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 · 6 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.

What’s Canada Got for the U-20 Women’s World Cup

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

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Inevitably, we look at the 2014 Women’s U-20 World Cup through the glasses of 2002.

The 2002 FIFA Women’s U-19 World Championship (as it was then) was the inaugural edition of a tournament nobody was much interested in, hosted in western Canada, a footnote in the sad annals of Canadian soccer, until we realized that a team full of personable, talented young women was kicking the bejeezus out of the world. 3-2 over Denmark, bit sketchy maybe, but then 4-0 over Japan, Lang and Sinclair each with a brace, the game that defined “announcing your presence with authority”. 2-0 over the 23-year-olds of Nigeria, a perfect record in the group stage, off to the quarter-finals for England, the old country, a country everyone knows is better at soccer, and 6-2 later the newspapers think we might have something here[1].

In Edmonton, the organizers had made the savvy decision to hand out a complimentary tournament pass to registered youth soccer players in the area, meaning that as Canada ran the table the stands at Commonwealth Stadium got fuller and fuller, a penalty victory over Brazil that’s still the best game I’ve ever seen in person providing the finishing touch. The legendary final on September 1, 2012 saw 47,784 Edmontonians get behind the Canadian U-19 women, who lost a 1-0 golden goal heartbreaker to Lindsay Tarpley, Heather O’Reilly, and the United States*.

That little tournament wrote the modern story of Canadian soccer. On the women’s side, many of those players have made an immortal impact on the world’s game and were integral to our greatest triumph: the bronze medal in London. And on the men’s side the success of 2002 led to Canada bidding for, and hosting, a men’s U-20 World Cup (successful off the field, if not on), which led to a national soccer stadium in Toronto and the birth of Toronto FC, which led to the ascent of Vancouver and Montreal into MLS and didn’t hurt the arrival of NASL teams in Edmonton and Ottawa. 2002 was Genesis, or more precisely The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway; even those who ignored it were influenced by it. And now 2014 is being looked at as its successor. Good luck.

For one thing, 2002 was a stand-alone tournament in a country that had never known its like. 2014 is an apertif for the full Women’s World Cup in 2015; even had we not been bloated by the U-20 World Cup, the 2012 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifiers, more Gold Cup games being played close to home in Seattle and Columbus, this tournament would still be doomed to be an afterthought.

For another thing, the 2002 Canadian team won, and in style. That was an essential part of its appeal. Sure, the players were stunningly likable but had the team not run all the way to the final nobody would have bothered talking to them to find out. The 2014 team has some fine players, but have they got that sort of generational depth?

Everywhere, everyone asks “where is the new Christine Sinclair?” Well, Christine Sinclair is one of the five best women’s players of all time; you don’t pluck a replacement for her off the apple tree. But where is the new Kara Lang? She was the second-best player on that 2002 U-19 team at fifteen years old (there will never be enough exclamation marks for that)! Where is the new Brittany Timko? Our Candace Chapman and Clare Rustad? Our Erin McLeod? There was a lot of talent on that team, from back to front: that’s why they won.

Last week I considered Canada’s opponents in the group stage and had to set my jaw a bit: we knew the North Koreans would be stars, but close examination makes Finland and even Ghana look more dangerous than we probably hoped. Canadian fans who only follow women’s soccer in passing may expect a larger margin of superiority than we, in fact, have. There’s a risk of earth-shattering disappointments.

But do not despair. This team has some serious soccer players with the potential to dazzle, to delight, to lift Canada to only the third quarter-final appearance in their U-20 Women’s World Cup history.

Take Jessie Fleming, pictured in the top left. I think she might be a genius. A central midfielder who, at sixteen years old, came on as a substitute against Germany and was able to get involved. Looking fit against the best technical women’s team in the world when they were trying to defend a one-goal lead? I call that a compliment. In the 2013 CONCACAF Women’s U-17 championship she was both took the Golden Boot[2], scored one of the goals of the tournament[3], and while not so remarkable at the 2014 U-17 Women’s World Cup she remained the midfield maestro, the Carli Lloyd/Camille Abily we’ve always cried for. Our eventual quarterfinal loss to Venezuela wasn’t her fault. What a tournament this could be for her. She’ll have to play up and handle bigger, stronger, older (potentially much older in North Korea’s case) women with nothing but her developing smarts and quick feet; it’ll be enough of a challenge to be interesting, but with the potential for thrills. She’s not as well-known to the common fan: unlike some of the other young players Fleming has not had her decisive coming-out on the senior national team. It will happen, though. Duane Rollins called her “wunderkindin a headline back in December[4]. I can’t blame him.

Those who saw Canada play the United States in Winnipeg will remember Kadeisha Buchanan, women’s U-20 player of the year[5] and already an important part of the senior women’s national team. Buchanan has the fitness of a thoroughbred on steroids, tackles like mad, isn’t averse to a charging offensive run, plays with blood and guts and brings a dimension to the Canadian defense we’ve never seen before. I’ve raved about her at length[6], and centre backs don’t usually get raved about. There’s a lot of work to realize her potential but if there is any justice this will be her coming out party, a nationally televised announcement that “guess what, Canada? We have another world-class player. Get ready to see her in bank ads.” Her senior centre back partner, Rebecca Quinn, will also be at this tournament, and if she seems like the Watson to Buchanan’s Holmes, remember that Watson was a bit of a badass himself.

We all should get to know Sura Yekka, the scintillating left back, maybe our best player (and certainly the most audacious) at the U-17 Women’s World Cup, a capable defender who uses space and keeps ball-side better than usual for a young Canadian, but also loves to beat guys and cause trouble. Yekka is just 17 years old, also young for this level, and her inexperience catches up with her from time to time, but I remember her doing a pretty good job dealing with Heather O’Reilly and I find I don’t mind her chances against 24-year-old North Korean wingers. Yekka is reigning Canadian U-17 Women’s Player of the Year, a fine honour when Fleming’s also on the ballot[7]. At that age it’s impossible to guarantee a prospect’s future; the most lauded players at 16 have been selling sandwiches by the time they’re 22. But Yekka’s done everything right and handled senior friendlies with skill; the next step is to establish herself as a standout in this tournament, with some of the world’s best at her age playing for money against her and all the pressure on.

That’s two good defenders, but they won’t win the games by themselves, and a fine young midfielder, but one who needs a supporting cast. Who will score the goals? Nichelle Prince is a thumping forward for Ohio State who’s scored for Canada at levels all the way up our pyramid, including one for the senior women at last year’s Yongchuan invitational[8]. She isn’t tall but she’s solid, the most “old-school” bull-in-a-china-shop-style Canadian player on this team, and has trundled in goals for OSU against older, larger women: good practice for this year. She’s no Sinclair, I’m not saying that, but if the ball is moving out of the back and through midfield you don’t need Sinclair, you need a poacher with a nose for goal. (A big “if”, I realize.)

We will feel the absence of Summer Clarke, probably Canada’s best forward at this age group but in self-imposed exile from the national program. Thinking of this team with Clarke starting makes me scream to the heavens, because then we’d really have some balance, but there’s nothing Andrew Olivieri or John Herdman should be expected to do about it and Prince should be good for a couple goals this tournament.

I haven’t even gotten into players like Emma Fletcher, who I have seldom seen but is widely admired and was compared to Luka Modric by her college webpage[9]; she’s probably the top British Columbia player at the tournament and will be making her first appearance at an international tournament for Canada. After time in the Canadian U-15 setup Fletcher represented her father’s New Zealand at the 2012 U-17 Women’s World Cup, but a storming couple years have got her back on the Canadian radar and expectations are now high.

This talent means that I currently have Canada advancing out of its group, but it also makes our recent struggles stand out in Copperplate Gothic. Canada has fallen over in its preparatory friendlies. A two-game series in Mexico ended with a 0-0 draw and a 3-0 Mexican victory[10], and while the Mexican program has improved astonishingly we still shouldn’t be seeing scores like that on tournament eve. In May, Canada drew and lost two games in Burnaby against South Korea[11]; they have a talented team this cycle and are U-19 Asian champions, but are the sort we’ll have to beat if we want honours this year.

The Mexican experience was partially blamed on travel and tough conditions, and I wonder if our raw team might feel the same pressure in the World Cup. There are just a long of young-ish players. I like Yekka and Fleming, but they’re kids, if we win they have to celebrate with orange soda, and we’re counting on them to largely run the show. Nor are they the only U-18s: defender Jordane Carvery is 17 (18 in September), Vanessa Gregoire is a recent 18, Sarah Kinzner is much-respected but is another 17-year-old. Many of these players are known talents and it’s an old saying that “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.” But this is a quick-moving tournament with short turnarounds, more travel than usual, pitches varying wildly in quality from muni training grounds in Vaughan to BMO Field, and a group where our opponents might frankly be cheating: physical immaturity may out.

Also inexperienced is our coach, Andrew Olivieri. The former journeyman pro goalkeeper was named women’s U-20 boss in 2012 despite having little bootroom experience. His coaching at the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup obviously wasn’t why we failed to get out of the group, but I had questions: he seemed to lack aggression and even in must-score situations was leery of players who’d shown glimpses of quality like Jaclyn Sawicki and Jenna Richardson[12]. Now he has another two years under his belt. Coaches, like players, need time to develop: hopefully that time’s been on our side. Certainly, the development of promising young players looks very good on Olivieri. But I remember, in 2005, another player-turned-coach named Dale Mitchell leading the Canadian men’s U-20s to a disappointing World Cup, featuring only a single draw against Syria[13]. The Canadian Soccer Association kept faith in Mitchell, who took Canada into the 2007 tournament on home soil and did even worse, scoring no goals, no points, nothing but embarrassment[14]. I don’t care to imagine a distaff repeat.

I present concerns because I have to, but this is Canada’s most promising youth team since 2002. We have to remember that when Canada was kicking butt and rolling through the world early in the century, the women’s game was substantially undeveloped everywhere except Canada, the United States, and western Europe. If you had some gritty, powerful athletes with modest technical abilities, you would win, especially at the youth level. That rule does not apply anymore. You can see it with our senior national team, caught in a long transition between athletes and technicians (if it seems Diana Matheson has gotten more valuable every year it’s because the style has been changing to suit a 5-foot-nothing mid with smart feet).

Today’s Canada has its athletes, but most do more than push and run. Buchanan is as strong and tough as anybody but what makes her Kadeisha Buchanan is her skill at defending. Fleming, Fletcher, and Yekka would be unrecognizable on the Canadian youth teams of 2004 or 2006. Probably Canada will get out of the group but maybe we won’t, and come what may our approach is heading in the right direction. I’m looking forward to Tuesday with hope in my heart, even if we’re unlikely to see another 2002 miracle.

Later this week, I’ll have my group stage predictions and a couple other notes.

(notes and comments…)

Considering Canada’s U-20 Women’s World Cup Opponents

By Benjamin Massey · July 30th, 2014 · No comments

Of course I don't have a photo of the North Korean women's U-20s so here's the trophy. (Canadian Soccer Association)

Of course I don’t have a photo of the North Korean women’s U-20s so here’s the trophy. (Canadian Soccer Association)

Next week, the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup kicks off in Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, and Moncton. The first match comes on August 5 at 5 PM Eastern, when Finland and North Korea cross swords at Toronto’s BMO Field. Canada kicks off three hours later against the Black Princesses of Ghana.

The hosts are drawn against Ghana, North Korea, and Finland, a worryingly deep group but one that lacks a superpower. That’s by design: teams are seeded by their rankings except for the hosts, who are automatically “A1″: therefore, the place in Canada’s group that would otherwise have belonged to a world-class side instead goes to Canada. Thanks, FIFA! But not too much, as the absence of a Germany or a France just means Canada could finish from first to fourth without turning too many heads.

The three teams who Canada will face in the group stage from August 5 to August 12 are mostly enigmas to the soccer public, so here is a look at this surprisingly dangerous troika. In the coming days I will also give my opinion on Canada’s own roster, as well as a quick glance around the rest of the tournament, and as I will be attending all the group stage matches I hope to have something there as well.

Conveniently for us armchair pundits Canada’s group include two teams nobody can ever be an expert on, allowing us to make vague prognostications without risking any specifics that might make it look like we don’t know what we’re talking about.

Take one of the favourites, North Korea. This country, you may have heard in the news, is somewhat secretive. Information they release is not always reliable. The high level of patriotism in what I’m sure is a totally fair and free press leads to articles about former Dear Leaders shooting 34 on their first-ever rounds of golf[1], when more sober analysis suggests such a result is unlikely. I’m sure the journalists laughed about it over their rice gruel the next morning. “Do you believe we printed that?! Oh, well, can’t run a retraction, the power’s gone out again!”

North Korea

Even confronted by outside witnesses and television cameras, North Korea’s women’s youth teams are very good. In the last U-20 Women’s World Cup, Japan 2012, the Norks slapped fifteen kinds of hell out of Group C. They ran the table, 3-0-0, including a 2-1 win over Canada that was North Korea’s game from the captains’ handshake. A 9-0 win over sadsacks Argentina set a tournament record, but in the first knockout round they had the bad luck to run into the United States, who had barely escaped in second from a nasty group. Even the eventually-tournament-winning Americans needed extra time to bounce North Korea 2-1[2], probably the stiffest test they got in the whole knockout stage. This spring at the U-17 Women’s World Cup the North Koreans drew Canada and we were somewhat flattered by the point, though North Korea had an iffy tournament. We have seen a lot of North Korea and have not prospered by the acquaintance.

In U-20 Asian qualifying last year North Korea finished second out of six teams and qualified easily. A loss to South Korea and a draw with the strong (but disappointing) Japanese would have saddened the eternal shades of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, but the glorious Juche ideal was pushed forward by a win over hosts and champions China and a 6-2 bollocking of the decent Australians, the tournament’s largest victory over anyone who wasn’t Myanmar. Ri Un-Sim scored three goals; Canadian fans will recognize her from the 2012 U-17 Women’s World Cup where her brace sent Canada down in flames in the quarter-finals. (I am really sick of North Korea.)

The 2012 team is a big influence: fourteen of twenty-one players on this year’s roster were with those U-17s who went all the way to the final before losing to France on penalties[3]. These players include Silver Ball winner Ri Hyang-Sim and forwards Ri Kyong-Hyang and Kim So-Hyang (who scored a memorable brace against Germany)[4]; I guess they haven’t been purged but, frankly, if you replaced all the players with someone completely different nobody would be able to tell. It’s North Korea; these women are a mystery to the world.

Why does North Korea do so well? With 95% of participating nations being mediocre or worse, and funding generally low, you can make an impact in women’s soccer by investing only a few thousand starving peasants. Also, the Norks play dirty; their senior women are disqualified from the 2015 Women’s World Cup for industrial-strength doping[5]. Though not yet proven in soccer, that classic trick of the trade among shadier countries in youth competition, passport fraud, is familiar to Pyongyang: they got their gymnastics program banned for a hilariously transparent case[6]. Bear in mind, their senior women have never risen to the heights implied by their rampant youth, with only one trip out of the group stage in either the World Cup or the Olympics.

Cheating or no, whoever isn’t afraid of the North Koreans isn’t paying attention. Though Canada outranks North Korea at the senior level, 7th versus 11th[7], and has won the only game ever played between the two senior sides[8], our young ladies are winless in three tries against the Nork youth[9]. It’s impossible to get meaningful information on the team beyond past results, but past results are in North Korea’s favour so, by hook or by crook, we have to assume they’ll be formidable.

North Korea is my provisional pick to win the group. The Juche spirit marches on!

Finland

In women’s soccer Finland is, and there’s no other way to put it, kinda crappy. Their best-remembered player is sturdy forward Laura Österberg Kalmari, who went out with WPS because she couldn’t make a living at the game. If you know any of their current senior players it’s probably Sanna Talonen, not merely their leading active scorer but a 2008 Vancouver Whitecap[10]. They’ve never qualified for a World Cup, never made an Olympic Games, probably would have done both on any other continent but, alas, are stuck being another sorta mediocre European team, interesting only for the obsessives. Canada actually has a surprisingly mixed record against the Finns but has won both of the last two times out, took our only ever youth meeting (at the 2006 Women’s U-20 World Cup)[11], and is basically better.

So what, you might be asking, in Christine Sinclair’s holy name are they doing here? UEFA qualifiers were back in August 2013 and the unseeded Finns had to start from square one: they topped Group 7 with a perfect record in the first round, including a 2-1 win over Spain. In the second round they were again perfect, though a group of Iceland, Portugal, and Northern Ireland was not quite the World Cup. In the third round things got serious but the Finns were up to it, getting a vital 1-0 win over Nordic rivals Norway and drawing Germany and a collapsing Sweden to earn an implausible trip to the Women’s U-20 World Cup. In the knockout stage, to determine the continental championship, England crushed the Finns 4-0[12], but by then plane tickets for Canada had already been handed out.

I know, right? Sweden was burning up like a Buddhist monk but four points of six against Norway and Germany is good work. Finland conceded four goals from the nine group stage matches, a tidy sum bested only by Germany and France. The Finnish attack, while in no danger of setting any records, is well-balanced. Juliette Kemppi, Adelina Engman, Nora Heroum, and Natalia Kuikka all had more than two goals through qualifying, with Engman leading the way on seven (two from the spot) and Kemppi leading in open play with six. Engman, Kemppi, Heroum, as well as Riikka Ketoja and Emma Koivisto, are already senior internationals[13]. Heroum has a remarkable twenty-six senior caps (more than, to pick a name, Kadeisha Buchanan) and Engman four goals. In fact, in their most recent senior international (a World Cup qualifier against Austria) Finland’s eighteen featured five players from this squad: Koivisto, Ketoja, Heroum, and Engman started while Kemppi was an unused substitute[14]. Famously youthful Canada played five U-20s in their most recently senior international against Germany, but that was a lowly friendly. In short, Finland’s young guns are getting as much of a work out against grown women as anybody in the world, and some are already making their names.

Once before, Finland made a U-20 Women’s World Cup: they snuck into Russia 2006 and spent three games getting creamed: they lost every match, their one goal for was an own goal, and they conceded 12, including the indescribable humiliation of losing 8-0 to Nigeria in a city that’s a two-hour flight from Helsinki; the only reason Switzerland took the Wooden Spoon was Switzerland’s much tougher group[15]. It probably goes without saying that debacle did not herald a golden generation for the Finns, though a few players, most notably captain Maija Saari, are still hanging around.

This year’s side looks far more imposing. They’re a more experienced lot, they’ve shown more quality against decent countries, and only the England result suggests that they’re still the same old sloppy side. They shouldn’t be competing for medals, but Finland looks sneaky. I don’t trust them. If we charge into their forests confident of a quick victory their Molotov cocktails are going to rain down on us like a hurricane of fire. The back of the envelope suggests that they’ll be in the three-way dance for second in the group, but Canada probably has the advantage thanks to home advantage and a strong team defense… probably. It could easily go the other way and we should desperately hope it doesn’t. Canada versus Finland on August 8 might be the climactic game of Group A.

Ghana

African sides at this level are enigmas, unseen teams with unknown players bobbing onto the world stage every couple years, without even an obsessive insider to feed us the scoops. These teams receive little exposure at home and seldom play abroad, so bar flying across the ocean and walking to the park, World Cups are the only chances we get to see them. And there’s little incentive for the would-be expert to plumb too deep because (let’s be frank here) we expect these teams to be terrible. Only once has an African team made a serious impact at the senior level: in the 1999 Women’s World Cup, Nigeria shockingly got out of their group took Brazil to the brink in the first knockout stage, coming back from 3-0 down but losing 4-3 in extra time with only ten women on the field in what’s still remembered as a classic game[16]. They are the only African side ever to advance out of the group stage in a Women’s World Cup; they also advanced from the group stage at the 2004 Summer Olympics but just about everyone did. Nigeria did have a good show in the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup, but Ghana got thumped in a strong Group D.

Along with Nigeria and (lately) Equatorial Guinea, Ghana is one of the only three African nations worth considering. You will understand this is strictly relative. Ghanaian head coach Bashir Hayford got into the papers saying he “wanted to win the Cup.”[17] Well, good luck to you, sir: me, if I were you I should be pleased to win a game.

Normally it’s helpful to consider these smaller countries by how they did in qualifying. In Ghana’s case this is a waste of time. The 2013-14 African U-20 Cup of Nations for Women (catchy!) consisted of home-and-away ties until only two teams were left. Those two went to Canada 2014 straight away without the indignity of a final. So Ghana got a first round draw against Guinea-Bissau, who withdrew[18]. In the next round, Ghana faced Uganda, who had previously whooped South Sudan 22-0 then seen Egypt withdraw. Uganda withdrew[19]. As a result Ghana found themselves in the final qualifying tie against Equatorial Guinea without having so much as played a game: the Black Princesses won on penalties after a 1-1 aggregate draw and that’s all it took[20].

Ghana has been in the Toronto area for more than a week now, playing friendlies against local U-20 and U-21 women’s teams. They’ve compiled an undefeated record, with wins over G-S United and Burlington Bayhawks and a draw with North Mississauga Panthers[21]. Ghana played four friendlies against Nigeria in June with a record of 1W-1D-2L[22]; that suggests that they’re about level with their African rivals and therefore should be group makeweights. Their roster contains a few famous names, in that they have players named “Appiah” and “Boateng”[23], but none of these U-20s appeared at the most recent full pre-U-20-World-Cup senior national team camp in April[24].

So you see the problem in assessing Ghana. Their qualifying run was, with the best will in the world, a complete joke. They’ve gotten good results against local rep teams and were a half-step behind their biggest African rival. Their players are all-but-anonymous and haven’t made a mark on the hardly-world-class senior squad. What the hell do you want me to say about them?

Yet it’s as true in soccer as in ancient Rome that ex Africa semper aliquid novi. What if Ghana and Nigeria have improved relative to the world? How would we know? At this spring’s U-17 Women’s World Cup Ghana made some noise, winning the group against extremely tough opposition in Germany, North Korea, and Canada. It took penalties for Italy to prevail in the knockout stage; earlier that afternoon Canada had lost to bloody Venezuela. Nigeria ran the table in their much weaker group then got throttled by Spain in the first knockout round. That’s two stirring performances from traditional makeweights, though no Ghana U-17s were named to the U-20 roster[25]. Were the African U-17s a pair of flukes or the sign of much-improved youth setups?

The thing is, it wasn’t Ghana’s first good U-17 run. In the 2012 U-17 World Cup Ghana finished second in a tricky group, then scored one of the tournament upsets by beating Japan 1-0 in the quarterfinal. Having claimed that enormous scalp, they lost 2-0 to eventual champions France but bagged the tournament upset by knocking off Germany 1-0 in the third-place game, putting paid to the most technically proficient country in women’s soccer. It was serious balling and though only eight of the 2012 U-17s return to the 2014 U-20s[26], with team scoring leader Jane Ayieyam one of those absent, they still boast a largely returning midfield including Priscilla Okyere, who scored three goals in Azerbaijan 2012 and was named Sports Writers Association of Ghana female soccer player of the year[27]. A worrying sign for Canada, who will need to show attacking pluck against a side that knows how to win upsets and doesn’t concede many goals.

And, like North Korea, Ghana hasn’t got a reputation for playing fair. Ivory Coast pundit Mamadou Gaye, when asked who’d win the 2011 men’s U-17 World Cup, famously answered that any of the African teams could do it “because at that level we like cheating on our age.”[28] The president of Ghana’s football association admitted in June that they had engaged in age cheating, but specifically said the women’s program was clean[29]. On the women’s side there is much less money to be made, keeping out the for-profit academies often linked to fraud, but when combined with Ghana (and Nigeria)’s disproportionately good youth teams compared to their adults it’s a big question mark.

I still have Ghana favourites for the bottom of Group A on the grounds of lesser competition, high squad turnover, and Canada’s home field advantage… but anyone who gives you a certain answer is a liar or a fool. It is certainly possible for these young ladies to spring an upset on the hosts, as better teams than us have found out against some of these players.

(notes and comments…)