Benjamin Massey

Best known as the most obscene man on Twitter, Benjamin Massey has been writing about Canadian soccer in one capacity or another since 2009 when he founded Maple Leaf Forever! He was from 2010 to 2012 manager and founding editor of SB Nation's Vancouver Whitecaps site, Eighty Six Forever. His work has appeared in Inside Soccer magazine, on the Score's Footy Blog, Canadian Soccer News, Copper & Blue, and Goal.com. He loves the Vancouver Whitecaps, FC Edmonton, and bigamy, and hates any Canadian team that wasn't just listed, decorum, and the big European clubs.

Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

By Benjamin Massey · September 5th, 2018 · 1 comment

Paul Giamou/Canada Soccer

In October 2016 the Ottawa Fury, then of the North American Soccer League, announced they would move to the United Soccer League for the 2017 season. There was some drama.

At the time it had been the Canadian Soccer Association’s avowed policy not to permit teams in what was then called “USL Pro.” The Victoria Highlanders had once been interested, but the CSA was not and the Highlanders wound up folding out of USL PDL for a couple seasons. Exceptions were made for MLS reserve teams in Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto, but, as the CSA had said at the time, that was different than opening another level of the American soccer pyramid for independent Canadian franchises.

The United Soccer League was then sanctioned in the United States as a third division league, below the NASL and Major League Soccer. Ottawa already had access to a domestic third division: League1 Ontario, also rated below the NASL and MLS. Of course these sanctioning “tiers” are fake news and nobody pretended L1O teams were as good as USL ones, but if the NASL was too rich for the Fury’s blood there was another option, one which fit with the CSA’s official goal to build Canadian leagues rather than American ones.

The reason for the Fury move was nakedly financial. The team, like many in the NASL, lost millions of dollars a year. In USL, as Fury president John Pugh stated quite frankly, he’d be able to send his team by bus rather than plane more often while somewhat cutting his wage bill. Later the bill was slashed further by having the Fury serve as reserve squad to the MLS Montreal Impact, giving him a few free players and a marquee home friendly every season. Seems like good business, though the team’s average attendance has declined year on year since leaving the NASL.

Ottawa could never have brought their team, whole, into League1 Ontario: it would have run away with the league if they had. Their budget, even trimmed, would be way out of line with the competition. Fans would have left and Canadian players would have lost jobs. Most importantly, the Canadian Premier League was imminent. In October 2016 Paul Beirne was picking out furniture for his new office. Surely the most important thing was to keep the Fury going on their terms, to keep the organization running until they could come back into the fold.

So the CSA made an exception.

The Fury’s move didn’t come without a cost for the rest of Canada. It was one of many cuts that led to the NASL suspending operations for the 2018 season, costing us a year of FC Edmonton first team action and leaving talented Canadians like Ben Fisk and Adam Straith to wander the byways of Europe. Nik Ledgerwood, Tyson Farago, and Nathan Ingham had to drop down to PDL, Marko Aleksic and Allan Zebie are out of the pro game altogether. If the Fury had remained in the league then the NASL would have had the vital six teams for 2018 even had North Carolina and Indy both still defected. This was not unforeseeable: any NASL fan will remember the handwringing about getting enough teams for 2017. Still, the most important thing was to keep the Fury operating, and the rest of the chips would fall where they may. The Fury did what they thought was good for their bottom line and the CSA went along.

Now, the Fury have announced that, even though the Canadian Premier League is kicking off for the 2019 season, they will remain in the United Soccer League. There’s all sorts of speculation why: they’re probably over the future CanPL salary cap, they have a roster that they well might want to bring in en bloc against expansion-team competition, and as a Montreal Impact reserve team they’ll come into conflict with a league that absolutely steadfastly wants nothing of the kind. Some of the Fury’s arguments are probably pretty good. But what’s important is that, once again, the Fury want an exemption because they think it’ll be good for their business.

Unquestionably, the Fury have been very good to Canadian soccer the past couple seasons. They give over a dozen Canadians regular USL minutes, many of whom are decent talents who needed an opportunity and are getting it. Without the Fury Carl Haworth would never have had a pro career, but today he’s the team captain and a one-time senior international. Callum Irving needs to be playing pro. Maxim Tissot needs to be playing pro. Julian de Guzman should be involved in the game here, and not “giving two-weekend youth camps for $500 a man” involved. Thanks to the Fury, they are.

But no team can ever do as much for Canadian soccer as an entire league. It’s a mathematical impossibility. The Vancouver Whitecaps play two or three Canadians a week: even seven teams as unpatriotic as that add up to more Canadian content than the laws of the game would permit the Fury to field. In CanPL, with generous domestic content rules, the Fury won’t even look exceptional in 2019. And if their playing USL jeopardizes the Canadian Premier League, then regardless of what they’ve done in the past or might do in the future, for the good of the nation they should be stopped.

This isn’t just about “team eight” in the 2019 CanPL season. Let’s assume that ship has sailed. But if the CSA permits the Fury to remain in USL then every time CanPL totters (and it will), every time a potential owner is counting the pennies and deciding whether this soccer lark is worth his millions, every time a current owner is debating how to wring his budget a little thinner, he’ll look south across the border and say “why can’t I just join the United Soccer League, like Ottawa?” There’ll be no good answer. On what grounds could the CSA allow the Fury but refuse a fleeing Forge? What judge would allow it if they tried?

The Ottawa Fury’s intentions may be the best in the world but it doesn’t matter: willingly or otherwise, they are directly competing against the league that is Canada’s number one men’s soccer must-have. Until the CanPL can offer as many short-range road trips with as many established teams and as many high-profile players as USL—and that will be many years from now, if ever—it will never clearly outperform USL as an investment opportunity, especially in Ontario and Quebec. And no players, no team, nothing in Canadian men’s soccer, is worth risking CanPL’s future for.

The Fury’s permission to play USL is conditional, up for renewal every year. The Canadian Soccer Association has every right to revoke that permission for the good of the game. They already revoked sanctioning from the so-called “Canadian” Soccer League, an Ontario-based semi-pro circuit, for rampant match fixing. The CSL still operates, and players you’ve heard of have laced up in it, but only well into effective retirement as joining a non-sanctioned outlaw league spells the end of your international career. The USL is unlikely to court trouble from FIFA by condoning an outlaw Fury, and even if they did players with any ambition would flee in droves. In short, the CSA could get the Fury out of USL any time they wanted, and if the Fury wanted to stay in business in CanPL afterwards, that would be up to them.

It is a power the Canadian Soccer Association should use. Ottawa Fury fans are good, loyal people, who have put up with a usually-mediocre team with smiles and energy. Their team has done prodigies for Canadian talent, and their supporters are justly proud. But do we want Canada to be one vast American branch plant or don’t we? When Ottawa joins a happy, healthy Canadian Premier League, the rest of the country will be overjoyed to see them again.

Goderich Is Canada

By Benjamin Massey · August 28th, 2018 · 1 comment

Steven Vacher via Flickr, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Canadian Premier League’s corporate interests are literally represented by a company named “Canadian Soccer Business.” This sounds like the invention of a “PRO/REL NOW”-style Twitter lunatic. Team revelation are cut from a template with dramatic fast-cut footage and weirdly-named colours like “starfish purple,” and their logos somehow all look very samey. It is being marketed to an almost parodic degree. CanPL has done a lot right but apart from the team names1 they aren’t exactly trying to distinguish themselves from MLS, are they?

Well, if CanPL is a crappier northern MLS it will fail and die. Don Garber has a firm grip on supporters for soulless soccer corporations like the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Toronto FCs, which makes even less sense than cheering for Etihad Airways or Verizon. Is there anything more tiresome than people acting like the moral aspect of soccer fandom is irrelevant or? If you’re going to cheer for shareholders you may as well cheer for the big ones; the Canadian Premier League does not want to wrap itself up in a numbers game it cannot win.

Our league will almost certainly always be smaller than American one even if we don’t concede Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal to Major League Soccer, which we have. The United States is big and we are little, and trained by decades of practice to attach ourselves to the Americans and hope for the best. An all-Canadian organization needs a lot more than “it’s like the American one but over here!” to succeed.

So we fans try to shape the league while the clay is still soft, turning it into something that suits our Dominion. Already, there are good signs. Many of the league’s brain-men are bona fide Canadian soccer people who have proven that they are interested in the domestic game as more than a temporary source of a paycheque. But fans have been burned before and improvement must be continuous if it is to last.

Example. Earlier in August an anonymous Twitterer shot for the moon by starting an account named “GoderichCPL” dedicated, as their bio puts it, to “bring[ing] the Canadian Premier League to Goderich, Ontario!”

That’s their exclamation mark but they’re entitled to it. Goderich is an obscure little town on the shores of Lake Huron. They won TSN’s “Project Play” this year, which put their name in TV ads. Her Majesty the Queen, who has never visited, is unverifiably said to have admired it. Hockey immortal Father David Bauer is from there. It’s small-town southern Ontario.

This prospective CanPL expansion, alas, is no success story. Momentum has waned in the Goderich camp and they have not tweeted for a couple weeks. A promised website has not materialized, and big-name support is limited to Paul Beirne being one of fifty Twitter followers. Practical concerns may play a role. Their suggestion of a 15,000-seat stadium, for example, seems a bit ambitious given a 2016 census population of 7,628. Cynical though it sounds, there’s just the possibility that their campaign is a bit of a joke.

But why should it be? No, really, why? Goderich is an extreme example but towns that size are not inherently incapable of supporting professional soccer. Look to the mother country. Nailsworth, home of Forest Green Rovers, is the smallest town in the Football League with a population of about 5,800, and though they are newcomers to League Two they had been in national semi- and professional soccer for twenty years before. The second-smallest, Fleetwood, boasts a still-modest 26,000. League Two and League One aren’t even MLS-level but will probably outgun at least the early CanPL. That is a level of play, and a level of success, we should be thrilled to see in 2019.

Okay, maybe Goderich, or Gaspé or Cold Lake or Port Hardy or Dildo or any other city with a thousand locals and shit-all else to watch in the summer, shouldn’t be number one on David Clanachan and Paul Beirne’s hit list. Fans in Saskatoon, Regina, Quebec City, London, Vancouver, Kitchener-Waterloo, and probably Sudbury-Thunder Bay are organizing to get their teams. These are big markets; the list of Canadian markets bigger than Goderich is actually fairly long.

But thinking in terms of markets is the original sin of Major League Soccer, shared by every other professional sports league on the continent. Who cares about Goderich’s potential MyCujoo market share? Do they even have broadband in Goderich? It doesn’t matter. Can they build a field with the correct proportions made of a reasonable material and send out at least eleven men every week? Then we should work them in. Let the locals roll the pitch themselves and sit on lawn chairs, let the players be recruited at the library and coached by the guy who’s watched the most EPL, that is detail.

Why should they get a crack at the Canadian Premier League? Because they are Canadian, and that’s the end of it. Because spectator soccer is not about fat bloggers devouring press box donuts and 4K coverage of every match, nor about beancounters asking “but will they mock us on Bay Street?”, nor even thousands of raucous supporters bouncing up and down on lavish terraces for a full 90. It is about plain local people going out to watch their plain local team, and if anything dazzling emerges from that plainness, even if it is so-to-speak by accident, then that dazzle being automatically whisked to the big stage for the nation’s admiration and the locals’ deserved pride.

Could CanPL work in Goderich? I have no idea, I don’t know the first thing about the place, we established that paragraphs ago. I don’t even know if they could make it in League1 Ontario. But if Twitter interest is worth anything they could make it in League2 Ontario, or the Huron County Amateur Conference, or any of the other levels of the Canadian soccer pyramid that don’t exist yet but which, if we’re ever going to be a meaningful soccer country in any sense beyond watching foreign players in foreign leagues, we will need. And if they do make it work, and come into a golden generation or get finance from an eccentric vegan businessman who turns them into Canada’s first wind-powered soccer club, then they deserve a chance to promote into the CanPL, if that is where their powers can take them. And if their powers are not so great, which let’s face it is way more likely, then no hard feelings. Play the amateur with your neighbours and look longingly on the steep trail to greener pastures.

Most importantly, this pyramid should not be the pipe dream for ten years down the line. You cannot build the top of a pyramid before you even design the bottom. Sure, promotion and relegation in 2020 is probably impossible, and CanPL’s pioneering investors expect and deserve a chance to succeed without getting replaced by Surrey United. Fair enough! Build the pyramid and worry about the escalators for 2028. But build it. For if you do not have that wide base, why would a local fan care about a lousy Canadian-based soccer franchise when there are so many excellent foreign soccer franchises already on offer? What would a monolithic, purely commercial franchise named “York” have to distinguish itself from a monolithic, purely commercial franchise named “Toronto”? Appeals to patriotism only work if you have something to feel patriotic about, beyond a team’s mailing address.

CanPL for Goderich? We should all hope so. Not because that town is something special, but because it isn’t.

99 Friendship Episode 69: It’s #Nice to Be Back

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · August 22nd, 2018 · 2 comments

It feels wrong to phrase it this way but it’s tradition, so, on this week’s fabulous episode of 99 Friendship:

  • Um, we’re sorry that we took so long?

  • Many things have happened in the past eight months and it would be reckless to try and touch on them all. It would, let’s be honest, make for an almost entirely-unlistenable episode of a podcast that has perilously little listenability to lose.

    So we try anyway.

  • Ben plays “Carolyn Can You Guess Which Episode Number This Is?” It does not provide much entertainment. You can actually hear us remembering “oh yeah that’s why we haven’t done one of these for a bit.”

  • You probably expect us to recap the Olympic curling. We do not, we recap the World Championships instead.

  • The first half of the show is still curling-centric, as we dissect pretty much every one of the new curling teams that has any relevance. If you have been waiting seven months for me to react to Val Sweeting suddenly becoming Manitoban, this is your episode.

  • (FYI, the curling team Ben is obsessed with now is Chelsea Carey, Sarah Wilkes, Dana Ferguson, and Rachelle Brown. They are the best.)

  • Our attempts to catch up on the women’s soccer season are perfunctory, with Foreign Desk whipping through some player moves, but we give some attention to Calgary Foothills WFC and the TSS FC Rovers mustering good seasons in the UWS and WPSL, respectively. It’s brief but how many podcasts even say these things? We are cutting edge.

  • (FYI, the NCAA division two woso player Ben is obsessed with now is Emma Pringle, the tall, accurately-finishing forward who came to Ben’s attention with the WPSL TSS FC Rovers. She is the best.)

  • The real reason this podcast is back is that NCAA women’s soccer is starting again and Carolyn needs to talk about it, so we spend a while remembering Jessie Fleming, Kennedy Faulknor, and Technically Shana Flynn’s UCLA narrowly beating The Beach in a game that was an advertisement for nothing, but was on DAZN.

  • Finally, a discussion of Texas Longhorns woso, which features my second-favourite cansoc Emma and another player, recently called up to the senior women’s national team once again, about whom I have less nice things to say. Just to be clear, no matter what Carolyn says I don’t hate her.

Side note about sound quality: Carolyn and I record these in the same room these days, which has historically led to our worst-quality shows, audio-wise. Since this might become a habit in the future we’ve taken steps to try and improve the situation and I think that we, to a great extent, succeeded. This show now sounds not much worse than our average Skype-based show.

But there’s still ever-so-far to go and the limiting factor is now our equipment, so it may take some time to remedy.

Follow 99 Friendship on Twitter, if you remember how and haven’t been banned yet.

CanPL’s Historic Duty

By Benjamin Massey · August 9th, 2018 · 1 comment

Lake Side Buoys via Facebook, used with permission.

In the autumn of 1990 the Victoria Vistas were riding high in the Canadian Soccer League. They had rallied from an atrocious debut in 1989 to finish high-mid-table in the regular season, then knocked off the Winnipeg Fury on penalties in the first round of the playoffs. The mid-dynasty Vancouver 86ers beat Victoria on away goals in the semi-final but, especially in hindsight, there was nothing shameful about that. Victoria boasted local talent, led by veteran Canadian international Ian Bridge, and a few foreign stars like former Aston Villa skipper Allan Evans. Head coach Bruce Wilson, already a national legend from the 1986 World Cup and a Canada West champion coach with the University of Victoria, led a steady improvement throughout his first full season as a professional boss. It was a very good year.

Fans walked away from 1990 expecting more in 1991. But by March the Vistas were dead. Their players went in a dispersal draft, Wilson went back to UVic full-time, most of the locals dropped to the amateur ranks. The long story of Victoria soccer would go on, from the return of Victoria United to the Pacific Coast Soccer League, through the storied Vancouver Island Soccer League, all the way to USL PDL’s Victoria Highlanders, but this was all strictly local stuff. Victoria, one of Canada’s most soccer-mad cities, was deprived of the professional game for a generation.

On July 20, 2018, that finally changed when former Canadian internationals Josh Simpson and Rob Friend unveiled the Victoria area’s new Canadian Premier League team, Pacific FC. The new team is a backup plan after Friend’s attempted “Port City” greater Vancouver team couldn’t find a stadium, they’re is playing in the suburb of Langford rather than Victoria soccer’s spiritual home at Royal Athletic Park, and the city is delighted anyway. The Victoria Highlanders’ supporters group, the Lake Side Buoys, are getting behind Pacific FC with hardly a flicker of doubt. Some diehard Highlanders supporters have waited for this moment longer than their future players have been alive.

It’s a beautiful story. It is also far from unique.

The Nova Scotia Clippers played one CSL season in Dartmouth, didn’t win a thing, and went away, but like Victoria, Halifax soccer has always punched above its weight. In the years since Nova Scotia has produced several professionals two national amateur championship teams. Now the CanPL Halifax Wanderers have an exciting “pop-up” stadium on historic ground and the most amazing grassroots supporters group that actually anticipated their team’s name. Winnipeg has been without professional soccer since 1992 and their PDL team has been bad, but fans there will turn out in the hundreds just to look at Desiree Scott and their CanPL team has already registered over 1,200 would-be season ticket holders.

Hamilton, the CanPL’s cradle if anywhere is, has waited as long without being able to enjoy PDL, but has “enjoyed” years of Bob Young almost bringing in an NASL team. It would be a surprise if Forge FC was not the best-supported first-year team of the bunch. Next to them Calgary looks like paradise; they had an A-League team as late as 2004 and today’s championship PDL team is the likely spine of their CanPL entry. York, the butt of jokes, had two at-least-semi-professional soccer teams in the 1990s and zero for the past half-decade. FC Edmonton‘s problems, spending 2018 without a league, are trivial by comparison.

As individuals we feel our excitement for the Canadian Premier League burning within us, a blazing beacon for soccer communities that have seen so much darkness. But taking a step back to look at the rest of the Dominion reveals that the same stories can be told all across the nation. Each of us, with our prayers, our desperation, and our patience, is repeated ten thousand times across four time zones. It’s inspirational. It is also an enormous emotional, historical, and cultural burden, which this new league will have to bear.

We fans—the ones who already exist, not the ones the league will have to attract—are bringing so many years of barely-sustained hope to these little stadiums. Such undying loyalty should be a point of pride, but it is also a lot of baggage. Do the league’s pioneers realize the weight they are responsible for? When the Canadian Soccer League started in the ’80s it was an ambitious but logical peak for our developing soccer pyramid. Our men’s soccer programs were at their very best and there was no serious American competition. It proved a noble failure, noble enough that we are proud of its legacy, but a failure all the same and one that left scars. And the thing about scars is that time does not make them go away.

Without signing a player or playing a game, these teams have become the targets for a generation of hope from the soccer supporters in seven different towns, all of which have been burned before. Such hopes cannot easily be recreated if dashed. Ask fans of FC Edmonton, a team which has had decent performances and all-time legendary ownership but can only slowly attract mass interest because the Brickmen and the Aviators and the Drillers have poisoned the well so thoroughly. What the Canadian Premier League has is one precious, potentially golden, building block, but it is oh-so-fragile.

The Canadian Premier League is not Canada’s last chance for a national soccer league, but it might be our last chance for anything good.

Even a qualified CanPL success, with Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal permanently lost to MLS and no hope in CONCACAF, one vast Wales, would be a very good thing. We do not need to aim too high. But if it fails entirely, if it turns into MLS-style corporate trash or goes broke, then those lost hopes will maim everything that comes later. The future will look like the new “Canadian” cricket league, where meaningless squads of foreign mercenaries named Vancouver, Montreal, and so on all play in Toronto, and at the end people nobody cared about lifted a trophy with no emotional attachment to it. Great if you want to sit outside for two hours but hopeless if you care about any of what makes sports compelling beyond the literal physical activity.

It’s a hard job. The diehards cannot simply be pandered to; there are too few. To survive any team must attract the common soccer family, this is mathematically unavoidable. Yet experience shows that without those diehards curating an organic soccer culture and bringing an atmosphere to the ground you become Chivas USA. Let supporters support, don’t abandon your community in the name of monolithic corporate genericity, and don’t screw up the business. Most of all, respect your local soccer history. With a league front office full of soccer men and team names like Jim Brennan, Stephen Hart, Josh Simpson, Tommy Wheeldon, and so on involved, that ought not to be too difficult. But you need to be aware of that responsibility.

Ottawa’s On Fire; TFC is Terrified

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

Steve Kingsman/Freestyle Photography for Canada Soccer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any Weather for the All-Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12.5% of a World Cup

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

Canadian Soccer Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Voyageurs Cup for the Rest

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

Martin Bazyl/Canada Soccer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Canadian PDL Northwest Ever

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

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brilliance Wasted

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

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

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

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

Welcome to the WPSL.

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

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

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

Welcome to the WPSL.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the WPSL.

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