Son of Forward Perspective!

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

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Last year, when I wrote about the Whitecaps a bit more often, people were prematurely jazzed about the Whitecaps’ forward corps. Seeing signs of human happiness around me, I chugged a bottle of Haterade then sounded the horn of perspective. Sure, Camilo was the real deal, I said, but Kenny Miller probably isn’t. (The very next day, Martin Rennie signed Miller to a contract extension. Max lulz were had.) I also had a word or two in defense of Darren Mattocks[1]. My statistical predictions were largely overtaken by events, with Camilo fucking off to Mexico and Miller heading back to the United Kingdom.

Now, I haven’t watched 400 minutes of Whitecaps soccer this year so I’m not the most qualified son-of-a-bitch to repeat that exercise. But clearly nobody else is going to do it. When not excreting clickbait bullshit about women daring to be soccer fans while having breasts, our mainstream soccer writers have banged the “omg teh fukking witecaps forwards!!!!” drum like Keith Moon on speed. I even braved the Vancouver Southsiders Facebook page and forum to check the mood and came back with eye herpes. People, it is fair to say, are unhappy, crying things like “why didn’t we keep Camilo by offering him a bigger-money contract, like the one he walked out on?” and “why didn’t we sign Leo Messi?” and “how can I blame Vancouver conceding field goals every other week on Darren Mattocks?” and “I’m seven years old and can’t remember before mid-August, why have the Whitecaps never scored?”

So fuck it. How terrible are the three young forwards, Erik Hurtado, Kekuta Manneh, and Darren Mattocks, who are causing this drama factory to run overtime? I have no idea, I don’t watch the games, but here’s a table anyway. All statistics from MLSSoccer.com.

2013 2014
GP MIN G A PKG SD SoG SoG% S% SD/90 SoG/90 GP MIN G A PKG SD SoG SoG% S% SD/90 SoG/90
Hurtado, Erik 15 489 0 2 0 13 3 23.08% 0.00% 2.392 0.552 25 1493 5 2 0 42 17 40.47% 29.41% 2.532 1.024
Manneh, Kekuta 20 764 6 2 0 38 15 39.47% 40.00% 4.476 1.767 24 1009 3 1 0 47 18 38.30% 16.67% 4.192 1.606
Mattocks, Darren 20 911 3 1 0 45 14 31.11% 21.43% 4.446 1.383 26 1664 6 3 1 51 23 45.10% 26.09% 2.758 1.244

We have three players who saw fewer than 1,000 minutes last season. Short sample sizes suck. But at a glance two guys are trending as expected.

Erik Hurtado is still sort of crummy. Nothing like a hot streak to make a coach think you might be the real deal, but luckily he’s cooled off in time to not get a big raise. 1.0 SoG/90, a forward who’s doing that might be tolerable as a depth guy, but why bother when there are so many underappreciated NASL and USL Pro players around with something to prove and a modicum of technical ability? Long Tan just made the USL Pro All-League Second Team[2], but there’s probably a decent forward around there somewhere.

Only Darren Mattocks has genuinely regressed, losing 1.7 shots directed per 90 minutes. He’s dropped an entire Gershon Koffie in offense! Admittedly, this is with Canadian Soccer Jesus, one of MLS’s leading playmakers last season, having dropped back to d-mid to keep Matty Laba from getting lonely. But this is also with Pedro Morales existing and somehow not straining a hamstring for weeks. I suspect that, looking at Mattocks’s 2012 figures and bearing in mind his nasty case of shoot-from-anywhereitis at points last year, the SD/90 we’re seeing now is in line with Mattocks’s actual skill.

Even Mattocks’s season has been acceptable. Not great, not what you want from a first-rank striker, but 0.325 goals per 90 minutes runs 43rd in MLS among players with at least five goals. That sounds worse than it is: there are a lot of Max Urrutis/Luis Silvas/Michels who are banging in penalties, shooting over 60%, and having the one good goal-scoring season they’re going to live off for the rest of their hilariously overpaid careers. There’s no reason to think Mattocks’s percentages aren’t sustainable, and this level of performance is well worth holding onto. Not that they suggest any danger of a 20-goal-carrying-the-team-on-his-back season.

I’ll tell you one thing I am pretty darned confident of. Kekuta Manneh is a serious soccer player. He’s still the youngest on this list. He turns 20 in December. He’s not progressing by the numbers, but the team’s exploded so much around him and his playing time has been in such fits and starts I’m not sure what we could expect. Anyway, his current level of performance is fine, he just needs the shots to start going in and that’s only a matter of time.

If it were my team, I’d throw Manneh at the top for the rest of the season as long as his body could take it, have Mattocks as my second guy, and send Erik Hurtado to a nice house in the country where he could play every day and eat all the kibble he wants.

(notes and comments…)

Dissecting the Whitecaps’ New Westminster Failure

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

In 2006 the Vancouver Whitecaps tried to build a new soccer-specific stadium on the Vancouver waterfront. The Waterfront Stadium would have displaced no residents or businesses. It would have been in the very heart of Vancouver’s transit network and surrounded by a traffic and parking infrastructure that services hundreds of thousands of downtown commuters every weekday. And it would have been entirely privately funded by Greg Kerfoot, one of Vancouver’s most-respected businessmen. The Whitecaps launched a campaign over several years to try and get this stadium, the potential crown jewel of Canadian soccer, built. They failed utterly, scotched by NIMBYism, politics, the opposition of the Vancouver Port Authority, and the province of British Columbia’s none-too-hidden aim of tenant involved in the billion-dollar BC Place renovation. When they joined Major League Soccer the Whitecaps made vague noises about going forward, but today the Waterfront Stadium isn’t even mentioned on their website and they seem, reasonably enough, unwilling to keep forcing a $60 million gift onto an unwilling city.

There are a lot of lessons the Whitecaps could have taken, like “Vancouver is horrible” and “an awful lot of politicians in the Lower Mainland need to be punched very hard in the face.” But when they approached the City of New Westminster to get a USL Pro team in the Royal City for 2015, they didn’t apply any.

According to the Whitecaps the “opportunity” for a USL Pro team in New Westminster arose four months ago[1]; the first the public heard about it in July when the Whitecaps and the city made an announcement[2]. Since that time there have been two public consultations, council meetings, attempts to harness community support, and a general storming campaign leading up to a council meeting earlier this week where New Westminster council rejected the plan.

And look at what we didn’t get. For months we had no idea of public costs, essentially taking advocates’ word that the public wouldn’t lose out. The City of New Westminster’s web site on the project had next-to-nothing on financing[3]. We didn’t see a rendering of a renovated Queen’s Park Stadium until late in the day*, and professional soccer teams in 2014 do renderings of a new stadium when they go to the bathroom. FC Edmonton commissioned several previews of a new stadium which wasn’t even seriously planned just to show what was possible[4]. The Whitecaps wanted support for an awfully indeterminate amount of money and a real community sacrifice without a vision of what New Westminster taxpayers might get for it.

The matter came formally before New Westminster city council on September 15, almost literally the last minute for a team meant to start play in 2015. The Committee of the Whole got an information package, summarized by Director of Parks, Culture, and Recreation Dean Gibson[5]. This summary seemed to have its tongue somewhere in its cheek; saying that most of the public responses had been supportive “given the limited information that has been available”; but the community was complaining about being ill-informed. Even some councillors, like Jaimie McEvoy, seemed to agree. Small wonder.

That committee heard that there wasn’t enough parking to meet projected demand, there would be a reduction in public availability during peak seasons, the baseball community would need renovated facilities, and the stadium renovation would contradict a community plan that envisaged reducing Queen’s Park Stadium’s capacity. We also, finally, heard a cost: an estimate of $11.4 million, of which $3 million had already been budgeted. $3.9 million would be “repaid” by the Whitecaps with a lease over twenty years, and $4.5 million would presumably be an out-and-out subsidy from the City to an MLS reserve team, all from a city of 66,000 people with, according to councillor Jonathan Cote, no up-front contribution from the Whitecaps whatsoever.

There were easy community concerns, all foreseeable, all soluble given time. But there was no time. Meanwhile, otherwise-supportive council members saw costs already higher than anticipated before a shovel had gone in the ground. And so the Committee of the Whole killed the proposal stone dead. At the full council meeting Mayor Wayne Wright said “it wasn’t possible for us to get this business done in a timely manner with the people of New Westminster because there were too many questions.” He got a lot of applause for that one. Knight even apologized to the audience for bringing the matter up without sufficient consultation.

Look, obviously there were NIMBYs, but there were also real concerns. Baseball being kicked out of Queen’s Park? Baseball’s a sport too, of course they’re worried about losing a good site. People moaning about parking? I know we’re all good transit-loving urbanists but the local situation isn’t brilliant; Columbia Skytrain station is a kilometer and a half away on a pretty solid hillside. If I was on my own I’d walk; taking my grandparents we’d want to drive. These are questions worth arguing out and answering, and the opportunity barely came up.

The Whitecaps can’t do much about Major League Soccer not running a reserve league or the 2015 USL Pro season coming up fast. Clearly everybody involved knew the Whitecaps were negotiating in good faith, with the enthusiastic support and leadership of a New Westminster resident. But the resulting proposal was, from a public perspective, borderline unsupportable and without any time to work a compromise. I was in favour of the USL Pro team, apart from the public funding, and even I was becoming a skeptic by the time the trigger was pulled. There was just nothing, nothing except a seven-digit price tag and a massive hurry.

I mean, with the deepest respect to people who are better businessmen then I, what the hell did you think was going to happen?

(notes and comments…)

Fall 2013 FC Edmonton Shooting Statistics

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

After the 2013 spring season, the North American Soccer League switched boxscore providers. The former company listed each player’s shots directed and shots on target over the course of a game. But starting in the fall of 2013 Soccerway took over, and their publicly-available resources list team shots but not player shots. This is a pretty considerable blow for those of us who like trying to look at player statistics.

So, very slowly, I rewatched all of FC Edmonton’s 2013 fall season games to count the individual shots directed and shots on target for each player in each match. I finished up a couple weeks ago, and the boxscores are available for public use at http://www.maple-leaf-forever.com/boxscores/nasl/2013/. I hope to do the same thing for the 2014 NASL season, eventually.

If you have any corrections contact me by e-mail, Twitter, or however you like. The rest of this article is just me musing on collecting these figures.

This was the first time I’ve done anything like this and it was a pretty interesting experience. Official team shooting statistics were still available; I was able to compare my results to the league’s numbers. There were some pretty immense differences. It brought home to me how, even in fairly clear-cut statistics like this, the subjective factor is very real.

Take, for example, a blocked shot. A forward cranks a shot and it’s deflected out straight off his boot by a defender. A forward shoots and it’s deflected out well away from him but not yet near the goal. A forward lets fly and it’s hacked off the line. Which of those is a shot directed? Which of those is a shot on target? Calling some of them shots directed requires mind-reading, knowing that he was trying to shoot rather than cross. And a blocked shot is almost always a low-percentage chance; if we’re using shots directed as a proxy for offense, which we pretty much are, then “rewarding” a guy for low-percentage shooting is irritating (though when Neil Hlavaty rifles a shot twenty feet over from thirty yards every other game we don’t have much choice). On the other hand, a ball hacked off the line is a five-alarm scoring opportunity and certainly needs to be counted somewhere.

I’m just a duffer figuring it out based on what I think “should” be. The NASL, naturally, is more professional. The league employs a couple groups of statistics-keepers, found by the teams, for each market. But there’s a factor in my favour: I’m looking at recorded matches, so have access to instant and unlimited video replay. It’s not quite so easy for somebody sitting up at Clarke Stadium. So I might well be more accurate in certain cases; there were a few times when I could correct the commentators, for example, on who took a given shot.

My instinct, and an offhand comparison of my numbers to what I’ve seen in other leagues, suggest that I may have undercounted. (But 2013 FC Edmonton was a defensively decent side that lacked creativity and was no offensive juggernaut.) If I’m going to err in any direction I’d rather err low, so I can live with that.

Hooray for the CSA and the USL Pro Domestic Quota

By Benjamin Massey · September 6th, 2014 · 7 comments

Earlier this week on The 24th Minute Duane Rollins reported that the Canadian Soccer Association has set high domestic player quotas for the three reserve teams that Canada’s Major League Soccer franchises are entering into USL Pro. Half of the active team roster, as well as six of eleven starters, will have to be players eligible for the Canadian national team[1].

With the ostensible reason for these USL Pro teams being the young Canadian talent our MLS franchises have failed to integrate into the first team, you’d expect the MLS sides to accept this without a complaint. And, so far, they pretty much have. (Score one for the bright side of life!) Vancouver is still pushing the New Westminster scheme hard, the Montreal Impact just announced their own USL Pro team[2], and Toronto FC seems to be moving forward with their plans[3]. Obviously the franchises knew this was coming. It’s enough to almost make you believe the life of a Canadian soccer fan isn’t uniformly terrible.

Naturally some fans of MLS organizations aren’t as calm as the organizations themselves. The comments of Rollins’ post are filled with the usual. I look at my Twitter feed and this is being framed in “club versus country” terms like every other discussion that combines the words “Canadian” and “soccer”. It’s gotten a shade repetitive, and long ago became the sort of argument that ceased to persuade anyone ever.

How often have you heard the club-first people scoff “well, why doesn’t the Canadian Soccer Association do something to make the men’s national team relevant, anyway?” with the “pssh” and the “pfft” of the supporter dismissing Canada in favour of the accomplished winners that are our MLS teams. Well, the Canadian Soccer Association has done something! “Okay,” they’ve said “you guys want to put yet more teams in yet another American league and you’re saying you’re going to develop Canadian talent, then we’re going to hold you to that.”

When the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact joined Toronto FC in Major League Soccer, the CSA made a mistake that’s set Canadian soccer back years: it trusted the MLS group. The Whitecaps had given Canadian players over 10,000 minutes every season in the USL First Division, Montreal was behind but still not bad, and Toronto FC was making all the right noises. Bob Lenarduzzi wanted no quota at all, saying the Whitecaps should produce enough quality players to make one irrelevant[4], so the CSA compromised with an extremely low requirement for three domestic players, including Canadian citizens ineligible for our national team.

As a result the number of Canadians playing professional soccer in their home country has declined precipitously[5]. Whatever the intentions of Toronto FC or Vancouver or Montreal, in the real world they’ve found it easier to draft American NCAA players and sign imports for a season and a half rather than buck the MLS model and build around Canadian talent. With young players not able to get anywhere in Canada, and potentially talented veterans leaving the professional game in despair so they can raise families and play for Edmonton Scottish, the Canadian men’s national team has never been worse.

We know that hopes and aspirations aren’t good enough when you’re dealing with MLS, so the CSA is forcing them to do the right thing. It’s a pity that it’s necessary, but we’ve seen that it is. Clearly the people with the money, the Vancouverites and Montrealers and Torontonians, don’t think this is a deal-breaker (I mean, half these reserve teams can still be foreign; that’s more than enough for all your NCAA scrubs). And the fans who don’t care about developing Canadian players will whine, but let them: these are literally the last people on Earth the Canadian Soccer Association should answer to.

(notes and comments…)

Some Podcast Programming Notes

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

In recent weeks I have been making some noise on other people’s podcasts.

This morning at a depressingly early hour I made a brief appearance with Duane Rollins and Kevin Laramee on their 5 Rings podcast talking about artificial turf and the Women’s World Cup. Most of what I say won’t be news to anyone who reads this site, but there are one or two points I expand on slightly.

Seemingly a hundred years ago I was also was one of the participants in Red Nation Online‘s From the Black Hole “Super Massive Edition”; me and about fourteen other people got together in a pub in Toronto with Rob Notenboom and Jeff Salisbury, and chatted about the U-20 Women’s World Cup and the senior edition. Part 1 finally went up last week; it’s fifty minutes of different people talking and even most of the parts without me are interesting. Plus you get to hear me try to pronounce “Camille Abily” with nine beers in me, and I say I’m going to “go off the board” with what turned out to be the most popular answer. Watch for part two… whenever they can bring themselves to edit it.

Finally, a Two Fat Bastards note: no, we haven’t had one for a while. I think my lack of Whitecaps interest made life for Brenton somewhat difficult. (I did watch the end of the Portland game, after Sam Adekugbe came on!) If or when we wind up recording another one, we’ll let you know.

That Specious Anti-Artificial Turf Debate, Once Again

By Benjamin Massey · September 2nd, 2014 · 7 comments

Shawn Coates/Canadian Soccer Association

Shawn Coates/Canadian Soccer Association

At the beginning of August, American women’s soccer guru Jeff Kassouf reported on his Equalizer blog that a group of American players had retained legal counsel and sent a threatening letter to FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association alleging discrimination for playing the 2015 Women’s World Cup on artificial turf[1].

The matter got traction in the mainstream press: Chris Selley brought it up in a National Post editorial[2], Mark Steyn and Hugh Hewitt talked about it on the radio[3], and a variety of Canadian newspapers carried wire articles on the potential suit. There was plenty of discussion on social media, with American fans again showing support for their players. I’d hoped the players had made their point and the story would go away on its own, but in Sports Illustrated Grant Wahl made it clear the case is still open[4]. On Twitter this weekend, American soccer reporter Caitlin Murray reported that Alex Morgan said legal action was “imminent”[5].

So if the Americans are determined to keep the issue in front of the press it’s time for some context. Not everybody writing about this knows much about soccer in general, let alone Canadian soccer or the American women’s game. With that knowledge it does not take a very close examination before the self-interested speciousness of these objections becomes apparent; on no level beyond superstitious handwringing do the complaints have a whiff of validity.

The letter to FIFA and the CSA is dated July 28, 2014; fewer than eleven months before the tournament’s opening game on June 6, 2015 and over three years after the tournament was awarded to Canada, with artificial turf as part of the bid, in May 2011[6]. This is the threat of a lawsuit, not a lawsuit itself, and with time running out to make a change (if time is not out already) the players must be very optimistic that the legal system will produce an extremely rapid resolution, that FIFA will play ball without a lawsuit, or that none of it will wind up mattering. Kassouf has the letter available on his blog[7].

Only some of the players represented are named: German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, Brazilian winger Fabiana, Mexico’s Teresa Noyola, Spainish captain Verónica Boquete, and from the United States Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, and Heather O’Reilly[8]. All have played in the United States: Fabiana hasn’t been back since WPS folded in 2010. Boquete only just left the Portland Thorns. Angerer, Noyola, and the Yanks currently play in the NWSL.

None of these women avoid artificial turf when it’s their money on the line. Wambach plays for the Western New York Flash at the artificial turf Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, New York. After spells with Western New York and the Seattle Sounders (both artificial turf) Alex Morgan now plays for the Portland Thorns at the artificial turf Providence Park. Her Portland teammates include Angerer and until recently Boquete. Heather O’Reilly plays with the Boston Breakers at the FieldTurf-surfaced Harvard Stadium. Noyola turns out for the Houston Dash, who are on grass, but has made stops at FC Kansas City (Durwood Soccer Stadium, artificial turf) and the Seattle Reign (Memorial Stadium, artificial turf). Fabiana’s mostly been on grass, though she did play for the Breakers in 2009 and 2010 and earlier this year tried to sign with Sweden’s Tyresö FF[9], who play at the artificial turf Tyresövallen. Boquete was at Tyresö before joining Portland; her long resume includes stops on artificial turf fields in Buffalo and Philadelphia.

Why are these women so appalled at artificial turf for the World Cup, to the point of putting their names on a legal complaint, yet still willing to put their careers on the line and play on it for their clubs? Does artificial turf acquire some magical injurious property during international fixtures? Is spending multiple seasons on artificial turf safer than a couple weeks during the summer?

Studies have been done on the risk of injury from artificial turf, in soccer, for both men and women. I wrote about this last March when Wambach first got herself in the news telling kids to get off her all-natural lawn[10]: there are different types of injury on third-generation artificial turf versus grass, but no difference in injury frequency. One study from Sweden examined 19 men’s and 6 women’s elite teams and found “[t]he incidence [. . .] of acute (traumatic) injuries did not differ significantly between artificial turf and grass, for men [. . .] or women” on surfaces like those to be used in 2015[11]. Most American women’s soccer players are university-educated; it’s bizarre that they don’t know better, or can’t hit Google long enough to find out whether scientists are busy directly contradicting their anecdotal arguments.

To be fair the anti-turf letter barely pretends there’s actual risk. It says “a recent FIFA study concluded that elite soccer players ‘perceive the injury risk to be higher on football turf pitches than on natural grass’.”[12] Using perception as a point is weaker than no point at all.

What of discrimination? It’s not unlawful to annoy Abby Wambach but sexism is the point upon which legal action would stand or fall. Morally, Canadians pride themselves on their fairness in gender relations and won’t enjoy the thought that our national soccer federation might be discriminating against women. Luckily, there’s no evidence that we are.

Three of Canada’s five professional men’s soccer teams play on artificial turf (Vancouver Whitecaps, FC Edmonton, Ottawa Fury); a fourth (Toronto FC) did until 2010, and the fifth (Montreal Impact) uses Olympic Stadium’s artificial turf for occasional matches. The only most recent* FIFA men’s tournament Canada has ever hosted was the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup, and of that event’s six stadiums three were artificial turf. Two natural grass stadiums were used mostly for minor games and the newest artificial turf stadium, Toronto’s BMO Field, hosted a semi-final and the final[13].

The main argument the letter-writers have to suggest discrimination by the Canadian Soccer Association is the Canadian national men’s soccer team’s vocal dislike of artificial surfaces. I am not a lawyer but “the Canadian men’s players are prima-donnas” does not seem like a compelling legal argument. Anyway, the men played at the artificial turf Commonwealth Stadium in a friendly just last year and have played competitive matches on artificial turf at the 2013 and 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cups as well as World Cup qualifiers in 2008.

FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association aren’t rejecting grass out of sheer cussedness. There are only three sizable grass stadiums in the entire country and one, BMO Field, is unavailable due to the 2015 Pan-American Games. Another, Saputo Stadium, is with a capacity of 20,592 viewed as too small for marquee World Cup matches. This leaves little Moncton Stadium, which had been grass, but since it would have been the only grass pitch in the tournament it was converted to artificial turf in May[14].

So why didn’t FIFA take one of the other bids which promised all-grass stadiums? What other bids? The only other country that bid for the 2015 Women’s World Cup was Zimbabwe[15] and they dropped out[16]. The objection that no senior men’s or women’s World Cup has been played on an artificial surface is, in this context, sheer Luddism; only recently has artificial turf has become safe and consistent enough for top-flight soccer so of course some tournament would always have to be “the first.” This is the case with any innovation. For example, in 2022 the men will play in the first World Cup ever held during the height of a desert summer in stadiums built by slave labour. (Perhaps they should file a discrimination suit.)

So what solution do the potential plaintiffs want? That’s one thing their letter doesn’t say. “Fortunately, based on our consultations with athletic field experts, we have determined that there are several affordable ways to host the 2015 World Cup on acceptable grass surfaces,” writes our correspondent[17], but apart from the suggestion that only American-based players are fit to tell the world what playing surface is “acceptable” specifics are curiously omitted.

Installing safe permanent grass across the country within months in stadiums not designed for it during the height of a Canadian winter is borderline unthinkable and not even the most raving partisans dare suggest it. Sarah Gehrke and Linda Eriksson had an interesting middle-of-the-road idea at The Soccer Desk, suggesting a method seen at the 2013 Women’s European Championship: lay down grass on a layer of sand two weeks in advance of the tournament and let it take root, temporarily, over top of the artificial turf[18]. Freeing six stadiums for two weeks prior to the first World Cup training session or friendly is, alone, a considerable barrier. June is the middle of the Canadian soccer calendar and two weeks at six stadiums, on top of the existing FIFA requirements, is actually a long time: Toronto FC’s last game at BMO Field was only eleven days before the U-20 Women’s World Cup’s opened there.

The fatal flaw is that the plan may not even work here. Olympic Stadium and BC Place are indoors so it would be difficult getting the grass to grow at all, while the fields at Ottawa and (especially) Winnipeg feature high-banked stands that cut down on sunlight. The stadium used for the European Championship, Nya Parken, has relatively short single-deck stands with limited roofing and was originally designed for grass[19]. If disaster results you can’t remove a few tonnes of sand and grass from Olympic Stadium the morning of the game. Complaints about novelty and safety can’t be answered by a risky plan never tried at any World Cup and hardly done anywhere at all, with no studies about its effects, improvised at short notice from a single not-entirely-relevant example.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever

An option is to put temporary grass over the artificial turf surfaces. I say “an option”; in fact it would make every complaint worse. The quality of these surfaces is laughable; what else would you expect from what are essentially sod sheets on a mat rubbing over the top of a plastic pitch? We’ve seen these systems used in MLS friendlies, in the 2011 Gold Cup, in the occasional national team game, and the results are almost invariably ridiculous, especially if there’s the slightest drizzle. More World Cup matches at all levels have been played on artificial turf than temporary grass[20] and no professional club in Canada would dream of making such a pitch their long-term home; the discrimination factor only intensifies. To the right is a photo I took at the Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium in Tucson, Arizona, where grass was laid over an artificial-turf baseball diamond for a Canada – Denmark friendly in January 2013. It speaks for itself.

On the other hand, temporary grass would reduce Canada’s home-field advantage. The Canadian senior women have played recent matches on the Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Edmonton artificial pitches, with additional games at Edmonton and Vancouver already scheduled. There’s still time for them to play at Ottawa, Moncton, and Montreal before 2015, and I think we can bet on at least two of those cities getting friendlies. The Canadians will know those surfaces better than anybody else in the world, unless strips of sod are laid over top of them to satisfy the whims of Canada’s highest-profile opponents. It’s noteworthy no Canadian players are named or mentioned in the letter even though the stakes are just as high for them and their voice would be worth ten times as much to the CSA as Abby Wambach’s.

Or perhaps these players want the World Cup to be relocated at the last minute. The list of countries which could feasibly host a World Cup on grass at less than a year’s notice is a short one: the United States.

None of this is to dispute that top-quality grass is, in wholly non-scientific, subjective ways, “nicer” than artificial turf. When you run on it, it feels like something your body has spent millions of years evolving for. To a spectator a good grass pitch screams “soccer” in a way plastic never can, although if you can instinctively catch the whiff of the dirt and the feel of the blades from twenty-five rows up a 60,000-seat stadium you have sharper senses than I. But the same aesthetic arguments say we should play only in intimate little stadiums on the oceanside or in the mountains, with high-priced fat cats banned in favour of supporters who’ll shout themselves stupid for ninety minutes, and that any team ranked below, say, eighth in the world should be excluded by fiat. None of these things happen because we recognize that major soccer events aren’t about making a small number of obsessives perfectly happy, but about bringing the best competition available to the largest numbers possible and, yes, making money. Artificial turf is part of that.

To put it in the words of a top female player I can’t do better than to quote England star Casey Stoney, in a recent article for the BBC[21]:

From my point of view, it is not ideal, you want to play on grass where possible. But I’ve spoken to some of the England squad, who played on the same pitches at the Under-20 World Cup in Canada recently, and they told me it did not cause them any problems.

They said the pitches were good and the ball moved quite quickly, which can sometimes be an issue with artificial turf. The reality nowadays is that we train on pitches of this kind day in, day out and we are used to matches too as Everton and Liverpool both play their Women’s Super League games on an artificial pitch at Widnes.

I also doubt that Fifa is going to change its mind now, so we will just have to prepare in the right way by training on that surface beforehand. From what I’ve seen, the stadiums in Canada are fantastic and I’m sure it will be a great spectacle for women’s football.

If I’m totally honest, though, my biggest concern right now is to make sure I am there.

(notes and comments…)

Goodbye Canada (It’s Been Nice)

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

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Didn’t All Cheer for Canada

By Benjamin Massey · August 9th, 2014 · 15 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada – Ghana Mid-Misery Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do we do this to ourselves?

U-20 Women’s World Cup Predictions

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

Douglas Portz/Canadian Soccer Association

Douglas Portz/Canadian Soccer Association

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


Finland 0-2 North Korea
Canada 2-1 Ghana

Friday, August 8, 2014


North Korea 3-1 Ghana
Canada 1-1 Finland

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Canada 1-2 North Korea
Ghana 1-1 Finland

A Strange Interlude

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

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

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

How About the Rest of the Groups?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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