So Farewell Then, Bryce Alderson

By Benjamin Massey · November 14th, 2014 · 1 comment

Les Meszaros/Canadian Soccer Association

Les Meszaros/Canadian Soccer Association

While not yet official, John Molinaro at Sportsnet has reported that the Vancouver Whitecaps are about to release midfielder Bryce Alderson[1]. Alderson did not play a single league game with the senior Whitecaps and only two in the Voyageurs Cup despite success in USL PDL, USL Pro, and, recently, a Canadian senior national team call-up[2].

I think Bryce Alderson is an excellent young player, but he’s a defensive midfielder and even I won’t say he’s a better one than Matías Laba. Nor is he necessarily better than Gershon Koffie or Russell Teibert right now, though Alderson is only twenty years old. The Canadian Vancouver has given up on might be younger than the American Vancouver gets in the first round of the next SuperDuperDraft.

You know where I’m going with this but there’s something to consider first: to an extent the Whitecaps and Alderson are being screwed by MLS contract rules. As soon as a player like Alderson signs a Generation Adidas contract the clock is ticking: the youngster is getting a lot of money, off the salary cap, but someday soon the team is going to have to pay for him and work him into their cap structure.

In the latest MLS Players Union list Alderson has a guaranteed compensation of $115,000[3]. Alderson signed young, 17 years old in November 2011[4], and from the instant his pen hit the paper he had to make a very quick impact indeed to prove he was worth all that money when his option came up. Julian de Guzman, to pick a name, spent most of his 20-year-old season as a reserve player on a mediocre 2. Bundesliga team. It’s hard to think he would have stuck around if he’d been an MLS player suddenly representing a six-figure cap hit, and how much poorer would the Canadian national team have been as a result?

If a young player hasn’t become a first team regular by the time that $115,000 hits the salary cap the team has a problem: even if they like him, how are they supposed to keep him? In short, not everything is Vancouver’s fault, and the ideal solution is for homegrown Generation Adidas contracts to hit the salary cap starting at a certain age, rather than after a certain number of seasons. Under the current system, Alderson being a quality player for his age is completely irrelevant.

You might have to take my word for this. I’ve seen a lot of USL PDL matches, I saw Alderson captain the Whitecaps USSDA U-18 team, I even watched webstreams of some of his Charleston Battery games before he got hurt. He was getting the job done, typically against players bigger and older than him. He captained the Whitecaps U-18s and the Canadian U-17s. Sure, he’s one-footed, he isn’t a dazzling offensive player, but he’s hard to knock off the ball, he’s calm and confident winning it, he’s a good passer, he is, in short, a good young defensive midfielder. In his two (two!!!!!) games for the Whitecaps first team over three seasons, he held a certain Michael Bradley down very well in the Voyageurs Cup. I’m not sure what else he was supposed to do. Wax Martin Rennie’s car? Hit Laba and Koffie in the knee with a tire iron?

Isn’t it funny how there’s always an excuse, always some foreign player to bump Canadians out of the lineup? We couldn’t play Alderson in 2012 because John Thorrington was too valuable to lose in the playoff race. We couldn’t play Alderson in 2013 because what would the Whitecaps have done without Jun Marques Davidson or Matt Watson? Just like how Jordan Harvey and Ethan Sampson keep Sam Adekugbe out of the eleven, and Russell Teibert gets kicked to the bench as soon as Gershon Koffie is healthy. Etc. etc. ad nauseum, we’ve seen the same thing every year since Teitur Thordarson got fired. It’s gotten beyond “coincidence”.

No, of course this isn’t some “Whitecaps hate Canada!” conspiracy, but if the Whitecaps wanted to give Canadian kids a chance they had plenty of opportunities to do so. It wasn’t a priority. Promising players lost prime development years because the Whitecaps thought it was more important to bring in some fractionally better foreigner than to play the kid and invest in the future. And look at the rewards that policy has brought: two blink-and-you’ll-miss-them playoff appearances and no Voyageurs Cups. This isn’t the old “Whitecaps hate Canada” gag, and I suspect a healthy proportion of since-2011 Whitecaps fans support this. But it’s clearly happening. You look at those team sheets and you tell me.

Even the Laba signing, which was maybe the best single piece of business the Whitecaps have done as an MLS franchise, shows this attitude. To compete immediately the Whitecaps needed high-end reinforcements to several positions at the start of 2014: a forward, an attacking midfielder, a couple defenders. Knowing that Kenny Miller would leave, and that Caleb Clarke has European aspirations, Vancouver could wisely have chased a DP forward without blocking any Canadians. A top DP centre back would also have been a bold, but justifiable, move, with the star helping apprentice young Jackson Farmer until he’s ready for MLS minutes. Instead Vancouver spent heavily on Laba, an obstacle to both Alderson and Russell Teibert. Teibert also lost potential attacking midfield minutes, still where I think he’s best, to Pedro Morales and Nico Mezquida. Look at where Vancouver is allocating their resources. Look at their priorities.

Possibly the Whitecaps get these great 18-year-old players who do well against the world’s best in their age group but suddenly turn to crap when they sign MLS contracts. In this case the technical staff should not merely be sacked but set on fire. From my viewing, though, the only things Alderson was missing was his health and a chance. FC Edmonton and especially the Ottawa Fury would be well-advised to call him.

Also on his way out is Omar Salgado, another youngster coming off his Generation Adidas contract. You might remember Salgado: big, tall, trouble at practice. Though he was almost continuously injured and seldom delivered when healthy, Salgado played 1,100 MLS minutes over four seasons in Vancouver[5]. It’s strange, isn’t it, that Salgado got several opportunities despite being older and having less success than Alderson against adults? But, of course, Salgado was a high-profile United States U-20 international and a first overall draft pick. Alderson was just some guy from Kitchener the team signed. As a Whitecap Salgado did nothing to deserve more of a shot than Alderson, yet the American played and the Canadian didn’t. Isn’t that weird?!

EDIT, 14:50 PST: Alderson has officially been released[6].

(notes and comments…)

Hugh Cairns VC DCM

By Benjamin Massey · November 11th, 2014 · 3 comments

Hugh Cairns was a typical Canadian soccer player of the early twentieth century, in that he was English. Born December 4, 1896 in Ashington, a Northumbrian town fifteen miles north of Newcastle[1], he was the son of George H. Cairns and Elizabeth Dotes Cairns and the third child of eleven[2]. Hugh grew up in England, but in 1911 the large Cairns family emigrated to Saskatchewan[3], setting up shop in the rapidly growing town of Saskatoon.

The Cairns family appears to have been a completely ordinary example of the thousands then settling in the newly-opened Canadian prairies. Saskatoon was no frontier: it had been linked to eastern Canada by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway since 1907. But it was still a boom town bursting at the seams, going from 113 souls in 1901 to “near 28,000″ in 1912[4]. By Hugh Cairns’s day Saskatoon boasted a university, several churches, and a thriving local sports scene. Immigrants from across Europe and even further afield followed the steel lines of the Grand Trunk Pacific, the Canadian Pacific, and the Canadian Northern railways, swelling the ranks of formerly minor outposts like Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Gastown. The Cairns were but a cup of water in the tidal wave.

Surviving photos suggest Hugh Cairns was a handsome young man in the classic mold of the early West: not tall (5’6″) but stocky, broad across the shoulder, with a strong jaw and a plain, unbeguiling expression. A common look on many young prairie Canadians of the era, where even the softest job required a certain amount of guts and self-reliance. Cairns was a plumber, getting his start in the trade after a few years apprenticing. Very much a man of the urban boom, but also someone used to working with his hands, and probably working very hard in a fast-growing city.

Cairns immediately found prominent role of Saskatoon soccer. An Anglican, Cairns was a member of the Christ Church Intermediate Boys team in his teenage years, winning a championship. Church teams were a big part of Saskatoon soccer in those early days, as indeed they were across much of the prairies: while in the established areas like Ontario and southern Vancouver Island clubs like Galt F.C. and Victoria United were already becoming well-known, in more recently-settled areas the church often remained a catch-all social hub.

In 1912 a Saskatchewan soccer team toured England. Cairns would have been only fifteen years old, but it’s been suggested he represented his new home in his old one; certainly despite his youth he was a strong local player. In the last year before his enlistment Cairns won the Saskatoon league with the St. Thomas Church team, apparently playing a major role[5]. Not a bad soccer career, for a teenage Canadian on the prairies in 1915, but the Great War was to end it as it ended so much else.

Hugh Cairns enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the fall of 1915. At least two of his brothers, Albert and Henry, also signed up; Albert and Hugh signed their attestation papers the same day and were assigned to the same battalions, first the 65th and then the 46th. Henry survived the war but Albert died September 10, 1918 from wounds suffered taking the Drocourt-Quéant Line[6].

Arriving in France in August 1916, Cairns missed the bloodiest weeks of the Battle of the Somme but still would have seen some of the infamous offensive. Over the course of the war Cairns distinguished himself, becoming a sergeant and winning the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his part at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. In that most famous of Canadian battles, Cairns took the initiative to recover a pair of lost guns and attacked the enemy with them[7], a good example of the independent thinking which made the Vimy victory possible. The DCM was the non-officer’s equivalent of the Distinguished Service Order, the second-highest award for gallantry in the British Empire behind the Victoria Cross. Cairns was also wounded in the battle, but recovered in time to participate in the campaigns of 1918.

The risk of burnout for an active soldier was then not always understood but has been discussed at length in the years since. Both memoirs and fiction have made us familiar with the highly experienced soldier who starts to lose his self-control. In his first months a soldier on the front line is a danger to himself and those around him, lacking the experience to be much good. If the soldier survived he became more knowledgeable, able to survive, skilled in hitting back. But if he spent too long in action then he grew jaded, unable to cope with the constant tax on his mental resources, prone to fall apart or to take stupid, unnecessary risks. Even the strongest has only so much strength, and each barrage, each battle, each poking of the head over the parapet, drained a little more from that limited account.

By the end of his life Hugh Cairns had been at the front for over two years, with some leave and “rest” periods that amounted to performing still-onerous jobs often within shell range. His brother Albert, with whom he had been especially close, had died two months earlier, and some sources suggest Hugh was fixated on paying the Germans back. If so he took his chance on November 1, 1918.

Cairns was leading No. 3. Platoon of “A” Company, 46th Battalion (South Saskatchewan) in the drive to take Valenciennes, a town near the Belgian border occupied by the Germans in 1914. This portion of 1918 is often called “Canada’s Hundred Days”; the Canadian Corps, under the command of General Arthur Currie, was in the van of the British assault through northern France into Belgium.

The 46th had earned the unenviable nickname of the “Suicide Battalion” due to its prodigious casualty rate, but it had also earned an armful of battle honours; the battalion, and Cairns, had fought in every major British Empire campaign on the western front since its arrival in 1916[8]. It was among the units engaged on November 1, in the front line of the assault on Valenciennes.

Cairns’s Victoria Cross citation in the London Gazette reads[9]:

No. 472168 Serjt. Hugh Cairns, D.C.M., late 46th Bn., Saskatchewan R.

For most conspicuous bravery before Valenciennes on 1st November, 1918, when a machine gun opened on his platoon. Without a moment’s hesitation Serjt. Cairns seized a Lewis gun and single-handed, in the face of direct fire, rushed the post, killed the crew of five, and captured the gun. Later, when the line was held up by machine-gun fire, he again rushed forward, killing 12 enemy and capturing 18 and two guns.

Subsequently, when the advance was held up by machine guns and field guns, although wounded, he led a small party to outflank them, killing many, forcing about 50 to surrender, and capturing all the guns.

After consolidation he went with a battle patrol to exploit Marly and forced 60 enemy to surrender. Whilst disarming this party he was severely wounded. Nevertheless, he opened fire and inflicted heavy losses. Finally he was rushed by about 20 enemy and collapsed from weakness and loss of blood.

Throughout the operation he showed the highest degree of valour, and his leadership greatly contributed to the success of the attack. He died on the 2nd November from wounds.

The Lewis light machine gun with which Cairns “rushed” the German machine gun posts weighed nearly thirty pounds without its ammunition drum; somewhat less if like many soldiers Cairns discarded the cooling jacket. With that would have come spare ammunition plus up to seventy pounds in standard infantry equipment. Making any speed whatsoever over broken terrain while firing under such a load is inconceivable. Such a “rush” into the jaws of the enemy guns would have been no split-second burst but a deliberate half-plod, half-jog straight down the most dangerous line on a battlefield.

“A” Company was split in several different directions, sections flying off here and there to shore up positions of weakness, the company commander working hard just to stay in touch with the attack. Years of trench-saturated stalemate had given way, in the past six months, to a sudden sharp war of movement, old tactics had been replaced with new, and the veteran soldiers were called upon to do far more than “walk forward, take that trench”. Cairns was given responsibility for several important jobs, including flanking a problematic German gun emplacement, and pulled them all off. Cairns, a sergeant, would not normally be leading a platoon at all: the “Suicide Battalion” had taken its toll out of the officers.

According to the report of his company commander, Captain R. W. Gyles, Cairns and Lieutenant J. P. G. MacLeod of “C” Company 46th encountered a large group of Germans in one corner of a field. Depending on who you believe, MacLeod and Cairns were either alone or had two others with them. MacLeod had an officer’s pistol, Cairns his Lewis gun. Cairns had already been wounded fighting other, large groups of Germans, as the main mass of the attack had pushed past and left the Germans cut off from their army. Cairns and MacLeod may have been outnumbered twenty-five to one, but they had also spent the morning fighting a winning battle.

MacLeod ordered the Germans to surrender. Most raised their hands; one German raised his rifle. MacLeod covered the German with his pistol. A German officer made to have his fellow put the rifle down. Simultaneously, he drew his own pistol and shot Cairns through the chest.

Consider the thinking of that officer. In spite of the propaganda of a later Reich German soldiers at the front were under no illusions: their country was two weeks from surrendering and the troops knew how near the end was. Two days later German sailors at Kiel would mutiny rather than make a seemingly-pointless sacrifice, beginning the Revolutions of 1918-19. Yet rather than go into captivity this officer chose to risk his life, and the lives of his men, on slim odds. We will never know his name, let alone what his war was like.

The would-be capture degenerated into a point-blank gun battle with machine guns on both sides, MacLeod and Cairns standing their ground. Cairns was hit several more times, passed out from his wounds, and was dragged to safety by MacLeod[10]. Trying to get Cairns to a casualty clearing station, the stretcher-bearers came under fire and Cairns was hit again before he could finally be brought to medical attention. Both Cairns and MacLeod were recommended for the VC; MacLeod settled for the Distinguished Service Order but Cairns got the Cross, posthumously. He died the next day, nine days before the Armistice that ended the First World War, and is buried at Auberchicourt British Cemetery.

In 1936 a street in Valenciennes was named after Cairns, with his parents coming from Quebec for the dedication; the Daily Herald called it the first known case of a French street being named in honour of a non-commissioned officer[11]. Other honours include a plaque in the same town, a posthumous Legion of Honour, Hugh Cairns V.C. School in Saskatoon, and a place for his parents at the dedication of the Vimy Memorial, the battleground where Hugh won his DCM.

The most substantial memorial lives in Saskatoon’s Kiwanis Park, where the local soccer association and the community chose to place a statue of Cairns atop the memorial commemorating the soccer community’s war dead. The memorial was erected in 1921, showing Cairns in full soccer kit: it is believed to be the only war memorial featuring a soccer player anywhere in the world[12].

Inscribed on the plinth are the Union Flag and the Red Ensign under which Cairns fought and 77 names, the soccer players of what was then an insignificant if booming city on the banks of the South Saskatchewan, who gave their lives for their country from 1914 to 1918[13].

J. E. Bartlett · R. J. G. Bateman · E. Baty · R. Baty · E. W. Bayes
W. Black · T. Bowlt · H. Brown · A. Cairns · H. Cairns
H. K. Carruthers · T. K. Chalmers · A. T. Clayton · L. V. Clare · G. W. Clementson
T. Clinkskill · J. G. A. Cockburn · J. M. Coles · E. H. Cook · W. K. Craighead
G. F. Doree · A. B. Douglas · E. Gemmell · H. E. Gibbons · J. W. Goble
C. J. Fox · W. Grant · J. W. Graham · D. K. Gordon · F. J. Guy
W. R. Hay · W. Harrison · C. Hopwood · A. Hunter · T. Huggins
E. Key · S. M. King · W. W. King · P. Kinnear · S. V. Laver
F. Lippross · A. S. K. Lloyd · J. W. Lowes · A. MacDougall · O. R. Marsh
N. M. N. McIntosh · R. McNiel · S. McNiel · W. May · S. H. Monk
A. Moss · C. G. D. King-Mason · W. Mitchell · W. K. Munro · W. Nichol
A. H. Peat · V. D. B. Rae · G. Rippingale · C. Robbins · V. Robertson
J. J. Scott · W. T. Sinclair · D. F. Smart · C. B. Smillie · T. H. Smith
A. G. Starkings · G. A. Stebbing · A. Steele · W. Spence · G. Swift
R. Smyllie · L. Tinkess · T. Waters · W. T. Wesley-Long · A. E. Whitehouse
J. H. Wight · W. Wood

(notes and comments…)

At Least They’re All Experts on BAD NEWS…

By Benjamin Massey · November 8th, 2014 · No comments

To go by Twitter, WWE wrestler Wade Barrett has been hanging out at the Sportsnet studios today with Gerry Dobson, Craig Forrest, and Danny Dichio, helping them with their work on the weekend’s Premier League matches.

I worry a bit about the possibilities with Barrett and Dobson teaming up, I have to admit.

How Did Russell Teibert Get Back on CanMNT, Anyway?

By Benjamin Massey · November 7th, 2014 · No comments

In Russell Teibert’s case, he knows what he needs to do to come back to the national team. I have already told him and I’m waiting. Once he does what he needs to do, he will be considered again.
Benito Floro as quoted by Red Nation Online, October 21, 2014[1]

(5:45 PM, outside the home of the Floro family. The smell of a home-cooked dinner wafts through the open window. Two earnest young men in carefully-ironed white dress shirts stand outside the door with Cheshire smiles. The first rings the bell.)

Benito (answering the door with the air of a man irritated): Hello?

Man 1 (cheerily): Good evening, sir!

Man 2: Have you heard the Good News about Canadian Soccer Jesus?

Benito: Oh, Christ.

Man 1: The Soccer Gods love you, and want you to know and love Them. They offer you peace and joy and a Gold Cup semi-final appearance.

Man 2: “The Soccer Gods so loved the world, that They gave Their only son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have an eternally high PDO.” (John Limniatis 3:16)

Man 1: It doesn’t matter how good you are compared to Colin Miller or Stephen Hart or Dale Mitchell or Stephen Hart again or Frank Yallop or Holger Osieck. All coaches are sinners, and you cannot measure to the perfection of the Soccer Gods, and so you will burn in the Eternal Fire of Honduras.

Man 2: “For the wages of sin is defeat…” (Tino Lettieri 6:23)

Benito: I don’t know what you’ve heard but I don’t hate Russell. As head coach I have a responsibility to…

haveyouheardthegoodnews

Man 1: You’re probably wondering “if the wages of sin is defeat, and all coaches sin, then how does any coach ever reach the World Cup?”

Man 2: “For the wages of sin is defeat, but the gift of the Soccer Gods is eternal victory through Russell Teibert our Lord.” (Tino Lettieri 6:23)

Benito: I don’t know what message board rumours you’ve heard that made you do all this, and by the way how do you know where I live?

Man 1: Yes, eternal victory is a gift of the Soccer Gods, not something earned by our own work on Earth, or something that can be held up as a trophy of our own greatness. And the only way to accept that gift is to accept Canadian Soccer Jesus into your heart.

Man 2: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the marking of a tenacious midfield, and renewing of the Holy Goals.” (Rick Titus 3:5)

Man 1: For the Soccer Gods sent Canadian Soccer Jesus to Earth to atone for our footballing sins, and play for the team that hates Canada, and while we ourselves are sinners, his playoffs died for us.

Man 2: “For Teibert also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to the Soccer Gods, being put to defensive midfield obscurity in the flesh, but quickened by the Soccer.” (I Mont Pete 3:18)

Benito: And I thought Real Madrid fans were ridiculous. Listen…

Man 1: We have some wonderful literature that we would love to discuss.

Benito: Just…

Man 2: Canadian Soccer Jesus does not want to judge you. He just wants to love you.

Benito: Look, if I call Teibert to the Panama camp will you fuck off?

(Man 1 and Man 2 exchange glances)

Man 1: Have a nice dinner, coach. (Exeunt)

(notes and comments…)

The Hell With You, I’m Writing About FC Edmonton Roster Moves

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

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

FC Edmonton finished its 2014 season on Sunday afternoon, beating the Atlanta Silverbacks 2-1 at Clarke Stadium. It might have been Atlanta’s last match in the NASL and the Silverbacks didn’t exactly go out with a bang; Edmonton was up 2-0 early and it could easily have been 3-0 or even 4-0 (Neil Hlavaty missed a penalty and the Eddies absolutely ran Atlanta’s show). In the second half score effects kicked in, Edmonton kicked back, and Atlanta made a minor fight of it. But really everyone knew Edmonton was getting the three points. It was a well-executed end to what was, skillwise, FC Edmonton’s best season yet. So good that, in an act almost unheard of in Canadian professional soccer, the Eddies gave their coaching staff a contract extension[1].

Earlier today the Eddies continued preparation for 2015 on a grimmer note, cutting loose six players. Goalkeeper Lance Parker and midfielders Neil Hlavaty, Horace James, Mike Banner, Massimo Mirabelli, and Edem Mortotsi are all gone[2]. Mirabelli and Mortotsi are Canadians.

I’ve wondered for a few months if the writing would be on the wall for Parker. I like Parker. Everybody likes Parker. He was good with the fans, good on the pitch, more-or-less the automatic starting goalkeeper when healthy. I believe he was also the last FC Edmonton player from their 2011 debut season, when he backed up Rein Baart.

But upper-body injuries have taken the sheen off a really talented goalkeeper. In 2011 Parker shattered his humerus in a hideous injury against Carolina, missing the rest of 2011 and the beginning of 2012[3]. In 2013 Parker was mostly healthy, but a shoulder problem in the spring cost him some games[4]; there was also a red card in the fall. Parker lost all of spring 2014 to a finger injury[5] then hurt a different finger during the mid-season break[6].

John Smits, a Canadian who joined Edmonton after a good CIS career, stepped into the breach in 2013 and 2014. Though he makes mistakes, including a nasty one that scuttled Edmonton’s playoff chances in Fort Lauderdale, Smits looks like a legitimate NASL starting goalkeeper; I’ve said Benito Floro should call him for Canada. As to the depth, Tyson Farago came from WSA Winnipeg with good reviews and his one NASL match was Team of the Week stuff[7]. FC Edmonton Academy product Christian Kaiswatum has been part of the Canadian youth pool and seems like a perfectly legitimate choice as third goalkeeper. It would have been a disservice to Parker and Smits to keep them both on the team in 2015: they both deserve starts, something had to give, and with his injury history and American passport Parker was the logical cut. Goalkeeping is brutal sometimes, there’s no way around it. But, with his skill, Parker should be hearing from teams; possibly his hometown USL Pro Oklahoma City Energy, coached by a pretty good ex-goalkeeper in Jimmy Nielsen.

The other departed regular is midfielder Neil Hlavaty, another American who joined the team from Minnesota in 2013. It has been a weird couple seasons for Hlavaty. I like him, and have said before that he has MLS quality as a defensive midfielder, but Edmonton fans have seen some of his less endearing qualities. He beaks off at officials, wastes too many shots from low-percentage areas, and isn’t always a master of accurate passing. On the other hand he’s also been thrown around the field by Colin Miller to try and fit in with assorted new players. He spent a lot of time in 2014 at right wing, which just didn’t work. He’s full of energy, generally healthy, almost never needs to be substituted off, knows the NASL, and when you need to defend a one-goal lead he’s somebody you want on the park. He was also sharing a team with Ritchie Jones, another versatile central midfielder but one who’s more refined technically and, to a certain extent, seems incompatible with Hlavaty. If Edmonton could only keep one of Jones or Hlavaty, Jones is probably the right choice… but I dunno, I can’t help but suspect Hlavaty is going to pop up somewhere else in the NASL, get 2000 minutes, and make us all say “oh yeah, he was pretty good, wasn’t he?”

I’m surprised to see Horace James go. An unrefined bench player, sure, a one-dimensional wide midfielder with few technical powers representing the you-can’t-teach-speed school that has plagued Canadian soccer. That said, James knows how to use what he’s got and was a bigger blast than a mine under Vimy Ridge every time he came onto the pitch. I’m not sure there was a better impact sub in the NASL in 2014 and despite modest offensive numbers he actually deserves a fair bit of the credit for Edmonton’s fall season turnaround. You want a guy who made room for his teammates, that was Horace James. Not sure why you’d let him go. Maybe he wanted too much money, or wanted to be a regular starter, or Colin Miller figured he’d be taking minutes at Hanson Boakai’s expense in 2015, or he’s just sick of Edmonton (he came over from Atlanta; you’d think the city would profit by that comparison).

Steven Sandor raised a good point on Twitter: the Jamaican James takes up an international slot[8]. Most of FC Edmonton’s internationals are core players: Daryl Fordyce, Kareem Moses, Ritchie Jones, Tomi Ameobi, Lance Laing, and skipper Albert Watson. If it was my team I’d take James over Moses, who I don’t much rate, but Miller’s a Moses fan and the rest of those guys are clearly superior. If you’re looking at an international acquisition James might be the odd man out.

Then there’s Mike Banner. Coming over from the Finnish league in a flash of excitement, he missed almost the entire 2014 season with a body made of delicately-blown glass and looked lousy when he was in the lineup. When he signed I said that “at worst Banner looks like a useful squad player who’ll be decent in rotation”[9]; another one for my list of crappy prognostications. But I dunno. If he isn’t permanently ruined by his injury, bearing in mind that athleticism was a big part of his game, then I still think Banner could be a decent NASL player. As long as Lance Laing is in midfield, though, even a healthy effective Banner was never going to get a start, and with his American passport and international experience I doubt Banner came cheap. So yeah, fine, release him, makes sense… just… geez. I swear he has value, or did, at this level.

And Massimo Mirabelli’s gone! I liked Massimo Mirabelli! He’s a Canadian, he’s a useful depth wide midfielder, he’s an offensive sparkplug, he played some left back, he’s still younger than you probably think (turned 23 on October 21), and he scored a cherry goal against Fort Lauderdale back in November 2013. Every time I’ve seen Mirabelli I’ve seen him good. That’s been a lot less often lately, though; I don’t know whether he’s been fighting injuries or dogging it in training or Colin Miller just didn’t rate him, but Mirabelli’s total 2014 playing time amounted to about an hour. I’m not saying he’s a real gamechanger, but if you’re already moving out left winger Banner and impact sub James, why not keep Mirabelli around, throw him in when you need a fearless wide player who’ll charge at defenders like he caught them with his girlfriend, and let him generate offense? This isn’t theoretical; it worked, pretty well, a couple times in 2013! It’s a pity. Hopefully he gets a look somewhere.

Edem Mortotsi, the 21-year-old central midfielder, isn’t too surprising a cut. You hate seeing young Academy products let go, but despite a fair few NASL cameos Mortotsi’s career didn’t seem to be moving forward. At his age he’s becoming too old to count as a “prospect”, he’s played two professional seasons, and he’s being passed on the depth chart. What could Colin Miller do? It’s sad but that’s business, and the real tragedy is that there are so few lower-level professional teams in this country where Mortotsi can look for a second chance.

(notes and comments…)

Akin-maybe

By Benjamin Massey · November 5th, 2014 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

Luke Wileman has reported that Tesho Akindele has turned down an invitation to Canada’s friendly this month in Panama, because he’s interested in the Americans[1]. I can’t be arsed.

Like Owen Hargreaves, Akindele was born in Calgary. Unlike Owen Hargreaves, Akindele was raised outside Canada, growing up in Thornton, Colorado[2]. He played high school soccer in Colorado, went to college in Colorado, and now plays professionally in the United States. Since his college days Akindele has been billed with Thornton rather than Calgary as his hometown and the papers treat him like a local. He appeared in an obscure camp with the Canadian U-17 team in 2009 (with two other non-Canadian internationals, Caolan Lavery and Russell Teibert)[3] but that was his only involvement in any Canadian program.

Akindele is, in short, American, and morally is perfectly entitled to hold out for the United States. I hope he has a nice time. Let me rephrase: I wish him no more misery than any other American player.

But what about Canada losing a promising forward? We only have guys like Simeon Jackson, a former Premier League player now in League One, and Tosaint Ricketts, our most accomplished international forward of the twenty-first century, and Iain Hume, currently playing against Nicolas Anelka in India, and Marcus Haber, and Kyle Porter, and Michael Petrasso! Who there can compare to a first-year professional with an inconsequential amateur career?

Yeah, probably too glib by half. But let’s be serious. Akindele is 22 years old: older than Petrasso, Caleb Clarke, Lucas Cavallini, and other senior Canadian international forwards of superior experience (and, I suspect, skill). At his age he hardly counts as a prospect.

Akindele’s seven goals in MLS this year is pretty good, though not first class. But those seven goals come on 16 shots on target and 30 shots directed. A 43.75% shooting percentage is absolutely not sustainable; getting 53.33% of your shots directed on target is pretty unlikely as well. With 0.824 shots on target/90 minutes and 1.545 shots directed/90 minutes[4], Akindele’s shooting rates this year are well behind Erik Hurtado and Luke Moore, and a shade behind Dilly Duka. All on a strong attacking team, all in his first season that would attract interest at the senior level.

Would I turn Akindele down? Of course not. Will I get upset about Canada not having him? Not in this lifetime. He’s having a journeyman’s season with star luck.

There’s another angle that’s been mentioned. Whatever you think of Akindele’s individual merits, the Canadian Soccer Association has let another one get away. What’s the CSA doing wrong? Why can’t Canada retain an American-raised player who plays in the United States and has drawn interest from the much higher-ranked American team?

Put like that it’s a really stupid question, isn’t it?

(notes and comments…)

Soccer as Iced Cappuccinos

By Benjamin Massey · November 4th, 2014 · 4 comments

Unprovable theory: an independent NASL team in Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal would not lose too much money on its own, plus it would be good for the MLS team.

I rag on MLS quite a bit but there’s no doubt that they know how to market. As a result, in all three Canadian MLS cities we’ve seen a certain raising of the soccer consciousness. This has meant that, when the MLS teams screw over supporters or local soccer as they always do there’s a larger groundswell of irritation than there used to be. It’s not just a dozen lager-swilling old Brits who wish things would change anymore.

Suppose I find $30 million in a trash bag and put an NASL team at Swangard Stadium. I keep costs low by bringing in a whack of Canadians and regional players. (I will give you ten candidates off the top of my head: Simon Thomas, Shaun Saiko, Antonio Rago, Paul Hamilton, Niall Cousens, Reynold Stewart, Navid Mashinchi, Andrew Ravenhill, Brett Levis, Cody Cook.) Maybe I drop six figures on one or two imports to keep things interesting and loan in an underused Whitecap. This team would do fairly badly on the field but not nearly as badly as you think. Meanwhile I can promote a no-frills, soccer-first atmosphere short on over-commercialization (making a virtue out of the big money sponsors being with the Whitecaps) and long on free-form supporters culture. I’m not just attracting fans nearer Swangard Stadium than BC Place. There are fans alienated from MLS, those who prefer supporting a local player for ten years to supporting a foreign player for one and a half, those who like a smaller ground with an intimate atmosphere, rowdy fans, and corner kicks that aren’t sponsored by car dealerships.

I bet that I draw decent crowds. Not great, probably not enough to break even, but I lose little enough that the team is viable as a rich man’s hobby.

What of the Whitecaps? I’m not doing much damage to the crowd that makes them the big bucks: the luxury suites, the corporate seats, the families, the people there for a major-league event rather than a love of soccer per se. I’m not taking many sponsors away (“what, I can really advertise at your crumbling old stadium to a quarter of the crowd and a tenth of the media exposure?! Sign me up!”) Anybody who wants to see Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard, and the Deuce is still going to Whitecaps games. The lion’s share of supporters stay at BC Place: they’re attached to what they have, maybe too image-conscious for the second division, maybe they’d miss the Cascadia Cup and other away travel traditions. Some fans leave, certainly, but a few more fans trickle in because there’s a bit more soccer in the air in Vancouver: we feel more like a soccer community, less like a city with an MLS franchise.

Every couple years there’s a local derby in the Voyageurs Cup, and there’s buzz around the city, and at work my 4,500 fans a night jaw their 21,000 fans a night, and a thousand Whitecaps supporters invade Swangard so I have to put temporary bleachers up for them and the local press is gung-ho for the atmosphere and everyone makes more money. Also they send me the odd player on loan, which helps development while the player is a Skytrain ride away from the big team. Old Residency players who don’t make the grade with the Whitecaps sign on with me, they stay local, and the Whitecaps poach one or two success stories back.

A well-publicized 2001 study found that, when a second fast-food restaurant opened within spitting distance of a competitor, the demand for fast food increased automatically. Any prairie boy will recognize a new Tim Hortons in town somehow lengthening the lines at all the other Tim Hortons. I reckon soccer would do the same.

Bombed by Japan

By Benjamin Massey · October 29th, 2014 · No comments

Tony Lewis/Canadian Soccer Association

Tony Lewis/Canadian Soccer Association

Everyone who watches women’s soccer more than occasionally knew Big Red was going to have a hell of a time against Japan. Those who do watch women’s soccer only occasionally should have known from Canada’s match against Germany in Vancouver earlier this year. Despite the stereotype that Canadian fans overrate their women we seem to understand our place in the world, actually: none of the Canadian fans I was around felt overconfident, and my prediction on Saturday that Japan would take four to six points from these friendlies reflected the general mood[1]. The most optimistic person in the Canadian soccersphere is probably John Herdman, who back in June predicted a Canada – United States World Cup final[2]. Herdman, maybe the most universally popular and respected coach the Canadian Soccer Association’s ever had, still gets funny looks for that one.

If you were watching on Saturday, you saw Japan send out their best lineup (minus longtime goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto, who sat in favour of the unrefined but enormous Erina Yamane) and shoot Canada painlessly in the back of the head. Wearin a colour I can only describe as “Fukushima yellow”, Japan scored early, got another midway through the second half, and finished the game with a third, 3-0 final[3]. Erin McLeod, playing before what is technically her hometown crowd, was forced to make some good saves in the Canadian goal, and while Big Red generated some first-rate chances through Melissa Tancredi and Christine Sinclair it was clearly Japan’s game.

Canada’s performance was better than the score. There was a good forty-minute stretch between Japan’s first goal and the hour mark where the Canadians bossed the game, creating most of their best opportunities and holding meaningful possession. The initial goal came (in my books) from a mistake by first-timer Alyssa Chapman, caught up-field after a Rhian Wilkinson giveaway and not hastening back to cover Yuki Ogimi, number one in the Buzzfeed article “You Won’t Believe These Japanese Players Fullbacks Should Bust Their Asses to Mark After Turnovers.” But from Chapman’s audacity the rest of the way that was débutante jitters; she provided not immaculate but invariably lively left back play. After the hour mark Canada seemed to have shot their bolt, but that was still a sustained stretch of excellent soccer against a top team. Oh, Japan was much the better side, but 3-0 looks just a little harsh. And one of Canada’s most essential players, midfielder Desiree Scott, started the game on the bench. If you think that wouldn’t make much of a difference, you should have watched the Vancouver game.

We lost that match on Tuesday, by the way, 3-2[4]. Six goals conceded in two matches is appalling, especially when all the goals were “good”. The defensive breakdowns in both games were a running theme. Wilkinson, Chapman, Kadeisha Buchanan, and Emily Zurrer were all caught in first-rate breakdowns at some point and that’s just off the top of my head. These were forced by Japan’s high pressure, but good teams know to press Canada. The Americans will do it, the French will do it, the Japanese clearly have it down to a science. Canada’s defense, never exactly a strength, needs to work on its poise at once.

But elsewhere on the field the Canadian performance had much improved. Initially the Canadian midfield, which looked so overwhelmed in Edmonton, played some terrific soccer. You could see the difference between Canada With Desiree Scott and Canada Without Desiree Scott, clear as crystal. Her central partner, Jessie Fleming, had eyes like dinner plates and jelly feet in front of goal, but she was doing a marvelously composed job just getting into those positions and with the ball at her feet the Japanese soon learned to respect her skill.

One of the obstacles for young players who aren’t pure goalscorers, like Fleming, is learning the confidence and audacity to make the aggressive play. Fleming had one or two moments where she apparently expected to defer to one of her more experienced teammates; with good coaching and more exposure to those situations she will hopefully learn how to drill a shot first-time rather than faff around waiting for Sinclair or Tancredi to pop up for a low-percentage cross before, maybe, trying to get a shot off when the best of the opportunity has already gone by.

If Fleming wants a lesson in that sort of confidence she couldn’t do better than to look at Yuki Ogimi, whose play on Japan’s second goal was postcard-perfect. Kadeisha Buchanan bobbled a backpass and it went straight in front of Ogimi, one of the world’s more polished strikers. I firmly believe that, in that position, Fleming (or Josée Belanger, or Adriana Leon, or most of the Canadian roster really) would have settled the ball, tried to round the recovering Buchanan, and tried to generate a play. Instead Ogimi realized the situation at once, knew that Stephanie Labbé wasn’t in perfect position, and took a crack, first time, a marvelous looping goal that would have been an automatic entry on a lesser striker’s highlight reel. Had we players with the guts to try that sort of thing we might have a rather brighter team.

It was a terrific game in general, both teams contributing a maximum of excitement. Ogimi’s goal, opportunistic but marvelously taken. But it was Asano Nagasato who had the goal of the game with a first-rate left-footed volley from twenty-three yards that curled into the top corner and wasn’t being stopped by Stephanie Labbé, Erin McLeod, Manuel Neuer, anybody anywhere. The 25-year-old Nagasato had been very much a fringe player in the Japanese setup, but has been working her way into the lineup and has a couple goals for her country this year. Her wonderstrike today must be the best of the bunch: the undisputed highlight of a back-and-forth, mostly very even match. Besides that strike it’s the ending that will be best remembered: three minutes of stoppage time called for and Canada snatching the most Canadian of scrappy, workmanlike equalizers on 90’+2. Then Japan turning it around, capitalizing on yet another Canadian defensive blunder, and winning it on 90’+2.9999999999.

For me at least, that goal was too pre-ordained to be heartbreaking. The Canadian defensive mistakes had been coming in bunches. The Japanese, having started with a B+ team, brought on Aya Miyama in the 65th minute, and Miyama’s arrival coincided with Canada succumbing under pressure, making bumbling mistakes, giving Japan too many opportunities. There were… what, three or four appalling giveaways in the Canadian third in the last twenty minutes? When Aya Sameshima beat Labbé what was there to say besides “fair enough”?

From a development perspective it might have been better to lose rather than draw undeserving. There’s no euphoric high from the fortunate point snatched from a better team before a screaming home crowd; instead John Herdman can bust out the VCR and really emphasize to the women why those sorts of turnovers are going to kill us if we repeat our mistakes in money games.

How about Sophie Schmidt? Schmidt has scored Canada’s last three senior goals, all in Vancouver; it’s nice of the women to limit scoring to one of the four or so players the supporters have a chant for. (And a classy chant it is.) We were talking about Fleming needing confidence earlier? Both of Schmidt’s goals Tuesday were raw confidence and balls ovaries. Letting fly as soon as she had a sight of the net and reaping the rewards, with her first tally deflecting off a defender’s head and initially being called an own goal. We’re seeing a bit more of the Sophie Schmidt from 2011 that was such a promising supporting threat in the attack, combined with consistent guts and aggressiveness. I can’t help but feel the NWSL has been very good to Schmidt; on Sky Blue FC she’s asked to be a key player on a team that’s badly underequipped offensively and the challenge seems to have given her a shot in the arm. I swear she’s turning over the ball less than she used to, too. I like everything about this Sophie Schmidt except the haircut.

The injury to Diana Matheson is terrifying; she’s going to be on everybody’s ballot for Canadian Player of the Year and at the top of many, but she went off on crutches in Edmonton with a knee injury. The good news is that, during the Vancouver game, she was walking around the field with her teammates; the bad news is that this morning the Canadian Soccer Association tweeted that she’s torn her ACL[5]. She knows how to recover from these things, at least: the last time we were missing Matheson for an exciting game in Vancouver due to a lower body injury, it was during Olympic qualifying and Canada went on to a bronze medal. The omens aren’t bad.

Many people will be discussing Christine Sinclair in the days to come. She hasn’t scored for her country since December 12, 2013 against Scotland in the Torneio Internacional de Futebol Feminino; that is twelve matches without troubling the statskeeper. There was a time when, even when she wasn’t scoring, Sinclair was reliably generating scoring chances; that is no longer particularly the case. She’s also played the best teams in the world. Those twelve games include Japan (twice), the United States (twice), England, and Germany, but those are the teams we need her against.

Oh, she still looks reasonably dangerous, but not like it used to be. Sinclair gets the ball in an interesting position, the defense swarms her like termites, and unlike in the old days she no longer has the speed or the power or the will or something to get out of it and make a scoring chance. The ball comes out to her on the break and it turns into a tussle rather than an automatic excellent shot. Of course she still does reasonably well in the NWSL, but she isn’t the dangerwoman on the Portland Thorns. Alex Morgan is. When she plays for Canada as undisputed top dog Sinclair looks every minute of her thirty-one years. Not to get all narrative-pushing mitten-stringer but I swear I caught glimpses of the wear and tear in her facial expressions, an irritated look of “that used to work.” She’s frustrated. Wouldn’t you be?

(notes and comments…)

That Soccer Saturday in Canada, in Full

By Benjamin Massey · October 24th, 2014 · No comments

Real Madrid v. Barcelona, 9 AM Pacific, beIN Sport — I know, I know, el Clásico is the soccer equivalent of pizza. Everybody has it, almost everybody loves it, but we know every worthwhile variation off by heart. The last original thought was back in 2003, there’s hardly any point in Tweeting about it, every comment you make was made six hundred times before your synapses even warmed up. But, again like pizza, even when it’s very bad it’s very good. And the Spaniards, who know a thing or two about sleeping in, have scheduled this world-dominating affray at a perfectly reasonable time for us left-coasters. Enjoy a bit of classic Spanish flair, flopping, and inadequate defense over your tea and scones. (beIN Sport isn’t common in Canadian households but this is going to be the most illegally-streamed game of the fall so don’t sweat it.)

Canada WNT v. Japan WNT, 1 PM Pacific, all the Sportsnets — After our Iberian appetizer comes lunch. Given that Japan is one of the world’s leading women’s soccer teams and Canada’s not quite that, our occasional meetings have been a lot of fun. Japan beat Canada 2-1 in the round robin of the 2012 Summer Olympics; a well-deserved victory for the Japanese who wound up being the tournament’s best team, but also an exciting contest. Prior to that, Canada whooped Japan 3-0 at the 2008 Cyprus Cup on a Christine Sinclair hat trick. The Edmonton crowd, which has worshiped Sinclair for twelve years now, would dearly like a repeat performance. Don’t hold your breath.

Japan is one of the world’s top teams: not Germany good but medal contenders in anything. Their recent form has been solid; check out Emily Dulhanty on Red Nation Online for an up-to-date perspective but suffice to say they are fresh off their first ever win at the Women’s Asian Cup. It’s a big achievement, and yet…

I didn’t watch the Asian tournament but Japan’s results weren’t quite the standard I’d expect. The Japanese got a fortunate draw, avoiding both Koreas and facing only teams they should enjoy a comfortable margin over. A 1-0 victory over Australia in the final was unusually tight for the Japanese against the third-rate-but-improving Aussies. In the round robin the pair actually drew, with Japan lucky to get the single point thanks to an Aussie own goal. We can say that in Asia Japan is still comfortably better than China and Australia, but they’ve been fairly even lately with both Koreas while a couple years ago Japan was a solid half-stride ahead. They look, in short, like a team that’s still dangerous, and still probably Canada’s superior, but just starting to overrun their prime.

It’s so stupid! There’s no reason for that! Of Japan’s core players only goalkeeper Niko Fukumoto is over thirty years old. Midfielder Aya Miyama is going to be in the Ballon d’Or argument and at 29 is in the prime of life. Yuki Ogimi is still kicking around, still dangerous. The legendary Homare Sawa is off this roster after playing the Asian Cup, but she hasn’t been a first-rate player for a couple years. The one thing you can say about the Japanese is that they haven’t much young blood: forward Mana Iwabuchi is their only player under 23 and her early accomplishments have been slightly disappointing. Have they just relied on the same core for too long and worn it out?

Doubt it. Japan can safely expect four points from their two games in Canada and wouldn’t be surprised to take all six. Even at their best they’ve never really been terrifying in the way France, Germany, or the United States could be: they just sort of win games, and they’re gonna be a cut above Canada. I don’t forecast a tonne of thrills, but Miyama is an absolute top player and worth the price of admission on her own. Attendance is looking disappointing, maybe below 10,000, so I’d urge you all to get your asses down to Commonwealth Stadium and load up. For those of us not in Edmonton, the game will be on all four of the main Sportsnets with Gerry Dobson in the booth, so the afternoon holds promise.

Fort Lauderdale Strikers v. FC Edmonton, 4:30 PM Pacific, NASL Live — How about this for some pressure? FC Edmonton, after being buried alive like the Undertaker this summer, is now playing for their playoff lives in Fort Lauderdale. The Eddies and the Strikers are competing for the last playoff spot in the North American Soccer League. Fort Lauderdale is two points up but this game means Edmonton controls their own destiny. Win, and Edmonton just needs a result at home (in November, against an Atlanta Silverbacks team that seems weeks from folding or self-relegating) to make the NASL playoffs for the second time ever. Lose, and Edmonton is eliminated. The one time the Eddies made the playoffs was in 2011, when they lost their only playoff game 5-0… in Fort Lauderdale, to the Strikers. Call this one the Rein Baart Revenge Match.

Fort Lauderdale is a hard team to beat. The Carolina Railhawks found this out last week to their woe. Their game was terrific but in the end only luck let Carolina get out of that home game with a point. Fort Lauderdale has a couple players who will be especially hungry to stick it to Edmonton: midfielder Chris Nurse was an Eddie last season but left in a tsunami of bad blood, while winger Martin Nunez was signed to FC Edmonton at the beginning of the 2013 season then cut in training camp by Colin Miller. And Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium is a bloody difficult venue. The Strikers have lost once at home this fall, 3-0 to league leaders Minnesota, and won three on the trot.

The bad news for Fort Lauderdale? Strikers head coach Günter Kronsteiner, who is a little insane, has spent the past few weeks feuding with his best player, Fafà Picault. Picault was benched in Carolina and is widely rumoured to be leaving the Strikers at the end of this season. No coach would be crazy enough to leave Picault out in this kill-or-be-killed home fixture… but then again no coach would be crazy enough to force the Edmonton city police to throw him out of Clarke Stadium and Kronsteiner’s done that too.

Most importantly, after years of utter haplessness as soon as they got on an airplane FC Edmonton has somehow learned how to play road games. Recent road results include a rollicking 3-2 win in Carolina, a 3-0 loss in San Antonio that was ruined by truly shambolic refereeing, a 1-1 draw in Indy where Edmonton was the better team, another referee-marred 1-1 draw in Tampa, and last weekend a 2-0 win in Ottawa where the Eddies punched the Fury around for about half an hour then sat back for the rest of the game smoking cigarettes, playing pinochle, and letting Tony Donatelli knock out the seats behind the goal with his errant shooting.

This game isn’t on Canadian television, so if you’re not an NASL Live subscriber you’re going to be stuck with me going “AAAAAGH!” on Twitter for two hours. But it’ll be well worth it.

Vancouver Whitecaps v. Colorado Rapids, 7 PM Pacific, TSN — Speaking of playoff lives! The math for the Whitecaps is easy: equal or beat the result of the Portland Timbers. Win and they’re in, taking fifth place in the MLS West (which does count as a playoff spot, Toronto fans). Draw and they qualify if Portland doesn’t beat FU Dallas. Lose and the Whitecaps need Dallas to beat the Timbers outright. Dallas and Portland kick off at 5:30, so we’ll have a good idea of the required result by gametime.

The game is sold out, Fan Appreciation Night, the last home match of the season barring some true playoff glory. Fans are stoked after Toronto FC choked their lives away and the Whitecaps qualified for their first CONCACAF Champions League through the back door; we seem guaranteed a ballsy crowd. The Cascadia Cup champions will be in a strong position, both morally and statistically, to lay yet more pain on the Timbers who, after a dodgy couple of months there, have resumed their traditional place as Cascadian whipping boys. Former captain Jay DeMerit will be in the building being applauded for taking up a load of salary cap room to be Vancouver’s third-best centreback for a few years (hey, when’s Martin Nash night?). In short, it could be a good advertisement for the excitement of Major League Soccer. Or it could be absolutely jackshit if Dallas runs riot over Portland and this game winds up being a friendly.

Most competitions play critical games on the last weekend like this simultaneously, so results in one don’t influence results in the others. In MLS this is allegedly impossible because of television requirements. I actually sort of understand Major League Soccer’s position here: the English Premier League can play hardball with its television stations knowing that if they swing their dick around Sky Sports will happily preempt the darts for some soccer. MLS hasn’t got that sort of leverage. But from a competitive advantage it’s a long way from ideal; luckily this year the scheduling plays into the Whitecaps’ hands, so everything is fine.

Anybody who reads this page will know I’m not really capable of previewing this game intelligently. Even if I was, at any moment standard MLS hijinks could intervene and make all forecasts worthless. So I’ll just say that, for the sake of the Whitecaps organization, fans, and a few of its players, I’ll have my dodgy web stream on and hope in my heart. If MLS must exist, it’ll be a little more tolerable for the Whitecaps doing well in it.

The FIFA Men’s World Rankings are Useless

By Benjamin Massey · October 24th, 2014 · 1 comment

There is no value whatsoever in the FIFA men’s world rankings.

This is the sort of thing people always say, and maybe we believe it in the abstract way we believe in fourteenth-century Mesoamerican pottery. But mostly we don’t act like it’s true. FIFA released a new batch of rankings yesterday and sure enough a million news sources pumped out a million articles and a billion fans said “wow, Canada’s ranked behind St. Vincent and the Grenadines now?” In practice, to fans and media, FIFA’s rankings aren’t dismissed as easily as a Raelian press release.

So let me explain why, if I see you expressing genuine interest in the FIFA men’s world rankings again, I am going to smack you upside the head*.

The formula for allocating men’s ranking points is very simple and FIFA spells it out clearly. For our purposes, the two most important factors are a) teams gaining a base three points for a win, one point for a draw, and no points for a loss, and b) the large multipliers depending on the importance of the game. At the lowest end of the scale, a friendly is worth no bonus, while a FIFA World Cup match sees the total number of points earned multiplied by four[1].

You already see two excruciating flaws. First, the system rewards only results, not performance. If you are, say, Costa Rica, and went to the World Cup and got some points even after being were outshot a billion to nothing, you will get a load of points and the team you beat will get none. (Another good example: teams get two points for winning in a penalty shootout, even though a match that went to the shootout is a draw by definition.) This is not a reflection of how good your team was, it is a reflection of how lucky it was.

Meanwhile, an extremely credible defeat, no matter what the circumstances are, is worth nothing. Even Colombian commentators seemed to agree that Canada’s 1-0 loss to Colombia boosted their opinion of the Canadian men’s national team. As far as the FIFA rankings are concerned we might as well have lost 8-1.

Second, the multiplier for playing in a competitive match means that individual games can gain disproportionate weight in your ranking, while teams are rewarded simply because their confederation schedules more competitions for them. This is hardly a system for determining your place in the soccer world, is it? And how much respect do you really deserve for a well-timed hot streak in a Confederations Cup? According to FIFA, “loads and loads and loads.”

The resulting numbers for all matches in the past four years are added up, with older games being reduced in weight, and that’s your ranking. So suppose you’re Canada. You play competitive games every two years: the biennial CONCACAF Gold Cup and the quadrennial World Cup qualifiers. Meanwhile you’re being compared to countries like Cuba, who can play both of those events plus the biennial Caribbean Cup. Or El Salvador, playing in the also-biennial Copa Centroamericana. This means that your rivals have many more chances to rack up the big ranking points, a problem redoubled if you play friendlies against strong teams like Colombia or Australia from which even a terrific performance is unlikely to get you a single point. And those rivals have the points they earned whooping on Dutch colonies showing up on their records for four years. And if you’re unlucky enough to be drawn into a Gold Cup group with a team like Guadeloupe or Martinique, who are members of CONCACAF but not FIFA, you don’t earn any points: Canada’s last win in the Gold Cup was in 2011 against Guadeloupe, and the Canadian ranking didn’t benefit.

Since we’re all Canadians, let’s look at it from a purely CONCACAF perspective. Take the recent qualifying for the Caribbean Cup. This is some of the weakest soccer on the regular men’s international calendar: amateur soccer players from countries with the population of Oshawa. But because it is an official CONCACAF event, it receives a points multiplier of 2.5. And three points for a win against Montserrat means a lot more than no points for a loss to Colombia. As a result, since qualifying kicked off in May the dregs of the Caribbean shoot up the charts in a manner wholly unrelated to their ability. Teams like Canada don’t get to benefit from these points, since we aren’t eligible to play in the tournaments. So the CONCACAF rankings get jokey.

Here is a table with the highest point-earning game for some of the CONCACAF teams ranked ahead of Canada this month (remember: Canada earned zero points for taking Colombia to the brink.)

Team Opponent Competition Ranking Points
Costa Rica 3 South Korea 1 Friendly 349.35
Trinidad and Tobago 1 Antigua and Barbuda 0 Caribbean Cup qual. 765.00
Antigua and Barbuda 2 Saint Lucia 1 Caribbean Cup qual. 490.88
Dominican Republic 3 Saint Lucia 2 Caribbean Cup qual. 490.88
Haiti 4 Barbados 2 Caribbean Cup qual. 318.75
St. Vincent and the Grenadines 1 Curaçao 0 Caribbean Cup qual. 331.50
St. Kitts and Nevis 1 Haiti 1 Caribbean Cup qual. 172.13

That Costa Rica result at the top of the page is genuinely impressive. Winning 3-1 against South Korea in Seoul is no mean feat. But in FIFA terms it’s not half as good as beating Antigua and Barbuda 1-0 at home in a Caribbean Cup qualifier, as Trinidad and Tobago did. Antigua and Barbuda has four players on professional first teams; their captain, Quenton Griffiths, plays with USL Pro’s Charleston Battery. That Costa Rican win is a bit better than St. Vincent and the Grenadines beating Curaçao 1-0. Curaçao, population 152,000, is not a sovereign state. And los Ticos only wish they could beat Saint Lucia, as two countries ranked above us did: a stronger version of that Saint Lucia team played Canada twice in 2012 and was metro league quality.

Again, these are just games from the last month. If we went back further we’d see plenty more ridiculousness. The Caribbean Cup proper, which starts in November, is going to see more big gains for shitty countries: watch for Cuba, already wrongly ranked ahead of Canada, to profit from beating on Curaçao. The Caribbean Cup is a biennial tournament, so dinky little minnows enjoy the spoils of smacking each other around twice a World Cup cycle while Canada hopes for the occasional draw against Panama to keep us looking respectable. Then when Canada falls down the rankings, as we are mathematically almost certain to do, the press starts wringing its hands.

There is one reason to ever pay attention to the FIFA men’s world rankings: it’s used to determine seedings for World Cup qualifying. Yet even that’s marginal. Face it, if Canada has any aspirations to play in Russia it shouldn’t matter whether we’re drawn against Panama or Guatemala. Last time out Canada, though sheer luck, got drawn into two of the weakest groups we could have hoped for, and we know what happened. Until the hex the CONCACAF qualifying format is actually very generous for a confederation that has only two frightening teams plus whereever Costa Rica ranks in its quest to be either the most surprising or most disappointing team in world soccer depending on the phases of the moon.

If you want a decent way to rank the world’s soccer nations, try the World Football Elo Ratings. It’s not a perfect system but it’s a lot better than FIFA’s chicanery, and if you check their latest you’ll see Canada is ranked 88th in the world and tenth in CONCACAF[2]. This is a little low in my books but not very, and it’s a damned sight better than anything FIFA has to offer. So shut up about their unusable rankings. Thank you.

(notes and comments…)