The Return of the Juan de Fuca Plate

By Benjamin Massey · June 23rd, 2017 · No comments

Benjamin Massey for the Juan de Fuca Plate (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In January 2012 fans on the Vancouver Southsiders message board and the Lake Side Buoys Facebook group decided that they would like to emulate, on a smaller scale, the storied Cascadia Cup. The previous year goalWA.com and scarf manufacturer Ruffneck had put up a trophy for the USL Premier Development League clubs in their native Washington, and anything they could do, we could do better. Both the Whitecaps and the Victoria Highlanders had PDL teams and their fans, who don’t agree on much, concurred that a supporter-driven British Columbia trophy for the lower-division sides was essential. The Fraser Valley Mariners, also in the league, had no supporters to contribute but were not forgotten by those who did.

By that summer funds were in place, all donations by individual supporters and families. The trophy was commissioned. Drew Shaw, the Lake Side Buoy who’d come up with the original idea, also carved a handsome trophy base out of Western Maple in the shape of the province of British Columbia. A banner was ordered. The trophy got the best name in semi-professional sports, the Juan de Fuca Plate, and one of the worst websites. There were ribbons and brass plates for the winner. It was all done with, by the standards of the supporters involved, immense professionalism, patience, and expertise. When the trophy was first unveiled it was genuinely gorgeous, even if the Plate itself is so light you can use it as a frisbee. (Note to winning players: please do not use it as a frisbee.) The fact that the Plate itself is the perfect size to fit as a lid on the Cascadia Cup is a coincidence, but not an inappropriate one.

Benjamin Massey for the Juan de Fuca Plate (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There’s no point denying that, to players, these things can be a joke. A trophy you get for playing between two and six games, depending on the season. Unbalanced schedules, no prizes or further competitions, not much history, lower-division eccentricity everywhere you look, and a dozen guys screaming like that few hundred dollars worth of wood and silver plate is the biggest prize in soccer. Players, coaches, and supporters have different perspectives, and this goes double in a developmental league like USL PDL when every player’s dream is, ultimately, to leave.

But the Juan de Fuca Plate was never quite risible. The Whitecaps PR staff, to their eternal credit, loved it immediately and went to some lengths promoting it. The Highlanders soon followed. Every game a few more fans came out to cheer a bit louder for this thing, and every year whichever team won it… well, they laughed and they shot the breeze, but they posed for photos, celebrated a little, passed the Plate around with honest interest, and seemed genuinely pleased to triumph. This was important to their fans and, when you’re playing on such a small scale, that importance can’t help but be felt on the field.

Indeed, we built better than we knew. Highlanders and Whitecaps supporters built and piloted the project. Yet everyone was instinctively cautious about perpetually committing it. The engravings on the Plate declare that it was donated “by supporters of football in the province of British Columbia.” The ribbons were procured in the colours of Vancouver, Victoria, and (rolls eyes) Fraser Valley1, but a set of generic BC ribbons were also ordered. Conceived with USL PDL in mind, the trophy is really for “lower-division soccer;” it’s about a BC derby in some form rather than specific clubs or leagues.

This was wise. The Fraser Valley Mariners folded after the first Plate. The Whitecaps PDL team seemed to be in jeopardy every spring and, after the summer of 2014, it was formally shut down. That same year Alex Campbell pulled the plug on the Highlanders and, with nobody left to play for it, the Plate went into abeyance. Two seasons passed. The Highlanders returned under new ownership, alone. As the 2014 defending champion and the sole representative of British Columbia their fans held the Plate by incontestable right, but they could only serve whisky off it in solitude until, late in 2016, it was announced that Richmond’s Total Soccer Systems had bought the Washington Crossfire and would bring them to BC.

It is June 23, 2017. After three years, one month, and one day, the Juan de Fuca Plate will again see the light of day at Swangard Stadium.

In USL PDL, that’s a century. Since the last Juan de Fuca Plate match the newco Highlanders have assembled an almost-entirely-new roster missing, among many others, their formerly totemic brothers Jordie and Tyler Hughes. Cam Hundal, the only three-time Plate champion, is out of the league this year. The Rovers boast several Whitecaps Residency alums but nobody who happened to get into a Plate game. The only player on either team with a second of Juan de Fuca Plate experience is 35-year-old Highlanders forward Blair Sturrock, a veteran of the Scottish and English Football Leagues as well as, much more importantly, the 2013 and 2014 Plates. Indeed Sturrock contributed to the greatest moment in Plate history, when Marco Carducci robbed him blind in the 86th minute of 2013’s final game to get the Whitecaps the trophy.

Yet the Plate remains, its fans loyal as ever. The banner has apparently been lost but the trophy was pulled out of storage and shined up before the Rovers move was even official. It helps that many Rovers supporters are current or former Whitecaps south-end standees, who either feel alienated from the franchise or want local flavour to go along with their full-time MLS fun. A few of the Vancouver donors to the Plate already go to Rovers games. Michael McColl, who took care of the Plate’s on-field history at AFTN Canada, donated to the Plate in 2012 and does Rovers colour commentary in 2017. The Highlanders have been through very tough times, but the Lake Side Buoys are with us still and God willing always shall be.

2017 Juan de Fuca Plate Schedule
Date Time Home Away Venue Stream?
06-23 19:00 TSS FC Rovers Victoria Highlanders Swangard Stadium, Burnaby YouTube
06-25 18:00 TSS FC Rovers Victoria Highlanders Swangard Stadium, Burnaby YouTube
07-09 14:00 Victoria Highlanders TSS FC Rovers Centennial Stadium, Saanich YouTube

We’re a small community, British Columbia soccer supporters, but we’re good at what we do. The Ruffneck Cup, which partially inspired the Juan de Fuca Plate, has been defunct since 2015 even with two Washington teams remaining in PDL. The Cascadia Cup is stronger than ever but politics, both of the soccer and the non-soccer varieties, have taken away some of the old joy. Nothing could be more oblivious than to praise the purity of an semi-professional soccer competition that hardly anybody knows about and which took the past two seasons off as some moral success. But though the Plate’s grassroots, intimate character is as much a product of circumstance as design, it’s still terrific. Every fan who shows up at tonight’s Plate match is going to get close enough to hold the trophy and get a photo with it, if he so chooses. That can only happen because there are so few, which is a mixed blessing, but it sure is fun.

Not that we shouldn’t want the Juan de Fuca Plate to grow. This very article, in its minute way, will hopefully push a few more fans towards it. Sometimes I fantasize about that very trophy being presented to the professional champion of British Columbia before 25,000 screaming Canadian Premier League supporters. Growth does not have to sever our connection to the trophy we made. The Canadian Soccer Association has handed out the Voyageurs Cup for the past ten years and the main complaints from long-time Vs is that the name of the corporate sponsor was too prominent and the presenting Voyageur only sets the trophy on a plinth rather than passing it to the winning team. If you laughed at how penny-ante those problems are, you understand why I’d love to see the Plate become as big a deal in our league as the Cascadia Cup is in the American one.

Such dreams are years in the future, and not just because a CanPL with multiple British Columbia teams is so far away. The Juan de Fuca Plate has to rise to that dignity. TSS Rovers play the Victoria Highlanders at Swangard Stadium on both Friday and Sunday evenings (tickets $10, online or at the door). The return engagement is in Victoria on Sunday, July 9 at the University of Victoria’s Centennial Stadium (tickets $12). You should come, if you are at all able, or watch on YouTube if you are not. Do it to support the local game. Do it so you can say you were there when this was all green fields. Do it because it’s a sunny day and Swangard Stadium in the sun is the best place in the world. Most of all, do it because dozens of supporters, players, coaches, and front office people have somehow combined to create a perfectly beautiful gem that you can enjoy on the most intimate terms, in a soccer culture where we’re usually competing to be the most cynical.

People and Places

By Benjamin Massey · June 16th, 2017 · No comments

André Donato/Canada Soccer

When North American sports teams report their “attendance” they usually mean the number of tickets distributed rather than the number of people actually attending the game. More concisely, they are lying: giving a larger number that makes them look good rather than a figure which might reflect how many fans were interested.

So even the announced 6,026 fans at Saputo Stadium to watch Canada play Curaçao (formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles, now a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands with a population of 160,000) was fake news. Saputo holds 20,801. One sideline and one endzone were basically empty. The other sideline stand was probably not half full. The southern terrace, where the few dozen supporters congregated, was very empty indeed. Only one gate was open and it had no queue to speak of despite plenty of security theatre. Samuel Piette got a few hundred tickets for friends, family, and friends of family and created a statistically significant part of the crowd. The number of bums in seats was probably nearer four thousand than six.

You have to go back to pre-2012 women’s friendlies for a crowd that small. Granted we’re talking about a Tuesday evening friendly against an opponent that, while ranked ahead of Canada in the latest FIFA tables, is so obscure I felt the need to parenthetically describe it in an earlier paragraph. Even those going expected the game to be fairly terrible, and they were right. Though Canada came from behind to win 2-1, the match was overall a dog.

Canadian soccer fans are fond of argument, so this caused one. Montreal had disgraced itself! Canada has hosted only seven men’s friendlies in the past decade; wasting something so rare on a city that can’t be bothered is crazy. There are cities which would have fallen over themselves supporting even such a drab game. It’s too late to fix the past, but we can at least look to the future and keep Canadian soccer out of Montreal until they give a damn.

First off, those who weren’t there should know the Montreal experience had huge positives. Fans who did show up were enthusiastic, from top to bottom. The standard of the supporters’ section was excellent. An anglo there will always enjoy trying to figure out what those crazy bilingual bastards are on about, but more than that they were energetic and fun. Not to walk into the satanic mill that is supporters’ politics, but every time we have a game in Montreal I hear about how those damned Impact ultras are all too Frenchified to ever support Canada willingly, and every time I walk out thinking that it would criminal not to give those blessed maniacs all of the games their intensity and effort deserve. Despite dismal predictions there was no phalanx of Canada haters cheering Curaçao out of separatist spite. It was a perfect crowd in everything but numbers. It was good enough for the players, who fought back, won, and stayed late to salute the crowd. Milan Borjan scooped up a supporter’s cigarettes after he accidentally spilled them onto the field. It was a nice night.

But what of all those empty seats? What of Montreal’s lukewarm interest in Canadian soccer? It makes sense when you remember that, lately, Canadian soccer has had a lukewarm interest in Montreal.

Infamously, Montreal hosted a men’s World Cup qualifier in September 2008 that saw Canada lose 2-1 to Honduras in one of the most horrifying experiences of all time. In nearly nine years since then, Canada’s second-largest city has hosted four Canadian games: the Curaçao match, a 2010 men’s friendly also against Honduras, a U-20 Women’s World Cup group game against North Korea, and a senior Women’s World Cup group game against the Netherlands. In the same timeframe Toronto has hosted 19 games (not counting the Pan-Ams in Hamilton), Vancouver 14, and Edmonton six. Those cities also had more glamorous matches; only Montreal’s Women’s World Cup game could exactly be called must-see.

Vancouver did not host any senior international Canadian games between March 2006 and January 2012. That January 2012 game, at newly-renovated BC Place, saw only a very-generously-counted 7,627 fans to watch Canada’s women beat Haiti 6-0. Haiti, like Curaçao, is a small Caribbean island nation that is better than you might guess. It was another midweek evening match, not saved by strong promotion of hometown heroes (Patrice Bernier and Samuel Piette in Montreal, in Vancouver an obscure young lady named Christine Sinclair). Unlike last Tuesday’s game, the Canada – Haiti match was a competitive fixture as the teams tried to qualify for the London Olympics. The tickets were cheaper, starting at $10 for a double-header. Had you judged Vancouver on that game alone, you might never have gone back.

Fortunately the Olympic qualifiers were a multi-game tournament. As the women won stylishly attendance grew, culminating in a competition-record 25,427 to see Canada lose 4-0 to the United States in the technically-meaningless final. Those 7,627 fans, it turns out, witnessed the first steps of the John Herdman golden generation that’s so far won two Olympic bronze medals. Vancouver now regularly packs them into BC Place, including 22,508 for a recent women’s friendly against Mexico.

Every city in the Dominion has experienced the unjust withdrawal of international soccer. Toronto prior to the opening of BMO Field, Vancouver between 2006 and 2012, Montreal now. Fans in each of these cities know the stagnation that comes from only seeing “your” national team on television, as those without an existing, unbreakable bond inevitably find not only that their interest wanes but that it does not automatically return with a single game. Then, when their city is blessed and another loses out, they forget those lessons and criticize that unlucky town for facing the same challenges in the same way.

This country is big, and it’s hard for anyone but the well-heeled or fanatical to travel for many games even domestically. The only solution is for every part of the country to get a reasonable share of national team matches. Between the men and the women there’s no excuse for Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal to not each see a game every year, with additional fixtures spread between your Edmontons, Calgarys, Winnipegs, Reginas, Hamiltons, Victorias, Monctons, and St. John’ss. It’s the only way to build a truly national fanbase for this program, because otherwise you see what we’ve seen in Montreal: the diminution of interest, and the alienating blame that goes along with it.

99 Friendship Episode 44

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · June 12th, 2017 · No comments

This is a very special 99 Friendship because it is the first 99 Friendship in which Carolyn and I were both in the same room, instead of having a Skype call between us and her cat.

Is this a good thing? It’s harder to edit (because Carolyn and I aren’t on different channels so I can’t cut everything she says). If anything the sound quality, especially when I speak, is worse, even though I brought my enormous USB microphone and we were both talking into that. There’s just too much echo and we’re too far away.

  • Almost eight minutes of curling talk. I’m serious. I didn’t think we could do it. I was wrong.
  • A brief review of Santa Clarita and Calgary’s UWS derby last week! Exciting!
  • oh yeah Canada played Costa Rica twice, at home, and I was at both of them and Carolyn was at the Toronto one. This is probably worth twenty minutes of our time. The conversation ranges very freely since, instead of meditating on our thoughts and writing notes, we went to the pub, got four hours of sleep, ate some Tim Horton’s, then recorded a podcast. It’s gonzo podcasting! I’m going insane with sleep deprivation! Soccer trips are fantastic, I love them.
  • I work in a reference to John Terry. This is not likely to happen again, cherish it.
  • Finally, we conclude by discussing glamourous Canada 150 friendlies that would be much more interesting than Canada MNT versus Jamaica in Toronto on Labour Day long weekend. We come up with good ones if you’re a massive canwoso nerd, and if you’re listening you presumably are!

It was nice to meet literally multiple people in Toronto who said they listened to the show, so thanks for giving us some of your time. The knowledge that people click on that little triangle down there makes the time we sink into this worthwhile. Please, if you don’t already, follow 99 Friendship on Twitter.

That Cosmos – Eddies Thing In Full

By Benjamin Massey · June 8th, 2017 · No comments

New York Cosmos

Match reviews are a stupid format, with rare exceptions when you have unique insight or intelligence to impart. I do not, so this might suck. But you should read it anyway, because FC Edmonton’s 4-2 win over the New York Cosmos last night actually did happen, and if I don’t write it down while it’s fresh in my mind then in two years I won’t believe it.

FC Edmonton played an NASL league game on Wednesday evening in New York. The game was originally scheduled for Sunday, May 21, but was rescheduled when the Cosmos booked a mid-season friendly against Al-Hilal of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Saturday, May 20. You may think rescheduling league games for foreign friendlies is weapons-grade Mickey Mouse stuff, but the Cosmos wound up drawing Al-Hilal 0-0 in a near-empty stadium and the local press thought they were in Major League Soccer, so it was all worthwhile.

The Eddies came to New York direct, or as direct as an NASL road trip ever gets, from Puerto Rico, where they played one of the very worst games in their history in losing 3-0 to ’til-then-winless Puerto Rico FC. Students of FC Edmonton’s history will know there were some really bad games in it.

It had been a rough season in general for the Eddies. They had lost out in the first round of the Voyageurs Cup fairly ingloriously, were nowhere in the league, and had only a terrific 2-1 win over Indy before a club-record crowd to set against what’s been a spring of futility. Going into this game the Cosmos had 16 points through their first nine games and were positioning themselves well for a playoff challenge. The Eddies had seven points through their first nine games and, er, were not.

After the Puerto Rico debacle there were several changes. Veteran goalkeeper Chris Konopka was responsible for two of the three Puerto Rico goals and had been more dubious than an NASL schedule all season. Young Canadian Tyson Farago has shown well in the past but had a rough Voyageurs Cup. So Newmarket, Ontario native Nathan Ingham made his first-team professional debut.

Captain Nik Ledgerwood, as well as other, less important guys, had a nagging injury and marquee player Adam Straith is at Canadian national team camp. So fellow Canucks Ben Fisk, Mauro Eustaquio, and Allan Zebie drew in. For their part the Cosmos gave nominal-backup goalkeeper Brian Holt a third consecutive start, leaving Jimmy Maurer on the bench.

By the way, if you haven’t watched the Eddies lately, Allan Zebie is a defensive midfielder now. We haven’t gotten to the strange parts yet.

The game started with the Cosmos raining pain on the Eddies for 45 minutes. The Cosmos play at what I’m told is a baseball stadium, MCU Park, but I cannot confirm that because we only saw half the field. Ingham made a few saves, the Cosmos courteously declined to convert a few chances. Walter Restrepo earned a free kick just outside the 18-yard box that was originally called a penalty and was certainly very close. It was not Puerto Rico bad but it was awfully poor.

This is a little unfair, since Tomi Ameobi had a fairly good look in the first half stopped by Holt. But Ameobi was cursed by a Cretan sorceress and will never score again unless he sacrifices Frank Jonke on an altar of bone, so that doesn’t count. Anyway that was Edmonton’s best foray by far. When Irvin Herrera headed in a Ryan Richter cross to put the Cosmos up 1-0, it was actually less than they deserved.

Oh yeah, Ryan Richter is a New York Cosmo now. So is Dejan Jakovic, though like Straith he is away with the Canadian national team. The Cosmos sent out a patchwork centreback combination of fine veteran and captain Carlos Mendes, one of the NASL’s most proven leaders and a fountain of steadiness, alongside former New England Revolution dumpster fire Darrius Barnes, who is none of those things. This would be important.

Anyway. 1-0 Cosmos at half and the Eddies aren’t in it. Colin Miller does his usual I’m-exasperated-that-this-could-even-happen halftime interview. At this point Steven Sandor could probably imitate Miller’s role in that particular interview with 100% accuracy. Sometime when Miller doesn’t feel up to it he should ask Sandor to try.

New York may have thought it actually was over, but Edmonton was better-informed. 69 minutes in and Pedro Galvao, hereto the leading contender for the Robert Garrett Memorial “Oh Yeah I Expected Him to Be Okay” Award for Unremarkable Eddies Disappointments, launched a lovely rainbow cross to Sainey Nyassi. Sainey Nyassi is about 4’11” and was running between two Cosmos. He did not even deign to leap for the ball as it fell between the far taller defenders straight into his path. 1-1.

A few minutes later, Tomi Ameobi finally buried one, with an assist from the Cosmos defense. Ameobi headed the ball to Eustaquio near the penalty spot with his back to goal and a Cosmo hanging off it. He took a second to consider what to do and realized “wait a minute, Tomi is four feet away, with nobody near him, storming towards the net, with a huge neon light over his shoulder that says ‘PASS IT HERE TO TAKE THE LEAD.'” Eustaquio executed, Ameobi had so much time he could have written Brian Holt a sonnet but instead thumped the bastard by him, it was 2-1 Edmonton.

This is still not the weird part.

First, New York’s Darrius Barnes got a straight red card. Nobody is quite sure why. The many TV cameras apparently missed it entirely. They say Barnes took a kick at Edmonton defender Pape Diakite after the two collided going for a header. The Cosmos were displeased with referee Geoff Gamble and Barnes for some time refused to leave. They attempted to take it out on FC Edmonton, sending a perfect long ball to Eugene Starikov coming down the right. Ingham charged out to try and beat Starikov to the ball; late. Starikov got a shot at an open net but muffed it. Diakite, serving as captain for the day and looking inspired, jogged back to clear the ball half a foot in front of the line. Ingham, who is not a good Canadian boy for nothing, shoulderchecked a stumbling Starikov in the head. This was fine at the Geoff Gamble Refereeing School, but may have done more damage to the Cosmos’ fraying tempers.

Uncertain whether they earned their first red card, the Cosmos applied themselves to get their second with style. Some clutch-and-grab-and-yank-and-flop at midfield. Juan Guerra and Mauro Eustaquio were tangled up. Gamble blew the whistle, everyone disentangled as the referee approached. Guerra, wisely, decided that was the ideal moment to headbutt Eustaquio in the face. A proper headbutt, it drew blood, and Eustaquio was so astonished that he needed a second to process it before theatrically falling backwards like an extra in a Battle of Verdun documentary. Guerra got his money’s worth on an unquestionably-deserved straight red but Eustaquio’s flop gave the Cosmos something to complain about anyway. They were down to nine.

In the 85th minute, FC Edmonton’s token New Yorker Jake Keegan made it 3-1. Ben Fisk started the play with an incisive ground ball to Dustin Corea, Corea crossed accurately, Keegan touched it past Holt. A nice play with a well-taken finish. Two minutes later and Carlos Mendes, who had to this point been the one Cosmos defender with his pants on, dwelt on the ball in his own box with Galvao all over him. Mendes turned it over cheaply, Galvao tried to chip the keeper, Holt parried the ball with a much better save than his asshole defenders deserved, but it fell onto Ameobi’s forehead and give the big man a brace. These are the kinds of things that happen when the home team has nine players suffering simultaneous nervous breakdowns.

We conclude with the score 4-1 Edmonton in second half stoppage time. The game is, all-but-formally, over. But things are still happening. Gamble, feeling bad for the Cosmos, calls a penalty against the Eddies. Again, nobody is quite sure why, but this is a reflection of the overall madness of the game, which saturated the senses and prevented any observers from fully comprehending the myriad sights rattling around their retinas. It may have been a good call. It may not have. It doesn’t really matter.

Debutant Ingham faces off against Javi Marquez, a two-time Catalan international and veteran of over 100 La Liga games. Marquez steps up and Ingham robs him, deflecting the penalty into the post. Everyone converges on the ball, including Marquez and Eustaquio, and Eustaquio brings Marquez down. So Gamble calls another penalty, because at this point why wouldn’t you?! This time Ayoze takes it, scores, grabs the ball, runs for centre, and there are like three more kicks before Gamble blows the game dead. Final score 4-2.

This may not be the type of excitement people ask for at a soccer game. In all the madness there are certainly things I am forgetting (wasn’t there an indirect free kick on the edge of the six-yard box? Did I hallucinate that?) But it was excitement.

99 Friendship Episode 43

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · June 5th, 2017 · No comments

Hello, friends! On this week’s scintillating 99 Friendship:

  • You may think that the middle of June, in the middle of a packed women’s soccer calendar, is an impossible time to discuss curling. But thanks to a clumsily-written near-press-release by an intern at TSN.ca for a fake cashspiel in August, you’d be wrong!
  • Apparently Dwayne DeRosario’s niece is on Canada’s latest women’s U-17 team, off to a tournament in China that Carolyn apparently remembers. This goes surprisingly well.
  • Oh fine I guess we have to talk about the Canadian WNT roster for the two upcoming friendlies against Costa Rica in Winnipeg and Toronto. I have a minor nervous breakdown because Erin McLeod, despite being healthy, isn’t on it. The CSA had teased additional retirement announcements and McLeod is one of my favourites. This leads to Carolyn scoffing and saying it obviously isn’t McLeod who they’re making a fuss about, and that in turn leads to me having a major nervous breakdown. I’m a bit harsh. I’m not gonna lie. But I was also accurate.
  • We both watched Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan face off in the UEFA Lady Champions League final. Lawrence was amazing, her penalty was terrific, Buchanan went into “thinks she’s a forward” mode a couple of times, the game was not “good” but it was entertaining.
  • This is so much content that we barely mention the past week in the NWSL at all.

Follow 99 Friendship on Twitter!

Josée Bélanger, the Most Improbable Heroine of All

By Benjamin Massey · May 29th, 2017 · No comments

Kyle Thomas/Canadian Soccer Association

So farewell then, Josée Bélanger. At a small press conference Monday, Bélanger announced that she is retiring from professional soccer two weeks after her 31st birthday. She will reportedly open a soccer school, and has already done youth coaching around her native Quebec[1].

This announcement, while sad, has surprised nobody. Bélanger took the year off from the NWSL[2] and has publicly contemplated her post-soccer future. She told the Orlando Sentinel last September that she wanted to be a mother and alluded to the wear and tear soccer’s put on her body which might not make that easy[3]. It is a dilemma male players never have to deal with, and guarantees respect for the early departure of a rare Canadian who can make an honest living playing soccer.

It turns out Bélanger’s last ride was, appropriately, February’s bronze medal celebration match in Vancouver, where she provided 57 minutes of effective right-back work before giving way to Rhian Wilkinson. Wilkinson, along with Marie-Eve Nault and Melissa Tancredi, were being honoured for their many contributions in one last pre-retirement bash. Bélanger was not. When she left the Canadian national program for good it was to a chorus of applause, but the applause was aimed at Wilkinson because all thought, or at least hoped, Josée would be back. Bélanger had earned an individual tribute, but flew under the radar again.

Bélanger hangs them up with a modest 57 senior international appearances, seven goals, one Olympic bronze medal (she missed London 2012), and a forgettable club career. She was twice Quebec professional of the year, ranks with Nault and Isabelle Morneau as the best female French-Canadian players of all time, and has a devoted following in her home province, but to the rest of the country she was never a first-tier star. But when the time comes to write the history of the great Canadian WNT of 2012 to the present, the best national team Canada has ever produced, Bélanger will deserve a chapter.

First off, she scored one of the great Canadian goals, when at the 2015 Women’s World Cup she gave Canada a 1-0 win over Switzerland in the round of 16. Vancouver would have cheered her out of that celebration friendly for the sake of this moment alone.

In more ways than one she was not supposed to be there. She had never been one of the golden girls, playing CIAU soccer at Sherbrooke, USL W-League in Laval, getting a few appearances in the youth programs, and being rated promising but not brilliant. Her debut in 2004 proved premature, and at the end of 2010 she had a run as a regular on the senior team under Carolina Morace. She played regularly in World Cup qualifying, scored a few goals, badly injured her ankle, came to camp for the Cyprus Cup and the Yongchuan Invitational without getting on the field and, like many a young striker of that era, went straight to obscurity.

Though she’d left the highest level Bélanger hung around, playing more W-League in Laval and Quebec City. She did some youth coaching in Sherbrooke. She met her boyfriend and got into Crossfit. She even had the hidden blessing of missing the 2011 Women’s World Cup, one of the worst things ever to happen to Canadian soccer. By all accounts she was content. John Herdman was interested in her when he took over after the 2011 debacle but Bélanger stayed in Quebec, trained kids, Crossfitted, and got on with her life. Until, in November 2013, she returned to the national fold for a first-team training camp. Even then she was the forgotten woman, because the other returning player that camp happened to be Kara Lang.

Lang’s comeback, enormously hyped-up, amounted to not much. Bélanger’s, hardly noticed except by the hardcore, was for real. She made her twelfth cap, and her first in over three years, on January 31, 2014 against the United States. As Canada began its run up to 2015 Bélanger became a regular; she went 90 minutes only twice but routinely started and came on as an early substitute when she didn’t. Her performances, when she appeared on TV, were admirable. Eyes turned in her direction.

But here is the other way in which Bélanger was not supposed to be there. To that point she had been an attacking player for both club and country. With Lang’s injury ending her career for good and Janine Beckie not yet in the senior picture Canada was shallow up top. But when Bélanger returned to senior Canadian soccer she was our right fullback. We’ve since grown used to John Herdman turning forwards into fullbacks through the success of Ashley Lawrence, but in 2014 it was an innovation. Bélanger was not only competent defensively, but her attacking brio and dynamic crossing down the right flank gave Canada a totally different look than that long-provided by veteran Rhian Wilkinson.

Wilkinson entered the 2015 World Cup injured so Bélanger made her long-belated World Cup debut, aged 29, on a backline with Allysha Chapman, Kadeisha Buchanan, and Lauren Sesselmann at Commonwealth Stadium against China. Next to Buchanan Bélanger was the defensive standout, as the Chinese refused to say die until nearly the last kick of the game. Not only was Bélanger’s defending effective but she nearly won the match herself in the first half, hitting the crossbar after a muffed Chinese clearance. She chipped in to the clean sheet against New Zealand and, in Montreal, started at right back before moving up top for the last ten minutes, a virtual offensive substitute as Wilkinson returned from injury and Canada tried unsuccessfully to win a 1-1 draw against the Dutch.

Had it ended there, Bélanger would have been a pleasant on-field surprise and an excellent feel-good story. But as we know there was more to come, and the forgotten woman of 2011 became the hero of 2015 by returning to forward and defeating the Swiss. If she did not get the full sports-movie ending with that 2-1 quarterfinal loss to England, she had still done enough to make sure she would never be forgotten again.

That was the high point of Bélanger’s career, but she had many other contributions to make. She had a brief but fruitful run with European powerhouse FC Rosengard and was a highly-popular member of the Orlando Pride alongside fellow Canadian Kaylyn Kyle. At the 2016 Olympics she was less vital than in 2015; Chapman and Lawrence were the first-choice fullbacks, Beckie, Sinclair, and Deanne Rose had locked down the front three, and when Bélanger did draw in she got herself suspended for the semifinal. That semifinal was, not coincidentally, the only game Canada lost, and when we won she mattered. She had a strong supporting role in The Melissa Tancredi Game against the Germans, played super-sub for the injured Chapman in the quarterfinal against France with a vital clearance, and in the bronze medal match, against Brazil, killed the game off excellently as a substitute. It did not capture the national imagination to the same degree, but the Rio 2016 bronze medal was a greater achievement than London. It is typical of Bélanger that she missed immortality, then helped win something less fêted but more difficult.

The most recent Canadian camp in Europe saw the remarkable return of Shannon Woeller, a 27-year-old defender whose last appearance came before the 2012 Olympics. Woeller had been all-but-forgotten, scraping out a decent career in Germany, and was not even named to the national team roster before showing up more-or-less because she was in the neighbourhood. Then she got on the field against the Germans, and now she’s one of two veterans at our Vancouver pre-training camp. If Woeller fights her way back into the national picture it will be one of the most unexpected comebacks of all time. But, she can think to herself as Bélanger leaves with such respect, not an unprecedented one.

(notes and comments…)

99 Friendship Episode 42

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · May 29th, 2017 · No comments

Having survived my Grizzly Man adventures in the sub-Arctic, 99 Friendship returns with some all new hashtag-content! On this week’s show:

  • Nearly 28 minutes of soccer discussion! We squeeze a small amount of curling at the end there just so you know it’s still us but 90% of the time, it’s 100% woso.
  • We missed two weeks of NWSL excitement in which Allysha Chapman got #twitterhacked, someone got #heatstroke, Mallory Pugh got #aterriblenewsoccerteam, and Christine Sinclair nearly scored #agoalwhilesittingdown.
  • Canada’s WPSL and UWS teams, the North Shore Girls Soccer Club and the Calgary Foothills, also got their seasons underway. Unfortunately we did not get to watch any of their games (while we recorded North Shore drew 1-1 in east Seattle), but we give them some love anyway. In the case of the WPSL, we also give their useless website some hate.
  • The Lady Champions League final on Thursday will pit Ashley Lawrence against Kadeisha Buchanan, which is highly cool. And not televised in Canada!
  • FC Edmonton enjoyed its best-ever attendance in a 2-1 win over the Indy Eleven. This may not sound like woso, but since a large part of the crowd arrived to see Diana Matheson, it’s related. Possible CanPL promotional secret there?
  • Over in England, Carli Lloyd blatantly tried to kill someone and was suspended three games. It would be cruel for us not to laugh.
  • Unfortunately this episode was recorded before Josée Bélanger’s official retirement announcement, so there is no tribute to a much-loved Canadian player. Although I’m sure there’ll be a blog post in the next day or two giving her the respect she deserves.

Follow 99 Friendship on Twitter to get the first scoop on all the new episodes!

Hot Takes for Canada

By Benjamin Massey · May 17th, 2017 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

The Canadian Premier League, like Harry Potter, takes up a lot of intellectual bandwidth for something that’s mostly imagination.

It has now been formally announced, along with Canadian Football League-affiliated ownership groups in Hamilton and Winnipeg. The name, hereto a title of convenience, appears official. They have a website and a Twitter account. In addition to at least one full-time employee, Canadian soccer business guru Paul Beirne, they have contracted out for some public and media relations. Judging from the respectful tone of the international press coverage, that’s working well.

We remain a hundred miles from even imagining the first game, but six months ago we were a thousand. Forget the “interested parties,” Canadian soccer’s powers-that-be, and some serious businessmen who know sports, have stopped winking and nudging and stepped forward, on the record, to say “here we are and here is what we are doing.” It shows confidence. Confidence that may prove misplaced, but after years of an announcement being “imminent” nobody’s being rash.

This story has gone on for so long that it’s hard to remind ourselves it’s still early. Until ten lovely millionaires have ten lovely teams in ten lovely stadia, CanPL skeptics will have every chance to sneer. The three MLS franchises, whose existence indefinitely gives the lie to the CanPL’s “first division” marketing, will “certainly stay” in their American league[1]. NASL diehard FC Edmonton is known to be uninterested and the USL’s Ottawa Fury have, as always, been inscrutable to the point of banality[2].

MLS, NASL, USL, order them how you like. On launch day, Canada’s “first division” may be the fourth-best league in the country. This is not the end, this is not the beginning of the end, and with apologies to Sir Winston it’s not the end of the beginning either.

If you are sufficiently hardcore to read Maple Leaf Forever!, this doesn’t matter as such. Sure we want the CanPL to be the top league in the universe, but it would be our favourite if it was Marty Nash and Rick Titus playing futsal on a tennis court. The status quo, however, is not ideal, so we try to improve the outlook by pushing our own CanPL pet projects and agitating for our dreams. We need more Canadian players, or oppose MLS-style single entity, or want promotion and relegation. I still say it should be a women’s league, though I confess that looks unlikely to happen.

Yet, from announcements so far, even that mad pipe dream isn’t literally impossible. The sum total of what we know about the CanPL is Winnipeg and Hamilton. Halifax has on-the-record interest, Regina’s CFL stadium is hosting a New York Cosmos – Valencia friendly[3] this summer that looks inexplicable except as a test of the market, Ottawa is Ottawa, and rumours are everywhere, but that’s all we know.

No doubt Winnipeg and Hamilton ownerships have an idea how they want to operate, with certain assurances that they can stay in business. Equally certainly, they have areas in which they’d compromise to lure new ownership (or, let us hope, Ottawa, Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto). But some elements of the league structure are clearly up for discussion.

Paul Beirne appeared on Soccer Today! with Duane Rollins and Kevin Laramee, and told us much the same thing[4]. As part of a friendly and wide-ranging conversation he riffed, off-the-cuff, about what he’d like to see from his league perhaps decades down the line. No doubt he’s put a lot of thought into his visions, but he left doors open, and equally undoubtedly nothing has been set in stone.

Now is the time for fans to be heard. The success of the CanPL will depend disproportionately on Canadian diehards who, above and beyond buying tickets and merch, will lend each team the passionate and marketing-friendly support that has driven MLS’s attendance explosion. We know that the league staff pays attention to fan scuttlebutt. Indeed, its very conception responds to the fandom’s urgent need.

Our ideas and dreams may not be listened to. Indeed, since many of us would support a CanPL almost unconditionally, we have a lousy bargaining position. But we can still encourage the powers that be to make the best league they can. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are not soccer people. Hamilton’s Bob Young knows the game, owned the Carolina Railhawks for half an hour, and has presumably had a reason to spend years laying the foundations of this league. Every other Canadian owner will be new to the game almost by definition. Are we ever going to have a better opportunity?

It is pretty damned millennial to say “we need more bloggers with opinions, more hot takes and drum-banging.” But we sort of do. Canadian soccer is an incestuous little family, with the feuds and fornications of the most obscure mountain compound. Our league deserves to be launched not just with message board posts arguing whether the Blizzard should be brought back, but well-thought-through debates on what world we want to live in. It might not make any difference. But then again, it might. This is the only chance we will ever get.

(notes and comments…)

99 Friendship Episode 41

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · May 15th, 2017 · No comments

  • Sorry for not having a 99 Friendship last week. My computer decided it was such a bad episode that it wasn’t going to record it.

  • Erin McLeod is not only back for FC Rosengard, but as of recording time she had played 180 minutes of soccer without suffering another torn knee ligament. We make jokes about how this will inevitably end badly to keep from crying about how this will inevitably end badly.

  • Truly horrible and unfortunate things happened to Shelina Zadorsky and Steph Labbé in the NWSL. I try to remember how math works. Carolyn comes up with a strategy for defending indirect free kicks.

  • The indirect free kick we talk about, by the way, is this one:

    Because this is not a video podcast, on account of “then I’d have to put a shirt on,” you can’t really see what we’re discussing. But it’s that. Look at that.

  • Your friends and mine, Ika Kelley and Britta Rooooostad, played for NSGSC against Surrey United in the BC Provincial Cup ladies final on Saturday. We actually watched it. No analysis comes out of that but we do talk about it!

  • The Canadian Olympic mixed doubles curling trials are being held in glamorous Portage la Prairie, Manitoba in the middle of January! I’m sorry for running wild with the italics but this might almost be too exotic for the proletarian culture of curling. Anyway we want to go. Carolyn especially wants to go because she’s a Toba type, and I especially want to go because I could take the train for like three days. For the sake of everyone’s sanity I did edit out the several minutes Carolyn and I spent discussing Portage hotel amenities (not a joke).

  • Jennifer Jones is going to curl in Siberia! That is also not a joke.

Follow 99 Friendship on Twitter if you’re in the mood.

Red Rovers

By Benjamin Massey · May 14th, 2017 · 1 comment

Through three games, Vancouver-based expansion club TSS FC Rovers is last in the USL Premier Development League with minus two points. Daniel Davidson appeared for TSS in Calgary before the paperwork for his registration had been completed, saddling Rovers with a three-point penalty for fielding an ineligible player. Given that ill-starred debut saw the Rovers blow a 3-0 lead to lose 4-3 to Calgary Foothills, this was an unusually direct addition of insult to injury.

TSS lost the second game of their Calgary doubleheader and returned to Vancouver 3 under par after two holes. Fairly frightful, though with many excuses; TSS (short for Total Soccer Systems) has risen to become one of the top private soccer academies in western Canada but this is their first season of competitive, national-level play. Their squad, all-Canadian but drawn from all over the West, had only been training together briefly before the PDL season started. Though many are alumni of the Whitecaps Residency almost none are of an age to have played together. And the Calgary Foothills, defending PDL finalists recently reinforced with former Canadian youth international Ali Musse, are no joke at all.

Even so, there’s no good way to botch paperwork or blow a 3-0 lead this side of terrorism. So when the Rovers walked through the tunnel at Swangard Stadium on Friday evening for their home opener against Eugene-based Lane United it could have been a ghastly experience. Vancouver loves winners, the big leagues, and feeling world-class. Down the Expo Line a popular Irish beat combo was playing a show for a sold-out, though not physically full, BC Place. Vancouver’s had PDL soccer before through the Vancouver Whitecaps, and crowds for those games were typically family members, girlfriends, and a couple resolute diehards even when the Whitecaps challenged for titles and produced national teamers by the handful. TSS is a big outfit but has no history in the spectator game. It could have been bad.

It was not bad. It was magnificent.

The game was entertaining, as the Rovers learned more about each other for 90 minutes, pushing a strong Lane side harder and harder, coming from 1-0 down to a 2-1 lead and control of the game, and settling for a draw only due to a bad but atypical mistake from defender Eric de Graaf. There is talent on this team: De Graaf is better than that blunder and UBC’s Zach Verhoven, a young player who was new to me, demonstrated electrifying pace and trickery down the right flank. If this team gels it’ll be capable of even more highlights than their first goal of the night, a tricky run from Verhoven leading to an even trickier finish by North Vancouverite Kristian Yli-Hietanan.

That’s not the most important thing, though. The Lower Mainland has something back which it lost years ago: high-level soccer free of nonsense. Not a monolithic corporate experience, nor a near-empty park where one is reluctant to speak lest he distract the midfield. A real game, with high quality and a spectator focus, but still intimate and downright fun.

Hundreds of fans filled Swangard Stadium for, to my memory, the best PDL crowd greater Vancouver had ever seen. Many wore TSS scarves. Even five minutes after kickoff the line for tickets was larger than the entire attendance for some PDL games. The girls scanning tickets at the entrance to the stand were almost breathless with amazement. “I really thought it would be just TSS people,” one said.

The Lane United support helped, as six fans made the seven-hour drive with drum, banner, cowbell, and songbook. Away support makes everything better. Former MLS Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit was at the game flogging stereos, and that was neat, but it was pleasant how few fans were there to gush over a celebrity.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Fans sat peaceably in the grandstand, chatting, watching the game, enjoying themselves. Others leaned on the rails and talked tactics. Kids kicked the ball around Swangard’s open spaces while the game went on. It is still the best stadium to watch soccer in the country, mountains dramatically backlit by the setting sun through a passing storm, though there are a few more condos on the skyline than I remember. The Swanguardians, TSS’s nascent supporters group, appeared in strong numbers for their first day. Chris Corrigan, one of the ringleaders, had memorized a voluminous songbook based largely off old Tragically Hip singles, the sort of thing which never works. Except that, because these were a couple dozen people there to participate rather than be tourists, it did work, brilliantly, and many of those tunes could become staples.

Anybody who remembers Swangard in the Whitecaps USL days would have recognized the configuration: main grandstand on the west side, steel bleachers to the east and the south, with those on the south safely protected by temporary fences so that the rowdies would have to move slightly out of their way if they wanted to invade the pitch.

The supporters had great respect for these health and safety arrangements. When some decided to flee for the sunny north side they took part of the fence with them. Mamadi Camara stepped up to take TSS’s second-half penalty and supporters moved the fence nearer behind the goal, cheering Camara on to success. There’d been some social drinking but the real joy was in the freedom to enjoy a soccer game, to sing and move and cheer and heckle and have some fun rather than fit into the regimented world of a 20,000-seat stadium with in-house security, a supporters group with bureaucracy and politics, and a front office fretting over PR. There weren’t that many beers about, believe me: mostly we were drunk on liberty. We go where we want, we go where we want, we’re the Swanguardians, we go where we want.

What about the non-standing-and-chanting experience, the majority of the fans there for a good game? There were food trucks, cold beers (not that the evening needed cooling off). There was a constant, knowledgeable chatter in the air. And as mentioned the game, livestreamed on YouTube for the out-of-town crowd, was well worth the $10 for a ticket. Apart from the result, which was hard luck to an improving young team, the night was perfect. I walked away from Swangard feeling like a pain so old that I had forgotten about it had finally, blissfully gone. The arrival of TSS FC Rovers is the best thing to happen to Vancouver soccer in a long time.