Ottawa’s On Fire; TFC is Terrified

By Benjamin Massey · July 19th, 2018 · No comments

Steve Kingsman/Freestyle Photography for Canada Soccer

As it happens the Canadian Soccer Association’s streaming a brace of Voyageurs Cup semi-finals went none too badly. There were performance issues but, if you got off Google Chrome, nothing debilitating. The commentary worked, though the Montreal – Vancouver stream had Nick Sabetti miced way below play-by-play man Rick Moffat. Video quality was fine, they only cut away from the play to show random graphics a couple of times, the cameras were usually aimed at the ball, it was a significant improvement over the MyCujoo “due to high winds commentary of this game cannot be broadcast” experience. Three out of five.

Nor were we starved of viewers. Clearly the media followed along. In Ottawa a group of Toronto FC fans who were absolutely definitely positively not the Inebriatti were caught nearly burning down the Glebe and why yes there is video. Despite the obscure web stream this incident made Global News, the Toronto Sun, and was highlighted in the Canadian Press wire report. Even Canadian journalism inside-baseballist 12:36 threw some, er, love to the Toronto Sun‘s coverage, headlined “VIOLENCE MARS CANADIAN CONTEST.”

That wasn’t violence. Nobody tried to hurt anybody and no injuries were reported. But it was unquestionably dangerous. The ultras set off flares with no obvious way to support or extinguish them. Apparently unfamiliar with exothermic reactions, the ill-informed ultras found the flares growing too hot to hold and threw them onto the pitch, causing avoidable and pricey damage to Ottawa’s artificial turf. Meanwhile yahoos waved flags over the fire, ran around waving flares like morons, and displayed carelessness inappropriate in a six-year-old. Firework explosions were even reported. The ultras were in an isolated section so no “civilians” were in danger but it was still way over the line, enough for Toronto FC to issue a venomous press release. The vital part read “we are left with no choice but to suspend all recognized supporter group privileges indefinitely.” This is apparently a general ban to all groups, though time will tell on how it is enforced.

If you aren’t steeped in this culture you may need some background explained. First: in Major League Soccer “supporter group privileges” refer to exceptions to the usual stadium rules given to recognized, organized soccer supporters’ groups. The supporters agree to sing in marketing-friendly ways, keep everything clean and safe, police their own ranks for trouble, and generally provide an inoffensive facsimile of the European soccer experience. In exchange the MLS team permits these groups to bring in drums, megaphones, enormous flags, and banners which would otherwise be turned away at the gate by security. They can come in early to set up large displays (“tifo,” from the Italian “tifosi” meaning “fans”), may often designate supporters to come onto the field and lead chants, and get other privileges to make them look and sound impressive despite restrictions that ought to neuter them.

These privileges are serious business, and MLS teams usually sign formal contracts with their supporters’ groups representatives which include them. In practice there is quite a bit of leeway, as MLS teams now view supporters as vital marketing tools. For example, formally Vancouver supporters are forbidden from chanting obscenities, but modestly problematic shouts fill the air at BC Place with no trouble provided the capos with field access don’t lead them. That is custom, though, not law. These privileges are given at the MLS team’s discretion and may be unilaterally revoked.

This happens every year or so. Some supporters make fools of themselves or offend a bigwig, the MLS team pulls their privileges, there is a modest hullabaloo, it all blows over. After all, if you didn’t have a fairly high tolerance for being jerked around and treated like a commodity you would not be a supporter in MLS. But the Ottawa incident has led to punishment on an extreme scale. A game that wasn’t on TV, a patch of maybe twelve TFC ultras, an incident that had nothing to do with supporters’ group privileges (the Ottawa Fury ban fireworks and flares in any event and acknowledge that their security missed them until they were deployed), and a suspension that affects thousands of supporters from groups that definitely had nothing to do with the incident.

That leads to the second piece of background. Everyone, inside Toronto as well as out, is inclined to blame infamous Toronto FC ultras the Inebriatti for this incident. They have a reputation for exactly this kind of thing, and their name accurately reflects their approach to matches. They have been formally sanctioned before, as recently as June, and raised a banner that read “football without ultras is nothing” before taking the game off in protest. They favour pyro and have never been averse to skirting the rules. Toronto FC supporters of extremely long standing, true reds from way back, have been public in saying that this is all Inebriatti’s fault. Non-Toronto fans, and for that matter this very post, are therefore nonchalant in assuming this was probably them.

I myself have had my problems with these guys and I am the sunniest, most easy-going fellow it is possible to meet. But there is no proof. The Inebriatti’s statement, linked above, is unequivocal: “We had no part in the flare that was thrown into the field or the explosion at last night’s match in Ottawa.” The statement originally read “alleged explosion” (my emphasis), giving rise to much banter that was not good-natured in the least, but the Inebriatti edited the post later. The video of the evidence is low-resolution and nobody has yet definitively identified one of the masked men. In short, the case is not yet proven, at least not to Toronto FC who would assuredly be happy not to light up all their supporters for this incident if they could instead punish known problem children.

But how to define “problem” is one more typically Canadian complication. Pyro has a difficult place in soccer culture around the world but especially in Canada and the United States. On the continent it is, by and large, accepted, except when it isn’t for reasons opaque to an outsider. In England, the nation which has given the anglosphere most of its soccer traditions, it is more-or-less banned. In Canada, how much pyro you can get away with seems to depend entirely on which level the soccer game is at. USL PDL matches, featuring amateur or semi-professional players before a crowd that is lucky to top a thousand, can be washed out by waves of smoke blowing out of the supporters’ ends after a goal as the delirious ultras set off enough pyrotechnics to sink the Bismarck. At the NASL or USL level you can pretty much get away with it, though opinions vary, and in MLS you are taking your life in your hands. Not that MLS won’t cry out as they strike you, putting supposedly egregiously offenses in their advertising, but despite this hypocrisy punishing fans for pyrotechnics is one of the few things they do consistently.

Now, by any standard, the TFC ultras in Ottawa were way outside the norm. They were reckless with their flares to a degree that might well be criminal and nobody anywhere wants fireworks in the stands. Understandably some (non-Toronto) fans are calling for stricter penalties: forcing the return leg at BMO Field next Wednesday to be played behind closed doors or even expelling Toronto FC from the 2018 Voyageurs Cup entirely. Such punishment would be unprecedented in Canada or the United States. In Europe those are accepted responses to 10,000 ultras setting off flares while chanting “heil Hitler” at a UEFA Champions League match or the like, but Wednesday’s Toronto drunks would barely crack the “It’s a Funny Ol’ Game” column in the back of the Sarajevo Gazette. Elsewhere in Canada, where pyro is winked at if not formally permitted, responsibility for the smoke and the fire falls upon those most able to take it rather than those reckless fools who don’t give a damn, and results are correspondingly safe. We with first-hand experience have seen this in action, but the casual fan cannot be blamed if he sees one Voyageurs Cup semifinal where it isn’t, and lets that inform his view of whether pyro should be permitted.

So here we are. The great mass of Toronto FC supporters is being punished for the actions of an anonymous few who everybody, except the group being scapegoated, is convinced represent a scapegoated group. The actions in question could easily be met with civil penalties, but also feed into an unjustified North American skepticism of pyrotechnics that only encourages them to be deployed unsafely. And, because MLS’s attitude towards supporters is based on allowing a few elites to provide atmosphere rather than assuming atmosphere should be provided but banning hooligans, the reaction to almost any incident is collective punishment, and if you can’t identify specific culprits then just expand the collective.

Welcome to Canadian soccer, where problem fans with firesticks only create more problems. The Canadian Premier League is going to be busy.

Any Weather for the All-Stars

By Benjamin Massey · July 1st, 2018 · No comments

When Ontario and Quebec have an All-Star double-header on Dominion Day weekend the temptation is to call it the future of Canadian soccer. In fact, League1 Ontario and the Première ligue de soccer du Québec are the present. PLSQ is the senior men’s circuit, its first games coming in 2012. League1 Ontario kicked off its men’s division in 2014 but was first into the women’s game in 2015, while the PLSQ’s women’s division is playing its first season right now. These are two mature organizations with talented players, good facilities, and credible business models. For the first time at an all-star game L1O and PLSQ met on equal terms for both men and women, and all four teams put on a show. Even nature added to the drama.

We will not be happy with everything about the present. Tickets were free but attendance on a Saturday afternoon was in the dozens. The game took place at Laval’s Stade Desjardins, which though way out in the Montreal suburbs was recently packed, and damaged, by AS Blainville supporters for the Voyageurs Cup. It’s not even Blainville’s home ground! All-star games, well, they are not a real grassroots local soccer experience. They’re fun. And there was beer and soccer, boy was there soccer, and just enough of that lower-division amateurishness that you never forgot where you were.

Stade Desjardins, normally the home ground of CS Monteuil, is built in the middle of some kids’ fields out of chainlink fence and shipping containers. It looked nice. Most communities do not have old characterful 500-seat grounds and Desjardins is the perfect cheap and cheerful solution. It has everything you need, in fact rather more than FC Edmonton had for the NASL for two seasons. Had it not been 35 degrees Celsius with 90% humidity I’d have enjoyed watching a game there.

The women kicked off first and anyone who thought the PLSQ ladies would be at a disadvantage was disillusioned. Ontario had a slight edge in play for the first quarter, but when Evelyne Viens made it 1-0 PLSQ with a cheeky finish that kissed off the far post and in, it was the signal for the Quebeçois to grow into the game. Not that Ontario lacked resources but an awful lot of them were named “Jade Kovacevic,” who looked like a 20-year-old among U-17s. Gabby Carle for Quebec was not so physical but just as impressive, setting up almost every chance for the PLSQ including one by accident on a high-speed deflection off her face. (She bounced right up and was fine.)

PLSQ finished the first half up 1-0 but Kovacevic struck in the second; Ashley Campbell shouted “Jade!”, hit a long ball nowhere near her, it bounded out of the resulting maelstrom and onto Kovacevic’s boot with no defenders in sight. To give the League1 superstriker credit, Kovacevic then dangled PLSQ keeper Sophie Guilmette out of her shinguards before slotting the shot home to tie the game. The rest of the game lacked clear-cut chances, and the two teams of All-Stars failed to sync (who would have guessed?) as naturally-occurring long balls sapped the energy of both teams in broiling conditions on artificial turf (also shocking!). There was an unpleasant moment when the excellent Kovacevic went down late, got back up, struggled on for a few seconds, went back down, and left the stadium on a golf cart. It was a grim coda to a fun game, and a 1-1 after-regular-time result was fair to both teams

The play wasn’t casual, there were gritty challenges and a couple heat-aggravated knocks besides Kovacevic’s. The referee was picky on where free kicks should be taken and a bit loose on physicality, leading to an odd but aggressive tempo that rewarded guts. Quebec – Ontario can never be truly “friendly.”

But the overall feeling was goodwill. Quebec provided a concession, Ontario provided game commentary by Oakville guru Pierce Lang. There were 40-minute halves, hydration breaks every 20, a relaxed approach to substitutions (Carle re-entered, permitted in WPSL but not normally in PLSQ or L1O), and after the draw we went directly to a shootout.

PLSQ shot first, and after five attempts straight into the corners Jen Wolever missed Ontario’s third kick. She was not too cut-up, dropping a casual “sorry” to keeper Sara Petrucci, who acknowledged it with equal sang-froid. There was more accurate shooting, including a bardownski by Ontario’s Julia Benati. The PLSQ’s fifth shooter, Marika Guay, could score to win but Petrucci got Wolever off the hook with a kick save. Then those darned referees, who probably wanted to get out of the heat, ruled that Petrucci moved early. Lacking VAR, though Petrucci was nowhere near as bad as anything Kasper Schmeichel got away with in Russia, Guay buried her second chance top corner and that was it, Quebec won 1-1 (5-3 apk).

The men’s game afterward was men’s league soccer. Physical, frustrating, loud, the only thing unfamiliar to me was that the cursing was bilingual. Ontario’s Jarek Whiteman made himself felt, and heard, up top in the first quarter, striking the best half-chance and offering hot takes to all like a Canadian soccer blogger. Dom Samuel, the compact Ontario centre back, blocked a shot with his face. Marko Maletic got a yellow card for beaking the ref. Anthony Novak scored Ontario’s opener with muscle, guts, and skill, and if it wasn’t an Edinson Cavani special it was still the sort of side-net turn and strike that reminds frustrated ex-players that yeah, these guys are a lot better. Almost immediately afterward Joey Melo tried to kill a guy. It was an apotheosis of the semi-pro men’s game, the thing you’ll like if you like that kind of thing, which I do.

The PLSQ had one quality chance when Bastien Aussems one-touched a cross from Stefan Karajovanovic and was robbed blind by Ontario goalkeeper Tristan Henry. It was great skill, but you don’t win semi-pro men’s soccer that way. Ontario had the more traditional idea. Whiteman dribbled into the area, flopped, and won a penalty (again, no VAR). Taking his own kick he tucked it past former Haiti senior international Gabard Fénélon as the last kick of the first half to give League1 Ontario a surely-insurmountable 2-0 lead.

Then the soccer gods chose to add some drama. The halftime interval was unusually long, such that the sun had nearly set by the time Ontario and Quebec returned to the field. In the second half the clock refused to count properly so after only eight extremely long seconds Quebec’s Kevin Le Nour cracked one over new Ontario keeper Roberto Stillo and off the crossbar from a scramble. Guys were fouled, insults thrown, then it started to rain, turning instantly into a torrent. And then they took a hydration break, pouring slightly more water into their mouths than landed on their faces.

The rain passed after ten minutes, but ominous booms in the distance augured no good. It was 10 PM local time, it was wet, it was still hot enough that soaked soccer patrons were almost steaming dry despite lingering drizzle. Nobody, and I mean nobody, wanted a postponement. Frankly had I been Ontario and lightning flashed I would have gotten on the bus and gone home.

Maybe they should have gone home regardless. The artificial turf was slippery enough to make for some audacious tackling even if both teams hadn’t already demonstrated a very loose interest in the FIFA Fair Play standings. Kevin Cossette got Quebec on the board, and with time running out the PLSQ’s Simon Spénard-Lapierre skipped onto a through ball, ran through a jersey pull, shot past Stillo, and tied the game at two with little more than stoppage time to play. Even in the few minutes left Ontario’s Jose de Sousa was robbed by Fénélon and Spénard-Lapierre had two chances to win it: the first mis-hit in the damp and cleared off the line, the second low from a corner and smothered by Stillo.

Stillo, who came to League1 Ontario via Serie A (yes that one), was on the hook for two vital goals against through no fault of his own. In the shootout he made instant amends, stopping Le Nours brilliantly on a leftward dive and Emad Houache on a highly-stoppable central shot. The first three Ontario shooters kept their nerve while the stormclouds broiled. The third Quebec shooter, Spénard-Lapierre, stared down Stillo as the thunder boomed ever-closer. He scored. Lightning flashed through the sky, igniting the air above Stade Desjardins. Everyone tacitly agreed to ignore it, and Jose de Sousa walked to the mark for Ontario. He scored. And the crowd, or at least the League1 Ontario All-Stars, went wild.

It was a fascinating end to a fun day. An interprovincial All-Star doubleheader should be a day-long festival of football, fun, free (or cheap), family-friendly, utterly unpretentious. This game in the suburbs did not achieve Nirvana. But so what? A fun evening and two good games.

12.5% of a World Cup

By Benjamin Massey · June 13th, 2018 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Congratulations are due, I suppose, to the Canadian Soccer Association for their part in winning the right to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup. I’m honestly not sure how much they had to do with it. The Canadian contribution is expected to be three cities and ten games, including maybe a round-of-16 match or two, in an 18-city, 80-match tournament. Applying to “co-host” 12.5% of the largest World Cup in history probably amounted to not defecating in the hallways while the Americans provided the everything.

If Edmonton, Toronto, and Montreal disappeared from the tournament nobody north of the 49th parallel would miss them. Commonwealth Stadium and Olympic Stadium are, all things considered, the worst facilities in the bid. Toronto’s BMO Field is a handsome ground but, even in its temporarily-expanded World Cup configuration, will be the smallest venue involved. And while the World Cup is still eight years away and things can happen, if you think Canada won’t be the weakest team among the hosts I love your optimism. Assuming all three hosts automatically qualify, which they might not.

At least hosting shouldn’t be expensive; the stadia are built. Then again, imagine hosting a World Cup game at today’s Commonwealth Stadium while the Americans are filling gorgeous ultra-modern NFL palaces. A men’s World Cup, that is. Back in 2015 Abby Wambach said that FIFA and the CSA would never dare put a men’s World Cup on artificial turf, we all went “pooh-pooh,” and now we’re tearing artificial turf out of 2015 host stadiums in Edmonton and Montreal so the men can get grass. Whoops. This is embarrassing but I’m sure the Canadian Soccer Association will apologize with appropriate humility.

No, renovations will be expensive and pricey. Then there are endlessly-escalating costs for security, hospitality, “legacy” projects, and simple corruption. Apparently Olympic Stadium is getting a retractable roof; how could that possibly go over budget?

And yet we get to see a World Cup, live and in person. For a certain definition of “we.” Soccer in Canada is an incredibly bourgeoise sport, none other compares, but even so, ticket prices will drive away many patrons. According to the bid guide, while 7% of tickets fall into the lowest US$21 price bracket, the other 93% start at US$174. Some diehards with good incomes will have to decide between an Argentina – North Korea match or rent.

I am cynical but not resentful. I want it to be a tremendous success, really. The 2015 Women’s World Cup was one of the great experiences of my life even though Canada disappointed. Heck, the Canadian team at the 2007 U-20 World Cup was an actual embarrassment but what a time it was all the same. If the Canadian men’s national team plays three games and loses them all in front of 45,000 screaming maple-leaf-waving partisans, that would still be a lifelong highlight for any of us. And much though taxing waitressing single moms to pay for our hobby should make us sick this bid, explicitly, was based on saving money. The bid book, the document put in front of FIFA for them to vote on, promises “no major public expenditures.” Sure the tickets are expensive, but it’s still cheaper than flying to Marrakech and watching games there.

But this 12.5% of a World Cup exposes all that is most awful about Canada. The public cost, to taxpayers who mostly won’t get anything out of it, is probably going to be ludicrous, and the only people arguing otherwise have an interest in us getting those ten games1. We’re asking for a huge subsidy for our hobby. Not a full World Cup, with the attendant prestige and international attention, but just some soccer games. Prestige is worth paying for; in 2026 we will be America’s hat. Remember, the Americans host 75% of the total games and every single fixture in the quarterfinals or later. Given how diluted a 48-team World Cup will be, Canada’s participation will be truly ancillary.

Our role in this bid was to get the Americans a tournament, and we are expected to be grateful for it. And we have been! This isn’t a shot at the United States; the Canadian soccer community has been debasing itself for this chance to pick up the Americans’ garbage, why should they refuse? The contrary idea that we should build something on our own and decline to be a branch plant is unthinkable. We’re only now getting to the point where a few of us timidly accept that a vast Dominion of 35 million can probably have a soccer league outside the American aegis. A World Cup? Say “yes, sir, Mr. Gulati, sir” and accept what we are given. It’s better than nothing, right?2 Even the name of the bid, “United,” practically begs the observer to mouth the suffix “States.”

And what do we get for it, this expenditure of scarce public money and scarcer civic pride? The Canadian government has produced a lot of probably-computer-generated crap about how Canada is so diverse and how wonderful it is that people move here and cheer for their homelands in the World Cup, so if you like that you got it. The soccer fans boast of all the infrastructure we’ll build, notwithstanding that we’re also told this World Cup will be cheap because we hardly have to build any infrastructure, and also notwithstanding that while some practice fields are great they don’t solve Canada’s shortage of 10,000-seat stadia and don’t achieve anything that couldn’t be done at a fraction of the cost. I suppose we’ll “inspire the youth.” My own cansoc awakening was at the 2002 FIFA U-19 Women’s Championships. But when you look at a World Cup where Canada is trotted out as a token, while the national team does poorly if it participates at all and the meaningful games take place across the border, what do we think we will be inspiring the youth to do?

Telling young Canadians that we are North America’s third fiddle and mean nothing except in relation to other nations is in tune with the past sixty years of our history, yes. But you will forgive those of us left unenthusiastic.

A Voyageurs Cup for the Rest

By Benjamin Massey · June 7th, 2018 · No comments

Martin Bazyl/Canada Soccer

The Voyageurs Cup is broadcast poison. Early rounds are no longer even televised; the semi-final and final make TSN on weird Wednesday evenings packed with Canadian Soccer Association house ads. Yesterday, when the 2018 edition kicked off, you could watch only on an obscure streaming service. I know a few serious Canadian soccer fans who had forgotten it was starting at all.

That match was a historic one, too, between AS Blainville of the Première ligue de soccer du Québec and League1 Ontario’s Oakville Blue Devils. It was the first time teams from a domestic Canadian league had ever played in our national soccer championship, which for its first ten tournaments belonged to MLS, USL, and the NASL.

A big occasion, featuring little teams with few names. I consider myself well-informed and could remember precisely two players from Blainville: futsal star Nazim Belguendouz and former Impact and Fury journeyman Pierre-Rudolph Mayard1. For Oakville I can get to one, veteran Stephen Ademolu. And I could not fault you for picking out three totally different names, or not recognizing any at all. I have seen L1O and PLSQ games, and liked them, but USL they ain’t.

However, I live in British Columbia so these two teams should not care what I think. Nor should they care about those TV or web-stream viewing numbers. Even MLS doesn’t make serious money from television, and no team at the local level will rely on broadcasts to survive. Mocking ratings for these games is like criticizing Vic Rauter for his political commentary, it misses the point completely.

If you did watch the stream you’ll understand. Nominally a Blainville home game, it was played a half-hour drive away at the Bois-de-Boulogne Complex in Laval. Yet the touchline was crowded with fans. The Blainville supporters were passionate enough to be criticized, setting off pyrotechnics mid-play, barracking any Ontarian in sight, allegedly even prodding players with flags. In MLS, or any North American major league, those guys would not have gotten past security and been swiftly tazed if they had. In the first leg of the Voyageurs Cup’s first round it provided an electric atmosphere. When Mayard scored a stoppage-time winner and the smoke went off and the supporters destroyed ad hoardings as they rushed the pitch, it was pure, communicable happiness.

Now some of this was undoubtedly General Quebec Solidarity. Quebec’s grassroots supporters culture is not like the Rest of Canada, and sticking it to the anglos will always draw some support regardless of context2. I would bet, with no inside information at all, that a significantg part of that pitch invasion was carried out by people at their first AS Blainville match. But to the Montreal Impact that game would have been virtually pointless, hardly worth a train ride to Pie-IX even if the ticket was free. To Blainville it was enormous, and some of those supporters will be back. Us few distant viewers loved the spectacle, but next to the 1,000-odd fans who paid to get in we are as ants compared to the biggest day in AS Blainville history.

This is not a Quebec soccer slobberfest, much though I admire them. After all, next Wednesday we have the return leg at the Ontario Soccer Centre in Vaughan. Tickets are $15, which for amateur soccer is quite a lot. But the game is regardless expected to sell out, and while Oakville has fans who go every week this match has captured many more imaginations than that. This competition, which by Internet standards is trivial, is to the teams involved a sensation.

Let’s hope the Canadian Soccer Association recognizes that. We are talking these days about the Canadian Premier League, hoping for attendances of seven, eight thousand, while Toronto FC fills BMO Field and the Vancouver Whitecaps are derided for only spending a handful of millions on their roster. It is easy to focus on the big time. But that Blainville home game was, by its lights, a huge success. The Oakville leg looks set to be as good. We cannot help but be overjoyed for Ontario and Quebec, but we can still regret how many fine teams in the country could do as well given the opportunity.

There are plenty of communities in Canada that show more interest in very local soccer than outsiders would guess. Hundreds of fans already come out to support Cowichan Valley for a Jackson Cup final in the Vancouver Island Soccer League. Imagine if Cowichan Valley was facing TSS Rovers of the USL PDL in the second leg of the Voyageurs Cup. It would be a riot. Grown men would cry, win or lose. And then the winner of that game plays CanPL Langford, the winner facing the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place, and it all kicks off twice more. Then, multiply that by all the regions of this vast country. You think Edmonton Scottish – Calgary Foothills wouldn’t be a success? You just saw 3,000 people watch Foothills play the FC Edmonton academy, come on.

Of course there are obstacles to a truly open Voyageurs Cup. The Americans manage it, but the Americans also get three rounds before they risk boarding an airplane. If WSA Winnipeg wins their first-round match then all of a sudden Eduardo Badescu is selling poinsettas fundraising for a trip to Hamilton. Moreover, while a USL PDL team could theoretically win the US Open Cup, there are enough professional teams in their way that everyone knows one never will. If Calgary Foothills was in the Voyageurs Cup they would only need two upsets for a team of part-timers and university students to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, and that might get awkward. And Foothills could do it, on their day. To you and me that is a thrill; to the Canadian Soccer Association nervousness is reasonable.

But surely the rewards outweigh the risks. When we talk about how Canada can make the men’s World Cup, we don’t talk about how TFC Academy needs more foreign ex-pat kids who’ve gotten elite coaching since they were four. We talk about how we need the enormous breadth of this dominion to be involved, and recognized, in the common effort. MLS clubs can never do that. Nor, even, can USL or CanPL or any professional league: the population density just isn’t there for some of us to ever make that work. We need ordinary local teams with a chance to display somebody’s excellence. More than that, we need a chance for some community to step forward and say “we have earned a share of the spotlight.” The Voyageurs Cup is the best vehicle we have or will ever get to make that happen.

The reward? One player who would otherwise have slipped through the cracks makes Canada’s senior men’s national team. Let’s be generous and say two. But more than that, somewhere out there, a kid who would have said “I want to play for Paris Saint-Germain” instead says “I want to play for CS Mont-Royal Outremont,” because the first memory he has of truly heart-lifting soccer is CSRMO putting paid to Toronto FC against all odds in the 2022 Voyageurs Cup. And once young Canadians are, more than anything, dreaming of Canadian soccer, then our job is more than half done.

The Best Canadian PDL Northwest Ever

By Benjamin Massey · June 2nd, 2018 · No comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Four years ago, soccer fans in Western Canada lamented the demise of a formerly-strong tradition in the United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League. USL PDL is an unglamorous amateur or semi-professional summer league, aimed largely at NCAA athletes looking to fill up the collegiate offseason. But it is excellent, and underrated, soccer which can lead to the professional game and, in some cities, produces great entertainment for four-figure crowds in communities that could not support the trials and tribulations of USL, let alone MLS.

But in the middle part of the decade we lost every single team west of Winnipeg. The Fraser Valley Mariners, playing at Abbotsford’s pretty but isolated Bateman Park, couldn’t justify the expenditure for tiny crowds and put out a lousy team anyway, folding after 2012. The Vancouver Whitecaps, stocking what had once been a highly successful PDL program with CIS players and Residency alums they had no interest in developing, pulled their team after the 2014 season when it somehow failed to pay dividends. Deprived of local rivals and denied a chance to move up to USL by Canadian Soccer Association restrictions, the Victoria Highlanders shut their doors. In the winter of 2014–15, the semi-professional game in western Canada looked very bleak.

The turnaround since has been gradual, unexpected, but brilliantly total. In 2015 Calgary Foothills, a prominent youth soccer organization, made the move up to USL PDL. Though they pay heavily for their distance from the Pacific Northwest and draw only average crowds, they have been a remarkable on-field success while in the stands they are slowly but surely developing a core of passionate support. Brilliantly-coiffed supremo Tommy Wheeldon, Jr., an English-born alumnus of the USL Calgary Storm, emerged unexpectedly as a great champion of Canadian soccer and has been building on his legacy since.

2016 saw the return of the Victoria Highlanders, now based at the University of Victoria. Victoria’s soccer community is quietly one of the best in the country, supporting teams down to the metro-league amateur level in 1,000-man throngs, defying changing demographics to maintain an old Canadian localist tradition in sport. The knock on Victoria has always been “there are enough fans, but you can’t get the corporate support;” well, when an amateur Highlanders team entered the Pacific Coast Soccer League in 2015 their fans were so numerous and raucous that the league president wanted them to calm down. Maybe devotion is enough. In 2016 local owners with no capital to speak of brought Victoria back to PDL through sheer willpower, and so far it has been a success. While nobody is tapping them for the Canadian Premier League, they’re doing something even better: they’re running a low-level, strictly local club and making it work.

And in 2017 we added TSS FC Rovers, another expansion of an existing organization, playing out of Burnaby’s hallowed Swangard Stadium. Like the Highlanders, their ownership hardly has more money than you or me but was willing to stake a successful business on building a spectator-friendly soccer club at a level high enough to be expensive but not so high as to be glamorous. So far their remarkably accessible ownership has not gone broke or suffered from embarrassing Twitter meltdowns, and while the crowds have not been universally excellent this is an organization that always looks like it’s having a good time. They have even entered a team in the WPSL, surely one of the most frustrating experiences a Canadian soccer sponsor can ask for, and emerged with good humour.

This gave western Canada three semi-pro teams again. But in the old days one of the western teams was always a weak sister, neglected or incompetent or otherwise dodgy, restricted to lunatics who would come watch soccer in a garbage dump if there was grass and sunshine. In 2017 TSS was interesting to devotees but, objectively, a pretty poor soccer team that took a three-point penalty from a paperwork mistake. Victoria underachieved while counting pennies; Calgary was excellent but fell short of the highest honours. It was the best summer western Canada had enjoyed in years, but not quite enough.

So far, the 2018 USL PDL season has been different. All three teams are proving well-worth following for even the ordinary fan.

The fans of TSS FC Rovers still bill them as “all-Canadian.” It’s slightly shame-faced since they must also say things like “Nick Soolsma1 is pursuing permanent residency” and “William Rafael’s from South Sudan, he didn’t come here for the soccer!” There’s no need to be embarrassed, really, since even by the strictest possible criteria the Rovers count as “very, very Canadian indeed” on the field, on the coaching staff, in ambition and mindset. They are bringing up underappreciated players such as the Polisi brothers, Matteo and Marcello, and Erik Edwardson, who will deserve at least a look when the Canadian Premier League comes into its own. Goalkeeper Andrew Hicks is continuing from a sterling 2017 and establishing himself as one of the best Canadian keepers outside the professional ranks, and this year he’s platooning with a remarkable duo of ex-Whitecaps Residency star Luciano Trasolini and former PLSQ and British Columbia provincial standout Mario Gerges. Their roster can no longer entirely qualify for our national team, but they’re still doing as much for our country as anybody this side of the Ottawa Fury.

No, no, that’s unfair. Take for example Calgary Foothills. If Foothills don’t win the Northwest Division it’ll be because the season is too short to show their excellence, but they’re as Canadian as it gets. The one all-out foreigner on the Foothills roster is defender Jay Wheeldon: he’s English but also coach Tommy’s brother, which surely gets him some slack. They also boast a legion of noteworthy dual-nationals like Carlos Patino (Colombia), Ali Musse (Somalia), Elijah Adekugbe (England and Nigeria), and Moses Danto (Sudan), but so does TSS. The fact that Foothills don’t get the same “all-Canadian” reputation as Rovers is down to a failure of marketing, not on-field focus. In fact, if you’re looking for really excellent Canadian players who are of an undisputed professional standard but need a fair chance, you’re looking to Calgary: Marco Carducci, Jordan Haynes, Jackson Farmer, Nathan Ingham, Dominick Zator, all men who should be making a living playing this game, and I haven’t even said the words “Nik Ledgerwood” yet, who with 50 senior international caps must be among the most accomplished men ever to walk onto a USL PDL pitch.

Calgary is stunning. Honestly, stunning. This site chronicled one of their demolitions of the FC Edmonton academy back in April, Already this year they have two wins over the Victoria Highlanders and a win and a draw against the Portland Timbers U-23s; the draw was a game Calgary absolutely deserved to win. Moses Danto has four goals, neither Carducci nor Ingham have put a foot wrong between the sticks, and across their first five league games they allowed only fifteen shots on target. (Rovers, by comparison, have allowed 30.) Add in shots directed and Calgary outshoots their opponents two-to-one, and they have not played anybody bad yet.

So the Victoria Highlanders, who have lost four of their first six, are the forgotten men. Which is too bad because Victoria’s assembled what would, in most years, look like a very interesting team. Cam Hundal and Noah Cunningham are both players who wouldn’t be playing PDL if there were decent professional opportunities in this country. Utility man Blair Sturrock, though aging, actually is an old pro in England and Scotland. Goalkeeper Simon Norgrove looked good last year but has been supplanted by Canadian senior international and Vancouver Island native Nolan Wirth. Most interestingly their coach is a very familiar name, Thomas Neindorf, the native German who’s earned a hell of a reputation for developing first-class youth prospects all over western Canada. After a few turbulent years the team enters 2018 under new local ownership that, to pick two well-known names from a long list, includes former salesman/general manager/front office do-it-all-man Mark DeFrias and a man with one of Canada’s most difficult but remarkable playing resumes, former CIS Canada West MVP, Highlanders goalkeeper, and, after a traumatic concussion, Canadian parasoccer international star striker Trevor Stiles.

We now know that Victoria, or rather the Victoria suburb of Langford, looks set to get a Canadian Premier League team in 2019 as Josh Simpson’s audacious Vancouver Island bid absorbed Rob Friend’s stadium-deficient “Port City” entry. The Highlanders are not yet involved but have made all the right noises about working alongside the CanPL crew. Local derbies between the professionals and semi-pros will be a delicious prospect to a community that still embraces its Vancouver Island Soccer League and turned out in big numbers for the old Community Shield matches between the Highlanders and the late PCSL Victoria United. We all want to see local rivals duking it out in defiance of North America’s geographically-restrictive franchise system, but Victoria is especially suitable, and looks likely to get it.

Friday night at Swangard, TSS and Calgary met for the first time all year and put on a gem of a game. The Rovers won 2-1, which was harsh on the Foothills, who despite lacking Ledgerwood demonstrated remarkable quality in all areas of the field. But that sentence in turn is harsh on the Rovers, who rose to the levels of their opponents to play a very good match on their own. With the Vancouver Whitecaps playing at the same time and rain in the forecast attendance was lower than usual, but those fans who did take the time were well-rewarded with ninety entertaining minutes. This follows TSS’s first ever road points, taking all three from the Victoria Highlanders a week earlier in another brilliantly fun game, and ahead of a Sunday return tilt against Victoria that promises more excellence.

The Canadian Premier League is drawing all the ink, for very good reason. But it is not the only part of the Canadian club soccer renaissance. Those of us on the right side of Saskatchewan are already enjoying some of the best soccer we’ve been able to see in many years. If CanPL can build upon this, ours will be a very fortunate country.

Brilliance Wasted

By Benjamin Massey · May 26th, 2018 · 4 comments

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Saturday afternoon at Mercer Stadium in New Westminster, the lady TSS FC Rovers kicked off with a 4-2 win over THUSC Diamonds of Beaverton, Oregon. The goals were by Emma Pringle, Tanya Boychuk, Emma Regan, and a woman I regret to say I didn’t recognize1. The Rovers play in the Women’s Premier Soccer League, an amateur American circuit that competes with United Women’s Soccer2 as the current American second division.

This is a young team with unusually well-known names for the level, and the weather was fine, but they drew a shabby crowd. The UEFA Champions League final, of which you may have heard, ended just before kickoff. The Vancouver Whitecaps played New England almost simultaneously. But this is what happens in this league; your opponent doesn’t really want to be here, and if that means you play at a high school stadium in the middle of a construction site during a local parade with two huge soccer events guaranteeing the only attendees were family, friends, and me, then you do what you have to.

Welcome to the WPSL.

There was something to like on the field. This site is a charter member of the Emma Regan Fan Club. She played half an hour and strode the field like Artemis, dominating the left flank almost hilariously. The woman of the match was Edmonton’s Tanya Boychuk, Canadian U-20 international and future Memphis Tiger, a young player I have admired for a while, a high-energy, high-chaos attacking talent with a lot of Adriana Leon in her who scored a fabulous goal and truly embarrassed the visitors with her skill and her hustle. She is a late addition to the Rovers and apparently a very good one. But let’s not focus on the celebrities. Simon Fraser junior Emma Pringle is a tall drink of water at striker who has never worn Canadian silks but should get a visit from a scout. Big, dangerous, accurate, and full of energy, a human Dreadnought. I like her already. And, wearing the #1 kit Jordyn Huitema made awfully famous for TSS in a friendly a couple weeks ago, Nebraska Cornhusker Natalie Cooke came in at striker, infuriated the visiting Oregonian parents, and convinced at least one writer she actually was Huitema.

It is embarrassing that young women of this standard play in a league of this standard. I do not mean the Diamonds, who acquitted themselves respectably. I mean the WPSL itself.

THUSC played the previous evening in Tukwila, Washington against the Seattle Sounders and Seattle won 10-0; the Diamonds did remarkably well to rally, cross an international border, drive to an unfamiliar stadium, and pose some danger. The Rovers also played on Friday night, losing a close friendly to the Whitecaps REX kids in Surrey3. “Why did the Rovers play a friendly the day before their league game,” because they booked the field thinking it was for their home opener against FCM Portland, that’s why. But Portland dropped out of the league a few weeks ago, long after the schedule was set and season tickets sold. Of course they still operate their men’s NPSL entry. Of course.

Welcome to the WPSL.

Even for defenders of women’s club soccer, it gets hard to see the point of this game. Most of the other teams in the Northwest Division don’t care much. A trip across the 49th parallel is a pain in the ass, not an opportunity, for teams from Washington and Oregon, and it gets hard to make it into an Experience: the lady Rovers were able to book only one double-header at beautiful Swangard Stadium during the regular season, because why would the away team cooperate?

Any individual game can be part of a season that means everything. But that right there was one third of the Rovers’ home league schedule this year. No, really: that, a home game against Seattle at Swangard on June 17, a game against ISU Gunners back in New Westminster on June 24, and that’s it. The Rovers are trying to pad the value of their effort (and their $40 season ticket) with a large number of friendlies. But, unbelievably, in a seven-team division the Rovers play three times at home and four times away, and an elite soccer league considers this a season. And Cascadia Cup fans complain about unbalanced schedules.

These teenagers and twenty-somethings of TSS, such talent! Even the North Shore Girls Soccer Club, who ran WPSL teams in 2016 and 2017, had some fun journeyman players despite never competing for a division title. They just lost the BC Provincial Cup final to Surrey United and looked good getting there. Well, TSS is better; their second eleven is fine, and their first eleven has holes enough to lose several points but skill enough that you forgive them. Even if they don’t contend in their division, and it is both too early to judge and too random for a judgement to be meaningful, they deserve to play in front of high-def cameras before raving thousand-man crowds.

Their vehicle, the WPSL, just isn’t powerful enough to carry them. UWS, as played in Calgary, might be better but it isn’t good enough for (say) Stephanie Labbé. And sure if Canada got an NWSL team, we could have an experience just like the Whitecaps have given us in MLS. Hey, Sydney Leroux is playing really well lately, there’s a marquee local talent.

Obviously we need a Canadian women’s premier league. Obviously. I have in this space argued we need that more than the men’s league which is finally announcing teams and looking real. But we need more than that. Pringle, Huitema, Regan, and other stars that didn’t figure into this recap like Julia Grosso are all British Columbian; Boychuk is Albertan. It’s a very regional group, this group, and yet it’s superb.

Why? All the Ontarians are playing League1 Ontario, whose women’s division can now officially be considered Established. Last year the Calgary Foothills UWS team had a bevy of Quebec starlets but not this year, because la belle province has finally established a women’s circuit on its Première ligue de soccer du Québec. Western Canada, which gave the Dominion Christine Sinclair and Sophie Schmidt and Erin McLeod and Karina Leblanc and Kara Lang and Brittany Timko and Kaylyn Kyle and how long must I go on, has nothing of the sort. But their women’s leagues spawned from their semipro men’s leagues, and somehow we can’t even manage one of those.

It is criminal, absolutely criminal, that this western excellence relies on the NCAA and the national teams to develop. That even whem a team like TSS or Calgary tries to improve things on their own, they are poisoned by a toxic atmosphere. Forget a women’s CanPL. How about something? We work ourselves into a lather to get Jordan Hamilton minutes, well how about Jordyn Huitema? Neither inspiration or equity nor any of that trash is important. What’s important is that we have talent, and good people trying to build it, and it’s being wasted anyway.

Welcome to the WPSL.

EDIT, 21:50 May 26: this article originally had a paragraph believing Jordyn Huitema subbed in for TSS in the #1 kit. It was in fact Natalie Cooke, who did not trouble the scorers but looked good enough to sustain the comparison. That was not a joke up there.

The Greatest Al Classico Ever

By Benjamin Massey · May 1st, 2018 · No comments

Tobi Oliva

Although FC Edmonton has wrapped up their professional soccer program, the Canadian Premier League might still bring it back. The organization is selling $40 memberships towards future professional season tickets, and have been before Edmonton city council trying to secure Clarke Field as a permanent home. Their Academy still plays and practices, investing in what they hope is the future of the team.

It’s a good academy which has produced professionals and prospects, but today the top team in Alberta is Calgary Foothills. A team that was good enough to contend for the USL PDL title before they added Nik Ledgerwood and Marco Carducci. Their first team outguns any PDL-standard combination of college journeymen, to say nothing of Edmonton’s high schoolers.

PDL can be good soccer but only occasionally draws fans. U-18 academy games are even less spectator-friendly. The natural rivalry between Edmonton and Calgary makes things spicy, but spice is irrelevant when there’s no food. A few supporters have gone to previous meetings, been rowdy, and gotten kicked out of pubs, but academy soccer is for coaches, scouts, family, and degens, not the ordinary fan. And rightly so.

But that was before, when Edmonton had a first team. Times are leaner now and an Edmonton – Calgary match, any Edmonton – Calgary match, looks awfully tasty. The nickname “Al Classico” has kicked around for a year or so, half-joke, half-goal for the upcoming CanPL derby, and though neither Edmonton nor Calgary are in that league yet, in that Canadian soccer way the fans memed it into reality1. (The second leg is Saturday, May 5, 2 PM at the Calgary Soccer Centre.)

The two teams were planning on April 3. On April 19, FC Edmonton began giving away tickets for a game ten days later at Clarke Field, admission free but RSVP required. It was a Sunday afternoon, usually Eddies poison. The next day, 1,000 tickets were spoken for. Three days later they cracked 2,500. Beer tents and concessions were arranged, volunteers found, mothballs blown off the Big Blue stand. The final announced attendance of 3,205 was better than FC Edmonton’s average NASL Sunday gate last year.

Foothills has a solid academy but sent the first team, like the Alberta soccer colossus they are. Two senior Canadian men’s internationals got the start: former Eddies skipper Ledgerwood (50 caps) and Edmonton native Jackson Farmer (1 cap), plus uncapped pool member Marco Carducci and several youth stars. This is without counting Spruce Grove’s Stephanie Labbe, PDL trialist and starting goalkeeper for the Canadian women’s team, who came off the bench.

But the local underdogs had their secret weapons as the alumni came out in impressive force. Paul Hamilton, the original supporters’ player of the year. Edem Mortotsi, one of the original Academy signings. Shaun Saiko, vying with Lance Laing as the all-time provider of goalscoring excellence. Allan Zebie, one of the best of the last generation and a new-minted CanPL poster boy. And Sam Lam, short of superlatives but a quality player in his day. Saiko and Hamilton in particular left the club under such unfair circumstances that just seeing them in blue and white again was worth a night of your life.

The stage was set for a “meaningless” friendly that would live forever.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

If you know your Eddies history you’ll know the punchline. After a week of fabulous weather Sunday dawned cold, cloudy, crap. The Eddies advised fans that parking would be limited so they should come by LRT: bad advice, since half the Capital Line was shut down for maintenance. Kickoff was delayed so fans could get in which is a lot riskier when you’re not an MLS team and only have the field for two hours.

Despite great interest and at least one camera operator in the house, there was no chance of streaming the game. TITAN, the hallowed portable video board, was out of town. Playing the first half in training tops, FC Edmonton came out for the second in their 2015-vintage striped Adidas kits, with different numbers (Hamilton, for example, switched from #9 to #25). Of course there were no programs or names on the kits, so most of the young players were anonymous anyway. A cold afternoon saw the beer tent sell out of hot chocolate. The field had initially been booked for a mere practice and on their way out fans ran into the kids of Edmonton Scottish, who had it next.

The kids looked like kids. The veterans have real jobs and families now; class is permanent and some of these guys could make CanPL if they trained for it, but rust made it hard to see. Foothills looked like a team which is probably going to win quite a fine PDL Northwest Division. Some of the play was… I mean, I am a Jackson Farmer fan going way back but I had never associated him with dirty dangles until he slaughtered the entire Eddies defense for goal number three.

The Eddies had one terrific chance when Carducci punched a rebound straight onto a forward’s foot, who shot wide. With the B team on to close out the game Edmonton also made Steph Labbe work a bit; she twice showed exceptional timing to sweep the ball off David Doe and Prince Amanda’s feet2 and made the best save of the game off Decklin Mahmi in the 90th minute. But Calgary could have had a few more themselves before they took off the pros. None of this reflects poorly on Edmonton, any more than Foothills would feel bad losing 4-0 to Chivas de Guadalajara. The Eddies Academy’s 16-year-olds are not yet as good as Nik Ledgerwood. Oh darn. But if you showed up expecting a rock-’em-sock-’em soccer classic, you would not have enjoyed the game.

People seemed to enjoy the game.

The crowd was large, fun, there for a good time. Though transit was a mess, the weather was crap, and the game was out of reach seven minutes in, most of the crowd stuck out the full 90. There was banter in the stands, banter in the beer line. The Foothills got their four goals in two savage flurries, and the Edmonton crowd sagged in the aftermath, but joie de vivre came back in a hurry. We were happy to be there.

The Vancouver Whitecaps recently lost a game 6-0, provoking the Vancouver Southsiders to hold a protest against their management. At the end of this 4-0 loss to the auld enemy, the Edmonton supporters chanted warmly and set off smoke until we had to give up the field, coaches, general managers, and owners, who responded by running over and applauding. It was not your usual blowout.

After all, it wasn’t your usual game. The chant went “you can’t beat us, ’cause we don’t exist.” This was true more metaphysically than literally. The Eddies could be humbled on the pitch, that sucked but it didn’t matter. What mattered was getting the band back together, from legends down to the 15-year-old future stars, and from the lunatics who traveled to watch an academy friendly to families who wanted a free night out. We could not be beaten, not really, because the only thing that mattered was reuniting, celebrating the past, and, with the help of the Canadian Premier League, moving into a sunny future. We needed this game to happen, but the game itself was the least important part of the experience. Celebrating the kids, the city, and the Eddies did not need a close match, it needed a match of any sort.

Someday we will lose 4-0 again, and we will exist, and we will scream obscenities on Twitter and call for scalps. And it will be beautiful.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Canadian Soccer: Seldom as Bad as It Looks

By Benjamin Massey · January 31st, 2018 · No comments

Mexsport/Canada Soccer

There is a meme among Canadian soccer die-hards—and if you’re reading a post with Jordyn Huitema at the top you’re at least die-hard-adjacent—that our country takes success in women’s soccer for granted. We have been good because we have a built-in social advantage in women’s sport compared to traditional soccer powers. However, as the waves of sexual equity wash across the globe that will disappear and countries that are actually good at teaching soccer will catch us up. Meanwhile most Canadians with an interest in ladysoccer are sitting around with their thumbs up their butts, counting bronze medals and assuming the good times will last forever.

Personally, I don’t know any serious follower of Canadian soccer who does anything but worry about the future of our WNT, even as it has two Olympic medals in two tries and enough under-23 stars to crew a destroyer. Panic is our default mood. The most optimistic fan I know might be me, and I’ve spent years saying the CanPL should be a women’s league partly to address a weakness in our game that might someday cripple the women but is far less important for the men. But the real pessimists have spent this week running riot.

On Sunday, Canada’s girls lost 1-0 to Haiti in the CONCACAF third-place match, thereby failing to qualify for a U-20 Women’s World Cup some thought we had a shot at winning. The reason we were in the third-place match to begin with is that we lost on penalties to Mexico in the semi-final, a pretty grim sign on its own1. The Canadian team, though sans Jessie Fleming, Deanne Rose, and the late Kennedy Faulknor, had a number of recognizable faces: Huitema, occasional senior national teamers Gabby Carle, Julia Grosso, Sarah Stratigakis, and Ariel Young, young uncapped talents like Emma Regan and Rylee Foster. Down the other end, Haitian players are never household names but 19-year-old captain Nerilia Mondesir has already made a couple Ligue 1 Féminine appearances with Montpellier and might get there. That was it.

Half of this Haitian team, including Mondesir2, beat 11 of these Canadians 2-1 in the 2016 CONCACAF U-17 tournament with Canada that time winning a very scrappy bronze medal rematch. This year Canada dominated a meaningless group stage game where Haiti played nine second-choice players but when it counted, chance for chance, Haiti was better. Sherly Jeudy’s goal was a cracker while at best Canada generated moments that should have been scoring chances and weren’t. Watch the game on YouTube if you want, though you don’t want to because it was terrible, and feel the despair for yourself. I may not be making the best “watch the games, nerd” pitch here.

This loss was no fluke. Haiti played dirty, dove, and feigned injury so constantly that they spent more than the five minutes of second-half stoppage time with perfectly healthy players on stretchers, to the disapproval but not the discouragement of American referee Ekaterina Koroleva. It was the most embarrassing display of poor sportsmanship I have ever seen in almost twenty years of CONCACAFing, but Haiti did the same thing in the U-17s and Canada had no excuse not to be prepared. A more skilled team in that position ought to at least generate something, and Canada didn’t. We were not screwed by the referee, with maybe one borderline penalty for Carle not called and Jessica De Filippo earning her late red card; criticizing the disgraceful opposition is not the same as excusing the disappointing Canadians.

So the past few days in cansoc have been one long freak out. Social media and message boards are on fire looking for human sacrifices. A long list of nominees was available, from CSA supremo Steve Reed, through double-national-team-destroyer John Herdman, down to the coaches at your kids’ club. Our structural failures were biting us hard. The question was not whether we’d improve on our bronze medals in 2020, but whether we’d qualify. Anyway Christine Sinclair and Ashley Lawrence might keep us ticking along for a few more months but we’re ultimately doomed. RIP in peace Canadian soccer’s only decent team, 2012 to 2018, mourned by those who have always said that if we cheer for this we’re part of the problem.

Fair enough, to a degree. There’s no way to sugarcoat looking inferior to Haiti. But we’re not talking about one bad tournament, we’re talking about the future of a program. And the future’s not bad.

Players born in…
Median Mean ’98 ’99 ’00 ’01 ’02 ’03
Canada 17y 9m 10d 17y 9m 28d 3 5 5 7 0 0
Costa Rica 19y 2m 15d 18y 6m 13d 11 3 2 3 1 0
Haiti 18y 4m 9d 17y 7m 14d 3 10 0 2 0 5
Jamaica 18y 6m 30d 18y 2m 3d 4 8 3 2 2 0
Mexico 18y 6m 23d 18y 9m 22d 8 9 3 0 0 0
Nicaragua 17y 11m 17d 17y 10m 24d 5 5 5 4 1 0
Trinidad and Tobago 18y 2m 22d 18y 3m 13d 4 9 4 1 0 0
United States 18y 9m 21d 18y 9m 6d 7 10 3 0 0 0
All player dates of birth from CONCACAF.com. Ages as of January 18, 2018. Rosters of 20 players each, except for Trinidad and Tobago who were listed with 22. One Jamaican and four Trinidad and Tobagan players were missing dates of birth and are not counted.

Those who paid attention to the tournament know that Canada had sent an inordinately young team. We had the lowest median age of any of the eight teams, two months younger than sadsacks Nicaragua and six months younger than Haiti. The Haitians had a lower mean age because their roster included every one of the five 2003-born players in attendance. Three of those 2003s3 started against Canada, but that still give their starting eleven a median age of 18 years, one month, and 24 days. Canada’s was 17 years, six months, and 30 days. Eight of our starters4 are eligible for the next one of these things. The gulf in maturity showed to some extent against Haiti, where their older players were imposing, and 19-year-old Jeudy’s fine goal came because she was able to bust between 16-year-old centrebacks Ariel Young and Maya Antoine. But it was more notable against Mexico, who were able to shove around some of the smaller Canadians, lean off them easily, and physically dominate us for 90 solid minutes. Mexico also played well, full marks to the champions, but they drew that game like Canada used to.

There are those who will say that, rather than sending its most talented prospects who should have been good enough to get out of CONCACAF anyway, coach Bev Priestman should have called the oldest prospects for the best chance to win games in the short term. This seems like a fairly mental use of finite development minutes. The likes of Emma Regan, who with even ordinary luck will play for our senior WNT within five years, needed these hard lessons more than bigger, more physically mature players would have benefited from winning some shoving matches. In fact, I’m so old that I remember fans criticizing the Canadian programs for worrying too much about physical maturity and not enough about skill; Owen Hargreaves was totally justified shopping around his international career because he was cut from a Canadian youth team when he was 15 years old, you know.

Huitema won the Golden Boot, assisted by a generous schedule but punished by a tournament that viewed “foul the tall girl” as legitimate strategy. Carle was Canada’s heroine against Mexico and our most dangerous element against Haiti. Foster made mistakes, as a teenage goalkeeper always will, but was a big, big net positive and kept us in the bronze-medal match, including a penalty save. Among the role players, my co-podcaster hated her against Haiti but Tanya Boychuk has “future Adriana Leon type” written all over her. Stratigakis was not always at her best but could not conceive of the word “quit” and earned more time. Some players who we expected more from didn’t show much, and while politeness forbids my naming them that’s valuable feedback too.

And that is the only thing that matters. Carolina Morace’s failure to qualify for the U-20 Women’s World Cup in 2010 was not notable because we lost to Mexico and Costa Rica, but because hardly any of the young women she spent months trying to win with developed into anything. Neither Mexico nor Costa Rica, incidentally, has been close to passing us at the senior level in the eight years since, so anyone shouting about a changing of the CONCACAF guard was way premature. Of course it would have been much better to qualify for the 2018 U-20 Women’s World Cup and for our best young players to test themselves against the world, but our failure to do so is not proof of anything structural. If the many kids we took to Trinidad and Tobago learn from this experience, there’ll be a lot of red faces as we redeem ourselves in 2020. And if they don’t, well, then we can worry.

99 Friendship Episode 68: The Roar of the Dubz

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · January 12th, 2018 · No comments

Our excellently-structured all-cansoc episode 67, earlier this week, may have set expectations a little high. Because here in episode 68, which was actually recorded before episode 67 and is therefore temporally a bit of a mess, normal service is resumed.

On this show we go over a week in curling. Mostly this consists of remembering the Canadian mixed doubles curling trials, or as I prefer to call them the Tim Horton’s Double-Double, where MoLaw LawnMo KaMo the team of John Morris and Kaitlyn Lawes, who were unable to meaningfully communicate, defeated Brad Gushue and Val Sweeting, who were unable to meaningfully sweep. As a result Morris and Lawes will go to the Olympics and try to win an Olympic gold medal. Meanwhile Brett Gallant and Jocelyn Peterman (pictured), who in addition to being Canada curling’s cutest couple are an all-round useful mixed doubles team, were entirely dominant until they somehow forgot how to curl, like, a day early. This is going to lead to a great deal of stress in the Ben Massey household come Olympic time. Meanwhile we’re checking out provincial regular curling and generally reeling off memories from the games we watched which, since this tournament was mostly mid-day on weekdays and CBC’s website showed whatever insignificant draw was only the only sheet they had cameras pointing at, is an inconsistent selection.

And, I’ll be honest, it gets a little unstructured.

So, in 29 minutes of podcast, we discuss:

  • As alluded to, Ben was hoping Brett Gallant and Jocelyn Peterman, or as we not-at-all-awkwardly call them “Meat and Peterato,” would win, because they appear to be good. Carolyn did not hope that they won, because they appeared to be bad. Mixed doubles are stupid. (This is a motif.)

  • That said, Ben’s heart was with Swushue. Of course it was, Val Sweeting is Canada’s princess. And Brad Gushue was surely going to take this seriously, since he said curling with Sweeting is “like a first date.”

    Probably fifteen minutes of this episode are me ranting about how Gushue actually took this.

  • In the middle, we briefly discuss some provincial and territorial results. Because Lawes and Morris won, Jennifer Jones will have to rustle up a new third at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts when she almost inevitably qualifies. So we scan the results as of when we recorded this to find entertaining options, and then we give up and start talking about how much fun the Northwest Territories Scotties must be for everyone who isn’t Kerry Galusha.

  • Then Ben rants about Brad Gushue some more.

The soccer show was better, no way around it.

99 Friendship Episode 67: John Herdman (and Kenneth Heiner-Møller) Special

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · January 10th, 2018 · No comments

Earlier this week we recorded a fabulous all-mixed-doubles-curling episode of 99 Friendship. Truly we were on rousing form. But alas, before we could get the thing edited, Canada Soccer went and did the John Herdman thing.

Almost all the commentary so far, including my own, has focused on what this means for the Canadian men’s national team. As a podcast which, in between obscure curling rants, does find the time to analyze the Canadian WNT, it felt appropriate for us to give the distaff element its fair share. So Carolyn and I sat down and did notes and had a chat and got one of our 30-minute shows edited in record time, just for you!

On episode 67 of 99 Friendship:

  • We go over the coaching history of new WNT boss Kenneth Heiner-Møller. He’s had an interesting career: spy dramas, sports psychology, coaching development, and replacing women’s national team managers who went over to coach the men. (Yes, he has experience at that too.) He’s been to a World Cup and two European Championships and, most of the time, something positive came out of them despite coaching a decidedly middle power.

  • What does Herdman’s departure, in of itself, mean for the national team? Will relationships be broken? Will players leave? What unbelievably heretical thing does Carolyn actually dare to say on a podcast that she knew was going on the Internet?

  • And what was the deal with some of the players apparently only having just heard Herdman was leaving when the news became public? We decide that it seems, spoiler alert, fairly amateurish.

It’s a good, informative, thoughtful half-hour on a neglected element of some massive Canadian soccer news. Is it worth a quick listen on the train? Oh, probably. Follow 99 Friendship on Twitter!