Those Matt Van Oekel Statistics, in Full

By Benjamin Massey · December 18th, 2014 · No comments

Today, FC Edmonton announced the signing of veteran second division goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel[1]. Virginia native Van Oekel had spent his entire seven-season professional career with various incarnations of Minnesota soccer clubs, starting with the Thunder in 2008, and has been the starter for the Minnesota Stars/United since 2012.

Though seldom classed among the NASL’s best Van Oekel’s had some good seasons behind stalwart defenses. He’s also one of the league’s most stylish players, his various haircuts being a bit of a running gag in NASL circles, and will fill the niche left by the departing Lance “Blue Steel” Parker. Probably more importantly, Van Oekel also brings experience to what is a pretty young goalkeeping corps: John Smits is the most experienced of the bunch with his three professional seasons.

We haven’t done one of these in ages! Here is Matt Van Oekel’s career to date. As always, regular season only, NCAA statistics are unreliable, NASL statistics are dodgy especially in 2013, and though he was the starter I haven’t got his 2007 Rutgers numbers at all[2]:

GP Strt MIN G A PKG Sh Sv GA Sv% GA/90 Yl Rd
2004 Longwood NCAA 17 17 1522 0 0 0 148 107 41 0.723 2.42 2 0
2005 Rutgers NCAA 10 9 829 0 0 0 64 52 12 0.714 1.09 0 0
2006 Rutgers NCAA 14 14 1279 0 0 0 64 52 12 0.813 0.84 0 0
2007 Rutgers NCAA statistics not available
2008 Minnesota USL-1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 nan nan 0 0
2009 Minnesota USL-1 1 1 90 0 0 0 5 4 1 0.800 1.00 0 0
2010 Minnesota USSF D2 6 5 474 0 0 0 29 19 10 0.655 1.90 1 0
2011 Minnesota NASL 1 1 90 0 0 0 2 2.00 0 0
2012 Minnesota NASL 25 25 2250 0 0 0 107 77 30 0.720 1.20 0 0
2013 Minnesota NASL 18 18 1620 0 1 0 27 1.50 1 0
2014 Minnesota NASL 20 19 1720 0 0 0 81 62 19 0.765 0.99 0 0

Van Oekel’s college career began in 2004 at Longwood University. Those bold Lancers were taking their first step into NCAA Division I and were massacred like Russians at Sevastapol. But you mustn’t blame Van Oekel: the freshman started all seventeen games, got a tonne of work, and posted surprisingly reasonable numbers for a guy who conceded 41 times.

Sensibly, rather than get shell-shock as the college soccer equivalent to Ben Scrivens, Van Oekel promptly bailed to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, a cavalry motif apparently suiting Van Oekel just fine. As a sophomore he fought Lubos Ancin for playing time and saw action October 8 at Louisville, a team that included his new Eddies teammate Frank Jonke. Jonke scored twice on Ancin so Van Oekel rolled out of the bullpen for his first action in seven matches; Jonke almost immediately beat Van Oekel to get his hat trick. But the Jonke show against Ancin established Van Oekel as Rutgers’s starter for the rest of the year. Truly, this was a partnership meant to happen.

Though it’s hard to tell because of Rutgers’s inability to post statistics for his senior year, and a pre-season ACL injury hurt[3], Van Oekel ended his college career in 2007 with a good record but few accolades. He was left off the MLS Combine lists and ignored in that year’s SuperDraft despite a weak year for goalkeepers. (It’s not like his program was overlooked: his teammate in 2005 and 2006 was Nick LaBrocca, while 2007 featured a young Dilly Duka.)

Patience is a virtue, even for Lancers and Scarlet Knights, and soon Van Oekel got his chance. Prior to the 2008 season Van Oekel went on trial with the USL First Division Minnesota Thunder and impressed enough to win a contract[4]. The Thunder had a decent veteran team but were weak in goal: Joe Warren had just retired and Nic Platter would see his first season as a pro starter. A great opportunity for Van Oekel, though Platter played every minute in 2008. Still, Van Oekel’s option was picked up for 2009, and on September 13 he made his professional debut at Stade Saputo, stopping four shots to help Minnesota earn a 1-1 draw with the Impact.

The 2010 season was a big one for American second division soccer and it was big for Matt Van Oekel. The United Soccer Leagues and North American Soccer League were having their acrimonious divorce, playing one last campaign together as the United States Soccer Federation Division 2 Pro League. The Minnesota Thunder were no more: the team dissolved, but their hosts at the National Sports Center created a new club known as the NSC Minnesota Stars stocked with former Thunder players. Van Oekel was not signed but stuck around on amateur terms, and while Platter showed interest in the new team[5] he soon went to Martin Rennie’s Carolina Railhawks. The Stars replaced Platter with two veterans: ex-DC United man and Liberian international Louis Crayton[6], already a seemingly washed-up wanderer at age 32, and, seemingly crazily, 35-year-old ex-Thunder goalkeeper Joe Warren, who had actually been retired for the past four years.

Crayton ended his professional soccer career 45 minutes into the Stars’ first game on a bonehead play at Swangard Stadium when he tried to fake out Dever Orgill for no obvious reason, collided with the young Jamaican forward, and blew out his ACL[7]. Warren came on in relief and began one of the more improbably successful second acts in American soccer history. With Crayton gone, Van Oekel was officially added to the roster, saw a few games, and did well enough to earn a contract for the inaugural 2011 NASL season as the badly under-financed Stars mounted a surprisingly decent run. For 2011 Warren remained the starter and Van Oekel played only one match, in (quite pleasingly) Edmonton on May 23, where the Stars lost 2-1 to a Kyle Porter brace. It was hard to blame coach Manny Lagos for sticking with Warren: after a dodgy regular season the Stars surprised everyone by taking the first NASL championship thanks in no small part to Warren’s heroics. The veteran goalkeeper retired for (presumably) the final time after 2011, though, and Van Oekel’s option was picked up.

In 2012 Van Oekel finally ascended to the starting job for his fifth season in Minnesota. With his only competition being rookie Mitch Hildebrandt, Van Oekel was assured the bulk of the minutes, and though Hildebrandt impressed when he played Van Oekel was Manny Lagos’s man. Minnesota, Van Oekel included, was inconsistent but (stop me if this sounds familiar) rode a mediocre regular season to a stirring playoff run that ended only with a defeat on penalties to Tampa Bay in the NASL final. Van Oekel also took part in a memorable US Open Cup giant-slaying when he and the Stars knocked off MLS title contenders Real Salt Lake 3-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Van Oekel’s 2012 season was good enough to earn him an extended trial with MLS’s DC United[8]. It didn’t work out, and while Van Oekel signed a two-year contract with Minnesota the newly-rebranded United also grabbed veteran keeper Daryl Sattler, holder of the NASL Golden Gloves[9]. The good news for Van Oekel was that Sattler was injured midway through the spring season: the bad news was that both Van Oekel and Minnesota played poorly, conceding 14 goals in six games with a pretty lowly 0.611 save percentage. In the fall results improved, though we haven’t got the shooting data to say more: in any case Van Oekel played every minute between Sattler’s injury and the last two games of the year, when United was out of the running and Hildebrandt started.

Van Oekel hadn’t proven he was good enough to start for an elite team, but he hadn’t proven he wasn’t either. At the start of 2014 Mitch Hildebrandt had only played four NASL games and third-stringer Andrew Fontein, recently signed from Tampa Bay, was equally inexperienced. Manny Lagos stuck with Van Oekel through the first seven games , but an injury brought Hildebrandt in for the last two games of the spring. Van Oekel returned to the eighteen in the fall but Hildebrandt continued to play until August 9 when, in a game all Eddies fans will remember, he was sent off and Van Oekel took over. With Hildebrandt suspended Van Oekel played the next week against Indy and remained the starter for the rest of the season, apart from one game in Edmonton.

Now Van Oekel will face the first change of scenery of his professional career. For the second time he’s competing for a spot with the Golden Gloves winner: John Smits took the 2014 award for lowest goals-against average. Then again, goals-against average is not very meaningful as a statistic. Then again again, Van Oekel’s most successful seasons have come behind strong defenses. His 2012 was fairly good but nothing remarkable, his 2014 quite nice (in relatively limited minutes), but 2013 and his backup years showed little to get excited about. Van Oekel’s Minnesota teams have been consistently well-coached and solid under the tutelage of Manny Lagos; Edmonton is also quite a good defensive side but there’ll still be an adjustment there.

Van Oekel has struggled with consistency, which is probably the main reason Minnesota looked for other options while he was there. That said, the younger John Smits is no picture of consistency himself, and some of his mistakes have been high-profile ones. Certainly Van Oekel has the quality to fight for a starting job: equally certainly, neither he nor Smits will want to be the backup. Given FC Edmonton’s long and glorious history of serious goalkeeper injuries, getting veteran cover makes sense for Colin Miller. But the one team we thought would regularly start a Canadian goalkeeper in 2015 is now far from a sure thing.

(notes and comments…)

Canada Should Finish Fourth in 2015

By Benjamin Massey · December 6th, 2014 · 1 comment

I have already been accused of excessive optimism for tweeting this, but to hell with it. My provisional prediction for Canada at the 2015 Women’s World Cup is fourth place.

This is not a reflection of Canada’s superlative skill, particularly. To me the teams this World Cup shake out into tiers roughly as follows:

Clearly better than Canada: Germany, France, Japan, the United States
About equivalent to Canada: England, Brazil, Sweden, Norway, South Korea
A cut below Canada: China, Australia, Mexico, Spain, Nigeria, Ivory Coast
More than one cut below Canada: Cameroon, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Colombia, Ecuador, Switzerland, Thailand, Costa Rica

As discussed, Canada is in Group A with China, New Zealand, and the Netherlands. Obviously anything can happen, but to me Canada finishing A1 is more likely than any other outcome. We are, by a reasonable margin, the most competent and the most accomplished team in Group A, even if Diana Matheson is unavailable.

If we finish A1, Canada gets a round of 16 match against a third-place team from groups C, D, or E. None of these are likely to fall into the “about equivalent” group. The best likely team is Australia, with Sweden perhaps coming our way if the tricky group D goes against them. So in all probability, I make Canada the favourite in our group of 16 match.

If this happens, the quarterfinal would be against the winner of B2 and F2. B2 isn’t going to amount to much: Norway, probably. F2 is likely England. Both these countries are in my “equivalent” basket, with Norway very borderline. But Canada will have two key advantages: first, an extra day’s rest. Second, less travel. The B2-F2 game is in Ottawa; the winner flies to Vancouver. If Canada is A1 they will already be in Vancouver for the round of 16 match and won’t even have to pack their bags. Canada will also have played two of their group stage matches in relatively nearby Edmonton while England or Norway would have spent more time flying across Hell’s half-acre. Thirdly, there’s the obvious home field advantage, especially in Vancouver where we may count on the most pro-Canadian crowds of the tournament. This leads me to saying that, while Canada might split the points with England on a neutral site, in tournament terms a rational judge would make us favourites.

In short, Canada would reach the semi-final without needing a single upset. In the semi-final we would more than likely meet Japan, and that’s when the dream would probably come crashing down. (Probably.) But that’s still top four, right there, going entirely by the book.

The FIFA gods have been kind to us. Finish A1 and we are in a far easier “southern half” of the knockout bracket. Japan, the really dangerous team there, is in a group so easy they’re highly unlikely to slip to second and accidentally saddle us with a killer match early. “Fourth place” sounds like an aggressive prediction, but I don’t think we need any amazing performances to make it happen.

Of course, if we finish A2 we’re screwed. The round of 16 match is an easy one against nobody at all (C2; Switzerland? Maybe Cameroon?), but now we’re in the “top half” of the bracket facing a quarterfinal against, probably, the United States. We’re traveling a lot more, dealing with additional fatigue. Even if, by some miracle, we knock off the United States in the quarter we still get a semi against Germany or France and the show’s over anyhow. So certainly finishing first in the group will determine a great deal. (Depending on the breaks we might be better off finishing third than second: if we get the “southern half” third-place spot then it’s a very difficult round-of-16 against Japan, but win it and it’s relatively smooth sailing with all our games out west.)

Now, the standard disclaimer. It is very early indeed, anything can happen in these short tournaments, you’d be a fool to wager your house on any favourite, etc. etc. ad nauseum. But doesn’t this make sense? As Canadians, we have become used to writing ourselves off in soccer terms. “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong” we say. But when the facts are laid out before us, doesn’t a bit of optimism make sense?

One Man’s Instinctive Reaction to Canada’s World Cup Draw

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

Since Canada was ranked A1 as host country, we were almost guaranteed a survivable group by FIFA fiat. That said, there’s survivable and then there’s winnable. There were a few very strong non-seeded teams who could have made Canada’s margin awfully thin. Get England or Sweden, South Korea, and basically any one of the dodgy African teams, and all of a sudden there are some big questions.

In the event, our draw was neither great nor horrifying.

Pot 2we got: New Zealand

Better than: Nigeria, Ivory Coast

Worse than: Cameroon

Twitter was a little more worried about this draw than I was. Pot 2 was a weird one for Canada. Costa Rica is one of the weakest teams in the tournament, but as a fellow CONCACAF country Canada could never get them. Ditto Mexico, who I think are a little underrated on the world stage. So it was New Zealand or one of the Africans.

The Africans are weird. They’ve historically done very well at the youth levels but have seldom brought it forward to the open ages; I’ll let my readers draw their own conclusions about that. By consensus, Nigeria is the best of the African countries and Ivory Coast not too far behind, with Cameroon being a team that (at the senior level) consistently handles Africans well and travels terribly. In this maelstrom of African uncertainty, New Zealand settles nicely somewhere in the middle.

Jason de Vos put it best. They pose some challenges, but we expect Canada to beat them. They’d get a bit less than draw odds with Norway, a bit more against Italy. New Zealand’s had a full international schedule over the past couple years and we can say with confidence where they belong: below Canada. Not at the bottom of the group, I don’t think, but if we fall to New Zealand than we frankly don’t deserve Kristian Jack.

I’d rather have New Zealand than the stronger African teams. The problem is that the Africans are obscure, hard to scout, hard to estimate, prone to busting out unpleasant surprises. Their games aren’t televised, the media coverage is unreliable, and you know John Herdman didn’t fly out to watch them play. New Zealand you can predict a bit better. Particularly for Herdman, who once coached them.

I can live with this easily.

Pot 3we got: China

Better than: South Korea

Worse than: Australia, Colombia, Ecuador, Thailand

Pot 3 is where we really could have made inroads, containing three of the tournament’s weakest teams. Instead we got the thoroughly decent Chinese. Darn.

China’s a good team: past their salad days but rising again with a young lineup (almost the whole team is younger than 27) and coming off tough games against some world elites. At the 2013 Yongchuan Four Nations, a near-annual tournament hosted by the Chinese, China fell 1-0 to Canada but beat South Korea, then in 2014 China took all nine points against New Zealand, Mexico, and North Korea. They’re on their way back up. I ranked them below South Korea but am by no means sure of that.

Once again, we come down to “Canada should beat them.” Their World Cup will be 2019, not 2015, and any achievements in Canada will be a bonus prior to the tournament they hope to take by storm. Yet they pose by far the most formidable risk to Canada, and out of a pot where we could have drawn some real cupcakes that hurts.

Pot 4we got: Netherlands

Better than: England, Sweden, Norway, Spain

Worse than: Switzerland

But the gods smiled on Canada in Pot 4.

Had we gotten either England or Sweden, we would have had a problem. Sweden is a historically good team and England has been looking more and more dangerous every week. Their presence automatically defines a Group of Death. Norway is solid enough to be frightening, coached by former Canadian boss Even Pellerud. Even Spain, while not belonging with the real competitors, has an upset in them.

Men’s fans will know the Netherlands as a top country, but their women’s program doesn’t amount to much. This is their first World Cup and have only recently been qualifying for Euros. While they’re still a young team, their top players such as Dyanne Bito and Anouk Hoogendijk are getting to the end of their ropes. They have one potentially terrifying youngster, 18-year-old striker Vivanne Miedema, but that single generational talent shouldn’t swing the group.

The Dutch got to Canada through a decent effort in an easy group then knockout wins over Scotland and Italy. Italy is the only country that should even be discussed on the world level and they’re a little worse year on year. The Netherlands’ exorbitant FIFA ranking flatters them; they don’t handle world-class teams well. They’re not bad, don’t get me wrong, but they’re another one of those teams where we can say “if Canada can’t beat them then we don’t deserve to get to the round of 16 anyway.”

So On Balance…

Canada should win this group.

But Stop Being a Homer. Really…

No. Canada should win this group. China is a threat but they’re not totally ready yet. If we give points away to either New Zealand or the Netherlands, we’ve done something very wrong.

No pressure, ladies!

Professional Soccer’s Responsibility to Canada

By Benjamin Massey · December 3rd, 2014 · 1 comment

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Very early indeed this morning, your friend and mine Michael McColl published over at AFTN Canada a post explaining his opinion that MLS has no obligations to Canadian soccer[1]. As someone whose opinion notoriously runs the other way, I have been called out to reply. I will oblige.

I do not mean to address McColl’s preference for club over country; that’s personal. (And he’s Scottish so, y’know, he’s responding to the incentives he’s got.) What I’m discussing is his argument that the Canadian MLS teams have no responsibility, and should have no responsibility, to develop Canadian talent.

These sorts of arguments always come down to two things: GIT DAT MONEY and WIN DOZE GAMEZ. Weird things for supporters to say. We all want our team to win, obviously, but that’s clearly not the most important thing: if it was we’d all cheer for Bayern Münich. We certainly wouldn’t be fans of the MLS Vancouver Whitecaps, a team proud of barely finishing in the top half twice in four years. There’s got to be something beyond numbers on a spreadsheet that keeps us coming to the park week in, week out. This is, in fact, the point.

And then there’s the financial argument. “Did Canada put any money into the MLS teams?!” Well, as it happens, yeah[2]. These self-sacrificing MLS team owners who only want to turn a wee little profit have by no means paid their own way. In terms of dollars and cents the Canadian public has bought a right to demand something from our MLS clubs. But it doesn’t matter.

If professional clubs are meant to be just another company then there’s no reason for them to ever have a single fan. You don’t see people going around wearing Telus shirts saying “yeah, they’ve been my phone company since I was a kid.” Even I don’t do that, and my dad works for Telus. In Vancouver you more commonly get people protesting corporations they feel put profit ahead of community. The entire business model of professional sports requires that we devote ourselves to an idea higher than any corporate interest: as fans we are entitled to demand something in exchange.

Why should we, as fans, give a hoot about franchise fees? We’re not shareholders in the Montreal Impact or the Vancouver Whitecaps. (You might be an investor in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment I guess.) I have no objection to Canadian soccer teams making money; in fact, I hope they do. But I’m not going to ignore everything that should turn a mere franchise into my club so Joey Saputo can have more caviar in his luxury suite.

Of course, nobody wants Canada’s professional teams to go broke. Look at the Whitecaps of the mid-2000s: playing Canadians for 20,000 minutes a season they won league championships[3]. Pretty sure they went utterly bankrupt. Pretty sure that’s what happened. If they routinely sold out Swangard Stadium, had a captain from Vancouver Island, and a bevy of beloved, successful local players, somebody would have mentioned it.

Or the Montreal Impact of that era. Routinely in the top of the table, the “least Canadian team in domestic professional soccer” which would make them the most Canadian team in MLS by miles, a bunch of long-term players and the occasional native son on a star turn like Ali Gerba. I seem to recall that they wound up building a soccer-specific stadium, won a dozen Voyageurs Cups, and got deep in a CONCACAF Champions League while drawing formidable crowds… but that’s probably a pot-induced hallucination. Next you’ll tell me that even the Toronto Lynx, who were an advertisement for how not to run a professional soccer team, are still around in USL PDL. Everyone knows that playing Canadians makes you broke. That’s why, when a long-forgotten MLS franchise named Toronto FC was founded with a high Canadian quota in place and they lost most of their games, the team plunged into obscurity and team owner Mr. MLSE can now be found outside Union Station giving handies for pocket change.

But isn’t it true that the biggest soccer nations in the world don’t do this sort of navel-gazing? Look, as McColl urges us, at the foreigner-replete Spanish La Liga, English Premier League, and Italian Serie A! They don’t demand a proportion of Spanish or English or Italian players and they’re doing great! (This amounts to saying “these countries are in the European Union”; it is difficult legally to rule out European foreigners in these countries. La Liga restricts non-EU players but can’t restrict non-Spaniards.)

These are three of the strongest leagues in the world: not exactly comparable to a podunk salary-capped regional league. Besides, as McColl ought to have known, England is plagued by just this problem, despite domestic representation that would make a Canadian jump for joy: the Football Association’s tightening work permit rules are one attempt at a solution[4]. And what of Germany? The world’s top soccer league requires a high proportion of homegrown players on a team’s roster, and their football association sets strict standards and demands heavy investment in youth academies[5]. The Germans, I shouldn’t need to tell you, have enjoyed some success with this approach.

In Australia, a country comparable to Canada in many ways, the A-League restricts teams to a maximum of five imports, a number that’s actually going down[6]. The result? The A-League has ten teams, nine in Australia proper (population 24 million), international television coverage, and a fast-rising salary cap. Their national team has moved to the tougher Asian region for more of a challenge and A-League-developed players like Mitchell Langerak, Joshua Brillante, and Robbie Kruse have joined some of the world’s top teams. If only we had Australia’s problems. Nor is their approach unusual: leagues in Russia, Japan, South Korea, and other strong countries have adopted increasingly strict pro-domestic rules.

Yeah, the men’s national team only plays a few times a year (and never in Vancouver). Yeah, it’s incompetent. Yeah, over the years the Canadian Soccer Association hasn’t been able to find its ass with a 15-page PDF titled “Roadmap to Canada’s Ass 2025″. That’s not the point. The Canadian national teams don’t represent the CSA, they represent us, the people of Canada. They are eleven men or women who unify us from Victoria to St. John’s. They are the apex of what we can hope to achieve: five MLS Cups in Vancouver wouldn’t add up to the world-wide attention and the domestic hope from a single Canadian World Cup appearance.

Telling us our MLS teams should ignore that so they can make more money is an offense to the entire concept of supporting a club.

(notes and comments…)

Comparing Independent and Reserve Attendances in Lower Divisions

By Benjamin Massey · December 2nd, 2014 · 1 comment

As you know the third division of American soccer, USL Pro, has become an affiliate league to Major League Soccer. While most teams remain independent, starting in 2014 USL Pro began admitting MLS reserve teams, and this system will massively expand for 2015 with several reserve teams in Canada and the United States.

Nobody runs their reserve team to make money, but many Major League Soccer front offices are marketing hard and hunting paying customers. Some, such as the Vancouver Whitecaps reserves, charge higher prices for tickets than the best reserve teams in the world. They’re making progress: how many times have we heard the reserve sides of Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, and Vancouver Whitecaps been called “new professional teams!!!” by the excitable, rather than an expansion of what already existed?

This model isn’t new. Several countries run reserve teams in the same league pyramid as independent clubs: Spain and Germany are the most famous but we see it all over the world, from Norway to Japan. Indeed, even in North America professional youth teams have operated alongside the independent semi-pros and amateurs of USL PDL for several years. So what does this mean for fans? Is a reserve team in a real league worth as much as a real team in the same league?

Inspired by an old Tyler Dellow post on, now removed from the Internet[1], I set out to compare the attendances of independent and reserve clubs in the same league.

Unfortunately, reliable attendance information for many such leagues, toiling in the lower divisions of non-English-speaking countries, is not readily available. Trying to compile data, I wound up with a total of ten seasons covering leagues in Spain, Germany, and the United States since 2012[2].

The distinction between “reserve team” and “non-reserve team” in North America can be slightly arbitrary: I did my best, erring towards considering teams independent. For example, Chivas USA and New York City FC did and will not appear on my lists; nor do USL Pro or USL PDL affiliates which are more like parents/feeders than full farm clubs. In the great scheme of thing potentially controversial cases are heavily outnumbered by clearcut Bayern Munich II/Chicago Fire Premier types.

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%
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 2563 2981 794 2188 275.59%

It’s not even close. At the same level, independent clubs are massively more popular than reserve teams, even considering cheaper (or free) tickets for reserve football, and this sample including the reserve sides for some of the world’s biggest clubs.

Look at Spain. The two reserve teams in the Liga Adelante in 2012-13 and 2013-14 are as huge as you can get: Barcelona B and Real Madrid Castilla. This is first-rate soccer. The current Real Madrid Castilla team includes three full internationals and Barcelona B has four. Both also have a handful of players who we’ll see on the senior Spanish side someday. And the attendance? Barça B had a middling year in 2012-13 but, on average, both these world-class development sides drew crowds that would shame an NASL team. (Most La Liga reserve sides, including Real Madrid Castilla this season, play in the Segunda División B, a level down, where attendance numbers are not reliably available.)

The two reserve teams in the German 3. Liga, Borussia Dortmund II and VfB Stuttgart II, boast big senior sides. But attendance-wise they finish behind almost everybody. In 2012-13 Stuttgart and Dortmund were second-last and last, respectively, in attendance. In 2013-14 Borussia Dortmund II improved to fifth from bottom, but still well behind 14th-place SV Wehen Wiesbaden (who they?!) while VfB Stuttgart II brought up the rear.

The largest group of reserve teams for which I had attendance data was in the German Regionalliga, made up of five regions and over 90 teams. In 2012-13 only three reserve teams (FC Bayern München II, 1. FC Köln II, and TSV 1860 München II) finished above the median in Regionalliga attendance. 15 of the 25 worst-supported Regionalliga teams, and all of the last seven, were reserve teams. Not bad when only 27 reserve teams played in the division.

It’s the same story in 2013-14. Three Regionalliga reserve teams (TSV 1860 München II, FC Bayern München II, and Hertha BSC II) again finished above the median attendance. 14 of the 25 worst-supported teams, and again all of the last seven, were reserve teams. Some of these sides drew truly atrocious crowds. 2012-13 SC Freiburg II got 164 fans a night, which would have embarrassed USL PDL.

Over in the United States, one reserve team operated in USL Pro last year: the Los Angeles Galaxy II. They did not draw flies, despite offering season tickets free with the MLS package and independent seats starting at US$72[3].

North American fans will be inspired, however, by USL PDL. In 2012 and 2013 the PDL affiliate teams actually drew better than the independent ones, and in 2014 they were darn close. This bucks the trend in Spain and Germany, and might mean that North America’s different culture and greater familiarity with minor-league teams will bring more success.

But I will respond with three words: the Portland Timbers. When it comes to reserve team popularity Portland is an exception; Portland is always an exception.

In 2012, the Portland Timbers U-23s were the third-best supported team in USL PDL. In 2013 they were third again, and in 2014 they were actually second. Portland’s U-23s regularly beat USL Pro teams in the attendance race. This is a credit to Portland fans, but it also weighs unusually heavily in our table; it takes only a few well-attended games to drag up the average number when such a small proportion of the league is reserve teams.

To demonstrate Portland’s distorting effect, let’s remove the Portland Timbers U-23s and the best-supported independent team all three years, the Des Moines Menace, from the USL PDL list and see what happens.

USL PDL Attendances 2012-14 (without Des Moines and Portland)
Season League Level Avg. Attend/G Reserve Teams Non-Res Attend/G Reserve Attend/G Diff # Diff %
2012 USL PDL USA 4 393 4 400 243 157 64.36%
2013 USL PDL USA 4 505 6 526 262 264 100.67%
2014 USL PDL USA 4 503 8 546 167 380 227.99%

Take away those maniacs in Portland and USL PDL lines up a lot more with Europe. Well-supported Cascadia rivals Seattle Sounders had a USL PDL team in 2013 and 2014 and have had below-average attendance. The Vancouver Whitecaps had a PDL team (and quite a successful one) for almost a decade, and their attendance is regularly in the basement.

Note as well that USL PDL attendances are not entirely reliable. Many teams, especially badly supported ones, do not report their attendance for all games. Orlando City U-23, who draw two- or single-digit crowds, reported only one game in 2013 and none at all in 2014. The Chicago Fire Premier/U-23 miss a couple games every year. Games not reported are not included in these tables, but would lower all average numbers and disproportionately hurt affiliated teams.

Obviously nothing in this post is related to player development: the most important job of a reserve team. But those looking to reserve teams to grow soccer in Canada and the United States should look elsewhere. Fans can get behind their own club even at the lowest levels but reserve teams? They just don’t care.

(notes and comments…)

Random Thoughts on WFC2, Not in Anything Like Full

By Benjamin Massey · November 26th, 2014 · 2 comments

Because I just put down my $50 season ticket deposit, and because I haven’t posted anything for two weeks, my random thoughts on how the Whitecaps Reserve team in USL Pro is shaping up off the field.

Boy, That Name Sure Is Stupid!

Is it ever! I like to think that there was a meeting to determine the name, and all the suits from the Whitecaps, MLS, and USL got together, and some unfortunate member of the Football Death Panel said “why don’t we call them ‘Vancouver Whitecaps FC Reserves’, because that’s what they are.” And everyone turned around and stared at him until his head exploded like in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

So I’m just going to call them the Whitecaps Reserves. Could be worse. I got a press release which referred to “S2″ in the subject line and thought for a second I was on Microsoft Excel’s mailing list.

(That said, be exasperated for the right reason. I’m not one of those “WFC-is-Watford-shurely” types. The Vancouver Whitecaps dropped the “Vancouver” for a time in the A-League days, after the 86ers got the rights to the name. The important part of the team’s identity is the “Whitecaps” part; there are loads of Vancouver soccer clubs.)

And the Ticket Prices? Whoo!

Actually it’s not too bad. In absolute terms, $149 at the top end plus taxes and fees for what figures to be at least 14 professional soccer games isn’t nasty at all; about $11 per game maximum. Supporters and season ticket holders will pay noticeably less. It’s significantly below the cost for a 2010 Whitecaps season ticket, which was a higher level but the nearest local comparison.

Actually, Hang On, Let’s Have the Playing Level Discussion Now

USL Pro is the linear successor of the USL First Division, where the Vancouver Whitecaps played through 2009. It is not, however, in my opinion as high a level.

In 2011, when USL Pro was formed, it combined the few remaining clubs of the USL First Division with the USL Second Division. This immediately weakened the talent and financial wherewithal of the league. Many USL-1 clubs which hadn’t joined the NASL were teams that didn’t have the ability or inclination to meet the USSF’s high requirements for second division soccer. Since then USL Pro has lost its best side off and on the field, Orlando City SC (née the Austin Aztex). Only one club from the 2010 USSF D2 Pro League, the last “unified” second division season, survives in USL Pro: the Rochester Rhinos, once a powerhouse but not what they used to be. The Charleston Battery, who played in the USL-1 until 2009 and USL-2 in 2010, nearly count. The rest are long-termers from USL-2 (Wilmington, Richmond, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg), old USL PDL sides (Dayton), or post-2010 expansion teams (everyone else).

The attrition for USL Pro, as in the A-League, has been bad: in four seasons eight teams have folded*, four of which were from the ill-fated Caribbean division. Compare this to one NASL team folding in the same timespan (the Puerto Rico Islanders), with the Atlanta Silverbacks potentially following this year. Attendances are iffy: Sacramento has been brilliant, Orlando City and perennials Rochester have been good enough, and four clubs drew under 1,000 last season[1].

Rather second-rate players like Matt Delicâte and Chandler Hoffman dominate USL Pro. Dom Dwyer famously decided the 2013 championship almost single-handed while swinging by Orlando City’s training ground on odd weekends. This kind of thing is less common in the North American Soccer League and was less common in the USL First Division. Remember that when MLS entered a Project-40 team to the A-League from 1998 to 2000 featuring what we’d today call Generation Adidas players plus some league-wide reserves, they were generally mediocre.

This isn’t to say that USL Pro is a bad league: it’s good, fully professional soccer, and as I’ve said I’m going to pay money to watch it. If you prefer a fun product to marketing you will be entertained. The games I’ve seen on YouTube have been lively and fun. But it’s diluted a lot since the salad days of the USL First Division.

That Was Fun, Let’s Talk Ticket Prices Again

Consider what reserve teams in competitive leagues charge throughout the world. At the top end of world soccer Barcelona “B” tickets start at €5 (CDN$7.04), with steep increases for better seats or coveted matches, but club members and children get in free[2]. General admission for FC Bayern II starts at €5, with discounts available[3]. Clubs nearer the Whitecaps’ actual level, like those in the 2. Bundesliga or Liga Adelante, typically don’t charge for reserve fixtures at all.

So yes, by world standards the Whitecaps demand top dollar to watch their reserves. However, as we know, ticket prices are not determined by the quality of soccer. There’s a lot less competition for the soccer buck in Vancouver: the Whitecaps, the Whitecaps Reserves, and then down to VMSL or taking a ferry to Victoria. There aren’t even W-League or USL PDL Whitecaps teams anymore. And try as I might, I just can’t get worked up over at most $11 a match. I can’t. Sorry, outrage enthusiasts. I’m paying it and I’m fine with that.

Is Anyone Going to Watch This Other Than Lunatics Like You, Though?

If I’ve learned anything over the past four years it’s never underestimate the marketing power of Major League Soccer. The Whitecaps are portraying these games not so much as a new experience than an old one. They’re soliciting fan input, as their Facebook page cheekily says, on everything “from beer to bouncy castles.”[4] Their website promises that “the fan experience will have a strong family and community feel, and will be similar to the atmosphere we created at Swangard in our pre-MLS days.”[5] Between that and mandatory Canadian content, it’s like they read my website and said “God knows why but we’re trying to make this guy happy.” And there are a few guys like me in Vancouver.

But the amount of money they ask is more than many families can “throw away”, especially during a hot season for soccer in Vancouver: remember that the Women’s World Cup is coming to town. Moreover, around the world, reserve clubs tend to draw far lower attendances than independent clubs at the same level.

This past season in the German 3. Liga, out of twenty teams the two reserve clubs (Borussia Dortmund II and VfB Stuttgart II) were 16th and 20th in attendance respectively[6]. The same trend prevails through the Regionalligas, with a couple reserve clubs among the attendance leaders but the vast majority anchoring the bottom. Of 22 clubs in the 2013-14 Liga Adelante, Barcelona B was 17th and Real Madrid Castilla was 21st[7]. And last year, when the Los Angeles Galaxy ran the first full reserve team in USL Pro, they drew 597 fans per game, second-last in the league[8].

Hell, look at North American minor sports. The Toronto Marlies are the top farm team of the world’s biggest hockey team in the world’s most important hockey market. Since the most recent NHL lockout their average attendance has significantly improved and the quality of play in the American Hockey League is respected internationally. Their average attendance has never exceeded 7,000 fans per game[9], which is below several independent youth hockey teams in the Canadian Hockey League. If the Marlies were an NASL team, their numbers would be fairly average. Farm teams, even in the best possible situations, simply tend not to be big draws.

I suspect that the attendance at Whitecaps Reserves games will be fairly modest, particularly given the inconvenient-to-some location. But I wouldn’t bet against the occasional 3,500-strong crowd, because if any organization can pull it off, it’s Major League Soccer.

UBC, Eh?

Probably. I don’t mind the team playing at UBC; I live in Richmond and it’s a nice place to visit (though Thunderbird Stadium is, soccerwise, a shithole). But a lot of people who have to cross bridges do. It’s mildly inconvenient to reach by transit, unless you want to sniff a hippie’s farts on the 99 B-Line. The parking situation is better than it used to be but still not great, and it’s a fair stroll from Surrey or Maple Ridge (at least by Lower Mainland standards; where I come from people call Los Angeles “almost driving distance”[10]). New Westminster would have been much more central.

However, at UBC you’re reasonably convenient to centres of population, plus the Kitsilano hipsters who are just the people who go nuts for this kind of thing. As a taxpayer, I am pleased that (unlike proposals in New Westminster and Surrey) this team won’t require residents to subsidize the Whitecaps’ business model any further than we already do.

That said, USL PDL matches at UBC were very sparsely attended, me and a couple dozen others even on sunny days against Victoria or Seattle. And those were free. Of course the USL Pro team will have a lot more marketing on their side, but we’ll see.

An Irrelevant Digression About the Juan de Fuca Plate

Since the Whitecaps are terminating their USL PDL team, the Juan de Fuca Plate seems to go into abeyance. When we started the Plate in 2012 there were three USL PDL teams in British Columbia; now only the Victoria Highlanders remain. As a donor to, webmaster of, and enthusiast for the Plate, this galls me.

The Whitecaps have actually been really solid promoters of the Juan de Fuca Plate. They’ve mentioned it in their web previews, posted it on their Twitter and Facebook, made announcements over the deafening loudspeakers at Thunderbird Stadium. Last year saw the possibility of the Plate being tied: the Whitecaps and Highlanders agreed to go to a penalty shootout if that happened, which is going above and beyond for a fan trophy they didn’t ask for and had no personal stake in. It would be a pity to lose this.

So why couldn’t the Highlanders and the Whitecaps Reserves play a two game, home-and-home series to decide the winner of the 2015 Juan de Fuca Plate? Oh, I know there are a million reasons: both teams share their stadiums, league matches must take priority, in Victoria’s case their players are only available in the summer meaning fewer opportunities to squeeze in two more games, and bluntly it’s a fair bit of effort to thrill a small number of die-hards.

But from the Whitecaps’ perspective it’s another couple good games for the Reserves against a different sort of opposition than usual. The Highlanders get a marquee home game in a season that’s going to lack exciting opponents. Both teams get something a little special to market; in Vancouver’s case they might like that additional perk for USL Pro fans. The Whitecaps Reserves will certainly be stronger than the Whitecaps U-23s were, but not so much stronger that a fixture would be a waste of time. USL Pro schedules include US Open Cup fixtures but that won’t be a problem for the Whitecaps Reserves, who are expected not to compete in the Voyageurs Cup: that’s a couple open dates right there.

I hope the supporter groups from both cities bring this up to their teams. It’s difficult but not impossible, it has benefits as well as costs, and wouldn’t it be nice?

(notes and comments…)

So Farewell Then, Bryce Alderson

By Benjamin Massey · November 14th, 2014 · 1 comment

Les Meszaros/Canadian Soccer Association

Les Meszaros/Canadian Soccer Association

While not yet official, John Molinaro at Sportsnet has reported that the Vancouver Whitecaps are about to release midfielder Bryce Alderson[1]. Alderson did not play a single league game with the senior Whitecaps and only two in the Voyageurs Cup despite success in USL PDL, USL Pro, and, recently, a Canadian senior national team call-up[2].

I think Bryce Alderson is an excellent young player, but he’s a defensive midfielder and even I won’t say he’s a better one than Matías Laba. Nor is he necessarily better than Gershon Koffie or Russell Teibert right now, though Alderson is only twenty years old. The Canadian Vancouver has given up on might be younger than the American Vancouver gets in the first round of the next SuperDuperDraft.

You know where I’m going with this but there’s something to consider first: to an extent the Whitecaps and Alderson are being screwed by MLS contract rules. As soon as a player like Alderson signs a Generation Adidas contract the clock is ticking: the youngster is getting a lot of money, off the salary cap, but someday soon the team is going to have to pay for him and work him into their cap structure.

In the latest MLS Players Union list Alderson has a guaranteed compensation of $115,000[3]. Alderson signed young, 17 years old in November 2011[4], and from the instant his pen hit the paper he had to make a very quick impact indeed to prove he was worth all that money when his option came up. Julian de Guzman, to pick a name, spent most of his 20-year-old season as a reserve player on a mediocre 2. Bundesliga team. It’s hard to think he would have stuck around if he’d been an MLS player suddenly representing a six-figure cap hit, and how much poorer would the Canadian national team have been as a result?

If a young player hasn’t become a first team regular by the time that $115,000 hits the salary cap the team has a problem: even if they like him, how are they supposed to keep him? In short, not everything is Vancouver’s fault, and the ideal solution is for homegrown Generation Adidas contracts to hit the salary cap starting at a certain age, rather than after a certain number of seasons. Under the current system, Alderson being a quality player for his age is completely irrelevant.

You might have to take my word for this. I’ve seen a lot of USL PDL matches, I saw Alderson captain the Whitecaps USSDA U-18 team, I even watched webstreams of some of his Charleston Battery games before he got hurt. He was getting the job done, typically against players bigger and older than him. He captained the Whitecaps U-18s and the Canadian U-17s. Sure, he’s one-footed, he isn’t a dazzling offensive player, but he’s hard to knock off the ball, he’s calm and confident winning it, he’s a good passer, he is, in short, a good young defensive midfielder. In his two (two!!!!!) games for the Whitecaps first team over three seasons, he held a certain Michael Bradley down very well in the Voyageurs Cup. I’m not sure what else he was supposed to do. Wax Martin Rennie’s car? Hit Laba and Koffie in the knee with a tire iron?

Isn’t it funny how there’s always an excuse, always some foreign player to bump Canadians out of the lineup? We couldn’t play Alderson in 2012 because John Thorrington was too valuable to lose in the playoff race. We couldn’t play Alderson in 2013 because what would the Whitecaps have done without Jun Marques Davidson or Matt Watson? Just like how Jordan Harvey and Ethan Sampson keep Sam Adekugbe out of the eleven, and Russell Teibert gets kicked to the bench as soon as Gershon Koffie is healthy. Etc. etc. ad nauseum, we’ve seen the same thing every year since Teitur Thordarson got fired. It’s gotten beyond “coincidence”.

No, of course this isn’t some “Whitecaps hate Canada!” conspiracy, but if the Whitecaps wanted to give Canadian kids a chance they had plenty of opportunities to do so. It wasn’t a priority. Promising players lost prime development years because the Whitecaps thought it was more important to bring in some fractionally better foreigner than to play the kid and invest in the future. And look at the rewards that policy has brought: two blink-and-you’ll-miss-them playoff appearances and no Voyageurs Cups. This isn’t the old “Whitecaps hate Canada” gag, and I suspect a healthy proportion of since-2011 Whitecaps fans support this. But it’s clearly happening. You look at those team sheets and you tell me.

Even the Laba signing, which was maybe the best single piece of business the Whitecaps have done as an MLS franchise, shows this attitude. To compete immediately the Whitecaps needed high-end reinforcements to several positions at the start of 2014: a forward, an attacking midfielder, a couple defenders. Knowing that Kenny Miller would leave, and that Caleb Clarke has European aspirations, Vancouver could wisely have chased a DP forward without blocking any Canadians. A top DP centre back would also have been a bold, but justifiable, move, with the star helping apprentice young Jackson Farmer until he’s ready for MLS minutes. Instead Vancouver spent heavily on Laba, an obstacle to both Alderson and Russell Teibert. Teibert also lost potential attacking midfield minutes, still where I think he’s best, to Pedro Morales and Nico Mezquida. Look at where Vancouver is allocating their resources. Look at their priorities.

Possibly the Whitecaps get these great 18-year-old players who do well against the world’s best in their age group but suddenly turn to crap when they sign MLS contracts. In this case the technical staff should not merely be sacked but set on fire. From my viewing, though, the only things Alderson was missing was his health and a chance. FC Edmonton and especially the Ottawa Fury would be well-advised to call him.

Also on his way out is Omar Salgado, another youngster coming off his Generation Adidas contract. You might remember Salgado: big, tall, trouble at practice. Though he was almost continuously injured and seldom delivered when healthy, Salgado played 1,100 MLS minutes over four seasons in Vancouver[5]. It’s strange, isn’t it, that Salgado got several opportunities despite being older and having less success than Alderson against adults? But, of course, Salgado was a high-profile United States U-20 international and a first overall draft pick. Alderson was just some guy from Kitchener the team signed. As a Whitecap Salgado did nothing to deserve more of a shot than Alderson, yet the American played and the Canadian didn’t. Isn’t that weird?!

EDIT, 14:50 PST: Alderson has officially been released[6].

(notes and comments…)

Hugh Cairns VC DCM

By Benjamin Massey · November 11th, 2014 · 3 comments

Hugh Cairns was a typical Canadian soccer player of the early twentieth century, in that he was English. Born December 4, 1896 in Ashington, a Northumbrian town fifteen miles north of Newcastle[1], he was the son of George H. Cairns and Elizabeth Dotes Cairns and the third child of eleven[2]. Hugh grew up in England, but in 1911 the large Cairns family emigrated to Saskatchewan[3], setting up shop in the rapidly growing town of Saskatoon.

The Cairns family appears to have been a completely ordinary example of the thousands then settling in the newly-opened Canadian prairies. Saskatoon was no frontier: it had been linked to eastern Canada by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway since 1907. But it was still a boom town bursting at the seams, going from 113 souls in 1901 to “near 28,000″ in 1912[4]. By Hugh Cairns’s day Saskatoon boasted a university, several churches, and a thriving local sports scene. Immigrants from across Europe and even further afield followed the steel lines of the Grand Trunk Pacific, the Canadian Pacific, and the Canadian Northern railways, swelling the ranks of formerly minor outposts like Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Gastown. The Cairns were but a cup of water in the tidal wave.

Surviving photos suggest Hugh Cairns was a handsome young man in the classic mold of the early West: not tall (5’6″) but stocky, broad across the shoulder, with a strong jaw and a plain, unbeguiling expression. A common look on many young prairie Canadians of the era, where even the softest job required a certain amount of guts and self-reliance. Cairns was a plumber, getting his start in the trade after a few years apprenticing. Very much a man of the urban boom, but also someone used to working with his hands, and probably working very hard in a fast-growing city.

Cairns immediately found prominent role of Saskatoon soccer. An Anglican, Cairns was a member of the Christ Church Intermediate Boys team in his teenage years, winning a championship. Church teams were a big part of Saskatoon soccer in those early days, as indeed they were across much of the prairies: while in the established areas like Ontario and southern Vancouver Island clubs like Galt F.C. and Victoria United were already becoming well-known, in more recently-settled areas the church often remained a catch-all social hub.

In 1912 a Saskatchewan soccer team toured England. Cairns would have been only fifteen years old, but it’s been suggested he represented his new home in his old one; certainly despite his youth he was a strong local player. In the last year before his enlistment Cairns won the Saskatoon league with the St. Thomas Church team, apparently playing a major role[5]. Not a bad soccer career, for a teenage Canadian on the prairies in 1915, but the Great War was to end it as it ended so much else.

Hugh Cairns enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the fall of 1915. At least two of his brothers, Albert and Henry, also signed up; Albert and Hugh signed their attestation papers the same day and were assigned to the same battalions, first the 65th and then the 46th. Henry survived the war but Albert died September 10, 1918 from wounds suffered taking the Drocourt-Quéant Line[6].

Arriving in France in August 1916, Cairns missed the bloodiest weeks of the Battle of the Somme but still would have seen some of the infamous offensive. Over the course of the war Cairns distinguished himself, becoming a sergeant and winning the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his part at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. In that most famous of Canadian battles, Cairns took the initiative to recover a pair of lost guns and attacked the enemy with them[7], a good example of the independent thinking which made the Vimy victory possible. The DCM was the non-officer’s equivalent of the Distinguished Service Order, the second-highest award for gallantry in the British Empire behind the Victoria Cross. Cairns was also wounded in the battle, but recovered in time to participate in the campaigns of 1918.

The risk of burnout for an active soldier was then not always understood but has been discussed at length in the years since. Both memoirs and fiction have made us familiar with the highly experienced soldier who starts to lose his self-control. In his first months a soldier on the front line is a danger to himself and those around him, lacking the experience to be much good. If the soldier survived he became more knowledgeable, able to survive, skilled in hitting back. But if he spent too long in action then he grew jaded, unable to cope with the constant tax on his mental resources, prone to fall apart or to take stupid, unnecessary risks. Even the strongest has only so much strength, and each barrage, each battle, each poking of the head over the parapet, drained a little more from that limited account.

By the end of his life Hugh Cairns had been at the front for over two years, with some leave and “rest” periods that amounted to performing still-onerous jobs often within shell range. His brother Albert, with whom he had been especially close, had died two months earlier, and some sources suggest Hugh was fixated on paying the Germans back. If so he took his chance on November 1, 1918.

Cairns was leading No. 3. Platoon of “A” Company, 46th Battalion (South Saskatchewan) in the drive to take Valenciennes, a town near the Belgian border occupied by the Germans in 1914. This portion of 1918 is often called “Canada’s Hundred Days”; the Canadian Corps, under the command of General Arthur Currie, was in the van of the British assault through northern France into Belgium.

The 46th had earned the unenviable nickname of the “Suicide Battalion” due to its prodigious casualty rate, but it had also earned an armful of battle honours; the battalion, and Cairns, had fought in every major British Empire campaign on the western front since its arrival in 1916[8]. It was among the units engaged on November 1, in the front line of the assault on Valenciennes.

Cairns’s Victoria Cross citation in the London Gazette reads[9]:

No. 472168 Serjt. Hugh Cairns, D.C.M., late 46th Bn., Saskatchewan R.

For most conspicuous bravery before Valenciennes on 1st November, 1918, when a machine gun opened on his platoon. Without a moment’s hesitation Serjt. Cairns seized a Lewis gun and single-handed, in the face of direct fire, rushed the post, killed the crew of five, and captured the gun. Later, when the line was held up by machine-gun fire, he again rushed forward, killing 12 enemy and capturing 18 and two guns.

Subsequently, when the advance was held up by machine guns and field guns, although wounded, he led a small party to outflank them, killing many, forcing about 50 to surrender, and capturing all the guns.

After consolidation he went with a battle patrol to exploit Marly and forced 60 enemy to surrender. Whilst disarming this party he was severely wounded. Nevertheless, he opened fire and inflicted heavy losses. Finally he was rushed by about 20 enemy and collapsed from weakness and loss of blood.

Throughout the operation he showed the highest degree of valour, and his leadership greatly contributed to the success of the attack. He died on the 2nd November from wounds.

The Lewis light machine gun with which Cairns “rushed” the German machine gun posts weighed nearly thirty pounds without its ammunition drum; somewhat less if like many soldiers Cairns discarded the cooling jacket. With that would have come spare ammunition plus up to seventy pounds in standard infantry equipment. Making any speed whatsoever over broken terrain while firing under such a load is inconceivable. Such a “rush” into the jaws of the enemy guns would have been no split-second burst but a deliberate half-plod, half-jog straight down the most dangerous line on a battlefield.

“A” Company was split in several different directions, sections flying off here and there to shore up positions of weakness, the company commander working hard just to stay in touch with the attack. Years of trench-saturated stalemate had given way, in the past six months, to a sudden sharp war of movement, old tactics had been replaced with new, and the veteran soldiers were called upon to do far more than “walk forward, take that trench”. Cairns was given responsibility for several important jobs, including flanking a problematic German gun emplacement, and pulled them all off. Cairns, a sergeant, would not normally be leading a platoon at all: the “Suicide Battalion” had taken its toll out of the officers.

According to the report of his company commander, Captain R. W. Gyles, Cairns and Lieutenant J. P. G. MacLeod of “C” Company 46th encountered a large group of Germans in one corner of a field. Depending on who you believe, MacLeod and Cairns were either alone or had two others with them. MacLeod had an officer’s pistol, Cairns his Lewis gun. Cairns had already been wounded fighting other, large groups of Germans, as the main mass of the attack had pushed past and left the Germans cut off from their army. Cairns and MacLeod may have been outnumbered twenty-five to one, but they had also spent the morning fighting a winning battle.

MacLeod ordered the Germans to surrender. Most raised their hands; one German raised his rifle. MacLeod covered the German with his pistol. A German officer made to have his fellow put the rifle down. Simultaneously, he drew his own pistol and shot Cairns through the chest.

Consider the thinking of that officer. In spite of the propaganda of a later Reich German soldiers at the front were under no illusions: their country was two weeks from surrendering and the troops knew how near the end was. Two days later German sailors at Kiel would mutiny rather than make a seemingly-pointless sacrifice, beginning the Revolutions of 1918-19. Yet rather than go into captivity this officer chose to risk his life, and the lives of his men, on slim odds. We will never know his name, let alone what his war was like.

The would-be capture degenerated into a point-blank gun battle with machine guns on both sides, MacLeod and Cairns standing their ground. Cairns was hit several more times, passed out from his wounds, and was dragged to safety by MacLeod[10]. Trying to get Cairns to a casualty clearing station, the stretcher-bearers came under fire and Cairns was hit again before he could finally be brought to medical attention. Both Cairns and MacLeod were recommended for the VC; MacLeod settled for the Distinguished Service Order but Cairns got the Cross, posthumously. He died the next day, nine days before the Armistice that ended the First World War, and is buried at Auberchicourt British Cemetery.

In 1936 a street in Valenciennes was named after Cairns, with his parents coming from Quebec for the dedication; the Daily Herald called it the first known case of a French street being named in honour of a non-commissioned officer[11]. Other honours include a plaque in the same town, a posthumous Legion of Honour, Hugh Cairns V.C. School in Saskatoon, and a place for his parents at the dedication of the Vimy Memorial, the battleground where Hugh won his DCM.

The most substantial memorial lives in Saskatoon’s Kiwanis Park, where the local soccer association and the community chose to place a statue of Cairns atop the memorial commemorating the soccer community’s war dead. The memorial was erected in 1921, showing Cairns in full soccer kit: it is believed to be the only war memorial featuring a soccer player anywhere in the world[12].

Inscribed on the plinth are the Union Flag and the Red Ensign under which Cairns fought and 77 names, the soccer players of what was then an insignificant if booming city on the banks of the South Saskatchewan, who gave their lives for their country from 1914 to 1918[13].

J. E. Bartlett · R. J. G. Bateman · E. Baty · R. Baty · E. W. Bayes
W. Black · T. Bowlt · H. Brown · A. Cairns · H. Cairns
H. K. Carruthers · T. K. Chalmers · A. T. Clayton · L. V. Clare · G. W. Clementson
T. Clinkskill · J. G. A. Cockburn · J. M. Coles · E. H. Cook · W. K. Craighead
G. F. Doree · A. B. Douglas · E. Gemmell · H. E. Gibbons · J. W. Goble
C. J. Fox · W. Grant · J. W. Graham · D. K. Gordon · F. J. Guy
W. R. Hay · W. Harrison · C. Hopwood · A. Hunter · T. Huggins
E. Key · S. M. King · W. W. King · P. Kinnear · S. V. Laver
F. Lippross · A. S. K. Lloyd · J. W. Lowes · A. MacDougall · O. R. Marsh
N. M. N. McIntosh · R. McNiel · S. McNiel · W. May · S. H. Monk
A. Moss · C. G. D. King-Mason · W. Mitchell · W. K. Munro · W. Nichol
A. H. Peat · V. D. B. Rae · G. Rippingale · C. Robbins · V. Robertson
J. J. Scott · W. T. Sinclair · D. F. Smart · C. B. Smillie · T. H. Smith
A. G. Starkings · G. A. Stebbing · A. Steele · W. Spence · G. Swift
R. Smyllie · L. Tinkess · T. Waters · W. T. Wesley-Long · A. E. Whitehouse
J. H. Wight · W. Wood

(notes and comments…)

At Least They’re All Experts on BAD NEWS…

By Benjamin Massey · November 8th, 2014 · No comments

To go by Twitter, WWE wrestler Wade Barrett has been hanging out at the Sportsnet studios today with Gerry Dobson, Craig Forrest, and Danny Dichio, helping them with their work on the weekend’s Premier League matches.

I worry a bit about the possibilities with Barrett and Dobson teaming up, I have to admit.

How Did Russell Teibert Get Back on CanMNT, Anyway?

By Benjamin Massey · November 7th, 2014 · No comments

In Russell Teibert’s case, he knows what he needs to do to come back to the national team. I have already told him and I’m waiting. Once he does what he needs to do, he will be considered again.
Benito Floro as quoted by Red Nation Online, October 21, 2014[1]

(5:45 PM, outside the home of the Floro family. The smell of a home-cooked dinner wafts through the open window. Two earnest young men in carefully-ironed white dress shirts stand outside the door with Cheshire smiles. The first rings the bell.)

Benito (answering the door with the air of a man irritated): Hello?

Man 1 (cheerily): Good evening, sir!

Man 2: Have you heard the Good News about Canadian Soccer Jesus?

Benito: Oh, Christ.

Man 1: The Soccer Gods love you, and want you to know and love Them. They offer you peace and joy and a Gold Cup semi-final appearance.

Man 2: “The Soccer Gods so loved the world, that They gave Their only son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have an eternally high PDO.” (John Limniatis 3:16)

Man 1: It doesn’t matter how good you are compared to Colin Miller or Stephen Hart or Dale Mitchell or Stephen Hart again or Frank Yallop or Holger Osieck. All coaches are sinners, and you cannot measure to the perfection of the Soccer Gods, and so you will burn in the Eternal Fire of Honduras.

Man 2: “For the wages of sin is defeat…” (Tino Lettieri 6:23)

Benito: I don’t know what you’ve heard but I don’t hate Russell. As head coach I have a responsibility to…


Man 1: You’re probably wondering “if the wages of sin is defeat, and all coaches sin, then how does any coach ever reach the World Cup?”

Man 2: “For the wages of sin is defeat, but the gift of the Soccer Gods is eternal victory through Russell Teibert our Lord.” (Tino Lettieri 6:23)

Benito: I don’t know what message board rumours you’ve heard that made you do all this, and by the way how do you know where I live?

Man 1: Yes, eternal victory is a gift of the Soccer Gods, not something earned by our own work on Earth, or something that can be held up as a trophy of our own greatness. And the only way to accept that gift is to accept Canadian Soccer Jesus into your heart.

Man 2: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the marking of a tenacious midfield, and renewing of the Holy Goals.” (Rick Titus 3:5)

Man 1: For the Soccer Gods sent Canadian Soccer Jesus to Earth to atone for our footballing sins, and play for the team that hates Canada, and while we ourselves are sinners, his playoffs died for us.

Man 2: “For Teibert also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to the Soccer Gods, being put to defensive midfield obscurity in the flesh, but quickened by the Soccer.” (I Mont Pete 3:18)

Benito: And I thought Real Madrid fans were ridiculous. Listen…

Man 1: We have some wonderful literature that we would love to discuss.

Benito: Just…

Man 2: Canadian Soccer Jesus does not want to judge you. He just wants to love you.

Benito: Look, if I call Teibert to the Panama camp will you fuck off?

(Man 1 and Man 2 exchange glances)

Man 1: Have a nice dinner, coach. (Exeunt)

(notes and comments…)