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…)

99 Friendship Episode 20

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · November 21st, 2016 · No comments

How should we celebrate yet another round number in the history of Canada’s greatest women’s soccer/curling podcast, 99 Friendship? Well, if you’re us, one of you gets a cold and rambles incoherently until even Carolyn can’t bring herself to chuckle along (seriously, the pun at the end of the episode is brutal), and both of you are slightly downhearted and rather angry. For Canada has absolutely bombed out of the U-20 Women’s World Cup in Papua New Guinea, setting what would be a low-water mark for Canada’s female youth teams if we hadn’t failed to qualify for one of these a few years back.

Now we take things in context: the team was young, there are enough bright sparks that we can count on a few of these players making an impact on the senior squad even besides Deanne Rose, and oh yeah Jessie Fleming wasn’t there. But it was still a nightmare of a tournament, in the sense that we were having a mare and it was in the middle of the night so we all got schizophrenia trying to stay up late watching this thing. Well one of us stayed up and one of us went to bed in the middle of the Japan game, forfeiting all her Voyageurs points forever, without naming any names.

Stupid tournament. Stupid coaching. Stupidly overwhelmed team against Japan. Frankly a rather stupid episode, but we say “Team Goonichols” in the curling segment again so that’s always worth listening to.

Does this sound like something your world needs more of? Of course it does, so follow 99 Friendship on Twitter.

Here, by the way, is Papua New Guinea’s goal against North Korea. Unforgivably, FIFA’s highlight video does not show the touches leading up to the goal, which are by far the best part, proving once and for all that they are corrupt and need to be suppressed. (The finish is still nice though.)

And here are the highlights from West Virginia – UCLA, featuring a lot of people hitting shots straight at Michelin Men goalkeepers, Jessie Fleming scoring another header, and Jessie Fleming botching a penalty. Not shown are the four WVU players scoring their penalties, because I guess WVU wasn’t interested in that? But trust me they went in.

99 Friendship Episode 19

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · November 14th, 2016 · No comments

Lay out your beach towel, throw on your sunglasses, kick back, and soak up #content, because episode 19 of 99 Friendship is packed with that most elusive of qualities: women’s soccer!

Yes, on a day when Val Sweeting literally won a Slam #nobeatingthesweeting, I managed to stop fanboying long enough to discuss (well, mostly to let Carolyn discuss) what was a truly action-packed week among Canadians in NCAA women’s soccer. To give you some idea of where Carolyn’s mind has been at for the last few days, here is the latest edition of her cancowoso bracket:

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So, I mean, use that to follow along why don’t you? How hard could it be?

Also the Canadian women’s U-20s, minus Jessie Fleming and at least one Sarah, went to Papua New Guinea and got absolutely creamed by Spain of all teams. Yes, European runners-up, their program is coming a long way fast, but not “whip Canada 5-0” bad; the worst World Cup result our youth woso teams have ever managed. We do have a thing or two to say about that, and though we try not to rant too cruelly at teenage girls doing this for free, we don’t always succeed. I don’t always succeed.

Please note that, because the Canadian women’s U-20s were playing, this episode is swearier than usual. Mostly this is my fault. Anyway, follow 99 Friendship on Twitter, where our language would never offend your maiden aunt.

99 Friendship Episode 18

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · November 7th, 2016 · No comments

This episode has more exciting intercuts than Sportsnet trying to broadcast a curling tournament.

Highlights of this week include:

  • I had Kerbal Space Program open in the background while we were recording, and it turns out that my recording software picked up the soundtrack! So enjoy our sweet and sultry speech with a side of the vaguely woodwindy fanfare they play when I have a spaceship sitting in orbit around a virtual planet for half an hour. This gets really weird in spots where I had to do some editing. It’s very exciting. Maybe we should always have the sounds of more interesting things playing in the background of our episodes, just so you know what you’re missing.
  • Old Stormy!
  • A substantial curling segment even though there was no notable curling in the past week!
  • Oh, and on the way we talk about the recently-announced FIFA Women’s Player and Coach of the Year finalists, both of which include a prominent Canadian and some prominently undeserving nobodies. One of them, you can even argue the Canadian should win!

Follow 99 Friendship on Twitter, though there is a relative lack of background music.

99 Friendship Episode 17

By Benjamin Massey · October 31st, 2016 · No comments

Last week’s 66-frickin’-minute AmWoSoLit Special was such a colossal chunk of #content that, by comparison, any normal episode was going to seem like an anticlimax. But why should it? The Canadian Soccer Association released the roster for the Women’s U-20 World Cup, as Canada’s best young women not named “Jessie Fleming,” “Sarah Kinzner,” or “Kennedy Faulknor” fly off to glamorous Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea to get, if we’re fairly lucky, two points in the group stage! But who says we can’t exceed expectations, since we live in a world where Allison Flaxey whipped Rachel Homan like a rented mule in a Grand Slam final and anything is possible.

What else happened? 2016 U-20 Women’s World Cup non-participant Jessie Fleming fucking debacled some girls in a 2-0 loss (oops). Ashley Lawrence apparently embarrassed Oklahoma State, not that I can find any video of it. And Team Kevin Koe lead Ben Hebert embarrassed lots of guys and opened up what we all hope will be an exciting new career in television commentary. He can’t be worse than Mike Harris. How we went the entire podcast without complaining about Sportsnet’s curling broadcast is beyond me; I guess we were feeling kind?

Get the same link to this website from an entirely different source, and follow 99 Friendship on Twitter.

99 Friendship Episode 16 AmWoSoLit Special!

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · October 24th, 2016 · No comments

After weeks of waiting, we have it for you at last: the 66-minute 99 Friendship AmWoSoLit Special!

This is a departure from our usual format. As a rule, every week Carolyn and I get together and giggle at curlers and haircuts and very occasionally a women’s soccer game, if through some miracle one was played. This time we took a different tack. Rather than obsess over the performances of every Canadian in second-division Swiss woso, we obsessed over the performances of two Americans in first-division ghostwritten celebrity memoir publication: Carli Lloyd’s When Nobody Was Watching: My Hard-Fought Journey to the Top of the Soccer World and Abby Wambach’s Forward: A Memoir.

The books were awful, but there was still too much awesomeness to squeeze into anything like our usual half-hour. I’m not even sure how I’m supposed to tease this 66 minutes of joy. What’s the best part, Carli insisting she “doesn’t do fake” in a ghost-written celebrity memoir? Abby’s “memoir” achieving the highest “yeah that totally happened” per 90 since Paul James’s? Carli pronouncing her hatred of drama like a woman habitually at the centre of all the drama she can attract? Abby, so recently decrying dual nationals in US soccer, proudly mentoring Sydney Leroux? Carli “quoting” huge, multi-paragraph conversations about how amazing she is that she totally isn’t making up? Abby telling us which teammate broke her heart over the phone but only in the young adult edition? Even this paragraph hardly scrapes the surface. This is my favourite episode we’ve ever done and it owes nothing to Carolyn and I, who just grab onto our Kindles and go for the ride.

I mean, don’t buy these books, they’re terrible. Listen to us instead.

Follow 99 Friendship on Twitter.

99 Friendship Episode 15

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · October 17th, 2016 · No comments

Follow 99 Friendship on Twitter.