In their first game of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, Canada Shithouse Queened their way to a 1-0 win over Cameroon, a not-very-good team, in efficient if unattractive style. A few days later they beat New Zealand, theoretically better, up and down the pitch, won 2-0, and despite New Zealand’s negative tactics looked plenty dangerous. What the hell gives?
The game was close to perfect. Fifteen minutes in Nichelle Prince and Janine Beckie had already snatched half-chances, Canada had something like 70% of the possession, and New Zealand was out of it. But when a Beckie cross broke C.J. Bott’s wrist by a fluke she was down for nearly three minutes before being helped off. From the resulting corner Sinclair hit the crossbar and Buchanan headed her follow-up into Rebekah Stott, but referee Yoshimi Yamashita was as rattled as everyone else, imposed herself on the game a bit, the fans got stupid1, a few more New Zealanders went down for injury breaks less justifiable than Bott’s, and at the end of the first half the flow died, which suited New Zealand just fine.
In the second half the peace was shattered by Canada’s big guns, we came out on the attack, stayed that way, and made it look easy. A 2-0 loss flattered the Footie Ferns, but the players were not thinking “it could have been four” I think: Jessie Fleming’s delight and relief on scoring her first World Cup goal was obvious from a long way off. That goal and Prince’s meant our first two-goal game in a Women’s World Cup since September 20, 2007, when we drew Australia 2-2 and allowed a stoppage-time goal to Cheryl Salisbury that eliminated us in the group stage. It is also our first two-win performance in a World Cup group stage since 2003, when we beat Argentina and pre-apex Japan, though the groups were tougher in those days. We finished fourth in that World Cup, our best result ever.
Chris Henderson gave New Zealand 0.06 expected goals against Canada. As of close of play Monday this is the fifth-best defensive figure of the tournament so far by Henderson’s analysis2 and the second-best against a real team3. We also generated 3.60, which is high for us, and made for far better statistics than Canada earned against Cameroon, where our 1-0 win was safe but nothing like this good.
Is it because New Zealand is actually worse than Cameroon? It may be (they play on Thursday) but New Zealand has underperformed. Offensively they’re not much but they don’t belong in the category with Chile, Argentina, and Thailand that the Canada game placed them into: they so nearly got a point against the Dutch in a much closer game with 0.63 expected goals and 2.70 expected goals against. The Dutch, on the other hand, handled Cameroon easily despite conceding a goal and some other half-chances. Group E has sorted itself into a top half of Canada and the Netherlands, and a bottom half of Cameroon and New Zealand, which was predictable, but the gap between those two halves and the closeness within them was not.
Partially the New Zealand game was a justification of Cameroon’s tactics: their aggressive early press against Canada punished them in end and did so even more severely against the Netherlands and Vivianne Miedema, but it kept the game closer than New Zealand’s unimaginative bunker. Partially I think it was the conditions: a rainy day, like that in Montpellier, can favour a team pouring out its energy and sliding into everything, but while there’d been a veritable monsoon earlier on game day in Grenoble, by kickoff time it was the most perfect evening and even the pitch was drying out. It was also late (the local time at kickoff was 9 PM), and New Zealand had the crowd against them while Cameroon had the crowd on their side, and the ref called a better game, and when you’re outclassed those mental issues add up. Finally, Canada just played better against New Zealand than we did against Cameroon.
After a conventional kickoff Kenneth Heiner-Møller ran out essentially a 3-4-3, with Shelina Zadorsky, Kadeisha Buchanan, and Sophie Schmidt in the back, a middle four of Ashley Lawrence, Desiree Scott, Jessie Fleming, and Jayde Riviere, and Janine Beckie, Christine Sinclair, and Nichelle Prince up top, though it was very fluid. Against a team that wanted to bunker for its life against the Canadian attack (!!!) it paid off handsomely. Buchanan and Schmidt between them give Canada a lot of defensive ball-playing ability. Lawrence pretty much did whatever she wanted and was very effective. Beckie and Sinclair both could have scored; Prince, after an appalling start, did. Despite the theoretically-attacking setup New Zealand had neither the ability nor the inclination to create anything against it; when a coach loads up his attack and not only scored a few but gets his best defensive result in some time, you should give the coach a little credit. New Zealand boss Tom Sermanni worked with Canada and John Herdman in 2015, so maybe Heiner-Møller wanted to hit the old man with the unexpected. If he did it worked.
Not that the coach foresaw everything. First half Nichelle Prince was bad. She wasted runs, wasted balls, wasted everyone’s time. It looked like Heiner-Møller was going to bring Adriana Leon on to start the second half, probably for Prince: Leon was warming up separately with her pinnie off in the style of an impending change. But she went back to the locker room during the break to emerge, still pinnie-less, after play had resumed, then took sprints on the touchline to warm back up. The next stoppage in play was from the Fleming goal, assisted excellently by Prince, and the substitution was canceled. Prince of course was beyond New Zealand’s level for the rest of the game. Credit to Prince for rallying but sometimes a coach has to be lucky to be good.
Riviere made her sixth senior cap, her second senior start, and her first senior tournament appearance. An eighteen-year-old Canadian woman never really has a fixed position but Riviere’s historically been a winger, so this was a change. But she looked terrific, discharging her light defensive duties perfectly and playing the ball with élan that recalled a higher-energy Lawrence. The change from Riviere to Allysha Chapman was effective as well, the stiletto replaced by an athletic sock with a brick in it. Sinclair did not have her finest game and made some mistakes but deserved a goal; it was that sort of night. Finally Desiree Scott, omnipresent, was man of the match; at times she looked like scoring a goal, which would have been the crowning glory given that in 145 caps she’s never managed it. Still, though we all want Sinclair to break the record and Scott to break her goose-egg, those were the only flaws in a performance to gladden the heart of any Canada fan.
Well, there is one other problem. You can’t really play that way against the Netherlands. As good as Riviere looked, Shanice van de Sanden and especially Lieke Martens would expose her defensively; she’s played maybe an hour of her life against talent like that. Perhaps if you throw Chapman back in for Riviere, you get away with it, but even then your back three is spending less time freewheeling creatively and more time babysitting a far more dangerous Dutch attack, and the first time Vivianne Miedema gets a break against Sophie Schmidt hearts are going to enter throats. In an abstract way I do think Canada should expose itself a bit more even against good teams, and the indifferent Dutch defense means that we could surely give as good as we got, but part of the reason the New Zealand game looked so stirring is that Canada has so infrequently played that way. Let’s keep it in our back pocket as a reserve tactic, and let’s be glad that Sarina Wiegman has one more thing to worry about, but likely the Dutch—and most games in the knockout stages, very likely—call for more classic Canadian Shithouse Queenery. Sorry, viewers.
Historically, the Cameroon women’s national team is bad at soccer. They have qualified for one Olympics and two World Cups despite only having to get out of Africa, which some of my readers could do if they found ten equivalent friends. In 2015 they won two games in the group stage, somehow, over Switzerland and worst-team-alive Ecuador, but those were their first and only points in major competition. That aside, on the rare occasion they play non-African competition they lose heavily including a 2018 6-0 friendly loss to France. Their FIFA ranking is 46th, which is well into the disgraces.
Yet, in their opening game of the 2019 World Cup, Cameroon held Canada, who have an outside chance at winning this thing, to only a 1-0 win. Worse, that seemed fair: Chris Henderson had Canada leading the expected goals 1.31 to 0.68. This is impossible to look up but I doubt any team outside Africa has ever generated as few as 1.31 expected goals against the Cameroonians.
In mitigation we would say, first, that there was never any thought Cameroon might actually win this thing, and second, that the battery of uncalled fouls against Jessie Fleming in the final hour, some of which didn’t even pretend to try for the ball, cut down the chances Canada could create almost as much as Kadeisha Buchanan chopping down a Cameroonian attacker like a Christmas tree and somehow getting a foul called in her favour early in the game did the other way.
Third, and most importantly, Canada played the game to win it by one. Cameroon came out of the gate pressing as hard as ever they could and generating some decent results. They are not that skilled but they’re skilled enough, they’re not Thailand at all, and they’re quick and strong. Buoyed by a crowd that was modest but rambunctiously in their favour (the Cameroonian population in France is extensive), they challenged the Canadians to the best of their abilities and, very briefly, made the game look even. The rain in Montpellier, which at times was truly torrential, probably made things easier, encouraging aggressive tackles and making running seem less painful than disciplined positional play when the cold and the wet make inactive muscles tighten up. Of course you pay for it in the end, and Cameroon did: towards the end of the first half they were flagging, and at the end of the second Cameroon was trying their hardest but effectively unable to complete and the game was functionally over.
Cameroon’s one apparently high-class scoring chance, the header wide by Claudine Meffometou, was actually marked out perfectly by Allysha Chapman, who kept outside on Meffometou as she went up and prevented her from ever getting a header on target. Canada generated probably the sum of one good chance: Kadeisha Buchanan’s headed goal usually doesn’t go in, but Christine Sinclair’s header wide on the second-half break by Deanne Rose usually does1. Every stat other than expected goals showed Canadian dominance: passes, possession, challenges, tackles, name it. From the terraces the Voyageurs watched that game and worried Cameroon would snatch it because soccer is a stupid old game, but we also weren’t really.
To an extent Canada’s offensive ineptitude is bad luck. From the Fleming fouls to the balls not quite rolling our way or onto Cameroonian shins, we weren’t exactly loaded up on breaks Monday night. On the other hand, the same Chris Henderson who gave us 1.61 xG against Cameroon gave us 0.39 for our preparatory friendly against Spain “B.” On the other other hand Spain got 0.05, and if your opponents can expect to score on you one game in every twenty that will, generally, do. We can be better but for now, this is who we are, and we shouldn’t start trying to open the floodgates at a World Cup because fans think we’d be so much more attacking if we’d only apply ourselves.
It’s time to accept Canada’s nickname as the “Shithouse Queens” (♫ having the time of our lives… ♫). This is how we’re playing and has been for a while; notwithstanding the fact that we were playing true super-minnows, it’s even what we were doing in Olympic qualifying. Scott and Schmidt in defensive midfield clogging everything up, Buchanan running wild, a lot of attacks based off individual excellence like Rose running past everybody in Montpellier. There are things to tighten up, without a doubt: we passed too much in the first half, given the demonstrated long-range chops of Sinclair, Schmidt, and Beckie we wouldn’t do any harm if instead of going for the perfect lay-off we just let ‘er go once in a while. And I reckon that, in general, an over-focus on crosses has served us badly every time we’ve tried it. Christine Sinclair is big, strong, and heads the ball well, but actually she isn’t nearly at her best trying to get service from crosses. We certainly have the ability to take on teams south of France and the USA up the middle.
These are the sorts of criticisms fans always have, though. We know our team is amazing and want them to prove it, like… well, the United States against a hopelessly demoralized Thailand, with a goalkeeper no longer bothering to move into the way of shots by the 60th minute. However, if we put down the rosé-coloured glasses2 and consider this objectively, Canada’s current tactics have been effective. They are, moreover, the sorts of tactics that are tailor-made for playing top teams. The TSN panel and television viewers and, really, those of us in the stands in France might want more attacking tactics against a team like Cameroon that shouldn’t be able to resist no matter what we do. But the smart thing to do is to play Cameroon more-or-less like you’d play the United States, give-or-take things like squad rotation (and if we are to criticize Canada and Kenneth Heiner-Møller for one thing, let it be that we made one substitution when vital, high-energy players like Sinclair or Lawrence could easily have been given 30 helpful minutes off). Coaches say, “practice as you mean to play,” and they’re right. There’s room to improve but what Canada does has been winning us soccer games and, though it reads lousy in the post-match reports, tense 1-0 wins over everybody are exciting enough in the moment.
Squizz is an optimist and a patron of lost causes, but he’s onto something. The 2019 Canadian women’s national team is being called, by serious players who have even watched the games that aren’t on TSN, our best ever. The only serious argument would come from the circa 2003 team, which was mostly too young but featured apex Andrea Neil and was the only major tournament where both 20-year-old Christine Sinclair and 35-year-old Charmaine Hooper were within reasonable range of their primes. That team didn’t beat anybody they weren’t supposed to beat, but they beat everybody they had to and got us our best-ever fourth-place finish at a World Cup. You could argue for our 2016 Olympic team, but since that’s this team with some young players replaced by inferior old ones, it sort of concedes the argument.
Naturally, the rest of the world has not sat still. As we know this is also the best Dutch team ever, the best Australian, probably the best English, and overall maybe the best American, which is a thought to chill the blood. Even last year, at home, this Canadian team was distinctly outplayed by Germany.
Yet sit down, plan Canada’s path to victory, and it is the right side of insane. If we win our group, which is difficult but realistic, we get a round-of-16 match against most likely England or Japan. That’s rough for a round-of-16 game, but Canada winning would arguably not even be a surprise. England is good, but maybe a bit overrated; certainly not off Canada’s tier. Japan seems to be on the way down. We’ve also beaten both teams recently after some long cold streaks. The last World Cup aside, and we absolutely could have won that game, Canada’s had England’s number since 2014 or so. Get through that and the probable quarter-final is against Australia, an easier opponent, or a pupu platter of South Korea/Brazil/Norway-type outfits who could upset the Aussies but aren’t really in our weight class. Then you’re in the money, and the rest of the way every team is either good or on a roll, but the most probable semi-final opponent is Germany and even though it didn’t really count we’ve beaten them too…
Intangible-wise, looking for destiny’s choice, there are only two options: France, a brilliant team but infamous chokers, hosting a tournament that’s got the country’s attention by the millions, looking to finally prove that its enormous reputation is merited on the biggest stage it will ever have, and Canada, or more specifically Christine Sinclair, within a couple years of calling time on the greatest career in women’s soccer history but without a single, solitary international winner’s medal to show for it, finally playing on a team worthy of her powers. The women’s soccer gods like teams of destiny. They are sentimental souls.
Not that we’re among the favourites. Maybe it’s one chance in ten, maybe it’s one chance in twenty, the odds are real but they’re slim. We have no glaring weaknesses but no distinct strengths. We have a few players who’d make any roster in the world but not one superstar in her prime. In goal we whisper “if only Erin McLeod was five years younger,” at forward we whisper “if only Jordyn Huitema was seven years older,” and in midfield it’s better because we’re only wishing for another four on young Jessie Fleming. The future is bright, except that when Sinclair ages out it’ll lose a little bit of its purpose.
Today’s problem is, unusually, our attack. So far this year in eight official matches we have scored eight goals, including a 3-0 home win over Mexico. We’ve been shut out by Iceland, Sweden, and Spain. Against Spain in particular we badly outplayed their second eleven, dominating the final half such as you seldom see us outside CONCACAF, and drew 0-0 because we couldn’t get the ball in the net. We’re undefeated in 2019 because we haven’t conceded at all, but you probably can’t pull that off for an entire World Cup. This just isn’t enough scoring.
Mostly it’s indistinguishable from bad luck; we’re clearly generating chances, and it’s tempting to invoke the gambler’s fallacy and say we’re due to score in the World Cup. John Herdman’s teams had spells like this too and it seemed to come right on the day. We need Janine Beckie to recapture her 2016 form, and Nichelle Prince her 2017–18, not miracles. But if they don’t, it gets bad.
Stephanie Labbé was once a question mark, and her recent club history has been weird even by Canadian standards. She spent 2018 mostly sans club after agreeing in principle to join the Calgary Foothills PDL team but having the move blocked by the league. She then played UWS, which is way below her level, and was a late-season addition to a mid-table Swedish team. This year the North Carolina Courage, historically good defensively, gave Labbé the starting job this year in place of 2017 NWSL Second XI ‘keeper Katelyn Rowland. That’s a mighty endorsement, and in four games Labbe’s made five saves on seven shots, because the Courage do not ask a lot of their goalies. In her starts Rowland’s been ventilated, but that’s with seven World Cup players (including Labbé) away. It could mean anything.
But international fans have it figured out. Canada’s most pleasant soccer surprise since Desiree Scott has been that we can trust Stephanie Labbé after all. Prior to the 2016 Olympics, when we learned Erin McLeod had suffered her then-latest career-threatening knee injury, I got drunk and belaboured Karina LeBlanc to come out of retirement. Labbé had a decent tournament, better than feared, and since has clearly improved. Maybe training with Foothills helped her; they have been a goalkeeping factory lately. But the terrifying “oh god you can’t get to that” runs have almost stopped, when Labs punches a ball these days odds are it’ll go to a better place than it was before, and her decision-making has maybe doubled or tripled.
As her shot-stopping was always fine, though not McLeod-in-her-prime good, and her distribution fair (long on power, sometimes short on accuracy), this means that, when McLeod was briefly healthy last year, nobody called for her to start. One would not rank her with the best keepers in the world but she’s good enough to start for a contender, and that was the best we were hoping for three years ago.
If something happens Kailen Sheridan or Sabrina D’Angelo steps in. D’Angelo is older, but the third-string: she was a backup in North Carolina last year, posting decent numbers in an easy situation including a playoff shutout, and now starts for Sweden’s Vittsjö GIK ahead of fellow Canadian, and Scottish international, Shannon Lynn. Sheridan walked out of Clemson to become the starter for Sky Blue, which for the past three seasons has been a difficult job. In both 2017 and 2018 she led the NWSL in shots faced; in 2019 she’s fifth despite having missed three games. Her save percentages have been mid-range at best, so don’t give her Steph’s job, but at 23 years old she’s getting lots of reps against world-class attackers. We aren’t back to McLeod/LeBlanc by any means and Sheridan has mistakes in her but she’d do.
Everyone in Canada loves Kadeisha Buchanan, and there’s a lot there to love: quality technique, physical dominance, just the right side of being a dirty player. But realize that, while she is high-class, she is not world-class. She does not start the big games for her club, Olympique Lyonnais, ranking behind French internationals Wendie Renard and Griedge Mbock Bathy. Nobody would start ahead of Renard and Mbock Bathy is a domestic, so this might still leave Buchanan inside the international top ten. But we’re talking about the core defender on a team we hope will win the World Cup, and that means she’ll have to be at her very best for us to win.
Rebecca Quinn is listed in this category mostly out of hope. She’s a very good defensive midfielder, capable of both defending and lying deep to distribute the ball, and could start there. But Desiree Scott is a perfectly adequate defensive midfielder herself, with Sophie Schmidt able to provide cover. At centre back, Shelina Zadorsky… would be better suited for a lesser role. We saw in 2015 how a lack of centre back depth can murder you stone cold dead in winnable games. Quinn came up as a centre back, her versatility moved her up the field, she’s been a great success there, and moving to France will only do her good learning those arts, but let’s get back to basics for a few years and put Quinn beside Buchanan like it used to be.
That aside, we should be good here if nothing goes wrong. Ashley Lawrence is a world-leading full back, who can play on either side, defend responsibly, outdribble many, outrun most, and provide comprehensive, consistent, world-class play. Unlike Buchanan she plays almost every day for her French team, Paris Saint-Germain. Across from her is Allysha Chapman, my current favourite Canadian player. She is a “modern full back” mostly in terms of exuberance: she’ll attack you but more with eagerness and guts than skill, dribbling like a fawn on roller skates. This works more often than you might think. And defensively she is a terrier, hard-nosed and dirty and disinclined to take prisoners. She is enormous fun to watch, if not to play against, and though I make her sound like some crappy all-guts-no-glory typical Canadian try-hard she is actually very effective, like a female Paul Stalteri but with a greater sense of joy. Not up to Lawrence’s standard but holy moly she’s good to have around. If you are new to this team, watch Allysha Chapman and be enlightened.
So the starters are acceptable, but things drop off fast. At full back we have the options of Lindsay Agnew, Jenna Hellstrom, and Jayde Riviere, all of whom are native forwards and emphatically experiments. Moving Lawrence to full back worked out great but that doesn’t mean you can do it every time; Hellstrom and Riviere lack experience at this level and in her cameos Agnew has been at best awkward. The centre is bolstered by Shannon Woeller, an exceptional story: she was on the taxi squad for London 2012 but did not enjoy a high reputation and was not missed when John Herdman stopped calling her. As the years passed she moved to Scandinavia, then Germany, and kept her career quietly on the boil, until in April 2017 Canada was holding a camp in Germany and needed some warm bodies. Woeller was both known and available, so she got called in to help with training, and since then has made an additional four caps, looking much-improved in short minutes. If she plays much something’s gone wrong, but if she plays some that’s perfectly all right and she’s a terrific “dreams do come true” story.
Matheson, in her salad days, was a very good player. She remains a leader and a class act. But her salad days are over. When Matheson is in the lineup she doesn’t look like she belongs anymore; the knees have gone, she’s neither as shifty nor as quick as she used to be, and because she’s such an infrequent part of the squad it’s developing without her. It is my impression that when Matheson is in, the somewhat naturally-diffident Jessie Fleming withdraws into her shell, and Canada is worse for it. Matheson could probably be useful as depth, but Gabby Carle might not be a lot less. So no, except in terms of team friendship and the hopes of fans who’d like to see Matheson collect more silverware, losing her won’t cost Canada.
The hope is that this is the tournament where Jessie Fleming blossoms into the player we all know she should be. No longer is she wearing herself out covering for inferior fullbacks, or deferring to Matheson, and she has a little more age and experience. 2023, not 2019, will be the big World Cup for her, when she’s turned pro and hitting her physical prime, but in the 2016 Olympics she looked like she was on the verge of tournament best XI, and if she can get there this year that would be very good.
Fleming has scored once in 2019 after getting three in 2018. It’s an artifact of that attacking drought more than anything, and of playing decent teams rather than CONCACAF shitholes, but we haven’t seen her best. She certainly needs to bring it more consistently against the big teams. She’s a fine player and only 21 but in her third major tournament she’s earning expectations besides “being good for a kid.” Jessie Fleming at her best is formidable, an all-around attacking and defensive threat that very few, if any, teams can really contain. Playing at UCLA she is way above the level and her international performances suffer, but hopefully the concentrated preparation of a World Cup overrides that. We need it to.
Beyond the big dog, Canada has a solid deep unit here. Desiree Scott lost some of her mojo when she went to Notts County but is finding it again and should be safe. Sophie Schmidt, between nagging injuries and an overlong period not playing regular soccer, is unlikely to be the core piece in 2019 she should have been in 2015. She has too much rust. But the same benefit of a concentrated camp applies to her as Fleming, and even at her least good she’s a versatile option across midfield and sometimes in the back who you always notice on the field, if only because of the hair. There’s a solid chance that, thanks to concentrated training, good health, and the resumption of her NWSL career, we’ll get Good Sophie back this tournament, and that’ll be a draw turned into a win right there.
Julia Grosso, 18 years of age, is not a Fleming-esque phenom, but she’s an interesting young attacking midfielder who’s going to make the bench on merit, probably see a few minutes, and has greatly improved how she thinks the game in the past year. Gabrielle Carle is another attacking midfielder, a forward much of the time but not for Canada, who is quick and sly and unlikely to play much. It’s a short list of players, but really Quinn is more likely to line up here than defensively, Jenna Hellstrom can line up wide, and in the Herdman/Heiner-Møller system the fullbacks and forwards chip in here. I realize it looks a lot like a donut formation, especially with anti-midfielder coach Danny Worthington among the assistants, but top to bottom this is probably our strongest position.
To answer the big questions: no, Christine Sinclair is no longer the best forward in the world, of course she isn’t, she turns 36 during the World Cup. She is arguably not the best forward on the Canadian national team, though I heavily stress the “arguably.” The chances of a vintage, London 2012-style taking over of the world are slim to none.
But she’s still an exceptionally, maybe even a surprisingly, good player. Last year she was shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or and came 15th out of 15, which was probably about right. Her scoring rate seriously revived in 2018, eight goals or her country placing her ahead of Sam Kerr, Vivianne Miedema, and other big names, while her NWSL production was star-level. In 2019 she’s kept it up with four goals so far. Not only does Sinclair obviously deserve to start for Canada but she’d be a starter for most World Cup teams, old lady or no. It’s really impressive how Sinclair, who has been injured and was once ragged for indifferent fitness, has been playing at such a high level into her mid-30s, which is why #ChasingAbby has gone from “wouldn’t it be nice” to a near-certainty barring injury.
Thank God for Christine, as we’ve said a few times in the last twenty years. It looked like we were getting past that, with Janine Beckie scoring more often for her country and Adriana Leon and Nichelle Prince settling in to nice complementary roles. But after scoring nine goals in 2016 and eight in 2017 (in fewer matches), Beckie slumped to four goals last year and has only one so far in 2019, against Nigeria. She hasn’t become a bad player. Joining Manchester City as part of a powerful strike force, she’s been an impact substitute with a goal in the league and a bunch in the cup. She’s generated chances for Canada too. It should come around for her, in principle. But a Beckie who’s not scoring is a Beckie who’s not doing enough.
Nichelle Prince was showing very good attacking impetus off the bench in 2018, scoring four goals against Brazil (real soccer country), Costa Rica (semi-real), and a brace against Jamaica (I mean they’re in the World Cup). But in 2019 so far she’s been shut out despite making seven starts. Worse, unlike Beckie, she isn’t creating much.
Jordyn Huitema, the very good 18-year-old who just joined PSG, is tall, talented for her age, and unlikely to play much of a role. Lately, particularly in the friendly against Spain, she’s shown signs of growing into a useful option off the bench as she matures both physically and mentally, and her spelling Sinclair in a couple games would be a bonus. All the trends are good, but we won’t want to count on her in 2019. She’s reached the point where she can light up bad CONCACAF teams, but our best lineup has Christine Sinclair in it, and with Sinclair on Huitema goes out wide, and that just isn’t her game. She definitely has “future international target woman” potential and this will be a good experience for her but her impact on Canada’s immediate fortunes will be marginal.
Last, and sadly approaching least, is once-phenomenal winger Deanne Rose. Unlike Huitema, Rose is more comfortable the wider she plays, and so during her coming-out party in 2014 and 2015 looked like an exceptional attacking talent for a 16-year-old. Now, four years later, she looks like an exceptional attacking talent for a 16-year-old. There have been few signs of development in any area I can see. In 718 NCAA minutes at the University of Florida she scored twice, and that was a bad team but she was part of why. Rose was not the best Canadian attacker playing college soccer in Florida last year, and it was not even close, but Evelyne Viens has never been called up and Rose keeps getting the nod on her rep. Every minute Rose plays outside of garbage time indicates a problem.
As to Leon, she lit up the useless countries at CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, including a four-bagger against Cuba. She also scored in our send-off friendly against Mexico. She has got value beyond pure scoring, because she’ll usually be coming off the bench to hip-check girls and run at everyone in sight, destabilizing defences with energy and her definite opinion that she should always be attacking from everywhere. Next to Sinclair she has the least improvement to do; we don’t need more than the occasional strike from her. She can’t score for her clubs either, but clubs keep subbing her on, because she’s a handful.
Finally: as of tournament’s start Christine Sinclair is on 181 goals, three back of Abby Wambach’s 184. She scored three goals in the 2003 World Cup, three in 2007, one in 2011, and two in 2015, so it’s unlikely the record falls in France. But if Cameroon has an off-night she could get a brace there, and then watch out. If Sinclair wants her record goal to be the winner in a World Cup final that would be fine.
This is the best chance we’ve ever had.
Canada can not only beat everyone in the world but, apart from the United States, recently has. We didn’t win those two Olympic bronze medals for showing up and the winning habit is becoming ingrained. The surprise coaching change from John Herdman to Kenneth Heiner-Møller, with Christine Sinclair and the players finding out about it from the press release, could have been destructive. But Heiner-Møller was already known to the team and, both tactically and in terms of his personal approach, has continued a lot of what Herdman started. He has even assumed Herdman’s old habit of watching the first minutes of friendlies from high up in the stands. If the players have a problem today then they’re keeping it quiet. Show video of Canada 2019 under Heiner-Møller next to Canada 2017 under Herdman then, give-or-take things like Jordyn Huitema being two years more mature, even experts would be hard-pressed to tell the difference.
At their best, Canada will be a handful. The good news is that, aside from our offensive bad luck, Canada has been reliable lately. Our last really disappointing performance was a 3-2 loss at home to Germany, and even that was still a 3-2 loss at home to Germany which we could have won had we been sharper. There have been a few losses to teams we should be better than at Algarve Cups and so on but that’s what Algarve Cups are for. We can be confident that, even in the worst case, this doesn’t end with the Netherlands passing us off the park and Sweden humanely destroying us in the round of 16. Whatever happens we’ll put up a fight.
It would be reassuring to say better about what truly is the best CanWNT ever. Unfortunately that’s just life in the growing world of women’s soccer: the fact that we’ve not only held our ground but improved against the rest of the world as more traditional soccer powers have embraced the women’s game is a powerful tribute to our talent pool. But we’ve got the best we could realistically hope for: a fighting chance at a trophy. And this team has given us so many magical moments in the past seven years it’s hard not to keep our hopes up.
The 2015 Women’s World Cup had some teams that really didn’t belong. How well we remember results like Germany 10-0 Ivory Coast, or Switzerland 10-1 Ecuador, or Cameroon 6-0 Ecuador. Ecuador was really bad. But it’s 2019, women’s soccer has developed for four years, and Ecuador didn’t qualify. Instead we have Chile, and Jamaica, and Thailand and Cameroon are back!
Fans in France will get to enjoy some hilarious blowouts, making all those Ligue 1 Féminin fans feel at home.
Usefully previewing a whole 24-team women’s soccer tournament is impossible. How’s Thailand’s depth at fullback? Any writer not actually Thai will neither know nor care. In the men’s World Cup even bad teams have a few guys playing in the Eredivisie or something so you’ll know a guy who’s seen him on DAZN or at least have a good, instinctive feel for the level? The Women’s World Cup does not play that way.
Let’s divide the field in four. We’ll start with the last one, the no-hopers: Cameroon, Chile, Thailand, Argentina, Jamaica, South Africa, Nigeria. That’s seven teams, two of which are in the same group, so we can literally guarantee they won’t all finish with zero points. In fact, soccer being a sport, over the course of 20 combined games there’ll be one big upset in there. It’s perfectly possible that one of them will get out of the group stage and get the stuffing beat out of them by Australia or something. There’s too many teams in this category for them all to fail spectacularly in a 24-team tournament. But none of them are going to medal. If any of them reaches a quarter it’ll be the upset of the century. They aren’t worth dwelling on.
For the sake of versimilitude, if your team gets to play one of these trash teams, here are the names to drop at the pub so you look knowledgeable. Chilean goalkeeper Christiane Endler is Honestly Good; she turns out for Paris Saint-Germain and is reigning league Goalkeeper of the Year. Canadians can score points by pointing out Jamaica’s Tiffany Cameron, who’d be playing for us if she was better, and if you’re curious the very white girl starting in goal for them is named Sydney Schneider, she’s from New Jersey, she’s 19, and she’s done quite well at the youth levels. Feel like talking up an African? Pick South Africa’s defender and captain Janine van Wyk, their most-capped player who was semi-regular with the Houston Dash for a couple years.
Then there’s the mushy middle. They won’t disgrace themselves, most to all of them will make the round of 16 because that’s how numbers work, and I’m sure to their players and fans their games are the most important things in the world. But in historic terms they will only count because of how they hurt somebody else. South Korea, Spain, Brazil, Italy, Scotland, New Zealand. Some former middle powers on there, and maybe a couple future ones, but no teams worth setting the 4 AM alarm for. There are still individual players in this group who are well worth seeing. Scotland’s Kim Little may be the best female player in Britain and at 28 years old is reaching the height of her powers; add in Utah’s Rachel Corsie and the Scots are blessed with fun names anyway. Marta, of course, plays for Brazil, and while some people talking about women’s soccer love her because she’s the only player they’ve heard of she is an all-time great and saves her best stuff for big games. Maybe even better, somehow a 41-year-old Formiga is still hanging around the Brazilian squad; her first cap was for the Portuguese Empire, and her last might be on the Day of Judgement. Spain is definitely on the way up, and will not be this much of an also-ran in four years. Actually, they might well break out of it by the Olympics. They haven’t got the horses yet, but their 20-somethings are already making UEFA Champions League finals so watch out. New Zealand was harped upon earlier. Italy and South Korea also exist; the Italians have had very good results recently, and if only they’d played anybody real they might be worth considering as dark horses.
The three top contenders qualify for real analysis. These are the United States, France, and Germany. Cumulatively they probably have even odds of winning the World Cup. 538’s Sudbury-Thunder Bay office makes their combined chances 49%. At press time Bet365 gave 3.5-to-1 odds on France and the USA and 5.5-to-1 on Germany. Germany and the United States have won World Cups and Olympic gold medals before, France has never gotten better than a fourth-place finish but is France.
American lives are made easier by how hilariously trivial their group is. They’re near-certain going to win it; when the US chokes, which ain’t their way, it isn’t by dropping points to Thailand. Hope Solo is gone, giving up the soccer field for the boardroom (and not as a defendant), but Chicago Red Stars standout Alyssa Naeher has spent half a decade as an understudy and is probably better now than a 37-year-old Solo would have been in any event. If you want to find something to complain say that Adrianna Franch, the two-time defending NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year, might be better, but you can’t say Naeher isn’t good.
The defense is aging, apart from defender-only-by-default Crystal Dunn and Emily Sonnett, who thanks to semi-regular exposure to Thorns games I have come to like. But while you might exploit Becky Sauerbrunn or Ali Krieger for pace here and there, we’ve had that exact hope of every American defense going back to London 2012 and it hasn’t panned out. We have to admit that, helped by the benefit of the doubt from referees, the Americans play a savvy defensive game that rewards experienced players.
Further up the field brings more age. The Carli Lloyd Story continues long after the writers have stopped caring, Megan Rapinoe is still around, and Alex Morgan puts the ball in the net often enough that like a 2015-era Wambach you can’t write her off no matter how much you want to. Even some of the newer spear-carriers in this phalanx, the Christian Presses and the Allie Longs, are in principle over the hill. But their younger players, like Morgan Brian, Abby Dahlkemper, Rose Lavelle, and Lindsay Horan, have proven themselves in hard schools. I love nothing more than saying that this is the tournament the Americans will finally stop being good, every single tournament. So far my record is 0% and it’s time to stop reinforcing failure. The United States is going to be dramatic, their lineup decisions will be questionable, fans will call for the coach’s head and a goalie change and a different starting striker, and they might well win the World Cup anyway, because beyond all the crap they actually are good at this game.
Germany, like the Americans, are always there or there-abouts. I wonder if the Europeans hate the Germans like the rest of us hate the Americans. Probably not; at least in UEFA you get the occasional 2012 Olympics or something where the Germans can’t even qualify.
They aren’t even old. With the post-Olympic international retirement of Melanie Behringer and Annike Krahn, Lena Goeßling is the only player 31 or over. Sara Däbritz is still just 24, with 60 caps and the official MVP of the gold medal-winning Olympic team. Dzsenifer Maroszan is 27, Alexandra Popp is 28, and they are top players anywhere. If I were to name a weakness, which I wouldn’t like to, it would be a relatively patchwork backline that after all made mistakes against Canada last year. They have conceded three times in four games this year, once to Sweden and twice to Japan. Could be better. Is probably still good enough, especially given that they are still learning the ways of new coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, who did a commendable job in Switzerland.
While they’ve been up to the job for decades and aren’t Olympic champions for nothing, Germany doesn’t terrify opponents as much as the Americans, the French, or even the English. They’ll probably beat you, however they have to do it, but (at risk of playing dreadfully to stereotype) they give the impression of being an exquisitely-designed, highly reliable machine that will all the same degrade fast when conditions are outside the spec. If they win the World Cup expect them to do so in a thoroughly unremarkable way. Teams always leave a game against the Germans thinking they did well, all things considered, but usually having lost. Yet in a hard-to-define way there’s the urge to mark them a little lower this year, certainly a step behind the U.S.
Defining France’s negative intangibles, on the other hand, is easy. If you’d forgive a cheap rhetorical trick I’d put them in their own category. They are unquestionably one of the best teams in the tournament and have home-field advantage. Virtually their entire roster plays at home and the exceptions, backup goalkeeper Pauline Peyraud-Magnin and defender Aïssatou Tounkara, aren’t important. Amandine Henry is a long-dominant defensive midfielder in her prime who earns individual honours at a position that’s usually neglected. Their two old attacking stars, Louisa Cadamuro (née Nécib) and Camile Abily have both taken early retirement from the national team, but we still have Gaëtane Thiney, the icon of Paris FC (formerly FCF Juvisy, and long the Other Team in France) and one of the most versatile, accomplished attacking players in the game. Eugenie Le Sommer gives them an excellent veteran striker. Youngster Valérie Gauvin got her first international goal in 2017 and since then has scored on Germany, Japan, and China as well as the crap countries, showing every sign of being good support.
The defense has a solid core but weakens beyond it. Wendie Renard, the tallest woman in the world, a physical, ball-playing defender who starts ahead of Kadeisha Buchanan for Lyon and makes sure nobody complains, is unimpeachable. None of the other players are bad, but they aren’t as terrific as you feel they necessarily should be; Renard’s partner in the middle seems to usually be a flavour-of-the-month (currently her OL partner Griedge Mbock Bathy) and their fullbacks have always attacked more flamboyantly than they defend, which is how Janine Beckie was able to peg the only brilliant cross of her career in to Sophie Schmidt back in 2016. Then there’s goaltender Sarah Bouhaddi, who is both very good and completely insane, capable of both winning and losing matches on her own. France, who is extremely good in international soccer, and Olympique Lyonnais, even better domestically, have both ensconced Bouhaddi as the more-or-less undisputed starter for a decade. She’s worth it. But you’re never quite sure with her.
France has been very good for a long time but they’ve never medalled in international competition. It’s like the opposite of the United States, who even when they’re bad pull it out somehow. Just look at the past decade.
Euro 2009: not really France yet (Abily was 24, Necib was 22, Le Sommer was 21, Henry was 19, Bouhaddi was a backup), but all the same, getting a tough group, fumbling it even by those standards, then losing on penalties to a heavily pre-apex Netherlands was, in hindsight, absolutely an omen.
2011 Women’s World Cup: get drawn into the Group of Death, hammer everybody who isn’t the host Germans, really hammer Canada, proving their ascendancy over those Canucks once and for all. Beat England on penalties in the quarter, which I bet was fun, and then get eleven kinds of Gallic crap beat out of you by the United States, who’d go on to lose to Japan in a really good final, so all’s well that ends well.
2012 Olympics: get drawn into the Group of Death, probably earn a point against the United States at Old Trafford but lose and finish second. Survive a quarterfinal scare to handle Sweden easily enough but drop the semi to Japan despite a ferocious fight in the last half-hour. In the bronze medal match play Canada and let’s be honest, no team has ever deserved to win a match they lost more than France deserved to win that one.
Euro 2013: wreck their group, as France bloody well should at Euro. In the quarter-final, go out to Denmark on penalties, and only get that far because Louisa Necib got a freebie late. This was the tournament where people began to think that France somehow blowing it might be a thing.
2015 Women’s World Cup: win the tough games in their group against England and Mexico easily; somehow lose their tap-in putt game to Colombia by two. Beat South Korea in the Round of 16 then lose on penalties to Germany in one of the best games I’ve ever seen when Nadine Angerer stops Claire Lavogez. They’ve called Lavogez up since then, which is kind of them, but she isn’t on the 2019 roster. The least France-y of the things France has done, with only Colombia as a blip; if this had happened to Canada we’d have all been perfectly happy.
2016 Olympics: Group of Death with the US, again, beat everybody but the Americans, again, lose to Canada, again, this time in the quarter-final, and this time with Canada finally outplaying them. You tell me if that’s better or worse.
Euro 2017: As discussed in the last post this was the Euro That Didn’t Really Count, but all the same dropping points to both Switzerland and Austria in the group then going down to England did not give Napoleon anything to get excited about.
The French have lost once in the past year, to Germany, and usually put up big scores. They beat the United States 3-1 in Le Havre. What’s more they’re scoring by committee, which is always the sign of a good French team. They change head coaches every day at 2 PM in France but the current one, Corinne Diacre, is a former first-rate international player turned average Ligue 2 (men’s) coach, turned national team boss who on playing pedigree alone was an upgrade on the hapless (but otherwise equally-qualified) Olivier Echouafni. It all looks good for France, except a strong team at a home World Cup is surely the God-given moment for the greatest French choke of all time.
Those are the really big teams. Then there are the ones who still have enough of a chance that it’s worth hoping but not so much that it’s worth buying tickets to the final: roughly in descending order England, Japan, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, China, Norway, and Australia. The Dutch have already been discussed, and Canada will get the full treatment later, so, briefly, the rest.
There are those who would put England in the top category, and they’re not wrong. They’re defending champions of the (withering scorn) SheBelieves Cup. At Euro 2017 they embarrassed themselves less than most of the other major contenders. Their attack has no single overwhelming star but is terrific in depth; they have a half-dozen forwards capable of scoring against top opposition. Jill Scott and Karen Carney are still going in midfield, and their defense of Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton, Abbie McManus, and Alex Greenwood is as good as anybody’s. McManus is the least familiar name, a journeyman who in a short period of time worked her way up from Sheffield City to a core part on newly-free-spending Manchester City, got her first call-up in February 2018 while she was out buying eggs and has become a regular at centreback next to former club teammate Houghton.
So why short sell on England? Carly Telford, the 2014–15 FA WSL 1 goalkeeper of the year, appears to have taken veteran Karen Bardsley’s job as starting goalie, which will be interesting to watch; at 31 to Bardsley’s 34 it’s not like she’s part of a youth movement, and neither was anything like the best English keeper in the club game for the past few seasons. Key midfielder Jordan Nobbs is missing the tournament; another knee injury, and she’s been in the press suggesting women’s menstrual cycles might be linked to their rates of ligament damage. Also out is Izzy Christiansen, with an ankle problem sustained at the SheBelieves. Fara Williams MBE, the grand dame of English soccer, is aging out of the team and wasn’t included by Phil Neville. And they do have a nasty habit of losing to teams like Canada, Sweden, and New Zealand at home. Their SheBelieves triumph was down to the weakest field in the cup’s history and Japan snatching a stoppage-time equalizer against the US rather than much England did in that stupid thing. They have proven they’re good; little more.
Japan, always likable, appears to be on their way down. They had a perfect record at the Asian Games but other recent results have been indifferent. Large, awkward goalkeeper Erina Yamane is out with a (stop me if you’ve heard this one) knee problem, leaving the gloves for young Ayaka Yamashita, who appears to have taken the starting job anyway. Virtually an entire generation hung up the boots in 2015 and 2016, from 83-goal scorer Homare Sawa through superstar attacking midfielder Aya Miyama. If one doesn’t count the Asian Games then several starters will be making their debuts in a major tournament, and Japan is embracing the kids wholeheartedly: they are bringing two teenagers, a 20-year-old, and four 21-year-olds. Veterans Saori Ariyoshi and Nahomi Kawasumi appear to be healthy but were dropped from the squad.
This can be a good thing, and if Japan sticks to the plan and develops talent as they always have they may be back for 2023. But this year they have not been setting the world on fire against non-Asian competition. No doubt they’ll do well enough, though they have always been prone to the odd, short-lived, but devastating total collapse. Some of the mid-20-something players we’re seeing for the first time will doubtless open our eyes. But it’s hard to see them mounting a serious title challenge yet.
Sweden has an important advantage few other teams possess: at the 2019 Algarve Cup they went to penalties against Canada, using the A-B-B-A format, and everybody got good and confused but though Sweden lost they know what the format looks like now and have heard all the jokes. They still have the same old Caroline Seger, the same old Nilla Fischer, Hedvig Lundahl still between the sticks; Pia Sundhage finally hung up her hoodie but otherwise this is good ol’ Swedish woso and you know what that means. Good, and often good enough, they’re one of those teams that will always win on their day. But not seriously in contention unless they go on the run of their lives or Stina Blacksteinus looks like what she looked like she’d be a few years ago.
Four years ago China looked like they might be building to 2019 as their cycle. They had a good 2015, and a decent 2016, and were runners-up at the 2018 Asian Cup, their best result since 2002. Midfielder Wang Shuang has made it to PSG and the rest of the team is domestic, but it seems like a good league. Unfortunately it hasn’t quite come together yet. They reliably beat the teams they should beat and reliably lose to the teams they should lose to. Some little spark of brilliance or something is missing, and now those 26-year-olds of 2015 are 30, this is their window, and it’s not as wide as they hoped it would be. All the coaches they’ve gone through, including former French disappointment Bruno Bini, might not have helped; they seem to expect more from themselves too.
Norway is stuck in turbulence. They’ve got their seatbelts on but the food cart stopped at the row before theirs and they’re getting hungry. Ada Hegerberg, who should be one of the favourites for the Golden Boot, has been boycotting the Norwegian national team since 2017 because she wants better treatment. This leaves a decent team, including 60-goal scorer Isabell Herlovsen, but nobody even in Hegerberg’s league. World Cup qualifying was easy, and they distinguished themselves with a 2-1 home win over the Dutch, but that’s their only really impressive result in a few years. They don’t play the best teams and lose to the second-raters. Also, while I’m including South Korea in the tier below this one, Norway’s margin to avoid another embarrassing elimination in the group stage is awfully thin. They’re in a bad place right now.
As for Australia, I can’t do better than to quote a regular women’s soccer observer I know: “they can outscore their problems for a while.” Their group shouldn’t be overwhelmingly tough. Sam Kerr is a great finisher, probably the best in the NWSL, and that’s doubly-impressive when you consider that she goes home to the Perth Glory most winters. Her international record is actually not that great, but with Lisa De Vanna around the Australians presumably feel they need Kerr to drop back and get more touches while De Vanna can take care of the pure poaching. Beyond that they have a terrific, aggressive young attacking fullback in Ellie Carpenter, who should be the young player of the tournament, adequate veteran depth, and two attacking wild cards in big, tough, awkward handful of trouble Caitlin Foord and little, gritty, foul-happy, bow-wearing cult favourite Hayley Raso. They are going to be a darned fun team to watch as a neutral.
They chose a middling-tough warm-up schedule, against the United States and the Netherlands twice, and lost ’em all. They lost to Chile at home last year and even if they won the rematch 5-0 that is absolutely unacceptable. The Australians look like they should be better than they are. Give them respect, they have the punch to beat anybody on their day, but their day is not that often.
The Women’s World Cup happens every four years, and soccer teams change a lot in that time. Comparing one World Cup team to the previous World Cup team is just the sort of lazy, valueless sportswriting that is typical of women’s soccer but informs nobody about anything.
So comparing Canada’s group in 2015 to that in 2019 is obviously insane, but in fairness, the soccer gods really really want me to.
In 2015 Canada, who were not really one of the best six teams in world women’s soccer, were seeded A1 for the World Cup draw because we were the host country. As a result we got a softball group of us, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and China; no minnows but three teams we should beat most of the time. We won one, drew two, didn’t concede, won the thing; not fun, but effective. In the round of 16 we beat Switzerland in a really good game, then lost in the quarter-final when our depleted defensive depth finally caught up to us and the odd break didn’t go our way.
In 2019 Canada might be one of the best six teams in world women’s soccer and the FIFA gods smiled upon us, placing us in Pot 1 for the draw on merit1. As a result Canada was placed in a group with New Zealand, the Netherlands, and, um, Cameroon.
We couldn’t have gotten China again, for tedious reasons I’ll relegate to a footnote2. Cameroon 2019 is a big downgrade on China 2015. They lost a friendly to the Chinese in April, 1-0, and by all accounts looked worse than the score. 2016 Olympic qualifying was an ignominious failure. The last time they beat anyone real was actually 2015, when they somehow got past Switzerland 2-1. They nearly brought former Canadian youth international Easther Mayi Kith to this, and Easther Mayi Kith is not very good. Their pre-World Cup prep was pummeling lesser Spanish league teams and getting shredded, 4-0, by Spain itself, who you might remember Canada drawing boringly at 75% speed a couple weeks back. Canada saw Spain bad because half the heart of their team was with Barcelona for the UEFA Women’s Champions League final, but so did Cameroon: the Barça players were still absent and of the Spaniards’ four goalscorers in that game, three got their first international goal3. It’s off-putting to think how you could manage to lose 4-0 to that Spanish B team and still make a World Cup.
It’s soccer, anything can happen. But it really shouldn’t. Let’s call Cameroon three points and move on.
How about New Zealand? Four years ago they were up-and-comers, with 21-year-old Rosie White showing promise, 21-year-old Katie Bowen having a couple interesting cameos off the bench, and 21-year-old former Australian youth international Rebekah Stott walking right into the Kiwis’ starting eleven. They had a 23-year-old starting goalkeeper, Erin Nayler, a teenager getting meaningful minutes off the bench in forward Jasmine Pereira, and two more who were rostered but did not play: defender Meikayla Moore and midfielder Daisy Cleverley. Their captain, Abby Erceg, was only 25 and surely had many years left. Only two New Zealand players were older than 30 and they were the two backup goalies. And they played well: fourth place in the group, but the best fourth-place team in the tournament without a doubt who would have gotten to the round of 16 with a little luck.
And now? New Zealand is fine. Most of those young players have turned out pretty good. Pereira has walked away from the game but White is a competent NWSL player, Moore hangs around the German first division, Cleverley’s college career was derailed by a knee injury as a freshman but seems back on track. Nayler is a starting goalie in France, and Stott lives out of a suitcase but whereever she signs, if she’s healthy she plays. Erceg retired from international soccer like three times or something, I frankly stopped paying attention; she’s back now and does work on a very good NWSL back line in North Carolina but somehow has lost the captaincy to Ali Riley. Riley deserves mention, the best of a bunch of 30+ veterans that is otherwise at a pretty low standard. Amber Hearn, the former Ottawa Fury standout, would have been another quality veteran if a knee injury hadn’t ruled her out of the tournament.
None of them really panned into stars, though. Rosie White, for example, would make Canada, but wouldn’t start. There are a lot of decent pros with good European careers, but almost all on the second-tier teams, and in the European leagues once you’re out of the big two or three you’re nowhere. There are Canadian players in Scandinavia or the French first division who you have fully never heard of and won’t make the WNT until Ebola hits. Some of the New Zealanders play domestic amateur, and Unattached FC makes a strong showing. It looks a lot like the Canadian team used to look, minus the Sinclairs and Schmidts who made it all come right on the day.
The sight of three strikers with 25 international goals or more, against two for Canada, might strike fear into your heart. But New Zealanders put up pinball numbers in Oceanic World Cup qualifying against the likes of Tonga and Fiji, scoring more easy goals than even CONCACAF teams. Hannah Wilkinson is coming off a serious ACL injury in October, her second in four years. Sarah Gregorius is often the focus of their offense, which given that Gregorious is 31 years old, has no particular club record, and produces only occasionally at the top international level, is a bad sign. 17 of her 35 career international goals have come in various Oceanic qualifiers against super-minnows, compared to (for example) Christine Sinclair’s 42 out of 181 at various CONCACAF tournaments.
Pick On Somebody Your Own Size
“Conf. Goals” refer to goals scored in confederational competition: for New Zealanders, Oceania Olympic Qualifying and the Oceania Nations Cup are counted. For Canada, CONCACAF Women’s Gold Cups, Championships, World Cup qualifiers, and Olympic qualifiers are counted. All statistics are reconstructed as best as possible as of June 5, 2019 and may be inaccurate by one or two, particularly for the New Zealanders.
Oh, and New Zealand is not quite a year removed from accusations of bullying and mistreatment which spurred at least one of Erceg’s international retirements and cost head coach Andreas Heraf his job. They replaced him with veteran Tom Sermanni, a name North Americans know and respect but not exactly an overachiever.
In a pre-tournament tune-up, New Zealand beat England, who are at least as much in contention as Canada, 1-0 on a Gregorious goal. The English tabloids melted down like Heraf at a press conference and a good time was had by all. Then, a couple days later, New Zealand lost 1-0 to Wales, who didn’t even come close to qualifying for the World Cup, and we all went “what the hell?” They’ve recently beaten Norway, who are decent, and lost to South Korea, who are about in the same class. A 2-1 win over Mexico in the United States, effectively an away game, was good; a 5-0 thumping by the Americans the previous week was not.
New Zealand could easily sneak a result against the favoured Canadians or Dutch; they could get two. Nobody would really be surprised to see them advance from the World Cup group stage for the first time in their history; on their best day they have the quality and have shown it, recently and repeatedly. But short of handling Cameroon (which they absolutely should) you can’t really expect anything from the Ferns. Fans should actually be happy: like Canada in 2012 this is a team with everything to win and nothing to lose. Such teams can be a lot of fun. Canada in 2012 was coming off coaching drama and a player revolt and our success that year meant we forgot the whole thing. The same may happen again, though hopefully not at Canada’s expense.
As to the Netherlands, in 2015 they were just some ladies who drew Canada and looked pretty good. In 2019 they are the reigning European champions. We aren’t the only team that’s grown up.
The Dutch win at Euro 2017 was a bit of an accident. Hosting the tournament for the first time, they exploited the unimaginable Norwegian collapse in the group stage, which was like Canada at the 2011 Women’s World Cup but worse, to run up a perfect record, and in the knockout stage whipped Sweden and England before, in the final, getting… Denmark, their group-stage opponents and an even more improbable finalist than the Dutch themselves. The Netherlands fell behind 1-0 and 2-1 but won 4-2 in the end, rather effortlessly given the drama. It was a tournament of massive upsets: Austria, woso nobodies, somehow won a group with France and Switzerland in it, then beat Spain on penalties. Denmark beat Germany. France went out to England back there somewhere, the whole Norwegian thing happened and sent Ada Hegerberg into self-imposed exile, I seem to remember Scotland lost to England 6-0 then beat Spain… a bizarre tournament. One could not say, based on that performance, that the Dutch had arrived. One really couldn’t say anything.
In the two years since the Dutch have been mostly good, just not quite in the first rank. At the 2018 Algarve Cup, where Canada was poor, the Dutch shared the title with Sweden when the final was canceled due to heavy rain4. Qualifying for the 2019 World Cup went the hard way, including a draw at home to the lowly Irish Republic and a loss away to Norway, but smashed Denmark and Switzerland in the last-chance playoff. They do seem to be indifferent travelers: lowlights on the road include losses to Spain (not great) and Poland (unacceptable) at the Algarve, a mere 2-1 win over the lousy South Africans in Cape Town, and a 1-1 draw in Switzerland during European qualifying (admittedly, with a 3-0 first-leg home win in their pockets). Highlights include running the table in three home World Cup prep friendlies, converting a touchdown against Chile and shutting out both Spain and Australia. If the Dutch travel badly but are first-class at home, and the World Cup is abroad but within driving distance of their houses, is that good or bad?
The name on your lips should be Vivianne Miedema. It once looked like whichever of Christine Sinclair and Abby Wambach held the all-time international goalscoring record when Sinclair retired would have it indefinitely, for the age of the super-productive single striker had passed from women’s soccer. Maybe not. At 22 years old Miedema has 57 goals for her country; at the same age Sinclair had 53 and Wambach had two. Last season she led the English top division in goals and was second in assists, being named Player’s Player of the Year despite missing three games. She is probably the best female striker alive and certainly the best female striker active in international soccer. Canada has faced Miedema at the senior level twice before, in 2015 and 2016, and held her in check both times, but she was not yet at the height of her powers. Her 13 international goals in calendar 2017 are as good as anybody, given a lack of minnows to beat up on, and though she got only four in 2018 her action was limited. She scored in every one of her international starts save a January friendly against Spain. So far in 2019 she has five goals in seven appearances. Sinclair, Canada’s top scorer so far, has four in eight.
It would be nice to say that the Dutch, like Canada in Sinclair’s hey-day, are basically a one-woman team, but they are not. Lieke Martens is a thoroughly brilliant attacking midfielder, Golden Ball winner of Euro 2017, FIFA women’s player of the year the same year, and shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or in 2018. She is not at Miedema’s level but she is awfully good, probably the best attacking midfielder in the group unless Jessie Fleming picks a very good time to make the leap. Forward Shanice van de Sanden plays club soccer at Lyon and is at least good enough to give Miedema support. The Dutch are relatively weak on defense and in goal, regular midfielder and Adriana Leon teammate Tessel Middag is down with a knee injury, and while a lot of their midfield depth is good it’s seldom exceptional. They haven’t played a really good team in a while; Japan, who they beat 6-2 at the 2018 Algarve, arguably no longer counts. On the other hand they did just shut out Mexico and Australia, and have conceded more than one goal only twice in the past year.
Canada and the Netherlands will be very close-matched teams. We’ve shown some signs of adjusting to Dutch-style attacking creativity; look at the difference between our win against France in 2012 and that in 2016. When Germany beat us in Hamilton last year it was not because of their superior technique and passing us into the ground, but because they were quicker players and a better team that just ground us down until we broke. Miedema, with her succession of little niggling hurts, and the Dutch are not meant to play that way. Moreover, our own defensive record lately has been pretty decent. So the Canadians should get at least a point, and yet a team with that level of attacking quality is a team that will beat absolutely everybody if it’s their day no matter how you try to stop them. Christine Sinclair’s opponents will be familiar with the phenomenon.
Stewie the Starfish’s stalwart seamen have become impotent.
From first place in the Canadian Premier League they have dropped to a lowly sixth after a mid-week 3-0 battering by Forge FC. Vainly do we say that first place was after the second game in league history, or that our two losses were another midweeker to better-rested Valour and a game well-earned by the Hamiltonians but not the worst 3-0 ever1. Pacific has not looked great by eye or numbers and this weekend’s tilt, away to FC Edmonton, will pit us against tenacious defending and lots of athleticism to weary a tired team.
We knew Pacific’s defensive depth would be a problem but maybe not so early. Former League1 Ontario man Lukas MacNaughton had two games full of quality and violence. But he was suspended for the Valour match, while Hendrik Starostzik has missed two and counting with a foot problem. In their place Ryan McCurdy was abominable and Émile Legault, a neat little player, is too short and inexperienced to play centre back professionally right now. Given Starostzik and MacNaughton Pacific likely beats Valour, and while Forge was another thing altogether being able to spell fullbacks Blake Smith and Kadin Chung with Legault would have done a power of good.
Pacific have recently added Saudi youth trainee Ahmed Alghamdi and former TSS FC Rover Zach Verhoven to their roster. Even so they stand at 20 players signed, counting the seriously injured Marcel de Jong. They had very few reserves to draw upon, have drawn upon them early, and didn’t even get wins out of it: add depth, please, and the sooner the better.
But there’s no merit in complaining about a lack of signings if you can’t suggest any, and while Sergio Ramos would be a quality addition my source at Pacific says they’re unlikely to agree terms.
Here are three ideas for Pacific FC. All are meant to be realistic. They are professionally out of contract but have played recently at a high level (no stirring Luca Bellisomo comebacks). They are not so accomplished as players that they’d automatically demand large wages, and possess some tenuous connection to British Columbia soccer. We are looking for useful players here to fill out the back of the roster, not superstars. They might make a disproportionate difference.
Born: December 10, 1997, St. Albert, AB Height: 6’2″ Weight: 195lbs Last Club: University of Alberta (Canada West) Tenuous BC Connection: member of the 2018 Victoria Highlanders (USL PDL)
There were serious rumours that Edmonton would sign Cunningham, who in fitting with some of Jeff Paulus’s goals is an old Edmonton Academy boy and played at the University of Alberta. In the event the Eddies managed to land Amer Didic to finish off the defensive core, then lanky local striker Easton Ongaro became available from Cavalry as Paulus’s last pre-season signing. Fair enough, everyone would take Didic over Cunningham and I’d have a hard time turning down Ongaro. But Cunningham is therefore available, and the Ongaro precedent suggests he’s a free agent.
Cunningham is not a household name. He appeared in one of Rob Gale’s U-18 national team camps in 2014, alongside Marcus Godinho, Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, Shamit Shome, and David Choinière. But you’re not expecting household names in this part of the roster; you’re hoping for underrated young players and Cunningham is all that. His university career at Alberta has covered him in laurels, while his USL PDL career has been mixed but positive. Neither athletic nor flamboyant, you won’t confuse him for Franz Beckenbauer, but he has size and smarts. He seems like a good guy to have around, and just because he wasn’t Jeff Paulus’s type of player doesn’t mean he couldn’t fit in at Pacific. He also provides versatility, having played a fair bit of central midfield in his time.
If Cunningham signed it would mean the 2018 Victoria Highlanders, a poor defensive team, had put two defenders in the inaugural CanPL plus goalkeeper Nolan Wirth. This does rather offend reason, especially since Cunningham’s partner Peter Schaale doesn’t look overwhelmed at HFX. In Cunningham’s defense he played only 725 minutes across 10 matches last year (Schaale had 1009 in 12) and with Calgary Foothills in 2017 he was a key player on a fine team. Victoria’s struggles were down to lacking a consistent lineup and having to gun for goals as much as anything. He was by no means the problem, his other PDL campaign was good, and surely his USports excellence earns him the benefit of the doubt.
By all accounts Cunningham is a serious student, working on his education degree: he aspires to teach high school and has at least a year left. But that just means he should get used to summers off. Van Isle could do a lot worse than giving Cunningham a developmental deal.
Born: May 3, 1995, Edmonton, AB Height: 6’2″ Weight: 181lbs Last Club: Calgary Foothills U-23 (USL PDL) Tenuous BC Connection: Whitecaps Residency and Reserves from 2011 to 2016
Jackson Farmer just turned 24 years old. Time flies when you’re not having fun. He got a full senior international cap in his teens (against Mauritania on September 8, 2013) and peaked right there. Captaining the Whitecaps U-18s and dominating the centre back spot next to Alex Comsia, Farmer graduated to play regularly for the Whitecaps reserves under Alan Koch and trained with the first team, but never received an MLS contract. He was one of several young Whitecaps to be neglected in an ill-fated affiliation with the USL Charleston Battery, making only a handful of appearances. Farmer got in for Canada’s U-20 and U-23 teams at every opportunity, and played at home in the Pan-American Games, but those teams never went far.
The Calgary Foothills had Farmer for their 2018 championship season, and in dropping down to USL PDL he became a bench player, getting eight matches for 299 minutes plus two stoppage-time appearances in the playoffs. He lost minutes to Jordan Haynes, Nik Ledgerwood, Dean Northover, and Chris Serban, slotting in at centre back or fullback as opportunity allowed. There was never much talk that Cavalry would bring him to the Canadian Premier League, and while FC Edmonton had him in pre-season, where he played another Al Classico on the opposite end, he didn’t stick. Koch, Mike Anhaeuser, Tommy Wheeldon, Jr., Jeff Paulus, and a few Whitecaps bosses all gave Farmer a good long look and said no thanks.
There are some good coaches on that list. We can’t kid ourselves: Farmer is going the wrong way. But that doesn’t mean he’s done. Pacific, who are desperate for a decent, affordable, versatile domestic defender acquainted with CanPL-level competition, might be the perfect landing spot. Moreover, context flatters him. The 2018 Foothills must have been one of the best teams in USL PDL history: their defense allowed 7 goals in 14 regular season games and two in four playoff games. And yet, by goals against per minute, Farmer was better than average on his excellent team: Calgary conceded only one goal (to TSS FC Rovers’ Daniel Sagno) while he was on the field. When he played for Calgary against an FC Edmonton XI in the 2018 Al Classico friendly at Clarke Stadium he was a star of the day. A natural centre back, Farmer has played quite a bit of right back lately and has even suited up at DM. Versatility is good for a depth player.
FC Edmonton loaded up on attractive ball-playing defenders with high athleticism, and their big blonde guy, Amer Didic, is much bigger and almost as blonde as Farmer. The Whitecaps and their reserve teams were notorious dumpster fires, and it was no shame for Farmer that he couldn’t be a regular USL defender when he was 18. He’s played so many quality games against his peers over so many seasons, it’s hard—impossible—to believe that Farmer just turned bad. If I was Pacific and had the option I would let him and Cunningham duke it out. I might sign both, short-term, if I could.
Born: 1993, Victoria, BC Height: 6’4″ Last Club: Bays United (VISL) Tenuous BC Connection: Born and raised in Victoria, now plays amateur soccer there.
Alas, despite their Tenuous BC Connections, both Farmer and Cunningham are Alberta boys who may not want to move to Victoria on the cheap. So we should find a local option.
Ryan Ashlee is your classic centre back. Tall, lanky, likes nothing better than getting his forehead on a soccer ball and sending it far, far away. Though born and raised in Victoria Ashlee gave the other coast a try for college, spending four years at St. FX and making all sorts of Atlantic all-star teams. But he came home for the summer, playing PDL (and PCSL) with the Victoria Highlanders and growing into the level, winning the Juan de Fuca Plate in 2014 and supporters’ player of the year in 2015. After leaving school he played first-division amateur with Coquitlam until in 2018 Ashlee starred with the awkwardly-named Surrey BC Tigers Hurricanes, a name we’ve all had to get used to as they won the national amateur championship.
Moving back to Victoria for the 2018–19 winter campaign, Ashlee joined the Vancouver Island Soccer League’s Bays United and was most unsurprisingly named rookie of the year. He also came up in the most valuable player conversation, a rare thing for a centre back in a metro league, and was most valuable player of the league All-Star game against the Fraser Valley. Bays United had an average defensive record, relying on a killer attack but still only finishing mid-table; the fact that Ashlee was so highly-touted all the same is major praise.
You see the theme. Never given a chance at a truly elite level, but everywhere Ryan Ashlee has gone he has succeeded. Without a doubt, if the Canadian Premier League had started in 2014, somebody would have brought him in. Instead he arrived too early. Yet he hasn’t gone away. The VMSL and VISL, where Ashlee stands out, is good soccer. We’ve seen what some unheralded League1 Ontario players, like MacNaughton, can do given full-time training and elite teammates, and Ashlee is certainly in that class.
And while one hates to build his first team this way, considered as a gesture, signing Ashlee could not be bettered. The VISL has been an enthusiastic promoter of Pacific FC since their announcement, a friendship which the team reciprocates, but turning Island amateur players into professionals is the real holy grail. McCurdy and goalkeeper Nolan Wirth, who both played with the Highlanders and Vic West last year, made a good start. Ashlee would keep the pipeline flowing. He would also, somehow, be the first Victoria native in team history2. From a tactical perspective, his aerial game would be valuable both defensively and on the attack, given Pacific’s overreliance on the high cross and the set piece. He’s taller than any other defender on the team, and while not a natural ball-player in the same way as Cunningham or Farmer the best-case scenario has him as the no-nonsense bastion for Starostzik to free-wheel around.
The problem is that it probably is too late: Ashlee has his degree and a real job, he’s a grown man with responsibilities now. Probably there’s no realistic offer Pacific FC could make to have him put in two weeks’ notice. But I’d like them to try. At least pick up the phone and ask the question. Ashlee’s generation has mostly either made it or moved on already, but sometimes life does have a second act.
Never go into the archives of Maple Leaf Forever! without expert supervision. Any post written before about 2016 is pretty much unreadable. But this morning I dove into the crap to get a particular nugget: my first visit to Langford’s ironically-named City Centre Park in May 2010 to watch the Victoria Highlanders host the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s in the USL PDL season opener.
A lot has changed in nine years. For one thing I ripped Russell Teibert, who was a year or so from becoming Canadian Soccer Jesus. Both the Highlanders and the Whitecaps U-23s folded then came back as completely different setups. Also, the ironically-named City Centre Park is almost unrecognizable. 2010’s aluminum-bleachered main stand now has beautiful purple seats with “PFC” picked out in white and wouldn’t look out of place in England’s League Two. The “Bear Mountain Stadium” sign now says “Westhills Stadium” (though it is otherwise exactly the same, which is fun). The neighbourhood has built up; a weirdly obscure tree-shrouded ground nestled in with the industry and parking lots is now in a fast-growing part of Langford that’ll probably be 50% condos by the time Noah Verhoeven gets his testimonial.
But a few things are the same. Quoting myself:
God, what a fantastic place to watch a soccer game! The sun is shining, the birds are tweeting, there’s a little man-made lake at the east end of the park which is simultaneously incredibly twee and incredibly cool. The plastic pitch is still new enough that the game is quite enjoyable on the surface, security guards aren’t uptight bag-checking assholes, and the fans have the good-spirited nature of people who are watching a semi-professional soccer game in the middle of nowhere and just having a whale of a time.
[. . .]
3-2 Victoria stood as the final, and the better team won. But it was a good contest and one that involved some pretty good fans from the Highlanders, who sang and made noise that you associate with a far higher level than USL PDL. Even the soccer parents in the grandstand were more involved in the game than your stereotypical Canadian fan, applauding and following events with visible agitation. I know there are travel issues, and stadium issues, and all sorts of issues in the way of further growth. But if the Victoria Highlanders keep this up and they’re not in the second division within five years, it’ll be a disgrace.
It took nine years, and they’re not the Highlanders, and it’s actually the first division. And security checks bags now, though they’re still human beings rather than dicks with badges and let us bring in cookies for Clare Rustad1. Otherwise 2010 Ben would be pretty happy with how those paragraphs worked out.
In April 2019 Langford hosted another opener, when Pacific FC welcomed Halifax for the second game in the history of the Canadian Premier League. The fans are still fun and, like the stadium, mostly new. In 2010 the approximately 2,000 people at that game were considered a massive success. In 2019 official attendance was 5,154, which as far as I can tell is the best-attended soccer event on Vancouver Island since the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup2. And those 5,154 men, women, and children were bouncing. The Lake Side Buoys tailgate was not only visited but largely manned by people I’d never met in the PDL days. Many of them packed into the bustling general admissions supporter stands where they cheered, shot the shit, and had such a great time that the organized chanting, for all the numbers and enthusiasm, was drowned out by spontaneous fun.
Fans lined up in the sun for merchandise and refreshment; the fish-and-chips guy probably put his kids through college. They went berserk for Hendrik Starostzik, the 3. Liga veteran who not only scored the first goal in club history but showed that Albert Watson-like ability to impose his will aerially despite not being that tall and has “fan favourite” written all over him in pen. They crowded in the general admission area, or congregated in the very handsome beer garden, or hunkered down in the new seating, howling at the fouls, cheering the passes into space, and were engaged for all 90 minutes; when the Pacific players sprinted over to the supporters after the final whistle to celebrate their win it felt completely natural despite both groups having literally just met3. It wasn’t all perfect; there were not one but two appalling DJs vomiting noise and queues for almost anything were long. The game-day experience needs some refinement. Oh well. When we have to search our memories for minor flaws in the name of balance, you did a good job.
Day one, for Pacific, was nigh-perfect. But we will need many, many more such days. You may have been surprised by that 2,000-strong USL PDL crowd at a lesser version of this stadium in 2019. The problem is they didn’t stay around. In their debut 2009 season the Highlanders’ averaged 1,734 fans per game. In 2010, 1,375, still fourth-best in the league. In 2011, 992, at which point they moved out of Langford into historic Royal Athletic Park near downtown Victoria. A more convenient stadium, attention-grabbing promotions like “supporter ownership,” and some preposterously cheap tickets brought attendance back to a high-water mark of 1,637 in 2013 but by then the business model had become completely unsustainable4.
PDL has big problems as a spectator league. The level of soccer is way below what the Canadian Premier League has shown. Media coverage and match-day operations comes from amateur enthusiasts. Probably most importantly, teams play only seven or eight home games in a season that lasts three months, then in the winter half the roster changes. It’s easy to enjoy a PDL game but really, really hard to form a lasting connection to a team. CanPL has none of these issues: Pacific FC is trying to build on more solid ground. But right now good seats are available across Westhills Stadium for the Wednesday night game against Valour. Even with the opening-day excitement over, momentum has to build.
The Highlanders would have been laughing had they brought 2,000 fans to every game; Pacific FC will need more than 5,154 every game to make money. This is why the City of Langford, the province of British Columbia, and BC Hydro are exploring how they can spend millions of dollars moving a hydro pole that prevents building stands on the north side of the ground5. Getting Westhills Stadium as ready as it was for opening day was a triumph of public works but, in five years, that stadium probably needs double the capacity it has today. There is ever-so-much to do.
Then again, think about how much was done to get to this point. Every word of this sentence deserves to be printed in bold: 5,154 fans just sold out a stadium in Langford and paid to watch a Vancouver Island soccer team play Halifax in a Canadian Premier League match. Three years ago nothing about that seemed possible. There was never going to be a Canadian Premier League, and if there was Halifax and Vancouver Island wouldn’t be in it, and if they were nobody would come. What we saw on Sunday was unbelievable. Every expectation was blown out of the water. The mountains we still have to climb don’t seem so tall today.
Terry Dunfield nailed it on the OneSoccer post-game show: “if you’re a young boy or girl watching this, how do you not play soccer tomorrow?” Or watch it, for that matter.
On October 4, 1992, the Winnipeg Fury tied the Vancouver 86ers 1-1 and won the Canadian Soccer League title on aggregate. The next match in a Canadian national soccer league comes 9,701 days later, tomorrow, April 27, 2019. Forge FC versus York 9 (10 AM Pacific, CBC television). We’ve waited long enough.
Nobody knows how this league is going to shake out, and unusually for Canadian soccer, nobody pretends they know. We’re all excited. We’re all smashing rosters with the hammer of criticism on the anvil of looking players up on Wikipedia. I am trying to track publicly-made predictions, because that should be good for a laugh; in fact I can’t remember the last time I had this many laughs just reading about and listening to Canadian soccer takes. There are well-respected veteran pundits who were not alive the last time a national Canadian soccer league played a game and they’re gushing with the best of them. Enthusiasm is more contagious than measles in a Montessori.
Coming up is Maple Leaf Forever!‘s official 2019 Canadian Premier League preview. Like all the others it is insane in spots, biased everywhere, and probably wrong more than it’s right. But who cares? Our hopes are unblemished by the scars of experience. Here’s the one prediction you can take to the bank: there won’t be many better years to be a Canadian soccer fan, ever, than the year 2019.
York 9 FC
Consuming other league previews has been instructive. While most pundits pick the two coastal teams to struggle, Halifax-based Dylan Matthias at The Merchant Sailor favours the Wanderers to beat expectations, and Ben Massey at British Columbia-based Maple Leaf Forever! thinks Pacific will do fine, though he’d like them to sign enough locals to fill out a bench. Duane Rollins, based in Toronto, has York 9 ahead of some others. Edmonton’s Loyal Company of the River Valley podcast argues FC Edmonton’s depth is underrated. TSN 1290 Winnipeg’s Ryan Brandt told the Young Gaffers podcast that Valour is going to come together and win the fall season. Strange coincidences, these.
So given regional bias, we should pay attention when it’s absent: almost everybody has got Forge and Cavalry in the top three. Cavalry took the best part of a hilariously dominant 2018 USL PDL championship team then added a bunch of quality. Forge has a respected Ontario coach and more Canadian glamour boys than anyone else in the league. This blog is not going to dissent.
When previewing the league much is made of home-field advantage. It sucks traveling to Halifax or Langford, which means that it’s equally hard to travel from them. We each know our local ground fairly well, but the CanPL is changing them so much that the only way we’ll know what playing in each city is like will be experience. Making predictions about a brand new league is a fool’s errand; trying to guess at the differing home field advantages doubly so. Other analysts try to draw conclusions from preseason games in the Dominican Republic, or the lack thereof, that we’re hearing about second- or third-hand. This doesn’t seem a lot better.
So, in an effort to make my preview actually useful I have chosen to break the league down position-by-position rather than team-by-team. You can see my ranking of each team by position above, but if you want the details, keep scrolling.
Cavalry (Marco Carducci, Niko Giantsopoulos)
Forge (Quillan Roberts, Tristan Henry)
Pacific (Nolan Wirth, Mark Village)
Valour (Tyson Farago, Mathias Janssens)
York (Nathan Ingham, Colm Vance, Matt Silva)
Halifax (Jan-Michael Williams, Christian Oxner)
Edmonton (Connor James, Dylan Powley)
Cavalry walks away with this category. Everyone who has ever seen Marco Carducci has waited for him to get this chance in the serene knowledge that he’d be good enough. Among the players with less professional experience he’s almost the only lock in this league. Right now Maxime Crépeau is in Vancouver seizing the MLS chance that, had Marc dos Santos arrived a couple years earlier, would have been Carducci’s, and I promise Crépeau is not intrinsically any better. Marco will be fine. Probable league goalkeeper of the year. Giantsopoulos is kind of a fun guy, an attractive-playing goalie whose time in the lower Australian leagues means he’s used to tough travel and dodgy conditions. There’s certainly nothing to complain about in the backup department either.
Forge is also going to get a lot of love because of Quillan Roberts; I personally have never rated him at the Carducci level but he has some strident and knowledgeable defenders, while Tristan Henry is a well-known League1 Ontario name. Those from east of Thunder Bay can swap Forge and Cavalry around if they like. Pacific has a couple good underrated pros in Wirth and Village, both of whom definitely belong in this league; like Edmonton they haven’t got a clear number one at all, but unlike Edmonton it’s in a good way. That probably ends the list of “teams that should be happy in goal.”
By comparison, Valour suffer; while Farago is nice he’s had a rough couple years and his enormous right foot is less of a game-changer than Carducci’s shot-stopping. Young Janssens is a complete wild card, an admittedly unready European signed for the future. Unless you really know this guy’s the next Kaspar Schmeichel that’s a weird use of an international spot. Farago’s as good as Village or Wirth, but it’s a long year and Farago/Janssens together will not surpass Wirth/Village together.
HFX’s Jan-Michael Williams was a pretty good goalie before the last war but is now in the “late-stage Rein Baart” stage of his career, albeit taller. Enormous crowds of pundits tab him for CanPL goalkeeper of the year but he’s barely been a club starter for the past decade and his continued presence in the Trinidadian goal is more a reflection on the country than the keeper. Christian Oxner is an Atlantic favourite waiting for a chance, and there’s every chance he gets the gloves and doesn’t let them go for ten years, but it hasn’t happened yet. York is Nathan Ingham, who has already proven less good than two of the other starters on this list, and two other guys from deep in the Football Manager database. And while I know my low ranking of the Eddies will generate feedback that’s not angry, just disappointed, Connor James and Dylan Powley will be making a big, big step up into the Canadian Premier League without support and without much to suggest even a Wirth/Farago-like ceiling.
Cavalry (Nik Ledgerwood, Nathan Mavila, Dean Northover, Chris Serban, Mason Trafford, Jay Wheeldon, Dominick Zator)
York (Diyaeddine Abzi, Morey Doner, Steven Furlano, Luca Gasparotto, Daniel Gogarty, Justin Springer, Roger Thompson)
Edmonton (Amer Didic, Kareem Moses, Ramon Soria, Mele Temguia, Allan Zebie)
Forge (Kwame Awuah, Klaidi Cela, Jonathan Grant, Daniel Krutzen, Monti Mohsen, Bertrand Owundi, Dominic Samuel)
Pacific (Kadin Chung, Marcel de Jong, Emile Legault, Lukas MacNaughton, Ryan McCurdy, Blake Smith, Hendrik Starostzik)
Valour (Martin Arguiñarena, Raphaël Garcia, Adam Mitter, Jordan Murrell, Skylar Thomas)
Halifax (Andre Bona, Alex de Carolis, Chakib Hocine, Ndzemdzela Langwa, Chrisnovic N’sa, Peter Schaale, Zachary Sukunda)
Good news for those worried that 0-0 draws will turn off casual fans: CanPL will not be a defensive league.
The season-long injuries to Pacific’s Marcel de Jong and Cavalry’s Chris Serban have knocked the whole league down a peg. de Jong is well-known to us all, of course, but his loss not only mauls Pacific’s competitive chances but apparently still counts against their salary cap. It is insane that the Canadian Premier League has a salary cap and no way to account for a third of your budget being injured before kickoff, but for preview purposes it doesn’t matter. They have a problem.
Serban was going to do very well in the Canadian Premier League. He’s struggled with injuries the past couple years, which is the only mark against an otherwise-excellent young player. Even accounting for that, and Nik Ledgerwood getting old, Cavalry’s going to have a deadly backline: Mason Trafford might be the best defender left in the league, Dominick Zator is little-known but very good, and Northover and Wheeldon are fine. I’m not sold on Mavila, the former West Ham trainee who made a Europa League bench but is now best known for insurance fraud, and with Serban gone he might have to carry a lot of mail, but Tommy Wheeldon has a good record here. (Though not listed, Joel Waterman can also fill in at fullback.)
York also has a first-ballot CanPL Guy With Something to Prove in Luca Gasparotto, who I have never failed to see at least decent for the Canadian youth teams. Beyond that stand Roger Thompson, a quality veteran, some pretty good semi-pros, one of the better university guys in Daniel Gogarty, and help out wide from Kyle Porter when needed. That is, by the standards of the league, a quietly solid unit. Edmonton is similar: a couple dandy fullbacks (Zebie and Soria) plus a fair one (Moses) all held together by literally and figuratively enormous centreback Amer Didic. The other spot is a problem, whether it’s dodgy journeyman Mele Temguia, Moses, or (my suggestion) underrated but so far unsigned draft pick Noah Cunningham. More top-end talent than York, less all-round quality.
Forge is like York but a bit worse, and rather than hoping Luca Gasparotto can develop they’re hoping Bertrand Owundi has anything at all. Kwame Awuah is the big dog here, but for all his enthusiasm and MLS experience he’s never gotten me excited. I’d rather have, say, a young Jim Brennan, and as it happens Brennan is constructing his roster on a similar principle.
Pacific’s not great either but has a sneaky asset. Without de Jong the Van Isle fullbacks offer the best combination of youth and excellence at any position in the league. Legault is raw and will probably be exposed but has high potential, and right-back-presumptive Kadin Chung is a fine youth and ex-USL player who has never yet failed to move up a level. Given that the CanPL is set to require a quota of U-21 starters, having Legault and Chung available gives tactical versatility. Among the oldies ex-Montreal Impact man Blake Smith, on loan from MLS, will probably swallow up as many fullback minutes as he can handle and do an unspectacular but commendable job with them. Unfortunately their centreback situation is catastrophic: lanky German Hendrik Starostzik is an intriguing signing, but “part-timer in the lower German leagues” is not something to anchor your backline with, while Ryan McCurdy was an underwhelming PDL player and Lukas MacNaughton is a versatile League1 Ontario guy trying to walk into the starting eleven. Talk that Adam Straith will join after the German season is hopeful, but a tired 3.Liga player rumoured to be arriving later is not salvation.
Halifax has nothing but issues: plenty of PDL experience and a few guys who hung out in USL or got a half-season with the Montreal Impact reserves or something but not an established name in the bunch. Their veteran is an 29-year-old from USports. Their prospect is a former Victoria Highlander also from USports. Not all these guys will be duds but they are set up for problems. At least Valour, who are otherwise in similarly dire straits, have the thoroughly tested Thomas and Murrell to lend some poise, plus the admittedly slim possibility that Martín Arguiñarena turns out to be good. They could play Michael Petrasso at right back, I suppose, but he’ll have better things to do.
Forge (Kyle Bekker, Tristan Borges, David Choinière, Elimane Oumar Cissé, Giuliano Frano, Alexander Achinioti Jönsson)
Cavalry (Elijah Adekugbe, Julian Büscher, Sergio Camargo, Jose Escalante, Mauro Eustaquio, Malyk Hamilton, Victor Loturi, Oliver Minatel, Carlos Patino, Joel Waterman)
Pacific (Matthew Baldisimo, Victor Blasco, Jose Hernandez, Alessandro Hojabrpour, Noah Verhoeven)
Edmonton (Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Ajay Khabra, Philippe Lincourt-Joseph, James Marcelin, Edem Mortotsi, Son Yong-chan, Bruno Zebie)
Valour (Louis Béland-Goyette, Dylan Carreiro, Nicolás Galvis, Josip Golubar, Diego Gutierrez, Glenn Muenkat, Raphael Ohin, Federico Peña, Michael Petrasso, Dylan Sacramento)
Halifax (Scott Firth, Akeem Garcia, Juan Diego Gutierrez, Kodai Iida, Elton John, Kouamé Ouattara, Andre Rampersad, Elliot Simmons)
York (Manuel Aparicio, Joseph Di Chiara, Emilio Estevez, Wataru Murofushi, Kyle Porter, Ryan Telfer, Emmanuel Zambazis)
Forge has got probably the best player in the league, Kyle Bekker. It’s got one of the most promising, David Choinière. Neither Tristan Borges nor Giuliano Frano are at all jokes, and though Borges has got everything to prove this is the right environment for him. Alexander Achinioti Jönsson is a sneakily good-looking import. Most of these players, and all the stars, are moderately-sized, vivacious, attacking players, but balance is for sissies. This midfield is going to be a hell of a lot of fun and in this respect, if no other, I envy the people of Hamilton.
Not that I’ll be watching trash rolling around for Pacific FC. The excellence of Bekker elevates Forge, but Noah Verhoeven is a first-rate prospect for the level who certainly sustains comparisons with Choinière, Matthew Baldisimo could be a dangerous box-to-box player if he doesn’t have to line up at fullback, and while the depth is young and occasionally highly-touted. Given how many roster spots Pacific has open one has to provisionally leave room for draft picks Thomas Gardner and Zack Verhoven in these calculations, which would only add to Pacific’s punch.
Rounding out the top half of a good midfield crop are the two Alberta teams: Cavalry gets the nod over Edmonton because of the excellence of former Eddie Mauro Eustaquio, a player who alternates between getting the credit he deserves as a potential Julian de Guzman and completely forgotten behind his brother depending on how much he’s on Canadian TV. Julian Büscher is an established, highly-credible import who deserves more press than he’s been getting, and while Oliver Minatel gets a bit too much credit for his time in Ottawa he’s fine. Calgary already knows their depth well and they’ll do what’s asked of them. Edmonton’s midfield is less spectacular, relying too much on a mid-career resurgence from Randy Edwini-Bonsu, and James Marcelin had been called underrated so often lately he’s becoming overrated. But he remains Marcelin a fine player (perhaps a Eustaquio without the potential to get better) and if anyone is going to rediscover his magic in CanPL, it’ll be Edwini-Bonsu in Edmonton. Son Yong-chan is a wild entry who I once heard called the best training-ground player of all time, the Cavalry absolutely would have taken Bruno Zebie if he was available, and Ajay Khabra gets praise as an electric prospect from Edmonton observers.
There is a bit of a dip from number four to number five. Valour boasts Michael Petrasso, who will be first-rate if he can recover from a depressing few years, Croatian Josip Golubar, a quality veteran from the lower Balkan divisions, and some locals who are reasonably well-liked. They won’t be badly let down but, bar Golubar, lack star power. Louis Béland-Goyette is the man to watch; his getting his career back on track would do more for Valour than almost any equivalent player around the league.
Halifax and York are in similarly depressing situations, but for totally different reasons. The Wanderers have a tantalizing young local, Scott Firth, who we should all hope gets his minutes, plus a procession of extremely unremarkable foreign imports who will be expected to step right up and hang with Bekker and Fisk. York’s midfielders are mostly domestic, and import Wataru Murofushi is not likely to be a star, but those midfielders are fairly well known and not of a very high standard. Aparicio, Di Chiara, Porter, and Zambazis have all fallen out of higher leagues and weren’t missed. Telfer is a 25-year-old on loan from Toronto FC and is not getting his option picked up. Good on the Canadian Premier League for giving these local players second chances; that’s why we want this league. Aparicio in particular is a pro. But a bit unfortunate for York that they’re all in one place.
Edmonton (Prince Amanda, Tomi Ameobi, Oumar Diouck, David Doe, Ajeej Sarkaria, Marcus Velado-Tsegaye)
Forge (Chris Nanco, Anthony Novak, Kadell Thomas, Anthony Novak, Emery Welshman, Marcel Zajac)
Pacific (Terran Campbell, Ben Fisk, Marcus Haber, Issey Nakajima-Farran)
York (Simon Adjei, Michael Cox, Austin Ricci, Cyrus Rollocks)
Cavalry (Gabriel Bitar, Jordan Brown, Dominique Malonga, Nico Pasquotti)
Valour (Tyler Attardo, Calum Ferguson, Stephen Hoyle, Ali Musse)
Halifax (Mohamed Kourouma, Vincent Lamy, Luis Alberto Perea, Tomasz Skublak, Abd-El-Aziz Yousef)
Stereotypically, a new league loads up on famous, high-producing strikers who’ll sell kits and draw fans. In CanPL, though, the talent appears to have concentrated in midfield, with defenders and strikers nearly an afterthought. I could make an argument for any team ranked from one to six having any other ranking, with only the seventh-place team as an outlier (and even they have one gun). Does that say something?
Edmonton’s struck the right balance. Tomi Ameobi, one of the all-time leading scorers in the Voyageurs Cup, a popular player, and a very well-established (if streaky) goalscorer at this level who knows Edmonton well, should lead the line and be among the league scoring leaders. Diouck is too old to be a prospect and couldn’t stick around even in Belgian semi-pro soccer but you could have worse depth. Of the prospects Amanda is the biggest name, partially on account of his brother Gloire, but I’ve seen Doe good and as Steven Sandor mentioned Velado-Tsegaye is getting a lot of hype ahead of his professional debut.
Pacific’s trying something similar but less effectively. Their depth is not as bad as it looks on the official site: if Issey Nakajima-Farran is a forward then Ben Fisk is and I bet Terran Campbell’s going to spend time up top. But Haber’s strengths and limitations are perfectly clear to any Canadian fan, Issey is not a young man anymore, Fisk is a terrific player but not a prime goalscorer, and guys like Campbell or Victor Blasco are question marks. None really have pace; with a dynamic midfield they can generate offense but will need flowing soccer unusual at this level to excel. They could really, really use a Dario Zanatta type but should be fine.
On the other hand, very high marks to Forge, who have no “names” beyond Guyanese international Emery Welshman, but have assembled a first-rate collection of hungry overachievers who need a serious professional opportunity. I am very excited to see League1 Ontario star Anthony Novak, a fine goalscorer and apparently an absolute bastard to play against, getting a chance at a higher level; he will turn heads in this first season. Novak’s 24. If not for CanPL nobody in North American pro soccer would have given him a second look, but he might be good for ten goals next year. Valour and York both have decent strike-forces-by-committee: York should be headlined by Michael Cox, a pacey and unsophisticated but prolific classic striker, and people like the thicc Simon Adjei. Ali Musse’s left the spotlight but produced here and there in PDL and has gotten stronger, while Tyler Attardo gives Valour another young guy Rob Gale can develop. Stephen Hoyle’s move from New Zealand to Canada might be lateral, and he scored enough against kiwis to be rated against beavers.
Cavalry’s managed to find two players who, five years ago, would have been hailed as stars. Jordan Brown is a former English youth international and Dominique Malonga has scored in Scotland while repping the Congo. But for all the pedigree, breaking down Malonga’s past five years makes him look like a poor man’s Marcus Haber. Brown has gone from West Ham to western Canada for a reason and just flunked out of the Czech Republic. I dislike total washouts, as a rule; USL and NASL teams often take chances on such guys and usually leave disappointed. From the opposite end of the career spectrum, first overall USports draft pick Gabriel Bitar needs to prove he can replicate his sensational shooting percentages against pros. On the other hand, likely at least one of Bitar, Brown, and Malonga will adapt to this league, while Nico Pasquotti is an underrated, versatile player. Though they’re ranked deceptively low in this category we can promise that Cavalry will put the ball in the net.
Halifax has almost nothing. Up top that is a PDL roster apart from 32-year-old Luis Alberto Perea. Perea is only a year removed from being a goal-per-game striker in the decent Salvadoran league, but he’s scored at much lower rates in Colombia, Peru, and Brazil. Halifax is his ninth club in the last five years. He’s aging, living out of his suitcase, and the very opposite of a sure thing. Nobody else there is anybody. It will be a long year on the east coast.
Predicted CanPL Best XI
Marco Carducci (Cavalry) Nik Ledgerwood (Cavalry) – Luca Gasparotto (York) – Mason Trafford (Cavalry) – Blake Smith (Pacific) Kyle Bekker (Forge) – James Marcelin (Edmonton) – David Choinière (Forge) Ben Fisk (Pacific) – Tomi Ameobi (Edmonton) – Michael Cox (York)
Predicted CanPL MVP
Kyle Bekker, with say seven goals and ten assists. If not him then Ben Fisk; if not them then Ameobi.
Coach of the Year
Probably Tommy Wheeldon,. Jr. at Cavalry, who has all the qualifications: his team will be good, he’ll deserve a lot of credit for that, he’s photogenic, and he’s a good quote. An extremely tough candidate to beat, but coach of the year is always implicitly a reflection of team results. If Halifax gets into contention, and this league is so unpredictable that they very well might, Stephen Hart will charge into pole position.
Young Player of the Year
Pacific FC right back Kadin Chung is a fine U-21 player who will probably see at least 1,500 minutes and should do well with them. Should he stay healthy and Pacific even produce respectable results he has to be a very large favourite. But I’m also looking at Valour’s Tyler Attardo. Winnipeg has always been better than you might think at producing very good U-20 players; they just haven’t had the opportunity to develop into adults. Attardo is a rare player who’ll be getting a big chance on a strike force that’ll be hungry for anything it can get, and he’s got the rep of a kid with ice in his veins who knows where the goal is.
2019 Canadian Premier League champion
While I think Forge is the best overall team in the league, it’s by a very narrow margin over Cavalry. And Cavalry knows how to win championships. Most of these guys just did it, and while the quality of play in CanPL will be higher than USL PDL the travel, playing conditions, and other off-field obstacles are if anything going to be easier in Canada. Nobody in Cavalry’s starting eleven is going to be intimidated by a big final, and many of them will have faith in their teammates established by experience. Forge has its share of winners, Bekker best among them. But in a very close struggle, Cavalry’s superior experience over two legs would give them the edge.
The Canadian Premier League kick-off this coming Saturday will be our biggest event in some time. The entire domestic soccer community will be settling down at 1 PM Eastern, either in Forge FC’s stadium or in front of CBC television, to witness a new and hopefully more positive era in our nation’s game. This otherwise quite ordinary league fixture is making hearts across the Dominion beat a bit faster, like an Olympic semi-final.
Nothing could better herald this dawn than our mascots. Four of the Canadian Premier League’s seven teams have, in recent weeks, introduced us to new mascots who will stand as symbols for all time, representing the Canadian Premier League to ourselves and to the world. Canada’s national coat of arms is supported by a unicorn and a lion, representing the British heritage of our governance and our culture that goes back way before Confederation. Perhaps, in a couple centuries, some new country will bear arms supported by Bolt and Stewie the Starfish. It is scarcely less probable than the existence of the Canadian Premier League itself.
In honour of this joyous week I have decided to rank all of the league’s mascots so far, from best to worst. These ratings are entirely objective and based off a proprietary statistical algorithm developed by the Prince of Wales and tested by Maple Leaf Forever!‘s secret nerd hive in Sudbury-Thunder Bay. As a result its decisions are not to be argued with, only agreed on and amplified.
Finally, if you got to this post from Reddit or something and are confused, you should know that every word in this article is completely serious.
Strengths: Is, identifiably, a lion in a Valour kit. But not too identifiably. If you search Amazon for “lion costume” he isn’t on the first page. Is named after Canadian legend Vic Rauter, who has spent a lot of time in Winnipeg. Lions are classy mascots in any context, whether for a soccer club or the British Empire. Is far from the lamest of the mascots when in cartoon form. And was the first mascot announced back in February, which surely counts for something.
Weaknesses: Probably isn’t actually named after Vic Rauter.
My dad played keeper for the Winnipeg Fury when they used to play at the old Winnipeg Stadium, so I followed in his footsteps.
The Fury played at Winnipeg Stadium from 1987 to 1992 so there are many possibilities, including 1990 league all-star Tim Rosenfeld. However by far the best known former Fury goalkeeper was 57-time Canadian international Pat Onstad, who played three CSL seasons for the Fury in 1989, 1990, and 1992. Vic refers to his dad being “king” of the Assiniboine Park Zoo “for years,” and Onstad was a useful MLS goalkeeper to the age of 42. It is now canon that Valour FC’s mascot is Pat Onstad’s son. The history of Canadian soccer will have to be rewritten.
Conclusions: Simple, classy. The fact that he is the bastard child of the guy who cost us a spot in the hex in 2008 can, with the passage of years, be forgiven. Vic is the clear king of the mascot jungle.
2. Ballsy (FC Edmonton)
Strengths: Nobody ever looked at Ballsy and said “what sport do they play?”
Weaknesses: Back in 2016 Jay Ball shot Ballsy in the head and buried the deflated remains behind a barn in Strathcona County. When Academy kids ask where Ballsy is they say that he’s playing with dogs on a beautiful farm where the turf is always artificial.
Wild card: Is “Ballsy” actually his name or was that just a meme? I am sure they were calling him “Eddie” for a hot second there.
Conclusions: Someday we are going to bust Ballsy out of Saint Helena and then you’ll all pay.
Strengths: The most bad-ass cartoon on offer. A shape that lends itself well to cookies. The only mascot both named after and executed in one of the team’s bespoke marketing colours. When you think about it, a purple soccer-playing starfish could actually be really good.
Weaknesses: The gap between the bad-ass-looking trident-wielding cartoon Stewie and the real-life droopy sponge could not be wider. Even CHEK News admitted he looks like Grimace in a knock-off kit. He was also possibly named after mayor of Langford Stewart Young, whose promised renovations to Westhills Stadium helped lure a Canadian Premier League team. This is not to be encouraged.
Conclusions: Like David Choinière, Stewie has not put it all together yet but the ingredients are there, and at the Canadian Premier League level he will have every chance to succeed. Perhaps he can be sold to Orlando City for a lavish transfer fee and the proceeds reinvested in young mascots from Van Isle.
Strengths: Has a logo. In fact has a secondary logo, which seems a little extra. Is the only CanPL mascot to date derived from his team’s history, since FC Edmonton’s the only team with any. “Bolt” is a respectable name.
Weaknesses: “Blue Bolt” is somehow not a respectable name at all. FC Edmonton 3D-rendered their mascot reveal, and the results were so creepy I will hold it against Bolt forever. Also between the blue, the lightning, and the speed theme, he is obviously a Sonic the Hedgehog clone that got lost on his way to the Sega Genesis. Except, and I know perfectly well Bolt has two eyebrows whereas this guy has one, something about the top of the face recalls an evil Bert. This is not a great association.
Wild card: What’s with how deadly-serious that reveal video was? Is this a darker and edgier FC Edmonton for the ’90s? Is Bolt going to star in a nine-hour-long comic book movie for emotionally undeveloped adults? What’s going on here?
Conclusions: Bolt is probably the mascot who best demonstrates that mascots aren’t for us. He is so cringe-worthy, and so weird, and so derivative, and the boys will probably love him anyway. He should get a Twitch.
5. Sparx (Forge FC)
Strengths: Is the fire emoji, so his brand is being unwittingly promoted by thirsty Snapchatters around the world. And despite this universality Frumx is not going to be mistaken for any other team’s mascot, in any league, on any continent. You could see him on a Vietnamese mountain communing with the spirits and be like “wait, is that Hamilton’s beloved Jornx?”
Weaknesses: It would probably be a copyright violation to embed the entire nine-page comic Forge released on Jankx’s origin story. But I really really want to.
Wild card: Given that mascots are for children, and that Forge owner Bob Young is one of the motive forces behind the entire Canadian Premier League, it is just possible that Plugx’s firey demeanour will motivate a youngster to stick his hand into the furnace after a particularly delightful win, leading to a massive series of lawsuits that wind up crippling Forge and the league as a whole, which would be untoward.
Conclusions: You’ll always have a place on our team, Krunx!
The Canadian Premier League kicks off in eleven days. For many of us, that Saturday in Hamilton will be the finish line of a generation-long race, for Canada to once again have its own domestic, national soccer league. The Voyageurs will have their own here-to-cheer-on-the-game section at Forge FC’s stadium, which must be close to unprecedented in club soccer. Halifax, whose success will be the most accurate sign for the Canadian soccer pyramid’s prosperity, has sold out single-match tickets for their home opener.
We didn’t ask much. Some of us didn’t even insist it be professional. But we’re getting a lot. Good players are coming home, exciting prospects and second-chancers are getting paycheques. Halifax and Cavalry have thrilling bespoke stadiums, while Edmonton, Pacific, and York are getting much-needed soccer-friendly renovations. The kits look nice, the games will be streamed. In the future there might be promotion and relegation. By God, this is looking like real soccer.
But is it looking really Canadian?
Yes and no. We have the most important things, Canadian players in Canadian cities. But the players are dressed in Italian shirts and the team names are inspired by the European rather than the North American tradition. The split-season schedule makes sense but is a bit foreign, and the fact that our national professional soccer championship will end before our league does is a bit… well, at least nobody can say the Voyageurs Cup is stealing someone else’s format. The point is that Canada still has not really made its mark on this league as a whole except geographically. What about its soul speaks to us?
Obviously one doesn’t want to do old-NASL crap with changing the game rules to appeal to the low-agency North American stereotype, but there is a middle ground between “pretending we’re Italy” and “breaking ties with a shootout where the guy can dribble.” As with the league this post is a starting point, not a finale. There will be cogent traditionalist, and practical, objections to them all. But, that wimpy waffling out of the way, here goes.
Canadian commentary, please. We’re all familiar with the old lazy way of a British voice, usually English but occasionally Scottish (Luke Wileman, Nigel Reed, Gareth Hampshire, Dick Howard, Kristian Jack, James Sharman, Alan Errington, etc.) with, in descending order of preference: another native Briton, the Canadian sidekick who has an English accent anyway à la Terry Dunfield, or in a pinch the Canadian-accented Canadian.. Even USL PDL’s TSS Rovers follow this formula, with Canadian-accented Gideon Hill in the commentary alongside most-Scottish-man-alive Michael McColl, though in this case a lack of volunteers probably plays a part.
Commentary teams are part of modern marketing. Women’s hockey coverage on TSN is anchored by elite female players plus Rod Black, who was grandfathered in and few would miss if he left. In women’s soccer it is perfectly acceptable to put Clare Rustad or Kaylyn Kyle beside Vic Rauter, because in women’s soccer a Canadian accent has credibility1. Everyone understands perfectly well what’s going on here: the commentators reflect the expectations of the audience. Just as everyone understood what was meant when CBC Edmonton journalist and English accent Gareth Hampshire was doing FC Edmonton play-by-play. I mean it’s soccer and he’s English! The star of the broadcast was soccer veteran Steven Sandor, who has a western Canadian accent you could record as an example for future generations, but you can’t have two guys who sound like that even on CityTV Edmonton.
Gavin Day, who would know, tells us that CBC is going to broadcast around 20 CanPL games this year. It’s “across multiple platforms,” which means a bunch of games buried on CBCSports.ca with the World Cup skiing, but it also means a lot of Nigel Reed. Reed helped call Major League Soccer’s arrival in Canada, turns out to be an exceptional voice of Olympic biathlon, and became another successful voice for Toronto Wolfpack rugby. I like him. But we are, consciously, building something distinctly Canadian and I’m afraid Reed’s dulcet tones won’t do. An English accent isn’t the difference between a Eurosnob tuning in and tuning out, but it makes our domestic league sound foreign. As every sport, and indeed every other field of life except for ours has figured out, such things matter.
Hockey-style captain and alternate captain letters on the kits is an idea that the league adopted by accident, when their kit-customization page launched with the hockey lettering feature still on. It was a mistake, just like how as of this writing they still show NHL sweaters at the top. If it wasn’t an accident Nik Ledgerwood would have been strutting through the kit launch with a “C” on his breast and the takes would have been hot indeed.
Having come up with the idea by mistake, there is no reason for CanPL not to adopt it. According to the FIFA Laws of the Game the captain has one job: to be present for the opening coin toss. Beyond that the duties, and the symbolism, of the captain are a matter of custom, and therefore open for meddling by those whose customs are different.
You don’t need to lose the armband if you don’t want to. There’s honour in Christine Sinclair handing the armband to Diana Matheson as she’s subbed off. But the “C” and the “A” are something else: a permanent, and clearly Canadian, acknowledgement of the team’s top dogs. Sinclair can give an armband to Matheson but she’s still the captain. Matheson can be a part-time player but she’s still a team leader and, in hockey, would certainly have the “A” on her chest saying so. Some clubs try to get around it by saying their “club captain” is the legend who no longer starts every day while the “captain” is the leader of the regular eleven but, with its gradient of letters, hockey has a better idea. It’s beautiful, and Canadian, and it doesn’t quite duplicate the old armband. CanPL should do it.
The Page playoff system is another great Canadian concept, notwithstanding that it’s Australian. In the previous century it was used all over the British Empire, and on the Indian subcontinent it is still used in two colossally popular Twenty20 cricket championships. But to a Canadian today the Page playoff is inextricably associated with curling, and indeed with curling in Canada. The two major Canadian curling championships, the Brier and the Tournament of Hearts, use the Page playoff. The big international tournaments do not.
Saying the Canadian Premier League needs to emulate cricket and curling is almost too on-brand for Maple Leaf Forever! but hear it out. The Page system is simple: four teams make the playoffs. The first- and second-placed teams play each other: the winner goes straight to the final, the loser faces the winner of the other quarter-final between the third- and fourth-placed teams. The winner of that game is the other finalist.
This system is ideal if you want to give teams a bonus for finishing first or second… but not too much of one. The best team gets a reward for its excellence but still has a game to play. Winning the Page 1-2 playoff game can be a formidable advantage thanks to the round off but you have to go out and do it, while the loser might as well have finished fourth. Compared to having 1 play 4 and 2 play 3, it’s one more big game to sell tickets for. As a minor bonus, it also gives you a clear bronze medalist without the hassle of playing a dull third-place game2.
The Canadian Premier League is adopting a split-season regular season schedule, with separate spring and fall campaigns. The spring season is only twelve games long; it is, in short, a little fake. But as modern NASL hands know it can also be entertaining as hell. A Page playoff would give one top spot to the spring winner, one top spot to the fall winner, and make those titles matter without giving a spring champion a disproportionate advantage for a twelve-game hot streak. Teams 3 and 4 could be the top finishers on the combined table not otherwise in the playoffs, so consistency will also get its due.
For now it’s the perfect format, but it doesn’t scale. The Page playoff breaks down if you let more than four teams in so a sixteen-team CanPL will need to adopt a different system. Oh shucks.
Hang a picture of the Queen in a stadium. The Winnipeg Jets gave it up; the field is open for a soccer team to assume the mantle of monarchy. Will Pacific FC be brave enough? They play in a city named aft… okay, it’s Langford, not Victoria, but they’re close! How about York 9? “Duke of York” is a royal title! Fine, I might have to wait until Regina gets a team for it to be really appropriate, but I will!
It may seem like I’m going back to curling when I say CanPL should also promote interprovincial teams, but I’m not really. The Brier and the Tournament of Hearts are the biggest occasions when you might see Team Alberta play Team Ontario, but though provincially-branded with all the rivalry that implies, those are established teams that won their provincial playoff. With the Challenge and Jubilee Trophies, Canadian soccer already has that3. The Canada Games are nearer the mark: operate like the provinces were countries and it was the World Cup. You call up the best players from your province, fight it out, and may the best province win.
Alas, the Canada Games are explicitly a developmental program for young athletes. Most competitions are age-limited (in soccer it’s U-18) and so the bloodlust in each clash suffers; you and the guy you’re tackling are both only here to catch the eye of a national team scout. Even so they’re more popular, among both athletes and spectators, than an EPL-raised fan of big time soccer might guess. It is very, very easy for two Canadians from two different provinces to work up a rivalry; just ask politics Twitter.
Canadian club nationals involve provincial champions billed by their provinces of origin, but that’s not the same thing4: nationals are independent teams wearing their own club colours, not provincial representative teams. Why couldn’t CanPL, in the one year out of every four not reserved for a men’s World Cup or the Gold Cup, take a summer “intra-Dominion” break for an open-age Canadian soccer competition run under their auspices? Only a few provinces could field a fully professional eleven but given funding for travel, enough notice to book vacation, and the expectation of CanPL scouts and CanPL competition, amateurs would come as they do for club nationals. Take two weeks in June and July, gather the provinces in one place, and fight it out for a big trophy awarded on July 1. For teams in trilliums playing teams in fleurs-des-lis, or teams in trilliums playing teams in wild roses, or actually teams in trilliums playing anybody, both fans and players would come out, I can promise you that.
We can negotiate on the format. Have the territories, or even the lesser non-host provinces, play to qualify if you like, as the NHL does with their World Cup of Hockey. Certainly you must invite, and try to attract, non-CanPL professionals. The Europeans will be in offseason, they may be obtainable, but the ideal is for an Ontario player on Toronto FC to convince his coach to let him leave MLS for two weeks so he can play for his province. You won’t get there in year one but you might in year nine. Given the naturally-occurring rivalries and the probability of most of Canada’s professional strength winding up in our league, we could make this very prestigious indeed.
Finally, and most generically, don’t lose sight of your community’s history. I fear Pacific FC is falling short here. The ancestral home of soccer in Victoria is Royal Athletic Park, a gloriously aging, shabby venue not quite downtown; think Swangard or Lamport but on whatever the opposite of steroids are. In the old days of Victoria United the field was aligned the wrong way, meaning the setting sun completely blinded one goalkeeper a half. It has few amenities and those are controlled by its owner, the City of Victoria, who are ill-inclined to share any resulting revenues. The stadium is also claimed by an annual beer festival and baseball’s Victoria HarbourCats, who play in a collegiate summer league. Parking is awkward; partying is worse, what with RAP being smack dab in a fairly tony residential neighbourhood. The one pub in the immediate area, in my day, was not worth the entering, then you walk into the ground and everything is just a bit awkward.
I love watching soccer there. You can hear the ghosts in the 110-year-old walls, and when the sun is setting in your eyes you can see the shades of soccer games past, both domestic and foreign, blending together across the ages; “Chopper” Harris charging in on George Pakos, Paul Dolan with the lunging fingertip save off Ron Flowers. We associate these great historic grounds with Europe but, at an admittedly less internationally-renowned level, we have them too. I don’t care what Pacific FC would have had to do to play there, they should have done it. Let Langford develop history beyond “a younger Maple Leaf Forever! writer first learns to admire Shaun Saiko” and then we can talk.
There are still a few of these itty-bitty shitty old grounds around Canada from coast to coast. Even if they don’t date from 1908 like Royal Athletic Park they have stories of their own. And where it’s not the stadium, it’s old players or colours or traditions. Say what you like about the Vancouver Whitecaps but keeping Carl Valentine and Bob Lenarduzzi as part of their community, remembering Dom Mobilio and trotting out the surviving alumni of the ’70s every year, is more than most professional soccer franchises do.
We are used to another line of thought, where the Columbus Crew are in jeopardy because their 20-year-old soccer-specific stadium is considered hopelessly obsolete5. The same thing happens in the NHL, to our shame. So Pacific FC plays in Langford, at the original ground of the Victoria Highlanders, a stadium shared part-time with the community and Canadian rugby. It’s not glamorous but it has every amenity you need, plenty of availability, and solid, modern artificial turf for all your needs.
But nobody likes giving up the Montreal Forum for the Molson Centre. Our very hearts rebel, tell us what a hateful fucking thing we’re doing for the sake of wider seats and luxury suites. No actual human needs to be convinced here. We need that connection to our heritage as surely as we need oxygen.
CanPL is very new. Its oldest club made its competitive debut in 2011 and everyone else will start in a week and a half. That can’t be helped until the Ottawa Fury and the MLS franchises get with the program. But our communities have history. When FC Edmonton proudly announces Lars Hirschfeld is their goalie coach it’s not because Hirschfeld, who has never coached professionally in his life, is obviously going to be brilliant; it’s because he’s Edmonton, and he deserves to get a shot with his hometown club. Hirschfeld never played for FC Edmonton but this is the right idea and every CanPL team could emulate it. We all have our histories and the Canadian Premier League is a crowning addition, not a new building.