Wiping Away the Tears

By Benjamin Massey · June 27th, 2015 · 2 comments

Prior to Canada’s World Cup quarterfinal against England, the Canadian Soccer Association and local Voyageurs moved heaven and earth to assemble a proper supporters’ section on next-to-no notice. Fans abandoned pricy tickets already purchased and plunked down in an improvised mob behind TSN’s set with the anything-for-our-ladies attitude that defines the Voyageur. It was a feat of improvisation that did credit to both the officials and fans of Canadian soccer. TSN and the British press had run articles criticizing Canada’s church-like atmosphere and the players themselves had put out a video calling for drums and chants; this was no time for half-measures.

Unfortunately, a family of four in front of this section was uninformed of this. First they objected to the drum, with ominous words about “making an issue out of this,” and in the spirit of kindness it was moved back. Then it turned out they objected to noise full stop. While stewards sought to move them elsewhere in a sold-out stadium, the father claimed that chanting for 90 minutes was stupid, embarrassing. The aforementioned video calling for just that was mentioned, whereupon the gentleman attempted to fight a Voyageur. Cooler heads prevailed that time, and another Voyageur, one who’d literally bought this section on his personal credit card for the sake of Canada, tried to reason with this fellow. This fellow naturally suckerpunched the Voyageur in the penis, and praise God that was it for him at last.

There is a point to this story. Most of the 54,000 fans in BC Place were all for the Voyageurs, or at least benevolently neutral. Two people were not, and those two held up the whole show. By the time they were finally removed, and the supporters could focus on supporting, it was 2-0 England and in spite of a gallant pushback our World Cup was ending. Were I a believer in this sort of karmic energy, and when it comes to soccer I sort of am, I’d say that was no coincidence.

It’s useless saying who was right or wrong, at least until a father decided chants were so embarrassing he’d try to fight two strangers in front of his children. But we’ve all seen this sort of thing from many Canadian fans in many grounds. It’s cultural. As undeniable as Canada’s love affair with its women’s national team is, the culture hasn’t really changed. And as long as the culture is so parochial, we’re going to have big problems.

There. Now does it sound more generally applicable to Canadian soccer?

I leave today as I leave most Canadian soccer campaigns, hoarse and traumatized and broken and tired. It’s hard to say where this falls in the pantheon of awful Canadian moments, but bombing out of the World Cup in a quarterfinal at home before a record crowd to a team we ought to defeat and, indeed, outplayed takes some beating. Yet there are so many little joys to take. A thousand fans stuck around for half an hour after Canada was eliminated, cheering and crowding the rail and showering their heroines in love. Christine Sinclair is still in all the Coke commercials, but the cheer for Kadeisha Buchanan tells me she’s no longer the only player Canadians can name. And the country fell in love with these women all over again – more than that, we’ve seen thoroughly decent crowds in far-flung cities for completely neutral games. It’s not just the women’s national team that can work in Canada, it’s women’s soccer.

Many people are viewing this game with a cynic’s eye, knowing that we would go wrong, and telling us all why. This is well and good and some of those pundits are right, but honestly? I attended every Canada game at the U-20 Women’s World Cup last year and every Canada game at the senior World Cup this year, and I just don’t have the energy. I really thought Canada would have a good tournament. Fourth place, I said it again and again, and we were one mistake in central defense from it coming true. And the women who played for us are such wonderful representatives of their country that… well, there’s no point saying a team deserves anything for that reason, but if ever a team did, it was this one.

Christine Sinclair apologized to Canada for the result through coach John Herdman. There’s no way Sincy’s reading this but if she is, come on. Nobody has ever less owed an apology. Canada should apologize to you for not cheering hard enough, for not packing the stadiums enough, for not supporting our programs enough years and years ago when it could have made a difference and gotten you the silverware you so deserve. Sinclair will retire as the greatest female player to never win a World Cup or Olympic gold medal. And we – you and me – could have helped prevent that. 2012 was far, far too late.

I leave with one thought for the future. There’s been talk of how the proposed Canadian national soccer league can work in competition with three MLS and two NASL teams. But the solution is self-evident: make it a women’s league. Put that on TSN every week and maybe the next World Cup won’t end in tears.

A Team Worth Cheering For

By Benjamin Massey · June 21st, 2015 · No comments

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Josée Bélanger scoring the winner for Canada against Switzerland could not have been more perfect. Bélanger is the archetypical Canadian player in 2015. Coming up through the youth ranks, undersized and largely unheralded, Bélanger spent the formative years of her soccer career puttering around Canadian universities and the USL W-League. For many years she was in Canada’s national pool but never swimming very far, serving up the occasional lovely cross then returning to obscurity. She probably would have retired by now, another casualty of the near-inability to make a living in Canada playing women’s soccer, had John Herdman not been so persistent.

Instead the life-long forward started a home World Cup at right back, because Rhian Wilkinson was hurt and somebody had to do it. Bélanger played with hustle and heart until Wilkinson returned, then moved back to her natural role with more hustle and heart, banging in Canada’s biggest goal in Canada’s biggest-ever tournament before Canada’s biggest-ever crowd for one of our soccer national teams. She ran like an antelope for 90 minutes and would have been one of the highlights of the night even if she hadn’t scored. But she did, and the former Quebec City Amiral is now a national heroine. Because that’s how these women work.

One hates to sound like that chauvinist who smears on a smug grin and says “those girls, they’re so nice, and they try so hard.” Spouting the most overused canards from the Big Book of Cliché to cover their inability, indeed their lack of inclination, to cover a women’s national team seriously. But what else are you supposed to say when women ranging from 17 years old to their mid-30s fight to the point of collapse in game after game, and every goal sends every player into a jumping frenzy of joyous love, and the bench is exhorting 55,000 Vancouverites to get up and cheer like champions, and the team celebrates one of the biggest wins of their lives by sticking around signing autographs for children until the stadium almost empties? This is a lovable team, a valiant unit made up of quality people, and every victory is twice as good because they’re the ones winning it.

Admire the hell out of Sophie Schmidt for grinding out 90 minutes of pain, and respect her ability keeping the Swiss on the back foot late when they were desperate to attack, but love her for giving her time and her heart to her country seemingly without limit. Love Karina LeBlanc’s near-abashed reaction the crowd chanting for her in Montréal, and Erin McLeod saving the day for Canada in Vancouver. Kadeisha Buchanan, who misses three days of practice with injury and puts on a lionine defensive effort on a back line in need of a 19-year-old who plays like a veteran. Christine Sinclair, who shyly smiles her way through being a flawless ambassador for both her friends and her country, and facing doubters in the World Cup puts her body on the line to make Bélanger’s goal possible. It’s no tacky sportswriter tripe to praise these women for their personality, because it’s earned, and their skill on the field only emphasizes their class off it.

These women – these specific women – are more than a Canadian national team. They reflect what we wish Canada could always be. Confident without arrogance. Proud of each other and humble as individuals. Not always winners, alas, but always fighting until the end. An attitude you can see, you can feel, you can even hear, that they’re doing all this for someone other than themselves. No other Canadian national team, male or female, can boast the same, and we shouldn’t be so self-conscious about acknowledging how special that is. It’s not taking the women less seriously to say all this: quite the contrary. There are plenty of good soccer teams, but this one is something more, and holding them up as an example for once feels right in the world of involuntary and inappropriate role models that is professional sport.

A mere four years ago, things were so different. Many of these players were in the press for the wrong reasons, arguing with the Canadian Soccer Association about money. They were isolated, occasionally surfacing in Europe for a friendly nobody would see. It was more “professional”, more “serious”, less personal, led by a high-profile and high-priced coach to whom “Canadian” seemed an epithet rather than an ideal. It was a team that was hard to know, let alone adore, and the result of all this was to finish dead last in the 2011 World Cup, a disaster enlivened only by Christine Sinclair suffering a facial injury and playing through it, reminding us of the Canadian grit that still hid beneath deep European waters.

How quickly things change. Oh, the bronze medal at London 2012 meant the world, but it takes more than that. Plenty of teams have enjoyed one success. Not Canada. This has already been a good World Cup, only our second ever trip to the quarterfinals and a decent chance of going further. The country bleeds with its heroines, goes crazy for every save, dies for every goal. We are surpassing the halcyon days of 2002 and 2012. At this point how can any fan not shelve the cynicism, close his eyes, and just go with it?

Oh, You Panicking Canadians

By Benjamin Massey · June 18th, 2015 · No comments

Ian Jackson/Canadian Soccer Association

Ian Jackson/Canadian Soccer Association

Canada has won its group at the Women’s World Cup for the first time ever. Naturally fans are terrified. Only two goals, one from open play! An indifferent draw against débutantes the Netherlands! We drew New Zealand, a notorious country of sheep-shaggers, and they hit the crossbar on a penalty! Now we have a round-of-16 date with Switzerland, which, says the narrative, is surely to God going to be a difficult test for our underachieving women.

Before the tournament everyone worth listening to agreed Canada should win its group. We did so, though not in the style we hoped for. Everyone also knew that this group was as deep, top-to-bottom, as any. New Zealand was not at all bad. They looked good, played attractive soccer, threatened Canada and China, and with a TSR of 0.545 and an average of 46.67% possession had the second-best numbers of any eliminated team and the most impressive in context. Finishing fourth was very hard cheese indeed for the Kiwis: put them in groups B, C, E, or F and odds are they’re in the round of 16. So when we say “Canada’s scored fewer goals than…” we, to an extent, complain that the good New Zealanders were our fourth-place team. No Ecuador, no Thailand, no Costa Rica (yes, they really were that bad), no Mexico for us to beat up. We also conceded only a single goal against three teams that we know, from their qualifying results, are able to finish chances against truly lousy opposition. The results, while far from brilliant, were fine: it turns out there really is no bad way to win your group undefeated.

2015 WWC Group Stage TSRs
Team Group Pts TSR PDO
Germany B 7 0.902 116.59
France F 6 0.875 90.00
Brazil E 9 0.712 126.67
Cameroon C 6 0.701 109.52
Spain E 1 0.667 53.33
Canada A 5 0.606 99.05
Switzerland C 3 0.598 107.94
United States D 7 0.585 116.07
New Zealand A 2 0.545 100.00
China A 4 0.532 90.37
Japan C 9 0.520 118.27
Australia D 4 0.500 95.24
Nigeria D 1 0.493 92.50
Norway B 7 0.474 127.57
England F 6 0.453 100.45
Sweden D 3 0.422 110.00
South Korea E 4 0.419 77.78
Ivory Coast B 0 0.411 67.14
Mexico F 1 0.380 75.16
Netherlands A 4 0.357 108.18
Colombia F 4 0.333 143.59
Costa Rica E 2 0.236 143.33
Thailand B 3 0.179 105.24
Ecuador C 0 0.169 68.10
All statistics from FIFA.com
Italics indicate an eliminated team

So were our results just luck? We were second in the group for shots directed (one behind China) and second in shots directed against (one behind New Zealand). Our TSR, 0.606, led the group by a healthy margin and is a completely respectable sixth in the tournament. Drawing broad conclusions from three games is intensely dangerous, but look at the list of group stage TSRs to the right: account for group strength, especially the truly useless minnows like Thailand and Ecuador, and there are few surprises. Don’t take it as the gospel, of course Spain’s not actually that good and Japan’s not actually that bad, but if you can find misery from that table you’re even more of a pessimist than I.

Small sample size and all that so run the “eye test” if you like, but run it in context. Yes, we got a stoppage time penalty against China, but it was absolutely deserved and we’d knocked on the door several times in the game. New Zealand hit the woodwork against us; we hit the woodwork against them twice. The Dutch came back against us after Canada’s best surviving midfielder, Sophie Schmidt, had to come out due to injury. Both teams generated chances and a draw was a just result. Canada’s generated chances but hasn’t managed to put them home despite being without Diana Matheson, probably our best player. Our defense has been quite good even as we’ve moved a forward to right back and Lauren Sesselmann has struggled mightily. Jessie Fleming’s had some good minutes, Ashley Lawrence has been an X-factor incarnate, and Kadeisha Buchanan has been Canada’s all-but-undisputed player of the tournament to date, so we aren’t relying on the same crowd of veterans. Finally, the crowds, even in frequently-neutral Montreal, have been solidly pro-Canadian: there’s a risk that this will change as we move into the later rounds, but despite dark rumours of Chinese and Dutch supporters getting well-organized chanting sections at heavy discounts we’ve enjoyed that still-too-rare phenomenon of Canadian soccer crowds rooting, by and large, for Canada.

You may well say “ah, but none of this points to Canada being world-class” and you’ll be right. Germany and France absolutely brutalized their groups. Brazil enjoyed playing against an abominable Costa Rican team and the fast-decomposing South Koreans but may still be unpleasantly close to recapturing their prime. Even the Americans, despite looking like a washed-up batch of reprobates occasionally taking breaks from infighting to whine about playing on the same surfaces as their opponents, have got the job done well enough with only a little help from the referees and at some point we have to say that’s a built-in American advantage, not “luck.” Canada, based on its group performances, is probably not going to win the World Cup. But nobody expected them to, nobody in their right mind at least.

Are our programs still inadequate, our women’s club teams all-but-non-existent to even a high amateur level, our youth development troublesome? Of course, none of that has changed, go ahead and ride whatever your hobby horse is. Yet a handful of under-20 players are having nice games on women’s soccer’s biggest stage as we speak. Given that we were stone dead last in the 2011 Women’s World Cup and barely crawled out of the group stage at the 2012 Summer Olympics, a little credit is called for.

Big Red is playing pretty well. They aren’t making the French shake in their boots, but it’s been a show for the home fans. Smile, cheer, and enjoy the ride for as long as it shall last. I think there are still a couple games left.

That Highly Comprensive Canada – China Review, in Full

By Benjamin Massey · June 6th, 2015 · No comments

I just watched Christine Sinclair score a stoppage time penalty to win a World Cup game in Canada.

That is literally a dream come true.

Fourth Place

By Benjamin Massey · June 5th, 2015 · 1 comment

holyschmidt-webBack in December I had quite a bit of Irish coffee and decided, having watched the Women’s World Cup draw, that Canada was likely to finish fourth in the tournament. Now it’s a day before kickoff and that’s no time to get wishy-washy.

That’s right. Fourth place for Canada at home in 2015, tying our best-ever finish and only four years after coming dead last in Germany 2011.

Back at Christmas this prediction came off as crass optimism, but fortune favours the bold. Gregor Young, no pie-in-the-sky optimist but a genuine expert, also predicted Canada would probably reach the semifinal. The statistics nerds at 538 have Canada as the fourth-most likely team to reach a semifinal. The consensus is that Canada will win their group, and from there we have as clear a run to the semi as you’re ever going to get at a senior World Cup. The possibility of a medal beckons.

To an extent this is a reflection of confidence in Canada’s form. While obviously not on the level of Germany, France, or Japan, Canada has done well hanging around with the second-tier countries and maybe even solidified their position. Both Koreas and Brazil are backsliding, England is improving but Canada just ran them off the pitch in a friendly, and while teams are moving up to that level nobody has moved from the second tier to the first since Japan half a decade ago. I say, without hesitation, that this team is better than the one that went into the 2012 Summer Olympics, and yes that team had a lot of luck on their side, but the bronze medal game was the only time they won a match they deserved to lose.

Consider Canada’s group opponents. The much-ballyhooed loss of Chinese top scorer Yang Li is overrated: Li was a non-entity on the world stage until she started pumping four-goal games past ultraminnows at the Asian Cup. They also remain something of a mystery, and one such team always springs a surprise in a women’s tournament. But they’ve had a very rough 2015, including an Algarve Cup that saw them lose to Portugal for God’s sake and finish dead last. Their team is mostly young and inexperienced at the top level. They’re four years away. Dangerous, but Canada should beat them.

The Dutch, in their first World Cup, have gotten much hype, particularly for 18-year-old ace forward Vivianne Miedema. Certainly they have made big strides and they are widely pegged as a tournament darkhorse. But UEFA can flatter to deceive: the panoply of groups and an overwhelming number of countries not taking women’s soccer seriously mean that a team like the Netherlands can stroll through qualifying without playing anybody serious. The Dutch did a good job against Italy but the Italians have lost relevance on the women’s side. Don’t get me wrong, you can’t look past the Netherlands, they have a very well-balanced attack, but they too are awaiting their prime years and I can’t make them favourites to beat Canada yet.

That leaves New Zealand, John Herdman’s old employer. Another team moving up in the women’s game, but they had a long-ass way to move. Their qualifying consists of showing up. In pre-tournament preparation they’ve been hosed by the Americans, drawn nobody above the level of North Korea, and beat Denmark. They gained respect for losing to Japan without too much dishonour but hell, we’ve done that. Too good not to take seriously but no, I’m not losing any sleep over the kiwis. This group could go to anyone but you must say, home field advantage and all, Canada really ought to win it.

If Canada does so, they face the easiest draw out of anybody in the knockout stages. The travel will be easy; we’ll never have to leave western Canada. It’ll be hard for our opponents, who fly all over this huge-ass goddamned country. Finish first, and we start with a round-of-16 match in Vancouver (before an insane BC Place crowd) against a third-place team from groups C, D, or E. The best team likely to come out of that is Australia, who Canada really should leave for dead. That leaves the quarterfinal, still in Vancouver, against the winner of the second-place team in group F and the second-place team in group B: barring upsets, this is most likely England and we know what Canada can do against them. Obviously there’s a possibility that Camille Abily slips on a banana peel in a group game and we instead face eleven furious Frenchwomen firing a fusillade at Erin McLeod for ninety horrifying minutes, but England is the most likely.

In the semifinal real teams start to show up, and we probably get Japan. Again Canada has the travel advantage, needing a short flight to Edmonton, but this is Japan so we probably lose that one. The other semifinal teams are likely to be Germany and the United States, so we face the Americans in a third-place game and I really want to say Canada will win that, but we probably won’t. Fourth place. Done.

That said, if we spring just one upset… but no, no, I refuse to look so far ahead.

There is a strange meta-narrative about this tournament, where we who pay attention to the women’s team seem to expect that casual fans expect Canada to win the whole thing. I haven’t seen such vulgar ignorance on display. Talking to random non-soccer-people around town, I’ve yet to hear a sentence more optimistic than “we’re pretty good at women’s soccer, aren’t we?” I’ve said “fourth place” a number of times and people have been pleasantly surprised. The real mass narratives have been things like “these are very nice women who work very hard” and “Christine Sinclair is amazing”; puffery, but it has the merit of being true. We may not be the most soccer-literate but we aren’t dummies, we know we were both unlucky and very lucky indeed to win that bronze in 2012, we know that Sinclair turns 32 during the World Cup and has faced soccer’s toughest sledding for almost fifteen years, we know, in short, about where we belong. So if Canada does go down in a semifinal, even if they go down pretty hard, I expect a lot of good support for an attempt to win bronze. Bronze has done well by us.

Candace Chapman Officially Retires

By Benjamin Massey · May 29th, 2015 · No comments

 

So farewell then, Candace Chapman. Probably the best defender the Canadian women’s program ever had, Chapman’s retirement was officially announced in a press release today by the Canadian Soccer Association. In truth she’s been off the field for some time, not being heard of as a player since the Washington Spirit waived her at the beginning of 2014. Her most recent work has been as a coach for the Washington, D.C.-area Arlington Soccer Association, as well as helping the CSA for recent youth training camps. However, this announcement will allow one of Canada’s best players to be honoured in today’s national team friendly in Hamilton, only an hour and a half from her adoptive hometown of Ajax, Ontario.

Freestyle/Canadian Soccer Association

Freestyle/Canadian Soccer Association

Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, the Chapman family emigrated to Ajax when Candace was six years old. Her’s was a soccer family and it wasn’t long before Candace began to star with Ajax United where her father, Gerard, was an assistant coach. Chapman was a perennial leading scorer for Ajax and led them to the girls U-16 Ontario Cup title in 1998. Soon she was nosing her way into our international youth teams. Chapman’s first appearances for her adoptive country came in Len Vickery’s May 2000 U-17 camp, alongside Erin McLeod, Clare Rustad, and Sasha Andrews. Many more were to follow.

Starting in 2001 Chapman attended the University of Notre Dame, and it was that year that she really started to rise up the Canadian ranks. She was very much an all-rounder, and 2001 included the slim consolation of scoring Canada’s only goal in an 11-1 loss to the United States. Chapman won her first senior international cap at the 2002 Algarve Cup and, aged only 18 years old, started all four matches of one of the world’s most prestigious women’s soccer tournaments, lining up for the first time with Burnaby teenager and national team wünderkind Christine Sinclair.

Chapman had five senior starts when she hit the grass at Commonwealth Stadium for the 2002 FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship. Under head coach Ian Bridge Chapman was a key player, handling multiple roles and was, as would become her trademark, playing every second of the tournament. Her finest match was the semi-final against Brazil; she held down a strong Brazilian attack that included Marta and Cristiane, destroyed Brazilian skipper and long-time international star Daniela with a thunderous bodycheck, traumatized a talented Brazilian midfield through regular and extra time, took the first Canadian penalty, and was stopped only because goalkeeper Giselle was three strides off her line. But she earned plaudits for her performance against the United States as well, helping to blank an extremely strong American team for agonizingly close to two hours. While Sinclair, McLeod, and Kara Lang were the headline-makers of the Canadian team, Chapman belonged up there with anybody: seldom seen on highlight reels, but without her the marvelous Canadian run would have been impossible. She faced an variety of responsibilities unmatched by the other, more one-dimensional Canadian players and mastered them.

(more…)

Returning to Pain Like Moths to a Flame

By Benjamin Massey · May 21st, 2015 · No comments

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

The Voyageurs Cup is the worst tournament in the world. Every year I and thousands like me end it with spears through our hearts, mouths agape like male salmon, eyes shot red with gin and hate, staring up at the ceiling wondering where it’s all gone wrong and knowing that each fœtid whiff of miasma from our decomposing soul is our own responsibility, for being stupid enough to get caught up in this game.

For thirteen years this competition has been an unrelieved parade of misery. First you are dumped straight into a tunnel full of sewage. You climb, headlong, through the filth, grasping vainly towards the light, and when you finally flop out, reeking of damnation, you discover that light was the portal to Hell and the next eternity will be a perfect specimen of agony, suitable for the Canadian soccer fan who has endured everything the mortal world can throw at him. There is no joy, no respite, and any alleged bright spot is merely an apertif to make the torture go down less smoothly.

Take last night’s semi-final between FC Edmonton and the Vancouver Whitecaps. The superior Whitecaps played a solid B+ team and took the early lead on a (deserved) penalty. But Edmonton raged, raged. Chances were missed. Hanson Boakai squared off against Russell Teibert in the battle of Canadian soccer saviours. Frank Jonke, the über-goat, a man booed by his own supporters, came on in the last minutes and made himself a hero, hip-checking Darren Mattocks into the North Saskatchewan and drawing a penalty from Kendall Waston. Tomi Ameobi buried the spot kick and became the all-time leading scorer in Canadian Championship history, thrilling maybe the best crowd FC Edmonton had ever drawn to Clarke Field. Heroism! Glory! Extra time! Bonus soccer in a tie that completely deserved it! What could be finer?

Then, in the seventh minute of stoppage time, Matt Van Oekel, who has already cost FC Edmonton multiple games with his howlers, who had given away a penalty in the first ten minutes, conceded a goal five-hole to Matias Laba, a man who had scored once in six years of professional soccer. Hello darkness my old friend…

Whitecaps fans are happy. The better team won, though it was close. Both teams flopped all over the pitch and wasted time when it was to their advantage so there is no moral high ground. The refereeing was fair; Vancouver supporters were outraged at the seven minutes of stoppage time given in the second leg until it went in their favour, and while the decisive free kick was a dodgy call against Eddie Edward, it wasn’t as bad as all that and the real responsibility falls on the Eddies for conceding when they needn’t have.

You might think that Vancouver’s faithful will, therefore, be happy about the Voyageurs Cup, disproving my thesis that it is non-stop anguish, like watching a child die every single year for a decade and a half. Not so. In August the Vancouver Whitecaps will play the Montreal Impact in the final. The Impact are the Voyageurs Cup equivalent of that bad guy who just won’t die no matter how many times you frantically pump shotgun rounds into the spasming ruin that was once his body. There is nothing that is beyond them in this tournament. By August the Whitecaps will be the acme of MLS fixture congestion and the Impact will be eliminated from the playoff race: I predict that the Whitecaps will dominate Montreal to a greater degree than they did Edmonton, and lose, because welcome to the Voyageurs Cup sunshine.

Of course these endless nightmares made flesh do not reach Montreal or even Toronto. Kurt Larson was quite right to scoff at the Canadian Championship in the Sun a couple weeks ago, because he is a Torontonian so cannot understand its true purpose. For most of us it’s not about qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League, or crowning a professional champion of Canada. It’s about us fans being kicked incredibly hard in sensitive areas, until we’re curled up and coughing blood and limping back to the pubs and stadiums next year for another thrashing, another chance to discover how low we can go, what fresh glaze of despair the soccer gods will put on the dry, crumbling cake that is Canadian soccer.

This year, for example, FC Edmonton fans will be thinking “if we put in this effort, and got this calibre of refereeing, we would have gone to the final in 2013 or 2014. Even this year, if we hadn’t inexplicably used some Chesapeake cretin as our starting goalkeeper and ran out Toronto’s John Smits instead, it at least would have gone to penalties. Instead Colin Miller made the worst possible choice and ran smack into the worst possible opposition, right when the stars seemed finally to have aligned.” That’s a very fæcal cupcake for a second division supporter to swallow, his team ignored by the national media for another twelve months and the thousands of part-time fans who showed up at that game thinking “fun, but the Eddies lost again!” Not much hope of positives from that valiant defeat, unless you count Van Oekel grabbing his false passport and fleeing to Argentina.

Readers of this site will be experts in torturing themselves. A surprising proportion supports the Edmonton Oilers, possibly the most consistently disappointing collection of athletes in world history. Most cheer on the Canadian men’s national team, whose last triumph came in the year 2000. Many are fans of Toronto FC, whose incompetence need not be described. Yet these teams are just terrible. Except for rare nadirs that remain in a fan like Thor’s hammer gouged out a piece of his heart, Toronto and Canada and the Oilers just lose, a lot, to everybody. There’s nothing like the feeling of someone punching you in the stomach, tearing out your heart, and openly relishing the sound of your screams as he squeezes the life out of you, every single damned year. That’s the Voyageurs Cup. Oh God, why will we all be back for 2016?

But we have one-goal leads to keep, / And miles to go before we sleep.

By Benjamin Massey · May 14th, 2015 · No comments

Bob Frid/Vancouver Whitecaps via FC Edmonton

Once again, FC Edmonton has stunned an MLS club. We should be used to this by now.

Oh, not because they’re some elite NASL side capable of hanging with anybody. Edmonton just visited the league’s best team, the New York Cosmos, and got killed. Hanging around the bottom of the table is where they belong. But yesterday the Whitecaps trotted out the bench guys, scrubs, players who could do with some match practice. This was a blunder. Ritchie Jones harried Gershon Koffie into making the careless mistake typical of players who haven’t seen a midfielder sprinting at them with murder in his eyes for a while. Tomi Ameobi converted, since he always does. It was no fluke, for the Eddies spent the next twenty minutes giving the Whitecaps an R-rated beating. They could have been 2-0 up before goalkeeper Matt VanOekel had even touched the ball. How people still believe an MLS press box is automatically superior to NASL starters, I honestly have no idea.

After that twenty minutes of dominance Edmonton sat back, absorbed pressure, pounded clearances into False Creek, tried to score on the counter. Some Whitecaps fans flatter themselves that this was a response to their superior skill. But welcome to Colin Miller route-one soccer: Mallan Roberts or Kareem Moses or whomever slamming his foot through the ball and regrouping for the next attack, the enemy coming in waves like a Japanese division on the Solomon Islands, and somehow hardly conceding any shots from within eighteen yards. He does the same thing against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and it works, more-or-less. MLS fans haven’t yet compared Edmonton to Marc dos Santos’s Ottawa Fury, who play the ball out of the back, and attack down the flanks, and show individual skill, and lose.

Were I a dime-a-word shitposter for The Daily Beast I’d whine about negative tactics but that game was terrific fun. Say what you like about Erik Hurtado, preferably peppered with obscenities and anatomical impossibilities, but he does make a game interesting, running past guys and blazing shots wide of the mark like a sniper with Parkinson’s; between him and Johann Smith both teams had players who were caricatures of lower-division mediocrity. It is only a matter of time before Hurtado realizes his destiny playing wide right for the Carolina Railhawks. Sam Adekugbe looked good before his worrying injury, and in relief Jordan Harvey looked very good, which is hard for me to say. Tim Parker may already be the best MLS ginger since Richard Eckersley and he stunned Lance Laing, no slowpoke himself, with a second-half turn of pace and a lovely shoulder-check to force a goal kick. I like Tim Parker. NCAA Americans forever. But it wasn’t good enough. The Eddies had been run ragged by travel and the soccer gods, Daryl Fordyce looked bagged in the first half, several others were almost falling down in the second, and Vancouver couldn’t take the win.

The Whitecaps will never get a better opportunity against Edmonton than the one they just squandered. They are maybe the best team in Major League Soccer and even their weakened lineup held a thousand advantages. Home field, an energetic crowd, and an Eddies squad that had never gotten so much as a point off the Whitecaps in any match, friendly or Cup. Vancouver had just destroyed the Philadelphia Union, at home. The Eddies had just been destroyed by the Cosmos, away, then flown across the continent in economy class to bounce their ragged-ass knees off a chewed-up artificial surface that’s weeks away from replacement. Edmonton is a horrible road team. They were humiliated by the expansion Jacksonville Armada, should have lost to the Carolina Railhawks, beat the Ottawa Fury by the direct intervention of the soccer gods after being hopelessly outchanced, and that Cosmos match was nowhere near as close as a 4-2 scoreline made it look. Their defense, already the weakest part of the team, was missing its best player in skipper Albert Watson. How in God’s name did Edmonton not only hold on for a draw but earn it?

Colin Miller’s an old-school manager, higher on aerobics than ability, and people hate that. But another team would have folded in those conditions and today he looks very clever. So does VanOekel, the much-criticized goalkeeper who made easy saves look difficult but still had a good game. Johann Smith is the worst soccer player of all time, but with Watson and rookie fullback Allan Zebie both injured Miller didn’t have many options. Maybe a piece of wood with a frowny face drawn on it, and even that could have been an upgrade, for Smith was culpable not only on the goal against but many of Vancouver’s best looks.

Now, the Eddies have a home match against the San Antonio Scorpions, who are not very good. Watson will probably be ready to play for Edmonton Wednesday, which means no Smith. Miller might well rest a few of his troops against the Scorpions and they’re so mediocre he might get away with it. Players like Sadi Jalali, Hanson Boakai, and Tomas Granitto could use some minutes, allowing Tomi Ameobi, Lance Laing, and Cristian Raudales to kick back on the bench, sip mai-tais, and rest up. Vancouver’s best players must deal with a Cascadia Cup derby against Seattle filled with blood, sweat, and tears. They also have to look forward to a trip to Colorado, neither talented nor a rival but apparently still more important than the Voyageurs Cup. I can’t imagine Edmonton holding onto a 0-0 draw and making that away goal count, but if their best players are at their best next week they can outscore the half-strength Whitecaps.

Even now, even having watched their bench guys failing to overwhelm a depleted team that spent an hour looking like it might throw up, Whitecaps fans by and large want their club to focus on the league and send the second-stringers, maybe augmented by a Russell Teibert or two, to Clarke Stadium. It is hard to imagine Carl Robinson disagreeing. On the radio he says the Voyageurs Cup is important, but then he treats it like a practice for the U-12 West False Creek “B” Final. I don’t get the impression he’ll be really bothered if the Whitecaps lose: with the CONCACAF Champions League and a playoff push he’ll have enough games to play. The fact is that Whitecaps fans will judge Robinson on whether he wins in MLS, but Eddies fans will give Miller big points just for getting to the Voyageurs Cup final. That will explain a lot.

Lucky Results and Lucky Lineups for FC Edmonton

By Benjamin Massey · April 30th, 2015 · 1 comment

Trident Photography/FC Edmonton

Trident Photography/FC Edmonton

Okay, Ottawa Fury friends, let’s level with each other. That refereeing was a sin. Verily it is written that Drew Fischer giveth and Drew Fischer taketh away. Certainly one of those two first-half incidents on Wednesday should have been a penalty; neither was clear-cut but if you deny a team a 50-50 call you should probably give them the next one. Unfortunately I suspect that Fischer, who ruined last year’s Voyageurs Cup by handing the Montreal Impact an undeserved victory, was thinking too hard about his screwup and overcompensated in the Eddies’ favour, which is why you shouldn’t put lesser referees in that position. Your coach chilling in the press box giving Steven Sandor and Gareth Hampshire pronunciation tips didn’t help, not that Marc dos Santos has ever been much of a winner in this tournament.

The NASL scheduling gods had already screwed you, the Eddies enjoying a pleasant weekend at the spa or whatever the heck they do on off days while you got clawed in the eyes by Fort Lauderdale. Moreover, the Fury punished Edmonton for about 70 minutes of the first leg and weren’t far inferior in the second; a neutral commentator would say you guys deserved better than a record-tying 6-2 aggregate loss.

So by all means, Fury faithful, feel free to be angry and leave hateful, profanity-flecked comments. Make a huge banner showing Drew Fischer with a white stick and a bewildered impression. Write a half-drunken 1,000-word blog post saying the Canadian Soccer Association wanted the Eddies to go through because they love oil.

In exchange, grant me that the result, if not the score, was basically just. Edmonton won two penalties this series, deserved both, and missed one. The score in the second leg would have been far more one-sided but for Romuald Peiser, who went full 2009 Jay Nolly in a losing cause. Matt Van Oekel, on the other hand, was relatively unchallenged (though he had no chance when he was beaten). While Ottawa maybe got more chances than Edmonton, when Edmonton had a chance it was full-bore odd-man-rush-from-45-yards-out five-alarm stuff. In the second half, needing four goals for victory, the Fury barely gave themselves a prayer of one. The Eddies defense is not strong, we saw it again, but compared to Ottawa oh boy. The better team won, it did, it just did.

As a result the Eddies now face the Vancouver Whitecaps, again. When Edmonton and Vancouver play it feels like incest. The Whitecaps have loaned a whack of guys to Edmonton in the past, Colin Miller is a former Whitecaps assistant coach, up until this year the two pretty much always had a preseason match, and there are a lot of warm, fuzzy feelings between the two organizations when you consider that the Whitecaps hate Canada grr grr hate hate hate. Many of die-hard Whitecaps supporters consider the Eddies are their second-favourite team and while that isn’t always reciprocated there’s not a trace of hostility anywhere. There are even some bigamous, immoral, square-headed fans who sort of cheer for both teams and can only decide which to support by which league hates Canada least at the moment.

Now, I do not believe in the fake Canadian soccer pyramid. One club being in a titular first division and another club being in a titular second, in leagues with no promotion or relegation, has no inherent meaning. Because Canada’s MLS sides have larger player budgets than their NASL teams they will tend to be better but it’s far from law. MLS Toronto FC was the worst professional team in Canada between 2007 and 2009. Since 2011 MLS clubs have been ascendant in the Voyageurs Cup, but against an FC Edmonton that has never been top half in the NASL and has consistently been victimized by disastrous refereeing. Major League Soccer is not a meritocracy, and players who are good enough for MLS can and do find themselves in the NASL or USL for reasons unrelated to ability or attitude. Most of the gap in quality between MLS and the NASL comes in the handful of designated players but these are often pure marketing signings or, especially in Cup play, uninterested underachievers. I mention this not to start an argument, but so you understand my perspective when I pronounce the following sentence:

If the Whitecaps play their first eleven, FC Edmonton is going to have a big problem.

Don’t kid yourself. FC Edmonton is still not a contender in the NASL. Their early performances have flirted around the lower-mid-table, maybe lower. They got destroyed by a Jacksonville Armada team playing its first ever game. They deserved to lose at home to the incredibly mediocre Carolina Railhawks and drew. They pulled off a great comeback for a home win over Fort Lauderdale, but that was their only really nice performance of the season and even then the Strikers outchanced them. The offense is taking their opportunities but not generating enough, the defense misses Neil Hlavaty in midfield more than I think anyone expected. Their goals have come to a disconcerting degree through quick breaks and counter-attacks that often dry up when teams expect them. Edmonton’s not going to embarrass themselves or anything but nor are they going to be good.

The Vancouver Whitecaps, on the other hand, might be honestly solid for the first time since 2008. They’re the Supporters Shield leader, which doesn’t mean much when everyone has games-in-hand on them, but look at some of those results. 2-0 at home to Los Angeles, 1-0 away to Salt Lake, two opponents who have traditionally given Vancouver fits fairly ruthlessly dispatched. Carl Robinson’s crew has stumbled in front of some mediocre teams like Toronto and DC (yes, DC is still mediocre, I’m not buying their shit for a second) but this is MLS, that’s gonna happen. Even that home loss to DC was a good one, Vancouver dominating offensively, doubling up DC’s shots total despite spending 48 minutes with ten men, and falling only due to bad luck and a classic Gantarizing. No, I don’t think the Whitecaps are going to become the first Canadian team to win a Supporters Shield. But they have to be odds-on to host a playoff game.

Albert Watson’s a good defender, but he’s physical, and he grabs guys, and he tries to tackle from behind, and Octavio Rivero is strong and quick enough to deal with that while you know referees will be looking for a reason to call a penalty. They’ve also had trouble with speed, which the Whitecaps possess in Darren Mattocks and Kekuta Manneh. In midfield, Vancouver has the advantage both man-for-man and as a unit. The sole edge Edmonton enjoys is that if they turn a couple quick counters, Pa Modou Kah and Kendall Waston are fairly cement-footed central defenders. Kah is also cement-headed, and while Waston has serious quality asking him to babysit both the size of Tomi Ameobi and the skill of Daryl Fordyce every time Matt Van Oekel pounds a sixty-yard dropkick up to Sainey Nyassi is asking too much. Even David Ousted has more match-stealing potential than any goalkeeper in this tournament. If we see the Whitecaps’ best, Edmonton needs a miracle.

But will we see the Whitecaps’ best? In last year’s Cup Carl Robinson trotted out a B- lineup of beardless youths and Nigel-Reo-Coker-as-a-right-back which still took Toronto FC’s billion-dollar studs to spot kicks. Vancouver’s in an important stretch of games, including two Cascadia Cup derbies, and unless Robinson’s rethought his attitude to the Voyageurs Cup we will probably see the kids again. The Whitecaps might well start more Canadians than Edmonton for the first time ever, which is strange given their undeniable, seething hatred of Canada. Some of those kids are very good, but their presence may still alter the balance of the tie. I like Marco “Please Don’t Play For Chile” Bustos as much as anybody, and Ritchie Jones will need to be on his game to keep Bustos contained, but it’s not quite the same thing as facing primo Pedro Morales. Can Caleb Clarke poach some goals? Absolutely. Is Ben McKendry tough and intelligent in central midfield. No doubt. The problem is that they lack experience and, in many cases, cohesion.

Even if Vancouver plays its reservists, Edmonton won’t have it too easy. The Eddies’ have the worse schedule: while the Whitecaps spend most of May in the Pacific time zone, Edmonton has the Whitecaps home game, then a tough road trip to New York, then straight to Vancouver. The Whitecaps’ young players will be highly motivated. Remember, they outplayed most of Toronto FC’s top lineup across two legs last year, not because they were more skilled but because TFC didn’t meet expectations and the Aldersons, Froeses, and Adekugbes of the Whitecaps were going for the throat. The 2014 Whitecaps benefited from departed professionals in the Carlyle Mitchell and Johnny Leveron mold, but on the other hand the surviving kids have another year’s experience and there’s no Nigel Reo-Coker at right back either.

The Whitecaps have the better chances in this tie. If FC Edmonton wants to win then they’d better hope that Carl Robinson trots out the youngsters again, and they better maintain their killer instinct and intensity for 180 minutes. There can be none of the five-minute switch-offs which the Eddies have loved, particularly early in games. None of the airheaded mistakes that have cost them goals. The defending must be as stifling as in 2014 while the attack must be even more dangerous than it’s been this year. A lot has to go right. It can happen, but the 2015 Whitecaps are not the 2014 Impact.

Complete List of Goalscorers in Voyageurs Cup History

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

Steven Sandor has a Sporcle quiz asking you to guess each of the scorers in the history of the Canadian Championship. Go have a crack; I got a disappointing 30 out of 66.

I mention this because it covers only the 2008-and-later Canadian Championship. The Voyageurs Cup, which dates back to 2002, is still waiting for a census of all its goalscorers. It’s the question nobody was asking. So, for all us trivia nerds, here is the complete list of players to score in the history of the Voyageurs Cup.

This information is accurate as of May 21, 2015.

Note: “clubs” refer only to teams on which the player played a Voyageurs Cup game, and may not be exhaustive.

Abbreviation Club Name Years Active Leading Scorer
Aviators Edmonton Aviators/Edmonton FC 2004 Fraser (3)
CGY Calgary Storm/Mustangs 2002-2004 Smith (3)
FCE FC Edmonton 2011-present Ameobi (5)
Lynx Toronto Lynx 2002-2006 Gerba (8)
MTL Montreal Impact 2002-present Zé Roberto (10)
OTT Ottawa Fury 2014-present Dantas, Minatel, Wiedeman (1)
TFC Toronto FC 2008-present De Rosario (4)
VAN Vancouver Whitecaps 2002-present Camilo, Heald (4)

As of this writing 129 people have scored in the Voyageurs Cup. The names of those 128 come after the jump.

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