Questions for the NASL Canadian Division

By Benjamin Massey · July 11th, 2014 · 6 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…)

That Calgary Foothills U-23 – Whitecaps Match, in Empty

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

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

I had intended to use this space to describe the Calgary Foothills U-23 match against Vancouver Whitecaps U-23, which I had flown out to see. Calgary is moving to USL PDL for the 2015 summer season with a roster that currently includes ex-Whitecap and national team goalkeeper Simon Thomas. They’re taking the on-field side seriously. Unfortunately, circumstances made this impossible.

You see, I arrived at the park with a family member in plenty of time for kickoff only to be confronted with a line running through the parking lot. Part of that was because the sign directing people to will-call or ticket sales was the wrong way around, so there was mass confusion at the gate.

Arriving at the front of the queue well after kickoff, we discovered that they were cash only, a 19th-century sort of convention which was not indicated either on the box office or the Foothills website. I was informed that there was a bank machine in the field house across the parking lot. There was not. Tracking down a facility staff member, I was told that there was a bank machine on the other end of the large field in an arena. There was not.

Returning to the box office, by this point midway through the first half, the clerk was surprised by the non-existent ATMs but there was definitely a CIBC just a fifteen-minute walk across the highway. And I believed him, too! I just wasn’t arsed anymore, even to watch for free from outside the fence like many people.

(Of course, since the box office had run out of change and were bawling down the customer lineup for spare small bills when we arrived at the front, having a couple twenties might not have availed anyway.)

Anyway, that’s why I decided not to pay $15 per person for a U-23 exhibition game. Obviously Foothills has plenty to work with. The crowd was great, given the prices. If even half those in attendance were paid tickets I anticipate real success. But the front office has work to do.

So that’s why there’s no match report. Sorry.

The Juan de Fuca Plate Finale: Rain and Ringers

By Benjamin Massey · May 23rd, 2014 · 1 comment

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

While I have a moment, my brief thoughts about the upcoming Juan de Fuca Plate finale between the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s and the Victoria Highlanders at UBC Thunderbird Stadium (5PM, free admission).

It is a credit to both the Highlanders and the Whitecaps how seriously they take this competition. I don’t mean on the field, where technical priorities must always come first, but off it: they hype the Plate up on their websites and Twitter feeds, they mention the competition with an awareness of its history, they give the impression that they gladly support this fan-created endeavour in the spirit it’s intended. This year’s two-leg format means that, for the first time, a draw is a practical possibility: after an approach from supporters the Whitecaps and Highlanders have apparently decided to settle such a draw by penalty kicks[1]. It’s one of those little things that the Whitecaps and Highlanders didn’t have to do, that won’t get big headlines or impress thousands of fans, but will profoundly please a dedicated few. Both the Whitecaps and Highlanders organizations therefore deserve all the praise in the world for the Plate.

I won’t rehash my preview of both the Whitecaps U-23s and the Highlanders from earlier this month[2]. With Vancouver having played only three games, all on the road, and Victoria having played two, both at home, the season is too young to tear up the script, particularly when the games have been close to it. Victoria’s played well, though they have four points when their fans must have hoped for six, while by most accounts Vancouver has promise but is still trying to find their chemistry and their legs.

With that said both teams have big-name help on the field tonight. For the Whitecaps U-23s, attacking midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy is expected to make his first appearance in Vancouver silks[3]. Ballouchy is best-known for playing 74 USL PDL minutes with the Boulder Rapids Reserve in 2005, directing two shots, but has also enjoyed an eleven-season MLS career[4]. That limited PDL experience will have to serve Ballouchy well in his first taste of Juan de Fuca Plate competition. Significantly, his debut with two surgically-reconstructed knees will be on wet Thunderbird Stadium Polytan, which means a chance of re-injury in slick conditions and possible mental concerns on artificial turf. Certainly, if he can go at something like full speed, Ballouchy is liable to give the Victoria back line trouble, but that’s a massive “if”, and it would be stunning if he went the full 90.

Not to be outdone… okay, somewhat to be outdone… Victoria has all-time leading scorer Jordie Hughes back. Hughes won’t start this evening[5] but could still be a significant addition to an offense that has Cam Hundal, Blair Sturrock, Carlo Basso, and Riley O’Neill all looking threatening. Hughes was last year’s joint-leading scorer on the Highlanders (with current Whitecaps U-23 player Brett Levis) and the joint-leading scorer in the Juan de Fuca Plate (with another Whitecaps U-23, Niall Cousens). He’s a solid, veteran forward, the sort of player who isn’t the most remarkable either technically or athletically but can teach young defenders a thing or two every game. And the Whitecaps are liable to have quite a young back line.

Victoria’s most recent game was a 1-1 draw at home to Kitsap in which Sturrock scored and the Highlanders forced six saves out of Kitsap’s Matt Grosey[6]; not great but not bad. Meanwhile, since the Victoria loss the Whitecaps U-23s have played twice more on the road, drawing at both Portland and Kitsap, and in the latter case emerging with less credit than the Highlanders: Vancouver was out-shots-directed 11-5 and the Whitecaps got only one shot on target[7]. The much-ballyhooed Levis is still looking to break through, but he’s been shooting and against Victoria he was highly energetic. Niall Cousens scored in Kitsap but is also looking to recapture his imposing 2013 form. The leading early surprise has been Cody Cook, a first-year PDL player who has two goals and was one of the more impressive Whitecaps in Victoria.

Victoria’s been playing better soccer than Vancouver and, unless a few more MLS loanees come to keep Ballouchy company, might well out-gun Vancouver. There are two major wild-cards, though, that might help the Whitecaps.

The first is that a few Whitecaps players are due to stand up and make an impact. Ballouchy, obviously, has the quality to own this game if he’s fit. Cousens has scored but needs to generate more chances. Levis has only a single assist. Marlon Ramirez has professional experience and might well start this evening. These are all players of known quality at the USL PDL level who, in a very small number of games, haven’t done what we’d hope for. The best of them will have a big day sometime; such players always do. The question is whether they’ll have in the Juan de Fuca Plate, as both Levis and Cousens did in 2013. Levis, in particular, should have a burr up his ass against his former side, and while none of his teammates could get on the end of his service in the first leg he was a hard-running bastard with something to prove.

The second is the Highlanders schedule. Victoria needs to hop right back on the ferry after the game and be at Royal Athletic Park for a 7 PM Saturday start against the Washington Crossfire. If I may speak on the Highlanders’ behalf, I think they’d say that the Whitecaps game is bigger on paper, but they can’t run their team ragged and put on a poor show for the home fans either. The Crossfire have played a lot of mediocre seasons but they’ve picked up some players this year, including Canadian national futsaller Robbie Tice[8]. Even if it’s only unconscious, there will be a certain element of “saving ourselves for Saturday” that might cause the Whitecaps to push just a little harder than their opposition, and that could be the difference.

If the Highlanders win or draw, they will take the Juan de Fuca Plate for the first time in their history. If the Whitecaps win by a two-goal margin, or win 2-1 or 1-0, they will for the third straight year take the Plate while tying Victoria on points. A 3-2 Whitecaps victory and we should be heading to the spot. The two-leg format is a shame, in that the tournament is over in a flash, and I hope more than ever that a third British Columbia USL PDL team comes to strengthen the trophy for 2015. But it’s going to be exciting tonight.

(notes and comments…)

Sack the CSA

By Benjamin Massey · May 14th, 2014 · No comments

Maple Leaf Forever! is not a widely-read blog. I would be surprised if it breaks the top twenty of Canadian soccer columns by hits. I’m just one jackass in his apartment reeling off opinions on subjects he cannot fully understand and the community knows that. However, even in my obscurity I put pride in accuracy and honest information, and therefore I owe my readers an apology.

I apologize for implying, in my posts over the past several weeks, that the 2014 Voyageurs Cup is an honest competition well worth the attention of the casual fan. This was grievously in error.

I apologize for railing against Major League Soccer’s fundamental dishonesty in this space, while ignoring the Canadian Soccer Association’s sins. I have no excuse. The 2009 Voyageurs Cup, in which Toronto FC, coincidentally the highest-profile team, hoisted a Voyageurs Cup they did not earn. The 2012 Cup, in which the same thing happened. The 2014 Cup, now. And I remember, even if many don’t, how in 2011 MLS Vancouver got every call against then-NASL Montreal to take a semi-final the Impact probably deserved to win. This is without considering other games; I have literally been writing about the perfidy of Canadian Soccer Association referees here for five years. I wrote about all these things at the time, but failed to put them together. I am sorry.

I apologize to FC Edmonton for suggesting that, if the Montreal Impact got the advantage in the second leg, you guys were screwed. In fact you guys played great once you were 3-0 down. This is faint praise, and you know it as well as I do, but “never saying die” is a valuable quality, particularly when you have every excuse to give up. In the end you fought hard and fully earned a trip to the Voyageurs Cup finals. The nation will not forget that.

Finally, I apologize again to FC Edmonton for suggesting that it would matter.

Part of me feels bad for the Montreal Impact. They showed balls. Once again, they proved that they’re the only professional Canadian soccer team that gets mad: which not only claims to have a sense of pride but goes out and proves it in situations where most teams would be written off. They’re a bad team, there’s no hiding that, but they care, and as much as I wanted Colin Miller to punch Joey Saputo in the mug there’s no denying the attitude Saputo has given them.

They were second-best on the tie, but what of it? We Whitecaps fans know, more than anyone else in Canada, the pride you can take in a glorious defeat. The Impact won the right to walk out with their heads held high. They came out gangbusters before a lacklustre crowd with a nation scoffing at them, and they lost all the same, but that happens sometimes. They deserved to, in the words of an American admiral of years past, dip their flag to no earthly king. But referee Drew Fischer has taken that away from them.

If you missed the game, I will give you a short précis. Montreal took a 3-0 lead in their home leg, and a 4-2 lead on aggregate, based entirely on the quality of their play. They were markedly in the ascendancy. But Edmonton’s Frank Jonke bagged a quick brace to put the Eddies ahead on away goals. Nobody likes losing on away goals but the Impact were staring it in the face, trying to batter Edmonton’s door down and not managing it. Then, suddenly, in an impossible six minutes of stoppage time, Montreal was given a penalty kick on a bogus handball. And that was the end. The controversial shot was ball to hand. That’s not in the Laws of the Game, but the afflicted player had his arms in hard against his body, and that is. It was never a penalty by the ruling of any competent official, but Drew Fischer thought he could decide a national semi-final based on it.

Of course every referee blunders. If this were the first time a CSA referee had come down mysteriously in favour of the higher-profile club I would give them the benefit of the doubt. But it was far from that. In fact, it’s a running theme ever since the CSA adopted a national championship format. From the 6-1 Toronto victory over Montreal to deny the USL-1 Whitecaps, to a rainout at BMO Field where Aron Winter took his team off the field and the CSA said “okay then,” to a semi-final last year where Vancouver got two goals over Edmonton that should never have counted from Silviu Petrescu, to Daryl Fordyce winning a dead-certain penalty last week in stoppage time at Clarke Stadium, the most clearcut foul you ever will see, that was completely ignored, to this. All without considering re season or playoff games between Canadian teams where the same things seemed to happen. If it were mere chance you’d expect the little guys to fluke out a referee-aided victory as often as the big teams, and yet that’s never, ever how it goes. Always the decision goes in favour of the team you’d think the CSA would want to win. Too long, and too many incidents, to say “coincidence”, as I once did.

I spent $30 to go to the Vancouver – Toronto game at BC Place, because I love the Voyageurs Cup and even my hatred of MLS didn’t override that. Instead, after this latest incident, I stuffed the ticket in my pants pocket and went home. Why should I go cheer on my team in a game where the result was pre-determined?

Okay, okay, I hear you protesting. Let’s say that this is all coincidence. That the Canadian Soccer Association genuinely wants the best team to win the Voyageurs Cup, and if that’s an NASL side so be it. You know, I can believe it… yet referees keep deciding the games in favour of the biggest cities with the most fans. The best-case scenario is that the Canadian Soccer Association is guilty of negligence and complacency in the first degree in a country where its former “national” league, the current Canadian Soccer League, has already been busted in a match-fixing scandal. This isn’t just me talking, the video’s out there if you want to re-watch the games yourself.

The people who led Canada’s men’s national team to an 8-1 World Cup qualifying loss in Honduras are still in charge. They have let us down every day since the 2000 Gold Cup, and they’re letting us down now. Once, when the incompetence got too much, we put on black t-shirts and chanted “sack the CSA” at Canadian national team games. “Can’t do their jobs, don’t take no blame.” Canadian legend Tomasz Radzinski even wore a “Sack the CSA” shirt off the pitch in his last home game (I was there). Somehow they’ve squirmed out from under that charge, and yet the horror continues.

Thanks for putting on a show, FC Edmonton. I know which team deserved to go to the final. So do all neutral fans, who have been flooding Twitter with protests, who were patting the one Edmonton fan in Vancouver on the shoulder when the latest screwjob hit. I underestimated you, as did the Impact for a while. Hopefully someday you’ll get a competition worthy of you.

Voyageurs Cup: Can They Do It?

By Benjamin Massey · May 14th, 2014 · No comments

tlfoto.ca/FC Edmonton

tlfoto.ca/FC Edmonton

The question of the day is: “can they really do it?”

Can Vancouver really overturn a 2-1 series deficit against Toronto FC despite running out a Children’s Crusade lineup and getting slapped around pretty good at BMO Field? Even the positive moral value of playing all those Canadians is diminished today: Marco Bustos, Kianz Froese, Mitch Piraux, and Jackson Farmer are down in Florida with the U-20 national team[1]. Can Edmonton really get a result in Montreal against the Impact? It seems like everybody outside Montreal is cheering for the Eddies, because everybody loves an underdog and hates the Impact. (Everybody inside Montreal is ignoring this game because the Canadiens and Bruins are playing.)

Last week I pointed out Montreal was on a run for the MLS Wooden Spoon (non-Chivas USA category); in the seven days since they’ve given even the Goats a run for their money. The Impact are coming off an more-than-usually-embarrassing 3-0 home loss to the Kansas City Wizards in which Montreal was out-shots-directeded 12-4 and had a FIFA 14-style 21.8% of the possession (I know possession isn’t much of an indicator but twenty-one point fucking eight). Then again, Montreal was playing with 10 men for 73 minutes after Collen Warner got sent off. Then again again, the man they were playing without was Collen Warner. And that was just the latest in a long string of games in which Frank Klopas’s charges got the shit kicked out of them. And with the Habs selling out Bell Centre to watch TV it looks like the Impact will be playing in front of their moms and six Ultras.

The Impact are a bad team and getting worse. When FC Edmonton only needs a draw, and we’re talking about the most draw-ish team in the country here, that’s a good sign. But there’s one thing which, even when they’re flipping coaches like Pogs and scouring Serie A for 45-year-old Italians, you can always say about the Montreal Impact: they have a living, beating heart. That heart’s name is Joey Saputo, their greatest weakness and their greatest strength. You saw his tweet, I’m sure, after the Kansas City game, where he stated in cereal-box-approved style that “Our fans deserve better. Changes will be coming, guaranteed.”[2] It’s an old tune but, short-term, in the past it’s worked. Talk all you want about the players tuning Klopas out or the team being pensioners and Jack McInerney; we’ve heard that narrative and seen Impact teams we so casually wrote off coming out with all the fires of Hell lit under their asses in seasons past. Sure, eight times a season Joey does something eccentric, but thanks to him the Impact, alone out of every professional team in Canada, get pissed off.

You don’t want the Impact pissed off. Not when you’re FC Edmonton. Not when you’re anybody this side of Atlético Madrid. There’s still some punch in that old team, a fistful of skill, some diabolical finish, and they don’t need much tonight.

On balance, I think Montreal’s going to win this one and take the tie on the basis of “modest margin and superior team”, but it’s a near-run thing and the Eddies have some advantages. First, the Impact are bad. That’s the easy part. The Eddies are also bad, which is why I remain pessimistic, and Montreal has the Saputo Factor, but a bad team can always find a new way to disappoint you.

Second, Montreal gave its “A” team a good run in that Kansas City game. Brovsky, Ouimette, Mapp, and Bernadello all went 90. Felipe went 70, McInerney went 69. This points to another eleven of mild schmucks along the Blake Smith and Decomposing Patrice Bernier line, which is all to the good for Edmonton. Meanwhile, Colin Miller went with an A- lineup at the seriously-that’s-their-name Indy Eleven. Captain Albert Watson sat out entirely (through suspension). Tomi Ameobi also missed the eighteen. Hanson Boakai was an unused substitute. Neil Hlavaty (45 minutes) got a shorter run. This advantage is tempered by Montreal playing at home while Edmonton was in Indianapolis, but it’s an advantage all the same. The most important of that rested lot may not be Boakai but Watson, who is an excellent centre back for the level in almost every field, but is also physical. If history is any guide, he will need to be very careful to avoid conceding a penalty on some shabby excuse.

Third, Edmonton won that Indy game! 2-1, on a dandy quickfire double by Daryl Fordyce and Kareem Moses (trying to deny Erik Hurtado the title of “Most Implausible Scorer on a Canadian Team That Weekend”). That’s not a thing Edmonton does! FC Edmonton learning how to win on the road is like Happy Gilmore learning to putt. Indy Eleven is winless, with only two draws to their name, but they’re not quite a team of schmucks: everybody will know Brazilian ex-international Kléberson and more people should know dandy Honduran mid Walter Ramirez, who along with Lance Parker and Zurab Tsiskaridze was one of the three good things to come out of Miami FC. Ol’ Mike Ambersley has trundled in goals for more teams than I can count. And the Eddies beat ‘em! Away! That, frankly, is a far more improbable feat than that mere “home win over Montreal” ever was.

The street thinks FC Edmonton will park the bus, lump the ball down the field to Jonke and/or Ameobi, and that if any chances come the Eddies way it’ll be through Boakai or Fordyce countering. They’re right. Colin Miller is one of God’s own bus-parkers. Nature imbued him with the power to take any combination of players and have them lumping the ball down to the opposite touchline within ten minutes of kickoff, and that’s in games he’s trying to win, not draw. It’s not even, necessarily, bad tactics. When you’re facing a modest skill deficit but holding onto a lead, the key is to keep the chances down. And, mentally, Montreal is a team that can get frustrated easily. The catch will be making sure the Impact expend energy as quickly as the Eddies do, and that means smart counters and the occasional aggressive sortie to make sure Montreal works for it. It can be done. I’m not betting on it, but it can be done. The trouble is that if Montreal snatches that goal, and Edmonton needs to open up the offense, they run right back into last week’s Hack-a-Jonke without the guarantee of more Boakai brilliance against a defense that now knows what to expect, and without much hope Karl Ouimette will forget how to do a header again.

Then there are the Whitecaps, who are looking to overturn exactly the same deficit as Montreal. But Vancouver is trying to do it against Toronto FC, probably the most talented team in the country this year who is taking this competition sort of seriously.

Here’s the thing. Obviously Carl Robinson doesn’t give a flying fuck about the Voyageurs Cup semifinal. Obviously. All his spin about “oh the kids have deserved it” is just that: if he really thought his young players totally deserved minutes against top opposition then he’d be playing them in the league, not exclusively in elimination Cup scenarios. In the grand story of the 2014 Vancouver Whitecaps, which is the more meaningful game: the home leg of a semifinal or away to the Columbus Crew? And in which game did Robinson run out the best he had? In which game did Robinson give interviews in which he, again, openly discussed which players he’d start? Quite. We’ll see if Robinson sends out the big guns in the final, should the Whitecaps get that far, but for now he’s treating the Voyageurs Cup like friendlies.

Which I would hate a lot more if it wasn’t getting Canadians some much-needed playing time, and if it wasn’t still leaving the Whitecaps with just a shot at victory. Sure, Toronto FC outplayed the Whitecaps Residency pretty hard at BMO Field, but that wasn’t primarily the Canadians’ faults and even that game was fully respectable. Now Toronto is in BC Place with a by-no-means comfortable advantage, and with Bustos, Froese, Piraux, and Farmer away the Whitecaps will be obliged to start an older player or two through sheer attrition. We’ll still see a young crew: Marco Carducci is confirmed to start again in goal, Christian Dean at left back (if he counts as a kid, which he shouldn’t; fuck off, NCAA), and my money says we’ll see Jordan Haynes at BC Place. But there’ll be a few more reservists rather than outright Residency kids.

The FCs have two road wins this year, in Seattle (uh-oh) and Columbus, but neither was exactly a day of glory. In both games Toronto was comfortably outshot, had less than 40% of the possession, and were outpassed by at least a 25% margin. In short, fairly lucky wins. They also got annihilated away by Salt Lake and lost ignominiously in Dallas. Their most recent game was a 2-1 loss at home to New England in which Toronto did not exactly play badly but certainly did little to earn a point.

The Whitecaps even have fatigue problems: Carducci and Haynes both played 90 minutes in a USSDA game in Seattle on Saturday[3], then Haynes saw 17 minutes for the U-23s in Kitsap on Sunday[4]. Teibert of course got garbage time in Columbus, as did starter-presumptive Nigel Reo-Coker, and I’m sure we’ll see at least one of Kekuta Manneh or Erik Hurtado start up high. Normally the side playing its “B” team has the advantage in fatigue; not so much today, and the use of Carducci and Haynes on the U-18 team when there was really no need is another data point for “the Voyageurs Cup is an afterthought to the coaching staff”.

You gotta like Toronto FC’s chances. (Let me rephrase, Whitecaps fans: you have to think that Toronto FC has better odds of winning the tie.) There remains the Joe Bendik factor. I don’t buy him for a second, I still don’t, and between him and the sketchy Toronto defense they could let Vancouver back into it with a breakdown like the one which gave Vancouver that hopefully-useful away goal last week. They do that sort of thing. With the Whitecaps liable to send out a second-rate offense (no, scoring a beauty against Columbus does not mean Erik Hurtado has suddenly learned how to be a forward), it might be necessary.

Right now I have Toronto and Montreal both going through, which coincidentally would be the result I want least, because I’ve learned by now how the soccer gods like to squeeze my balls.

(EDIT, May 14 10:07 PDT: this article originally asserted that the Toronto – New England game was this past weekend and made assertions about potential TFC fatigue based on that. Toronto in fact had a bye; the NE game was the weekend previous. I knew that, too. Thanks, Duncan Fletcher, for the correction.)

(notes and comments…)

The Kadeisha Buchanan Power Hour

By Benjamin Massey · May 9th, 2014 · No comments

Douglas Portz/Canadian Soccer Association

Douglas Portz/Canadian Soccer Association

I didn’t preview Canada’s visit to Winnipeg to take on the Americans. I can only plead exhaustion. The Voyageurs Cup and Juan de Fuca Plate had rather drained my capacity for drama. A WNT friendly against a mortal rival, particularly one I was bitter about not being able to attend, was another debit on an already overdrawn account. I’m tired of the Americans too. This game was the third time we’d faced the Yanks in the year and a half since That Game, and we’d lost the previous two without much credit. Plus Abby Wambach has been in all the papers whining (you don’t say) about artificial turf at our World Cup (unbelievable), which put pressure on Sydney Leroux for the title of USWNT Player I’d Most Like to See Fall Into a Combine Harvester, but didn’t fire me up for a game where Wambach would inevitably flop across the field and score on us again.

(Pardon me while I have a strange interlude. Yeah, Leroux is a traitor and generally unpleasant but she more-or-less plays the game the right way. The biggest complaint about her on the field is the way she celebrates. Wambach is a jackass who is even less pleasant and plays the game like she’s trying to singlehandedly disprove every stereotype of women’s soccer being more honourable and dignified than the sissified men’s game. Now that the initial shock of Leroux’s betrayal has worn off and she’s scored on us a few times, the sharp edge of hate has turned into the blunt instrument of simmering, eternal resentment. Wambach, meanwhile, always finds some new way to anger me. Pah. But anyway, back to happier matters.)

All this negativity doesn’t prevent me putting on my Sophie Schmidt kit, throwing my Voyageurs scarf debonairly around my neck in the approved Wonderdick manner, and sitting down for a dicey ESPN3 stream. I was excited for Winnipeg, getting their first taste of national team action since Jim Brennan led the men over Panama on October 9, 2000[1]. Plus I was interested in our backline of striplings and Rhian Wilkinson. Kadeisha Buchanan is, by now, practically a known quantity, but young enough that her development is worth following. Sura Yekka has a few senior caps and was thunderous at the U-17 World Cup but lacks first-class experience. We hadn’t seen the senior women in a televised or web-streamed game since January, and before that the erratically-available Brazilian tournament which was a deuced odd show altogether, so those two had plenty of time to progress or, soccer gods forbid, stagnate. 18-year-old centre back Rebecca Quinn was entirely new to us, having capped three times at the Cyprus Cup. With three teenagers in the back four against what is, without Alex Morgan, still one of the two best attacks in the world, we were going to get a pretty vivid demonstration of something.

If you missed the game, perhaps watching the NFL Draft in an effort to induce coma, let me give you the précis. Sportsnet’s Jerrad Peters has an article titled “Canada’s Buchanan enjoys breakout performance.”[2] Waking the Red‘s Duncan Fletcher went with “Kadeisha Buchanan leads Canada to tie with U.S.[3] Daniel Squizzato over at Some Canadian Guys… named his post “For once, let’s focus on the positives,” which seems like shocking bad form, but made up for it by not only mentioning Buchanan in his opening paragraph, but talking about her mom[4]. Even the Canadian Press led with the words “teenager Kadeisha Buchanan.”[5] From this, you will gather that Toronto’s Buchanan, who turns 19 this November, had a pretty good game for somebody who can’t drink in British Columbia.

This is not quite correct. Buchanan had a good game for anybody. First, she scored a goal, thumping in a Diana Matheson corner. Well-taken, although Josée Belanger (now there’s a name from the past) did an underrated job obstructing Hope Solo on the corner kick. Second, she tackled the motherloving bejeezus out of Abby Wambach, and particularly early on seemed to have a goal of showing Wambach some of that Canadian health care we’re always on about. These weren’t just hard bumps and flashy slide-tackles that get crowds roaring and Wambach tumbling like she was shot by the entire Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, although there was a lot of that. Buchanan marked Wambach (and that world-class attacking mid Carli Lloyd) out of the game better than ninety-nine defenders out of a hundred ever do. Buchanan’s tender ministrations meant that Wambach got only one good chance and, perhaps rattled, fluffed it. Wambach is nothing like the player she used to be but surely she’s never been held so in check against us before. Lloyd was countered so effectively that I briefly forgot she had played, although a big assist on that front goes to local girl Desiree Scott, obviously determined to put on a show. And Buchanan mostly — not entirely — averted the young centre back’s tendency against a great offense to panic. Her passes were composed and she reacted properly to pressure in her own area, though late in the game with fatigue and maybe nerves taking hold she was responsible for a few flailing hacks at the ball. So was everyone else, though; that’s a Canadian trademark at all genders and all levels.

Then, with the game tied 1-1 through Sydney Leroux (not Buchanan’s fault) and Canada trying to counterpunch late, Buchanan ranged forward, tried to play an attacker through, got the ball back maybe twenty-five yards out, realized that she had space, said “fuck it” and went on the charge herself. The shot was scuffed straight into Solo but such offensive awareness from an eighteen-year-old centre back? One who’d been marking some all-time legends into the ground for eighty-nine minutes? Are you shitting me? Not for nothing did I call her “Kadeisha Buchananbauer” on Twitter. The Kaiser would have nodded in phlegmatic approval. Sergio Ramos probably has a poster of Kadeisha Buchanan in his bedroom.

I’m praising Buchanan to the skies because she deserves it. But Sura Yekka, who played left back despite somehow being even younger, also held her own. Heather O’Reilly had no easy runs against Yekka’s flank; she got through Yekka a few times through technical skill and veteran savvy but Yekka’s guts and athleticism saw her back in position. (By comparison, out on the other flank Sydney Leroux spent much of the second half beating Rhian Wilkinson like a rented mule.) The young fullback even essayed a few half-decent attacking runs and was composed in possession. I had to remind myself sometimes she’s seventeen years old. Yekka pretty much slapped the U-17 World Cup silly, and while she has plenty of work to do is handling the step up in calibre more easily than she has any right to. And I’m omitting new girl Rebecca Quinn, who wears primary responsibility for Leroux’s equalizer, but other than that error she was fine. And if that seems like faint praise, remember that I’m saying that an 18-year-old centre back getting her fourth cap was fine against the US women’s national team.

Our country has never been known for quality defenders. Candace Chapman was nice in her day. Lauren Sesselmann has played some solid games but she was developed by the United States so I’m not sure she counts. Who else we got? Andrea Neil played some defense here and there, but mostly midfield and anyway, 80% of the countries we faced in her salad days didn’t take much defending. Randee Hurmus? There just aren’t a lot of names. Even when Canada was hanging with the world’s best, winning Cyprus Cups and bronze medals, you could find a world-class forward (Sinclair), a world-class midfielder (Matheson), a world-class goalkeeper (McLeod), but never a world-class defender. Never. Buchanan (and Yekka) might be pioneers.

The way things are going, if Yekka and Buchanan start every game from here through 2015, would anybody object? Oh, there’s loads of work to do for John Herdman. Christine Sinclair had an understated but effective game in a deep-lying role but there are still too many question marks at forward, and our midfield’s turnoveritis is seemingly incurable. And of course the world will watch the tape, figure out our youngsters’ weaknesses; they will have to bust their collective asses to achieve the dominant 2015 we all crave. But I’m feeling pretty good about all these teenagers on our back line. Unbelievable, isn’t it?

(notes and comments…)

The Greatest Day in FC Edmonton History

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

tlfoto.ca/FC Edmonton

tlfoto.ca/FC Edmonton

FC Edmonton has beaten an MLS team for the first time in competitive play. I defy you not to be happy.

Normally I like to play the master of historical context. “You say this is the greatest Whitecaps midfielder of all time, but Martin Nash blah blah blah, you MLS-worshipping schmuck.” To hell with that. This has been called the greatest victory in the five-year, four-season history of FC Edmonton. These people are correct. What a day. What a day!

After my shot at hype-calming on Tuesday, Hanson Boakai put on a show. His aggressiveness and confidence put the wind up a Montreal midfield more used to soi-disant Eastern Conference attacking midfielders of the Daigo Kobayashi type. A guy actually trying to shove the ball down their gullets is a rare thing. Meanwhile, the Impact defense was having kittens over Frank Jonke, going full Hack-a-Shaq on the big forward who, as if by compensation, had his most effective game of the year just pulling off little touches and making space for his comrades, as shown to perfection on the equalizing goal when Montreal had their mitts so full of Jonke they didn’t consider the possibility that Handsome Bowtie might make a La Liga-quality throughball to Tomi Ameobi, who’d have nothing to do but finish…

Holy crow, what a ball that was. Holy crow. Sated with your diet of EPL magnificence and looking forward to the World Cup you might not be as pumped as I but Canadians, as a rule, don’t make passes like that. I don’t know what they’ve been teaching Boakai over there in Edmonton but it must be working. (Also, he created two half-scoring chances with sheer legs and guts and even when his youthful exuberance led to Montreal getting the best of him on a possession he’d be taking another crack at it next time around. His teammates didn’t seem frustrated. Hlavaty and Fordyce, two guys who don’t mind running themselves, were happy to pass the ball off to Boakai and let him create the opportunity. Small wonder, with his passing and crossing being so dangerous.)

And then the winner. John Smits pounds it long, Karl Ouimette goes to head the ball back to (the excellent) Evan Bush, only he forgets the part where he heads the ball, Michael Nonni was lurking in case of precisely that sort of mistake, 2-1 Eddies. Another Canadian. One who, as Steve Sandor has pointed out at almost unseemly length[1], was a batted eyelash away from being cut before this season. Silviu Petrescu missed a clear penalty shout for Daryl Fordyce in the last Planck time of the match, the kind of thing that could could back to haunt Edmonton in the second leg, but no matter, not for now.

Victory long-delayed, after all, is the very sweetest. Edmonton went into the 2011 Voyageurs Cup full of young optimism. We didn’t get to see how justified it was, as star player Shaun Saiko was unjustly sent off after only 23 minutes and Toronto cruised to a 3-0 win. The next week, away, a Toronto “B” team easily slapped Edmonton around. In 2012 the Eddies played Vancouver in their first game and got thumped; the only no-bullshit home beating the Eddies have taken in this competition. The next week, away, a Vancouver “B” team easily slapped Edmonton around (though Yashir Pinto made things briefly interesting). And in 2013 Edmonton once again faced Vancouver and would have won but for Silviu Petrescu giving Vancouver no fewer than two goals that never should have happened, one offside, the other a flagrant dive for a penalty. It was a great injustice in a competition that’s seen its share. The next week, away, a Vancouver “B” team easily slapped Edmonton around.

So now Edmonton has their first leg victory, and long fucking overdue it has been. But you see that the second leg is the catch. Apart from 21 minutes at BC Place on May 9, 2012, Edmonton has looked outmatched away against MLS teams playing schmucks like Greg Klazura, Floyd Franks, Michael Nanchoff, you get the drift.

Will Montreal take the Eddies lightly? Remember that last year Toronto FC won 2-0 at BMO Field off a weakened Montreal in the first leg, back when we all thought the Impact would be pretty good[2]. The Montreal Ultras responded to this with a now-famous banner reading “nous on l’a pris au sérieux” — “we took it seriously.”[3] The Impact invited Toronto FC back to Stade Saputo and beat the FCs 6-0[4], tied for the biggest ass-kicking in the twelve-year history of the Voyageurs Cup[5]. A fair bit has changed with Montreal in the past year, but the Impact have form rousing themselves to vengeance.

This has been the obligatory pessimistic part of the post; those things had to be said, but this is still a magnificent day. You sometimes see upset games where the goalkeeper had the game of his life, the underdog had ten men behind the ball and snatched one on the counter, the goalposts rang with the sound of missed opportunities. Nah. Edmonton decided to trade punches with Montreal and won on every scorecard. There was nothing negative in their tactics. Somewhat unreliable official statistics had the two teams even on shots directed, 7-7, and Edmonton ahead on shots on target, 4-2[6]. Edmonton outcornered Montreal handily and led in possession until Montreal’s superior rest began to tell in the second half, and the pace changed to more straight vertical attack. Luck wasn’t conspicuous in either direction. Jack McInerney nearly made himself famous with an appalling header off the crossbar, but since he scored a few minutes later I think we can call that even, while as I mentioned Daryl Fordyce really should have had a penalty on 90′+4.

Oh, and man of the match was Hanson Boakai. Of course it was. Putting the “Canadian champion” into “Canadian championship” at 17 years old. Some eyebrows were raised when he was substituted out for Mike Banner, but the world is better off with Boakai running himself stupid for 70 minutes rather than trying to pace himself for 90. Banner is not the most popular player in Edmonton right now, his first two games have not been inspiring, but I swear he has talent. I will have to make a point of writing hopeful but somewhat skeptical article on Boakai before big games in the future. You know, people are already asking which big European club he’ll go to? It’s a little early, surely, it takes more than two man of the match awards to start buying plane tickets to Barcelona or Bayern Munich, but it’s been a long time since I saw a player that young look so bright professionally in this country. Maybe I never have.

The evening’s first game was less exciting but probably showed more of Canada’s soccer future, so let’s conclude with two paragraphs on the young Vancouver Whitecaps in their 2-1 loss to Toronto FC. Toronto took the “eleven barrels of hell” approach we discussed on Tuesday, as I feared. So with Toronto’s A- against Vancouver’s B- or C+ the result for the Whitecaps was about as good as we could have hoped for: out-played, certainly, but not Vancouver’s worst road game even of this season, with the critical first goal against caused by a lapse from veteran Nigel Reo-Coker rather than any of the youth. A key away goal, a survivable margin, and plenty to be proud of. It’s significant that the weakest links in the team were Reo-Coker, Erik Hurtado, and Johnny Leveron, not the raw rookies. (Hurtado had one nice touch that made a half-chance, then was immediately substituted off. “That’s not what we pay you for, Erik!”) The official man of the match was Issey Nakajima-Farran, who was playing on Rookie while his teammates played on Pro thanks to his matchup with Reo-Coker, but still asserted himself. The Whitecaps man of the match was Russell Teibert. Two more Canadian champions.

Let’s not sugarcoat it. The MLS debutantes, Froese and Bustos especially, weren’t used to the match speed. But of course they weren’t! How could they have been, this was their first exposure to it. Both showed skill, had nice moments, and weren’t overawed by the calibre of their debut: that’s what counts. Bustos looked like he was already ready to play once in a while in MLS, with only a slight trepidation in steering the attack standing out, and of course he cleared a ball off the line, which is always the right play. (Who would have guessed that Marco would be the first to a professional save?) Froese has been criticized for failing to read the patchy BMO Field turf, and fair enough, a professional needs to do better, but he also made the give-and-go with Russell Teibert that was Vancouver’s most skillful attack of the game. Marco Carducci was at fault for neither goal against, has been reviewed too harshly for his aggressive but ultimately effective early charge at Gilberto that Carlyle Mitchell cleaned up, made some tidy saves, and wanted only a bit of confidence. And, at last, a national audience saw some of the Bryce Alderson I’ve always been such a fan of. Hopefully this leads to additional appearances; no Whitecap deserves them more.

(notes and comments…)