The Greatest Canadian Game Ever

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

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My 2015 Canadian Soccer Awards Ballot, Eventually

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

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

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

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

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

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

Women’s Player of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Men’s Player of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Awards I Can’t Vote for

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

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

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

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

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

(notes and comments…)

Christine Sinclair: The Greatest Female Forward of Them All

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

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking Things Ottawa Fury-Style

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

Kim Stallknecht/Canadian Soccer Association

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

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

I am sure this title will never become dated.

Canadian Soccer Studies

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

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(notes and comments…)

Confidence Ain’t So Easy

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

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Magic Realism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief Word on the TFC Travel Restrictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoilett Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(notes and comments…)

Independent vs. Reserve Team Attendances Part II: USL 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

(notes and comments…)