Goodbye Canada (It’s Been Nice)

By Benjamin Massey · August 17th, 2014 · No comments

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

The better team won. Germany was clearly superior. (Classy young ladies too, one arguable dive, no dirty tricks, loads of skill.) Canada had its chances, failed to bury a couple good looks and sometimes wasn’t able to shoot from strong positions inside the eighteen, but Germany missed as many and buried two. Their first goal might have been offside, but even so it’s not the sort of goal you should ever concede, and their second was sheer set piece superiority.

I can suggest a couple excuses. Nichelle Prince, who went from supersub against Ghana to integral piece against North Korea, left the game injured after only fifteen minutes and was wearing a knee brace post-game. Kylie Davis, who I thought put on an underrated show as a ball-possessing, troublesome number six, was injured against the Norks and played no part Saturday. But these will ring hollow, every team gets injured in short-turnaround tournaments.

So am I despondent? Well, yes, in a sense; Canada goes out of a 2014 home tournament in the quarter-final and, while it’s not bad compared to our past results, it’s sooner than any of us were hoping for.

But, mostly, I feel nothing but pride. Canada played pretty well against one of the two best women’s youth setups in the world, a team that ran the United States off the park in the group stage, a team that’s everybody’s pick to make the final. We made the Germans work for it, were probably their biggest challenge, skillwise, in the tournament, and this after a group stage where our young ladies fought like lions. So Canada clearly isn’t among the four or five best U-20 women’s teams in the world; nobody with a lick of sense expected them to be. The world of women’s soccer has moved forward rapidly but, in this tournament at least, Canada has not only kept pace but gained a little ground. My expectations were met and exceeded.

Let’s look at one point in detail. Canada hung with Germany despite being at an athletic disadvantage. Especially out wide, the Germans could run the Canadians into the dirt. What happened to the old Canadian teams that outran everybody but generally struggled at the soccer part? When Canada got chances it was with the ball at their feet, beating players one-on-one, generally showing genuine skill rather than the old hoof-and-hope. Obviously it’s better to be fast than slow, and on a warm muggy day at Commonwealth Stadium it looked like some of the Germans had better endurance as well. But it’s a welcome statement about where our program has gone, if the best young women we can get in this age group turn out to be, as we all hoped pre-tournament, technicians rather than athletes.

The Ghana game, I felt at the time and still feel, was all Canada but with some bad luck. It happens. As for Finland, there’s no such thing as a non-inspiring comeback to win from 2-0 down. But such a comeback, over a nation that’s at best “up and coming”, is only meaningful if the ladies go on to make it a memorable tournament.

They sure did. A 1-0 win at Olympic Stadium over the mighty North Koreans was like a hammer from the gods, probably the upset of the tournament so far and 100% well-deserved. North Korea is an excellent team: they beat Finland easily, whipped Ghana, and Canada ran out deserving 1-0 winners in a storming counterpunching game that could have gone any direction until the referee blew a halt to some excruciatingly long stoppage time. It was a tremendous, tremendous match, absolutely essential after Ghana got a questionably-deserved and surprising win over Finland, and despite playing in Montreal’s concrete mausoleum with the smallest crowd for any Canadian game, the fans who did show were grabbed by the scruff of the neck by the talent and sheer balls of the Canadian ladies.

Then Edmonton. The largest crowd of the tournament, facing down the best team, the Canadians giving it their all… and losing. Realistically, as soon as the draw came out we were in deep trouble: an almost-guaranteed quarter-final against either Germany or the United States, and a very probable loss unless the Canadians got lucky or played the game of their lives. It was tough, and the Canadians couldn’t pull off another upset, but if you’re going to lose, lose like that. Lose in a way that gives us all something to hope for.

Take Janine Beckie, pictured in the upper left. Beckie made her Canadian debut in this tournament, coming over from the United States. One saw at once what the fuss was about. She scored two vital goals: the comeback-starter against Finland and the winner against North Korea. She assisted Prince’s Finland winner. She nearly tied the game against Ghana. She had the audacity to attack players on the dribble and the skill to pull it off. She played dangerous crosses and looked, if not quite terrifying, certainly like Canada’s most consistent attacking threat. (It was also a fillip for the travelling Saskatchewan Voyageurs to see one of their own running the show!) Her arrival in Canadian colours was a pretty stylish one; the Beckie family is on their way to being a new generation’s Hoopers.

A brief interlude. The U-20 Women’s World Cup is a FIFA-organized event, so the Canadian Soccer Association has little say in terms of ticketing, stadium organization, security, etc. That said, the CSA went above and beyond for their supporters in this tournament, particularly in Montreal and Edmonton where the supporters’ own organization was slap-dash and impromptu. My god, how far we have come in a few years, with CSA staffers busting their asses just to make sure a couple dozen of us can shout into the voids of Olympic Stadium or Commonwealth Stadium? If you are a Voyageur, buy your local CSA executive a beer.

Edmonton’s announced attendance of 22,421 compares decently to the 23,595 in the 2002 U-19 Women’s World Championship quarterfinal, and that was a more attractive opponent, a home team with Christine Sinclair and Kara Lang, and had many more tickets given away. The crowd last night was hurt by that old enemy, Edmonton transit, who didn’t lay on extra service for the match despite the fact that every ticket was a free transit pass. As a result, thousands of fans were waiting for the LRT to take them to the stadium even through half-time, and no doubt many simply bailed. It’s a frankly bizarre failure of foresight from the City of Edmonton.

But that’s why the host of the Women’s World Cup automatically gets the preceding U-20 Women’s World Cup: to shake out the bugs in the system. Finding and correcting these mistakes is what, from an organizational standpoint, 2014 was for.

Us fans weren’t too interested in such matters. We care about the women who, hopefully, will be representing Canada at the senior level within a few years. And I can’t remember the last time I saw more names I was excited about. Kadeisha Buchanan, who needs no introduction. Sura Yekka, who stumbled now and then playing on her off wing but saved her best performance for the Germans. Jessie Fleming, who didn’t rise to the occasion as we hoped but also didn’t look out of place at her age. Janine Beckie. Kylie Davis. Nichelle Prince. Rebecca Quinn. Emma Fletcher. Kailen Sheridan was at fault against Ghana but made amends against Germany. Captain Kinley McNicoll was consistently effective, and even regular substitute Amandine Pierre-Louis had some dangerous touches and good reviews. Obviously not all those players will work out, but that’s a long list. If we still don’t have that “next Christine Sinclair”, we still might have more young talent than ever.

We Didn’t All Cheer for Canada

By Benjamin Massey · August 9th, 2014 · 14 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

This particular post does not address the Canada – Finland game itself. My thoughts on it are underway and will be posted later. Right now I am talking about an event, last night, which should be of some symbolic importance to Canadian soccer supporters, though very probably only myself and one or two others will care.

Let me set the scene. On Tuesday, at BMO Field, there was a large, boisterous Ghana contingent cheering against Canada, going into joyous delerium after Ghana’s 1-0 upset win. I didn’t like their team’s play but the supporters were beyond criticism. Friday night and these Ghana supporters are back, this time less jubilant as their side loses the early game 3-0 to North Korea. But they stick around for the late game and, by and large, decide to cheer for Canada against Finland. (A Canada win was in Ghana’s interest: now Finland is all-but-eliminated for the Finland-Ghana match in Montreal Moncton while Canada needs points against the fearsome North Koreans.)

We’ve all picked a team to root for in the second half of a double-header, out of affection or for the sake of our own side, so this should have been no different. Yet with the Ghana supporters cheering for Canada as a second choice or out of self-interest, so-called Voyageurs were so happy to see them that the “Vs” more-or-less went over to Ghana’s side. As seen in the photo, a Ghana flag was flown on a pole beneath the Canadian one for most of the match. A capo leaped into the Ghana stands and led us in Ghanaian rhythms. By no means did the Voyageurs exclusively follow the Ghana supporters lead, but throughout the remainder of the game the atmosphere was very much “Ghana Appreciation Society”. All this because some supporters who were against us Tuesday cheered us Friday when it was to their advantage, and when Canada needs more points than Ghana to make a quarter-final.

(That said, my actual walk-out from the game was when the aforementioned capo called me a “xenophobe” for objecting and said if I didn’t like it I could get out. I might have lived with it under protest otherwise, but am not in the habit of taking insults from guys who skip any Canada game outside their own backyards. A fellow Vancouver supporter had already walked out prior to the half-time whistle because his objections were similarly dismissed. So we repaired to a pub and went insane for Nichelle Prince from there. Well worth it: there were only three Canada supporters there, but we were all in for Canada.)

Why do I object so much I’m spending a lovely train ride writing a blog post about it? Firstly, because I flew a long way to support Canada. Not to “support Canada in Ghanaian style” or to “support Ghana supporters who cheer for us as convenient”. I thought we were all on the same page, but last night’s experience and subsequent correspondence suggests not. You try eye-of-the-needle subversions like “we weren’t cheering Ghana, we were cheering their supporters” if you like; when you’re flying their colours and doing their tunes and going gung-ho for them, you are supporting Ghana. If there were Columbus Crew fans at a Toronto FC match, and the Crew fans were behind TFC because it was good for Columbus’s playoff hopes, and the Red Patch Boys signaled their appreciation by flying a Columbus Crew flag and doing Nordecke chants… what’s the point of putting an “if” on that sentence, it would so clearly never happen, and yet change “Toronto” to “Canada” and it’s apparently fair game.

Would our show of Ghanaian solidarity turn those Ghana supporters into Canada fans? Even if that is our priority at an honest-to-God home soil World Cup match, and it most certainly is not, why on Earth would any of those Ghana fans switch permanently to our cause? Do we think they’re schmucks?

As a well-traveled Voyageur I have a lot of experience being a novelty. Mexico fans spending two hours asking us to pose for photos, astonished British podcasters putting us on YouTube, that kind of thing. It’s an atmosphere I recognize well and I recognized it last night. How can someone honestly think that those Ghanaian supporters, cheering on a program even more troubled than ours in a tournament when they’re serious underdogs before a crowd they must have expected would be hostile, are so weak in their belief they’ll abandon in because of our approval? “Yeah, those Canadians thought we were great; therefore I will get out of this great thing and join them!” I cannot begin to connect the dots. Having demonstrated that we view them as admirable and that cheering against Canada is not only easily forgiven but acceptable, a show of spineless subordination is going to create a generation of new Vs?

The times opposition supporters have shown the Voyageurs respect, it has increased my respect for the Voyageurs. It has not made me think “gee, maybe I’ll root for El Salvador now,” because that’s not an actual human reaction.

I am making an assumption here, but from the consistent crowds, the lines of Ghana kits at the GO Train station, the general mentality, experience, and geography, I think the majority of those Ghana supporters were probably from southern Ontario. In short, a bunch of people living in Canada came out on Tuesday to cheer against Canada. On Friday they cheered for us, and at least a vocal minority of Toronto supporters decided that was fine. Happy to be a second choice.

Now, like anybody with an ounce of human decency I’m all for hospitality to opposing supporters. If they want to come to the pub then by all means! If we’re dancing for joy or for TV cameras outside the stadium together then let’s go fucking mental! And if they want to cheer for Canada outside Ghana matches for whatever reason then have fun. Outside the ninety minutes we are all comrades in the world’s game. On Tuesday we actually did applaud the Ghana supporters post-match to salute their fine work; this raises the question “if waving Ghana’s flag during the match was necessary to be friendly, how were we so friendly on Tuesday?” The answer is honestly simple: hospitality does not mean deference, and waving a black star and telling people to go away if they don’t like it is deference. It is making Canadian fandom inferior to “the old country” in a way that many supporters apparently pretend to oppose.

We already live in a country where it’s accepted for Canada to not be your “real” soccer nation. “Who are you cheering for in the World Cup?” is a question we’re all tiresomely familiar with. People born and raised in Canada wearing Italy and Germany kits when the Reds are fighting for their sporting lives. Whenever any country visits our stadiums you can count on a bunch of locals wearing enemy colours. And you can count on our young players too-often choosing another country over ours, just as fans do. This is what we condone every time we greet somebody who days earlier cheered against Canada and danced on the grave of our defeat with “you guys are fantastic, let’s follow your lead and fly your colours!”

That, to me, is the final straw, as if I bloody needed another. On what grounds could someone wave the flag of supporters for whom Canada is the second choice but boo a player like Asmir Begovic, Owen Hargreaves, Teal Bunbury, or Marco Bustos? The situations are identical: “Canadians when convenient”. Actually the players come off rather better: at least Begovic is looking to his career while the Ghana fans are looking for a good time. You cannot fly the flag of a fan who uses Canada for convenience and denounce a player who does the same while having even a trace of intellectual or moral consistency.

There is an impression around the country that Toronto fans only care about Canada when they’re in front of their faces. We all know that’s not really true, we’ve all seen Toronto fans travel great distances, even if they’re fewer than the Saskatchewan contingent, and we’ve all seen Toronto-based fans who live and die with every U-17 World Cup. Yet the lakeshore crowd cheering on a team which we need to overcome to get out of the group sure reinforces every stereotype. “If it’s not happening at BMO Field I don’t care.” How better could you distill it? Spare me your platitudes about “waving the Ghana flag will make people cheer for Canada” or “the only alternative to going Ghanaian was to be incredibly unfriendly and make them resent us.” It was a weak, soulless, craven display, in stark contrast to the sheer guts shown on the field, and no rationalization holds up to a moment’s scrutiny. If you’re only coming to the games for a local party and don’t give a damn about the event at least have the guts to admit it. Those of us here to support Canada will go our own way, as friendly as ever.

Canada – Ghana Mid-Misery Post

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

Throats lubricated with a dozen pitchers of Mr. Molson’s best, the Voyageurs marched down the street. We’re red, we’re white, we’re very polite!

Eyes to the left! We march past a fellow not far from the parking lot, selling merchandise for the opposition. Good-natured “boo, boo” is our wobbly platoon’s salute.

On our way to the stadium. Enemy forces, strategically positioned inside the gate. The platoon’s morale falters. Up the stands, into our section, commanding a masterly view of about eighteen yards worth of field. Going to strictly check our tickets, Mr. Canadian Security Man? Naturallement. Maybe he’s being prudent, you want to have the supporters together but separate from their foes, otherwise well-respected professionals start throwing Hondurans over railings.

FUBAR. Many more opposition fans here, waving flags and everything; we knew the Canadian supporters section would be an organizational Ypres and we were right. The duffel bag of Voyageurs banners is barred, shoved into storage, a flag does double duty as improvised tifo. A couple sections over, a large group of boisterous enemy supporters, not exactly choreographed but enthusiastic as all get out and going the full 90 to support their country (not meaning the country they live in). Well, we’ll do our best in our divided way. (“What’s that chant?” “I don’t know that tune.” “‘Canada’ doesn’t fit the same way ‘Toronto’ does.” “Are we really yelling ‘fuck’?”) Shouting ourselves literally stupid.

Canada’s battering away and getting some half-chances but starting no five-alarm fires, then the enemy scores a goal on the counter, their first and it turned out only chance of the game, and the other team starts time-wasting and playing negatively and Canada is hammering away but just can’t get the door down and oh god! I’ve seen this one before! Stop the ride, I want to get off!

There’s not much point in talking about the game (consult Daniel Squizzato or Duncan Fletcher if you like), because I was standing in the south stands and haven’t rewatched the match from a proper angle yet. I tried the highlights but started screaming at the missed chances. Story of the game: missed chances. Story of Canadian soccer. Canada was the better team, be in no doubt, top to bottom: the Black Princesses knew it, too, from their negative tactics, time-wasting, and jubilant ten-minute post-game celebration. Slim comfort.

Canada’s hopes are now razor thin: they must not only beat Finland, which ought to be no harder than beating Ghana was, but produce a real upset against the rampant North Koreans. A draw against the Norks would be enough if Ghana loses out or they draw one and the goal differential gods favour us; very possibly Ghana will beat Finland and we’ll need a win. It’s not over, but we’ve put ourselves in a position of needing a big upset against a better team in our last game in what will likely be a sterile Olympic Stadium. We didn’t want to do that.

I’m disappointed at the crowd, of course. This tournament was always going to be a tough sell across the country, but since Toronto isn’t getting any World Cup matches in 2015 I hoped we’d see their best. Alas. For the first time in BMO Field’s history the stadium is hosting a competition where the home team has a real chance of honours on the world stage, and to celebrate this occasion we got a supporters section that wouldn’t suffice against Luxembourg. If you’re a soccer supporter in this part of the country, and you could have come to that game, and you didn’t, then frankly what the hell is the matter with you?

(This isn’t a Toronto shot. The Voyageurs who came out were mostly A+. The chantless lulls were few. Would any other part of the country have done much better? I don’t know. I bet Montreal next Tuesday won’t.)

And the bright sides? Um. The stadium didn’t collapse. Some of the security people were pretty reasonable; about half of my section attempted to concentrate with a cluster of supporters in another section for the second half and we weren’t tazed. Canada’s technical quality wasn’t bad. There’ll be handwringing, of course, but players like Fleming, Buchanan, Fletcher (when she was able to get into position), and Prince (when she was substituted on inexplicably late) showed the quality we need in the future. Anyone who sees Canada resoundingly outplaying Ghana and losing because of bad luck and a keeper’s blunder as a sign of doom isn’t watching the same game as I am. Yes, Ghana has a much-improved youth program, yes, Canada needs to work harder to keep ahead of countries like them, yes, we need a proper women’s professional league rather than hoping the Americans will love us and spending our limited resources on World Cup bids, and yes, bah Gawd some of those players are still cinder blocks, but the performance itself was no humiliation.

There had been some serious weather in Toronto the past couple days, thunder and lightning and deluges of rain. Where was that on Tuesday evening when we could have used it? Andrew Olivieri might have failed the Aron Winter Test anyway. I still can’t figure him out. How did Prince come in so late? Was she nursing a knock? (She didn’t look it.) The formation was weird. Why was Fletcher thrown out onto an off wing and spent so long unable to influence the game? I don’t object to substituting her off after a scoring chance as such; hitting the post doesn’t make a player less tired, but her initial employment wasted a lot of skill and energy for no gain.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

U-20 Women’s World Cup Predictions

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

Douglas Portz/Canadian Soccer Association

Douglas Portz/Canadian Soccer Association

This afternoon, at 7 PM Eastern time (4 PM Pacific), Canada kicks off its FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup campaign at BMO Field against Ghana (CBC and CBCSports.ca, good tickets still available). By reputation they’re not the most skilled team on two feet, but Ghana’s going to be tricksy like Sam Gamgee and the Africans are always good for an upset or four at women’s youth competitions. Better teams than ours have been stunned by tenacious, hard-running Black Princesses in money games. Let’s just hope that upset’s not against us; Canada’s group is tough enough.

I’ve considered Canada’s group stage opposition, and their surprising depth. I’ve considered the Canadian team itself, and our promising crop of young technicians. I’ve done about all the considering I can do. Now it’s time to write down some predictions, so in three weeks we can laugh uproariously at how wrong I am.

These predictions continue my trend of “basic optimism”. Yes, I have Canada finishing in a top-two position that will get them out of their group, and while that won’t satisfy a public hungry for victory and unaware of the development of the rest of the world, that would be a result worthy of applause.

Unfortunately I don’t have Canada getting much further, but that’s not their fault.


GP W D L Pts GF GA GD
North Korea 3 3 0 0 9 7 2 +5
Canada 3 1 1 1 4 4 4 0
Finland 3 0 2 1 2 2 4 -2
Ghana 3 0 1 2 1 3 6 -3

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


Finland 0-2 North Korea
Canada 2-1 Ghana

Friday, August 8, 2014


North Korea 3-1 Ghana
Canada 1-1 Finland

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Canada 1-2 North Korea
Ghana 1-1 Finland

A Strange Interlude

Normally there’s a big advantage in finishing first in the group. You get the weaker team out of whichever group you’re up against. It’s especially true at this level where, let’s be blunt, one or two weak-ish teams probably are going to sneak into the quarterfinal.

Unfortunately, the luck of the draw has gouged our eyes out and spat into the holes. If Canada wins the group we’ll face the second-place team in Group B at BMO Field on Saturday, August 16. If Canada finishes second in the group, we’ll face the first-place team from Group B at Commonwealth Stadium that same day. The problem is that Group B is the Group of Death: Germany, the United States, China, and Brazil.

Brazil’s on the downswing but could still do some damage normally, China isn’t worth that much but is really good for a fourth-best team, and Germany and the United States are probably the two best programs in this tournament. The Germans and Americans are almost certainly going to finish one-two in some order, and that means we are almost certain to get one of them in the quarter-final, and that means, very probably, that’s where our tournament ends regardless of the group stage.

How About the Rest of the Groups?

If you’re interested I’ll mention it but I haven’t done the research to the same degree.

Obviously, I have the United States and Germany coming out of Group B, probably in that order. I think you might be surprised how much the Brazilian women’s program has slipped relative to the rest of the world. The struggles of their senior women are well-known, but their U-17s are failing to qualify for World Cups and getting bollocked by Colombia and in the last U-20 World Cup they were weak sisters in a simple group. Their qualifying campaign was quite impressive, but not “gonna beat the Americans and Germany” impressive. Yeah, they’re third, barring a serious upset.

Group C looks like it’ll be entertaining. England’s been playing really good soccer, so they’re winning it. I think South Korea is coming out second, because the Nigerian federation is in well-documented turmoil and their pre-tournament preparations have been very sketchy, but as in the case of Ghana you can’t count the Nigerians out. Poor Mexico, they’re third or fourth, but this won’t be the last we hear of them. (Fun fact: this is Mexican goalkeeper and captain Cecilia Santiago’s fourth U-20 Women’s World Cup. That’s got to be an all-genders record, hasn’t it?)

Group D is the Group of Life. France is going to win it, no doubt in the world about that, and the only question is which bundle of mediocrity is going to stumble into the honour of getting whacked by England. Costa Rica? They might be the worst team in the tournament. New Zealand? They might have been the worst team in the tournament if they weren’t in a group with Costa Rica. Paraguay? Well, I guess it’s gonna be Paraguay, and they’ve been getting quietly not-terrible results on the youth side of the ball, but boy howdy.

In the group stage, North Korea (my 1A) will have a very interesting match with Germany/United States (one of them is 2B). I have to say that the unknown democracy is going to win, but superb upset potential there. Canada fights the other German/United States team, with the passionate crowd behind them; both matches are grueling all-out war between strong sides, the pitch raised by historical rivalries and the expectations of victory.

Meanwhile on the other end of the bracket, France is rolling through South Korea like the Chinese didn’t while England’s players don’t even need to put away their tea to send Paraguay home. This, I suspect, will give the nations of the Entente cordiale a slight advantage going forward.

France and England play each other in one semi-final. Germany and the United States in the other. It’s getting very 1941 in here. Both matches are closely contested, but consider the travel factor: England and France had just played their quarter-finals in Moncton and Montreal, and the semi is in Montreal. Germany and the United States have just played their quarters in Edmonton and Toronto, and the semi is in Moncton. So not only did the Group C/D side of the bracket have an easier road to the semi, they now have slightly easier travel.

As a result, when the United States and France face off in Montreal, the French have not had to move from their semi-final location, one more little advantage to a knockout stage that’s gone pretty much their own way. That, combined with France’s superb technical ability and a crowd of disappointed Canadians that will certainly be anti-Yank, leads to France taking the 2014 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.

What’s Canada Got for the U-20 Women’s World Cup

By Benjamin Massey · August 3rd, 2014 · No comments

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Inevitably, we look at the 2014 Women’s U-20 World Cup through the glasses of 2002.

The 2002 FIFA Women’s U-19 World Championship (as it was then) was the inaugural edition of a tournament nobody was much interested in, hosted in western Canada, a footnote in the sad annals of Canadian soccer, until we realized that a team full of personable, talented young women was kicking the bejeezus out of the world. 3-2 over Denmark, bit sketchy maybe, but then 4-0 over Japan, Lang and Sinclair each with a brace, the game that defined “announcing your presence with authority”. 2-0 over the 23-year-olds of Nigeria, a perfect record in the group stage, off to the quarter-finals for England, the old country, a country everyone knows is better at soccer, and 6-2 later the newspapers think we might have something here[1].

In Edmonton, the organizers had made the savvy decision to hand out a complimentary tournament pass to registered youth soccer players in the area, meaning that as Canada ran the table the stands at Commonwealth Stadium got fuller and fuller, a penalty victory over Brazil that’s still the best game I’ve ever seen in person providing the finishing touch. The legendary final on September 1, 2012 saw 47,784 Edmontonians get behind the Canadian U-19 women, who lost a 1-0 golden goal heartbreaker to Lindsay Tarpley, Heather O’Reilly, and the United States*.

That little tournament wrote the modern story of Canadian soccer. On the women’s side, many of those players have made an immortal impact on the world’s game and were integral to our greatest triumph: the bronze medal in London. And on the men’s side the success of 2002 led to Canada bidding for, and hosting, a men’s U-20 World Cup (successful off the field, if not on), which led to a national soccer stadium in Toronto and the birth of Toronto FC, which led to the ascent of Vancouver and Montreal into MLS and didn’t hurt the arrival of NASL teams in Edmonton and Ottawa. 2002 was Genesis, or more precisely The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway; even those who ignored it were influenced by it. And now 2014 is being looked at as its successor. Good luck.

For one thing, 2002 was a stand-alone tournament in a country that had never known its like. 2014 is an apertif for the full Women’s World Cup in 2015; even had we not been bloated by the U-20 World Cup, the 2012 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifiers, more Gold Cup games being played close to home in Seattle and Columbus, this tournament would still be doomed to be an afterthought.

For another thing, the 2002 Canadian team won, and in style. That was an essential part of its appeal. Sure, the players were stunningly likable but had the team not run all the way to the final nobody would have bothered talking to them to find out. The 2014 team has some fine players, but have they got that sort of generational depth?

Everywhere, everyone asks “where is the new Christine Sinclair?” Well, Christine Sinclair is one of the five best women’s players of all time; you don’t pluck a replacement for her off the apple tree. But where is the new Kara Lang? She was the second-best player on that 2002 U-19 team at fifteen years old (there will never be enough exclamation marks for that)! Where is the new Brittany Timko? Our Candace Chapman and Clare Rustad? Our Erin McLeod? There was a lot of talent on that team, from back to front: that’s why they won.

Last week I considered Canada’s opponents in the group stage and had to set my jaw a bit: we knew the North Koreans would be stars, but close examination makes Finland and even Ghana look more dangerous than we probably hoped. Canadian fans who only follow women’s soccer in passing may expect a larger margin of superiority than we, in fact, have. There’s a risk of earth-shattering disappointments.

But do not despair. This team has some serious soccer players with the potential to dazzle, to delight, to lift Canada to only the third quarter-final appearance in their U-20 Women’s World Cup history.

Take Jessie Fleming, pictured in the top left. I think she might be a genius. A central midfielder who, at sixteen years old, came on as a substitute against Germany and was able to get involved. Looking fit against the best technical women’s team in the world when they were trying to defend a one-goal lead? I call that a compliment. In the 2013 CONCACAF Women’s U-17 championship she was both took the Golden Boot[2], scored one of the goals of the tournament[3], and while not so remarkable at the 2014 U-17 Women’s World Cup she remained the midfield maestro, the Carli Lloyd/Camille Abily we’ve always cried for. Our eventual quarterfinal loss to Venezuela wasn’t her fault. What a tournament this could be for her. She’ll have to play up and handle bigger, stronger, older (potentially much older in North Korea’s case) women with nothing but her developing smarts and quick feet; it’ll be enough of a challenge to be interesting, but with the potential for thrills. She’s not as well-known to the common fan: unlike some of the other young players Fleming has not had her decisive coming-out on the senior national team. It will happen, though. Duane Rollins called her “wunderkindin a headline back in December[4]. I can’t blame him.

Those who saw Canada play the United States in Winnipeg will remember Kadeisha Buchanan, women’s U-20 player of the year[5] and already an important part of the senior women’s national team. Buchanan has the fitness of a thoroughbred on steroids, tackles like mad, isn’t averse to a charging offensive run, plays with blood and guts and brings a dimension to the Canadian defense we’ve never seen before. I’ve raved about her at length[6], and centre backs don’t usually get raved about. There’s a lot of work to realize her potential but if there is any justice this will be her coming out party, a nationally televised announcement that “guess what, Canada? We have another world-class player. Get ready to see her in bank ads.” Her senior centre back partner, Rebecca Quinn, will also be at this tournament, and if she seems like the Watson to Buchanan’s Holmes, remember that Watson was a bit of a badass himself.

We all should get to know Sura Yekka, the scintillating left back, maybe our best player (and certainly the most audacious) at the U-17 Women’s World Cup, a capable defender who uses space and keeps ball-side better than usual for a young Canadian, but also loves to beat guys and cause trouble. Yekka is just 17 years old, also young for this level, and her inexperience catches up with her from time to time, but I remember her doing a pretty good job dealing with Heather O’Reilly and I find I don’t mind her chances against 24-year-old North Korean wingers. Yekka is reigning Canadian U-17 Women’s Player of the Year, a fine honour when Fleming’s also on the ballot[7]. At that age it’s impossible to guarantee a prospect’s future; the most lauded players at 16 have been selling sandwiches by the time they’re 22. But Yekka’s done everything right and handled senior friendlies with skill; the next step is to establish herself as a standout in this tournament, with some of the world’s best at her age playing for money against her and all the pressure on.

That’s two good defenders, but they won’t win the games by themselves, and a fine young midfielder, but one who needs a supporting cast. Who will score the goals? Nichelle Prince is a thumping forward for Ohio State who’s scored for Canada at levels all the way up our pyramid, including one for the senior women at last year’s Yongchuan invitational[8]. She isn’t tall but she’s solid, the most “old-school” bull-in-a-china-shop-style Canadian player on this team, and has trundled in goals for OSU against older, larger women: good practice for this year. She’s no Sinclair, I’m not saying that, but if the ball is moving out of the back and through midfield you don’t need Sinclair, you need a poacher with a nose for goal. (A big “if”, I realize.)

We will feel the absence of Summer Clarke, probably Canada’s best forward at this age group but in self-imposed exile from the national program. Thinking of this team with Clarke starting makes me scream to the heavens, because then we’d really have some balance, but there’s nothing Andrew Olivieri or John Herdman should be expected to do about it and Prince should be good for a couple goals this tournament.

I haven’t even gotten into players like Emma Fletcher, who I have seldom seen but is widely admired and was compared to Luka Modric by her college webpage[9]; she’s probably the top British Columbia player at the tournament and will be making her first appearance at an international tournament for Canada. After time in the Canadian U-15 setup Fletcher represented her father’s New Zealand at the 2012 U-17 Women’s World Cup, but a storming couple years have got her back on the Canadian radar and expectations are now high.

This talent means that I currently have Canada advancing out of its group, but it also makes our recent struggles stand out in Copperplate Gothic. Canada has fallen over in its preparatory friendlies. A two-game series in Mexico ended with a 0-0 draw and a 3-0 Mexican victory[10], and while the Mexican program has improved astonishingly we still shouldn’t be seeing scores like that on tournament eve. In May, Canada drew and lost two games in Burnaby against South Korea[11]; they have a talented team this cycle and are U-19 Asian champions, but are the sort we’ll have to beat if we want honours this year.

The Mexican experience was partially blamed on travel and tough conditions, and I wonder if our raw team might feel the same pressure in the World Cup. There are just a long of young-ish players. I like Yekka and Fleming, but they’re kids, if we win they have to celebrate with orange soda, and we’re counting on them to largely run the show. Nor are they the only U-18s: defender Jordane Carvery is 17 (18 in September), Vanessa Gregoire is a recent 18, Sarah Kinzner is much-respected but is another 17-year-old. Many of these players are known talents and it’s an old saying that “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.” But this is a quick-moving tournament with short turnarounds, more travel than usual, pitches varying wildly in quality from muni training grounds in Vaughan to BMO Field, and a group where our opponents might frankly be cheating: physical immaturity may out.

Also inexperienced is our coach, Andrew Olivieri. The former journeyman pro goalkeeper was named women’s U-20 boss in 2012 despite having little bootroom experience. His coaching at the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup obviously wasn’t why we failed to get out of the group, but I had questions: he seemed to lack aggression and even in must-score situations was leery of players who’d shown glimpses of quality like Jaclyn Sawicki and Jenna Richardson[12]. Now he has another two years under his belt. Coaches, like players, need time to develop: hopefully that time’s been on our side. Certainly, the development of promising young players looks very good on Olivieri. But I remember, in 2005, another player-turned-coach named Dale Mitchell leading the Canadian men’s U-20s to a disappointing World Cup, featuring only a single draw against Syria[13]. The Canadian Soccer Association kept faith in Mitchell, who took Canada into the 2007 tournament on home soil and did even worse, scoring no goals, no points, nothing but embarrassment[14]. I don’t care to imagine a distaff repeat.

I present concerns because I have to, but this is Canada’s most promising youth team since 2002. We have to remember that when Canada was kicking butt and rolling through the world early in the century, the women’s game was substantially undeveloped everywhere except Canada, the United States, and western Europe. If you had some gritty, powerful athletes with modest technical abilities, you would win, especially at the youth level. That rule does not apply anymore. You can see it with our senior national team, caught in a long transition between athletes and technicians (if it seems Diana Matheson has gotten more valuable every year it’s because the style has been changing to suit a 5-foot-nothing mid with smart feet).

Today’s Canada has its athletes, but most do more than push and run. Buchanan is as strong and tough as anybody but what makes her Kadeisha Buchanan is her skill at defending. Fleming, Fletcher, and Yekka would be unrecognizable on the Canadian youth teams of 2004 or 2006. Probably Canada will get out of the group but maybe we won’t, and come what may our approach is heading in the right direction. I’m looking forward to Tuesday with hope in my heart, even if we’re unlikely to see another 2002 miracle.

Later this week, I’ll have my group stage predictions and a couple other notes.

(notes and comments…)

Considering Canada’s U-20 Women’s World Cup Opponents

By Benjamin Massey · July 30th, 2014 · No comments

Of course I don't have a photo of the North Korean women's U-20s so here's the trophy. (Canadian Soccer Association)

Of course I don’t have a photo of the North Korean women’s U-20s so here’s the trophy. (Canadian Soccer Association)

Next week, the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup kicks off in Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, and Moncton. The first match comes on August 5 at 5 PM Eastern, when Finland and North Korea cross swords at Toronto’s BMO Field. Canada kicks off three hours later against the Black Princesses of Ghana.

The hosts are drawn against Ghana, North Korea, and Finland, a worryingly deep group but one that lacks a superpower. That’s by design: teams are seeded by their rankings except for the hosts, who are automatically “A1″: therefore, the place in Canada’s group that would otherwise have belonged to a world-class side instead goes to Canada. Thanks, FIFA! But not too much, as the absence of a Germany or a France just means Canada could finish from first to fourth without turning too many heads.

The three teams who Canada will face in the group stage from August 5 to August 12 are mostly enigmas to the soccer public, so here is a look at this surprisingly dangerous troika. In the coming days I will also give my opinion on Canada’s own roster, as well as a quick glance around the rest of the tournament, and as I will be attending all the group stage matches I hope to have something there as well.

Conveniently for us armchair pundits Canada’s group include two teams nobody can ever be an expert on, allowing us to make vague prognostications without risking any specifics that might make it look like we don’t know what we’re talking about.

Take one of the favourites, North Korea. This country, you may have heard in the news, is somewhat secretive. Information they release is not always reliable. The high level of patriotism in what I’m sure is a totally fair and free press leads to articles about former Dear Leaders shooting 34 on their first-ever rounds of golf[1], when more sober analysis suggests such a result is unlikely. I’m sure the journalists laughed about it over their rice gruel the next morning. “Do you believe we printed that?! Oh, well, can’t run a retraction, the power’s gone out again!”

North Korea

Even confronted by outside witnesses and television cameras, North Korea’s women’s youth teams are very good. In the last U-20 Women’s World Cup, Japan 2012, the Norks slapped fifteen kinds of hell out of Group C. They ran the table, 3-0-0, including a 2-1 win over Canada that was North Korea’s game from the captains’ handshake. A 9-0 win over sadsacks Argentina set a tournament record, but in the first knockout round they had the bad luck to run into the United States, who had barely escaped in second from a nasty group. Even the eventually-tournament-winning Americans needed extra time to bounce North Korea 2-1[2], probably the stiffest test they got in the whole knockout stage. This spring at the U-17 Women’s World Cup the North Koreans drew Canada and we were somewhat flattered by the point, though North Korea had an iffy tournament. We have seen a lot of North Korea and have not prospered by the acquaintance.

In U-20 Asian qualifying last year North Korea finished second out of six teams and qualified easily. A loss to South Korea and a draw with the strong (but disappointing) Japanese would have saddened the eternal shades of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, but the glorious Juche ideal was pushed forward by a win over hosts and champions China and a 6-2 bollocking of the decent Australians, the tournament’s largest victory over anyone who wasn’t Myanmar. Ri Un-Sim scored three goals; Canadian fans will recognize her from the 2012 U-17 Women’s World Cup where her brace sent Canada down in flames in the quarter-finals. (I am really sick of North Korea.)

The 2012 team is a big influence: fourteen of twenty-one players on this year’s roster were with those U-17s who went all the way to the final before losing to France on penalties[3]. These players include Silver Ball winner Ri Hyang-Sim and forwards Ri Kyong-Hyang and Kim So-Hyang (who scored a memorable brace against Germany)[4]; I guess they haven’t been purged but, frankly, if you replaced all the players with someone completely different nobody would be able to tell. It’s North Korea; these women are a mystery to the world.

Why does North Korea do so well? With 95% of participating nations being mediocre or worse, and funding generally low, you can make an impact in women’s soccer by investing only a few thousand starving peasants. Also, the Norks play dirty; their senior women are disqualified from the 2015 Women’s World Cup for industrial-strength doping[5]. Though not yet proven in soccer, that classic trick of the trade among shadier countries in youth competition, passport fraud, is familiar to Pyongyang: they got their gymnastics program banned for a hilariously transparent case[6]. Bear in mind, their senior women have never risen to the heights implied by their rampant youth, with only one trip out of the group stage in either the World Cup or the Olympics.

Cheating or no, whoever isn’t afraid of the North Koreans isn’t paying attention. Though Canada outranks North Korea at the senior level, 7th versus 11th[7], and has won the only game ever played between the two senior sides[8], our young ladies are winless in three tries against the Nork youth[9]. It’s impossible to get meaningful information on the team beyond past results, but past results are in North Korea’s favour so, by hook or by crook, we have to assume they’ll be formidable.

North Korea is my provisional pick to win the group. The Juche spirit marches on!

Finland

In women’s soccer Finland is, and there’s no other way to put it, kinda crappy. Their best-remembered player is sturdy forward Laura Österberg Kalmari, who went out with WPS because she couldn’t make a living at the game. If you know any of their current senior players it’s probably Sanna Talonen, not merely their leading active scorer but a 2008 Vancouver Whitecap[10]. They’ve never qualified for a World Cup, never made an Olympic Games, probably would have done both on any other continent but, alas, are stuck being another sorta mediocre European team, interesting only for the obsessives. Canada actually has a surprisingly mixed record against the Finns but has won both of the last two times out, took our only ever youth meeting (at the 2006 Women’s U-20 World Cup)[11], and is basically better.

So what, you might be asking, in Christine Sinclair’s holy name are they doing here? UEFA qualifiers were back in August 2013 and the unseeded Finns had to start from square one: they topped Group 7 with a perfect record in the first round, including a 2-1 win over Spain. In the second round they were again perfect, though a group of Iceland, Portugal, and Northern Ireland was not quite the World Cup. In the third round things got serious but the Finns were up to it, getting a vital 1-0 win over Nordic rivals Norway and drawing Germany and a collapsing Sweden to earn an implausible trip to the Women’s U-20 World Cup. In the knockout stage, to determine the continental championship, England crushed the Finns 4-0[12], but by then plane tickets for Canada had already been handed out.

I know, right? Sweden was burning up like a Buddhist monk but four points of six against Norway and Germany is good work. Finland conceded four goals from the nine group stage matches, a tidy sum bested only by Germany and France. The Finnish attack, while in no danger of setting any records, is well-balanced. Juliette Kemppi, Adelina Engman, Nora Heroum, and Natalia Kuikka all had more than two goals through qualifying, with Engman leading the way on seven (two from the spot) and Kemppi leading in open play with six. Engman, Kemppi, Heroum, as well as Riikka Ketoja and Emma Koivisto, are already senior internationals[13]. Heroum has a remarkable twenty-six senior caps (more than, to pick a name, Kadeisha Buchanan) and Engman four goals. In fact, in their most recent senior international (a World Cup qualifier against Austria) Finland’s eighteen featured five players from this squad: Koivisto, Ketoja, Heroum, and Engman started while Kemppi was an unused substitute[14]. Famously youthful Canada played five U-20s in their most recently senior international against Germany, but that was a lowly friendly. In short, Finland’s young guns are getting as much of a work out against grown women as anybody in the world, and some are already making their names.

Once before, Finland made a U-20 Women’s World Cup: they snuck into Russia 2006 and spent three games getting creamed: they lost every match, their one goal for was an own goal, and they conceded 12, including the indescribable humiliation of losing 8-0 to Nigeria in a city that’s a two-hour flight from Helsinki; the only reason Switzerland took the Wooden Spoon was Switzerland’s much tougher group[15]. It probably goes without saying that debacle did not herald a golden generation for the Finns, though a few players, most notably captain Maija Saari, are still hanging around.

This year’s side looks far more imposing. They’re a more experienced lot, they’ve shown more quality against decent countries, and only the England result suggests that they’re still the same old sloppy side. They shouldn’t be competing for medals, but Finland looks sneaky. I don’t trust them. If we charge into their forests confident of a quick victory their Molotov cocktails are going to rain down on us like a hurricane of fire. The back of the envelope suggests that they’ll be in the three-way dance for second in the group, but Canada probably has the advantage thanks to home advantage and a strong team defense… probably. It could easily go the other way and we should desperately hope it doesn’t. Canada versus Finland on August 8 might be the climactic game of Group A.

Ghana

African sides at this level are enigmas, unseen teams with unknown players bobbing onto the world stage every couple years, without even an obsessive insider to feed us the scoops. These teams receive little exposure at home and seldom play abroad, so bar flying across the ocean and walking to the park, World Cups are the only chances we get to see them. And there’s little incentive for the would-be expert to plumb too deep because (let’s be frank here) we expect these teams to be terrible. Only once has an African team made a serious impact at the senior level: in the 1999 Women’s World Cup, Nigeria shockingly got out of their group took Brazil to the brink in the first knockout stage, coming back from 3-0 down but losing 4-3 in extra time with only ten women on the field in what’s still remembered as a classic game[16]. They are the only African side ever to advance out of the group stage in a Women’s World Cup; they also advanced from the group stage at the 2004 Summer Olympics but just about everyone did. Nigeria did have a good show in the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup, but Ghana got thumped in a strong Group D.

Along with Nigeria and (lately) Equatorial Guinea, Ghana is one of the only three African nations worth considering. You will understand this is strictly relative. Ghanaian head coach Bashir Hayford got into the papers saying he “wanted to win the Cup.”[17] Well, good luck to you, sir: me, if I were you I should be pleased to win a game.

Normally it’s helpful to consider these smaller countries by how they did in qualifying. In Ghana’s case this is a waste of time. The 2013-14 African U-20 Cup of Nations for Women (catchy!) consisted of home-and-away ties until only two teams were left. Those two went to Canada 2014 straight away without the indignity of a final. So Ghana got a first round draw against Guinea-Bissau, who withdrew[18]. In the next round, Ghana faced Uganda, who had previously whooped South Sudan 22-0 then seen Egypt withdraw. Uganda withdrew[19]. As a result Ghana found themselves in the final qualifying tie against Equatorial Guinea without having so much as played a game: the Black Princesses won on penalties after a 1-1 aggregate draw and that’s all it took[20].

Ghana has been in the Toronto area for more than a week now, playing friendlies against local U-20 and U-21 women’s teams. They’ve compiled an undefeated record, with wins over G-S United and Burlington Bayhawks and a draw with North Mississauga Panthers[21]. Ghana played four friendlies against Nigeria in June with a record of 1W-1D-2L[22]; that suggests that they’re about level with their African rivals and therefore should be group makeweights. Their roster contains a few famous names, in that they have players named “Appiah” and “Boateng”[23], but none of these U-20s appeared at the most recent full pre-U-20-World-Cup senior national team camp in April[24].

So you see the problem in assessing Ghana. Their qualifying run was, with the best will in the world, a complete joke. They’ve gotten good results against local rep teams and were a half-step behind their biggest African rival. Their players are all-but-anonymous and haven’t made a mark on the hardly-world-class senior squad. What the hell do you want me to say about them?

Yet it’s as true in soccer as in ancient Rome that ex Africa semper aliquid novi. What if Ghana and Nigeria have improved relative to the world? How would we know? At this spring’s U-17 Women’s World Cup Ghana made some noise, winning the group against extremely tough opposition in Germany, North Korea, and Canada. It took penalties for Italy to prevail in the knockout stage; earlier that afternoon Canada had lost to bloody Venezuela. Nigeria ran the table in their much weaker group then got throttled by Spain in the first knockout round. That’s two stirring performances from traditional makeweights, though no Ghana U-17s were named to the U-20 roster[25]. Were the African U-17s a pair of flukes or the sign of much-improved youth setups?

The thing is, it wasn’t Ghana’s first good U-17 run. In the 2012 U-17 World Cup Ghana finished second in a tricky group, then scored one of the tournament upsets by beating Japan 1-0 in the quarterfinal. Having claimed that enormous scalp, they lost 2-0 to eventual champions France but bagged the tournament upset by knocking off Germany 1-0 in the third-place game, putting paid to the most technically proficient country in women’s soccer. It was serious balling and though only eight of the 2012 U-17s return to the 2014 U-20s[26], with team scoring leader Jane Ayieyam one of those absent, they still boast a largely returning midfield including Priscilla Okyere, who scored three goals in Azerbaijan 2012 and was named Sports Writers Association of Ghana female soccer player of the year[27]. A worrying sign for Canada, who will need to show attacking pluck against a side that knows how to win upsets and doesn’t concede many goals.

And, like North Korea, Ghana hasn’t got a reputation for playing fair. Ivory Coast pundit Mamadou Gaye, when asked who’d win the 2011 men’s U-17 World Cup, famously answered that any of the African teams could do it “because at that level we like cheating on our age.”[28] The president of Ghana’s football association admitted in June that they had engaged in age cheating, but specifically said the women’s program was clean[29]. On the women’s side there is much less money to be made, keeping out the for-profit academies often linked to fraud, but when combined with Ghana (and Nigeria)’s disproportionately good youth teams compared to their adults it’s a big question mark.

I still have Ghana favourites for the bottom of Group A on the grounds of lesser competition, high squad turnover, and Canada’s home field advantage… but anyone who gives you a certain answer is a liar or a fool. It is certainly possible for these young ladies to spring an upset on the hosts, as better teams than us have found out against some of these players.

(notes and comments…)

Questions for the NASL Canadian Division

By Benjamin Massey · July 11th, 2014 · 8 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Yesterday afternoon Duane Rollins set off fireworks around the Canadian soccer world. In his much-circulated post Rollins reported that the Canadian Soccer Association, the North American Soccer League, and the Canadian Football League are in negotiations to launch an all-Canadian division within the NASL, with a limited number of teams entering soon as the summer of 2015 and full divisional play by the summer of 2016[1]. This was the first major public discussion of a possibility that’s been kicked around Canadian soccer fandom as “more likely than you might think” for a couple of months, and follows CSA president Victor Montagliani telling Steven Sandor his desire for what’s been called a Canadian “division 1A”, weaker than Major League Soccer but national, fully professional, and with all Canadian teams[2].

The usual suspects have replied with a “no comment”, which is hopeful but still puts this strictly in the realm of the hypothetical. By our modest standards, though, this story is almost solid, and certainly has enough smoke to be taken seriously.

For my part this would almost be the best-case scenario, independence combining with Canada’s oldest rivalry: that with the United States. Fans in this country like seeing the New York Cosmos, coming to grips with the big-ass eagle to the south and, once in a while, winning the fight. Vancouver’s Cascadia Cup matches are must-watch for MLS fans, while the battles between the Montreal Impact and the Rochester Rhinos are sorely missed. A self-contained Canadian division within the North American Soccer League could allow us to control our own soccer destiny while retaining foreign competition.

In the Canadian Football League we have the only entirely Canadian professional sports league that’s worked long-term, with big crowds and higher Canadian TV ratings than the National Football League (more than double the best-watched MLS games)[3]. Much recent success has been thanks to TSN embracing the CFL, so if they show a similar attitude to soccer so much the better: TSN has lost national NHL rights starting this year, leaving them looking for content. And the 2016 NASL season, with a club or two in 2015, is a startlingly quick revolution. Hamilton Tiger-Cats owner Bob Young, according to Rollins the driving force behind this initiative, was part-owner of the Carolina Railhawks from October 2008[4] until January 2011 when Traffic Sports took over[5]; he saw the second division’s best of times and the worst of times. The CFL will know what they’re getting into.

It’s early days, but almost all Canadian soccer must hope this dream comes true. Even those who think it won’t work will surely welcome the attempt. We could hardly ask for more, and if it does happen I will buy a season ticket to the nearest Canadian division team to me no matter who it is (unless it’s Calgary; then I’ll buy the second-nearest). This division would be the greatest development for Canadian men’s soccer since the old Canadian Soccer League and it is incumbent upon every fan of the domestic game to support it as fully as possible, for only with this sort of serious development have we got any shot of winning another Gold Cup or qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.

Most supporter concerns have invoked the image of 5,000-fan NASL crowds in 35,000-seat CFL stadiums. The photo at top left is from FC Edmonton’s last game in Commonwealth Stadium, a Voyageurs Cup match against Vancouver in 2013: only one half of the stadium was open and you can see how packed it was despite an interesting opponent and good traveling Whitecaps support. I’ve seen loads of soccer at Commonwealth and it takes a pretty special crowd to make that building live. This coming Sunday the Eddies host the Ottawa Fury at Commonwealth due to a delay in Clarke Stadium’s new pitch; with the World Cup final earlier in the afternoon expect a sedate night. Yet this shouldn’t be a game-breaker: if anybody knows how to fill up a CFL stadium it’s the CFL teams that do it.

If you’re worried about gridiron football lines on the field then there is good news. Of the four CFL stadiums supposedly looking at new NASL teams, Winnipeg has already hosted a women’s national team game on its field and the soccer lines looked good. The new Hamilton stadium has washable lines and is hosting soccer for the 2015 Pan-American Games[6], the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ new stadium has barely broken ground, and Calgary’s McMahon Stadium just installed new FieldTurf which is the same system used at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field[7]. On top of the new washable-line turf at Edmonton’s Clarke Stadium and Ottawa’s Lansdowne Field, that’s five of six stadiums with washable turf immediately and the sixth opening in 2017.

Nor should fans worry about MLS poaching the TV audience. There is little reason for a neutral fan to watch Major League Soccer games in a world when top European leagues and Liga MX are available easily on Canadian television. MLS ratings reflect this. NASL Canada ratings would reflect it too; apart from patriots or diehards who’ll watch Canadian games anyway there’s no TV audience for MLS to cannibalize. It’ll be fans, not neutrals, tuning in all the way in both leagues.

As for where players will come from, there seems to be an idea that the types of Canadians who saw 18,000 minutes a year for the Whitecaps, Impact, and Lynx have vaporized. In fact there are plenty of twenty-somethings like Paul Hamilton who are of undoubted quality but have been elbowed out of the professional game because there were too few opportunities close to home, plenty of academy players who turn 20 and can’t beat that $300,000 a year Chilean in the first team lineup so go get an education, plenty of CIS stars who knock the stuffing out of every opponent they meet but never get a chance to go any further. With a total of four five professional teams Canada’s soccer world is not markedly more overdrawn than the Americans, with their 16 MLS, eight NASL, and 14 USL Pro teams, invariably with more domestic players than the Canadian clubs, plus a larger overseas contingent. No doubt a Canadian division will have its teething pains but, with a sensible domestic player quota and reasonably ambitious salary structure, they should show NASL-standard on-field quality very quickly.

So I’m going to skip these much-discussed issues; instead, I will ask aloud four questions of a more long-term nature. The answers won’t change whether Canadian fans should embrace this division (they should), but will affect its viability over the years. They may even change whether it gets off the ground at all.

1. What impact will the USSF have on a Canadian NASL division?

Oh Lord I hope everyone has sorted this question out, because it’s a fatal complication if they haven’t.

Fans of the second division will remember that, in 2010 and 2011, there was a vicious streetfight between United Soccer Leagues, the ownership that eventually became the North American Soccer League, and the United States Soccer Federation over how to sanction a second-division league. The NASL owners had broken off from the USL First Division, despite its name the existing second division in North American soccer. Both USL and the new NASL wanted sanctioning as a second division, while the USSF tried to impose more stringent standards than ever to end decades of chronic instability. At times it looked like there might be no second-division soccer for an entire season, with only last-minute compromises averting disaster.

For the 2010 season the USSF forced both groups into an interim “USSF D-2 Pro League” with USL and NASL conferences[8] (that, for competitive reasons, did not perfectly reflect the ownership divide). A new order was finalized after much debate and heartache following the 2010 season: the USSF would sanction only a league where (among other rules) at least 75% of the teams were American and the primary owner of each team would have a net worth of at least US$20 million[9]. The USL decided not to try and meet these standards and merged their First and Second Divisions into today’s USL Pro, a third division which seldom admits it; the NASL won provisional second division sanctioning in the spring of 2011 and has more-or-less kept to the USSF provisions ever since.

This bare-knuckle brawl looked like it might sink the American second division entirely for a time and opened a breach between the second division and the third that has still not healed. But the USSF stuck to their guns because they believed that high standards were essential for the credibility of the lower divisions. So far events have borne the USSF out: in the last four seasons of the USL First Division eight teams folded, suspended operations, or self-relegated. Since the peace accord, seven more teams have been and gone in four seasons of USL Pro. By comparison in those four years only one NASL team, a USL First Division legend from Puerto Rico, has fallen[10].

What was, in soccer terms, civil war has concluded in an American second division that is probably more stable and more successful than at any other point in its history. Will the USSF, having won this victory, let a Canadian division run under the CSA’s rules into an American league without holding the Canadian teams to the American standards? We are mere Arctic nobodies, and the USSF may not care, but if six Canadian NASL owners threw in the towel the knock-on effect for American teams would be bad. Let’s hope that the USSF is obliging, and that all parties have figured this out in advance. Today FC Edmonton and the Ottawa Fury meet the USSF standards, but a CFL-owned Canadian division would smash them to pieces.

Firstly, the sheer volume of Canadian teams would break USSF rules. With confirmed expansions the North American Soccer League will have thirteen teams for the 2015 season, counting Edmonton and Ottawa. This is over the 75% American line with room for one more foreign team. A six-team Canadian division means a 17-team league with only 11 American teams: 64.7% American. The NASL would have to add another four American expansion teams for 2015 to get back to the USSF’s rules: a big ask. The NASL could get a one-year waiver, as they have for earlier issues, but the only real solution would be for the Canadian division to be exempt from USSF requirements entirely.

The USSF requirement for a “primary owner” (someone with at least a 35% stake in the club) with a net worth of US$20 million rules out the CFL’s several “community”-owned teams. The Saskatchewan Roughriders are, next to the Green Bay Packers, probably the most successful fan-owned club in North America: the Roughriders shares are held by ordinary fans who are forbidden to resell the shares for a profit and do not draw a dividend. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are a non-profit owned by private shareholders, and the Edmonton Eskimos operate under a similar, though somewhat secretive, model. The Calgary Stampeders are owned by the Calgary Flames, who in turn are owned by a consortium of six men[11]; doubtless well-heeled but none of them necessarily a “primary owner”.

If the CSA calls the shots for a Canadian division this is no problem. These ownership groups have all proven capable of handling much bigger sports teams than any NASL club, they have dead-certain stadium access in facilities ranging in quality from “hopefully getting torn down soon” (even McMahon isn’t as bad as some div-2 facilities over the years) to “brand new and quite good”, and a single-entity format would provide added stability. Community ownership should be no problem to the CSA — it should be no problem to the USSF either, really, provided they have the capital. Anyway, in Canada the community model has treated us well, but this is an American league.

There are other, smaller problem areas. Regina would fall short of USSF population requirements: they require 75% of division 2 teams to play in a metro market of 750,000 people, but the population of metro Regina was 232,090 in 2013[12]. This is not a problem on its own but could be a handcuff for the future if Victoria (357,327), Halifax (408,702), or London (498,623) show interest. And what about domestic player requirements? In the NASL, as in MLS, American players count as domestic on Canadian teams but not vice-versa[13]; the CSA would probably prefer that Americans count as foreign in Canada.

2. Will FC Edmonton be odd man out with the CFL owners?

FC Edmonton, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is owned by Tom and Dave Fath, Edmonton contracting magnates. The Faths are not associated with the Edmonton Eskimos, which in the event of a CFL-dominated Canadian division would put them in a unique and awkward position. Unlike the old A-League Aviators FC Edmonton has had no public trouble with the Eskimos; the Eddies have enjoyed the use of both Commonwealth Stadium and the indoor Commonwealth Fieldhouse when necessary, as well as becoming the dominant tenant at Clarke Stadium, an important Eskimos training ground. But, though relations might be good, they’re still competitors for the same summer entertainment dollars, and if the Faths become the lone independent wolves in a CFL division the situation could get awkward (the other existing Canadian NASL team, the Ottawa Fury, is owned by Jeff Hunt of the CFL’s Ottawa RedBlacks).

You might think an alliance with the Eskimos would be mutually beneficial, but Edmonton fans are still bitter over how, in 1999, the Eskimos bought the AAA baseball Edmonton Trappers only to sell them off to Round Rock, Texas in 2003 as part of a general exodus of AAA baseball from Canada[14]. If a Canadian division fails it’s too easy to picture an Eskimos-dominated FC Edmonton going the same way, while the Faths were able to stick it alone in 2011 and 2012. In any case the Faths, who have put big money into FC Edmonton and the local soccer community, deserve a real reward for their dedication rather than having the Eskimos shoved into their offices.

The good news is that the NASL, which has managed to avoid a revolving door of ownership so far, don’t seem likely to do anything shady with the Eddies. As I said, to an outward eye the relationship between FC Edmonton and the Eskimos is good, which matters. Moreover, unlike Winnipeg, Ottawa, Hamilton, and soon Saskatchewan, the Eskimos don’t need to fill a brand new stadium. Commonwealth Stadium is owned by the city; not only is there no margin for the Eskimos in taking over FC Edmonton but it may limit the CFL team if they did. If FC Edmonton and the Eskimos can establish an attitude of genial, independent co-operation, we will have the best of both worlds. Likewise, if the Eskimos want to buy and the Faths want to sell, congratulations to the happy couple. The only bad result would be, immediately or down the line, some sort of CFL squeeze play against the recalcitrant Eddies. It’s probably a long shot, but Trappers fans are still chafing.

3. What about potential expansion to non-CFL cities or under non-CFL owners?

So let’s say that the Eddies get along fine with the CFL and everybody is happy, the Canadian division is doing well, all the teams are making money (or at least not losing too much of it), and success is in the air. Over in Victoria, Highlanders owner Alex Campbell decides he wants a piece of this action, picks up the phone, and tries to get Victoria its first fully professional soccer team since the Vistas folded in 1990.

Outsiders may be surprised how realistic this is. Victoria attracts good crowds for USL PDL, has good ownership, passionate supporters, little summer sports competition beyond a merry-go-round of insolvent semi-pro baseball teams, and getting to Whitecaps games on the ferry is enough of a hassle that it’s clearly its own market. Two stadiums, venerable Royal Athletic Park downtown and Centennial Stadium at the University of Victoria, would be acceptable for professional soccer with some work and, in the case of Royal Athletic Park, a new stand. The Highlanders have been first in line for “teams that should promote from PDL to professional” almost since they first kicked off, but they’ve had to wait while the Ottawa Fury of all teams parleyed 300-man crowds into NASL action thanks to a new stadium and a rich owner. A professional Highlanders team is one of the not-so-secret wish for Canadian supporters from coast to coast.

But in our hopeful future there are six owners in the Canadian division and five own CFL teams. Campbell has no skin in the CFL and can’t possibly buy in: you can just about imagine an NASL side at a spruced-up RAP or Centennial but try to put a CFL game there and the mind rebels. So would the CFL owners accept someone outside their community for the sake of their soccer operation even if it doesn’t help their main business? Where would their priorities lie?

What if some brave multi-millionaire in, say, Surrey, sensing an under-served market in Metro Vancouver, decides to get into the soccer business and damn the consequences of competing with the Whitecaps? If he could get a stadium it might work. Will David Braley protest an infringement on BC Lions territory (the Leos even train in Surrey)? Will whoever owns the Argonauts in five years object if the Toronto Lynx decide they’ve had enough of USL PDL and want into NASL Canada? What if, as seems possible, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment buys the Argonauts and becomes an influential voice against competition with their Toronto FC? The Saskatchewan Roughriders have viewed the whole province as their sacred inheritance for generations; what if somebody wants to put a soccer team in fast-growing Saskatoon?

Does the NASL control expansion? In that case an important aspect of our soccer future would still be in American hands, however benevolent. Does the Canadian division control its own expansion? In that case it is effectively controlled by the CFL and may come second to the big business. Does the Canadian Soccer Association control expansion? That would give us important flexibility, but it would also leave an important business matter to a party with no cash on the table. A negative answer to this question would be no reason not to give this project less than full-throated support, but they are questions worth asking and having answered before the Calgary Mustangs and Winnipeg Blue Fighters kick off.

4. Where can we go from there?

Let’s be optimists. Let’s assume that this NASL Canada experiment is a total success. TV ratings are decent, attendances are pushing five digits, all the teams are healthy, a few outsiders have bought in, we’re up to say eight teams. It’s the year 2022, there’s just been another World Cup which Canada damned near qualified for, and a 35-year-old Ben Massey is still writing this shitty blog and asking the world what we have to do next?

I picked the year 2022 for a few reasons: first the World Cup (experts agree that 2022 is the soonest Canada could realistically have a qualifying team), and second because if this Canadian division does kick off in 2016, in the summer of 2022 it’ll be entering its seventh season. The original Canadian Soccer League lasted six. It’ll be a bellwether moment for those who laboured, endlessly, for a Canadian professional league and who never lost hope.

So the Canadian division is alive and well. What’s the end game?

Do we remain part of the NASL? If it’s worked so well for us why not? But if Canadian soccer grows in strength relative to our American rivals this relationship could sour. The NASL, unlike MLS, has had a Canadian influence since day one but the centre of its weight will always, inevitably, be in the United States. American fans may start muttering “why are we propping up the Canadian program?” Even if they don’t, independence is its own reward… but so is stability, so is a large base of friendly teams on which to draw support, and the best of Canada and the best of the United States scrapping over the Soccer Bowl every year is just so much fun.

There will probably be three Canadian MLS teams, plus affiliates in American leagues like the coming Whitecaps USL Pro entry, still outside our domestic pyramid. By 2022 that pyramid should include good semi-pro soccer from coast-to-coast, combined with our existing solid amateur leagues; if we have our professional division thriving the MLS teams would be a glaring absence. Probably the three biggest and best teams in the country, still going their own way. If the Canadian division 1A is a success then unifying the Canadian professional teams, on some terms, must be a long-term goal, but with the glamour of Major League Soccer and the restrictions of MLS single-entity ownership is that even imaginable?

The question of youth training will have to be faced. Not every CFL team with a soccer interest will decide to develop their own players in the manner of FC Edmonton, but hopefully some will, and then we enter the murky waters of youth territories. The Vancouver Whitecaps already get grief for poaching TFC Academy alumni like Russell Teibert or other Ontario boys like Bryce Alderson, while the Whitecaps probably wish they had one of their former youths, Hanson Boakai, back from Edmonton. Now add six more professional teams fighting over the same pie. Will it be a free market, will there be a territory system, will certain standards be mandatory or will each individual club wing it according to their inclination and resources, and how will this relate to the community clubs and private academies that already fill the country and don’t always get along with their professional brethren?

And, of course, you’ll have zealots like me looking thoughtfully on this beautiful landscape and saying things like “do you know what we need? Promotion and relegation” or “we’re losing ground in the women’s game, where is the Canadian W-League?” Could any of these things happen? The owners of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers trying to pack a 35,000-seat stadium with soccer fans may not look fondly at a money-losing women’s diversion, and they definitely wouldn’t like their team relegated to the Manitoba and Saskatchewan Wheat League (average attendance 36 moms). Is it worth trying to lay the groundwork for these grand goals now, while the structure is still malleable, or is the risk of losing the Canadian division altogether too great to be worthwhile?

And let’s be clear!

Even if the answers to all four of those questions are negative, we would still have a huge advance in Canadian soccer. A six-team Canadian NASL division that exists by USSF sufferance, insists on a CFL monopoly in its ownership, and has no long-term plans for anything beyond putting bums in seats in CFL stadiums fourteen weekends a year? That would still be fantastic news, because at worst it would be a massive increase on what we have, and at best such a division would be the nucleus around which something magnificent, broad, and sustainable would grow.

But, if this division takes off, Canada has an incredible opportunity for a short-cut to the professional soccer respectability that has quite literally eluded us since Confederation. Such moments come less than a mere “once per lifetime” and should not be squandered. The Americans got their break in 1993, with soccer-mad billionaires and a World Cup combining to create Major League Soccer, and whatever else you might say about MLS it’s clearly been good for them. We should, if anything, be even more ambitious, from the CSA through the CFL to every one of the fans been waiting for a chance like this all their lives.

(notes and comments…)

Whitecaps II to USL Pro (or: Hey, This is Going Well!)

By Benjamin Massey · July 8th, 2014 · 1 comment

Negativity is a narcotic, but glad tidings from the Vancouver Whitecaps have me kicking the habit. There is a bounce in my step, a twinkle in my eye, a bit of colour in my cheeks. Finally, something is good, for the biggest news in world soccer today is that the Vancouver Whitecaps are forming a USL Pro affiliate in New Westminster, to play out of venerable Queen’s Park Stadium[1].

Devotees of my ramblings will know I have never liked United Soccer Leagues obviating their decades-old independence to operate as a feeder league for MLS, representing the homogenization, dishonestly, anti-supporterism, and anti-Canadianism I despise in North American soccer. Based on the poor support for farm teams around the world[2] I thought it would be a disaster at the box office and the Los Angeles Galaxy II are proving me right with every game in the empty StubHub Center[3]. When you see someone considering starting a professional soccer team in Canada, prefer NASL to USL.

But there are no independent Canadian teams in USL Pro, so let the Americans worry about their own pocketbooks. An affiliate in this league is the best practical option for the Whitecaps. It would be a surprise if attendance broke 1,000 but what matter? Presumably the Whitecaps know what they’re in for financially; attendances and the Whitecaps’ own sorry crowds for PDL are public information. (One hopes the two USL Pro-specific partners in the team, Ian Gillespie and Gary Pooni, are also well-informed.) So if Vancouver, or Toronto FC or the Montreal Impact, want to take advantage of United Soccer Leagues then be my guest! Pick the bones clean, Canada; it’s high time we got something for ourselves out of this relationship.

The presence of elite sport is a fillip to New Westminster, with no serious outdoor sports and not even junior “A” hockey (though the local lacrosse scene is strong). Queen’s Park Stadium is a characterful but old and dreary facility and the upgrades planned to bring it up to professional standards are desperately needed, provided the Whitecaps are paying: the public shouldn’t be subsidizing professional sport, and the fact that nobody has mentioned the funding source for the refurbishment in this press release raises worries. I also hope, for reasons a couple paragraphs above, this Whitecaps affiliate is not preempting an independent team. And while a regional rival might provide a lever to help the Victoria Highlanders finally go professional, as a part-time Highlanders fan I always hoped to see them in the NASL. (Some full-time Highlanders fans disagree; for them this should be a day of unqualified fist-pumps and lunchtime beers.)

Some wonder why this team won’t be in the interior, perhaps the Okanagan, where a large population starved of summer sport and too distant to regularly attend Whitecaps games might be go nuts for USL Pro. But, setting aside commercial considerations, having their USL Pro team close to home means Whitecaps players can work with the first team at UBC in the morning and be at Queen’s Park for a game in the evening. The further afield you get, the more independent the market but the more difficult soccer integration becomes.

Having wasted a few hundred words, such navel-gazing soccer structure bloviations are irrelevant to your average Whitecaps supporter, who care about what’s on the field rather than behind it. This new affiliation represents, in the current climate, the best chance for the Whitecaps to get Canadians into professional soccer. USL Pro is a decent enough level and will provide a good test for young Whitecaps. No doubt the core of the roster will be MLS depth, the usual combination of NCAA-trained American scrubs, journeyman bench talent, and trialists we remember from the MLS Reserve League, but your Bryce Aldersons and Sam Adekugbes can count on big minutes. As we saw even in the Reserve League, the number of players required will ensure playing time for Canadians (and Chileans) from the Whitecaps Residency. I remind you that USL still uses the “five from seven” substitution system, so there are more chances for players off the bench than other leagues. Those bench players will be predominantly Canadian.

In fact it’s possible that a 2015 Whitecaps II team would record more Canadian minutes in a single season than the senior Whitecaps have recorded in their entire MLS history[4], at a level that isn’t senior national team stuff but will draw exposure and could point the way to better things. That’s nothing to scoff at, and that’s the reason I’m grinning now.

Many assume this spells the end to the Whitecaps’ long-time partnership with USL PDL. The Whitecaps have made no announcement either way, but USL Pro and USL PDL are not “either or” propositions, and maintaining a presence in USL PDL would fill gaps that might otherwise open even with the arrival of USL Pro.

Most obviously, not every promising U-20 player will be ready for USL Pro. It is a lower level than the NASL, and the example of Jordan Hamilton in Wilmington shows teenage Canadians can succeed there, but it is indisputably a professional league with quality veterans like Matt Delicate, Allan Russell, and Samuel Ochoa making mincemeat of the unprepared.

The Whitecaps will know this, based on the mixed experiences with affiliates Charleston: Omar Salgado played well while he was there, Andre Lewis has settled in nicely, and Mamadou Diouf has enjoyed a depth role, but Marlon Ramirez and Emmanuel Adjetey were or are out of their depth and quality young centre back Jackson Farmer was just too young to get minutes. Last year Ben Fisk and Bryce Alderson played decently when healthy but struggled for minutes late in the year, to the detriment of their development. Charleston is near the bottom of the table, so we’re not talking about a formidable lineup. Even talented young players sometimes just aren’t seasoned enough for that sort of soccer, and throwing a player in out of his depth is no solution to anything. USL PDL still has a role as a valuable transitional step for those trying to graduate from dominating the USSDA U-18s to making a contribution against men.

Secondly, now that the MLS reserves will be in New Westminster, a Whitecaps PDL team could help the team keep tabs on NCAA players who have come through their system. The Whitecaps would be a richer organization if Residency graduates such as Callum Irving, Ben McKendry, Brody Huitema, and Alex Rowley had remained involved over the summers, turning out with the Whitecaps U-23s and perhaps staking a claim to a senior contract after their school days.As long as the Whitecaps had professionals playing PDL NCAA rules made this impossible. With these professionals out of the way the PDL team can return to its original youth development role, and that opens the door for participation from the NCAA ranks.

Thirdly, and more aspirationally, bringing in CIS players as the Whitecaps have over the past few years, as well as new NCAA faces, could pay for all parties. Ex-Whitecaps U-23 captain Gagandeep Dosanjh seemed to be carving out a decent NASL career at Edmonton until injuries intervened, Reynold Stewart got a good look at the NASL combine, and I still hope to see players like Niall Cousens, Brett Levis, and increasingly Cody Cook get an opportunity. Over in Victoria Carlo Basso is having another decent PDL season, but because he attends Simon Fraser University the Whitecaps could never have given him a look. This wouldn’t just be good for FC Edmonton and the Ottawa Fury, the main beneficiaries today of Canadian college talent, but potentially the Whitecaps, who now have a USL Pro team they’ll want stocked and who, hopefully, will be able to give players developed there first team places.

In the grand scheme of things a reserve team is small beer. Remember that the Whitecaps entered a team at this level for their first three MLS seasons and it didn’t matter. Three Canadians other than those affiliated to MLS teams are in USL Pro this season and the average fan could not name one, while Canadian graduates of USL Pro include almost nobody you’d be interested in. What counts is not getting Canadian players into USL Pro; what matters is getting them beyond.

Until the Whitecaps prove they have both the ability and the will to graduate Canadians to some quality league rather than burying them at intermediate levels this is an opportunity for New Westminsterites to see cheap soccer rather than meaningful change. Cynicism, alas, has its place: we’ve seen the Whitecaps take measures that should theoretically be good then fail us (investing heavily in a Residency program then favouring foreign players in the first team, or showing no commitment to ensuring Canadians play for Canada). British Columbian representation, as well, is a serious, separate concern for many fans, with the Whitecaps exerting a dominance over the provincial soccer community this new team will only increase. The Whitecaps are on a cash basis with domestically-oriented supporters: we’ve been burned too often to extend them credit.

But this omen is auspicious. The team is spending time and money on a change to their organization that should benefit Canadian talent. It won’t matter a whit if further measures aren’t taken, but that’s no reason to scoff at this hopefully meaningful move.

(notes and comments…)

Another Conditional Canadian: Marco Bustos Joins Chile U-20

By Benjamin Massey · July 6th, 2014 · 17 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

This past Canada Day I was at Minoru Park in Richmond, BC cheering on the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s and one of their star players, Marco Bustos, as he scored a lovely goal against the hapless Washington Crossfire. It was a very small crowd but sometimes lively, brightened up late by a set of drunk patriots, blissed out on Canada, trying to steal the corner flag. This, it turns out, was more than usually ironic.

Bustos, a long-time Canadian youth international who featured at the U-17 World Cup, was on Friday named to the Chilean U-20 roster for an upcoming United States training camp[1]. A youth camp this doesn’t mean the end of Bustos’s potential career in Canadian silks. But young Canadians taking our resources then rushing off to represent other countries and deciding later who they’re going to represent is a problem in our country that’s seldom ended well. This is another example of the endless player drain from Canada to countries people want to escape in any context but soccer.

By every account Bustos is a nice guy, a young gentleman. He’s an exciting young player who I remain high on, a natural playmaker with a quality shot from distance whose hard work in the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency will likely be rewarded with a professional contract. So take my reaction, with yet another Canadian deciding their nationality is just a badge of convenience, as disappointment that Canada is losing both on-field and what before Friday I’d been sure was off-field class.

This isn’t a case of a player going back to the homeland or a player who was neglected by Canada finding a soccer home elsewhere. Bustos was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has accepted Canadian development resources for several years. His soccer career is financed by the Canadian taxpayer, receiving the maximum $10,800 for a men’s soccer athlete in 2014[2], so even the sneering satisfied selfishness of “what does this complete stranger owe you?” is off the mark.

I will say little against Bustos in particular, though if you’ve come far enough to read this article you can guess what I think. Being honest, not betraying those who have helped your career, and giving back to a community you’re part of are not soccer-specific virtues: they are what we demand from any member of society. Taking limited Canadian time and money then saying “thanks anyway” when something better comes along is worse than a slap in the face. Answering “he’s only got one career!” is trite apologia: we all only have one career, with less chance to make it rich than an elite professional athlete, but we still expect each other to be decent citizens.

It’s been suggested, or maybe hoped, that Bustos is going to this camp not out of any interest in the Chilean program but to further his own career with some exposure and different technical training. I’m not here to defend the honour of Chile but that would be cynical even for me. Then it would be Chile, not Canada, spending resources on someone who had no intention of paying them back, and a dishonest act wouldn’t lose its taint because it’s not against us. Somebody, somewhere, is being deceived: that’s what makes this a character issue. With all that said, Bustos is 17 and we all did things we wish we hadn’t when we were 17. I have enough confidence in Bustos’s character to not close any doors, and to shake my head at ill-advised supporters who tweet abuse or declare him dead to them.

What infuriates me is the trend of demanding less pride, less citizenship, less decency, and less honesty from a man (seldom a woman) just because he’s good at kicking a ball rather than writing a program, flipping a burger, driving a truck, or whatever else humans do for a living. You can’t swing a stick without hitting people insisting that any antisocial act which isn’t actually illegal but would get a normal human spat on in the street is fine, because this guy’s a soccer player.

So let’s consider those grown adults who, for whatever reason, have decided to carry the water of players who turn their backs on us. It’s a familiar crowd. In this corner, the people who go “canada has a soccr teem? lololololol” and define their nation in terms of an inferiority complex. In this corner, people who don’t care about Canadian soccer as such and prefer to prop up their preferred, generally American or European, form of the game. (This group is very large: witness the Vancouver Whitecaps enjoying large attendances despite a losing team with almost no Canadian content.) And in this corner, fans and media members who’ll defend any player who’s nice to them, who is a good interview, who makes time for their questions and maybe shares a little something off the record. Canadian sports consumers will be very, very familiar with this last group.

We’ve heard a lot from all three of these groups in the past few days, although they have been with us for years. The mere fact that I’m sitting here defending, in print, the idea that people should be honest is probably an indication of how degraded this conversation has become.

Anybody who steps into the Canadian soccer conversation for ten seconds will hear, for example, people saying that anybody doing anything to screw Canada is justified because “why doesn’t the Canadian Soccer Association get its act together?” These people usually cannot name a single member of the CSA board, let alone show awareness of the changes there in recent years, of new player development models, of successful youth national teams, of that act being gotten together. Naturally they don’t nearly explain how incompetence would excuse habitual dishonesty anyway. Instead they measure the entire CSA by the recent success of the senior men’s national team, success partially prevented by the loss of top players these non-fans encourage to play for other countries. It’s marvelously circular, incredibly ill-informed, craven, stupid on an elementary school level, and this paragraph is already more attention than these so-called arguments deserve.

Then take the media, such as Vancouver Province Whitecaps writer Marc Weber, who I choose for criticism because he’s good. Asking that we “hear from the young lad first” as Weber did[3], besides displaying the chumminess that’s part of the problem, misses the point. The facts are not in dispute. Bustos has happily retweeted his callup, the Chilean soccer association has carried it, we have the Government of Canada’s website with his name next to his subsidy, we have the records of the games he played for Canada. The quality of any subsequent interview is irrelevant; what could be said to alter history? Sure enough, Weber’s article the next day was a list of vanilla quotes that changed nothing[4].

Then there are those who throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Whitecaps radio voice Pete Schaad[5] asked on Twitter whether we Canadian fans would get upset at Bustos playing for Canada if he were a naturalized immigrant. This represents a particularly smelly red herring. We’re not talking about immigration but about a Canadian by any definition representing another country based on 19th-century-style blood quantums; for defenders to raise leering suggestions of xenophobia is a bit too rich.

Schaad’s tweet was retweeted as a “gotchya” by the usual suspects, though, so I may as well answer: no, I don’t object to an immigrant who has embraced Canada playing for their new homeland. Who would? Possibly there’s some psychotic blood-and-soil supporter outraged at nefarious foreigners polluting our national team, but I doubt he speaks for the mainstream. All supporters I know have nothing but love for Carl Valentine (31 caps; born Manchester, England), Milan Borjan (18 caps; born Knin, Croatia), Randy Edwini-Bonsu (4 caps; born Kumasi, Ghana), and many similar players.

Likewise I don’t begrudge those who moved out of Canada and played for their new countries. You will search in vain on this site for a bad word about Canadian-born Swiss international Alain Rochat. I’m more liberal than the usual fan but I have defended Canadian-born Dutch international Jonathan de Guzman on precisely those grounds[6]. And a fair few Canadian men and women have gone to represent other countries when Canada showed no interest. Half of Haiti’s women’s national team is made from Canadian women; who among us complains? On the other hand not a few fans, including myself, have been against the arrival of American born, raised, and trained Rachel Quon in the Canadian women’s program[7] because she isn’t a Canadian immigrant, but an American with the FIFA-requisite drop of “Canadian blood” who can adopt our passport for convenience.

I don’t answer Schaad at such length because the question is germane to Bustos’s situation but to illustrate that this is something Canadian soccer fans think about: it’s not hypernationalism, it’s not “us versus them”. It’s a question of character far more than of country.

We shouldn’t overlook the role of the Vancouver Whitecaps in all of this. One hates to play the “Whitecaps hate Canada” card, but they could have done something to defend their country. Even setting aside the hopes that the Whitecaps would cut or exile a promising prospect for the sake of Canada, Bustos would have needed their consent to accept the invitation to this training camp on a non FIFA date. Instead, they have let Bustos go, and the club website has a news article with an approving quote from Carl Robinson[8]. Given that, even ignoring the near-total dearth of Canadian content in the men’s first team, the MLS-era Whitecaps have given a serious trial and several reserve games to Canadian-turned-Czech-international Jacob Lensky and a USL W-League contract to Canadian-turned-American-international Sydney Leroux back when the Whitecaps had a W-League team, they demonstrably do not care. As a Whitecaps fan, you may argue that the Whitecaps are a private club and owe Canada nothing, but presumably you’d have no objection to the facts being printed for those who do long for the days of a connection between club and country.

In these cases, one is inevitably asked if there’s any serious chance of the ex-Canadian making the senior team of this other country. I don’t know the Chilean U-20 pool, but I do know Bustos is a very good player. He’s dominated the U-16 and U-18 leagues and as of this writing he is the second-leading goalscorer per minute with the USL PDL Whitecaps; extremely impressive for a 17-year-old midfielder in a U-23 league. I was as sure as anybody can be about a 17-year-old that he would have a role to play with Canada for many years. I’m not at all sure today, and if he does it looks like we’re a second or third choice. Let’s take the time to appreciate our young players in countless sports for whom Canada isn’t just “better than nothing.”

(notes and comments…)

Canada – Germany: The Toughest of the Tough Ones

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

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

When Canada’s women take on Germany it’s more Dieppe than Juno Beach.

Today’s friendly at BC Place between the Canadian and German women (7 PM Pacific, Sportsnet One, good seats still available) is being promoted as a competitive affair, but there’s only ever one result against this ancient enemy. Our last meeting was a 1-0 loss in Germany 364 days ago[1], which was in my books the most credible of the recent lot. Back in the 2011 World Cup we lost a group stage match against the hosting Huns 2-1 which wasn’t as close as that score makes it look[2], and then in 2010 was one of the most infamous Canadian women’s friendly, a 5-0 loss to Germany on September 15, 2010 in Dresden[3]. According to the Canadian Soccer Association results list the senior Canadian women have played Germany twelve times with a record of no wins, no draws, and twelve losses[4]. The only active Canadian who has ever scored against Germany is Christine Sinclair, who’s done it twice. Even the French in 1940 would call that a bad record.

The Germans are currently qualifying for Canada 2015 and are cutting a bloody swathe through Group 1. Their only competitive losses in the past three years was to Norway on July 17, 2013; in the end they won that European Championship for the sixth time running, which I promise you is exactly as impressive as it sounds. They just took their second Algarve Cup in the past three years, having lost to the United States in the 2013 final. One to the United States, one to Norway. Those are their losses since the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Seriously. That’s all of them. Two[5]. Germany is ranked second in the world by FIFA[6]; the women’s rankings use an Elo system and are more accurate than the men’s so the question is whether the Germans deserve to be first.

I think casual Canadian fans have forgotten about Germany a little bit; the three-time-on-the-trot bronze medalists failed to make the 2012 Olympics thanks to UEFA’s abortion of a qualification format (I’m still sending Platini cakes for that one: how would history have been different if Canada faced France and Germany rather than Sweden and France?) And they’re bringing a younger roster to this friendly: only one player is over 30 years of age and she probably only came because she plays her club soccer in Portland[7].

So crack out the champagne? No, this is Germany, and even when they’re leaving the real veterans at home they are properly good. Captain Nadine Angerer is, at 35, still one of the world’s better keepers (and as an NWSL teammate of Christine Sinclair is unlikely to be foxed). Annike Krahn is a top centre back in the prime of her career, although she’ll be without regular partner Saskia Bartusiak. Alexandra Popp, averaging a goal every two games, is one of the world’s best young strikers, as is Dzsenifer Marozsán, who despite being only 22 has scored against pretty much all of the world’s best defenses save France. Fatmire Alushi isn’t as high-profile as she was prior to her 2012 ACL injury but is still a dangerous attacking midfielder. Anja Mittag has been an underrated ball-moving goal-scoring midfielder pretty much forever and is still only 29. This is going to be difficult.

And the last time Canada visited Vancouver we drew Mexico, sparking a series of minor aneurysms across the women’s soccer community. Mexico, I probably do not need to remind you, is not as good as Germany.

So, what does Canada going for them? First, Germany’s front-line striking isn’t 100%. Célia Šašić, the best of their forwards, is sitting this one out, as is hoary-but-still-useful veteran Martina Müller. Popp and Marozsan are quality young players, as I said, but without Šašić about it’s not impossible for Buchanan, Quinn, and Scott to shut them down. Think about Alex Morgan, earlier in her career, when Abby Wambach wasn’t there creating room. Still undeniable threats, but noticeably less so.

Second, and sort of on the same point, the Kadeisha Buchanan Power Hour! Canada’s not far removed from a dandy 1-1 draw against the United States in Winnipeg, and unlike past dandy draws against the Americans it wasn’t a matter of Christine Sinclair grabbing the team by the scruff of her neck and doing it herself. For many Canadian players that was pretty much their best game and is therefore unlikely to be repeated, but now we know it’s possible. A similar sort of performance against the weaker Germans and another, history-making draw is certainly possible. If Sinclair does damage then there’s the ghost of a chance at a win.

That’s it. There are just two positives. Germany is so good, guys. They’re more technical than the Americans, meaning that the Scott/Buchanan-style trying to wipe everybody out will be less effective. Even with the B+ team they have an array of attackers that Canada has never been able to match. You can beat them with speed, but we have precious little of that. The only Canadian forward who ever consistently got results against the Germans was Kara Lang. The supporters’ section ticketing was up in the air for months and arranged only very late in the day, meaning that the crowd will be less powerful than in games past. My heart tells me “draw or, on a good day, Canada win”. My mind tells me “Germany win or, on a good day, draw.” That still represents the best chance Canada has had against the Germans for years; this isn’t the type of team we should realistically be measuring ourselves against. Not yet.

So let’s play the positivity game. If Canada wins, how are they going do it? Firstly, and most obviously, we will need an appearance from Good Sinclair: against the United States we got Decent Sinclair but the Germans will require the whole thing. Now, Christine is 31 years old and has taken more of a physical battering over her career than maybe any other comparable women’s player, so it’s unrealistic to expect her to lead the line and win the day like in the old days and harsh for us to criticize her when she doesn’t. Therefore the young players will have to find another gear. Adriana Leon’s bull-in-a-china-shop shoulders-down style will be critical. Your average German defender is the tall-but-willowy type; Leon battering them senseless could create dividends (it won’t work against Krahn but not much does). If Sinclair is playing well and Leon is causing havoc then there should be room for somebody. Meanwhile, on the defensive end, Canada might just be good enough: Buchanan needs to resist the urge to go all-out like she did against Wambach in Winnipeg, because the Germans will dribble around her, but technically and positionally she could meet the challenge. Add in some hustle from Kaylyn Kyle and Sophie Schmidt, keep the too-frequent attack-killing turnovers in central midfield down, and an upset becomes imaginable.

I’ll say this, though. Germany plays an entertaining brand of soccer, and against teams that aren’t Mexico Canada can be a lot of fun as well. If you haven’t bought a ticket, do so. There isn’t often such a thing as a “good loss” for a team of Canada’s calibre, but even with all my pessimism I expect an exciting, hope-inspiring game.

(notes and comments…)