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…)

Confidence Ain’t So Easy

By Benjamin Massey · November 17th, 2015 · No comments

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

The last time our men won a road World Cup qualifier against an unquestionably serious country was, for my money, May 2, 1993, when Dale Mitchell and Johnny Catliff led Canada to a 2-1 victory over, as it happens, El Salvador. In 2012 Canada won in Cuba, on the borderline between “minnow” and “real team,” and we beat a better-than-marginal Guatemala 1-0 in a 2004 game that meant nothing for either country. The point is, it’s been a long damned time.

So imagine the excitement when Canada travels to a road World Cup qualifier against a non-minnow as betting favourites. As of this writing bet365 has Canada 11/10 favourites against El Salvador. Betfair is fractionally less generous at 21/20. Nobody needs to be reminded of Canada’s fine home victory against the still-decent Hondurans, while my scouts* tell me that Mexico absolutely humiliated El Salvador at the Azteca, pumping three goals past journeyman Henry Hernandez and looking unlucky not to do better.

El Salvador’s program is the biggest dumpster fire in CONCACAF, which is saying something. Many top players are on strike, outraged at corruption and poor treatment, demanding such decadent luxuries as hotel rooms with hot water. Seven of their players are first-time internationals, including 33-year-old midfielder Yuvini Salamanca. More are veterans with relatively limited experience for their country. Of their major players only Rafael Burgos, Nelson Bonilla, and Jaime Alas are present. They have even been reduced to calling up someone from FC Edmonton, winger Dustin Corea, who went 90 minutes wearing the #7 shirt in Mexico. Corea played for El Salvador at the Gold Cup but that was his first major run for his country; now he is a key man.

The fans are despondent. Ticket sales at the colossal Estadio Cuscatlán are appalling, with only 2,400 sold as of this morning. The major El Salvadoran supporters’ groups stand with their striking players and their boycott appears to largely have been honoured. An El Salvador fan joined the Voyageurs forum, which is traditional, and said Canada is going to beat the hell out of his country, which is not. Any chance of the notoriously powerful San Salvador crowd lifting their inexperienced underdogs to victory seems gone.

Are Canadians optimistic? Let’s ask the sports section of the Toronto Sun:


We know how this goes, right? Canada with a huge game it has absolutely every reason to win, its fans confident, while the opposing faithful who can be bring themselves to show up are struggling through the larceny of their federation and the indignity of months-long outrages. Of course it’s going to be a let-down. Of course it is. You think Canada is going to meet expectations and get six points out of six? How new are you?

The referee in El Salvador is Mark Geiger, who is a human dreidel, spinning and spinning and coming down who knows where. This is doubly dangerous. Junior Hoilett, our much-ballyhooed new acquisition, was diving all over BC Place. Backpasses from Adam Straith and Dejan Jakovic put Milan Borjan under a lot of pressure and led to collisions that incompetent referees could have called penalties. Benito Floro, perhaps underestimating the difficult physical conditions in CONCACAF, has tended to use largely the same starting eleven match after match in his tournaments so far. El Salvador is likely to rotate their squad and showed signs of saving their best horses in the unwinnable Azteca match. Burgos and Alas only played 45 minutes each on Tuesday, while Bonilla did not play at all. San Salvador is only a two-hour flight from Mexico City; Vancouver quite a bit further. And of course there are the other advantages of home field, apart from the crowd. The grass is reportedly terrible, though that didn’t stop Canada in Cuba. While Vancouver has spent the last week hovering a bit below ten degrees Celcius it is, as of this writing, 30 degrees in San Salvador at noon. It’ll be down to about 23 at kickoff but training in the heat is draining too.

Finally, Canada is still Canada. Cyle Larin’s bumble off his back was our first competitive goal against a “real” team since Iain Hume put the one in 8-1; that’s two full Gold Cups. In twenty matches since November 15, 2013, we have been shut out seven times and scored once another eight times. The offense has improved under Floro, with a three-goal spurt in the Jamaica friendly and respectable performances against Ghana and Iceland, and Hoilett has been dynamite, but that’s not enough for us to come in with swagger against any Central American team. It was only a couple months ago that we drew 1-1 in Belize and earned it.

This has a horrifying draw written all over it. We beat Honduras, and I still grin irrationally to think of it, but our scars take more healing than that.

Programming note: the game is being broadcast live in Canada on the premium channel beIN Sports, which is also available as a web service. The Canadian Soccer Association does not control broadcast rights to road World Cup qualifiers; these were sold by the El Salvadoran federation. If you don’t get beIN, follow @thevoyageurs on Twitter; they will be tweeting a list of viewing party locations.

* — i.e. those who remembered to PVR the game.

Magic Realism

By Benjamin Massey · November 14th, 2015 · 1 comment

I got my Voyageurs scarf in 2008. It was my first serious V’s gathering and I remember it oddly well, taking up the woolen red sacrement in a time before functioning websites and easy $20 orders. We were at the Peel Pub in Montréal. It was a remarkable day, no less remarkable for what followed. A march through the Underground City, our voices ringing off the concrete, our bodies jamming the turnstiles good enough for rush hour but not for us. A heady confidence that faded as marched into Stade Saputo, immersed in Honduran kits, in blue and white thundersticks provided by an allegedly Canadian sponsor. A confidence that disappeared entirely as hope became horror. The fights and railing flips, the security as impotent as my country. Tomasz Radzinski went off, Canada went out, and our doom was assured. Montreal, Honduras, 2008. The horror moment. Even 8-1 wasn’t quite that bad. My scarf saw it all. A baptism of blood.

That scarf went around three Gold Cups, a few more World Cup qualifiers, two Women’s World Cups of assorted age levels, and more friendlies than I like to count. It soaked the beer of three countries and innumerable cities from Vancouver to Havana. It was more precious to me than I thought a scarf could be. It was untradeable. If Russell Teibert himself asked for my scarf in exchange for an autographed game-worn kit and a trip to Florida, I’d think about it for multiple seconds before I said no.

Tonight, as the final whistle blew in Canada’s 1-0 victory over Honduras in Vancouver, I threw my hands up, and when I pulled them down that scarf was no longer there. I was quite sober. It was not around me, nobody had snatched it, I had not thrown it. A victory I had been tearfully awaiting for seven years, in a game Vancouver had needed for eleven, and my old scarf had gone to be with the soccer gods. It’s a pathetic expression of superstition and self-absorption but it is, to me, true.

There is an atmosphere around Canadian soccer which, in its most exalted moments, can only truly be called mystical. When Christine Sinclair nearly defeated the United States in 2012 she was more than our best-ever player, she was the avatar of our country, imbued with our vices but more importantly our virtues when we most needed her. When the Canadian men lost 8-1 to these Hondurans it was the exact mirror image, with our lack of genuine confidence (as opposed to arrogance), and our fear and our lack of personality coming out in a horror show redeemed only by a cracking goal by Iain Hume, one of the undisputed Good Guys. That, too, was mystical. Mythology has always dwelt more on Hades than heaven.

So allow me to indulge in a little magic on this glorious night. Canada hasn’t really done anything yet – three points are great but it’ll take at least a couple more such wins for us to even see the next round. On the pitch this is good but a long way from decisive.

Psychically? Even mystically? This is everything. My scarf has gone, but to the most glorious of causes. El Salvador awaits.

A Brief Word on the TFC Travel Restrictions

By Benjamin Massey · October 28th, 2015 · 1 comment

Bookmark this page. I am defending Toronto soccer OOOOOOOLTRAs. It will not happen again.

Many serious supporters dislike “pyro” – flares and smoke bombs – at a match. This is more than their right. If you wish to stand and chant with your view unobscured and your lungs unblocked, you must be able to. It is a widely-held aesthetic, and in many cases medical, desire. It does not make you any less dedicated or intense. This is obvious.

Moreover, pyro can be annoying, and even unsafe, when wielded by unregulated imbeciles or inexperienced men. This goes for flags and even standing itself. The drunk yobbo smoking out his own keeper is a shame to himself and his group.

However, an also-large number of supporters love well-deployed pyro, both participating and watching from afar. It is common in matches around the world, almost invariably without ill effect. Set up with knowledge and preparation it is no more dangerous than waving a huge floppy flagpole for ninety minutes. In North America real mass supporters’ culture is still very young, and who can predict whether pyro will be a part of it in 2065?

The way to deal with it is to permit pyro, in an organized supporters’ section. This has two key advantages. First, those who dislike it may stand in another supporters’ section. Second, by giving responsibility for pyro to dedicated people, you contribute to a safe environment. Knowing that openness is good for a productive relationship, the supporters will have every incentive to self-police for those lone loons with a flare smuggled in their anus. The loons themselves will be less motivated, for the atmosphere they want already exists. Useful safety equipment like buckets of sand will be as easy to come by as a banner, and knowledge on safe support will be passed on openly from veteran to enthusiast.

The way not to deal with it is to insist on rigorous control by franchise and league front offices, then when repression inevitably leads to haphazard smuggling and crimes of opportunity, collectively punish a mass of supporters which was 99% incapable of stopping it even if they did know in advance, while fans who expected something else entirely choke and curse. And then to add insult to injury, using those very supporters (and very possibly that very pyro) in your marketing.

I would not smuggle pyro into an MLS game even if I were still a supporter in that league. I think you shouldn’t. But we have a mass supporters culture now, and the more you stomp on them for no good reason the more they’ll resent it. Wouldn’t we all? And with all that resentment pyro becomes something far worse than a display not everybody likes: it becomes a way for the disaffected and sometimes dumb to stick it to the Man who doesn’t give a shit about them as more than a cash machine.

You can have a proper supporters’ section. Or you can have franchise-funded cheerleaders. If you try to turn one into the other, for the sake of the twee faux-Britishness you imagine soccer moms want to clap along to, these things will happen. And if you then react by collectively punishing the innocent, you show even the rule-abiding what you really think of them.

Hoilett Hell

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

I have the hardest time convincing people that just because international soccer is corrupt and insane, it does not necessarily follow that the Canadian national soccer program should be corrupt and insane. We can, and should, hold ourselves to a higher standard. The United States may run out a team full of Germans, fine, the Qataris may massacre platoons of slave labourers to build stadiums for tournaments gained under false pretenses, there’s nothing we can do to stop them. However, this has nothing to do with how Canada needs conduct itself. Just as bad, when fans (and “fans”) urge us to sell our souls, usually we don’t get anything for it. Our morals are compromised, our dignity cracked, and we’re exactly where we were before, and nobody sincerely thinks it’ll be any different. It’s just naked cynicism, a total lack of ideals in an area where we can actually afford to be idealistic, all so that the commentator can look jaded and therefore knowledgeable.

Today, the Canadian Soccer Association released a teaser video where… well, I say “teaser” video, actually it’s quite obviously Junior Hoilett in a Canada kit talking about how fans should support the team. It is a miracle Hoilett did not explode from hypocrisy. Hoilett is 25 years old, was born and mostly raised in Ontario, and has never chosen to represent Canada internationally. There were long rumours that Hoilett would play for Jamaica, the land of his father, and as recently as April, Hoilett was, according to Canadian head coach Benito Floro, “fighting a lot with the decision to play for Jamaica or to play with us.”[1]. Years ago when his career was going well he publicly expressed interest in playing for England, even though under current rules that would be impossible.

Finally, Hoilett has decided to come home, at a moment where his stock at his club has never been lower and it’s doubtful he’d crack Jamaica’s starting eleven. He is a reserve player in the English Championship, and Queen’s Park Rangers are so dismayed by his wages and his inconsistent play that they are quite literally willing to give him away for free[2]. Players who have answered Canada whenever and whereever she has called are being bumped for a guy in hid mid-twenties who can’t crack the first team in the English second division. Is this the man for whom you are willing to sell out your principles? Is he really?

Curiously, in spite of his new-found dedication Hoilett chose not to appear for the recent World Cup qualifiers against Dominica or Belize. He probably had a dentist’s appointment. However, he has found the time for a more glamorous friendly in the United States against Ghana that will put him in the shop window. This does not particularly indicate a sincere embrace of Canadian soccer. I’ll be interested to see how many craphole Central American stadiums we ever see Junior suit up in.

I’m not saying Hoilett is a terrible human being. He left Canada at an early age and made us no promises. In a free country he is entitled to look out for his own interests. Nor am I saying that I would never take Hoilett back. If I were king of Canada and he was interested in returning, I would say “that’s terrific, Junior. Start playing some first team soccer and we’ll bring you in for a camp.” This would leave the door open and he could enter our picture or exit it, at his leisure. It would hinder the perception that Hoilett is being gifted a roster spot at the expense of loyal Canadians, an impression all the stronger when Hoilett is a reserve player and Floro has long complained that his players aren’t getting enough first-team minutes[3]. Finally, it would not hurt us competitively in any meaningful sense. A Championship reserve player is not the difference between Canada qualifying for the World Cup and not doing so. At best he’s the difference between 8-1 and 8-2.

But what we’re getting is a widely-promoted celebration of a player who’s coming back for a relatively noteworthy neutral-site friendly in the United States when he needs to give his career a boost. We’re rewarding somebody who ignored us for years when we needed him, and who quite publicly sought alternatives to us for as long as they lasted. Someone like Tosaint Ricketts, who has been incredibly loyal and worked incredibly hard, or Cyle Larin, who despite his prominence has accepted every single call the nation has made on him, is going to sit on the bench while Hoilett exults in the limelight. Meanwhile, other potential Canadians will look on and say “it does not matter what I do, the Canadian soccer program will be there for me as a last resort, welcoming me with fanfare and a fucking parade. Why shouldn’t I flirt with Chile? I could not possibly be hurt.”

If you reward bad behaviour, you’ll get more of it.

And what about basic pride? We’ve been chasing this kid for years and years, and he is finally so out of options that he’ll toss us a pity fuck. Is this something to be happy about? Canadian men’s soccer is debased, pathetic, but that’s no excuse to glory in it, to rub our faces against the concrete and kiss the boots of anyone who stops kicking us. People say we need to get top players to commit to Canada and I agree. How will we do that by showing that Canada is always there as your fallback option, and that we have so little dignity that we will thank you for ignoring us, and put you on a pedestal above those who have shown us loyalty?

In soccer as in life, nobody is attracted to somebody with no backbone. Making our program the bitch of our least deserving players, from the Frank Yallop era onward, has been a complete failure. The Hoilett party is the apotheosis of this attitude. He spits on us and spits on us and spits on us, but it doesn’t matter, because he will condescend to pull on a red jersey, and the years of scorn only makes him more worthy of praise from the Canadian soccer establishment. Despicable. Hoilett has proven nothing to me. The mere act of showing up, eight years late, hasn’t earned him a single fucking clap. Canada means too much for that.

(notes and comments…)

Independent vs. Reserve Team Attendances Part II: USL 2015

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

2015 was a success at the gate for the re-re-re-rebranded United Soccer League. Despite adding ten teams from 2014 while losing Orlando City to MLS, per-game attendance actually rose from 3,114 to 3,339. Sacramento remained incredibly well-supported, Rochester continued to do well, and new boys Louisville approached 7,000 fans per game. In a league that’s struggled with franchise stability, many new clubs posted numbers to be proud of. If the real numbers are as good as the attendances look, there’ll be a party down at the league office.

The pity is that, for the casual soccer fan, the big story was not how well USL’s done in its independent markets, or towns brand new to professional soccer turning out in their thousands. No, the story was how USL has eight MLS reserve teams in it.

Reserve teams are not intended to be financially self-sufficient. They lose money but keep veterans match-fit and develop youngsters. Putting these teams in USL, from MLS’s perspective, increases costs but gives them a product that might make some of it back. This is fine. It also expands USL’s reach and talent base, from the league’s perspective, for free. This is also fine. (It’s certainly better than a system of half-farm half-independent bastard teams, as remains sadly common in USL.) Do not mistake what I’m about to say for an attack on the concept of putting reserve teams into the main league pyramid.

However, there was a perception among some fans that the MLS reserve teams joining USL would be a masterstroke in the North American soccer business. Buoyed by Soccer United Marketing the MLS reserve teams would be well-attended and financially successful. Moreover, they would act as a major boost to the independent USL teams, all helping SUM and USL to crush their rival, the North American Soccer League. That, far from being a pragmatic way for MLS to permanently establish a reserve structure, MLS reserve teams in USL would Change Everything.

On the field, while most of the MLS reserve teams were competitive, none blew the doors off. Half the teams in USL make the playoffs. Only two three of the eight MLS reserve teams will see the postseason, and none of the other six five were very close. Four of the five bottom-ranked teams in USL this season were MLS reserve teams. It turns out keeping a team of professionals together full-time will result in a stronger eleven than a crew of kids plus marginal pros rotated in and out of the lineup as needed. Who knew? There’s nothing there to change the world, though it might be a bit better for player development. Many a player who could be a key USL reserve, like Akira Fitzgerald, Josh Ford, or Dane Richards, still goes on loan to the NASL. Not much has changed there.

So how did the MLS reserve teams do attendance-wise? Last year I said that “fans can get behind their own club even at the lowest levels but reserve teams? They just don’t care.” The 2015 USL season bears this out.

Here is the table I made comparing the attendance of reserve and non-reserve in the same division last year, updated to include the 2015 USL[1].

Note: I am missing attendance data for three games (Toronto v. Pittsburgh August 8, Los Angeles v. Arizona August 9, and Harrisburg v. Saint Louis September 6).These games are not included in any averages. I also have one Seattle game (July 24 v. Portland) from a different source. However, if you’re attempting to reproduce these numbers yourself, the missing games break the USL website’s team stats page, and as a result shows unreliable figures for the total and average home attendance for Harrisburg, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Toronto. Therefore my data, which are compiled game-by-game, will differ from data compiled team-by-team.

Season League Level Avg. Attend/G Reserve Teams Non-Res Attend/G Reserve Attend/G Diff # Diff %
2012-13 Liga Adelante Spain 2 6724 2 6998 3990 3008 75.39%
2013-14 Liga Adelante Spain 2 7879 2 8328 3395 4932 145.26%
2012-13 3. Liga Germany 3 6162 2 6616 2077 4539 218.52%
2013-14 3. Liga Germany 3 6071 2 6556 1707 4849 284.15%
2012-13 Regionalliga Germany 4 1022 27 1288 390 898 230.62%
2013-14 Regionalliga Germany 4 1139 25 1380 524 856 163.36%
2014 USL Pro USA 3 3114 1 3308 597 2711 454.03%
2015 USL USA 3 3339 8 4135 1747 2388 136.70%
2012 USL PDL USA 4 488 5 455 1026 -571 -55.63%
2013 USL PDL USA 4 588 7 578 686 -109 -15.81%
2014 USL PDL USA 4 590 9 606 482 124 25.83%
Averages 2603 2856 875 1980 226.28%

USL keeps up the trend we see world-wide. Fans care far less about reserve teams than they do about an independent team at the same level. By world standards, MLS reserve teams in USL do by no means badly, but the variances can be wild.

Take Real Salt Lake, the best-attended MLS reserve team. Playing at Rio Tinto Stadium, the RSL reserves managed 4,698 fans per game, sixth in the USL and good by any measurement. But that included two games over 11,000: July 11 versus Austin, and August 28 versus Seattle (13,979; the best-attended game in USL all season). It also included 1,001 to see the Los Angeles Galaxy reserves on April 25, 2,192 to see Colorado Springs on August 26, and 2,230 to see Oklahoma City on September 2. Four of their fourteen home games were above that 4,698 average, but two of them were so far above it shot Salt Lake right up the table. A fan is a fan, they all count, but the Salt Lake reserves were weird and it’s beyond me to guess whether the high numbers or the low ones better reflect their long-term potential.

The only other reserve team in the top half of the USL attendance charts was Portland, in twelfth. Their numbers were consistent: as I’ve always said, Portland is mental. Of the eight worst-supported teams in USL this past season, six were MLS reserve sides. That fits in very well with the international norm.

Of the Canadian teams, Vancouver averaged 1,682 fans per game, playing mostly in the sun at a heavily-marketed, entertainment-filled, dedicated stadium at the University of British Columbia. Toronto started the season at BMO Field but moved to a training centre mid-season while Montreal bounced between Saputo Stadium, the nearby turf field, and (once) Olympic Stadium: both were generally less interested in promoting their teams. Their reported attendance was effectively nobody. Vancouver and Toronto charged for games; Montreal was free.

No doubt fans will be saying “I would have gone to the reserve games but [excuse].” Everyone has an excuse. Some of the games were mid-week or at weird times? Welcome to USL, sunshine; you’re not special. The TFC training centre in Vaughan is hard to get to? Tell that to the good people of St. Louis, whose stadium is two and a half hours by transit from downtown. To put it bluntly, if you cared you’d go. There’s nothing wrong with not caring about your reserve team. Very few fans anywhere in the world do.

Probably more worrying is that attendance declined over the course of the season. Montreal and Toronto are hard to judge. But in Vancouver, after a decent start, attendance fast faded. After their first two games of the season the only Whitecaps Reserve games to break 2,000 were June 14 versus Los Angeles (date of the frankly brilliant “Bark at the Bird” promotion) and July 15 versus Colorado Springs. The marketers will need to work hard to build on these numbers in 2016.


There’s another angle to consider. Do MLS reserve teams bring in more support for the independent USL clubs? Do fans in Charleston or Austin rush to the box office to see the Toronto or Los Angeles reserves? You cannot answer this question definitively, because the sample size is small and the unbalanced USL schedule means some teams see different sets of reserve squads, and get more or fewer games. But here are the figures from 2015.

Attendance for Independent USL Clubs Hosting MLS Reserves
Team Games v. MLS Reserve Attendance Reserve Attend/G Non-Reserve Attend/G Diff # Diff %
Arizona 6 20380 3397 2895 955 33.00%
Austin 5 17943 3589 3025 563 18.62%
Charleston 3 14362 4787 3886 901 23.18%
Charlotte 3 5382 1794 1802 -8 -0.45%
Colorado Springs 7 20262 2895 2551 343 13.46%
Harrisburg 4 12147 3037 2392 645 26.97%
Louisville 3 20380 6793 6757 36 0.54%
Oklahoma City 5 21439 4288 4828 -541 -11.20%
Orange County 7 10714 1531 1266 265 20.94%
Pittsburgh 3 8193 2731 2602 129 4.95%
Richmond 3 9696 3232 3887 -655 -16.85%
Rochester 6 30385 5064 5949 -885 -14.87%
Sacramento 8 90064 11258 11409 -151 -1.32%
Saint Louis 3 14585 4862 4891 -30 -0.60%
Tulsa 5 23608 4722 4710 11 0.24%
Wilmington 4 12965 3241 2847 394 13.86%
League-Wide Total 476 11.92%

Across USL, teams drew 11.92% more fans when an MLS reserve team was in town than when an independent club was. That’s more than a rounding error but isn’t a significant margin, and is hard to separate from the game-to-game inconsistency that’s endemic across the lower divisions. Possibly more fans bought season tickets for the sake of MLS reserve teams, but why woulde that level of interest hardly be reflected in single-game sales? Moreover, the teams best-supported in general seemed least interested in MLS reserve teams, and it doesn’t take much of a change in Orange County or Harrisburg to look significant.

None of this takes away from what’s been a good 2015 for the United Soccer League. In fact, 2015’s been a great year for lower-division professional soccer all over Canada and the United States. But the credit doesn’t go to reserve teams.

EDIT, September 29: this article originally claimed two MLS reserve clubs made the USL post-season rather than three.

(notes and comments…)

Canada, Canada, Your Number One Team (Ya Gat Dat Right!)

By Benjamin Massey · September 9th, 2015 · 12 comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

On Tuesday almost everyone in Canadian soccer went crazy for Mad Bull and Maestro, the Belizean television commentators for the Belize – Canada World Cup qualifier.

The game itself was dull, almost beyond description, and shocking to the Canadian fan who saw a team we hope will beat Honduras draw mere British Honduras. Deon McCauley, who spent last year as a utility player for NASL sadsacks Atlanta, scored a goal through nasty marking by national team veteran Adam Straith and could have had two. Milan Borjan made a great save in the last second but was off his game otherwise, the midfield failed to provide service to the forwards, and when Larin, Nakajima-Farran, or Ricketts did get possession in Belizean territory not much came of it.

Our goal was a fine opportunistic 19-yard finish by Will Johnson, but he also shot what should have been the winner, after a lovely touch to take the ball to his left foot, about ten yards from goal with a decent angle and entirely unmarked, well wide. There were a few other half-chances but nothing you could write home about, and while in my books Larin won a penalty when a Belize player tackled through his back it was hardly highway robbery. There was very little to say about the action. Fans who feel overly optimistic about Canada should be chastened, but for the most part this is the same sort of soccer we’ve seen in the post-Mitchell era.

The web stream itself was hilarious, boasting equipment remarkably out-of-date by Canadian standards. There were blue screens and vertical tracking problems, like an old VCR with a loose coaxial cable. Colour went in and out like a dying Colecovision. Many of us are used to Central American and Caribbean broadcasts, but not even the old Puerto Rico Islanders brought us mid-’90s high school video club quality on this level. Then there was the advertising; some online TV service that used an ancient Eric Hassli clip, entertaining Carnival ads, but above all a hardware store, Benny’s, which immediately equaled Phillip’s Bakery in Voyageurs lore. This ad changed my life.

We loved all of this, but a little ironically, like bad beards and the Backstreet Boys. They do things differently abroad! Belizean television standards aren’t as high as ours! Haha! However, the Mad Bull and Maestro experience was entirely sincere.

You will get some idea of their personality if I say that “Mad Bull”, the play-by-play man, and “Maestro”, the colour commentator, are the nicknames they gave each other. Gavin Day, the Canadian Soccer Association’s renaissance man, posted photos of Mad Bull and Maestro in which they look like ordinary soccer pundits. Mad Bull, real name Ladrick Sheppard, turns out to be a reasonably prominent local politician. Perfectly respectable people who, in a commentary booth, put on some rare entertainment.

There are homer announcers, then there are Boston announcers, then there’s Mad Bull and Maestro. They were so enthusiastic, and they gave Belize everything they had. Maestro got carried away shouting “Belize, Belize, Belize!” on more than one occasion. Low-percentage Belize shots that went miles wide were as good as a hat trick. They both sounded like they could die for a Belize goal, and when Belize got one it was like the greatest moment of their lives. There is nothing they would leave unsaid to support a team that was hopeless underdogs even to the lowly Canadian selection. In the second half Maestro said, and I’m not making this up, “these are the players, we’re talking about Neymar and all of them, [Deon] McCauley is number one.” Mad Bull got more excited about McCauley having possession at the halfway line than I’ve ever been about a Canadian player doing anything.

Not that they disrespected the Canadians: Will Johnson was (correctly) called a flopper, but his skills were admired. Ledgerwood and Hutchinson came in for specific praise and Ricketts, who scored a brace on Belize in the first leg, was described by Maestro as someone “who can score the ball like no-one else.” They struggled to pronounce our names but frankly fair enough; anybody who listened to Two Fat Bastards will know my record there.

And the nicknames. To Mad Bull, every player is some combination of deadly, an assassin, or a killer. Deon McCauley drew the unmatched distinction of being a magician. Their metaphors were liquid gold: “this is a different food they’re eating on the table!” enthused Maestro after Belize took the lead. Nor did they use verbosity to distract from ignorance, as some commentators around the world do. Their terminology was unfamiliar to Canadians, and Mad Bull had the unnerving habit of using “spot kick” in any dead ball situation, but they knew what was going on and, in their way, accurately diagnosed how Belize playing was well above their level, with the sheer intensity of their runs overwhelming a Canadian team that was never fully engaged.

Honestly, Maestro is what I wish I could be if I were a soccer colour commentator, though I know I haven’t got the talent.

The intensely high energy of Mad Bull and Maestro might wear on me over a 30-game season but, for one night, it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard. Above all, their love for their country and their team radiated through the crummy stream. Both men also called the leg in Toronto, which had been a dispiriting performance for their side, but it wasn’t until they needed four goals in five minutes that Maestro even partially sounded like he was losing hope. Dodgy technical equipment, a team with no hope, a stadium that not long ago was considered unfit for international competition, a commentary position that was literally behind a pillar, none of it could dampen their passion. Many supporters around the world could learn from them.

Meanwhile, in far richer Canada, our far superior national team has no television deal at all. Even when we did, it was almost unheard of for Sportsnet to pack up a camera crew and leave the country to broadcast a game. At best we’d get Gerry Dobson and Craig Forrest talking over a St. Kitts video feed from a studio in Toronto on Sportsnet 8 (THE OCHO); more often we wouldn’t even get that. We were an afterthought to, well, pretty much anything, and I don’t just mean the Blue Jays or the CFL or other things that are more popular than our men, but cycling and re-runs of highlight shows and just about any excuse to bump the Canadian national team down the running order they could find. These days, with our television rights held by no-one, we’re stuck with an overworked Day and occasionally a guest commentator on unreliable CSA web streams even during home games. Day’s a good play-by-play man, and it turns out Terry Dunfield is excellent on colour commentary, but it’s all restrained and low-rent, accessible only to the current hardcore fan. During the Women’s World Cup, when TSN had the rights and gave our women’s team serious coverage, it was almost a shock to the system. “Oh yeah, that’s what real soccer countries do!”

Now Mad Bull, Maestro, and a few Belizean cameramen with 20-year-old equipment have again shown Canada how it’s done.

I’m sorry if this wasn’t what you expect from a match recap. You’re watching Channel 5, you can’t complain.

Waited Too Long for Our Freedom

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

The best part of the Vancouver Whitecaps winning the Voyageurs Cup was not the winning. It was seeing Russell Teibert, the only Canadian to start for either team, and his undisguised pleasure. First at the victory, second at the individual triumph of the George Gross Memorial Trophy for tournament MVP. Teibert’s gotten rather good at generic sportsman interviews over the past three years but when Sportsnet collared him after the game he couldn’t keep the emotion out entirely, babbling in joy during what is normally the most tedious, pro forma part of an athlete’s job. To a long-time fan it was a great moment, and while it would be presumptuous for me to say I was proud, I was.

Nobody reading this site on the regular will need reminding that the Whitecaps and I have drifted apart. It’s not really their fault – the moral turpitude of MLS is the main factor, and as for the team’s refusal to play Canadians, it’s what most of their fans want – but it’s no use denying it’s happened. I enjoyed Schadenfreude at the Impact, absolutely. (I may not love the Whitecaps but I will always hate the Impact.) There was the satisfaction that 2009 and 2013 had, to some degree, been avenged. Even as an FC Edmonton fan, there is a solemn pride in having brutally lost a semi-final to the eventual champions in second-leg stoppage time for the second year on the trot. And there was gratification for the supporters who embrace this tournament, particularly the Voyageur who brought out the Cup, Nazz Catania. Nazz is a much longer-time Vancouver soccer fan than me, and I am glad he is not a meme.

However, when the clock ticked down on Wednesday I found myself without real joy. I learned I was a Whitecaps fan when, during the 2009 Montreal Screwjob, I grew dementedly furious as the Impact more-or-less-deliberately allowed Toronto FC to beat them at home by five goals so the Whitecaps would be denied their first Voyageurs Cup. Six years later, a perfect bookend. This is what MLS has taken away from some of us: the Whitecaps finally took the one trophy we’d have sacrificed animals to get, did so utterly convincingly and without the least drama, and the taste of glory turns to ashes in our mouths, corrupted by allocation money and SuperDrafts and supporter crackdowns and Don Garber Sports Entertainment. Oh, for a fair and serious Canadian soccer league.

That is a reaction that can be taken too far, though. I was happy for Teibert, who has been slogging through shit for both club and country the past few seasons and deserves a moment in the sun. As many viewers saw yesterday there is nothing like the satisfaction of seeing a locally-developed Canadian lad on top of the world. Pa-Modou Kah cruising around the field on a robotic scooter was cool; Canadians winning the Canadian championship is imperishable. Let that provoke thought in fans who can’t be arsed whether the Whitecaps (or the Eddies, or the Impact, or…) play Canadians or not.

I was happy for Gershon Koffie, who is not just a gentleman but the all-time on-field leader in Voyageurs Cup Heartbreak. He arrived in Vancouver too late for the 2010 edition but has been slapped in the face by the soccer gods every summer since. I was happy for Bob Lenarduzzi, since whatever I think of his attitude on playing Canadians in the first team he does love Canada and he’s been chasing this trophy, quite seriously, since 2008. There are plenty of fans in Vancouver who have wanted the Voyageurs Cup even longer than that, going back to those A-League years when Montreal monopolized it, and for them a day like this justifies a lot of heartache. There is nothing I would say to take away that euphoria even if I could.

May I, someday, celebrate a Voyageurs Cup final without reservation. MLS delenda est.

Rowdies Can Rongen

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

Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies

Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies

Today, Thomas Rongen lost the NASL sack race. 261 days after being named Tampa Bay Rowdies head coach on December 3[1], the veteran has been fired along with general manager Farrukh Quraishi[2].

Whenever you fire your coach eighteen games into his first season while tied for third in the NASL combined standings you’re hitting the panic button. Was I Rowdies owner Bill Edwards I’d have given Rongen more time. Well, I tell a half-truth; was I Edwards I wouldn’t have hired Rongen at all. When I wrote my 10,000-word NASL preview in March I called Rongen, as politely as I could, “the sort of coach who always seems to get a new job somewhere.”[3] I’m sure he will, too. Rongen is affable, fun on social media, and wears a bowtie. He is a “character” with support in the soccer community and such people are never out of work indefinitely, though the litany of disappointment since the 1999 MLS Cup is now a bit longer.

It’s not like Rongen and Quraishi were serene themselves. The two ex-bosses tore down virtually the entire Rowdies roster over the 2014-15 offseason; they must take credit for the new team’s achievements and blame for its failures. Recently they made headlines by signing two high-profile busts, Freddy Adu and Omar Salgado. Adu, who is frequently injured, has played a total of fifteen minutes in one game. Salgado, who is even more frequently injured than that, spent some time waiting for paperwork, played twelve minutes in one game, and hasn’t been seen since. They joined a team of career underachievers like Corey Hertzog, Gale Agbossoumonde, Maicon Santos, and Rich Balchan, with only Hertzog inherited from 2014. There’s little material to suggest a championship run, and maybe a hot start raised expectations beyond reason. If so that would be cruel: the luck that made Rongen look good in the spring turned out to be really bad.

Tampa Bay had a fine spring season. They finished in second place, only a point behind New York (who nobody’s going to get) and were second in goal difference as well. If not for the Cosmos beating the Rowdies 2-0 in New York on April 18, Tampa Bay would already have booked a playoff spot thanks to the NASL’s split-season format. There’s no denying that firing the leadership of a team which came so close so quickly looks odd.

NASL TSRs and PDOs through August 21
Spring 2015 Fall 2015 Total 2015
ATL 0.448 92.35 0.385 114.52 0.419 103.74
CAR 0.427 117.20 0.419 98.37 0.423 107.93
EDM 0.478 94.20 0.556 110.74 0.511 100.68
FTL 0.504 102.69 0.562 91.55 0.527 98.97
IND 0.535 103.77 0.558 90.68 0.546 97.62
JAX 0.503 80.00 0.509 103.57 0.506 102.04
MIN 0.528 99.74 0.503 106.60 0.518 102.04
NY 0.557 107.35 0.548 98.18 0.553 103.65
OTT 0.528 91.39 0.528 107.01 0.528 100.67
SA 0.500 94.28 0.422 95.00 0.469 94.54
TB 0.492 111.00 0.500 85.71 0.495 99.26

But the spring season is only ten games. Drawing conclusions from ten games’ worth of results is stupid. To the right are the Total Shots Ratio (TSR) and PDO of each team in the NASL so far this season. Fully explaining TSR and PDO is beyond the scope of this article but think of them as statistical smell tests. PDO is simply a team’s shooting percentage plus its save percentage, and TSR the proportion of total shots in a game taken by the team in question. So a team that’s generating more chances than its opposition will tend to have a higher TSR, and a team which is converting on a lot of its shots or getting lights-out goalkeeping a high PDO. This is important because history suggests that a team with an outrageous PDO, either high or low, is deceiving you: over the long haul a team’s PDO approaches 100.00, and if the PDO is way out from that said team is probably either better or worse than the standings show.

NASL statistics aren’t perfectly accurate, but people who minded their TSRs and PDOs would have guessed that the Cosmos would be killing it this year while the Scorpions and Railhawks slumped, and that FC Edmonton wasn’t nearly as good as their 2014 autumn. The point isn’t that comparing TSRs and PDOs allows you to glean soccer’s well-hidden secrets, but that it allows you to guess broadly who’s lucky and who isn’t.

Tampa Bay’s TSR is solidly middle of the road. In the spring they surged with the second-best PDO in the league and the best among anybody who should seriously be considering playoff spots. In the fall their luck’s run out and their spot in the standings has fallen with it. The result is that their current position is about right, or maybe a little flattering. They’re average. They have average tattooed all over their foreheads. That certainly isn’t enough to blow away your coach after eighteen games, but it’s not worth making a real fuss to defend the guy either.

Last year’s Rowdies, much-maligned with a long-time coach playing his kid in front of a crowd demanding a lot more, were pretty average as well until they were decimated by the new management. 2014 Tampa Bay ended the year with a perfectly respectable TSR of 0.509. Where they fell apart was in PDO: 85.85 was last place in the league by a lot. A 22.09% shooting percentage was bad, but their save percentage of 63.77% was the real killer, and so the Rowdies finished well out of the playoff running.

Break down Tampa Bay’s spring PDO and you’ll see how their save percentage improved and nearly brought them glory: 84.21%, first in the NASL by a long way. Quelle différence, but not a sustainable number. An anti-stats type might grumble that Rongen should get credit for finding talent in goal, but the problem is that Tampa Bay’s keepers have been Matt Pickens, one of the few returning 2014 Rowdies, and veteran Kamil Čontofalský, who despite obviously being a good player had an unlucky save percentage last year in Fort Lauderdale. Rongen did not find brilliant new talent capable of posting high percentages: two keepers coming off low percentages, one of whom Tampa already had, rebounded.

Moreover, the Rowdies are not a young team building for the future: as mentioned above, a lot of their players have been plucked from the busts of a higher level. Men like Adu, Hertzog, and Agbossoumonde will not develop into star players now that they’re in their mid-twenties with several professional seasons behind them. There’s been much talk of a “five-year plan” but, in Tampa Bay’s case, that didn’t mean developing home-grown talent this season at the cost of results. On the Rowdies roster Salgado, Darwin Espinal, Robert Hernández, and Jeff Michaud are under 22 years old, and only Michaud played his teenage years in Florida. Michaud and Hernández essentially never play, leaving Espinal as the only young-ish regular. Čontofalský is 37, Pickens is 33, and leading scorer Maicon Santos is 31. That’s a long way from a youth movement.

Again, there is nothing here to justify so large a change to the team so quickly. For Rongen and Quraishi’s firings to make sense on their own terms there has to be something else: maybe all those new players came at a high price their performances haven’t justified, maybe something went on behind the scenes, or maybe Bill Edwards is just sick of waiting and doesn’t see enough improvement on the horizon. So that’s my defense of Rongen and Quraishi. The other side is there’s no reason for Rowdies fans to stay up wishing they were still around, either.

(notes and comments…)

The Pro/Rel Fantasy

By Benjamin Massey · August 11th, 2015 · No comments

North American Soccer League

North American Soccer League

As you probably know, North American Soccer League commissioner Bill Peterson recently told The Telegraph‘s Bob Williams that he will “take action” on bringing promotion and relegation to North American soccer[1].

Obviously a serious fan will wish Peterson all the best, but talk is cheap and pro/rel chatter goes at a discount. The only thing in the soccer universe less likely than the NASL getting USL onboard for a promotion/relegation scheme is the NASL getting MLS onboard. Peterson talks about a partnership with the American National Premier Soccer League but even for the Yanks that’s hardly a national pyramid while Canadians and Puerto Ricans would be, as Steven Sandor pointed out, up the proverbial creek. Itself a long shot, such a setup might be better than nothing but, for Canadian fans, not much.

Obviously promotion and relegation would be terrific in North America, as it has been everywhere else in the world. The North American sports palate is not as coarse and unrefined as Don Garber would have you believe. Take it from me, who cheers for many a last-place team: if I could honestly urge my lads to win at the end of the season rather than lose for the sake of a draft pick I’d be overjoyed, even if relegation was the price of failure. Leagues with business models based off collecting franchise fees will be have to find another way but that’s a feature, not a bug. Likewise with anti-labour concepts like discovery lists, allocation orders, and SuperDrafts which a real pyramid would make untenable.

The discussion, however, is academic so long as professional team owners are more interested in prestige and soccer-like sports entertainment than building a system that might hurt individuals even if it’s a collective boon. Which is why you don’t see much pro/rel ranting on this website: clearly pro/rel can’t be beat, but equally clearly it would require a shift in the North American soccer landscape of such scale that any forecast is essentially a personal fantasy.

Hell with it, let’s fantasize. Tomorrow morning Don Garber, Bill Peterson, Victor Montagliani, Sunil Gulati, and USL president Jake Edwards walk into my apartment. “Ben,” they say, “we’ve read your blog, we really like it (especially the blasphemous Photoshops), and we have therefore appointed you generalissimo of North American soccer. Your mandate is to implement promotion and relegation in Canada and the United States. The catch is that you don’t really have any new money and if you stomp all over the owners they’ll launch a coup, establish an Emergency Government of National Security, and hang you from a lamppost. What’s your plan?”

Major League Soccer need not give up its primacy. With promotion and relegation giving any club a route to the top, a professional domestic division developing domestic players, and the roster rules of a North American pyramid with three soccer nations (Canada, the United States, and Puerto Rico) as equal partners, most objections to our all-consuming top division disappear. Successful teams will thrive, the unsuccessful will fail, and if a Canadian team decides to focus entirely on foreign players, that team a couple divisions down nurturing local talent will have every chance to eat their lunch. Many MLS rules, like a salary cap and designated player slots, might remain in place all the way down the pyramid: what we’d lose would be favouritism between domestic players in different countries and the shady deals, weighted lotteries, and suspicious bursts of undocumented cash that make MLS such a joke.

The much-discussed Canadian second division is essential without promotion and relegation and would be essential with it. Hopefully the prospect of promotion would attract NASL loyalists FC Edmonton; in a pro/rel universe we couldn’t really hook them onto the American ladder forever. If not I guess we’re selling the nice china and pawning our guitars until we can buy the Faths out. As for the Puerto Ricans, the existing Liga Nacional de Fútbol de Puerto Rico is a good starting point for a third division. Their league structure is a hot mess right now, with traditional powerhouses Bayamón F.C. having to join the mainland NPSL, and as an ignorant outsider it seems unlikely that they’ll have a league at second division standard in the near future.

Amateur and youth levels, such as USL PDL, are left out. They don’t belong in the discussion of an open-age professional structure, even if some teams are plenty talented enough to compete at a third-division standard. Their role is an independent one, though doubtless some teams more interested in entertaining the community than developing college players will move over.

Canada United States Puerto Rico
Division 1 Major League Soccer
24 teams
Division 2 Canadian Premier League
8+ teams
North American Soccer League
10 teams
Division 3
Top reserve level
regional third divisions
(PLSQ, L1O, etc.)
United Soccer League
18 teams (plus reserves)
Liga Nacional de Fútbol de Puerto Rico
12 teams
Division 4+ local premier leagues National Premier Soccer League
65 teams
local soccer?

A thorny practical problem is how to determine who gets relegated. (This is where I’m glad I’m generalissimo.) Your standard three-up-three-down rule would be poorly received by MLS owners who’d paid huge expansion fees, and competitively unfair given the sometimes dramatic gaps in quality between different levels. Then there’s how to deal with three soccer nations under one roof.

I would put the three last-place MLS teams into an annual playoff with the top two NASL teams and the Canadian champion and have them play off, home and away. The last-place MLS team and the three second-division teams play one round. The winners face the second-last and third-last MLS teams. The winners of that play next season in MLS; the losers get a last chance third-place game. The big-money MLS teams would have every chance to keep their place, and if they took the drop in spite of everything it would be their own damned fault. If the NASL/Canadian teams are completely uncompetitive they’ll get wiped out in the playoff and, hopefully, come back stronger next year. It’s a conservative format which favours the existing powerhouses, but that’s okay if it gives everyone an honest chance.

This would happen without prejudice to nationality. If a Canadian league team wins promotion and it’s all American teams in the relegation pot, there’s one more Canadian team in MLS that year. The reverse applies when Toronto FC inevitably comes unglued and gets themselves sent to the U-Sector outdoor league. The numbers favour the Americans (remember, the NASL gets two entrants to the promotion playoffs to Canada’s one), which is probably only fair. Combined with their competitive advantage Americans need not fear a Canadian takeover of their national league, but if a Canadian team punches above their weight like this year’s Ottawa Fury then they can be justly rewarded.

The principle applies further down the pyramid. The USL and Puerto Rican champions play the bottom NASL teams: USL is far stronger than the Puerto Rican league but the playoff will shake out most pretenders. In Canada, let our regional semi-pro champions battle to send somebody to a promotion playoff against the basement-dwellers of the national league. Clubs would need the right to decline promotion for financial or other reasons, and reserve teams should probably not rise higher than the third division. It would also be important that Canada has a semi-pro league for every region, lest FC Edmonton be relegated to League1 Ontario, but that’s something that has to happen anyway.

Theoretically this could lead to regional leagues running short of teams: if League1 Ontario has a good run and half their teams get promoted, that would be inconvenient for the smaller number brought up to replace them. There would therefore have to be provision for extra promotion to keep leagues viable. Indeed, as the strength of the second and third divisions grow, both Canadians and Americans would doubtless want to bring additional teams to a higher level rather than stick with the relatively small NASL and Canadian league numbers forever.

At the bottom we integrate the various men’s amateur leagues that are currently thriving across Canada and the United States. Why shouldn’t Sunday players in the smallest communities have the chance to enter the semi-professional ranks if they’re willing and able? No doubt most of these teams would be incapable of winning promotion and be obliged to decline it if they ever could; the point is to give the exceptions a chance and allow grassroots teams, maybe even supporter-owned ones, to rise in stature and support until they’re on the biggest stage.

MLS teams would play more must-win games than ever before, bringing in fans and television viewers. A community in the driver’s seat for promotion would be captivated rather than trying to remember what the NASL regular season championship is called*. More teams at more levels would have more ways to draw more fans than in any other format, and when an underserved community could support a professional club they could make it on their merits rather than wait for a patron to pay an expansion fee. This all sounds brilliant, until you’re New York City FC, you just paid MLS a $100 million expansion fee, and there’s a real chance you’re swapping places with the Cosmos next year.

Indeed, the selfishness of empire-building ownership and league front offices is why our soccer pyramid is stuck in imagination. You’d have to be a much better politician than I to make it real.