Chasing Abby or Catching Abby

By Benjamin Massey · December 1st, 2017 · No comments

Kyle Thomas/Canadian Soccer Association

For Canada’s women’s national team, 2017 was an intermission. No Olympics, no World Cup, no qualifying, 365 days of the calendar you got out of way to prepare for the next thousand. 2018, 2019, and 2020 are what count: Jessie Fleming, Deanne Rose, Rebecca Quinn, Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan, and hopefully players we didn’t expect developing into the most competitive lineup Canada has ever had. If we’re ever going to win some gold these are the women who’ll do it.

However, there’s another piece of history Canada is chasing for which 2017 mattered a great deal. In our last game against Norway Christine Sinclair scored the 169th goal of her international career and fourth of the year. She needs 16 more international goals to pass Abby Wambach for the most in the history of soccer.

16. Not that many, not with CONCACAF World Cup qualifying bringing games against Haiti and Puerto Rico and that lot next year. But Sinclair is 34, old for her position and her sport. It’s not certain she has enough time left.

The good news is we don’t need to put the old lady on the ice floe yet. Sinclair’s scoring rate over the past two seasons is better than Adriana Leon’s career rate and basically tied with Deanne Rose. Behind Nichelle Prince, but Prince has 1,013 senior minutes and hasn’t scored in the last 655. More importantly Sinclair’s been piling up the assists: seven in 2017, four in 2016, four in 2015, our leading playmaker each of the last two years. On a roster that despite Herdman’s improvements can get very direct, Sinclair and Janine Beckie are the only forwards moderately capable of holding up the ball and Beckie has better things to do. Sinclair would be in the eleven on merit if her name was Jane Smith and her idea of leadership was telling Sophie Schmidt “your she-man-bun looks very nice.”

You couldn’t say that about Abby Wambach at this stage of her career. When she retired at age 35 nobody, American or otherwise, argued it was too early. But then her team was a lot deeper. The American attack her last year included world player of the year Carli Lloyd, a not-very-broken-yet Alex Morgan, and Christen Press, with Crystal Dunn the coming woman. Running the attack through Wambach made no sense, using her off the bench rather than Dunn or the Amy Rodriguez/Sydney Leroux depth players of the future set seemed unwise and out of her character. If anything most of us seemed to think she’d gone a year or two late. But selfish old Abby was a much better goal-scorer than kind old Christine.

This graph compares Sinclair and Wambach’s goalscoring records in the seasons in which they turned a given age. For example, Christine Sinclair turned 34 this year, so 2017 was her age 34 season. Abby Wambach turned 34 in 2014, so 2014 was her age 34 season.

Sinclair and Wambach were both early June babies so we are truly comparing their performances at the same age. That’s only the first coincidence; it’s weird how closely they trend together. Right down to both slumping at 31 and bumping back in their age 32 seasons. Of course, when Wambach “slumped” in her age 31 season she started the year ice cold and ended it with four goals in six matches at a FIFA World Cup. Sinclair, with nothing much to play for in 2014, scored once.

My co-podcaster Carolyn reminded me that, as recently as 2009, Wambach and Sinclair were within a few goals of each other. Wambach made her century on July 19, 2009 at age 29 against, coincidentally, Canada. Sinclair scored her hundredth five months later, on February 20, 2010 against Poland despite being three years younger. Sinclair had 130 caps, Wambach had 129. It was only in old age that Wambach pulled away.

All through their thirties, Wambach outproduced Sinclair very heavily. Wambach’s worst 30+ season (2011 at age 31, 0.566 G/90) was essentially identical to Sinclair’s best 30+ season (2015 at age 32, 0.570 G/90). Wambach’s advantages included more home games, more easy qualifiers that Canada skipped for 2015, and teammates who deferred to her on scoring chances. Big goalscorers past their primes can make a lot of hay against CONCACAF minnows. Wambach’s age 30-34 seasons included an Olympic qualifying and a World Cup qualifying campaign, running wild both times. Sinclair only had 2016 Olympic qualifying, where she was mostly injured. But for the moment we aren’t asking who was the better player, but who put the ball in the net more. The good news is that Wambach’s production did not decline much from age 30 to age 35, and if Sinclair can do the same she might win on endurance.

In her last two years, Sinclair has scored 0.439 goals/90 minutes clip. That would put her 3,278 minutes away from goal #185 and immortality, or just about three years. Assuming she isn’t injured any more often, and scores at the same rate, and gets just as much playing time every game. As she goes from her mid to her late thirties none of those assumptions are safe. Healthy and productive 2018 Olympic and 2019 World Cup qualifying runs will help Sinclair; age, wear, and tear will hurt.

History’s best female strikers tend to retire around Sinclair’s age. Wambach was 35, Birgit Prinz, Tiffeny Milbrett, and Carolina Morace all 33, Mia Hamm only 32. The exceptions have either been multi-position stars like Kristine Lilly or Michelle Akers or, encouragingly, super-annuated veterans for second-rate countries who still had roles into old age. Scotland’s Julie Fleeting is 36 and still active. Italian Patrizia Panico hung on until age 39. The late 30s are not quite unexplored territory.

Canada’s second-best all-time goalscorer, Charmaine Hooper, not only kept going up until age 38 but provided value. Playing second and sometimes third fiddle behind Sinclair and Kara Lang, Hooper played 1,683 minutes over 24 games from age 36 and up, scoring 11 times, which for Sinclair would do nicely.

Alas, Hooper’s old age flatters to deceive. In her last eight caps Hooper hit one final vein of form, scoring eight times including a hat trick against Sweden to wind up with 71 senior goals in her career. But that was another age. When she last played in July 2006 (it would be inaccurate to say she “retired”) women’s soccer was still young. Today, give-or-take the inevitable blunders, decent teams can basically defend a savvy but unathletic striker. In 2006 players with sometimes questionable fitness could play 90 minutes every night and chip in multi-goal games. Melissa Tancredi got a miracle brace against Germany at the Olympics, but 2016 Melissa Tancredi was Alex Morgan in her prime compared to some of the forwards you saw ten years earlier.

On the other hand, Sinclair’s a lot better than Hooper was.

The odds may still, just, favour Sinclair. Barring injury or the unforeseen, the natural arc of Christine Sinclair’s career will close after the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, when Sinclair will be 37. It’s hardly likely she’ll hang on for another cycle into her forties, but it would also be surprising for her to retire after an Algarve Cup or something unless life makes her. Moreover, and I’m touching wood just typing this, Canada’s 2019–20 team might be highly competitive: the best Sinclair’s ever had, and worth hanging on for at the end of an endlessly frustrating international career. If Sinclair does play through 2020, and has a couple productive qualifying campaigns, that’s just enough time. She’ll never come close to Wambach on goal rate but she might show the fortitude to hang around and catch Abby with sheer guts and longevity, to say nothing of being popular enough that her teammates won’t freeze her out when they don’t need her anymore.

Which, come to think, would be pretty appropriate for a Canadian heroine.

99 Friendship Episode 64A Special Bonus Curling #Content!

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · November 30th, 2017 · No comments

As promised, here is the special 20-minute curling bonus episode of 99 Friendship, in which Carolyn and Ben preview, as best they can given that Brad Gushue and one of Jennifer Jones/Good Rachel Homan look very likely to win, the upcoming Roar of the Rings.

Since we are discussing Olympic curling we trigger each other a little. Viewer discretion is advised.

99 Friendship Episode 64: All CanWoSo, All the Time

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · November 29th, 2017 · No comments

On this week’s… first episode of 99 Friendship?

Carolyn and I had a problem. We had too much #content. As we sat down to record on Tuesday evening, the Canadian women’s national team had just beaten Norway for the first time ever in stirring come-from-behind fashion. There were many things to talk about with regards to this game, and it had just happened so it was very fresh in our mind. There was also the Elite Eight, in the NCAA world, which had been distilled down to the Semi-Final Four (to hell with your misleading branding, Americans) and probably deserved a mention. Also Erin McLeod’s wife wants to play soccer for Canada now, and has apparently also tried curling, meaning she and Erin are the first people I’ve ever thought might make good guests on a 99 Friendship.

We fill half an hour with Canadian soccer, very easily. But the Roar of the Rings also start on Saturday! We couldn’t just ignore the Roar, could we? Unthinkable.

So what we did was we recorded our cansoc, I edited it together, and I uploaded it, and here you are. Later this week, though, I will post a separate MP3 of our curling talk, which will be a bit shorter but full of Roar. That way those of you who love us generally can listen to them both, and those of you who are only interested in the soccer analysis can have lots and lots of soccer analysis, and those of you who are only interested in the curling analysis don’t exist.

So, as I was saying, on this week’s first episode of 99 Friendship:

  • We review CanWNT’s stirring 3-2 victory over the perfidious Nords, and by “stirring” we of course mean “sloppy” and by “perfidious” we of course mean “mistake-prone.” It was a match with five goals of which four were shambolic.

  • I have some statistics and some trivia. Carolyn knows the answers to all the trivia, because of course she does. Co-hosting a women’s soccer podcast with Carolyn is like co-hosting an arrogance podcast with Neil deGrasse Tyson, you’re just overwhelmed.

  • Also the College Desk reviews the NCAA Elite Eight. Deanne Rose lost, Rebecca Quinn and Jessie Fleming are still alive, it’s chilling how many core players we didn’t have because they were busy in school actually. Also three Canadians are up for the MAC Hermann, two of whom you will easily guess, and that’s not counting the American who plays for us sometimes.

  • The Foreign Desk somehow finds some content during an international break!

  • It’s not really the Foreign Desk, but I guess Ella Masar wants to play for us now? Is it the Foreign Desk? We should get a FIFA ruling on this.

FC Edmonton and Canada’s Doom

By Benjamin Massey · November 24th, 2017 · No comments

Steve Kingsman/Canada Soccer

If FC Edmonton can’t make it in Canadian soccer, nobody can.

Go to Steven Sandor for the news, if you missed it: FC Edmonton is ending operations as a professional team. Their Academy, which has contributed to both the men and women’s youth national team, will continue for now, but against expectations the first team has pulled the plug before the North American Soccer League has.

As the Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC, and Montreal Impact are proving, Canadian cities can make it in American soccer. All you need are brilliant marketers from New York telling you that this is the authentic experience, replete with Italian and English national teamers, and people in a Canadian city will come out in droves. There doesn’t need to be anything Canadian about the experience except the accident of geography; in fact it’s better than there isn’t, beyond a couple homegrown players you keep to wave the flag and visit children’s hospitals.

But Canadian soccer? Meaning not branch plants of an American corporation but clubs owned and run by Canadians for Canadians, which not only say that they’re going to develop Canadian talent but go out and do it? Where the attraction is not “Don Garber tells us this is major-league” but a Canadian-bred culture? If you could sustain that at the professional level, Edmonton would have.

FC Edmonton was not perfect. In their early years they had stadium problems. The team was bad; in seven seasons with a league where it was easier to make the playoffs than miss them, the Eddies played two road playoff games and both stank. Because their stadium is owned by the City of Edmonton the Eddies had mostly Friday and Sunday game days throughout their history, hurting attendance. In 2017, the one year they got a meaningful number of Saturday games, they averaged 3,822 fans a game for Saturdays and 3,085 the rest of the week, meaning that the Eddies perish after their best-ever season at the gate. Now isn’t that funny?

Not that it matters. 3,822 fans a game would be, what, a third of the way to breaking even? Clarke Stadium was too small to sustain professional soccer these days and almost never sold out anyway. This is why I take no comfort from the back door Tom Fath has left open, that he’ll join a Canadian Premier League if his team can be sustainable. Unless Paul Beirne has the money to buy Fath a soccer stadium and the magic to change the country’s culture, that condition cannot be met. The sole hope for FC Edmonton is that the Faths go back on their word and sacrifice more for a dream crazier than co-founding the NASL.

This is not a criticism of the Fath brothers. After eight years’ setting money on fire for the sake of Edmonton despite not particularly being soccer people, they should have the absolute, unconditional, and eternal loyalty of every fan in Canada. If they’d rather close up shop than immolate more of their children’s inheritance with no end in sight, they’ve earned that right.

Tom Fath was a regular on the sidelines at home games, mingling with fans, chatting to players, rocking the hell out of an Eddies golf shirt whenever weather allowed. He even came to a supporters match between Edmonton and Whitecaps fans in Vancouver, not to make a big deal of it (I don’t know that he introduced himself) but just to enjoy what he’d helped create. In every detail except one the Faths were perfect owners: they weren’t oligarchs who could put a 15,000-seat privately-funded grass stadium by the North Saskatchewan River.

What didn’t they try? Local heroes like Shaun Saiko, Chris Kooy, and Antonio Rago helped the Eddies get into the playoffs for one of those two games. Attendance stank. The local heroes were dropped and replaced with Icelandic internationals and Ameobis. Attendance stank. They plastered LRTs and billboards with advertising. Attendance stank. They went to a more grass-roots approach. Attendance stank. The stadium needed new stands and a big screen, so the Faths paid for them though they didn’t own the facility. Attendance stank. Video quality the first couple years was unacceptably poor, so the Faths bought a design company in a successful bid to improve the show. Even in their last season, when games were broadcast on Facebook rather than television, FC Edmonton games were consistently among the best-produced in the NASL. Attendance stank. Criticize the details, as fans of failed teams always do, but the Eddies were not 90% of the way to success. They were 33%.

Unlike most Canadian cities Edmonton now has a perfectly decent soccer stadium. After the 2015 Women’s World Cup brought new artificial turf Clarke became an unimpeachable place to watch a game. Intimate, lots of parking, easy transit access, simple but effective facilities. It had a history of soccer and, with the aforementioned Women’s World Cup, a world-class event that made the sport look good. It began with a hometown star, Saiko, and ends with a nearly-hometown star, Nik Ledgerwood. The ownership was everything I have described and more. These weren’t the Edmonton Aviators, with all their hopes staked on immediate success. They were in it for the long haul and proved it.

A fan who would support a Canadian soccer team if it won lots and had a first-rate stadium and was attractively marketed and had Fernando Torres in a fan of the show, not Canadian soccer. His money counts the same as anybody else’s, but the only way to lure him is the MLS method: to sell out, completely, down to the very bottom of your soul, and make the exercise pointless for anything other than profitmaking. To turn your community club into Molson, right down to being owned by an American conglomerate, because the Americanness is fundamental to the success.

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

“But it worked before!” True, with the USL Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps living long and happy lives. The Impact were owned by a man who combined the Faths’ willingness to lose money with a fanatical devotion to soccer, were subsidized by government with advertising and generous stadium terms, and gave away tickets like water. The Vancouver Whitecaps were usually close to going broke, performing the soccer equivalents of living in their dad’s van. But more importantly, they played in an age where professional soccer could be credible on a much smaller budget than today, and they had their close American rivals. Seattle, Portland, Rochester. It’s the same old song, though performed more prettily.

The sole exception of this generation has been the Canadian women’s national team, an intersection of ability and charisma not seen elsewhere in Canadian sports. Even they continue to be defined, by and large, by their relationship to the United States. Why did the 2016 Brazil bronze medal count for less in our collective consciousness than the 2012 bronze when 2016 was a more impressive achievement? Because in 2012 we went through the United States and in 2016 we did not.

Maybe Canadian teams can thrive as semi-professional or high amateur outfits, in the way the Thunder Bay Chill have for seventeen years, and that League1 Ontario, the PLSQ, TSS Rovers, Calgary Foothills, and the Victoria Highlanders will hopefully continue to. Your players make a pittance if anything, you take the bus everywhere, if you run a youth academy it’s considered perfectly reasonable for parents to pay for it, life is not easy but it’s easier. There are enough fanatics to make that work, in some format.

But full, national-league professional men’s soccer? With an all-Canadian identity and Soccer United Marketing’s millions against them? Oh I’ll support the Canadian Premier League if it ever kicks off, FC Edmonton or no, and I’m sure you will as well. We Canadian soccer fans are used to lost causes. And maybe the MLS fans have the right idea. Their teams are fake, but at least they survive.

99 Friendship Episode 63

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · November 24th, 2017 · No comments

On yet another virtually-all-women’s-soccer edition of 99 Friendship, we catch up on all the stuff we missed.

This is more than you might think. One of Carolyn’s favourite things, the NCAA College Cup, is in full swing (actually, it’s swinging so full that I only just got this podcast uploaded before the next set of games). What does Carolyn think of the college cup? Permit me to answer that question in JPEG form.

Carolyn Duthie, via Twitter

As you can see, there are many possibilities for Canadians entering the Elite Eight. If Jessie Fleming and Deanne Rose weren’t in it it would only be the So-So Eight.

But not even that is all! Because we haven’t done a Foreign Desk for something like three weeks, and while no Canadians have covered themselves in glory there have been Events in Sweden and Germany that are worth me zipping through at nine hundred words per minute. In particular, I get to stop knowing Swedish now, as Rosengard’s season has come to an end and they have decided that Canadians are so two-thousand-and-late.

And there’s still more, because the Canadian Soccer Association announced a roster for its trip to the Costa del Sol to play Norway, and Amelia Pietrangelo, The Future of Canadian Women’s Soccer™, is included among other interesting names. It feels like ages since we’ve seen Canada’s best eighteen players in all one place so we speculate about who they are too.

Lively show, this. Well worth waiting until Friday afternoon for.

Blooding the Pups

By Benjamin Massey · November 21st, 2017 · No comments

Prior to the Canada – US friendly in San Jose, California on Sunday, November 12 I had never attended a United States women’s national soccer team match in person. The experience was instructive.

In every way the show played to national stereotypes. The northern Dominion has insurance companies moving adorable families to sweet seats, Karina LeBlanc pumping us up on the video board, and Big Shiny Stadium Tunes 1867 on the PA. Modern enough for me, in my “kids these days” fashion. The Americans are exactly what someone who knows the United States only from television would expect: brasher, brassier, and louder.

Pregame and halftime were the private property of a just unbelievably incompetent video host who, in between condescending to teenagers and mispronouncing difficult names like “Rapinoe” and “Abby,” tried like Henry Ford to sell us US Soccer merchandise, memberships, and “upgrades.” It was so loud that in an empty section I had to yell to be heard. Seldom do I get to use this phrase correctly: it was literally unspeakable.

Anyway it got worse. A DJ, with pink hair, whose name I have no excuse not to remember since she displayed it on the Jumbotron a lot, “energized” the “crowd” with dance remixes of crappy teen songs including proud American Justin Bieber1. This lasted something like half an hour, with frequent exhortations to get on up and make some noise which every man jack in my section, at least, ignored pitilessly. The Band-Aid company made teenagers smile awkwardly for a really long time to support the USO, then asked all current or former military to stand up and be applauded at. Carli Lloyd appeared in public service announcements. Whoever sang the anthems massacred the Canadian one so badly that Maegan Kelly, who isn’t even from here, grinned with as much bewilderment as long-time Canadian Christine Sinclair. But don’t be offended: “The Star-Spangled Banner” got it in the neck as bad. It was awkward. And noisy.

I was blown out by sensory overload and ready for a nap. This was all before kick-off which, by the way, was twenty minutes late. And I didn’t even have to play.

Imagine being a young Canadian player in that situation. Not just Ariel Young, Julia Grosso, or Jayde Riviere, the 16-year-old debutantes. Imagine Jordan Huitema, who had only ever played in Canada before 20,000 friends or in Portugal before 20 strangers. Or Kelly, making her second Canadian cap against people she must have hoped would be teammates only months ago. Or Lindsay Agnew, fresh off a 291-minute rookie professional season, marking a scorching-hot Megan Rapinoe at the unfamiliar position of right back before an amped-up and hostile crowd. Even Olympic bronze medalist Janine Beckie had never played in the United States against the USWNT before, and as an American-born former member of the US youth pool this was probably an Occasion.

The crowd, though disorganized and smaller than BC Place (from our section we heard one American Outlaw and heard her a lot), was enthusiastic and admirable. The field, on the other hand, was among the worst I had ever seen for an international. Patchy, frequently divoted, with rugby lines highly visible, US Soccer kindly provided their Canadian guests with a first-rate advertisement for artificial turf even before players started slipping on it and Christine Sinclair nearly suffered a serious non-contact injury.

So the new players were in trouble from the start. Kelly, not a native fullback, was torn to shreds by Rapinoe, and was redeemed only in hindsight by even-less-of-a-native-fullback Agnew looking even worse (but with a darned good excuse). Young, who had probably never before tried to mark anybody tougher than Jade Kovacevic, was awkward against Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd, though a couple lovely balls forward showed that she definitely has something. Julia Grosso actually looked good but that was in garbage time down two goals. Deanne Rose, for her half-hour, couldn’t accomplish anything including “get out of her teammates’ way.” Beckie did one very good thing indeed but otherwise was hard to notice for the second game in a row. Even Jessie Fleming, who has done it all if any teenager has, put in probably the worst game I’ve ever seen her play, turning the ball over with the generosity of the stereotypical Canadian on tour, although with the caveat that by the end of the game she was trying to play three positions at once.

Even the veterans could let us down. Shelina Zadorsky made mistakes. Christine Sinclair, who once put in the single best day’s work for Canada against the United States since Sir Isaac Brock, was up high to hold the ball up but aerially against defenders of the Sauerbrunn standard is now sound and fury signifying nothing. You can see her winding up to go for a jump from space, and she doesn’t get a hell of a long way anymore. Ashley Lawrence hurt us worst by jetting back to Paris and not being around to help Canadian woman of the match Allysha Chapman hold things down at fullback.

On the bright side, Adriana Leon, though clumsy in her usual way, was trouble. Chapman was up for both punishing runs from left back and some murder. Stephanie Labbé, after getting kicked in the head by Megan Rapinoe, had the crayon in her brain that made her treat the ball like quantum physics knocked loose and was positively brilliant both distributing her kicks and coming out. And Nichelle Prince, who I could have sworn would be the answer to a trivia question someday, has begun compiling an undeniably substantial highlight reel.

Never get carried away praising any match in which Canada was dominated as thoroughly as the Americans dominated us. Looking on the bright side is Canada Soccer’s job but their so-called “signal to the world” has been rightly mocked. I wouldn’t care to take this team to the 2019 Women’s World Cup if I could help it. But there were, in context, more good things than bad on display. Now John Herdman has a year and a half to test options like Jenna Hellstrom or Amy Pietrangelo, and fire his squad in the crucible of an occasional intense friendly. We play the Americans in the United States too seldom. There are lots of good national teams, but the United States are unique in providing talented opposition plus a crowd that sort of wants to kill us. Even for a fan, that atmosphere takes some getting used to. Let’s give the players as many chances as we can.

99 Friendship Episode 62: No Way San Jose

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · November 15th, 2017 · No comments

Live from San Francisco, and then edited down to a completely non-live version a couple of days thereafter, it’s 99 Friendship episode 62! This week’s show, as usual for episodes where Carolyn and I are in a room together, is even patchier than the grass in San Jose. It is, however, very, very podcast.

As you have probably inferred Carolyn and I recorded this together from our dingy hotel room in San Francisco, California, where we had retired to watch the Canadian women’s national team take on the United States in the second half of their doubleheader. Yes, the game was in San Jose, not San Francisco, but who wanted to spend three nights in San Jose? We spent half of one and that was bad enough. We had also both been in Vancouver for that game, now one of the three best #CanWNT – US rivalry moments without a doubt, and we have things to say.

On this week’s unusual episode:

  • I would like to point out that Carolyn and I had spent almost an entire week zipping around two cities, eating exotic meals, never drinking the same thing two days in a row, watching a heck of a lot of soccer, and generally having a glorious time. As a result “prepare adequately for our podcast” was very low down on the priority list. This will show up. We had a reasonable number of interesting things to say, whether you watched the games or missed them, but there’s no organization to how we say them. We are professionals.

    Also, as always for these, we share my microphone and the sound quality is worse than usual.

  • We begin by talking about the Road to the Roar curling tournament briefly hitting some broad strokes about the two games.

  • On Sunday, as Carolyn put it, “we weren’t as far behind, a bunch of high-schoolers playing the US national team, as you think we should look.”

  • The Lindsay Agnew Ex-spear-i-mint gives Carolyn and I conniptions. This is unfair of us, as we later learned that this happened to Aggers. Few defenders would handle Megan Rapinoe well if their sock was sloshing around in a pool of blood. But it’s on the record now, sorry Lindsay.

  • Players, including teenagers, are discussed.

  • Okay there’s some curling in the middle. It doesn’t last long, we remember soccer things to talk about eventually. It’s like an intermission! Go take a slash!

  • The stadium entertainment in San Jose was terrible. Alex Morgan was offside.

  • We discover the secret to a successful 99 Friendship is not having too much friendship.

Follow 99 Friendship on Twitter if this is the sort of nonsense you feel like adding a point to.

Raising the Middle

By Benjamin Massey · November 12th, 2017 · No comments

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Canada’s women’s national soccer team drew a close-to-full-strength United States 1-1 at a very well-attended, if atmospherically indifferent, friendly in Vancouver last Thursday. This we’ve done before, twice in the John Herdman era. What’s unique is that we really, really deserved it!

The Americans were, as they have been for the past two years, mediocre. Shelina Zadorsky probably committed a penalty that went uncalled in the second half. And we would have lost anyway had Steph Labbé not made a miraculous kick save on a deflection. That said, Jordyn Huitema had a foul called against her late in the game for getting her head busted open in the penalty area, the American goal only happened because of a Labbé punching mistake, and we made a veteran-laden American team featuring Rapinoe, Lloyd, Morgan, and Press look incapable of retaining possession for, and I am being absolutely literal here, the first time in Canadian history.

Therefore, that game was automatically a Very Good Time. ESPN named tireless Jessie Fleming the woman of the match. Deanne Rose mauled Megan Rapinoe so severely that after Rose came off Pinoe broke up with her girlfriend by text. Huitema looked plainly inexperienced at this level but was a net contributor all the same and played great off Christine Sinclair. She survived her head wound, which contrary to what condescending writers would clickbait you into believing, is exactly what an elite athlete like her should do. Then she celebrated with a post-game ginger ale because she’s nine. Our wünderkinds were, by any fair standard, wunderful.

But everyone talks enough about them. We’re so enthusiastic that Huitema wearing a bandage becomes Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. That’s good, really; Fleming, Huitema, and Rose deserve support. The trouble is that we risk forgetting our solid but not headlining prospects. In a way, they should excite us more, because that indicates that something we once did wrong, we now do right. But I am damned if I can figure out what.

Even our worst youth teams, coached by mad Italians losing to Mexico and Costa Rica, have provided interesting players, but the leap from U-20 to senior soccer has been a long way. Even players who came into the senior team as useful pieces at a young age have tended to remain only useful. I am thinking particularly of Brittany Baxter (née Timko), Jonelle Filigno, even Sophie Schmidt. We would have been poorer without them, but they never seemed to make the leap they should have made. Their games did not evolve.

In the past few years, this has begun to change, a long, slow process whose fruits are only beginning to appear. If we exclude the obvious deities the best mortal on the pitch Thursday was Rebecca Quinn. Never as preternaturally gifted as her confrere Kadeisha Buchanan, Quinn has always gotten good reviews after coming into the national team at a young age. She recalled a young Emily Zurrer, the very archetype of the useful young player with a long way to go to become a star.

The difference is that Quinn keeps getting better. Born a centre back, she is now a safe starting option in defensive midfield and has an Olympic qualifying hat trick in her scrapbook. Boasting a new, 2015-Sophie Schmidt-like haircut, Rebecca looked like a new woman on Thursday… but in fact it was the same Quinny, only improved, facing threats as varied as Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, and Andi Sullivan with equanimity. She was better than her defensive partner, Shelina Zadorsky, who has a few seasons’ NWSL experience and has herself improved a bit the past couple years. And Quinn’s best position may be in defensive midfield, where she has, implausibly, surpassed Desiree Scott on many fans’ depth charts.

And Quinn’s not even the most impressive mid-lister. The gold medal for development goes to Adriana Leon, who at age 25 should surely not be classed as a prospect at all. In two years when most players’ destinies are fixed Leon has gone from an on-field liability and one-time Twitter malcontent to a magnificent opposition-bothering impact sub and scorer of two fine senior goals this year. I cannot explain how this possibly happened. After an indifferent NWSL career, not much for the senior WNT, and being changed for a better thing, she went to FC Zürich in 2016. With that underrated little club she showed well in Switzerland, had a three-goal-and-two-assists game in the Champions League, returned to both Canada and the NWSL, and was suddenly pretty good. Thursday’s goal-scoring turn against the Americans was only the most entertaining moment in seven months of good form.

A lot has changed since Adriana’s early days: she was the star striker on that U-20 team Carolina Morace got eliminated very early indeed. But John Herdman and company can’t take credit from a technical perspective: they didn’t see her for over a year. The person most responsible for Leon’s mid-career development spurt must be Adriana Leon. But the country did something right, insomuch as it remembered her and let her stay in the game, and brought her back when she was ready.

These things never used to go so well. For decades the classic Canadian role player was a physical specimen rather than a technically developed, versatile contributor. Changing this was a conscious goal of many coaches and administrators throughout the country. Now that it is happening, and the results are before our eyes, we are so blinded by Roses and Huitemae that we can’t see it. Leon, a hard-charging bull in a china shop, and Quinn, who is tall, would both in a different era relied upon their obvious physical powers too heavily. In November 2017 they look like soccer players.

We are not World Cup champions yet. Quinn has learned much of her trade at Duke, Leon picked up her magic boots in Europe; the path to long-term success requires a road through Canada. Nor has everybody been equally successful, because that never happens. But we’re going the right way. Leon scoring against the US because Quinn hit the crossbar bodes just as well for our program as Jessie Fleming descending from heaven.

99 Friendship Episode 61 COMPLETELY DEVOID OF CURLING CANWNT SPECIAL

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · November 6th, 2017 · No comments

On this week’s very special 61st episode of 99 Friendship:

  • NO CURLING

  • The reason we have no curling is not because we, like, like you or anything, dear listener. It’s because Canada has a friendly on Thursday against the United States in Vancouver, and a return engagement Sunday in San Jose. Late last week the Canadian Soccer Association put out its roster and it is replete with talking points, if not drinking companions.

  • What I call the “full Danny Worthington experience” is upon us once again as, nominally, Canada has basically no midfielders. It’s okay in this case because we also have basically no fullbacks and only two centrebacks. To play the United States. It makes sense, since Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan, and Shannon Woeller are busy drinking wine and looking at dirty postcards in Europe. But it’s alarming. When you’re playing. The United States. Twice.

  • Many of the players on this team are very young. Between us we have some knowledge of some of the youngsters, and we share it.

  • One of the players, Meagan Kelly, is American. Not the famous American Megan Kelly, the television personality. The less famous American Meagan Kelly, the Kansas City midfielder/fullback/forward??? nobody watches Kansas City games.

  • We predict results, because that’s the format. Carolyn goes insane.

  • Canada Soccer is also honouring Chelsea Stewart, Brittany Baxter, and Kelly Parker, 2012 Olympic bronze medalists, during the game. Our memories of these three players are not, um, inspiring, but we put them on the episode anyway. This leads to a lengthy digression about Baxter’s finest hour, the 2004 FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championships.

  • Because we are following a bunch of teenage girls to California odds are episode 62 will come late. So, though not relevant to the show, let me take the chance to share Carolyn’s NCAA cansoc bracket now:

Big episode this week!

99 Friendship Episode 60

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · November 1st, 2017 · No comments

This week on a not-at-all-Halloween-special-because-we-don’t-mention-Halloween-once episode of 99 Friendship:

  • Carolyn is very excited about the curling. She is very excited, because Jennifer Jones had a seven-ender against world number one Anna Hasselborg. If you don’t speak curling, that’s a lot.

  • Canada’s women’s national soccer team has begun its training camp prior to playing the United States twice in a couple weeks. As of recording time, on Sunday evening, we did not know the roster. And as of blog posting time, on Wednesday morning, we still don’t know the roster! The US roster, of course, is out, so thank you Canada Soccer for not making our podcast obsolete prior to release.

  • The College Desk and the Foreign Desk return with, alas, some slow news. Sophie Schmidt scored a goal and Jessie Fleming deserved to. Actual Summer Olympic Bronze Medalist Deanne Rose, to the surprise of very few, has turned out to be an excellent freshman soccer player in the SEC. Victoria Pickett and Sarah Stratigakis are scooping honours as we head into tournament time, when Carolyn gets one of her trademark huge brackets all drawn up.

  • And then holy macaroni it is Curling O’Clock. Thomas Ulsrud wears pants, Kevin Koe destroys some loser, Brad Gushue and Jennifer Jones destroy all losers, and from that inspiring week of curling we take away “we are scared for Canada at the Olympics.”

  • My mouth always wants to say “Lethbridge” even when my brain knows it wants “Lloydminster.” This is how I work and there’s nothing I can do.

Next week will be a big exciting WNT-versus-USA preview! Unless we still don’t have a roster by next weekend! Which we might not, leaving us to make logical deductions from NCAA rosters and people’s Instagrams!