadian public has bought a right to demand something from our MLS clubs. But it doesn’t matter.

If professional clubs are meant to be just another company then there’s no reason for them to ever have a single fan. You don’t see people going around wearing Telus shirts saying “yeah, they’ve been my phone company since I was a kid.” Even I don’t do that, and my dad works for Telus. In Vancouver you more commonly get people protesting corporations they feel put profit ahead of community. The entire business model of professional sports requires that we devote ourselves to an idea higher than any corporate interest: as fans we are entitled to demand something in exchange.

Why should we, as fans, give a hoot about franchise fees? We’re not shareholders in the Montreal Impact or the Vancouver Whitecaps. (You might be an investor in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment I guess.) I have no objection to Canadian soccer teams making money; in fact, I hope they do. But I’m not going to ignore everything that should turn a mere franchise into my club so Joey Saputo can have more caviar in his luxury suite.

Of course, nobody wants Canada’s professional teams to go broke. Look at the Whitecaps of the mid-2000s: playing Canadians for 20,000 minutes a season they won league championships[3]. Pretty sure they went utterly bankrupt. Pretty sure that’s what happened. If they routinely sold out Swangard Stadium, had a captain from Vancouver Island, and a bevy of beloved, successful local players, somebody would have mentioned it.

Or the Montreal Impact of that era. Routinely in the top of the table, the “least Canadian team in domestic professional soccer” which would make them the most Canadian team in MLS by miles, a bunch of long-term players and the occasional native son on a star turn like Ali Gerba. I seem to recall that they wound up building a soccer-specific stadium, won a dozen Voyageurs Cups, and got deep in a CONCACAF Champions League while drawing formidable crowds… but that’s probably a pot-induced hallucination. Next you’ll tell me that even the Toronto Lynx, who were an advertisement for how not to run a professional soccer team, are still around in USL PDL. Everyone knows that playing Canadians makes you broke. That’s why, when a long-forgotten MLS franchise named Toronto FC was founded with a high Canadian quota in place and they lost most of their games, the team plunged into obscurity and team owner Mr. MLSE can now be found outside Union Station giving handies for pocket change.

But isn’t it true that the biggest soccer nations in the world don’t do this sort of navel-gazing? Look, as McColl urges us, at the foreigner-replete Spanish La Liga, English Premier League, and Italian Serie A! They don’t demand a proportion of Spanish or English or Italian players and they’re doing great! (This amounts to saying “these countries are in the European Union”; it is difficult legally to rule out European foreigners in these countries. La Liga restricts non-EU players but can’t restrict non-Spaniards.)

These are three of the strongest leagues in the world: not exactly comparable to a podunk salary-capped regional league. Besides, as McColl ought to have known, England is plagued by just this problem, despite domestic representation that would make a Canadian jump for joy: the Football Association’s tightening work permit rules are one attempt at a solution[4]. And what of Germany? The world’s top soccer league requires a high proportion of homegrown players on a team’s roster, and their football association sets strict standards and demands heavy investment in youth academies[5]. The Germans, I shouldn’t need to tell you, have enjoyed some success with this approach.

In Australia, a country comparable to Canada in many ways, the A-League restricts teams to a maximum of five imports, a number that’s actually going down[6]. The result? The A-League has ten teams, nine in Australia proper (population 24 million), international television coverage, and a fast-rising salary cap. Their national team has moved to the tougher Asian region for more of a challenge and A-League-developed players like Mitchell Langerak, Joshua Brillante, and Robbie Kruse have joined some of the world’s top teams. If only we had Australia’s problems. Nor is their approach unusual: leagues in Russia, Japan, South Korea, and other strong countries have adopted increasingly strict pro-domestic rules.

Yeah, the men’s national team only plays a few times a year (and never in Vancouver). Yeah, it’s incompetent. Yeah, over the years the Canadian Soccer Association hasn’t been able to find its ass with a 15-page PDF titled “Roadmap to Canada’s Ass 2025″. That’s not the point. The Canadian national teams don’t represent the CSA, they represent us, the people of Canada. They are eleven men or women who unify us from Victoria to St. John’s. They are the apex of what we can hope to achieve: five MLS Cups in Vancouver wouldn’t add up to the world-wide attention and the domestic hope from a single Canadian World Cup appearance.

Telling us our MLS teams should ignore that so they can make more money is an offense to the entire concept of supporting a club.

(notes and comments…)

Comparing Independent and Reserve Attendances in Lower Divisions

By Benjamin Massey · December 2nd, 2014 · 1 comment

As you know the third division of American soccer, USL Pro, has become an affiliate league to Major League Soccer. While most teams remain independent, starting in 2014 USL Pro began admitting MLS reserve teams, and this system will massively expand for 2015 with several reserve teams in Canada and the United States.

Nobody runs their reserve team to make money, but many Major League Soccer front offices are marketing hard and hunting paying customers. Some, such as the Vancouver Whitecaps reserves, charge higher prices for tickets than the best reserve teams in the world. They’re making progress: how many times have we heard the reserve sides of Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, and Vancouver Whitecaps been called “new professional teams!!!” by the excitable, rather than an expansion of what already existed?

This model isn’t new. Several countries run reserve teams in the same league pyramid as independent clubs: Spain and Germany are the most famous but we see it all over the world, from Norway to Japan. Indeed, even in North America professional youth teams have operated alongside the independent semi-pros and amateurs of USL PDL for several years. So what does this mean for fans? Is a reserve team in a real league worth as much as a real team in the same league?

Inspired by an old Tyler Dellow post on mc79hockey.com, now removed from the Internet[1], I set out to compare the attendances of independent and reserve clubs in the same league.

Unfortunately, reliable attendance information for many such leagues, toiling in the lower divisions of non-English-speaking countries, is not readily available. Trying to compile data, I wound up with a total of ten seasons covering leagues in Spain, Germany, and the United States since 2012[2].

The distinction between “reserve team” and “non-reserve team” in North America can be slightly arbitrary: I did my best, erring towards considering teams independent. For example, Chivas USA and New York City FC did and will not appear on my lists; nor do USL Pro or USL PDL affiliates which are more like parents/feeders than full farm clubs. In the great scheme of thing potentially controversial cases are heavily outnumbered by clearcut Bayern Munich II/Chicago Fire Premier types.

Season League Level Avg. Attend/G Reserve Teams Non-Res Attend/G Reserve Attend/G Diff # Diff %
2012-13 Liga Adelante Spain 2 6724 2 6998 3990 3008 75.39%
2013-14 Liga Adelante Spain 2 7879 2 8328 3395 4932 145.26%
2012-13 3. Liga Germany 3 6162 2 6616 2077 4539 218.52%
2013-14 3. Liga Germany 3 6071 2 6556 1707 4849 284.15%
2012-13 Regionalliga Germany 4 1022 27 1288 390 898 230.62%
2013-14 Regionalliga Germany 4 1139 25 1380 524 856 163.36%
2014 USL Pro USA 3 3114 1 3308 597 2711 454.03%
2012 USL PDL USA 4 488 5 455 1026 -571 -55.63%
2013 USL PDL USA 4 588 7 578 686 -109 -15.81%
2014 USL PDL USA 4 590 9 606 482 124 25.83%
Averages 2563 2981 794 2188 275.59%

It’s not even close. At the same level, independent clubs are massively more popular than reserve teams, even considering cheaper (or free) tickets for reserve football, and this sample including the reserve sides for some of the world’s biggest clubs.

Look at Spain. The two reserve teams in the Liga Adelante in 2012-13 and 2013-14 are as huge as you can get: Barcelona B and Real Madrid Castilla. This is first-rate soccer. The current Real Madrid Castilla team includes three full internationals and Barcelona B has four. Both also have a handful of players who we’ll see on the senior Spanish side someday. And the attendance? Barça B had a middling year in 2012-13 but, on average, both these world-class development sides drew crowds that would shame an NASL team. (Most La Liga reserve sides, including Real Madrid Castilla this season, play in the Segunda División B, a level down, where attendance numbers are not reliably available.)

The two reserve teams in the German 3. Liga, Borussia Dortmund II and VfB Stuttgart II, boast big senior sides. But attendance-wise they finish behind almost everybody. In 2012-13 Stuttgart and Dortmund were second-last and last, respectively, in attendance. In 2013-14 Borussia Dortmund II improved to fifth from bottom, but still well behind 14th-place SV Wehen Wiesbaden (who they?!) while VfB Stuttgart II brought up the rear.

The largest group of reserve teams for which I had attendance data was in the German Regionalliga, made up of five regions and over 90 teams. In 2012-13 only three reserve teams (FC Bayern München II, 1. FC Köln II, and TSV 1860 München II) finished above the median in Regionalliga attendance. 15 of the 25 worst-supported Regionalliga teams, and all of the last seven, were reserve teams. Not bad when only 27 reserve teams played in the division.

It’s the same story in 2013-14. Three Regionalliga reserve teams (TSV 1860 München II, FC Bayern München II, and Hertha BSC II) again finished above the median attendance. 14 of the 25 worst-supported teams, and again all of the last seven, were reserve teams. Some of these sides drew truly atrocious crowds. 2012-13 SC Freiburg II got 164 fans a night, which would have embarrassed USL PDL.

Over in the United States, one reserve team operated in USL Pro last year: the Los Angeles Galaxy II. They did not draw flies, despite offering season tickets free with the MLS package and independent seats starting at US$72[3].

North American fans will be inspired, however, by USL PDL. In 2012 and 2013 the PDL affiliate teams actually drew better than the independent ones, and in 2014 they were darn close. This bucks the trend in Spain and Germany, and might mean that North America’s different culture and greater familiarity with minor-league teams will bring more success.

But I will respond with three words: the Portland Timbers. When it comes to reserve team popularity Portland is an exception; Portland is always an exception.

In 2012, the Portland Timbers U-23s were the third-best supported team in USL PDL. In 2013 they were third again, and in 2014 they were actually second. Portland’s U-23s regularly beat USL Pro teams in the attendance race. This is a credit to Portland fans, but it also weighs unusually heavily in our table; it takes only a few well-attended games to drag up the average number when such a small proportion of the league is reserve teams.

To demonstrate Portland’s distorting effect, let’s remove the Portland Timbers U-23s and the best-supported independent team all three years, the Des Moines Menace, from the USL PDL list and see what happens.

USL PDL Attendances 2012-14 (without Des Moines and Portland)
Season League Level Avg. Attend/G Reserve Teams Non-Res Attend/G Reserve Attend/G Diff # Diff %
2012 USL PDL USA 4 393 4 400 243 157 64.36%
2013 USL PDL USA 4 505 6 526 262 264 100.67%
2014 USL PDL USA 4 503 8 546 167 380 227.99%

Take away those maniacs in Portland and USL PDL lines up a lot more with Europe. Well-supported Cascadia rivals Seattle Sounders had a USL PDL team in 2013 and 2014 and have had below-average attendance. The Vancouver Whitecaps had a PDL team (and quite a successful one) for almost a decade, and their attendance is regularly in the basement.

Note as well that USL PDL attendances are not entirely reliable. Many teams, especially badly supported ones, do not report their attendance for all games. Orlando City U-23, who draw two- or single-digit crowds, reported only one game in 2013 and none at all in 2014. The Chicago Fire Premier/U-23 miss a couple games every year. Games not reported are not included in these tables, but would lower all average numbers and disproportionately hurt affiliated teams.

Obviously nothing in this post is related to player development: the most important job of a reserve team. But those looking to reserve teams to grow soccer in Canada and the United States should look elsewhere. Fans can get behind their own club even at the lowest levels but reserve teams? They just don’t care.

(notes and comments…)