99 Friendship Episode 25

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · January 16th, 2017 · No comments

We tried something a little different this episode. Rather than sit down and discuss the pressing issues of the past week, we shot the breeze while watching curling. This is a perfect episode if you like our trademark CanWNT bantz leavened with the yeast of “oh goddamn it Reid Carruthers” even though Reid would, in fact, easily win the game we were watching. This leads to moments where we randomly interject another thought on the Continental Cup, truly the random interjection of curling’s Season of Champions. It was, as our catchphrase goes, weird.

We have a few words about the NWSL draft, and by “a few words” I mean about this many since we did the hard work last week. We consider FIFA’s THE BEST, where I don’t say anything you won’t have learned by reading my blog post last week but nobody got through that goddamned thing so this may still be informative. We spend literal seconds ruminating on the three retiring CanWNT players, Melissa Tancredi, Rhian Wilkinson, and Marie-Eve Nault, then anticipate their being honoured against Mexico in exactly the way Kara Lang wasn’t.

Also we look at some pornography. Uh, if you’re at work, when we tell you to Google something, don’t Google it. Just… just take that as a principle.

Go ahead and follow 99 Friendship on Twitter; it’s very worksafe and family-friendly apart from all the porn.

Whatever It’s Called, the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year is Still a Joke

By Benjamin Massey · January 11th, 2017 · No comments

John Major/Canadian Soccer Association

In 2012, after the greatest season in her own and her country’s history, Christine Sinclair was nominated for FIFA’s women’s player of the year award. She probably deserved it: the leading scorer and most valuable player at the Olympics captained a perennial underachiever to its best-ever international finish, winning world-wide admiration for skill and guts. Instead she finished fifth, behind the winner Abby Wambach (a one-dimensional goalscorer with fewer goals), Marta (who was, honestly, terrible), Alex Morgan (also good, also outscored), and Homare Sawa (another forward on another good team without much to scream about individually).

Wambach wasn’t a bad winner but what hurt was how Sinclair lost. Among peers her value was more-or-less appreciated, but in FIFA a country with no real women’s soccer program gets just as many votes as Germany. It was the their uninformed votes that relegated Sinclair to fifth place while elevating the average Sawa and the famous-but-worse-than-Melissa-Tancredi Marta. It was proof that the FIFA women’s player of the year award was devoid of merit.

2016 was the franchise’s unoriginal sequel. Once again, Canada’s women beat France and won an Olympic bronze medal. Once again, captain Christine Sinclair played an important role for a team that beat expectations. Once again, Sinclair was nominated for international player of the year, now called “THE BEST” by semi-literate cretins, and once again her opponents included an American player with a probably-inferior season but a huge international reputation (Carli Lloyd), a notable Japanese player who didn’t do anything this year (Saki Kumagai, whose team failed to even qualify for the Olympics), and a fabulously-overrated Brazilian striker coming off a unremarkable season, presumably on the list because people have heard of her (Marta, again, harder to kill than Jason Voorhees).

The plot twist was that Sinclair didn’t deserve the award either. She had a good year for club and country, putting her in Camille Abily/Amandine Henry/Lotta Schelin nice-but-not-enough territory. She was not one of the three best players in world women’s soccer, nor one of the three best out of the ten nominees. The only hope was that Sinclair would scoop up reputation votes as a fabulous player approaching the end of her career who everybody should know has never gotten her due. It wasn’t enough and she finished eighth, ahead of Abily, behind Schelin, and pretty much tied with Henry.

Canada couldn’t complain, but the results were still stunning. Marta, once again, wound up in the final three for no obvious reason. Her 2016 was not nearly as appalling as her 2012, as she bagged a couple goals against Canada and one against France in friendly play, plus two against the Swedes at the Olympics. She was also effective with Scandinavian superpower FC Rosengard, though there’s something not-quite-World-Player-of-the-Year-flavoured about the phrase “joint-leading scorer with Ella Masar*.” The Germans had three nominees in tremendous all-round midfielder Sara Däbritz, retiring sentimental favourite and long-time talent Melanie Behringer, and young forward Dzenifer Marozsan, threatening to split the vote. France’s Henry and Abily were also present.

Maybe that’s why Carli Lloyd won. Carli Lloyd, who was the bona fide 2015 world player of the year after scoring about a billion goals in the World Cup and tearing Japan to bloody ribbons in the final. Carli Lloyd, still in her prime and now, technically, an award-winning author. Carli Lloyd, who in a jam-packed 2016 managed one and a half goals against real teams, knocking a rebound into an empty net against France and scoring a pretty good header against New Zealand (that’s the half). Carli Lloyd, who captained her American national team at the Olympics to, er, a fifth-place finish, the worst in their history. Carli Lloyd, who ran off from the Houston Dash[1] to chill and go on a book tour, while her coach literally did not know where she was. Carli Lloyd, who was outscored by Behringer at the Olympics despite Behringer being a traditional midfielder and Lloyd a very attack-oriented number 10. Behringer took penalties and played more games but she out-open-play-through-the-quarter-finals-scored Lloyd three to two.

Then there was the coach of the year award. Canada’s John Herdman was nominated, as in 2012. As in 2012 there was a very good argument that he deserved to be among the contenders, and as in 2012 he came up short, finishing fourth in a bewildering field. Of the ten coaches nominated three (Brazil’s Vadão, France’s Philippe Bergeroo, and South Africa’s Dutch boss Vera Pauw) had been sacked in disgrace before the finalists were announced. Another (the United States’s Jill Ellis) is unpopular with fans for the whole “leading the team to its worst major tournament finish” thing. The winner was Germany’s Silvia Neid, who absolutely deserved it and ran away with the voting. Sweden’s Pia Sundhage was third, and also a good pick. But Ellis, the catastrophic underachiever, was second, despite the fact that her team blew its brains out in Rio and—very sorry but I’m going to have to run wild with the formatting here—Sundhage outcoached her into the ground the only time they met.

At least Neid’s victory was justice at the end of a long and legendary career. But Lloyd was less deserving than the top Germans and the idea of Marta or Ellis in their respective top threes is laughable. To make matters worse, FIFA has introduced a fan voting component to their traditional format. The votes of the captains of each national team, the coach of each national team, selected media members from each national federation, and the overall fan ballot each account for one quarter of the result[2].

The fans did some damage. Their votes bumped Ellis ahead of Sundhage and lifted Marta ahead of both Behringer and Maroszan, who among captains, coaches, and media were still behind Lloyd but ahead of the Brazilian. As it was Marta beat the Germans handsomely[3], making one wonder what sorts of idiots vote for these things.

Yet the mathematically-gifted of you will have realized that if fans get 25% of the say, that means the “experts” get 75%. No amount of Marta-worship from ballot-stuffing Brazilians, no number of Tumblr campaigns for Carli 2017, would have mattered if the professionals had voted intelligently. And when you break down the voting you see that, just like in 2012, countries that don’t even really play women’s soccer dragged the whole award into the mud[4].

Below is a table showing each nominee, her final position in the actual player of the year award, the proportion of the vote she received from all the participating captains, coaches, and media (both raw and weighted one-third each), and the proportion of the vote she received from countries ranked in the top however-many of the most recent (December) FIFA women’s soccer rankings. Also shown are the votes for all countries with a FIFA ranking, which means any country that has played a single official match in the past eighteen months, and the votes for all countries without a FIFA ranking, which haven’t. There are a few countries that are not even “not ranked” by FIFA, but regardless sent in votes; they are lumped in with the “inactive.” And advance apologies to my mobile users.

Name # All Weighted Captains Coaches Media Top 10 Top 20 Top 30 Top 40 Active Inactive
Abily 10 5.39% 5.34% 5.26% 6.19% 4.55% 9.58% 9.60% 9.17% 8.31% 6.24% 2.81%
Behringer 3 14.18% 14.73% 10.19% 11.79% 22.22% 21.07% 20.15% 20.54% 20.02% 14.27% 13.92%
Däbritz 5 6.29% 6.44% 5.01% 5.85% 8.47% 11.11% 6.21% 4.65% 4.20% 5.80% 7.81%
Henry 9 5.60% 5.49% 6.02% 6.53% 3.92% 4.60% 6.03% 5.43% 5.21% 5.64% 5.49%
Kumagai 6 7.62% 7.48% 7.52% 9.41% 5.50% 0.77% 2.45% 2.33% 3.30% 5.64% 10.99%
Lloyd 1 21.92% 21.24% 26.48% 25.28% 11.96% 6.51% 16.95% 17.05% 18.12% 21.66% 22.71%
Marozsan 4 13.19% 13.19% 13.03% 13.32% 13.23% 21.46% 19.21% 20.54% 20.02% 15.75% 5.37%
Marta 2 13.16% 13.05% 15.71% 11.79% 11.64% 7.66% 6.03% 7.11% 8.41% 11.35% 18.68%
Schelin 7 7.08% 7.35% 6.27% 4.66% 11.11% 5.75% 6.40% 8.01% 6.71% 7.07% 7.08%
Sinclair 8 5.57% 5.70% 4.51% 5.17% 7.41% 11.49% 6.97% 5.17% 5.71% 5.72% 5.13%

This table raises questions. Questions like “when Marta dies is she going to get 10% of the vote, or 15%?” and “how did countries that don’t play woso develop such a girl-crush on Saki Kumagai?”

Though the top 10 isn’t a lot of countries, it amounts to 29 voters picking three winners for a total of 81 points in ballot strength (North Korea somehow neglected to appoint a media representative). 29 people is not an overwhelming sample but major awards in sports and entertainment have been decided by fewer. For Christine Sinclair to finish third among that elite 29, including her coach and her media rep, is a tribute from the very competitors Sinclair has been trying to lift Canada up to.

Carli Lloyd starts gaining ground early, driven by a strong coach’s vote in the top 20 and top 30. Of course Jill Ellis voted for Lloyd but the coaches of England (5), the Netherlands (12) China (13), Italy (16), Switzerland (17), South Korea (18), Iceland (20), Austria (24), Belgium (25), and Mexico (t-26) also put Lloyd first. Many of those countries played the Americans in US-based friendlies this year, and Lloyd scored on not a few, so thinking they were sunk by the player of the year must be a great consolation. Italy’s Antonio Cabrini completed his confusing ballot with Marta and Lotta Schelin, then for good measure listed Jill Ellis and Philippe Bergeroo first and third on his coach’s list, suggesting there may be a reason Italian woso has on the downturn lately. Pia Sundhage had Lloyd nowhere.

Maybe they just liked her book. Anyway, what counts is that, in the real woso world, Lloyd is in no danger of catching either Marozsan or Behringer and Marta is an also-ran. The top 30-ranked countries include everyone of even minor consequence in at the senior international level, save some token Africans. Had only the top 30 voted we would have finished with Marozsan and Behringer exactly tied with Lloyd a good step behind, and that would have been an excellent result. If you don’t hold her Houston Magical Mystery Tour against her it’s easy to defend Lloyd as the third-best player on this list.

However, that’s not how it works. Among both minnows ranked below 40th in the world and the teams that aren’t active at all, Lloyd had a decisive lead. Of the 3,321 points allocated in the player of the year ballot the top thirty countries disposed of 774. Inactive countries—national teams which literally do not exist—cast 819 points worth of votes. If you want this award you’re better off being a household name with a book deal.

You can follow Lloyd’s share of the vote rising as the calibre of the voters declines, and very satisfying it is. But Carli Lloyd is nothing next to Marta. Even as far as the top 40, as minnows fill the water, Marta was incapable of cracking 9%. But add in the true nobodies and Marta is on the podium: between them and the fan vote the Brazilian Ella Masar was anointed the second-best player in world women’s soccer for 2016.

If you have the endurance, this chart shows how players’ votes changes as we descend the rankings. Select a player to highlight her, and hover over a point to see which ranking that is. Each point is a player’s ballot position among voters within a set of ten ranking places (which usually doesn’t mean ten countries), with the last point being the not-ranked and not-even-not-ranked voters.

The coach of the year ballot, thank God, was simpler from both ends. At the top, except for us homer Canadians supporting John Herdman, Silvia Neid was a fairly obvious choice both on the basis of Germany’s gold medal and as an acknowledgement of one of the best coaching careers in women’s soccer history. You might chisel her out of first place, on the grounds that she did get beat by Melissa Tancredi in a game she didn’t really want to win and that Herdman or Pia Sundhage had done more with less, but leaving Neid out of your top three altogether would have been negligence. Sundhage was the obvious contender for best of the rest, with Herdman hanging around but probably impossible for a Canadian to neutrally rate.

On the other side of the vote were, well, the guys who’d been fired already. It’s a good bet you can’t be the best coach in the world if your employer decided they’d prefer anyone else. Except for French captain Wendie Renard, who loyally put Philippe Bergeroo third on her ballot, voting for France’s fall guy was a sign of mental illness. And he might still have been better than Pauw, obviously listed only as African representation, or Vadão, whose Brazilians beat nobody in particular and needed a win from the penalty spot just to reach a home bronze medal game in which Canada, a team he had met in two pre-tournament friendlies, destroyed him.

And the fired guys weren’t even the only randoms! Gérard Prêcheur, head coach of the Olympique Lyonnais women, winner of the last season’s Champions League and Division 1 Féminine as well as a favourite in both this year, would have been a excellent nominee if you could find anybody who prioritized European club play in an Olympic year, which you can’t. A notch below were Swiss boss Martina Voss-Teckleburg and Bayern Münich’s Thomas Wörle, both of whom are probably good coaches and neither of whom had much of a 2016. Switzerland dominated a European Championships qualifying group that had nobody in it and wasn’t at the Olympics. Wörle won the last Bundesliga but ain’t gonna win this one and went out of the 2015–16 Champions League to Twente, which is even worse than it sounds. It is, apparently, hard to find ten decent women’s soccer coaches in the world; Paul Riley must be throwing Heineken bottles at his television.

So, with such an obvious top four of Neid-Sundhage-Herdman-Prêcheur, how did Ellis get the silver medal? Oh boy here comes that big table again.

Name # All Weighted Captains Coaches Media Top 10 Top 20 Top 30 Top 40 Active Inactive
Bergeroo 10 3.54% 3.50% 3.85% 3.73% 2.94% 0.77% 2.82% 2.58% 2.60% 3.01% 5.19%
Ellis 2 16.62% 16.26% 19.74% 18.24% 10.80% 1.92% 7.72% 6.59% 8.01% 13.80% 25.31%
Herdman 4 7.27% 7.30% 7.26% 6.87% 7.76% 10.73% 9.04% 9.17% 8.91% 8.06% 4.81%
Neid 1 32.46% 32.86% 28.80% 30.87% 38.89% 42.15% 37.10% 38.11% 36.54% 34.26% 26.91%
Pauw 8 3.06% 2.99% 2.39% 4.58% 1.99% 1.15% 1.13% 2.33% 2.20% 3.29% 2.35%
Prêcheur 5 8.11% 8.23% 8.72% 6.02% 9.96% 11.11% 10.17% 9.69% 9.51% 8.26% 7.65%
Sundhage 3 17.89% 17.98% 15.98% 18.58% 19.39% 26.82% 24.67% 24.29% 22.92% 19.61% 16.16%
Vadão 6 4.97% 4.89% 6.15% 4.75% 3.77% 1.15% 0.94% 0.65% 1.10% 3.45% 9.63%
Voss-Tecklenburg 7 3.03% 2.97% 2.48% 4.24% 2.20% 3.45% 4.14% 4.01% 5.31% 3.37% 1.98%
Wörle 9 3.06% 3.01% 4.62% 2.12% 2.31% 0.77% 2.26% 2.58% 2.90% 2.89% 3.58%

Neid is never not winning, so the victor was the right one. But witness, friends, the Rise and Fall of Jill Ellis. From less than two percent of the vote among the top ten (one of whom was Ellis herself), she gets a boost as she rolls downhill from support that included the reliably-mental Italians and Swiss but was in no danger of bothering the top picks. Ellis is well above the three coaches who have actually been sacked, which is fair enough, as well as oddballs Voss-Teckleburg and Wörle. Then get down to the nowhere countries and all hell breaks loose. Among the minnows only does Ellis whip the superior Prêcheur and Herdman, pass Sundhage, and storm into the medals but, in the inactive countries, she very nearly catches Silvia Neid, which by itself proves they should have their votes taken away.

Yet, again, the American is not the only recipient of minnows’ largesse. At the bottom of the rankings Vadão outpolls not only the rest of the fired brigade but Herdman and Prêcheur! In the very last tiers Bergeroo passes Herdman as well; our Geordie John apparently doesn’t have great name recognition in Argentina. Prêcheur’s work at OL makes him a bit of an insider’s candidate, and he does very well all things considered among the elite, but his little rally doesn’t last long when the obscure countries get in. Wörle, Pauw, and Voss-Tecklenburg, lacking either big names or achievement, are basement dwellers all the way, though the minnows prefer the sacked Pauw to the useful Voss-Tecklenburg in only the least of their capricious whims.

Want to see it? Too bad; I just have another one of those crappy charts.

On the men’s side, where four billion people know what Claudio Ranieri did for Leicester City, these problems don’t arise to the same extent. Complete information is available to even the most sheltered voter. Women’s soccer is much more of a niche event, and huge chunks of voting power are handed to nobodies because they captain a team that, even if it bothered to get together for a game, wouldn’t win a decent Canadian metro league. You have to look for women’s soccer, you can’t just absorb it as with the men.

There’s no question that some captains, coaches, and media from the irrelevant nations took their duty seriously and came up with ballots at least as well-informed as a random Vancouver blogger’s, and from the US to Uzbekistan the media vote was “fair” at worst. But a statistically-obvious number voted for the people they’d heard of. It wasn’t a Canadian who got screwed this time; Herdman wasn’t going to win no matter how you divided it up and Sinclair wouldn’t have deserved to. But the essential truth has not changed in four years: the FIFA women’s awards are voted on in ignorance and therefore meaningless.

(notes and comments…)

99 Friendship Episode 24

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · January 9th, 2017 · No comments

Welcome to the first 99 Friendship of 2017! Did you miss us? We got shockingly few complaints of “waah, you record a podcast on Christmas Day, I’d rather listen to you guys making jokes about Cathy O than my stupid family.” Which, if I’m being honest, is probably a good sign for how mentally well-adjusted our listeners are. By the modest standards of a woso/curling/ringette/Ben crinkling a Ziploc baggie of spare jacket buttons for most of an episode and imbuing it with disagreeable grey noise podcast, that is.

First, urgent errata. Around the five-minute mark I say something like “the NWSL draft is right during draws of the Continental Cup.” I meant to say “right between draws of the Continental Cup;” that quarter-ounce of Alberta Premium Dark Horse I’d taken to celebrate Casey Scheidegger’s victory must have addled my wits. So if you’re the sort of person who wants to watch both gimmick-ridden curling and a women’s soccer college draft on the same weekday afternoon, which is to say if you’re me or Carolyn, the option is open!

As you might have inferred, we discuss the recent Canadian Open of Curling and Lethbridge, Alberta’s Casey Scheidegger’s triumphant demolition of all comers to take her first Grand Slam title. (Well, I discuss it; Carolyn didn’t watch much.) Then we look at the surprisingly active coupla-weeks in Canadian woso player movement, from the very maple-leafy NWSL draft pool starring St. Albert, Alberta superstar and surefire first-overall pick Tyler-Rae Molloy to lesser lights like Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence signing in France or someplace. Then Carolyn reminisces about the dudes she played ringette against. (Well, Carolyn reminisces; I didn’t watch much. I wasn’t one of the ringette dudes. I wasn’t tall enough or dad enough to be a ringette dude, apparently. This will make sense when you listen.)

Pretty cool, ain’t it? Follow 99 Friendship on Twitter, because otherwise how else will you learn about new episodes besides all the other ways? Oh no!

The Pointlessness of Sanctioning Drama

By Benjamin Massey · January 7th, 2017 · No comments

Matt Schlotzhauer/Indy Eleven

Calling the United Soccer League a “second division,” as the US Soccer Federation announced that they provisionally would[1], is only fair. It is also fair for the USSF to maintain the NASL’s second-division status now that it looks like they’ll probably be able to keep going for 2017. On the field, the NASL and USL seem relatively even: the NASL had an advantage over USL teams in last year’s US Open Cup but in 2015 the USL pulled off a 7-0 whitewash. The best-supported USL teams, Cincinnati and Sacramento, outdrew the best-supported team remaining in the NASL, Indy. USL still has more full-on-minor-league teams with 1,000-odd attendances even if you don’t count the MLS reserve squads, but added two good ones from NASL in Tampa and Ottawa.

Neither league meets all the USSF criteria for a second division; thus the “provisional” in their announcement. The USL has its weak-sister clubs, many of which allegedly only pay staff part-time and have no appetite for continent-wide travel. Indeed, this was a selling point for the Ottawa Fury jumping to the USL, and the main barrier to FC Edmonton ever doing the same. The NASL, of course, is a bit of a basket case. But they would have been far more of a basket case had the USSF denied them division-2 status: according to Dave Martinez at Empire of Soccer the reported sale of the New York Cosmos to Rocco Commisso hinged on the NASL being a formal second division[2]. Even the remaining seven teams would have had their exit fee discounted by at least 95% as a third division[3]. There would have been no stranger twist in this unpredictable story than the NASL surviving that.

In short, if the USSF wanted to be fairest to both leagues and ensure the strongest professional soccer environment possible, this is pretty much the obvious decision. The only alternatives would have been to flick a middle finger in USL’s face on poorly-rationalized historic grounds, give up the NASL as a going concern, or to do what they did in 2010 and force both leagues to play a combined second-division schedule, a “compromise” no party expressed even off-the-record interest in. The USL is excited, with enthusiastic press releases and a slightly-ironic “We Are UniteD2” campaign going league-wide. The NASL is less excited with what after all is for them the status quo, but they’re alive. (For now.)

So there are only two questions left. The first: what took the USSF so long? This sanctioning drama started in November and it’s obvious they weren’t planning on putting any horses out of their misery if they could help it. Were they waiting to make sure the NASL could reach the arbitrary number of eight teams (they played with seven in the spring of 2013)? Were they hoping one league would go “surprise, all our teams are suddenly owned by Russian oligarchs and we’re meeting all your standards tomorrow?” Were they just waffling uselessly until the potential Cosmos sale forced them to do something/anything? (Brooks Peck at Howler might endorse that theory[4].) They’re still promising details of what “provisional” means “in the coming weeks.” Whatever the explanation, it’s now of academic interest to the fan until the end of this season when we get to do the whole thing again.

The second question: why does it matter? Okay, the second paragraph of this very article said why, but on a more fundamental level why does it matter? Stop me if this is breaking news but, in Canada and the United States, there’s no such thing as a “soccer pyramid.” There is no promotion or relegation based on squad ability, or organizational quality, or anything beyond a team’s willingness to pay an entry fee and salaries. There have been div-2 NASL teams better than div-1 MLS teams, and div-3 USL teams better than div-2 NASL teams, and I bet there are USL PDL or NPSL teams that could give the Tulsa Roughnecks a run for their money. The business viability of the NASL depended on what number came after the word “division” in their Wikipedia article, and the USL obviously thought it was very important, but it has no inherent meaning. It’s all fake! It’s like basing your business on whether Chris Jericho won on Raw last week! None of it has anything to do with anything! The Orange County Blues are not suddenly a stronger franchise! If the decision had gone the other way, the Indy Eleven would not suddenly be a weaker one! It’s fiction! It’s not even a useful fiction! It’s just an arbitrary number decided by bureaucrats, the most useless concept with the very highest importance.

It’s even worse for us up in Canada. If the NASL had become a third division and shut down as a result we almost certainly would have lost FC Edmonton. 20% of our professional soccer scene up in smoke because Americans quibbled over digits. We would have suffered a serious blow for what amounts to no reason at all.

Eight years ago you could say that the American soccer pyramid, while fake, was nearly rational. There was Major League Soccer on the top, unquestionably comprising almost all of the best-supported and best-financed soccer clubs in the land. Then there was the USL First Division, which was the national second division, then the USL Second Division, which was the third. As the name implies the USL divisions were under the same umbrella, and while there still wasn’t promotion or relegation teams would move up or down depending on their finance and ambition. It wasn’t a working system but it was a coherent one.

Any thin veneer of logic this “pyramid” ever had vanished when the USL-NASL split was finalized in 2011. The USL never pretended to be anything but a second division in temporary exile, with much talk of “the top level of soccer below MLS.” The NASL long wanted to be a first division and justified this on the grounds we’ve just discussed: that the groupings were entirely arbitrary so why shouldn’t a given league be at a given level if it wanted to be? The USSF set increasing standards for a third, a second, and a first division with strict requirements for finance and stadium, then showered waivers every year like a ticker-tape parade because said strict requirements had only a loose relationship with reality. The ostensible rationale was to ensure stability at the sub-MLS level, but this winter’s drama is only the most vivid proof of how that goal has failed.

What is the point of this crap? How does it help the American soccer world, ignoring for the moment the Canadian one? The only thing the current American divisional structure does is encourage investors to act like it matters, and its influence seems entirely malign.

There’s only one solution to this sanctioning question. It’s not USL and NASL sorting out their differences, because that won’t happen and even if it did some second-division team would miss payroll or some third-division team would get a new owner and it would all be irrelevant the next season anyway. The real answer is to say “what the hell are we doing?” and abolish the whole distinction. Set standards for a professional league and let the competitors deal with each other as they will. The free market will decide. MLS is not the top level in the United States because it says “major league” in the name, it’s the top level because it has the best players and the highest calibre of marketing. If the NASL equals them it will not be because a federation said so, but because they invested the cash and did the work.

Let the teams decide which divisions are best, not centralized soccer overlords. Until promotion and relegation come to Canada and the United States, and let us pray every day that it does, that is the only arrangement that makes the slightest amount of sense.

(notes and comments…)

99 Friendship Episode 23 Year-in-Review Spectacular!

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · December 19th, 2016 · No comments

Welcome to a very special, 50-minute 99 Friendship year-end review show, because our next nominal recording date is Christmas and that’s probably not going to happen.

In this bonus-length episode we take on what was the year 2016 in our usual inimitable, professional manner: to wit, as we were moaning about our lack of #content in the Skype call Carolyn said “hey let’s do a year-in-review show” and I said “oh yeah that is a good idea” and we completely made it up as we went along. It was a lot of fun to record! It probably won’t be a whole heck of a lot of fun to listen to but since when was that the most important thing? Suck it up and listen anyway as we discuss what was a massive year in Canadian woso and hand out what can only be described as “yearbook awards Carolyn found on the Internet.”

If this sounds like the kind of thing you… wait, what am I saying, of course this sounds like the kind of thing you love! So follow 99 Friendship on Twitter!

During the episode we put out a call for CanWNT celebrity lookalikes, because we couldn’t think of very many. We did come up with a few, mostly after the recording was done, so here is our diverse and interesting assortment to lend flow to your own creative juices.

Sophie Schmidt – Megan “Evil Sophie Schmidt” Rapinoe:

Tony Quinn/Canadian Soccer Association

Sophie Schmidt – Jess Fishlock

Canadian Soccer Association and Allura via Wikimedia Commons

Sophie Schmidt – Michelle Heyman

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association and Agência Brasil Fotografias

and finally Young Sophie Schmidt – Young Sam Reynolds:

Canadian Soccer Association and poor Sam’s Facebook

(Shuéme photo via Martin Lussier/Canadian Soccer Association)

99 Friendship Episode 22

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · December 12th, 2016 · No comments

On this week’s episode of 99 Friendship:

  • Trinidad and Tobago hired Carolina Morace as their women’s national team head coach. No, seriously, this is actually a thing that happened. And yes, this is the same Trinidad and Tobago that just a couple years ago was so broke they were unable to pay their own way in 2015 World Cup qualifying (I accidentally say it was 2016 Olympic qualifying in the podcast; time flies when you’re having fun). We get some #content out of that.
  • It’s Canadian soccer award season, so we weigh in on the Canadian soccer awards! Since I wrote a blog post about this you won’t be surprised by any of my picks, and since most of my picks were very obvious you won’t be surprised by any of Carolyn’s either.
  • Val Sweeting beat Jennifer Jones at a Slam.
  • Chelsea Carey also beat Jennifer Jones at a Slam.
  • A Manitoba rink won the Slam anyway because of course it fucking did.
  • We realize with horror that it’s going to be really hard to fill half an hour every week-ish now that all the woso is over, and end by just… chatting? About press boxes? I don’t know. We’re very interesting people, really.

Truly another sizzling half-hour of soccer excitement. Be sure to follow us on Twitter and watch us descent into content-free madness.

I Don’t Want to Be Elfstar Anymore! I Want to Be 2016 Canadian Players of the Year!

By Benjamin Massey · December 8th, 2016 · No comments

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

This is the time of year when the Canadian Soccer Association asks coaches, members of the media, and even soft-brained, slobbering bloggers to shamble out of their mothers’ basements, shield themselves from the light, and try to vote for the Canadian men’s and women’s players of the year without pooping themselves.

Placing a vote is one thing but broadcasting our rationale for it in a 3,000-word blog post is uncut narcissism. Or not quite, for these sorts of awards often feature indefensible voting based off reputation or the candidates’ team. The upcoming FIFA Women’s Player and Coach of the Year awards already look demented and we haven’t even seen the winners yet. Being able to hold the worst voters accountable not only helps us know who the idiots are, but encourages those who are merely lazy to put a little more thought into an award that, after all, can mean a great deal to an athlete’s career. The Canadian player of the year awards have historically been more intelligently selected than others but they aren’t perfect, and those who help decide the winners should be unafraid to publicly stand by their choices.

For more examples of how I am the idiot, see my votes for 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012.

Men’s Player of the Year

Every year, deciding on the best men’s national team player is like picking your favourite Nazi. “Well, Speer downplayed his part in the Holocaust and his knowledge of slave labour, but he at least said sorry and his books were interesting.” For Albert Speer read “Atiba Hutchinson,” who I and lots of other people vote for on an almost-annual basis because he’s the best player. There’s another good argument for him this year: with much help from Atiba Beşiktaş won the 2015–16 Turkish league, is undefeated so far in 2016–17, and is playing respectably in the Champions League. Because of World Cup qualifying he was also able to play for Canada quite a bit, contributing his usual reliability and poise. He will probably win player of the year, again, and nobody will mind, again.

So here’s the argument against. First, while Hutchinson is still a core player at Beşiktaş, he hasn’t been at his best. In 2015 we had Arsene Wenger singling him out for praise amid rumours he might move at last to the Premier League. This year he’s been the Turkish team’s talisman, and the fans love him, but he has not enjoyed the same daunting run of form. Second, for country, his standard has slipped a little. He’s 33 years old, for God’s sake, he’s entitled to slow down, but the Hutch we saw, particularly at Azteca and San Pedro Sula, was not the same almost-intimidatingly imperturbable presence. Now that World Cup qualifying is over he has returned to his usual habit of showing up for the NT only now and again; he’s skipped every post-WCQ friendly and you’d be unwise to bet on him playing the Gold Cup. Unless you’re punishing him for playing at Beşiktaş any ballot without Hutch on it is incomplete, but there’s no easy, automatic first place vote here.

I also rule out the other two Canadians playing at the highest-level clubs. Scott Arfield is a neat guy but a foreign mercenary, and Junior Hoilett, besides not actually playing that well for anybody this year, is still a poster boy who couldn’t bother with us for a decade. Giving either of them a high national honour, particularly in an uninspiring year where they’d essentially win by default, is an insult. Hoilett might earn forgiveness with dedication and effort, Arfield might embrace his Canadian passport of convenience, and either might play so brilliantly that to deny them recognition would be the greater sin. But none of that has happened yet.

So who’s left? The leading scorers on the Canadian men’s national team this year were Tosaint Ricketts and David Edgar, each with two. Ricketts bagged a brace in the Mauritania Revenge Friendly. Edgar had singles against El Salvador and what was functionally Uzbekistan’s U-23 team; though normally a centreback he was playing striker at the time against El Salvador. Every word of those sentences looked like a cruel joke but was completely accurate. Both play in Major League Soccer these days, Ricketts with Toronto and Edgar with Vancouver. Well, we say “both play,” but actually Ricketts has better fit the MLS mold. Edgar has been on the field but hasn’t found a consistent role with Carl Robinson despite being, in principle, exactly the defensive stalwart the Whitecaps needed. Yes, as we all know the Whitecaps hate Canada, but he was also culpable for more MNT mistakes than anybody would have liked. The weird thing about Edgar isn’t that he’s been a rotation player in MLS, it’s that you can understand why.

Tesho Akindele did a bit for FC Dallas, a very small bit indeed for the MNT, scored against Azerbaijan (still not a joke), and I guess is defensible in another weak year. Cyle Larin inevitably regressed towards the mean for Orlando City but still had a good season, scored a goal for Canada on purpose, missed his sitters less screamingly than before, and will get well-deserved votes. Milan Borjan’s a nice shout as well, though he’s become a flamboyant goalkeeper who looks like he could steal us a big game but never does. Patrice Bernier is oddly effective for the Montreal Impact but is basically no longer a member of the national team pool. The other finalists (Marcel de Jong, Jonathan Osorio, and Adam Straith) provoke varying levels of “are you kidding?” Steven Sandor argued in favour of a player from our fascinating futsal team, and frankly if I had more bottom I would have wrote in Josh Lemos, but my almost Germanic love of order proved too strong to accept voting for a guy who doesn’t actually turn out for the senior MNT.

This brings me back to Ricketts. When he joined Toronto FC I joked that, much though fans revile him as a one-dimensional speedster, a one-dimensional speedster named Bradley Wright-Phillips is having a decent MLS career. No, Ricketts isn’t scoring like Wright-Phillips yet. He is, however, having a strong early run. On a team whose approach had been “get Giovinco the ball and let him deal with it” Ricketts provided a real spark, scoring three goals on nine shots on target in 399 minutes during the regular season; 0.676 goals and 2.030 shots on target per 90 minutes. Small sample size, absolutely. But he was also the most reliable attacking threat on the senior men’s national team, for the very little that’s worth. And, though it doesn’t feel strictly fair with the MLS Cup still ahead of us, we can’t help but note Ricketts’s two playoff goals and an assist in 117 minutes. He’s not the team’s playoff MVP, but would they have gotten this far without him?

By voting for Tosaint Ricketts, we’re voting for a criminally underappreciated player finally getting some love. He has, for both club and country, achieved something positive. Rare things in the MNT. 1. Tosaint Ricketts 2. Atiba Hutchinson 3. Cyle Larin.

Women’s Player of the Year

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Last year, Christine Sinclair’s brutal dominion over the Canadian Women’s Player of the Year award was finally broken by the heroism of young Kadeisha Buchanan, a stalwart, hard-tackling centreback who won a country’s love by having an excellent Women’s World Cup at a tender age and wrecking Abby Wambach. At long last, Canadian soccer fans were liberated from the limitless malice of Sinclair, ensconced upon her throne of skulls, laughing mercilessly as she ruthlessly drove pretenders like Diana Matheson and Sophie Schmidt into the blood-soaked dirt. (This may be slight poetic license.)

A year later, the Red Queen has marshaled her forces to restore her rule. At the Rio Olympics, Sinclair had a fine run with three goals, including the bronze medal winner, and a fine assist against Australia. Add three more in Olympic qualifying (two against relative non-minnow Costa Rica) and another in a friendly against the Netherlands for seven goals and another very respectable season. She was nominated for FIFA Women’s Player of the Year and actually outscored two of the three finalists, Marta and Melanie Behringer (though Behringer is not a striker). Less importantly, but still impressively, in a season shortened by injury and Olympics Sinclair was also the most dangerous striker for the NWSL regular season champion Portland Thorns, while younger players feted by FIFA neglected their clubs in favour of book tours, not naming any names.

Can Buchanan defend the crown wrested so heroically from Sinclair’s iron claw? No. Of course she was unbelievable for West Virginia University, a no-doubt first-team All-American and ESPNW’s national collegiate soccer player of the year. At WVU she’d boredly rampage on the attack just to keep busy as she was normally, to a hilarious degree, head-shoulders-and-hips above the low standard of the Big 12. WVU, helped by a Canadian corps on defense that most notably included Bianca St-Georges and Rylee Foster, conceded 12 goals in 27 games and none (zero!) in their eight regular-season Big 12 games. That’s a hard record for a defender to improve upon. Buchanan improved upon it anyway, scoring three goals and adding three assists.

But nobody votes for the player of the year based on what she did in the Big 12, and nobody should. In the year’s major friendlies and at the Olympics Buchanan was no more than acceptable. Compared to 2015, her tackles retained aggression but had lost common sense: she racked up the yellow cards, should have given away a penalty against France and ended our medal hopes right there, did give away an unnecessary penalty in the semifinal, and was too often just a quarter-step behind the play. There were great moments, and really bad ones; the term that comes to mind for 2016 Buchanan is “high-event” and in a centreback that’s bad. Ending 2015 on such a high then spending most of the year as a woman among girls in the NCAA, she just wasn’t precise enough at the highest level. This was her last year of college eligibility, we can count on her joining the NWSL if she’s willing, so with luck Buchanan will be back among the top three in 2017. Because she isn’t now.

So who remains to repel the dreaded Sincy, her black heart burning in hopes of revenge? Is it Steph Labbé, who was less bad than we feared during the Olympics and lost her starting spot on the Washington Spirit because they are eccentric? (No.) Is it Sabs D’Angelo, who didn’t do much for the national team but did backstop the Western New York Flash to an NWSL championship? (It is not.) Does a brace by Melissa Tancredi against Germany put her over the top? (I am more sympathetic than you might think but no, I doubt it.) How about the usual Old Pretenders, the Sophie Schmidts and the Diana Mathesons and the Desiree Scotts? Some had better seasons than others, Schmidt had an immortal moment at the Olympics, but none, you must confess, was the team’s beating heart. Matheson’s four goals and four assists in 800 NWSL minutes was very good but usually she’s in the MVP argument; not this year. (Again, though, Washington Spirit, eccentric.)

Though Buchanan is not among them, it is to the Young Pretenders that we must look if Sinclair is to be denied. In her first year at UCLA Jessie Fleming was a third-team All-American, which as 99 Friendship listeners have already been told is a very high honour for a freshman. Her ability to humiliate absolutely everyone made her a meme. She was fifth in the Pac-12 in points and tied for second in goals despite not being a natural forward; UCLA used her as a trequartista late in the season simply because she was so much more talented. She also had a strong Olympics, starting all six games, going 90 minutes in four, and achieving a magnificent assist on Sinclair’s goal against Australia. Finally, she bagged her first two goals for the senior national team, against Trinidad and Tobago and China, which is impressive for an 18-year-old if grammatically awkward.

When you vote for a senior player of the year, though, it can’t be because she was “impressive for an 18-year-old.” Fleming was certainly that, but had we lost her for the Olympics would we still have won that bronze medal? Probably. I’m glad we didn’t have to find out, but she was not our most irreplaceable player.

If super-young, super-skilled Fleming does not yet sneak into the top three, the next-most-glamorous choice is poacher Janine Beckie. Like Sinclair, Beckie scored three goals at the Olympics; unlike Sinclair, two of them were against lowly Zimbabwe. But the third was against Australia, briefly the quickest strike in Olympic history, and against France Beckie provided unquestionably the Canadian soccer assist of the season on Sophie Schmidt’s winner. Elsewhere she scored in both her starts at Olympic qualifying, had two at the Algarve Cup, and bagged a beauty on 90’+4 to beat Brazil in Ottawa. All-in-all she scored nine times for Canada in 2016, leading the charts, and just for fun added three goals and two assists in 916 minutes for the same Houston Dash team some teammates couldn’t bother to play for. It was a marvelous season for Beckie, and while it’s too soon to say she’s now Canada’s best striker, you can’t say she isn’t either. Certainly she had a better season than our friend Sinclair.

Shelina Zadorsky has risen from a relatively quiet spot to be a regular starter for Canada at centreback. This is impressive. Centrebacks of her ilk, not too physical and more focused on doing the little things right, don’t always get their credit (though it was Zadorsky’s long switch of play that started the sequence leading to Schmidt’s Olympic goal). It is a shameful omission that I am perpetuating, for her game is a modest one and was not sufficiently close to perfection to break onto the podium.

The winner is Ashley Lawrence. Moving from the wing to fullback so effortlessly is amazing, but not inherently player-of-the-year stuff: there’s no automatic “degree of difficulty” bonus. What makes Lawrence the player of the year is that she was an incredible fullback. Moving between the left and the right with ease, absolutely indefatigable despite playing an extremely quick, pacey game. Unafraid to challenge players in her own third, and sufficiently talented that she won those challenges. Disciplined but damned difficult to beat. An offensive threat not only in the way that her speed and aggression forced defenders to defer to her, but in terms of the two assists she bagged in 2016 including one in the bronze medal match, an annihilating run putting Brazil on the back foot before she sauced it up to Deanne Rose. She was probably the best fullback in women’s soccer in 2016 despite playing the position for the first time and remaining in midfield with West Virginia. Internationally, she was incredible almost every game, started eighteen of twenty appearances for Canada, was probably man-of-the-match in the Olympic games against Australia and France, and despite her workrate was only subbed off once. Oh, and she was another first-team All-American, but her national team play was so fabulous that no such tinfoil slivers of distinction are needed to establish her pre-eminence. In the future teams will be used to Lawrence, they will plan for her, and we’ll see if she can build on this. But no player can take more personal pride in that bronze medal. 1. Ashley Lawrence 2. Janine Beckie 3. Christine Sinclair.

Awards I Can’t Vote For

Licensed Canadian soccer coaches are eligible to vote for the youth players of the year. I am not, but will say what I would have done anyway.

It was an off year for baby broso, so opinions there are formed in great ignorance. For the U-20 men’s player of the year, for example, it is hard to see past Shamit Shome: the FC Edmonton Academy product turned in 18 starts and 1,654 minutes in the NASL last year, totals none of the other nominees have come close to on a professional first team. As Sadi Jalali or Hanson Boakai would tell you, no amount of “potential” will get you playing time from Colin Miller unless you are a consistent contributor, and Shome (who has already spent more time on the field than either higher-touted player did in their FC Edmonton careers) was. He’s become a regular on the national U-20 team, as well, and has captained them in a few games. Compared to him the likes of Kris Twardek, who recently saw his first action for Millwall in the former League Cup but has never played a real game, just seem inadequate. Twardek and Shome are the only nominees to have played a single minute of first-team soccer, though Ballou Tabla has an MLS contract. Some have done very well with the reserves: Tabla had five goals and five assists in 1,685 minutes last year for the mini-Impact and Thomas Meilleur-Giguère was omnipresent on their backline. Still, there’s no substitute for leadership and the first eleven. 1. Shamit Shome 2. Ballou Tabla 3. Kris Twardek.

In principle the women’s U-20 player of the year is a gimme, but here’s a philosophical question. There was a U-20 Women’s World Cup this year, and can you be U-20 player of the year if you deliberately skipped it? This applies to Jessie Fleming, who is easily the best candidate except for the fact that she chose to stay at UCLA rather than make the trip to Papua New Guinea. If the girls had enjoyed a great World Cup this might have got very interesting, but in fact they were absolutely destroyed and the less said about the tournament the better. Judging players by their performance on other stages is an act of mercy, with the exception of centreback Bianca St-Georges. At the end of the U-20 World Cup I genuinely felt bad for her: no defensive starter ever deserved a 4.33 goals-against average less. By the way, Deanne Rose is not on the official nominee list, which is so obviously insane I can only assume it’s a typo. 1. Jessie Fleming 2. Deanne Rose [write-in?!] 3. Bianca St-Georges.

The men’s U-17 player of the year is even easier. The Vancouver Whitecaps’ Alphonso Davies played like he was three or four years above this age cutoff all year. As long as he appears on this list of under-17 players, he’s a leading contender. So let’s talk about second place. Once again there’s been next-to-no public action from this age group, incidentally justifying the CSA limiting the vote to accredited coaches. Toronto FC’s Terique Mohammed scored three times for the U-17 national team, including one against the United States and a last-ditch winner against Panama. He also managed just over an hour with their League1 Ontario team, and that’s excellent work for a forward of that age. The Whitecaps’ Gabriel Escobar enjoys a decent reputation, so in light of no clear third-place contender let’s pick him. 1. Alphonso Davies 2. Terique Mohammed 3. Gabriel Escobar.

How about the women’s U-17 player of the year? For just a tenth of a second, I flirted with contrarianism. The best player on Canada’s U-17 Women’s World Cup team was not who you’re automatically nodding towards, Deanne Rose: it was fullback Emma Regan, who in a disappointing tournament was truly excellent. Playing a position where Canada has historically been rubbish at the youth level, and still eligible for this award next year, Regan was dynamic in both offense and defense and even waged a respectable fight at the U-20 Women’s World Cup despite being thrown into soccer hell. After just missing out on my ballot in 2015 she certainly deserved recognition. Then I woke up and said “wait a minute, Deanne Rose was a useful player at the actual Olympics, stop being so stupid.” It was a moment’s madness, it passed, but seriously Regan did really well in a summer where Canadian women’s youth soccer did not win any laurels. Third place is Sarah Stratigakis, because she was successful at the U-17 Women’s World Cup and okay at the U-20s given that she was, for most of the 270 minutes, literally our only midfielder. 1. Deanne Rose 2. Emma Regan 3. Sarah Stratigakis.

99 Friendship Episode 21

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · December 5th, 2016 · No comments

The world was grieved when we didn’t record last week. That was because there was nothing to talk about. Don’t get me wrong, Carolyn and I are amazingly interesting people and if you sat down to listen to half an hour of us just chatting on Skype you would be greatly enlightened. However, our modest #brand dedicated to women’s soccer/curling/sometimes ringette? would never have recovered from the blow that would have been thirty minutes’ worth of “how are you doing?”

Having given the news an extra week to get juicy, we now spray it on you in fountains of excitement. The NCAA woso season came to a disappointing conclusion for Team Canada B, though they had a marvelous run to the final. FIFA announced its women’s player and coach of the year finalists and the results were every bit as ridiculous as we could possibly have dreamed. And curling returned to its proper home in the bosums of Vic Rauter and Russ Howard as the Canada Cup happened. We recorded during the men’s final so perhaps did not give quite the emphasis to “oh god oh god oh Jesus Reid Carruthers is seriously going to the Roar” we could have, but the women’s end provided plenty of entertainment. Entertainment for Carolyn, anyway. I had to flee on a boat full of dogs.

Not included in the podcast were Rachel Homan’s Instagram pictures of fish. There was too much woso goodness so we had to cut a lot of curling #content, but luckily there’s a Slam next week. We’ll make it up to you.

Video supplements! First, Christine Sinclair’s goals from the 2002 and 2005 College Cups, the first of which I think you will agree was totally on purpose.

And, finally, the unimproveable Team Homan being set apart by friendship set to some easy listening music.

If you, too, are set apart by friendship, follow the podcast on Twitter!

Edmonton, Last Survivor and First Rebirth?

By Benjamin Massey · December 1st, 2016 · No comments

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

After six seasons, the North American Soccer League is looking desperate. Ottawa and Tampa Bay have joined USL, Major League Soccer’s reserve league[1]. Fort Lauderdale seems hopelessly doomed[2] and Oklahoma City is all-but-officially dead[3]. And now the most shocking news, that the New York Cosmos, the New York Cosmos, have started missing payroll[4] and may be leaving the NASL[5]; the front office is brazenly noncommittal[6]. What’s certain is that the NASL and USL are meeting, with the United States Soccer Federation in attendance, to try and save something[7]. Even if the NASL manages to stay afloat the USSF may declare it inferior to USL by fiat. The omens for the survival of an independent professional division are extremely bad.

The NASL still has strong teams, the expansion San Francisco Deltas are set to join in 2017, and the usual rumours swirl of game-changing new investment. This might no longer suffice against a MLS-USL axis that has never stopped praying for what all the reports imply: the NASL coming to pieces as the survivors beg for shelter until Don Garber and Alec Papadakis’s big umbrella. But even if today is the NASL’s last they got six years of independent, lovable soccer. That was probably four more than the average punter would have guessed at the beginning.

The clubs that broke from the USL First Division to form the NASL in 2010 included two strong organizations bolting for MLS almost immediately (Vancouver, Montreal), four teams perennially on the verge of collapse (Minnesota, Atlanta, Puerto Rico, Miami), two teams that actually folded before the league played its first game (St. Louis, Baltimore), another wanting for committed ownership (Carolina), and finally FC Tampa Bay, which just happened to be located in USL’s hometown and would later face a competitor, VSI Tampa Bay, in the rebranded USL Pro.

Sure, the NASL had the Cosmos, but we forget how incredibly fly-by-night they once were. Grandiose announcements, huge renderings of new stadiums, merchandising galore, Éric Cantona-helmed friendlies against Manchester United[8], promises of world-class this and EPL-level that… and an underfinanced and ultimately bankrupt youth academy[9], constant changes among important personnel, with no hint this could be a serious soccer organization until, under new ownership, they hit the field in fall 2013 and kicked everybody’s ass.

As for the other early expansion team, FC Edmonton, nobody thought they had a prayer. I didn’t. And yet as the league founders the Eddies have been its most determined defender. Who could have guessed that Ottawa and Tampa would defect, New York would throw down its arms, Minnesota would long have fled for higher ground, and Tom Fath would hold the last ditch? That FC Edmonton, playing in its unsuitable community stadium with an owner who is openly not a soccer guy and a dodgy on-field record, would outlive its league? They’re hiring sales people, right now! A new fan shop seems set to open! If the NASL goes down it won’t be because Edmonton lost faith: the Eddies die hard.

Poor Edmonton. Their loyalty is unlikely to be rewarded. The NASL’s surviving American clubs will wince at replacing the Cosmos with MLS reserve teams but, barring intransigence to a self-destructive degree, will survive. USL would be mad, absolutely mad, to put roadblocks before organizations of Jacksonville and Indy’s quality. Even Miami and Puerto Rico look good compared to some, and are in markets where USL has an historic interest.

USL admitted an Edmonton team once, the Aviators in 2004. That organization couldn’t hold a candle to FC Edmonton’s and went about as wrong as an expansion team can go. At the time there were independent first teams in Calgary, Minnesota, Vancouver, Portland, and Seattle. All are now gone, or reduced to reserve status and eager to pinch pennies. Today’s USL is a crescent, from the Cascadian reserve teams, through good numbers in California and south of the Mason-Dixon, back up to their traditional powerhouses on the eastern seaboard. You could hardly customize a 31-team geography where Edmonton would look more out-of-place. Ottawa can take the bus to a dozen away games; Edmonton would have no hope of a regional rival and no bus trips from anyone but the Whitecaps and Sounders Reserves.

Why would USL want Edmonton? Their attendance and sponsorship power hardly make them “must-haves.” Their travel problems are legendary even by the higher standard of the NASL. Would they be the price for a USL-NASL merger; would Indy go to the wall to save Edmonton? Nice as it is to imagine that would be taking loyalty, literally, a very great distance. Besides, if Tom Fath’s considerable investment in the NASL evaporates and he faces the reduced crowds of reserve soccer, will he even want to go on? Five long weeks ago, when from the outside the NASL looked acceptably stable, Tom Fath told Steven Sandor there was “zero chance” of Edmonton joining USL[10].

Ah, my Canadian friend, you’re thinking of another option. Well, yes, FC Edmonton has been asked about joining the potential Canadian Premier League. They have been asked many times by many people, to the point that they are reportedly exasperated by the very question. Outsiders occasionally assume Edmonton will join because “well NASL it’s natural,” but while they haven’t been loud about it there’s no doubt FC Edmonton isn’t interested[11].

But what if the NASL folds, and USL is uninterested or impractical? Would CanPL be better than nothing? Of course right now CanPL more-or-less is nothing: no teams, no schedule, no players, one employee. But surely even faint hope is better than certain extinction.

That’s what you or I would say, but it’s not our money. The Faths poured time and treasure into the NASL with limited returns beyond a warm feeling in their bellies. Will they have the heart to try again, back awfully close to square one?

It would be glorious if they did. If you are an Albertan, you spend money on the Eddies, and you enjoy the almost-intimate access which at this level of professional soccer comes so easily for even the most ordinary fan, I hope you agree and will make it known. The Eddies are a rare, precious thing and deserve to live forever, in this league or another.

If the Faths do give up, though, they will leave deserving of our gratitude and respect. (This makes them unique among Edmonton professional soccer magnates.) They will also leave the City of Champions open for another CanPL team to take the reins in good conscience. Edmonton may yet be represented in the greatest Canadian soccer experiment of our generation, as it certainly deserves to be. And so, dementedly, the fall of the NASL could pay off for us.

For many, even when compared to a Canadian Premier League the NASL is a good thing. It has liberty. Its clubs, though part of an American-dominated whole, are not the centrally-run branch plants of MLS franchises. If the CanPL existed and played games, it would be easy to choose… but it didn’t, and the NASL did. You wouldn’t be human if this didn’t affect your calculations, if you preferred solid reality to beautiful dreams. Could Edmonton, for example, be blamed for staying loyal to an NASL that let them serve Canadian soccer with total freedom, as surely as they could in the CanPL?

If you have room in your Canadian heart for more than MLS’s American drama, if you cheer for Toronto FC or the Vancouver Whitecaps or the Montreal Impact because that’s your hometown team but you know the country could and should have better, then there is a sweetness to this bitter fruit. The last continental institutional loyalty that could be defended, the last sublimation of Canadian identity maybe justified on higher grounds, is dying. We are being freed from the indignity of willing national submission. If the NASL ends then it will be Garber’s way or the highway, and that makes the road to independence look very clear.

(notes and comments…)

The Grim Pride of Protest

By Benjamin Massey · November 25th, 2016 · No comments

Sports really don’t matter. That’s why they are such a healthy channel for emotion and tribalism, natural human characteristics that cause trouble when misdirected. We go mad for strangers in the right-coloured shirts, and it’s better to chant for them than to chant for politicians. The invigorating uselessness of these rituals means that when our sporting communities are attacked it is right to be angry, and when they are defended it is right to be proud.

My European club, Charlton Athletic, is owned by Belgian entrepreneur, small-time politician, and faintly Social Credit-ist basic income crank Roland Duchâtelet. He owns several other clubs around Europe and last year was pressured into selling Standard Liège by fan opposition, but lately Charlton has been the squeakiest wheel.

When Duchâtelet bought Charlton in 2014, the club was hopelessly broke and, on the field, at their best since the Premier League era. Having escaped League One, they finished 2012–13 three points short of the Championship playoffs. Under manager and club icon Chris Powell the paltry bank balance had been invested with uncommon shrewdness. Bargain signings like Ben Hamer, Yann Kermorgant, and Dale Stephens outperformed, while the Academy turned out a bevy of useful players from Chris Solly onward. Non-competitively, there was the well-earned reputation as a community club and considerable long-term support that had kept attendance strong even in the third division. It was not a sure-fire investment for Duchâtelet: the grass at the Valley was in urgent need of replacement, contracts were expiring, a proper training ground was long overdue, and there were even unpaid bills. But he had the cash, and that looked like the only missing ingredient.

He spent it, too. That cow pasture was replaced as part of a suite of stadium upgrades, a training centre seems mired in almost permanent delay but has had shovels put in the ground, and no creditors claw at the door. But on the field Charlton is not only back in League One, they’re not favourites to go back up.

The club recently sacked manager Russell Slade and replaced him with former MK Dons man Karl Robinson, the club’s eighth permanent boss* in the two-and-a-half-year Duchâtelet era. Many favourites have left both the roster and the front office, starting with the sale of Kermorgant and Stephens in 2014 without adequate replacement. The club’s media relations are a shambles, changing hands with bewildering frequency. Even the ticket office and gift shop have been put on reduced hours. This level of incompetence would suffice to irritate fans, but Charlton’s had lousy or skinflint owners before. They’ve spent the past decade putting a brave face on failure; for their first two seasons in League One the Addicks’ attendance was behind only fallen giants Sheffield United and still strong by Championship standards. Duchâtelet is different.

Of course there’s the usual “modern football” stuff. The much-ridiculed “UK’s first pitchside fan sofa.” The degradation of the match-day programme, which in the British tradition had once been a genuine collectible and is now entirely supplanted by the Voice of the Valley independent fanzine. Reported, but highly hush-hush, plans to sell part of the Valley for development, and the imposition of price-gouging surcharges at the Valley ticket office despite diminishing attendance. Anti-ownership banners have been confiscated at the ground and four plain-clothes security men were recently sacked for attacking fans. A fan was told he’d lose his season ticket unless he agreed to stop slamming the club on social media. The club’s PR men even distributed a bogus video of a couple having sex on the field to drum up attention for their pitch-hire service. Contemptible, top to bottom, but hardly unique to Charlton Athletic.

No, this level of venom comes from the personalities of Duchâtelet and his appointed Charlton chief executive, Katrien Meire. Ignorance is hard enough to forgive; ignorance combined with condescension is poison.

Duchâtelet himself does not attend Charlton Athletic games, even when business brings him to London. As early as March of 2014, with the club still safe in the Championship, fans were nervously seeking a meeting with Duchâtelet and Meire, but the lofty powers descended from their heaven only to sack managers, send out players, and interfere in squad selection. Powell, the Charlton legend, realized he was doomed when he first met Duchâtelet and was told to replace top players with mediocrities from his other clubs. New signings Powell had never heard of, let alone signed would appear at Charlton’s office or their training sessions. Reportedly Powell was fired having just signed a new contract offer. Charlton never said a word in praise of one of their most beloved men, which given their treatment of him might actually be integrity.

Meire, at least, goes to many conferences and makes frequent statements. Early on, she bluntly said fans “must accept how owner Roland Duchâtelet runs the club.” The first protests brought an angry Meire telling fans to “stand up” to protesters and not “give them a platform.” Not long after, she dragooned anguished-looking board members and captain Johnnie Jackson into a meeting with supporters. They sat silently behind a CEO who insisted they were a team while she spoke at aimless length and showed a meaningless PowerPoint presentation she took credit for. Almost her first words were an irritated “I thought we already explained this several times,” later adding a pronouncement that only 2% of fans objected to their regime. She was almost immediately proven wrong. At one of her many conference appearances she seemed genuinely confused that Charlton fans thought they were owed any more respect or loyalty than movie theatre patrons. To contain criticism, Meire and Charlton launched an astroturf “Target 20,000” supporters society, an insulting callback to the Target 10,000 group that revived the club’s fortunes in the mid-1990s. Like everything else to come from the front office Target 20,000 has been secret and duplicitious.

Hang on, I need a paragraph break. Before a critical, televised March game against Middlesbrough, fans staged a mock funeral and bombarded the pitch with beach balls while chanting “we want Roland out.” After this protest an un-bylined statement was posted to the club website stating that “some individuals did not come to The Valley to watch the game and support the team, but came to create disorder on the pitch and interfere with the players and the game” and that “some individuals seem to want the club to fail.” Both Duchâtelet and Meire are referred to in the third person, but the statement was reported to be by Duchâtelet himself and led to the principled resignation of recently-appointed Charlton communications head Mel Baroni. When former Charlton executive Peter Varney made an approach representing an interested buyer, Meire accused him of wanting to move the club and provoked an irate Varney to threaten legal action. Facing a critical storm, Meire publicly accused fans of “abuse and criminal offences” against her, while in a visit with Target 20,000 Duchâtelet dismissived Charlton as 1.5% of his business interest. Just a week and a half ago Duchâtelet, responding to yet another protest and yet another managerial sacking, texted a radio station saying “these protests have nothing to do with reason” and that the “whatever we do or say, the core actors within that group will always criticize” while reportedly telling his local paper that the malcontents were simply misogynistic, bitter ex-employees.

Salvation seems unlikely: Duchâtelet supposedly wants his money back on a club that’s gone from near the Premier League to mid-table League One and has been hopelessly gutted organizationally. Neither the owner nor the executive seem to give a damn. There is no reason for a Charlton fan to hope for better.

Yet the protests continue, and only grow in intensity. Ticket sales are thousands below the last run to League One, and the club’s regular “Football for a Fiver” promotion was an unprecedented disaster. Gates of 8,745 against Oldham Athletic or 8,992 against Port Vale is horror show stuff by Charlton standards, and that’s without counting the barely-four-digit crowds for the running joke of the EFL Trophy. Almost all the passion at a Charlton game comes from the protesters.

It is enough to make a fan, even a fake fan from across the Atlantic who follows the Addicks because he liked them on TV and has never even been to the Valley, feel genuinely proud.

A list of protests could be a blog post in itself. From humble beginnings, requests for meetings, and optimistically promises of better communication, came protests that only grew in strength under the executives’ pressure. The “2%” cards were a visual hit, but the great beach ball extravaganza got Charlton international notice. At the last game of the 2015–16 season, also televised, with Charlton relegated and opponents Burnley set to clinch the title, Addicks fans went all out. A sitting protest outside the ground, match-long pyrotechnics, two hours of vicious anti-ownership chanting, and at last a pitch invasion alongside celebrating, friendly Burnley fans culminating in destruction of the hated sofa. All this alongside boycotts of club concessions and merchandise, a vibrant social media campaign under the fairly unified auspices of CARD (the Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet), and the inevitable attrition of ticket-holders.

The first weeks in League One were protest-free to give the team a chance. A false hope, nothing improved, so come October it was all back on. The Charlton – Coventry City game got more than the usual chants and rallies. Coventry supporters, with their own hateful owner to protest, pitched in, and thousands of toy pigs flew onto the Valley turf. With anti-regime displays often confiscated, an airplane was hired to take a banner over Gillingham’s stadium on match day saying it was #TimeToFly. Finally, since Duchâtelet was so unwilling to come to England, the protesters came to him, crossing the Channel in a personalized taxi to celebrate Duchâtelet’s 70th birthday and spreading the message at his business, the European Parliament, and his remaining Belgian club, Sint-Truiden.

It’s gotten to the point where CARD can break the news of Slade’s sacking hours in advance of the official announcement. A protest kit, bearing the name of a disgusted former club sponsor, sold nearly a thousand copies and raised £7,000 for charity. The grandson of another club legend, former manager Jimmy Seed, withdrew support from an attempt by the front office to renovate a sign in Seed’s honour out of protest for what the club has become. The Charlton Athletic Supporters Trust, which as an organization precedes Duchâtelet’s ownership, as a concept is an heir to the fan-derived ownership and “Valley Party” that kept the club alive in the ’80s and ’90s, and represents thousands of Charlton supporters, has been utterly ignored by the regime and inevitably come in against it.

It’s funny that a club which currently exemplifies everything that’s wrong with soccer can lead to such positive feelings among their fans, but that’s the strange, almost contradictory nature of sporting passion. The satisfaction of unifying in a just cause is rarely so well-earned. Not every fan agrees with the protest, not every protesting fan has been civilized in his objections, but by and large when Charlton gets in the news it’s because its supporters are doing something dramatic and decent to stand up for a club they love, being killed before their eyes. That level of defiance in the face of the odds is beautiful; no less so for being spent on sport.

(notes and comments…)