The NASL scheduling gods had already screwed you, the Eddies enjoying a pleasant weekend at the spa or whatever the heck they do on off days while you got clawed in the eyes by Fort Lauderdale. Moreover, the Fury punished Edmonton for about 70 minutes of the first leg and weren’t far inferior in the second; a neutral commentator would say you guys deserved better than a record-tying 6-2 aggregate loss.
So by all means, Fury faithful, feel free to be angry and leave hateful, profanity-flecked comments. Make a huge banner showing Drew Fischer with a white stick and a bewildered impression. Write a half-drunken 1,000-word blog post saying the Canadian Soccer Association wanted the Eddies to go through because they love oil.
In exchange, grant me that the result, if not the score, was basically just. Edmonton won two penalties this series, deserved both, and missed one. The score in the second leg would have been far more one-sided but for Romuald Peiser, who went full 2009 Jay Nolly in a losing cause. Matt Van Oekel, on the other hand, was relatively unchallenged (though he had no chance when he was beaten). While Ottawa maybe got more chances than Edmonton, when Edmonton had a chance it was full-bore odd-man-rush-from-45-yards-out five-alarm stuff. In the second half, needing four goals for victory, the Fury barely gave themselves a prayer of one. The Eddies defense is not strong, we saw it again, but compared to Ottawa oh boy. The better team won, it did, it just did.
As a result the Eddies now face the Vancouver Whitecaps, again. When Edmonton and Vancouver play it feels like incest. The Whitecaps have loaned a whack of guys to Edmonton in the past, Colin Miller is a former Whitecaps assistant coach, up until this year the two pretty much always had a preseason match, and there are a lot of warm, fuzzy feelings between the two organizations when you consider that the Whitecaps hate Canada grr grr hate hate hate. Many of die-hard Whitecaps supporters consider the Eddies are their second-favourite team and while that isn’t always reciprocated there’s not a trace of hostility anywhere. There are even some bigamous, immoral, square-headed fans who sort of cheer for both teams and can only decide which to support by which league hates Canada least at the moment.
Now, I do not believe in the fake Canadian soccer pyramid. One club being in a titular first division and another club being in a titular second, in leagues with no promotion or relegation, has no inherent meaning. Because Canada’s MLS sides have larger player budgets than their NASL teams they will tend to be better but it’s far from law. MLS Toronto FC was the worst professional team in Canada between 2007 and 2009. Since 2011 MLS clubs have been ascendant in the Voyageurs Cup, but against an FC Edmonton that has never been top half in the NASL and has consistently been victimized by disastrous refereeing. Major League Soccer is not a meritocracy, and players who are good enough for MLS can and do find themselves in the NASL or USL for reasons unrelated to ability or attitude. Most of the gap in quality between MLS and the NASL comes in the handful of designated players but these are often pure marketing signings or, especially in Cup play, uninterested underachievers. I mention this not to start an argument, but so you understand my perspective when I pronounce the following sentence:
If the Whitecaps play their first eleven, FC Edmonton is going to have a big problem.
Don’t kid yourself. FC Edmonton is still not a contender in the NASL. Their early performances have flirted around the lower-mid-table, maybe lower. They got destroyed by a Jacksonville Armada team playing its first ever game. They deserved to lose at home to the incredibly mediocre Carolina Railhawks and drew. They pulled off a great comeback for a home win over Fort Lauderdale, but that was their only really nice performance of the season and even then the Strikers outchanced them. The offense is taking their opportunities but not generating enough, the defense misses Neil Hlavaty in midfield more than I think anyone expected. Their goals have come to a disconcerting degree through quick breaks and counter-attacks that often dry up when teams expect them. Edmonton’s not going to embarrass themselves or anything but nor are they going to be good.
The Vancouver Whitecaps, on the other hand, might be honestly solid for the first time since 2008. They’re the Supporters Shield leader, which doesn’t mean much when everyone has games-in-hand on them, but look at some of those results. 2-0 at home to Los Angeles, 1-0 away to Salt Lake, two opponents who have traditionally given Vancouver fits fairly ruthlessly dispatched. Carl Robinson’s crew has stumbled in front of some mediocre teams like Toronto and DC (yes, DC is still mediocre, I’m not buying their shit for a second) but this is MLS, that’s gonna happen. Even that home loss to DC was a good one, Vancouver dominating offensively, doubling up DC’s shots total despite spending 48 minutes with ten men, and falling only due to bad luck and a classic Gantarizing. No, I don’t think the Whitecaps are going to become the first Canadian team to win a Supporters Shield. But they have to be odds-on to host a playoff game.
Albert Watson’s a good defender, but he’s physical, and he grabs guys, and he tries to tackle from behind, and Octavio Rivero is strong and quick enough to deal with that while you know referees will be looking for a reason to call a penalty. They’ve also had trouble with speed, which the Whitecaps possess in Darren Mattocks and Kekuta Manneh. In midfield, Vancouver has the advantage both man-for-man and as a unit. The sole edge Edmonton enjoys is that if they turn a couple quick counters, Pa Modou Kah and Kendall Waston are fairly cement-footed central defenders. Kah is also cement-headed, and while Waston has serious quality asking him to babysit both the size of Tomi Ameobi and the skill of Daryl Fordyce every time Matt Van Oekel pounds a sixty-yard dropkick up to Sainey Nyassi is asking too much. Even David Ousted has more match-stealing potential than any goalkeeper in this tournament. If we see the Whitecaps’ best, Edmonton needs a miracle.
But will we see the Whitecaps’ best? In last year’s Cup Carl Robinson trotted out a B- lineup of beardless youths and Nigel-Reo-Coker-as-a-right-back which still took Toronto FC’s billion-dollar studs to spot kicks. Vancouver’s in an important stretch of games, including two Cascadia Cup derbies, and unless Robinson’s rethought his attitude to the Voyageurs Cup we will probably see the kids again. The Whitecaps might well start more Canadians than Edmonton for the first time ever, which is strange given their undeniable, seething hatred of Canada. Some of those kids are very good, but their presence may still alter the balance of the tie. I like Marco “Please Don’t Play For Chile” Bustos as much as anybody, and Ritchie Jones will need to be on his game to keep Bustos contained, but it’s not quite the same thing as facing primo Pedro Morales. Can Caleb Clarke poach some goals? Absolutely. Is Ben McKendry tough and intelligent in central midfield. No doubt. The problem is that they lack experience and, in many cases, cohesion.
Even if Vancouver plays its reservists, Edmonton won’t have it too easy. The Eddies’ have the worse schedule: while the Whitecaps spend most of May in the Pacific time zone, Edmonton has the Whitecaps home game, then a tough road trip to New York, then straight to Vancouver. The Whitecaps’ young players will be highly motivated. Remember, they outplayed most of Toronto FC’s top lineup across two legs last year, not because they were more skilled but because TFC didn’t meet expectations and the Aldersons, Froeses, and Adekugbes of the Whitecaps were going for the throat. The 2014 Whitecaps benefited from departed professionals in the Carlyle Mitchell and Johnny Leveron mold, but on the other hand the surviving kids have another year’s experience and there’s no Nigel Reo-Coker at right back either.
The Whitecaps have the better chances in this tie. If FC Edmonton wants to win then they’d better hope that Carl Robinson trots out the youngsters again, and they better maintain their killer instinct and intensity for 180 minutes. There can be none of the five-minute switch-offs which the Eddies have loved, particularly early in games. None of the airheaded mistakes that have cost them goals. The defending must be as stifling as in 2014 while the attack must be even more dangerous than it’s been this year. A lot has to go right. It can happen, but the 2015 Whitecaps are not the 2014 Impact.