Goals Galore on the North Shore

By Benjamin Massey · May 22nd, 2016 · No comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

On Saturday afternoon, four years after the demise of the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Victoria Highlanders Women, the North Shore Girls Soccer Club finally re-launched elite women’s club soccer in western Canada. Their new Women’s Premier Soccer League team kicked off for the first time at North Vancouver’s handsome Kinsmen Park, marking the hugely overdue return of elite interregional competition to Canada’s most women’s-soccer-mad province. A respectable crowd of at least a hundred paid $5 each to watch local amateurs in an out-of-the-way suburban park, not counting ten or so freeloaders squinting through the chainlink fence. Organization was good, the free program missed only a little information, the concession did fine business, and the kids had a lovely time. In every area save on the field, it was a terrific start to a much-anticipated story. Their next home game is 4:30 PM on Sunday, May 29 against ISC Gunners FC; do come if you can.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Because this is North America, the WPSL’s place in our soccer pyramid is complicated. Primarily a summer league for college players, and using NCAA substitution rules, it is probably the third-best women’s soccer league in the United States. The best is the National Women’s Soccer League, and the second-best probably United Women’s Soccer, which also played its first ever game yesterday afternoon. UWS was formed mostly from surviving Eastern teams of the former USL W-League, which folded at the end of 2015, plus four of the more ambitious WPSL teams, which had been on the “semi-professional” side of an amateur/semi-pro divide. UWS would have included Quebec City and Laval’s late W-League teams, but the Canadian Soccer Association (and, according to Duane Rollins on the Two Solitudes podcast, the United States Soccer Federation) did not want Canadian teams in the American league[1].

Question: how is the North Shore in the American WPSL, then? It’s a good one. Quebec’s soccer federation supported their teams joining UWS[2] so it isn’t that. British Columbia doesn’t have a high-level semi-professional women’s soccer league, but neither does Quebec. Their best hope is that the PLSQ might form a women’s division in 2017 or so. Then again, British Columbia doesn’t even have a men’s PLSQ, nor does its provincial neighbours. Laval and Quebec could play in League1 Ontario; NSGSC would have no such option. Not that Laval and Quebec thought it was an option for them, preferring to fold. It was also suggested they play in Quebec’s top amateur league, and NSGSC already plays in British Columbia’s. It may be similar to how Ontario’s USL PDL men’s teams are being told to join League1 Ontario for 2017[3] while Calgary Foothills, the Victoria Highlanders, and WSA Winnipeg go unmolested. The west is the hinterland, even in areas (like Quebec semi-pro women’s soccer) where the big provinces aren’t ahead of us.

Theoretically NSGSC enters the first rank of Canada’s elite women’s clubs with the nine L1O sides. In practice, an NSGSC team featuring many of their WPSL players finished second in Vancouver’s Metro Women’s Soccer League and was demolished, 4-0, by Richmond in the Provincial Cup final. Other lower mainland clubs has talent at this level, but only the North Shore had the wherewithal to take a step up. That is a terrific move by them, a risk that deserves reward. We need more clubs to show such ambition. I will give them my $5 a game, and you should do the same. If it’s a success then, with all the talent in the Vancouver area, there’s no doubt the NSGSC can become competitive. But just because they aim at a high level doesn’t mean they automatically achieve it.

That afternoon, the North Shore didn’t belong on the same turf as OSA FC, one of the Northwest Division’s historically better teams but hardly a powerhouse. As FC Tacoma 253, OSA finished second in the division last year behind Issaquah, now called “ISC Gunners.” (Amateur soccer is confusing.) Although many of the NSGSC players knew each other from the MWSL, they didn’t play like it. Possibly it was down to a coaching change; Tony Seddon coaches the MWSL team, but NSGSC technical director and former Whitecaps Girls Elite boss Jesse Symons has the helm in the WPSL.

OSA FC was more connected than NSGSC. They were significantly more athletic, and repeatedly split the North Shore’s defense for stunning scoring chances. The final score was OSA 4, NSGC 1, and could have been worse. OSA scored a 35-yarder. They scored off a volley. They scored off a scramble in front of the keeper. They scored from an own goal. North Shore’s only goal, from midfielder Katelyn Erharden, came from a terrific cross from Margaret Hadley, but that was one of few well-worked opportunities. When the North Shore tried to hit on the counterattack they resorted too often to long balls, and the OSA defenders were so consistently faster than NSGSC’s forwards that it only tired the Canadians out. OSA’s Chyalisa Baysa, Kennya Cordner (man of the match), and substitute Lindsey Patterson had an entire North Shore’s worth of scoring chances each. Our local heroines were badly beaten at home, albeit by a strong team, and have work to do. It was a rude welcome.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Most of the NSGSC roster is young locals, and three North Shore players have international experience above the U-17 level. The most famous, World Cup observer and frozen yogurt veteran Selenia Iacchelli, did not play. Forward Rheanne Sleiman, an elder statesman at 26 years old and an eleven-time U-20 international, captained the team and put in a decent shift given her lack of service. The last was former University of Victoria midfielder Jaclyn Sawicki. Sawicki is a four-time Canada West first team all-star, played W-League with the Whitecaps and the Highlanders, was a key member of our U-20s in 2012, and in September 2011 made a single, oh-so-brief appearance with our senior WNT against the United States.

I’ve always liked Sawicki, and not just because she’s a UVic alum. She has excelled at every level where she’s got an opportunity. Had she gone to some crappy NCAA school instead of a good Canadian one we’d have heard much more from her. When Andrew Olivieri underused her in the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup I repeatedly whined about it, and wrote her onto my imaginary U-20 Women’s Player of the Year ballot. Well, guess what? At 23 years old, with no experience above the Universiade in four years, she’s still good. Unlike most of her teammates she passed accurately at medium range, and it was her superb ground ball down the left that sent Hadley off to create the North Shore’s only goal. When NSGSC had a promising development, as opposed to a big hoof that the forward happened to get on this time, it usually developed through Sawicki. She was substituted off with twenty minutes left, the score 2-1 to OSA, and from then on NSGSC’s resistance essentially collapsed. Sawicki showed a WPSL standard from the off; one of the few North Shore players who did. She is still only 23 and her CIS career is over. Hopefully she has the desire and gets a chance to play at a higher level, because she belongs there.

No other sparks were quite so bright. Midfielder Jenna Baxter was feisty in the early going and made a few good interceptions. Unfortunately she was substituted off after half an hour only to return late in the game, so I suspect Jesse Symons disagreed. Though complicit in a sloppy-spaghetti-mess of giveaways the midfield made of the first minutes, many players on both teams were as they struggled to settle in. Katelyn Erharden, the goalscorer, had another good chance and was extremely vocal trying to organize her teammates. Forward Margaret Hadley, who set Erharden up, had a few good touches in the minutes after she came off the bench. Unfortunately chasing several hopeless long balls seemed to wear her out, and there’s an opportunity to improve there.

As individuals, not many regulars looked really awful. As a team, it didn’t go well, and late in the game they were obviously downhearted. In a debut where everything else went great, that’s a let-down. However, it is at least soluble. Experience will look after a lot. The WPSL season is a short one, two games a weekend until the middle of July, so it doesn’t leave much time to become the Portland Thorns, but let’s face it. If NSGSC’s WPSL team becomes as important to Canadian soccer as it should, it won’t be because they have a great 2016 but because they build something that can last into 2026. The very fact that they’re trying, and taking it seriously, is the most promising thing to happen in western Canadian soccer since FC Edmonton started their academy.

(notes and comments…)

Futsal Fantasy

By Benjamin Massey · May 9th, 2016 · No comments

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

For decades, if you wanted to watch Canadian men win at soccer, you watched indoor. Some of the sport’s greatest ever stars, including Tino Lettieri, Dale Mitchell, and Branko Segota, were Canadian. They were the spine of our 1986 FIFA World Cup squad, and until quite recently much of our senior men’s national team had considerable indoor experience. The last major indoor product, Lars Hirschfeld, replaced Pat Onstad as goalkeeper for the 1997 Edmonton Drillers before going on to Tottenham and fame. Well-established outdoor players like Martin Nash and Jeff Clarke would play a season or two of indoor between contracts, for it was long North America’s best way to make a living in soccer.

Those days are gone, probably forever. The Canadian Major Indoor Soccer League, a western league that folded after the 2012 season, was our last serious organized competition. Though several perennially-reorganizing professional and semi-professional indoor leagues operate in the United States, none include a Canadian entry. Nor is there much appetite for a revival. Though indoor soccer may seem—and indeed for a long time was—a natural fit with severe winters and hockey rinks in every town, experts scorn it. Indoor soccer encourages the development of skills such as playing the ball off the boards which do not transfer outside. Six-a-side games mean less room for creativity, and an indoor soccer ball discourages fancy play anyhow. Besides, indoor soccer in the North American code is virtually unknown outside Canada and the United States, without even FIFA recognition.

The experts prefer futsal, a five-a-side game played on ceramic courts with a smaller, weighted ball that responds marvelously to the trickster’s touch. Futsal was developed in Brazil in the 1930s, making North American indoor arguably the older game, but unlike it futsal has caught on worldwide. Though dominated by the Brazilians, as you might expect, seven countries from three continents have medalled in the seven FIFA Futsal World Cups, including such unlikely teams as Russia and the United States. In 1989 Canada, coached by Bob Lenarduzzi, participated in the first. They took one win in the group stage with a young team of indoor soccer worthies including Eddy Berdusco, Nick DeSantis, Lyndon Hooper, Paul Dolan (fresh off his single indoor season with Tacoma), and (slightly improbably) a 21-year-old Alex Bunbury, who only ever played a few months of Minnesota indoor and didn’t do much with them. Dolan was the regular starter in goal and John Fitzgerald, an eventual 12-time international, was Canada’s leading goalscorer with two.

But despite all our indoor pedigree Canada hasn’t been back, perhaps for want of precocious Bunburys and Dolans with a few idle weeks in the spring. Most years Canada did not even try to qualify. In 2004, Edmontonian Ross Ongaro selected a twelve-man roster that included no fewer than six Edmonton Aviators, two players at amateurs Edmonton Scottish, former Edmonton Brickman Guiliano Oliviero, and former Edmonton Driller Tiarnan King. Somehow this team lost a two-leg series to Panama. (Also on the team was future United States international Ugo Ihemelu, later found ineligible for the senior Canadian MNT when Dale Mitchell wanted him in a World Cup qualifier. This is an unstoppable trivia question.) In 2008 Canada didn’t enter a team, and a 2012 group that included former senior international Robbie Aristodemo as well as U-20 internationals Alex Elliott and Robbie Tice put up a pretty good fight. They dropped El Salvador 7-6 on aggregate to qualify for the CONCACAF tournament proper, but suffered consecutive losses to Guatemala, the United States, and Panama.

In short, we are not a futsal country and never have been. Expectations were always modest for this Canadian team, run by 2004 survivor Kyt Selaidopoulos. But nor are we walkovers. The indoor soccer blood in our veins still has a little warmth. Our first task was to win a two-leg series against the United States, twice on the World Cup podium. Though far diminished from their salad days the Americans were an all-professional team, but after falling behind by three in the first leg Canada stormed back for a 4-4 draw, then won the second 5-3 on a Robert Renaud hat trick. It was a tremendous victory, but like Collingwood after Trafalgar Canada still had troubles ahead: drawn into the Group of Death with Costa Rica (hosts and defending CONCACAF champions), Cuba (four-time CONCACAF runners-up), and Curaçao (not nearly as bad as you’d think). The top two teams in the group qualify for the Futsal World Cup, by no means an impossible target, but realism promised another dignified, hard-working campaign that built on the improvements from 2012. Our first game, against the better-rested Costa Ricans, was sure to be the toughest, and a point would have been remarkable.

Well, if you’ve survived the 800 words so far you’ll have an idea what happened on Sunday night. Oh yes, Costa Rica gave Canada a futsal lesson at no charge. Nobody, and I mean nobody, left the arena in any doubt about the superior side. But Canada, living up to every cliche, fought hard, played raw route-one futsal, kept their defensive shape despite overwhelming opposition, and had the plucky grit you’d expect from a game played basically in a hockey arena. Though hopelessly outgunned in every category we blocked shots and harassed the Costa Ricans into errors. When we opened the scoring through Frederico Moojen it was hilariously against the run of play and beautifully scrappy, the veteran Moojen ushering a deflected long ball out for a corner then fighting through traffic to side-foot in an ensuing cross.

But with its short pitch futsal does not forgive a team that cannot keep possession. The little ball zips around and the talented attacker has the advantage with it at his feet. All the grit in the world avails you not against such superior skill unless, of course, you put a brick wall in goal, which Canada did.

In the pantheon of great Canadian soccer goalkeeping performances—Erin McLeod against France in 2012, Craig Forrest against anybody in 2000—Josh Lemos may be the most improbable member. Like most futsalers he had an unremarkable outdoor career, including an appearance as a central midfielder at a Canadian U-15 national camp in 2004. By his twenties he had become a goalkeeper, turning out with semi-pros North York Astros (also a home to former senior international Haidar Al-Shaïbani) and, briefly, in the Nicaraguan league with Diriangen. At the time of his central American adventure he was already an established presence in Ontario futsal, drawing good notices, and when the national team reformed in 2012 he was a natural call-up.

In 2012 qualification Lemos was the starting goalkeeper and an immediate hero: it was he who, with five seconds left, charged up the court to score the aggregate winner against El Salvador. This Jimmy Glass moment would have been enough for most careers, but alas the 2012 tournament was not broadcast and his glory was limited to soon-forgotten news articles and the futsal community. When Canada went out of the group stage in three games Lemos’s hopes of immortality faded.

But apparently in futsal lives there are second acts. Lemos was one of four 2012 players, with Vincent Cournoyer, Daniel Chamale, and Ian Bennett, to return in 2016. In the comeback against the United States he played his part, saving a penalty, but the heroes of that fight were the attackers and a goalkeeper got little notice. Anyway, the game was not broadcast. But for the group stage of the tournament CONCACAF put on a free high-definition webstream and over 2,000 people, including many Canadians, spent their Mother’s Day evening watching a form of soccer little-known up here. I’m bound to say that for me, at least, it was… well, if not ironic, at least self-consciously obscure, watching a match that I thought nobody would care about and that would surely not be interesting because it had “Canadian soccer” in the description. One of my less successful predictions.

Against Costa Rica, our outfield players struggled badly so Lemos did it all. It was an incredible performance, and the highlights do it no justice whatsoever. He made his first save one minute and twenty-two seconds in, all but ten seconds or so of which were Costa Rican possession. He and his tenacious defenders barely fended off fire-breathing attacks until Moojen opened the scoring. Seven seconds after Canada took the lead, Lemos made another massive reflex stop. Twenty seconds after that he made a staggering double-save that would have been the sure-fire highlight of the night 364 days of the year. Rattled by our star goalkeeper the Costa Ricans shaped their shots, trying to place the ball perfectly, and missed a disproportionate number for their trouble. When they did not miss, Lemos was there. On top of everything else, Lemos’s accurate throws gave Canada some of their best counter-attacking opportunities, almost the only opportunities we could get. It took a dubious penalty, after Lemos made a challenge where he clearly got to the ball first and Edwin Cubillo made a meal of it, for Costa Rica to get on the board. Erick Brenes’s penalty was probably literally unstoppable. Early in the second half Costa Rica struck again, another perfect shot by skipper Alejandro Paniagua off a corner kick, and surely, we said to ourselves, the dam had burst.

It had not. Canada settled in as Costa Rica defended their lead, and the chances were fewer, but still dangerous. With eight and a half minutes to go, Costa Rica’s Juan Cordero found himself set up with a wide-open net, but no net is wide-open when Josh Lemos is playing: he not only saved but held. Canada’s Eduardo Jauregui made an insane challenge that even more insanely received only yellow; in MLS the DisCo could have suspended him for the rest of his life, and not long after Lemos robbed Cubillo absolutely blind, getting over to parry a seemingly-sure goal that had developed out of nowhere. Finally, with five minutes to go, Lemos was again called for an unjust penalty: his challenge on Victor Fonseca was clumsy, he missed the ball, and Fonseca very deliberately tripped over Lemos’s ankle in the best CONCACAF style. Brenes took the penalty perfectly, again, and though Moojen made the final minutes interesting there was really very little doubt, save for that glorious instant in the last thirty seconds when Robert Renaud had the equalizer on his foot and shot wide. Costa Rica deserved much more than the 3-2 victory they got.

But damn that. Nobody would have bet on Canada to get a point, and thanks to Lemos and their dauntless hearts Canada very nearly did. There is no guarantee that Cuba or Curaçao will spurn so many chances, or that Lemos will find the same transcendent form. To an ill-informed eye the Canadian team didn’t show the skill to fight the best in CONCACAF on equal terms, and that’s what World Cup qualification takes. Yet, for one fabulous evening, Canadian soccer could delight in the last all-world performance we would have expected. Had we won, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of our goalkeeper which would have stirred the heart of every Canadian. These rough notes and dim highlights must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great soccer country like ours will see that those who fight on will be properly supported. Canada plays Curaçao tonight at 4:30 PM Pacific, with the game streamed on CONCACAF’s Facebook page. Perhaps, as when Lemos scored against El Salvador, there are still greater heroics to come.

Civil War: Fun and Educational

By Benjamin Massey · March 31st, 2016 · No comments

Tony Quinn/Canadian Soccer Association

Tony Quinn/Canadian Soccer Association

There was another action in the long war between the US women’s national team and its own soccer federation today, when Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Hope Solo filed a claim with a government tribunal alleging that they are paid unfairly compared to the men[1]. This fight is a mess. The two parties can’t even agree whether they’re currently covered by a collective bargaining agreement. As Canadian fans, we should be watching and giggling, but then again our players have considered lawsuits against the Canadian Soccer Association in the past, so let’s at least try to consider the strength of the case.

For some, male and female soccer players should be paid the same amount of cash, full stop, regardless of whether they bring in the same revenues. These arguments are outside the purview of a soccer blog, and such readers may get off here. For the rest of us trying to see whether the men and women are being paid fairly for the income they generate, well, we can’t. Darn. Not that that stops anyone, including me, from acting wise.

Let’s be honest. Women’s soccer fandom in Canada and the United States includes fans whose primary interest in the distaff game seems to be showing off how progressive they are. It’s a minority but a very noisy one; after all, loudly signaling their virtue is the point. Cases like this are manna to them, so even those inclined to be sympathetic to Lloyd, Morgan, Rapinoe, Sauerbrunn, and Solo are going to hear a lot of very annoying memery and conspiracy theory that will try our patience, with opponents dismissed as “bros” quite unironically. Moreover, Morgan has a history with bogus gender discrimination lawsuits thanks to the anti-artificial turf case. On the other side, there are fans of the men’s team who view the women’s game as an expensive sideshow and seem unable to believe anyone sincerely enjoys it at all. To them, a dollar to Hope Solo is a dollar down the drain, and their rhetoric is full of attempts to split hairs about “non-World Cup years” and “well, if they didn’t win…” vainly trying to dismiss an obvious passion.

I have no idea how valid this particular complaint is. There is less money in women’s international soccer than men’s, but how much less? Are the men receiving a larger share of the pie? This lawsuit has brought out some information[2] but not enough for us to answer the question.

People have been filling the vacuum with whatever inadequate data support opinions they already held. Danny Page tweeted that US Soccer has the USWNT projected to outearn the USMNT in the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years[3], but the USMNT’s events outearn the USWNT’s by almost $9 million in the four-year life of that table and the figures aren’t broken down at all. Since the beginning of 2015 the USMNT has averaged 34,299 fans per home friendly versus 25,698 for the women[4], but the women play far more, win far more, and this doesn’t take into account ticket prices or ancillary revenues. You can derive any narrative you want from the numbers available, and boy people have been doing that.

The most important information is still not in the public domain. Perhaps this lawsuit will reveal it, and we will be able to judge. Because we know so little the media’s comparisons of men and women has to focus on major line items, which aren’t helpful, as well as sponsorships and league compensation, which aren’t at issue. Right now, I don’t see how any outsider can say he knows anything.

But if we’re unable to accept the lawsuit’s claims out-of-hand, we’re also unable to dismiss them, and there’s reason why the plaintiffs might be right.

It’s easy to say that players should be paid what the market will bear, and that for men the market will bear a lot more. In sponsorship and club soccer, where athletes make the most money, this is true. Alex Morgan is dissatisfied with her endorsement contracts, another company offers her more, she accepts. Her NWSL contract expires, some team in Europe wants to give her big bucks, off she goes. If nobody thinks there’s money to be made by giving her a larger salary then, well, welcome to the world of every working stiff. Of course a professional female soccer player has fewer professional leagues to choose from, but this is only stating the same truth in a different way. Nobody lawyers up when an artisanal cheese maker can’t find another artisanal cheese shop willing to give him a raise.

The problem is that international soccer is not a market. Hope Solo can’t get so ticked off with the US Soccer Federation that she signs with France. Her only options are to take what the USSF gives her, take nothing, or find a different line of work. Moreover, there’s no way to introduce a market without just making national teams into clubs by another name, and FIFA’s already gone too far down that road. Capitalism has done more to increase human quality of life than any other idea in our history, but you can’t shove those principles into a world where market rules just don’t apply.

So the male star is inevitably in a stronger bargaining position. Michael Bradley’s MLS salary as of September 2015 was $6.5 million, exclusive of endorsements. If he never plays for the United States again he should be financially comfortable for the rest of his life. He, and his fellow male players, can pump US Soccer for bonuses, perks, and luxuries without having to worry about going too far and facing financial ruin. It’s not necessary for the USMNT to actually walk out, as El Salvador recently did[5]. The bargaining power still exists, as anyone who’s ever had to negotiate a salary from either end of the table should know. The more an employee relies on you, the less he can push. Becky Sauerbrunn relies on the USSF a lot; Michael Bradley could burn every bridge tomorrow and be fine. This has nothing to do with bigotry or old boys networks or it-being-2016; it has to do with income.

The good news, for an American fan, is that the United States is almost uniquely positioned to solve this problem easily and fairly. The United States is a huge media market, domestic TV rights count more than international, and both men and women play a large number of home internationals. It should be perfectly possible to say the MNT and WNT will get an equal percentage of the revenues they generate, and distribute that according to whatever formula you like. Not only would this fairly compensate both genders for the income they produce, but it would establish the MNT and WNT as allies, a victory for one enriching both, rather than kids squabbling over serving sizes. Canada probably couldn’t do that: we don’t play enough home games, our TV rights are literally given away. Of course there’d be delicate negotiating to do over handling non-gender-specific revenues like federation sponsorships that might be generated more by one gender than the other, but surely that’s a solvable problem. It would require the USSF to open its books, at least internally, but the flip side of international soccer not being a market is that the USSF has, in this sense, no competition.

What we have here is a simple matter. A group of employees believe that they are underpaid for the value they bring their employer. But they can’t switch employers, as we would; at least, not without switching careers. So they resort to other means, and we wait to see if they’re right.

(notes and comments…)

Obligatory Canadian Soccer Paranoia Post

By Benjamin Massey · February 18th, 2016 · No comments

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association


I beg to report that CanWNT should have this one in the bag. Our redcoats assault Costa Rica Friday afternoon at 2:30 Pacific (Sportsnet One), winner advancing to the Olympics, after a round robin which saw us dispatch the opposition contemptuously efficiently. The “B” team running up a 10-0 score against Guatemala on Tuesday was merely the most gratuitous display of our dominance: no Christine Sinclair, no Erin McLeod, no Josée Bélanger, no Desiree Scott, limited Diana Matheson, and Sophie Schmidt taking a 42-minute turn at centre back. There was a hat trick from a defensive midfielder who hadn’t previously scored for her country. Nichelle Prince got to do this. You could not have asked for three better Canadian matches. Everybody is healthy, nobody is suspended, everybody save third-string keeper Sabrina D’Angelo got useful playing time, several players are in form, and our victories have been nearly flawless. This is a campaign hagiographers will glorify after John Herdman becomes Emperor.

As to our adversary, Costa Rica, they have never taken a point from the full-strength WNT in nine tries. Only twice could they limit their loss to a single goal. Both were Olympic qualifiers, one was in Costa Rica, the other saw a legitimate Sinclair insurance goal called back. In those nine games Costa Rica led for two minutes: from Shirley Cruz’s 28th-minute opener to Christina Julien’s 30th-minute equalizer on October 18, 2011. Costa Rica was lauded for their two draws at the World Cup, but in both they were outpossessed and flagrantly outshot. The Costa Ricans beat Canada outright, 2-0, at last summer’s Pan-American Games, but (controversially) the Canadian Soccer Association has never considered those full internationals. It was a Canadian U-23 lineup, lacking key players even for that age group, against the full Costa Rican side and the fighting was still reasonably equal. A single Canadian from that match, central defender Shelina Zadorsky, is likely to start Friday, with maybe a one-in-three chance for Janine Beckie. In this very tournament Costa Rica lost a staggering 6-0 to the Americans. Myriad though Canada’s struggles against the United States have been, they have not handled us so roughly since 2008.

In short, by any rational judgment we may book passage to Rio de Janeiro.

I remain, Sir, your faithful and obedient servant,
Benjamin Massey.

Now. Permission to speak freely?

Of course I’m worried. On paper, Canada should thump Costa Rica with gratifying ease. The Mexican team that Costa Rica deservedly beat, 2-1, has been struggling since at least the end of 2015 World Cup qualifying. They were never great but you couldn’t take them for granted; now they take vicious body blows. Winless in the World Cup, including a discreditable 1-1 draw with hapless Colombia[1]. 0-3 to Canada, 2-4 and 0-6 to Brazil, too-close wins over countries like Argentina and Trinidad and Tobago that they really should have been able to stroll past. Their program has failed to keep pace with the rest of CONCACAF and their development system is now almost entirely “cap-tie Americans with dual citizenship.” Maribel Domínguez is still their one forward worth a damn and she’s 37. Costa Rica’s win surprised most of us, but the Mexicans are unquestionably on the down-swing.

Yet there’s more to fear than “they don’t play these games on paper.” While Canada last played on Tuesday, Costa Rica had an extra 24 hours off. This is to a degree alleviated by the fact that Canada rested many stars, but only to a degree. Jessie Fleming, who ran everywhere against the Guats, might be called upon as an impact substitute. Ashley Lawrence, not far removed from a nasty head-clash, had three meaningful games and could start Friday. Centrebacks Kadeisha Buchanan and Shelina Zadorsky started each match, even if they never had to work hard. Diana Matheson had a role in every game, is constitutionally incapable of not trying to run through brick walls, and has what I think we can now call “a chronic knee problem.” Though not part of most fans’ best eleven, Melissa Tancredi played extensively against Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala. She did particular damage to the latter, and John Herdman has always been eager for an excuse to play the 34-year-old.

Most importantly, Canada’s round robin matches were scrimmages. Guyana, for about half an hour, put up something resembling a fight defensively, chucking nine women into the box, whipping legs in front of crosses, and praying for rain. None of those three teams showed any serious interest in attacking Zadorsky and Buchanan, playing their first tournament as a unit. Costa Rica will attack with Shirley Cruz, probably CONCACAF’s best crap-country player, as well as respectable second-rankers like Raquel Rodríguez and young Melissa Herrera. Each of them is far, far superior to anybody Guyana, Guatemala, or Trinidad and Tobago could dream of throwing at us. They’re not too good for Canada, of course they aren’t, but they’ve been testing themselves against Mexico and the United States. Rodríguez scored twice against Mexico, including a perfectly confident penalty, and is in fine fettle. Canada hasn’t been tested against anybody at all since Brazil rather humbled us in December.

Again, in the group stage we were not attacked. The one serious scoring chance we conceded in 270 minutes was when Desiree Scott made an atypically dopey turnover against Trinidad and Tobago. Meanwhile, we scored goals by shooting them through incompetent goalkeepers and having the gigantic Tancredi wander around the enemy six-yard box entirely unmarked, letting the goalie drive clearances straight into her boot. Costa Rica’s defending is usually garbage but not that garbage, not demoralized-metro-league-team garbage. Maybe even the rather slack passing we’ve evinced, confident that our stronger, faster, and more skilled players will be able to get the ball back anyway, will come back to haunt us. Even the coaching has been complacent, Herdman happily embarking on positional experiments rather than ensuring his best players are comfortable with each other.

None of this adds up to giving Costa Rica even odds or anything. The betting shops have las Ticas 10-to-1 to win in 90 and that’s about right. Yet the incredible weakness of Canada’s group, which seemed such a boon when they were drawn, may impart the slightest vulnerability, the faintest crack in the fortifications of a young Canadian team that, compared to 2012, is more “potential” than “achievement.”

(notes and comments…)

The Canadian Messi

By Benjamin Massey · February 12th, 2016 · No comments

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Yesterday, 16-year-old Deanne Rose of Alliston, Ontario took Guyana to school. In her first competitive start for her country Rose scored two goals, had an assist, and would have added to her total had John Herdman not subbed her off in the sixty-second minute. Canada beat Guyana 5-0 (thanks to Ashley Lawrence recording the most overlooked hat trick of the century) and seldom have we faced an opponent so hopelessly out of their depth. Usually it’s Canadian teams that look like that, defending in desperate fear, putting eight women in the box, hoofing without even trying to maintain possession, their only hope of a goal being Lauren Sesselmann apparating at centreback and backpassing up a storm. But the Guyanese team is mostly Canadian, so that makes sense[1].

What a shellacking. By the end of the game Guyana looked like they just wanted to go home. (To Toronto.) Canada had 80% of the possession and 100% of the shots. Despite spending the first half crossing so badly even John Herdman was obliged to notice, Canada was constantly in control and treated the minnow as a minnow deserves. Without some awkward non-finishes and a great save it would easily have been 8-0. It wasn’t always pretty, but our dominance was absolute even with Sinclair, Schmidt, and Matheson jogging, Chapman and Belanger launching runs for the six-yard box like over-excited U-8s, McLeod visibly bored, and Herdman practically screaming “hell with it, it’s Guyana” as he played some real-life FIFA 16 and brought on Jessie Fleming for a fullback.

The kids played like they had something to prove. Gabby Carle shot from everywhere, Fleming tried to play keepaway, Lawrence scored a goal or three or something, Buchanan and Zadorsky were both fine on those rare occasions they were in the picture, and the real star of the show was Rose. As is tradition, I am using a handful of games against mostly second-rate opposition or worse to formally anoint her the Canadian Messi.

Rose’s best comparable is Christine Sinclair, who surely would have named the Canadian Messi herself had Uncle Leo not been a 13-year-old with Newell’s Old Boys. Sinclair’s first senior goal for Canada came on March 14, 2000, when she put one past Norway in a 2-1 loss at the Algarve Cup. She was 16 years, 9 months, and 2 days old. When Rose scored her first two goals yesterday she was 16 years, 11 months, and 8 days old, the fifth-youngest scorer in Canadian senior women’s history and 13 days younger than her teammate Jessie Fleming[2].

The pity is that Rose was substituted out after only an hour before she could complete her hat trick. With Guyana’s defense impotent on the flanks another goal would have been almost probable. Carle had a good fistful of chances off the left wing but struck them just wide or into the keeper. She very nearly got a piece of Lawrence’s first. Had Rose managed another goal she would have been the second-youngest hat trick hero in Canadian history behind Aysha Jamani. Well ahead of Sinclair, whose first hat trick came at the age of 17 years, 26 days against… Guyana, finished with two quick goals in the 73rd and 76th minutes.

With these omens, not to mention speed that left the Guyanese gasping and technical ability which isn’t limited to South American minnows but looked interesting last December in Brazil, it is clear that Rose is the future of Canadian sport. Anybody who said “who’s Aysha Jamani?” in the last paragraph and thinks that maybe we should reserve judgment on young goalscorers is clearly a pessimist.

Poor Ashley Lawrence. Sure she scored three, but the first ended in a gratuitous defensive miscue by Guyana’s Kayla de Souza (from Scarborough and normally a midfielder at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology), inexplicably standing a foot and a half behind her own goal line when she attempted a last-ditch “clearance.” The second probably should have been an own goal, though Lawrence played it well. The third was a terrific finish made possible by Sinclair’s munificence. She’s twenty years old, by our standards an old lady, and has scored before – at a World Cup, no less. Yawn. Make way for the new generation, Ashley.

Some talk, as Steven Sandor did in relation to another Canadian Messi, about the dangers of over-hyping a young player. But how on Earth do you over-hype a Canadian woman? The Houston crowd watching Rose’s excellence probably didn’t amount to a hundred people. The game was webcast by CBC with Andi Petrillo, Karina LeBlanc, and Nigel Reed taking it half-seriously from a studio in Toronto, and that was unusually major coverage. News and blog articles, raving over Rose, have come exclusively from the usual suspects. As of this writing the CBC’s recap of the match isn’t on the front page of their sports site, although the Jerome Valcke ban is, and if you go searching in the bowels of their page you’ll find only Gavin Day’s story for the Canadian Press. The die-hards who watched the Brazil tournament last December already had a pretty good idea that Rose was worth following, and said so, but it didn’t amount to a hill of tweets in this crazy world.

What Canadian girls have been talked up at all by the general public? Sinclair, who became the greatest female forward ever to live. Kara Lang, who could have been a superstar if not for her knees. Jessie Fleming, more recently, but there’s no sign that a couple interviews during the Women’s World Cup or her young goal against Scotland have ruined her. She hasn’t been seduced by the cash, the 24/7 media frenzy, the fast cars, the supermodels, because none of those bloody things exist and she’s going to UCLA this fall. She missed a recent training camp because she had to study. 20-year-old Kadeisha Buchanan won the Holy Grail by scoring against the Americans and bulldozing Abby Wambach in a wildly-attended 2014 home friendly, being Canada’s best player at a home World Cup, and becoming the only defender nominated for 2015 FIFA World Player of the Year. Even she, among the world’s best defenders and as widely-covered as any non-Sinclair Canadian, has fewer than half the Google hits and 4% the Twitter followers of, say, Jay DeMerit.

No of course Deanne Rose isn’t on the verge of succeeding Christine Sinclair. She has so much more work to do it’s unbelievable. But that doesn’t mean we fans should restrain ourselves from getting excited out of some misplaced sense of caution that we will ruin potential by our applause. Any young woman whose head fatally spins from the infinitesimal Canadian woso hype machine never had the mentality to succeed anyway. Let’s have fun, and allow ourselves hope, and give a young player her due for a great game entirely without self-consciousness.

(notes and comments…)

The Greatest Canadian Game Ever

By Benjamin Massey · January 22nd, 2016 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

There are some good old Canadian soccer videos on YouTube, and today I found the crown jewel: the complete match video of the biggest day in Canadian men’s soccer history, when on September 14, 1985, Canada beat Honduras 2-1 in St. John’s, Newfoundland and qualified for the 1986 FIFA World Cup.

I had never before watched this game. It took place fifteen months before I was born. The game was broadcast live nationally on CBC, today not a home for the men’s national team, so there are few opportunities for the network to pull it out of the archives. The only chance was home videotapers, some of whom recorded this game, a smaller subset of those keeping both boxes of tapes in good order and the means to play (and digitize) them. Apart from the 1986 World Cup itself, where YouTube has varying-quality foreign-language videos of all three Canadian games, the earliest matches available online even as decent highlight reels dated from the 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign… until a magnificent user gave us this piece of history.

You know the story. Canada needed a draw or a win to qualify; a loss would see Honduras through. English-born Carl Valentine, late of the Vancouver Whitecaps and then with West Brom, had finally agreed to represent his adopted homeland. The game was scheduled for St. John’s and the Newfoundlanders packed King George V Park to standing room only, fans crowded around the thin white rope that protected the field of play. Meanwhile, according to imperishable legend, most Hondurans who traveled to support their side wound up in Saint John, New Brunswick, across the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the action and scrambling to find a friendly pub. In the end, despite struggling with the flu, Valentine set up Canadian goals from two players as different as ice and fire: scrapper’s scrapper George Pakos, the Victoria amateur who’d clawed his way into the national program with sheer persistence and guts, and super-skilled Torontonian forward Igor Vrablic, 20 years old and already making his 34th cap, but less than two years away from being forced out in disgrace for match fixing.

You see it all in the video. Pakos’s opening goal is superbly gritty; Valentine’s corner gets only a glancing header from Ian Bridge, the ball falls into a sea of Honduran white, and from outside the post George Pakos charges into the mob like a raging bull and puts his boot through it, driving it right off Honduran goalkeeper Julio César Arzú and in. Vrablic, on the other hand, does it almost like you draw it up: tied 1-1 just past the hour mark, Valentine’s corner is flicked on by David Norman and Vrablic makes the perfect run, chucks his leg in the way, and deflects it home.

However, when you know a game as only a legend, it’s so easy to be disappointed in the imperfect reality of a 90-minute soccer match. Especially a thirty-year-old one on a dodgy pitch during the salad days of defensive soccer. Early on I yelped at a Canadian backpass into goalkeeper Tino Lettieri’s hands before remembering that wouldn’t be a rule for seven more years, and his long holds of the ball would have driven Abby Wambach to distraction. This was not soccer’s finest era and, mentally, I prepared myself for Canada gritting out an undeserved three points. What I got was a match living up to its reputation.

There are so many little moments Wikipedia just can’t tell you about. Lettieri, officially listed at 6’0″ but definitely smaller (Bruce Wilson, no giant, has a good few inches on him), running down everything like a maniac, taking every chance, and sprinting down the pitch to celebrate with the team on Pakos’s opener. The aggressiveness of the defending. A constant press, mad challenges (particularly from Pakos and Norman) in spite of what we still recognize as Honduras’s trademark flopping. Vrablic’s first-half chance, an absolute sparkler of a ball flashing across the face of goal, only for him to cement-foot it sideways, the sort of thing that could have lived in infamy on another day. Vrablic cannoning a shot from distance off the post with barely ten minutes to go; that miss wouldn’t have to haunt him either.

Late in the first half, with Canada holding on to a 1-0 lead, Randy Samuel making one of the great goal-line clearances, outrunning both Lettieri and the ball to hammer it most of the way to Cape Breton. Lettieri spilling a dangerous free kick but Ian Bridge thundering in without regard for life or limb to clear the ball behind. Late in the game, a charging Lettieri being stamped on by Macho Figueroa, and an irate Bob Lenarduzzi immediately shoving Figueroa to the ground. Randy Regan and Paul James, of all people, hooking up for a European counter attack that ended with James two feet from a highlight-reel goal. Ken Garraway, another Victoria amateur legend making his second-last cap for Canada, coming on to help kill the last half-hour and in his charmingly limited way tying the desperate Honduran defense in knots, like a particularly awkward bull tossing aside Pamplona tourists.

And Canada running, running, running, living up to our every stereotype of a country that emphasizes fitness, guts, and desire rather than sheer technical skill, a negative cliché that, on this enormous day, worked in the most positive fashion. The game was even in the middle of the park but Honduras generated little. They wanted it, don’t kid yourself, but pushed on by one of the all-time great crowds Canada outworked them. A crowd so energetic that, even in the pre-supporters group era, on the dough-like mid-’80s CBC microphones the atmosphere flows though the video like lifeblood. Singing “na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey hey hey, goodbye”… in the sixty-fifth minute. The Voyageurs wouldn’t have the nerve to taunt the Hondos like that today, but St. John’s did, and they were right. There weren’t even moments of danger, just Canada working harder, holding on, and at the explosion of the final whistle thousands of fans invading what had suddenly become a hallowed pitch.

What a show it was, the best of Canadian soccer as it was then. Knowing the outcome and knowing that, in the long run, it would amount to nothing more than a story takes nothing away in 2016. These players gave their all for their country; there were a few flashy, uncommitted professionals, but old-school players who’d run through a wall for the maple leaf proved more important. Pakos and Wilson, in particular, were the very incarnation of what Canadian players should be. Even Valentine, born and raised in England and preferring to play for them, was an honest man whose heart belonged to two homelands and would give everything he had for either one. They weren’t as technical as the Hondurans but they were skilled enough, not to mention well-led and utterly committed, and that’s what mattered (indeed, their performance against a nasty group in 1986 should be a source of pride in itself).

Bringing in the most talented players regardless of other considerations is a valid approach. But it’s not the only successful one.

My 2015 Canadian Soccer Awards Ballot, Eventually

By Benjamin Massey · January 7th, 2016 · No comments

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

In 2014 I set what must have been the world record for laziness by posting my Canadian soccer players of the year ballot on December 26, long after the award winners had already been announced. I’d gotten my votes in on time, but actually sharing them with the world took ages. Yet that was as mayflies compared to what happened in 2015, when I find myself typing out my list of awardees at, er, the beginning of January.

This is not (exclusively) an exercise in hubris, nor an excuse to “start a conversation” since hardly anybody comments on this blog anyway. There’s a selfish element: I like being able to look back, see what I thought in 2013 or 2014. But there’s another dimension: voters for major awards have a minor moral duty to make their votes public. The recent Baseball Hall of Fame announcement, which again saw the tremendous Tim Raines left out of Cooperstown, shows why. Raines appeared on 77.8% of the ballots made public, nicely above the 75% required for election, but only got 69.8% of the vote overall. Raines is probably the greatest leadoff man in National League history but played in a small foreign market and was overshadowed in his own time by Rickey Henderson. He’s easy to overlook by those unaware of his greatness and unwilling to do the research, but as the public voters showed, accountability promotes responsibility. (Not that, as the FIFA Player of the Year awards demonstrate, it is a panacea.)

Canada’s official soccer awards are very vulnerable to this sort of slackness, as Christine Sinclair’s player of the year win last year showed. To my knowledge only a minority of media members publicize their ballots. Most of them, not coincidentally, have opinions you can take seriously, because they’ve put the thought in. I try to keep the same spirit even when I fall short in rigor. In fact, as you’ll see, I think I got one of my 2015 votes wrong already.

Enough tiresome preamble. Let’s begin. Here are my votes from 2014, 2013, and 2012.

Women’s Player of the Year

The Women’s World Cup in Canada captivated the nation. Being the major soccer event of the summer right in front of our noses, it should have led to a more informed level of voting than you usually get on the distaff side of the ball. And it did! Kadeisha Buchanan, born fifty-six days too soon to be eligible for the U-20 team, took what we can more-or-less guarantee will not be her last Player of the Year award, breaking Christine Sinclair’s unsurpassable run of eleven straight going back to 2004 (she also won in 2000, aged 17; another record that will never be broken). Sinclair still came in third. Josée Bélanger, scorer of the year’s biggest goal and first-rate feel-good story, was a well-deserved runner-up.

About Buchanan, there is nothing more to add. She would be a starting centreback on the World XI today. She made the 10-woman shortlist for FIFA World Player of the Year, as high an honour as she can get given that no defender has ever been voted into the top 3. She cracked the World Cup all-star team and was named Best Young Player despite a nagging injury and dragging the decomposing Lauren Sesselmann and Carmelina Moscato around like a sack of bricks. She won the Voyageurs Player of the Year award with an unusually heavy majority, 13 out of 18 first-place votes. She genuinely is that good. Canada is rightly condemned for its female player development and complete lack of professional opportunities, but if we can create a Buchananbauer then something must be going right. Anybody who didn’t have her on the ballot must be suspected of either disrespecting the defensive arts or knee-jerk contrarianism. Her victory, and the end of Sinclair’s dominance, can hardly be better deserved.

Bélanger is hardly be a reputation vote, since prior to this year she had effectively left the picture. But such a year catches a lot of attention. Not only the goal against Switzerland, a scrappy but skilled strike in the most critical of situations, but her general play up top, giving Sinclair a forward partner she could actually do something with. More than that, Bélanger actually played most of the World Cup at right back, substituting for the injured Rhian Wilkinson and doing, despite some dodgy moments, a better job than the veteran she was allegedly backing up. Today’s argument over Bélanger, which continued into the December Natal tournament, is whether the team is better starting her on the back line or starting her at forward. There aren’t many players on many national teams, male or female, who can boast that sort of versatility.

While it’s hardly of the same importance as her gallant national team play, Bélanger also tore the UEFA Women’s Champions League a couple new orifices. Turning out with Rosengård, a good women’s side, Bélanger had four goals and an assist in four matches. She was only the second-leading striker on Rosengård, but since the leader is Marta I bet she can live with that. Club soccer on the women’s end is less important than internationals but it’s still a good tie-breaker and Bélanger had as good a club season as any Canadian. Between that and her World Cup heroism I had her second place on my ballot with the rest of the voters. Incidentally, 2016 will see Bélanger play in the NWSL, leaving Rosengård just as Erin McLeod (and Ella Masar) join it but staying closer to the Canadian soccer spotlight.

Third place is where it all gets interesting. Erin McLeod had a lousy club season in Houston (again, tiebreaker) but proved once again she is the greatest money goalkeeper in the world at the World Cup. The Natal tournament, though it came too late to influence the CSA’s voting, was a vivid demonstration of just how vital McLeod is. When she went off with a knee injury in the final against Brazil Steph Labbé came in, and while Labbé wasn’t bad exactly she definitely was not Erin Fucking McLeod, and Canada lost.

Allysha Chapman was another great story. Last year she burst out of obscurity into the first team, slotting in at left back and making us all go “huh.” This year, her first as a regular, saw her be (with Buchanan) one of only two Canadian defenders you could pretty much trust. She started sixteen games, including the entire World Cup, and scored her first international goal in Cyprus against Italy. In the end she has more to learn at the highest level, was slightly too erratic to get many votes[1], and had a nearly non-existent season with the Houston Dash, but I thought long and hard about her and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

Sophie Schmidt didn’t play club soccer in the summer of 2015 at all, but after the World Cup signed on with maybe the best women’s soccer club in history, 1. FFC Frankfurt. She has instantly become a regular, starting seven of twelve games. Her World Cup itself was a slight disappointment, aggravated by injury, for the woman who should have been Canada’s best player, but she remained perfectly competent and you could tell how much the team missed her when she was gone. Though it was only a friendly, she scored the prettiest damned goal by a Canadian woman all year in the Hamilton match against England. Schmidt is who I wound up putting in third place. I deeply enjoy the way she plays, the creativity, the willingness to go on the attack. Even if she didn’t do everything we wanted after a superb 2014, she deserves a nod of respect.

Yet, not quite a month later, I think I was wrong. I think that I succumbed to reputation bias. I think I should have given third place to a woman who I left off my ballot because she gets too many votes as it is. I think I should have gone with Christine Sinclair.

I started thinking about this during the Natal tournament, where Sinclair played quite well and eventually tied Mia Hamm as the second-leading scorer in women’s soccer history. This was too late for the CSA vote, which wrapped up on December 11, but led me down the road to reconsideration. Sinclair’s World Cup wasn’t the 2012 Olympics redux. We all wanted it to be, and she couldn’t do it, and we knew that would happen but it saddened us anyway. But what did she do? She was, despite her 32 years, Canada’s most dangerous attacking player (bearing in mind Bélanger was usually a defender): another 2012 hero, Melissa Tancredi, by comparison was obviously completely done. She scored against China, and sure it was a penalty, but it was a 90th-minute penalty at a World Cup in front of the craziest, most desperate crowd she had ever played for. There aren’t many more nervy situations in the world, and Sinclair calmly slid it into the bottom right corner, as cool as it gets. Wang Fei guessed right and couldn’t get there. That’s not nothing.

Her other World Cup goal was against England, when Canada needed her more than ever. 2-0 down thanks to defensive mistakes the Canadians were regardless mounting a few good attacks, and near the end of the first half Sinclair bundled in a spilled ball from Karen Bardsley. Opportunistic, like the penalty. But, first, Sinclair’s inerrant homing instinct for goal made that mistake possible[2], and second, Sinclair got the play going anyhow when she outstepped an English defender and played a precise short pass to Ashley Lawrence, letting her find room and get the cross in. Sinclair couldn’t get the equalizer, and I’m sure she still thinks about that, but she was a threat. She also set up Bélanger’s goal against Switzerland and could easily have had more. Her chance against New Zealand, a specimen of coordination and Canada’s best opportunity, was saved almost miraculously by young Erin Naylor. The second-best opportunity in that game was set up by Sinclair, who sent her strike partner in for a late chance that would surely have given Canada a 1-0 lead if said strike partner wasn’t Melissa Tancredi. Against the Netherlands her strength and determination made her by far Canada’s best player going forward in a horrifying draw. She genuinely played well, led the team in scoring, and deserved better.

What’s more, outside of the World Cup Sinclair also had a good year. She started the year with five goals from her first five games, four against quality opposition. Her performance in the Hamilton friendly, just before her thirty-second birthday, was fine. Down in Portland she only had two goals and two assists in a World Cup-shortened campaign, but her strike rate on her team was bettered only by the sensational journeyman Allie Long. It was a good year. Not a great one, but enough that I should have put her on my podium. I didn’t and I regret it. Sorry, Christine, I know I broke your heart. 1. Kadeisha Buchanan 2. Josée Bélanger 3. Sophie Schmidt (but shoulda been Christine Sinclair).

Men’s Player of the Year

Wait, the men played? Oh yeah, Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying. Look, the men were an afterthought this year. But that’s okay, because in truth there were no performances to get you worked up anyhow.

Atiba Hutchinson is the best player, so absent anything more interesting I voted for him. So did a bunch of other people, and he won for the second year on the trot and fourth time overall. He’s a much-loved key player at Beşiktaş, who as we speak has a good shot of winning the Turkish Süper Lig for the first time since 2008–09. For Canada his calmness, precise passing, and low-intensity but somehow always adroit defending is quite literally indispensable. Canada without Hutchinson is nobody much, a demi-glorified Guatemala with a bit more speed down the wings. Canada with Hutchinson can hang around against anybody and occasionally surprise you with a moment of glory. Hutchinson missed out on the Gold Cup, where Canada was worse than bad, worse even than 2013 when fans said Colin Miller obviously didn’t know how to tie his shoelaces the team was so awful. Then Hutchinson played at BC Place against Honduras, looked vital, and was a key part of a fantastic win. Even in El Salvador he, and Junior Hoilett, were the two players who looked like they might be able to get us three important points.

No doubt there was a strong groundswell for Cyle Larin. For his club, he got more headlines than any other Canadian of either gender, setting the Major League Soccer rookie scoring record with 17 goals, tops at Orlando City and sixth in the league overall. His formidable strike rate was beaten only by Didier Drogba and Robbie Keane, of whom I believe I have heard. For country he scored the goal against Honduras, not that he knew anything about it, and notched a couple against Dominica to be the men’s second-top scorer of 2015 behind the continually underrated Tosaint Ricketts. He did many things right. I am biased against Major League Soccer and tend to discount its players on my ballot, but not even I can deny that Larin was a cut above the “wow Jonathan Osorio really established himself as a viable first-team option!” crap that usually passes for an MLS nominee. So I put him in second place.

Why not first, then? Well, if you’re going to stake your entire candidacy on being an offensive wünderkind, you probably shouldn’t score on 58.6% of your shots on target, the highest non-PK shooting percentage among any of MLS’s leading scorers, and make me scream “oh god he is going to regress so hard in 2016 and people are going to read way too much into it.” An unsustainable hot streak doesn’t take you out of the Player of the Year running but, when it’s so one-dimensional[3], it doesn’t get you ahead of Hutch either. Also, you probably shouldn’t do this.

In third is the usual pu-pu platter of decent but unremarkable choices. Milan Borjan, now inarguably Canada’s first choice goalkeeper, is popular and talented and continues what is a actually a pretty strong post-Craig Forrest tradition of eccentric but able men between the sticks. Tosaint Ricketts can’t get no respect, and I maybe should have been the man to give him some, but despite leading the MNT in scoring he’s currently playing fullback in the Turkish second division and didn’t step up against top countries this year the way some of his teammates did. Cheeky choices include Julian de Guzman, who had a good club run with the Ottawa Fury and is having the weirdest Indian Summer I can ever remember, playing consistent soccer despite being a million years old and seemingly washed-up in 2013, and Junior Hoilett, who wasn’t on the list of nominees but I can guarantee some smartass voted for him anyway.

I plumped for Adam Straith, currently running all over the field for Fredrikstad in the Norwegian second division. This was slightly unfair of me, as my lingering opinion Straith doesn’t quite get his due for club or country must have influenced what was a fairly aggressive voting choice. But look at the man. He’s gone 90 minutes in all six of our World Cup qualifiers to date plus all three of our Gold Cup matches, the only Canadian to do so. He is more versatile than any of our other men, suiting up in defensive midfield and centreback this year, with spells at both fullback positions not too far in the past. While not flashy and in little danger of winning a game by himself, he also makes few blunders and a comparison to David Edgar, a much higher-event player in every category, is not necessarily to Straith’s disadvantage. Sure, his current club form is worth nothing, and you wouldn’t panic if you learned thirty minutes before kickoff that Adam Straith was hurt, but on a team that seems to produce mostly guys who put together an incredible game then disappear for four months Straith’s steadfast solidarity is comforting. I trust Adam Straith. Only Atiba Hutchinson got the same praise. 1. Atiba Hutchinson 2. Cyle Larin 3. Adam Straith.

The Awards I Can’t Vote for

Every year the U-20 and U-17 player of the year awards are restricted to Canadian coaches. However, I like to weigh in anyway.

To name Jessie Fleming women’s U-20 player of the year took no leap of imagination. I wish John Herdman had used her more at the World Cup; her spark would have helped a team dying offensively. But, while not exactly a force when on the field, she did well for a kid. Nobody else was seriously in it, and with Fleming excluded we’re left with an odd field. The CONCACAF women’s U-20 tournament and the Natal senior tournament, which had a heavy U-20 presence, both took place in December and split the roster. Gabrielle Carle and Marie Levasseur were with the senior team and denied the chance to show their stuff against their own age group, while Sura Yekka and the Sarahs Kinzner and Stratigakis looked pretty good with the U-20s. I give Kinzner the edge, partially for her general play but mostly because she had two goals at the CONCACAF tournament and both were dope as fuck. Yekka was allegedly a fullback but more-or-less played every position depending on her mood. She thought she was really talented for her age group and, you know, she was right. Then there’s Deanne Rose, who is on the U-17 list but looked like such a dynamic attacking winger in Brazil that I thought about her for more than half a second, and Kennedy Faulknor, a surprisingly-good U-17 centreback in the same tournament. Apart from Fleming I’m basing this off not many games but oh well. 1. Jessie Fleming 2. Sura Yekka 3. Sarah Kinzner.

The men’s side is another mixed bag. Michael Petrasso, the eventual winner, would have been a good bet. Wearing the number 34 shirt at Queen’s Park Rangers, he’s semi-regularly on the bench in the Championship and has entered three games this season. The other European-based players on the list are Fraser Aird, whose commitment to Canada is so recent I rule him out, and Luca Gasparotto, on the book at Rangers but is loaned to Greenock Morton. Not bad, since they and Rangers are in the Scottish Championship, but is a regular centreback on loan in the Scottish second division better than an occasional midfielder in the English second division? In October’s ultimately unsuccessful Olympic qualifying campaign, Petrasso was Canada’s most dynamic attacking threat, while Gasparotto looked a little slow, a little uncertain, not quite up to it. Nobody, except Hanson Boakai[4], looked good at the disastrous CONCACAF U-20s in January but Petrasso was among the less bad while Gasparotto helped our backline concede multiple goals to pretty much everyone. Among the North American nominees, Chris Serban is a great story but is playing MLS reserve soccer right now, Kianz Froese at least saw MLS once in a while but Petrasso’s doing better, and Cyle Larin wait that’s right Cyle Larin was eligible for this! How did he not win?! We’ll probably never know what the hell the coaches were thinking. This is why it’s worth publishing these, because Cyle got robbed. 1. Cyle Larin 2. Michael Petrasso 3. Kianz Froese.

Our men’s U-17 CONCACAF championship bid went better than the U-20s, but in the playoff they got shredded by Costa Rica and that was that. Tristan Borges, one of the nominees, scored against Mexico, and honestly that always makes you worth at least a look. Sadly, others had more well-rounded years. His Toronto teammate Gabriel Boakye is not only enjoying a growing reputation but made seven starts for the TFC reserves last year. Ballou Tabla, last year’s winner, scored against mighty Saint Lucia for the U-17s but didn’t make noise otherwise. Duwayne Ewart was Canada’s leading scorer at the tournament; as the only nominee outside a professional academy I think he was slightly overlooked but I’m no expert. The sole European-based prospect, Harrison Paton, is something of an invisible man on this side of the pond. That leaves the man who won, Vancouver’s Kadin Chung, a versatile player who got 41 minutes with the Whitecaps reserves in 2015, couldn’t get off the field for the U-17s, and scored against Haiti. You can’t put one ahead of the others unless you’ve spent a lot more time watching them than I have, so I won’t bother giving a ranking, but my instinct leans towards Boakye and Ewart.

The women’s U-17s are easier just because so many of them got a chance at a higher level. We already discussed Rose, Faulknor, and Stratigakis, who impressed alongside players a few (or many) years their senior; Faulknor wound up winning, doubly impressive since her run in the Natal tournament came after the polls had closed. It’s hard not to like her (or Rose) based on the early returns. In some order Rose, Faulknor, and Stratigakis are by far the most reasonable 1-2-3, but spare thoughts for Emma Regan and Vital Kats, who more than held their own at the CONCACAF U-20s. Regan made three interesting appearances and posted a couple assists, showing a bit of dynamism that our fullbacks don’t always have, and as a 2000 kid is insanely young for the level. Kats was a supersub forward despite outplaying the regular starter, Taylor Pryce. Lysianne Proulx is also in the picture. I feel more confident ranking these young women – because I actually remember their games – so let’s go with 1. Kennedy Faulknor 2. Deanne Rose 3. Sarah Stratigakis and a confident “see you next year” for Emma Regan. Well, this year, I guess, now.

(notes and comments…)

Christine Sinclair: The Greatest Female Forward of Them All

By Benjamin Massey · December 16th, 2015 · No comments

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Last Sunday, Christine Sinclair #ChasedMia to ground. Canada’s totemic heroine buried an 85th-minute goal against hapless Trinidad and Tobago at the Brazilian Torneio Internacional de Futebol Feminino in Natal. It was a well-taken goal against demoralized opposition, our unmarked superstriker sidefooting Josée Bélanger’s cross over the keeper with perfect accuracy, and it tied Sinclair with Mia Hamm on 158 goals as the second-highest scoring woman in the history of international soccer.

Christine Sinclair is no longer one of the three best women’s soccer players alive, not even the best Canadian, but like an aging but wily tiger she holds dangers for the unwary. Earlier in this tournament she would have had a hat trick against the generally-decent Mexicans if Cecilia Santiago hadn’t gone full Camarón in the second half. At the Women’s World Cup Sinclair scored two goals and played better than her numbers. 32 years old, Sinclair can still catch Abby Wambach, who is 26 goals ahead entering her retirement match today. Wambach scored her 158th goal on her 207th cap as part of a four-goal frenzy against Korea on June 20, 2013, two weeks after her 33rd birthday. Sinclair has 230 caps but is some six months younger than Wambach was. After an unproductive 2014 Sinclair has ten goals so far in 2015 including three against England, three against China, and one against France. Not Canada’s player of the year, no, but not washed up either.

She is, in fact, finishing her case as the greatest female forward in soccer history.

Besides Sinclair, three of the top five scorers in women’s international history are American and the fifth is German immortal Birgit Prinz. These four played on the best teams in the world. But Sinclair is undisputed champion for women from more modest countries and that’s a considerable point in her favour. Not only has she got a decent chance of retiring as the leading scorer of all but she does it while playing without the support of her rivals. Abby Wambach, Mia Hamm, and Kristine Lilly were, year in and year out, the beating heart of the unparalleled American attack. For all that Sinclair boasts a strike rate per game superior not only to Hamm and Lilly (and Prinz) but today’s Americans in their primes: Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Sydney Leroux, take your pick. Only Wambach has scored at a higher rate than Sinclair and she’s been fed by Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Heather O’Reilly, etc. etc. ad nauseum. Early in her career Wambach had the support of Hamm; lately it’s been Morgan and Press. Sinclair’s best fellow forward was Kara Lang and since 2011 she’s mostly partnered with Melissa Tancredi, who scores a goal every five games. Sophie Schmidt and Diana Matheson are good midfielders but neither gets World Player of the Year buzz as Lloyd, Rapinoe, and even Shannon Boxx have. It’s impossible to deny that Wambach is among history’s pre-eminent finishers, but you and I would bang in a few goals if we had her kind of help. Wambach was also more limited in every field other than scoring goals; she could afford to be, there were ten elite women behind her. Sinclair stands alone.

The top strikers from lesser nations are Sinclair, Scotland’s Julie Fleeting, Italy’s deathless Patrizia Panico, the Chinese duo of Sun Wen and Han Duan, and South Africa’s Portia Modise. Panico has been around so long she flew Sopwith Strutters against Austria-Hungary in 1917 and never had a world-class strike rate. Fleeting pillages European minnows like a Panzer division but rarely beats anybody good: Sinclair has more goals against England for God’s sake. Modise reaped bushels of goals from extraordinarily bad African teams, some of the weakest opposition in the world, but was hurt by disputes with the South African federation over her lesbianism and played only one major tournament. At London 2012 she got on the highlight reel but was generally unsuccessful. Modise is a great “what if?”s but you can’t say she was immortal on the field. Han Duan was rather average but Sun Wen can argue she belongs in the Sinclair/Hamm/Wambach class. She won the Golden Ball at the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the start of the modern era of women’s soccer, and was an important factor as late as 2003. In my books too many of her achievements were pre-historic; twentieth-century women’s soccer was so inconsistently competitive that relatively modest players on well-trained teams could knock up pinball-machine totals against teams which only assembled every two years. These are all good forwards, but “greatest of all time?”

Serious countries today need a balanced attack, so gaudy Wambach/Sinclair-style totals are falling by the wayside. Modern Germans have nobody good for more than a goal every two games. France’s Marie-Laure Delie and Japan’s Yuki Ogimi are both terrific, as good as anyone today, but not Sinclair level, Spain’s Verónica Boquete doesn’t play enough, and as for the interchangeable “look out for!” media terrors who roar out of assorted Asian shitstates to fall apart on the world stage, come on. There is one challenger under thirty, and it’s Marta.

Like Sinclair, Marta plays for a nation that’s good enough to be respected but isn’t a true women’s soccer power. Unlike Sinclair, Marta has a World Player of the Year award – five of them, actually, a dominant total in a meaningless award. Marta has scored more against Canada than Sinclair has against Brazil. Marta has ten goals against the United States, Sinclair has eleven in more appearances. Hell, Marta just scored five goals against the Trinidadians Sinclair beat once. Marta’s strike rate, nearly a goal per cap, is terrifying: she would have reached her century already were the Brazilian federation not so slapdash. Statistically Marta is well ahead of Sinclair, and when you compare countries they’ve both played frequently Marta probably has her nose in front.

But the devil, as always, is in the details.

In recent years Marta has shown that she isn’t quite Marta anymore. Up until 2010 she genuinely was a force of nature, but since the 2011 Women’s World Cup reputation has served her as well as skill. The same is true of Sinclair except it happened to Marta some three years earlier. 29 years old is awfully young to lose your prime, and it’s an open question whether she can have a late career on the level of Sinclair’s and Wambach’s. There’s more to all-time greatness than peak value.

Brazil has a lot of weak opposition, and it’s partially their fault. No, they can’t help being the only country in South America worth a damn, and they play the Americans a lot. However, the Brazil women’s budget is not consistent with their talent, meaning the European tours where Sinclair and the Americans prove their mettle are rare treats for Marta. Marta has actually never scored against France or Japan and has only one against Germany; Sinclair has two, five, and three goals respectively.

Besides that, a much greater proportion of Marta’s games, and goals, come at home than Sinclair’s. The Canadian women’s national team travels as much as any first-class formation in the world, with two or three home friendlies per year at best whenever we aren’t hosting a World Cup. CONCACAF Olympic and World Cup qualifying tournaments are held in individual countries, which usually means the United States. Home field advantage applies to Marta’s raw numbers in a way they don’t for Sinclair.

Finally, Brazil’s got Cristiane, maybe the best second forward outside the United States and France. Canada has never had such a luxury. Kara Lang should have been but wasn’t. I place a lot of emphasis on this point, but any observer of the Canadian women’s team over the past decade will know how many miles above her comrades Sinclair has truly been. A forward’s achievements rely on her teammates, and Sinclair started a step behind.

As it happens, Marta and Sinclair play each other today in Natal and are guaranteed a rematch in Sunday’s final. Two games with the two masters. Marta and Sinclair have met loads of times and two more won’t settle anything, but in an obscure, irrational way they could be an indicator. Marta has to catch up to our Canadian. If Sinclair is better on the day, why believe Marta will reel her in? It might change very soon but today, at this moment, Christine Sinclair is the greatest forward in the history of women’s soccer.

Breaking Things Ottawa Fury-Style

By Benjamin Massey · December 15th, 2015 · 1 comment

Kim Stallknecht/Canadian Soccer Association

Just a quick note for anybody swinging by that I’m currently fussing with the Maple Leaf Forever! theme to make it somewhat more versatile and mobile-friendly, or at least less actively mobile-hostile. This may lead to oddness on your visit, and will certainly make some older posts look slightly weird. I am trying to make things as backwards-compatible as possible; we’ll see what happens.

If you have any suggestions or bug reports, please do fire me an e-mail or leave a comment.

I am sure this title will never become dated.

Canadian Soccer Studies

By Benjamin Massey · November 27th, 2015 · No comments

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Yesterday Canada announced its roster for CONCACAF Women’s U-20 World Cup qualifying[1]. There are many interesting names on it – senior national team fullback Sura Yekka, Calgary talent Sarah Kinzner, promising 16-year-old Pan-Am Games veteran Sarah Stratigakis, and two 15-year-olds in Vancouver’s Emma Regan and Brampton’s Shana Flynn – and many interesting names absent. Marie Levasseur, Gabrielle Carle, Deanne Rose, and Kennedy Faulknor are all eligible for the U-20 team but are staying in Vancouver with John Herdman and the senior team. More importantly, wünderkind Jessie Fleming is nowhere, left off both the senior and U-20 rosters.

We freaked out when the roster was announced yesterday and we noticed she was missing. (And I mean “we;” me and Carolyn Duthie.) It took hours for the explanation to come, but when it did it was good. Canadian women’s soccer journalist Sandra Prusina reported[2] that Fleming is staying in school but will join the senior women for an invitational tournament in Brazil starting December 9.

Who can blame her? Fleming is in Grade 12 and expected to play for UCLA in the next NCAA women’s soccer season[3]. However, women’s soccer is not football: you can’t snatch a full-ride scholarship with a fractional GPA and a bogus major. You have to be a bona fide student, and Fleming’s missed more class than a juvenile delinquent. Focusing on the Women’s World Cup during the middle of exam season is tough enough; how about two-week trips to Cyprus and China, or friendlies across western Canada and the US, all in Grade 11? It’s not like she can shrug off scholastics for a lucrative professional career; there are no professional women’s soccer clubs in Canada and those in the United States don’t pay well. Even marquee NWSL players paid by the Canadian Soccer Association earn McDonald’s wages, and an ordinary office worker’s salary will get you on a list of the ten highest-paid women’s soccer stars[4]. Careers are short, and benefits aren’t great, and to start a family you quite literally have to retire.

So yes, Jessie Fleming, please take a week now and again to do your homework. Your teammates did and they turned out all right.

Many Canadian female internationals have honest four-year degrees, but often in sports-related subjects. After their playing careers they go into coaching or physiotherapy. Others enter the sports media: as with many men below the international level, soccer is what they know and they stick to it. However, this is not the rule, and I wonder how many of the world’s major teams have been as well-rounded as the Canadian soccer women. For example, until earlier this month Selenia Iacchelli and Emily Zurrer operated a food truck in Vancouver[5]. Selling frozen yogurt out of a van sounds goofy but few professional athletes have such humble side businesses; Zurrer has a degree in advertising, for heaven’s sakes, and how much less of a prototypical jock can you be? Well, you can be Erin McLeod, who not only has an advertising degree from Penn State herself but is a professional artist when not busy being the best money goalkeeper in the world.

Diana Matheson, the beating heart of Canada’s midfield, has a bachelor’s in economics from Princeton, which has led to many “microeconomist” jokes over the years. Melissa Tancredi holds three degrees and memorably missed almost a year of games to finish up a doctorate in chiropractic. Stephanie Labbé has a degree in Early Childhood Development and Education, Shelina Zadorsky’s is in psychology. Kadeisha Buchanan, already one of the ten best female defenders alive, is an honours student in criminology at West Virginia. According to Sportsnet’s Kristina Rutherford, Fleming aims to study science or engineering at UCLA[6], hopefully bringing a little STEM rigour to what has been a very soft-science-focused locker room.

Among former players, Dr. Clare Rustad (45 caps from 2000 to 2008; scored against Brazil at Commonwealth Stadium in 2002) had a BSc in molecular biology from Washington during her playing days and is now a real doctor. (Christine Sinclair is also a doctor, but an honourary one; her real degree is in biology from the University of Portland.) Silvana Burtini, a former national player of the year and the third-most-capped Canadian of all time, is a police officer and holds the British Columbia Police Award of Valour. Countless former Canadian national teamers have gone on to productive careers outside soccer, from advertising to yoga. After all, they had to.

This is because of an unequal system. Elite athletes who, if they had penises, could count on prosperous careers and six-figure salaries instead spend their glory days with one eye on the future. Elite male athletes doing well in school have an “insurance policy;” for a top female player, like the rest of us, it’s necessary to put food on the table. Only your Sinclairs and Alex Morgans will earn enough as players to save for retirement, and full-time coaching gigs are very thin on the ground. Their performance as athletes suffers, for nobody does two things at once perfectly, and adds to the stress of their lives. It’s unavoidable economics, and not even unfair, but it’s the way it is.

However, speaking strictly as a fan, there is a bright side. The Canadian women’s soccer team is embraced by those who, like your humble correspondent, stand quite outside the mainstream of women’s sport. It’s not just the usual platitudes about girls being inspired and these women work so hard and they’ve proven they belong etc. etc. ad nauseum, it’s that our national teamers are genuinely interesting people. Your average top athlete got there by being so consumed by his sport that he was able to succeed in the most cutthroat environment in the civilized world; there’s no time to develop a personality, and if one does come through it’s usually bad or boring. An NHL player can become a cult favourite with a sense of humour that’s tiresome and derivative at an office party.

Our women are a cut above. We can relate to them on a personal level. While you can’t get to know a professional athlete from afar, any fan young or old can see there is someone there to know. Catch them outside the bubble of an active player and they can be interesting company. Journalists like talking to them (though it’s not always reciprocated). Even Sinclair, who’s spent twenty years learning to mouth platitudes on demand to microphone-wielding strangers, flashes genuine personality to the world just often enough to notice. They’re people, with varying interests and intellects and ideas. We like people! We want the athletes we cheer for to be people, and because we cheer for them and spend so much money on them we create a system where those athletes become automatons under constant pressure to suppress whatever glimmers of positive individuality they may possess. It is destructive, and self-defeating, and unavoidable.

Canadian women’s soccer has not yet reached that point. Let us be grateful, and let us be glad when Jessie Fleming hits the books like any other 17-year-old, just as we are when her shots hit the target.

(notes and comments…)