Bombed by Japan

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

Tony Lewis/Canadian Soccer Association

Tony Lewis/Canadian Soccer Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(notes and comments…)

That Soccer Saturday in Canada, in Full

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The FIFA Men’s World Rankings are Useless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(notes and comments…)

A Hipster Long After It’s Mainstream

By Benjamin Massey · October 23rd, 2014 · No comments

Tomorrow afternoon my European club of choice, Charlton Athletic, will play its annual televised soccer game when they visit Fulham. Since leaving the Premier League actually watching Charlton has been a rare treat indeed: even when they’re on North American TV, which is basically fucking never, it’s always at 6 AM on Sportsnet 8 or something; none of the pubs in Vancouver are open and I don’t have the $900/month cable package which wafts that obscure channel into my television on clouds of myrrh.

But tomorrow Charlton is actually on one of the beIN Sports channels, which some people in Canada can actually watch, and at a human time of day no less. Unfortunately my brief attempt to find a pub showing the game so I can take a three-hour lunch and go drinking has been a disappointment.

I’m not just writing this to try and troll for intelligence on who might be showing this match (although if you know a place by all means leave a comment), but as an excuse to consider how we deal with teams, like Charlton, which are for the moment a cut below the big leagues.

You see, when I go in search of a game like this and tell a fellow Canadian soccer fan I cheer for Charlton, I inevitably get the “god what a hipster” look. Well, compared to the Vancouver Whitecaps, Charlton is by far the more popular on the world stage. The Whitecaps draw more attendance per game, but if you compare Charlton’s first division days to the Whitecaps in MLS, or Charlton’s Championship days to the Whitecaps in USL-1, Charlton wins by thousands. Not counting the Addicks’ larger media profile around the world, nor their more famous alumni, nor their presence in the heart of London, probably the world’s single largest market for soccer, nor their higher prices (Charlton and the other Football League teams charge more for a season of their online radio stream than a year’s subscription to the HD video of MLS Live and NASL Live combined). Anybody who can cheer on the Whitecaps could hardly turn up their noses at Charlton’s obscurity.

I don’t have what you might call a legitimate reason to like Charlton; I’ve never even seen them play in person. Truth be told, I started cheering for them while they were in the Premier League because they were on Fox Sports World a fair bit and those Alan Curbishley teams were a lot of fun. There’s no difference between me cheering for Charlton and all those Ossington-based Barcelona maniacs you’re going to see in a couple days.

It’s curious seeing how the instinctive North American uninterest in lower-division teams manifests itself. It’s the same idea that sees MLS fans feel a big-brotherly affection to Canada’s two NASL teams, even though the NASL fans want to rip off the MLS’s teams’ faces and feast on their innards. We’ll happily pack rinks to watch 19-year-olds in the Canadian Hockey League, but lower-division adult sports doesn’t really “count”. Even many CFL fans and staffers go to pains to say they play the top level of Canadian football, not the second level of American football. The many manifestations of this attitude never fail to intrigue.

By Benjamin Massey · October 16th, 2014 · No comments

Just a note that I was one of many, many guests on the second part of From the Black Hole‘s Super Massive edition over on Red Nation Online. We recorded this while having too many beers… what, two months ago now, during the U-20 Women’s World Cup in Toronto. Get the podcast here; or catch up on Part One from early September.

This was recorded so long ago I’ve forgotten most of the answers I gave. But the one answer I do remember, Rob Notenboom cut! It was brilliant! And tasteless! Listening to the podcast without my witticism reminds me of the good old days recording Two Fat Bastards and the cry of distress in Brenton’s voice as he said “you can’t put that in, Ben!” Ah, memories.

That Lance Laing Contract Extension

By Benjamin Massey · October 15th, 2014 · No comments

Tony Lewis/Canadian Soccer Association

Tony Lewis/Canadian Soccer Association

You no doubt heard yesterday that FC Edmonton extended the contract of defender/midfielder Lance Laing, along with first-year forward Tomi Ameobi[1]. I won’t say much about Ameobi: when he was on trial this preseason I was dubious. He looked out of shape and I preferred domestic options[2]. Edmonton coach Colin Miller signed Ameobi in spite of my warnings and naturally he’s worked out fine, doing some tough work while Daryl Fordyce and Frank Jonke have been injured and fully earning a new deal. (Why are you still reading this website? I don’t know shit! Go read a book or something useful!)

It’s Laing I want to talk about today. He is the rare player who everybody loves. Casual fans have a speedy, hard-working left-footer with a bit of flash who takes set pieces well and scores goals: he stands out to even the most uninformed eye. The diehards adore him: his first year in Edmonton got him 2013 FC Edmonton Supporters Group MVP[3] and he’s a dead cinch to repeat in 2014. He has a decent league-wide reputation, NASL Best XI in 2011 with buzz for this year, plus a Player of the Week on August 25[4]. 26 years old, Laing is the perfect age to be a major building block for Miller, and his move up to left midfield is widely credited with reviving Edmonton’s playoff hopes. And, despite being a Jamaican who played in Fort Lauderdale before joining the Eddies, Laing is crazy enough to spend his winters in Edmonton. He ticks all the boxes and reaction to his extension has been universal pleasure.

I’m not convinced Laing isn’t a better left back than a left mid. Yes, I know that Laing played left back in the spring season, it wasn’t great, he moved forward in the middle of the fall, and the rest has been history. But the spring season was nine games: it was self-evident as soon as they announced that schedule that drawing conclusions from it would be a fool’s errand. Laing’s ball-striking skills show up very well in mid, but we miss his ability to jockey attackers off the ball and his composure, particularly when we compare him to his erratic LB stand-in Kareem Moses. Combining with Eddie Edward at right back, also a good player but a “throwback” with strength and a focus on defensive fundamentals, made a good combination. I’m not saying move Laing back now; the team’s playing the best soccer in its history and you don’t fuck with results. But longterm I personally see Laing on the back line. Anyhow, doesn’t matter if I’m wrong again. He can play.

With the quality Laing’s demonstrated over five NASL seasons, naturally a few observers are saying he deserves a chance at MLS. If you’re one of those people you might be surprised to see Laing committing his future to the NASL before the season has even ended, rather than chasing trials next spring.

MLS seldom pays for second division players. Toronto FC gave then-USL-1 Montreal a transfer fee for Greg Sutton eight and a half years ago[5]; that’s the only example I know of a Canadian team getting cash from MLS or a Canadian MLS team paying the second division. Even Carolina fetishist Martin Rennie signed Etienne Barbara, Floyd Franks, Jun Marques Davidson, Matt Watson, and Brad Knighton on free transfers, but paid a fee for ex-Railhawk and Danish league player Brad Rusin. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, Laing’s extension is an iron-clad commitment to the second division until either his contract expires or (unlikely!) the Eddies dispose of his services.

Fans are always surprised how many core second division players make more money than they would in MLS. Remember, MLS salaries may be generous for designated players and into six figures for proven core players, but a player moving up from a lower North American division will in all probability make less than $60,000. Barbara, fresh off a league-leading goalscoring campaign and courted by his former manager who wanted him badly, made $87,500 in his one season as an MLS player[6]. More typical, but still on the high end, was Knighton’s $55,000 that season. For something more in line with coaches picking on the open market rather than grabbing their favourite players, look at Jeff Attinella’s $46,500 at Real Salt Lake, Evan Bush’s $46,500 at the Montreal Impact, Kyle Porter’s $54,992.45 total compensation at DC United[7], and Jonny Steele’s $47,562.50 total compensation during his first year in 2012.

The Whitecaps had to pay for Barbara because he was being so well-compensated in the second division: he’d already declined an approach from the Montreal Impact[8]. More than one prominent Canadian, and even a few FC Edmonton players, have also made more in the second division than they would have in MLS, a couple making more than MLS Barbara. In 2010 it was all-but-official that USSF D2 Whitecaps outbid MLS for Jonny Steele. Mozzi Gyorio, then fresh out of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, declined a contract offer from Sporting Kansas City over money[9]. Minnesota United’s Miguel Ibarra, recently called up to the American senior team, has been all over the news, and on American Soccer Now Brooke Tunstall quoted a coach saying Ibarra is also making more in the NASL than he would in MLS[10]. Chat to some well-established NASL stars and you’ll hear the same thing.

Of course the average MLS player makes more than the average NASLer, but FC Edmonton, and any other NASL team, can outbid MLS for players the Eddies want to keep and MLS wants to try out. And under the circumstances the players might be wise to accept. If you go to MLS you might become Jonny Steele, putting in a quality season that proves your quality and earns you six figures. Or you might become Etienne Barbara, blowing out your knee and falling off the face of the Earth. The playing level isn’t enough of an improvement to prove anything. If your ambitions are in Europe then NASL is almost as good a choice as MLS; just ask Hanson Boakai, already drawing interest from across the Atlantic. Sure, if Lance Laing signed with an MLS team for $50,000 he might get a Jordan Harvey sort of career… or he might be benched behind some designated player or other flavour of the month as so many quality players have been (waves to Phil Davies and Bryce Alderson).

Laing’s taken a couple cracks at MLS rosters, trialling with Real Salt Lake and Columbus in 2012 and getting good reviews. RSL Soapbox actually said “it pains me a bit to not have Laing.”[11] But Laing’s MLS discovery rights were held by the Crew and Columbus, knowing no other MLS team could touch him, let him twist[12]. The Crew decided to chase the flashy import for their backup left back and wound up with Nemanja Vuković (whoops!). This is part of what I mean when I say quality isn’t, in MLS, always the deciding factor, and no doubt part of the reason Laing is willing to remain an Eddie.

Edmonton won’t be able to fend off interest from MLS for every cherished player. The Eddies wanted to keep Kyle Porter, but after turning down a low offer from MLS in 2011 Porter bit the bullet in 2013 and signed with DC United. This will happen again: Major League Soccer has appeal to an NASL player that goes beyond money. An NASL player in his early twenties might want to emulate Andre Hainault, who after a short career in the USL First Division parlayed four seasons with the Houston Dynamo into what is now a regular role in the 2. Bundesliga. Porter’s MLS career hasn’t been an unalloyed success, but if he washes out he’ll have time to rebuild. If you’re Lance Laing, past the developmental stage of your career and enjoying a comfortable role on an ambitious team, the upside of a move like that is a lot smaller.

Christ, I’d take Edmonton’s money too.

(notes and comments…)

Rapid Thoughts on Canada – Colombia Rather Than Watching the Oilers Lose Again

By Benjamin Massey · October 14th, 2014 · 2 comments

Tony Lewis/Canadian Soccer Association

Tony Lewis/Canadian Soccer Association

Canada lost to Colombia 1-0. Which, since I was tweeting things like “did you know Canada’s record loss is 8-0 to Mexico in 1993?” and “+1200 on a Canada win is a ripoff bet, don’t you do it”, is something I’m pretty happy with.

I mean, Pedro Pacheco and Julian de Guzman marking Hamessssssssss Rodriguez? Come on. That’s going to be a debacle. Instead, Pacheco spent a solid fifty minutes busting his ass and playing out of his Portuguese second division skin. Pacheco is a limited player, and he’s not really Canadian, and he’s the kind of guy I’d always be glad to leave at home, but credit where it’s due: he played very well in a tough position and he’s learned the Canadian national anthem, which I don’t think Marc Bircham ever did.

And de Guzman? Over the last twelve months he’s undergone the most stunning resurrection imaginable for a player in his thirties on Unattached FC. I swear to you, 2012 and 2013 de Guzman was awful. 2014 de Guzman has, for Canada, been consistently one of the best players on the pitch, returning the days of his glorious afro flow and, while in no danger of reaching his CONCACAF Best XI heights of 2007, has been well worth the starts. It’s strange. Eerie. It’s the first known cured case of TFC Wasting Disease.

Rodriguez still got plenty of looks, naturally: the gulf in quality was just too great. Canada was badly outchanced and the score flattered us. You must say Canada could have used Russell Teibert. The Colombian goal, where Canada was caught complacent by a quick free kick, is just the sort of play a shouting jumping-around pinballing-around-the-top-of-the-eighteen Teibert makes his defensive reputation on. And his passing wouldn’t have hurt a Canadian team that, one glorious Nakajima-Farran through ball aside, had nearly nothing going forward from midfield.

How different is the game if, instead of Ledgerwood and Pacheco, we started Atiba Hutchinson and Teibert? I’m not sure the score changes: Colombia had a load of chances, a goal unjustly called back for offside, forced a world-class save out of Milan Borjan on a free kick, and we couldn’t have complained had they won 2-0 or even 3-0. It would have, however, have opened up possibilities, and maybe kept the defense from tiring a little in the second half and allowing them to keep their heads in the game on that free kick.

To the TV audience, we were made to look worse by the broadcast, which happily replayed every moment of Colombian skill and wouldn’t show an interesting Canadian play if you paid them. With Gerry Dobson and Danny Dichio calling the game from a phone booth in Toronto, Sportsnet was presumably piggy-backing on the feed of a broadcaster aiming for the Colombian market. Better than nothing, of course…

Why dwell on the negative? The team was calm, poised, made relatively few key mistakes. David Edgar was excellent. Milan Borjan was excellent. Pacheco and Andre Hainault were very good. Tosaint Ricketts earned a penalty that went uncalled. Even Doneil Henry, while a net negative, was no embarrassment (but a disproportionate number of good Colombian attacks seemed to start on his flank).

Enormous credit for this admirable loss is going to Benito Floro. Let’s not start sucking each other’s dicks just yet: remember at the beginning of 2013 when Canada went down to the United States and drew them, 0-0, in a game they could have won? That team was coached by Colin Miller, whose name in Voyageurs circles is basically mud. Miller also got decent soccer in the Gold Cup against Mexico and Panama, as people who remember only scores may have forgotten.

I’ve convinced myself more and more each year that a good Canadian coach is one who players show up for, and the rest is almost details. Floro’s record getting players to commit to his team is mixed. So if he is the on-field coaching revelation we all hope he is, it won’t be shown by one-sided but respectable neutral site games to teams with inflated FIFA rankings. It’ll be in Gold Cups, World Cup qualifiers, and the development of the young players, like Cyle Larin, Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé, and Karl Ouimette, in whom he has taken an interest.

Hanson Boakai didn’t get on, which sucks. Larin, an amateur soccer player, did something with his single touch; might have been nice to see Boakai get five minutes to run at guys. (The Colombian defense allowed us too much space at times but we had no technical attackers to exploit it.) But I understand. Boakai is young and this was be his first camp of many. Manuel Aparicio made his first appearance for Canada today but has been at senior national team camps all year waiting for his shot. As Miller has discovered with Boakai at Edmonton, there’s nothing wrong with making a kid work for it.

One can never be quite happy with a loss. But one can always be proud of a massive underdog that busted its hump, kept its composure on and off the ball, and never looked intimidated before a hostile crowd against a team nobody gave them a chance against. Well done, players of Canada. Work like that and you’ll get Honduras next time.

Trinidadian Troubles in Texas

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

Apparently Trinidad and Tobago’s women’s soccer standards are slipping. At the beginning of July, Houston Dash boss Randy Waldrum accepted an unpaid, part-time, volunteer post as head coach of the Trinidad and Tobago women’s national soccer team[1]. This alone was a bad sign, but it got worse.

According to Waldrum’s Twitter, the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation sent the team to Dallas for World Cup qualifying today with a total of $500. There was no budget for equipment, hotels, transport, not even food. He’s probably lucky that their air fare wasn’t collect. The Trinidadians, in short, have been thrown into a foreign country and told to fend for themselves.

Waldrum is canvassing Twitter looking for help and donations to keep the Trinidad and Tobago women’s national soccer team from starving to death in Texas. I learned of this from Gregor Young, who rightly calls it a “disgrace”; if anything that’s not strong enough. I’ve never heard of anything like it, and in CONCACAF you hear about quite a bit.

Trinidad and Tobago starts World Cup qualifying against the United States on October 15; Waldrum is setting a new definition for “above and beyond the call of duty” today as the coach tries to improvise arrangements that will let the Soca Princesses live, train, and compete over the next two weeks. In a group with Guatemala and Haiti the Trinidadians would have had a good chance of picking up some points; now it’s an open question whether they’ll be able to play.

The thing is, these aren’t the dregs of CONCACAF. Trinidad and Tobago has a decent third-tier women’s program these days. They just won the first ever Caribbean women’s championship in August[3]. T&T was never going to qualify for Canada 2015 but were heading the right way, thanks in no small part to former head coach Even Pellerud, head coach from 2010 to 2012. Pellerud will be remembered as a former coach of the Canadian women and the current coach of Norway; he’s not the sort of man who comes cheap. At that time, though, Trinidad and Tobago was apparently willing to spend ambitiously.

Now, possibly thanks to the downfall of Jack Warner, their women can’t even afford World Cup qualification, and a senior national team is dumped on their volunteer coach to sort out everything himself; the sort of stunt that would be flagrantly unacceptable for a U-10 boys team. With Canada not participating in qualifiers I know who to cheer for, and I bet I’m not alone. Good luck to Randy Waldrum and the much-put-upon Trindiadian women. They’ve been shafted as badly as anyone in this game can be; hopefully these women show how they deserve the respect their federation denies them.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in CONCACAF, players file lawsuits claiming artificial turf is sexist.

(notes and comments…)

The Bloodiest Colombian Massacre Not Related to Cocaine Smuggling

By Benjamin Massey · October 7th, 2014 · 3 comments

You’ve probably heard that Colombia named its roster for the friendly against Canada on October 14. It goes something like this:

GK David Ospina (Arsenal)
GK Camilo Vargas (Santa Fe)
GK Jose Fernando Cuadrado (Once Caldas)
DF Camilo Zuniga (Napoli)
DF Pablo Armero (AC Milan)
DF Cristian Zapata (AC Milan)
DF Santiago Arias (PSV)
DF Eder Alvarez Balanta (River Plate)
DF Pedro Franco (Besiktas)
DF Jeison Murillo (Granada)
MF James Rodriguez (Real Madrid)
MF Abel Aguilar (Toulouse)
MF Carlos Sanchez (Aston Villa)
MF Fredy Guarin (Inter)
MF Juan Fernando Quintero (Porto)
MF Alexander Mejia (Atletico Nacional)
MF Carlos Carbonero (Cesena)
MF Juan Guillermo Cuadrado (Fiorentina)
MF Edwin Cardona (Atletico Nacional)
MF Yimmi Chara (Deportes Tolima)
FW Carlos Bacca (Sevilla)
FW Radamel Falcao (Manchester United)
FW Teofilo Gutierrez (River Plate)
FW Jackson Martinez (Porto)
FW Adrian Ramos (Borussia Dortmund)

Meanwhile, Canada has called up a typical Canadian lot. Except without Atiba Hutchinson, Will Johnson, Simeon Jackson, or Russell Teibert; four of our six best players. We have also now lost Kyle Bekker (well, I say “lost”), who’s elected to stay with his playoff-bound MLS team; he’s replaced by young centreback Daniel Staneso. I like Stanese very much but he isn’t yet the man to mark out Falcao.

Our last matchup this one-sided was May 24, 2010, when Canada visited then-World-Cup-semifinalists Argentina and got waxed, 5-0. I still haven’t watched that game: I was on an airplane at the time and have never seen a recording. Probably any PVR that caught all 90 minutes killed itself. But I am told that, even beyond what the score suggests, it was one of the all-time slaughters. That Canada squad included Johnson, Jackson, Josh Simpson, a still-hale Daniel Imhof and Mike Klukowski, and a still-useful Paul Stalteri. Any of those players would walk onto next week’s Canada squad. (It also included Stephen Ademolu; you can’t win ‘em all.)

Canada’s current roster has seven teenagers (Luca Gasparotto, Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé, Manny Aparicio, Dylan Carreiro, Hanson Boakai, Cyle Larin, Jordan Hamilton), two proud members of Unattached FC (Adam Straith and Julian de Guzman), a literal amateur soccer player (Larin), and more guys who have never played a game in a major professional league than I care to list. Don’t delude yourselves, boys and girls. We are going to get ripped in half like an extra in a monster movie.

So why bother playing this inevitable debacle of a friendly? The theory is that, by exposing our players to the best in the world, we better prepare them for the second-best. The environment in New Jersey is certain to be hostile, with Colombian fans coming from across the United States. The opposition is likely overwhelming. Under this sort of pressure Canada’s fallen apart in past money games, letting the occasion get the better of them; the only way to prepare is to be used to something bigger. After you’ve faced down Ham-esssss Rodriguez for 90 minutes and his boot’s been so far up your ass you can feel the spikes in your throat, Honduras should hold no terrors.

But it sure didn’t work last time. Adam Straith, Andre Hainault, and Nik Ledgerwood are the only survivors from the 2010 Argentina game; Johnson and Simpson would be around if healthy. Some of those veterans from Argentina were among those who pissed their pants so monumentally at San Pedro Sula in 2012, and it wasn’t like we achieved any glorious results leading up to that nightmare. Clearly, that massacre did no good for our self-esteem or our prep. The closest thing to a “legacy” from our internationally-televised wet willie was the following friendly, when a much weaker Canadian squad came back to draw Venezuela 1-1 in what will always be called the Gavin McCallum Game.

But that massacre was also a sending-off treat for our veteran players. Old men to appear in that match included Dwayne De Rosario (who begged off the Gold Cup that year because of MLS commitments but was happy to ignore his club for a glamour friendly), Klukowski, Stalteri, Imhof, Rob Friend, Richard Hastings, Pat fucking Onstad – it wasn’t development, it was a nod at the past. Half those guys were already washed up by 2012. Only Straith and Jackson were in any sense “prospects” (Jackson because of his surprisingly late career surge).

This time, only four of our players are over 30 years old and we’re nearly dead certain to see at least a couple teenagers. The bulk of this roster will certainly have a role through the next World Cup qualifying cycle and quite a few will survive to the cycle after that. A lot of the players who learned their lesson in Argentina didn’t last long enough to make any difference; this time a lot of players will. I’m looking forward to the game, to a surprising extent: oh yeah, I know the result in advance, but I saw Hanson Boakai make his NASL debut, I watched Daniel Stanese obliterate Santa Cruz forwards on a snowy day at Simon Fraser University, and now these guys are taking on one of FIFA’s greatest Murderers Rows. That’s pretty cool. I’m sure the players are pretty damned stoked too: when you’re an up-and-comer these are the games you dream of. That’s worth something.

Pensées on Pain

By Benjamin Massey · October 5th, 2014 · 4 comments

Procrastinating this afternoon I found myself wondering, which of the two famous Canadian national soccer defeats in the past couple years was the most devastating? (This is what Voyageurs do for fun.)

In this corner, the Canadian women’s national team losing 4-3 in extra time to the United States on August 6, 2012; the semifinal of the London Olympic Games. The loss was unjust: Canada would have won but for an overwhelmed referee intimidated by soccer’s most notorious bully. The Canadians, who hadn’t beaten the United States during the career of most of those players, were tremendous underdogs giving the fight of their lives, but such an extreme level of intensity could barely last even ninety minutes. In extra time Canada lacked the strength to resist, and the American win seemed inevitable.

And in the other corner, the Canadian men’s national team losing 8-1 in Honduras in a World Cup qualifier on October 16, 2012. There’s nothing to say about that match not implied by the scoreline: Canada started losing early and didn’t stop. We went into the match looking for only a draw, but had we gotten it the prize was another stage of World Cup qualifying. By Canadian men’s standards, this was a serious money game, the biggest in eight years. On the world stage it was a footnote.

I still call the Olympic defeat “That Game”; I cannot imagine any sporting event ever tearing my heart out and showing it to me in the same way. Yet it ended well. Erin McLeod and Diana Matheson won us the bronze medal a few days later. The conquering heroines were welcomed back rapturously across the country. When some players were guests at a Whitecaps game BC Place went nuts. Just the other day McLeod waxed nostalgic about the banners Vancouver Voyageurs did for them. Hard-hearted people grew pretty sentimental in those days.

For the men, there was oblivion. We few diehards may have had our guts hollowed out, but most of our optimism had been scraped away years ago, replaced with the nihilistic near-euphoria of those who expect the worst and are never disappointed. We said “bloody typical” and ordered another pint to chase the pain. (I except that elite handful who actually went to San Pedro Sula and survived, but even they got the consolation of an all-time great story.) Now, approaching the two-year anniversary, it’s almost an inside joke rather than a raw nerve.

However… and I’m ducking down while writing this… a men’s game is worth a lot more to a lot of people than any women’s game can ever be. Partially because of sexism, yeah; also because the men’s game is played at a higher level, on a much higher-profile stage, and because Canada’s so terrible at it. The Canadian women, while unlikely to win World Cups, are good for an impressive result every now and then; the Canadian men have had nothing to smile about at the senior level for fourteen years, and each taste of hope for them is like an oasis in the Sahara.

Then again, the women played a real rival. Oh yeah, fuck Honduras, in soccer terms we hate them, but our country doesn’t owe its raison d’être to opposing the Honduran way of life. You can’t automatically win votes in Canada’s major cities by accusing your opponent of “Honduran-style” politics. The most accurate description of modern Canadian cultural values is not “we say we’re not Honduran.” Really, Canada only has and has ever had one rival, and in the Olympics that rival beat us by being bigger, stronger, and morally despicable: you couldn’t have drawn up that game to fit the stereotype any better.

When Canada lost to Honduras it was with barely a figleaf of dignity: Iain Hume’s fine goal and otherwise a great middle finger in the face of every Canadian supporter. When Canada lost to the Americans it was called one of the greatest games in a generation even by neutral pundits, and Christine Sinclair gave the best performance in one of the sport’s most legendary careers on the biggest stage. Isn’t that worse, in a way: to earn immortality, and to see a game you can tell your grandkids about, all wasted because of an inexperienced referee who couldn’t stand up for herself?

I came up with an answer for myself, and you can probably guess what it is. But with a few years distance, and big games coming next year for both genders, it’s curious to compare the different forms our agony can take.