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.

A Clearly Canadian Premier League

By Benjamin Massey · April 16th, 2019 · No comments

Kick Magazine via Canada Soccer

The Canadian Premier League kicks off in eleven days. For many of us, that Saturday in Hamilton will be the finish line of a generation-long race, for Canada to once again have its own domestic, national soccer league. The Voyageurs will have their own here-to-cheer-on-the-game section at Forge FC’s stadium, which must be close to unprecedented in club soccer. Halifax, whose success will be the most accurate sign for the Canadian soccer pyramid’s prosperity, has sold out single-match tickets for their home opener.

We didn’t ask much. Some of us didn’t even insist it be professional. But we’re getting a lot. Good players are coming home, exciting prospects and second-chancers are getting paycheques. Halifax and Cavalry have thrilling bespoke stadiums, while Edmonton, Pacific, and York are getting much-needed soccer-friendly renovations. The kits look nice, the games will be streamed. In the future there might be promotion and relegation. By God, this is looking like real soccer.

But is it looking really Canadian?

Yes and no. We have the most important things, Canadian players in Canadian cities. But the players are dressed in Italian shirts and the team names are inspired by the European rather than the North American tradition. The split-season schedule makes sense but is a bit foreign, and the fact that our national professional soccer championship will end before our league does is a bit… well, at least nobody can say the Voyageurs Cup is stealing someone else’s format. The point is that Canada still has not really made its mark on this league as a whole except geographically. What about its soul speaks to us?

Obviously one doesn’t want to do old-NASL crap with changing the game rules to appeal to the low-agency North American stereotype, but there is a middle ground between “pretending we’re Italy” and “breaking ties with a shootout where the guy can dribble.” As with the league this post is a starting point, not a finale. There will be cogent traditionalist, and practical, objections to them all. But, that wimpy waffling out of the way, here goes.

  • Canadian commentary, please. We’re all familiar with the old lazy way of a British voice, usually English but occasionally Scottish (Luke Wileman, Nigel Reed, Gareth Hampshire, Dick Howard, Kristian Jack, James Sharman, Alan Errington, etc.) with, in descending order of preference: another native Briton, the Canadian sidekick who has an English accent anyway à la Terry Dunfield, or in a pinch the Canadian-accented Canadian.. Even USL PDL’s TSS Rovers follow this formula, with Canadian-accented Gideon Hill in the commentary alongside most-Scottish-man-alive Michael McColl, though in this case a lack of volunteers probably plays a part.

    Commentary teams are part of modern marketing. Women’s hockey coverage on TSN is anchored by elite female players plus Rod Black, who was grandfathered in and few would miss if he left. In women’s soccer it is perfectly acceptable to put Clare Rustad or Kaylyn Kyle beside Vic Rauter, because in women’s soccer a Canadian accent has credibility1. Everyone understands perfectly well what’s going on here: the commentators reflect the expectations of the audience. Just as everyone understood what was meant when CBC Edmonton journalist and English accent Gareth Hampshire was doing FC Edmonton play-by-play. I mean it’s soccer and he’s English! The star of the broadcast was soccer veteran Steven Sandor, who has a western Canadian accent you could record as an example for future generations, but you can’t have two guys who sound like that even on CityTV Edmonton.

    Gavin Day, who would know, tells us that CBC is going to broadcast around 20 CanPL games this year. It’s “across multiple platforms,” which means a bunch of games buried on CBCSports.ca with the World Cup skiing, but it also means a lot of Nigel Reed. Reed helped call Major League Soccer’s arrival in Canada, turns out to be an exceptional voice of Olympic biathlon, and became another successful voice for Toronto Wolfpack rugby. I like him. But we are, consciously, building something distinctly Canadian and I’m afraid Reed’s dulcet tones won’t do. An English accent isn’t the difference between a Eurosnob tuning in and tuning out, but it makes our domestic league sound foreign. As every sport, and indeed every other field of life except for ours has figured out, such things matter.

  • Hockey-style captain and alternate captain letters on the kits is an idea that the league adopted by accident, when their kit-customization page launched with the hockey lettering feature still on. It was a mistake, just like how as of this writing they still show NHL sweaters at the top. If it wasn’t an accident Nik Ledgerwood would have been strutting through the kit launch with a “C” on his breast and the takes would have been hot indeed.

    Having come up with the idea by mistake, there is no reason for CanPL not to adopt it. According to the FIFA Laws of the Game the captain has one job: to be present for the opening coin toss. Beyond that the duties, and the symbolism, of the captain are a matter of custom, and therefore open for meddling by those whose customs are different.

    You don’t need to lose the armband if you don’t want to. There’s honour in Christine Sinclair handing the armband to Diana Matheson as she’s subbed off. But the “C” and the “A” are something else: a permanent, and clearly Canadian, acknowledgement of the team’s top dogs. Sinclair can give an armband to Matheson but she’s still the captain. Matheson can be a part-time player but she’s still a team leader and, in hockey, would certainly have the “A” on her chest saying so. Some clubs try to get around it by saying their “club captain” is the legend who no longer starts every day while the “captain” is the leader of the regular eleven but, with its gradient of letters, hockey has a better idea. It’s beautiful, and Canadian, and it doesn’t quite duplicate the old armband. CanPL should do it.

  • The Page playoff system is another great Canadian concept, notwithstanding that it’s Australian. In the previous century it was used all over the British Empire, and on the Indian subcontinent it is still used in two colossally popular Twenty20 cricket championships. But to a Canadian today the Page playoff is inextricably associated with curling, and indeed with curling in Canada. The two major Canadian curling championships, the Brier and the Tournament of Hearts, use the Page playoff. The big international tournaments do not.

    Saying the Canadian Premier League needs to emulate cricket and curling is almost too on-brand for Maple Leaf Forever! but hear it out. The Page system is simple: four teams make the playoffs. The first- and second-placed teams play each other: the winner goes straight to the final, the loser faces the winner of the other quarter-final between the third- and fourth-placed teams. The winner of that game is the other finalist.

    This system is ideal if you want to give teams a bonus for finishing first or second… but not too much of one. The best team gets a reward for its excellence but still has a game to play. Winning the Page 1-2 playoff game can be a formidable advantage thanks to the round off but you have to go out and do it, while the loser might as well have finished fourth. Compared to having 1 play 4 and 2 play 3, it’s one more big game to sell tickets for. As a minor bonus, it also gives you a clear bronze medalist without the hassle of playing a dull third-place game2.

    The Canadian Premier League is adopting a split-season regular season schedule, with separate spring and fall campaigns. The spring season is only twelve games long; it is, in short, a little fake. But as modern NASL hands know it can also be entertaining as hell. A Page playoff would give one top spot to the spring winner, one top spot to the fall winner, and make those titles matter without giving a spring champion a disproportionate advantage for a twelve-game hot streak. Teams 3 and 4 could be the top finishers on the combined table not otherwise in the playoffs, so consistency will also get its due.

    For now it’s the perfect format, but it doesn’t scale. The Page playoff breaks down if you let more than four teams in so a sixteen-team CanPL will need to adopt a different system. Oh shucks.

  • Hang a picture of the Queen in a stadium. The Winnipeg Jets gave it up; the field is open for a soccer team to assume the mantle of monarchy. Will Pacific FC be brave enough? They play in a city named aft… okay, it’s Langford, not Victoria, but they’re close! How about York 9? “Duke of York” is a royal title! Fine, I might have to wait until Regina gets a team for it to be really appropriate, but I will!

  • It may seem like I’m going back to curling when I say CanPL should also promote interprovincial teams, but I’m not really. The Brier and the Tournament of Hearts are the biggest occasions when you might see Team Alberta play Team Ontario, but though provincially-branded with all the rivalry that implies, those are established teams that won their provincial playoff. With the Challenge and Jubilee Trophies, Canadian soccer already has that3. The Canada Games are nearer the mark: operate like the provinces were countries and it was the World Cup. You call up the best players from your province, fight it out, and may the best province win.

    Alas, the Canada Games are explicitly a developmental program for young athletes. Most competitions are age-limited (in soccer it’s U-18) and so the bloodlust in each clash suffers; you and the guy you’re tackling are both only here to catch the eye of a national team scout. Even so they’re more popular, among both athletes and spectators, than an EPL-raised fan of big time soccer might guess. It is very, very easy for two Canadians from two different provinces to work up a rivalry; just ask politics Twitter.

    Canadian club nationals involve provincial champions billed by their provinces of origin, but that’s not the same thing4: nationals are independent teams wearing their own club colours, not provincial representative teams. Why couldn’t CanPL, in the one year out of every four not reserved for a men’s World Cup or the Gold Cup, take a summer “intra-Dominion” break for an open-age Canadian soccer competition run under their auspices? Only a few provinces could field a fully professional eleven but given funding for travel, enough notice to book vacation, and the expectation of CanPL scouts and CanPL competition, amateurs would come as they do for club nationals. Take two weeks in June and July, gather the provinces in one place, and fight it out for a big trophy awarded on July 1. For teams in trilliums playing teams in fleurs-des-lis, or teams in trilliums playing teams in wild roses, or actually teams in trilliums playing anybody, both fans and players would come out, I can promise you that.

    We can negotiate on the format. Have the territories, or even the lesser non-host provinces, play to qualify if you like, as the NHL does with their World Cup of Hockey. Certainly you must invite, and try to attract, non-CanPL professionals. The Europeans will be in offseason, they may be obtainable, but the ideal is for an Ontario player on Toronto FC to convince his coach to let him leave MLS for two weeks so he can play for his province. You won’t get there in year one but you might in year nine. Given the naturally-occurring rivalries and the probability of most of Canada’s professional strength winding up in our league, we could make this very prestigious indeed.

  • Finally, and most generically, don’t lose sight of your community’s history. I fear Pacific FC is falling short here. The ancestral home of soccer in Victoria is Royal Athletic Park, a gloriously aging, shabby venue not quite downtown; think Swangard or Lamport but on whatever the opposite of steroids are. In the old days of Victoria United the field was aligned the wrong way, meaning the setting sun completely blinded one goalkeeper a half. It has few amenities and those are controlled by its owner, the City of Victoria, who are ill-inclined to share any resulting revenues. The stadium is also claimed by an annual beer festival and baseball’s Victoria HarbourCats, who play in a collegiate summer league. Parking is awkward; partying is worse, what with RAP being smack dab in a fairly tony residential neighbourhood. The one pub in the immediate area, in my day, was not worth the entering, then you walk into the ground and everything is just a bit awkward.

    I love watching soccer there. You can hear the ghosts in the 110-year-old walls, and when the sun is setting in your eyes you can see the shades of soccer games past, both domestic and foreign, blending together across the ages; “Chopper” Harris charging in on George Pakos, Paul Dolan with the lunging fingertip save off Ron Flowers. We associate these great historic grounds with Europe but, at an admittedly less internationally-renowned level, we have them too. I don’t care what Pacific FC would have had to do to play there, they should have done it. Let Langford develop history beyond “a younger Maple Leaf Forever! writer first learns to admire Shaun Saiko” and then we can talk.

    There are still a few of these itty-bitty shitty old grounds around Canada from coast to coast. Even if they don’t date from 1908 like Royal Athletic Park they have stories of their own. And where it’s not the stadium, it’s old players or colours or traditions. Say what you like about the Vancouver Whitecaps but keeping Carl Valentine and Bob Lenarduzzi as part of their community, remembering Dom Mobilio and trotting out the surviving alumni of the ’70s every year, is more than most professional soccer franchises do.

    We are used to another line of thought, where the Columbus Crew are in jeopardy because their 20-year-old soccer-specific stadium is considered hopelessly obsolete5. The same thing happens in the NHL, to our shame. So Pacific FC plays in Langford, at the original ground of the Victoria Highlanders, a stadium shared part-time with the community and Canadian rugby. It’s not glamorous but it has every amenity you need, plenty of availability, and solid, modern artificial turf for all your needs.

    But nobody likes giving up the Montreal Forum for the Molson Centre. Our very hearts rebel, tell us what a hateful fucking thing we’re doing for the sake of wider seats and luxury suites. No actual human needs to be convinced here. We need that connection to our heritage as surely as we need oxygen.

    CanPL is very new. Its oldest club made its competitive debut in 2011 and everyone else will start in a week and a half. That can’t be helped until the Ottawa Fury and the MLS franchises get with the program. But our communities have history. When FC Edmonton proudly announces Lars Hirschfeld is their goalie coach it’s not because Hirschfeld, who has never coached professionally in his life, is obviously going to be brilliant; it’s because he’s Edmonton, and he deserves to get a shot with his hometown club. Hirschfeld never played for FC Edmonton but this is the right idea and every CanPL team could emulate it. We all have our histories and the Canadian Premier League is a crowning addition, not a new building.

A Good Day for the CanPL

By Benjamin Massey · April 5th, 2019 · 1 comment

Canadian Premier League

When the Canadian Premier League told us that they would be unveiling the entire league’s 2019 kits simultaneously from Toronto we knew it would be a bit weird. Pacific FC fans headed to the pub at 3 PM on a Thursday, HFX Wanderers fans were probably worried about making it to bed, and those of us from our homes or offices watched the league logo spin for fifteen minutes before seeing an interview; apparently CanPL will kick off on MLS time. When it started the fashion show, hosted by a former Methodist church in downtown Toronto, was a bit weird. Some of the Premier League’s marquee players self-consciously strutted their stuff in front of the apse, surrounded by faux-vandalism advertisements, in front of the most ridiculous computer noises; it felt a bit like someone was going to Hell for this.

CanPL Kit Speed Rankings
1. Cavalry home
2. Edmonton away
3. Valour home
4. Valour away
5. Pacific home
6. Cavalry away
7. Forge home
8. Wanderers home
t-9. Wanderers away
and Pacific away
11. York away
12. Edmonton home
13. York home
14. Forge away

Whoever’s damned, it probably isn’t the designers. All fourteen kits have been well-received. The Canadian soccer hivemind can’t agree on which one is our favourite, always a good sign, nor on which ones to hate, which is even better. This correspondent is the biggest fan of the Cavalry home kit, the Edmonton away kit, and the Valour home kit, but with no negative feelings about any of them. (Okay, Forge away is a weird combination of boring and trying too hard.) We can quibble. The weird duplication of league partners as kit sponsors, for example, is unacceptable: when did we become so addicted to advertising that we’d insist on having token advertisers on our club’s colours because that’s the only way we think we look real?

Still, this league will look sweet. There was more to come. Randy Edwini-Bonsu and Allan Zebie walked out in FC Edmonton’s kit, and their particular fake kit sponsor was something called “One Soccer” which nobody had heard of. This led to a race down the latter pages of Google which Kassim Khimji won. Figuring out what Edmonton and Valour were wearing is how we found out that the Canadian Premier League will have a bespoke webstream partner in 2019.

That’s a strange way to launch. But One Soccer had a website ready and the next morning put out a press release. One Soccer, it turns out, is a MediaPro/Canadian Soccer Business joint that in the future will have almost all Canadian soccer rights not otherwise spoken for: national team home games, the Canadian Premier League, the Voyageurs Cup, League1 Ontario. They were obviously well-prepared. If we’re feeling conspiratorial, Kassim Khimji is a Canadian soccer media insider who’s worked for the Whitecaps and has connections with FC Edmonton; I can promise you that it was not easy to find One Soccer on the Internet in the moment, and Khimji’d be the right guy to “soft-launch” something like this…

From outside the conspiracy factory, Canada’s women’s national team played England earlier today (and won 1-0 with #ChasingAbby down to five) and the match was broadcast on the BBC; it was announced less than 24 hours before kickoff that Canada Soccer and TSN would simulcast the BBC’s feed online. The theory is that One Soccer would have been showing that feed, had it been ready in time, though a simpler explanation is that short notice and obscure venues is how Canadian soccer broadcasting deals outside MLS and the World Cup usually work.

One Soccer’s press release promises “a wide range of complementary programming, from pre- and postmatch highlights, daily news programs, mid-week magazine shows, interviews, features and other formats, expanding the channel’s offering to cable and satellite television platforms in the near future.” This naturally brings to mind not-wholly-displeasing memories of cheaply-produced off-hours Canadian soccer magazine shows from long-forgotten networks like GolTV and The Score. These were never popular, but they were beloved by a handful of devotees. Names we now know better, like James Sharman and Lee Godfrey, got their start on those things. Viewership of such programs can be lucky to break four digits but that’s not the point; it costs nothing, it fills broadcast time, and it delights devotees. As a website dedicated to devotees, anyone reading this should be excited. Most of us expected to see CanPL on the Internet, hoped to see it on TV, but professional-grade original programming and analysis beyond a highlight of the night on SportsCentre? Not bad, for a first-year league.

Such cable-access stuff is very Canadian and there was more promising maple leaf content. In a pre-show interview with Kurt Larson, league commissioner David Clanachan spoke about how, while as a good Canadian boy he admires gritty and hard-nosed play, he considers diving a plague to be stamped out. This was well-calculated to appeal to many old-school Canadian soccer fans, who flooded Twitter with approval. Clanachan has made a lot of good noises on either side of the traditionalism versus innovation line: promotion and relegation yes, diving no, split season yes, breaking ties with shootouts where you dribble from the halfway line no, franchises yes, restrictions on the number of teams in a city (allegedly) no.

Maybe they’ll go even further. You can still go to the CanPL shop and, allegedly, buy your custom kit with hockey-style “captain” or “alternate captain” lettering. This is unquestionably a configuration mistake on their web platform, the same reason that as of this writing there are a bunch of NHL sweaters advertised under the title banner. But now that we’re thinking about it isn’t that a great idea? As is well-known, a captain has no duties in the Laws of the Game beyond the opening coin toss. Some clubs have started distinguishing between a “club captain” who is the traditional off-field leader and team representative and an on-field captain who wears the armband and shouts at people. The “C” and “A” letters on the chest are almost a Canadian trademark; football players and the very occasional baseball team will slap “C”s on chests but the “A” belongs to hockey1. It would be the best cultural appropriation.

Saying Bad Things About Good Times

By Benjamin Massey · March 23rd, 2019 · No comments

Canada Soccer

You’ve probably noticed all the positivity in Canadian soccer lately. Daniel Squizzato: “It’s different this time, this CanMNT — just hear me out.” (He means it’s better.) Steven Sandor: “Where does current CanMNT roster stand all-time?” (Got the potential to be the best; suck on that, losing to Jamaica two years ago!) Michael McColl, “Canadian national team marvel at ‘complete change of culture’ under Herdman.”

There is nothing more Canadian than unwarranted optimism about the men’s national team. With luscious attacking talents like Hanson Boakai and Kevan Aleman showing their excellence, Simeon Jackson plowing in goals in a good European league, veteran Dwayne De Rosario still performing at a high level with a club that considers him an icon, and the commitment of star dual national Tesho Akindele, Benito Floro will… wait, how do you delete a paragraph?

Not trying to be holier than thou. We’ve all done it. I once nicknamed a player “Canadian Soccer Jesus,” and if you don’t know which one don’t look it up. A Canadian soccer fan who is not temperamentally optimistic won’t last, he’ll wind up in a Manchester City kit before you can say “Janine Beckie.”

And we shouldn’t lose to French Guiana. Bookies make Canada 1-to-5 to win. French Guianan starting goalkeeper Donovan Leon, a professional in France, is suspended due to yellow card accumulation so the job will fall to either Soleymann Auguste or Jean-Beaunel Petit-Homme, both young men from the local league1. They had to fly from Cayenne, French Guiana to Vancouver through Paris. French Guiana is no Saint Lucia-esque minnow but under the circumstances if Canada doesn’t win it’ll be because in sports shit happens.

Still, as people who dislike John Herdman keep reminding us, this version of the national team has proven absolutely nothing. If we look at our achievements after the last Gold Cup, Canada defeated New Zealand 1-0 in a friendly, which as these things go beats one point from six against Mauritania but isn’t exactly a ticket to Qatar. We also won several Nations League qualifiers we had no excuse to lose. Sure, there’s an optimistic outlook in the Canadian dressing room. You’d feel good too if you spent months beating the hell out of construction workers and soldiers in an official CONCACAF tournament. Turns out taking candy from babies is both easy and deliciously rewarding.

So, in the spirit of contrarianism, here are some black pills.

Alphonso Davies was removed from the Canadian squad because of “injury.” Supposedly he hurt himself celebrating his first ever Bundesliga goal last weekend; the first goal for Bayern by a Canadian since 2005. Bayern left him on for twenty more minutes in a game they were winning 6-0 over Mainz and their press release says Davies will rest for a few days when the club is taking three days off anyway. They are barely pretending this is real.

Herdman says Davies is heartbroken. Bayern obviously isn’t bothered, which could be a problem. For decades, Canadian players have been persecuted for answering their national team’s call. It hurt the career of Paul Stalteri and cost Canada the services of Davies-like talent Tomasz Radzinski in many a tournament. If Bayern is doing wink-nudge injury withdrawals for Davies when he’s a bench player, what’ll happen if he locks down a starting spot? And if he never becomes a starter does that mean he’s falling short of the expectations Canadians place upon him? There’s a lot of “whatever happens, we have got / Alphonso Davies, and they have not” from fans, and the performances it takes for him to meet those hopes may mean that we hardly get to see him.

Jonathan David is sometimes mentioned in the same sentence as Davies. Admittedly, not the same part of the sentence, but as of this writing David is averaging 1.929 goals per 90 minutes for the senior Canadian national team. This is a solid figure, surpassed over a CanMNT career only by Gavin McCallum’s 10.000. What we mean is that David, in 150 minutes of senior national team action, has got two goals against the US Virgin Islands and one against Dominica. Nothing wrong with that, you can only score against the teams you’re playing against2. We know those gaudy numbers are a joke, but it’s not a joke at David’s expense. What’s worrying is that his club statistics, based on a scarcely larger sample size, actually are cranking expectations up.

David (who was born in the United States and was also eligible for Haiti) is currently co-top-scorer at Gent of the Belgian top division; a decent team, a good league, and a damned good result for a 19-year-old rookie professional. But, in shades of his obviously-silly MNT scoring rates, four of those goals came in his first four games (and 167 minutes). In his most recent 917 minutes David also has four goals, which is still pretty good but not circus stuff. Marcus Haber has had years like that at equivalent levels.

Gent scores by committee. Only one goal behind David stands centreback Dylan Bronn, who has scored a few goals every month since September despite a knee injury and suspensions. Prior to this David had been a part of the Canadian youth pool and the national training centres. A prospect, but nothing indicated an obvious blue-chipper. Obviously some players bloom late, and we shouldn’t hesitate to call him up while he’s hot, but it is way too early to say David is our goalscorer of the future rather than an athletic kid doing well in a system where lots of goalscorers can.

We have seen this movie before. Simeon Jackson scored 13 goals in the Championship one year. It happens, to good players and to indifferent ones on a hot streak. Maybe Jonathan David can prove it but don’t pretend he’s written in pen. David’s automatic vault ahead of Tosaint Ricketts, the best Canadian striker of the century, on everyone’s depth chart means that our optimism may do us positive harm.

Our defensive situation is lamentable. Herdman called up veteran David Edgar, currently with Hartlepool of English non-League soccer, and fans were upset we didn’t call Manjrekar James from his comfy bench in Norway. This bodes ill. At left back Marcel de Jong may have a career-ending injury and Sam Adekugbe happens not to be injured now but usually is. Right back? Marcus Godinho is enjoying a good run in Scotland but is hurt so often his club doesn’t let him play on artificial turf, while Zachary Brault-Guillard has proven nothing. Eddie Edward, the standby of the “call up a no-nonsense right back” set, has now retired, Nik Ledgerwood is aging and banged up, and you get into Juan Cordova territory awfully fast. Canada’s top fullbacks are, indisputably, Davies and Atiba Hutchinson. Which sort of says it all.

This site praised the Whitecaps’ signing of Derek Cornelius, but under admittedly tough circumstances his MLS career has started horrendously. Adam Straith seems to be the forgotten, underappreciated man, as usual. Steven Vitoria is falling off the face of the Earth, which is only a good thing because he should never be allowed near a self-respecting national team… there’s Doneil Henry, the human highlight reel both for and against us, and Dejan Jakovic, who happily is sort of hanging around at age 33 but can’t be counted on forever, and then we’re crossing our fingers with the Edgar/Cornelius/James class. Costa Rican attacks will be a problem.

Add on a bunch of little things. Atiba Hutchinson is on his way to retirement with no foreseeable heir. Cyle Larin’s career is tottering in Turkey, and while you aren’t going to close the door on the kid, combined with his indifferent performances for Canada it’s not looking good. We still can’t seem to play enough games, especially not against anybody even reasonably good. And, last but not least, while most everyone is pretending to love John Herdman now, there’s still a hater brigade out for him and if Canada totters he will be devoured like a limping antelope among the hyenas.

So don’t worry, fans. There’s still plenty of opportunity for a Typical CanSoc Disappointment. (Probably not against French Guiana though.)

MaloudaBowl 2k19

By Benjamin Massey · March 15th, 2019 · No comments

Mexsport/Canada Soccer

CONCACAF Nations League qualifying is the stupidest thing Canada’s men’s national soccer team has ever done, including that Merlion Cup we fixed.

Let’s see if I can explain it in a paragraph. Lesser teams, such as Canada, are trying to qualify for the 2019 Gold Cup and the top divisions of the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League. The six teams from the last World Cup qualifying hex got automatic spots; the top ten of 34 teams in this tournament will join them at the Gold Cup and the top six will also play in the Nations League first division starting this fall. Nations were seeded into four pots based on their ranking, to play one nation from each pot including their own. For example, Canada is in the top pot, Pot A, and play a game each against a team from each of pots A, B, C, and D. To date Canada has whipped the US Virgin Islands and Dominica without shipping a goal, and beat St. Kitts and Nevis by a handier-than-the-scoreline-looked 1-0. Our final game is against pot A rival French Guiana, Sunday, March 24 at BC Place (good seats most emphatically still available).

This is all very stupid, but just wait. (Dammit, two paragraphs.) The teams are not drawn into groups. So pot A Canada plays French Guiana, Dominica, and the US Virgin Islands; also-pot-A French Guiana plays Canada, Guyana, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Anguilla. The schedule isn’t home-and-away, either. So French Guiana, a relatively weak pot A team, has to travel from South America to Vancouver and doesn’t even get a home rematch out of it. If I was a French Guiana fan I’d think I’d pissed CONCACAF off a couple years ago or a Canadian ran the confederation or something.

Teams play schedules of unequal strength and are measured against teams they don’t play at all. Goal difference, creating an urgent need to hammer as many goals past pot D minnows as they can. Canada, with its 3-0-0 record and no goals conceded, is currently tied for third with Cuba. A draw on the final match day will assure Canada both qualifying spots, but a loss would introduce more permutations that can easily be calculated; it would probably be fine, but we could theoretically fall as low as thirteenth1. Basically it’s American college football.

This is bad sport, and fans are not interested. Toronto hosted 10,523 fans for our previous home game against Dominica on a Tuesday in October, and Vancouver will be around that on a Sunday afternoon. CanMNT boss John Herdman called up four hometown Vancouver Whitecaps and four more popular alumni, including Bayern Munich depth player Alphonso Davies for his first match back since being sold a few months ago. Davies’s face has been all over the advertising to an almost pitiful degree. “It is impossible to care about this game,” they plead, “but wouldn’t you like to see Alphonso again?”

We can try to gin up some rage from the 2017 Gold Cup. French Guiana’s squad that year included one of their better locals, 37-year-old former Chelsea man and 80-time French international Florent Malouda. In the past, CONCACAF had allowed former French internationals born in the overseas départements like Guadeloupe’s Jocelyn Angloma and Martinique’s Frédéric Piquionne to spent five years outside of international soccer and then play in the Gold Cup. Malouda had been out of the French setup since 2012 and played in the Caribbean Cup but, come the actual Gold Cup, CONCACAF informed French Guiana that he was cap-tied to France and considered ineligible. Reeling from this change of policy, Malouda was left out of their first match, a 4-2 loss to Canada. In their next game against Honduras French Guiana defied CONCACAF, started Malouda to the delight of their supporters, and got a 0-0 draw on the field that became a 3-0 default loss in the standings for fielding an ineligible player. Canada’s goal difference in their win was +2, Honduras’s in their default was +3; los Catrachos were one up.

The French Guianans, who knew what would happen, gave Honduras an unfair advantage over Canada. It would have been a scandal if it had mattered: Canada finished ahead of Honduras in the group anyway. Frankly, if it was my team suffering an abrupt rule change to strip away a core player when the president of CONCACAF was from a nation that profited, I would have been defiant too. We were mad at the time, being partisans, but it’s hard to muster much of a grudge now.

Unfortunately for Vancouver-area Chelsea fans, the French Guianans have learned their lesson and have left Malouda off their squads ever since. Their roster includes a number of players from the French Ligue 2, but these guys already lost to St. Vincent and the Grenadines at home and now faces maybe the longest road trip in confederational soccer outside Australia2. They barely beat Regular Guyana at home. Their current lofty position with the rest of the CONCACAF second-raters is exaggerated, based largely off good luck and a 3-0 win over Cuba in 2017.

Fans are calling for us to run out the big guns and light up French Guiana like a malfunctioning Ariane 5. After all, we have a fast guy who had a hot streak in Belgium, a fast guy who Bayern Munich paid a fortune for, and a centreback from English non-League soccer, so no collection of Ligue 2 scrubs can possibly oppose our excellence. Canadian men’s national team fans are, somehow, always overconfident, always sure that this batch of foreign mercenaries and alluring prospects will definitely turn it around this time. You can’t spell “cognitive dissonance” without “cansoc.”

Mathematically, the idea of us failing to make the top Nations League group is close to unimaginable and that of failing to make the Gold Cup very unlikely, but that doesn’t mean we’re certain to overwhelm the distant visitors. At the Gold Cup we went up 3-0 then let them peg us back to 3-2 in about 90 seconds; it wound up a comfortable 4-2 win but between that result and others Canada has not earned the right to sneer at French overseas départements. We should win, we really should, and with goals in hand, but this isn’t Dominica or Saint Lucia. It’s a team just good enough to be a tripping hazard, but bad enough that if we do get a 4-0 victory and a brace from Junior Hoilett there’ll be no honour in it.

This may be the least appealing competitive home game in Canadian men’s national team history. Thanks, CONCACAF.

Friendship in Competition

By Benjamin Massey · March 1st, 2019 · 1 comment

Nolan Wirth (Mexsport/Canada Soccer)

Technically, Pacific FC and the Victoria Highlanders are in competition. Pacific FC plays in the Canadian Premier League, and has in fact taken over the Highlanders’ original home ground in Langford, British Columbia. They are hot new things and have the more famous players1. The Highlanders’ are the more established team in the more established league, though the name “USL League Two” sounds strange and foreign compared to “Premier Development League.” But a lot of their thunder has gone. Even their old supporters group, while it carries a torch for them, now decorates their website in lagoon blue and starfish purple.

Today the Highlanders play at Centennial Stadium at the University of Victoria, a decent drive from Langford, and USL League Two is quite a different vibe from whatever CanPL is going to be. Greater Victoria has a population approaching 400,000, always supports local soccer well, and gets great tourism traffic. With season tickets starting at $75 and handy availability to bored summer students, the Highlanders can hit markets Pacific might miss. In principle there is room enough on Vancouver Island for both. In practice the Highlanders have never been so flush with fans that they’ll happily give many away and, with a relatively small suburban ground, some fairly expensive players, and Victoria’s perpetual shortage of corporate support, Pacific FC is going to want every dollar they can get. We fans, who want both teams to try their hardest and have a good time, should realize they may not necessarily feel that way about each other.

The other argument, that a rising tide lifts all boats, is made more from hope than experience. In Victoria it hasn’t worked that way, though this is the first time the city has had two serious franchises simultaneously offering at least a semi-professional product. The Pacific Coast Soccer League’s Victoria United, a high-amateur team which charged for tickets, and the Highlanders had a good relationship, played near-annual friendlies, but the Highlanders ate too much of United’s pie and a club dating back to 1904 died in 2014. A lot was going on there but even mutual best intentions couldn’t beat economics. In the United States we have the examples of then-NASL Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. USL VSI Tampa Bay, or FC New York versus the Cosmos, or OKC Energy versus Rayo OKC: in each case two lower-level franchises were at loggerheads and one won and one lost.

But none of those American entries really tried cooperation (USL and NASL being friends? Don’t make me laugh). The Highlanders and Pacific FC could. There’s no bad blood, unless you count Pacific hiring the former boss of summertime rivals the Victoria HarbourCats. When Pacific FC signed ex-Highlander Nolan Wirth the Highlanders proudly slapped it on their front page. Nobody would mind if the Highlanders brought a few underappreciated Callum Montgomery or Josh Heard types to Pacific’s attention. Loaning a player the length of the #51 bus has its attractions too, if the Highlanders are willing. The growth of League1 Ontario in Ontario, and particularly in Toronto, has done nothing but good to Toronto FC: they benefit from player development opportunities, lose no fans to speak of, and any increase in the amount of local soccer occupying Toronto’s consciousness can only benefit the biggest manifestation of local soccer there is.

Look at Pacific FC’s home schedule. Sunday, June 23 at 2 PM, the Highlanders play Foothills at the University of Victoria. At 3 PM, Pacific hosts Edmonton in Langford. Obviously you have to pick one, which is a shame for fans. It would have been nice if both clubs could have made the one day they both have games a true double-header. The Lake Side Buoys could have laid on a bus. As a traveling fan I would have appreciated it very much.

Or get non-traditional. Why couldn’t Pacific and Victoria play their games that day at the same ground? Make it Westhills Stadium or Centennial, or go crazy and play it at Royal Athletic Park, the ancestral home of Victoria soccer2. Alternate every year if you can. Leave it at Westhills because it’s the only one that meets CanPL’s standards if you have to; whatever. The details are just that; what matters is the one big summer weekend that’s a paean to Victoria soccer. Get to the stadium at 11 AM, have beers, watch Highlanders play Foothills, have more beers, watch Pacific play Edmonton. Pacific FC’s season ticket holders plus the Highlanders’ season ticket holders won’t add up to more than a sellout. The organizations get along well enough, nobody needs lose out financially. It would be a day that offers something a bit different, gets a few more people through the turnstiles, and that should delight every local fan, running out to his car at intermission to trade his old colours for the new ones.

These are the terms we should be thinking in. Of course the Highlanders and Pacific FC are in competition. So are Valour and WSA Winnipeg3. Hopefully some day they’ll clash in the Voyageurs Cup and partisans of each team will abuse each other. But there’s still a lot of good they can do for each other. They are parts of one larger whole, that of local soccer: they can cooperate to advance that without giving up their individualism. If the Victoria, or Winnipeg, soccer scene is healthy and vibrant, it’ll make it all the better when it competes with itself.

Enigma, Prospect, Four Vets and a Legend: CanPL Signing Review 1

By Benjamin Massey · February 22nd, 2019 · 2 comments

Uwe Welz/Canada Soccer

The thing about starting a seven-team league up from scratch is that you get a lot of new players.

Praise be to Edmonton and Cavalry; they’re signing alumni, academy products, and old Foothillers to go with the obscure guys. But we still have dozens of players piling into the league who the casual fan, if he has heard of them at all, hasn’t followed for years. Early imports have, typically for this level, been nobody you’d have heard of in your deepest Football Manager dives. A few of the Canadians are bigger names but even they need to be put in the context of this new league.

If the fansites and forums are any indication, we are mostly using interviews and press kits to convince ourselves that our team’s players are all the best. This is a lot of fun. Duane Rollins is doing one-sentence capsule reviews of each signing and that’s useful. But when we decide how we think our teams will do, we should probably know a bit more about the players on them.

This article is one small attempt to achieve this. In the spirit of my USports draft deep dive, I picked one player from each Canadian Premier League team and looked at his career in depth. This brings me less than 5% of the way to figuring out the whole league, but it’s a start. And if this format is a success, I might do it again (so please like and subscribe).

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Bringing Back the Hoop

By Benjamin Massey · January 25th, 2019 · No comments

Vancouver Whitecaps FC

This space used to write about the Vancouver Whitecaps a lot. It doesn’t anymore, because I don’t like them. I turned my back on the crowd. MLS’s vibe made me vomit across the increasingly-debilitated artificial turf even before a bunch of Americans in tie-dye lost and the supporters demonstrated over politics. Then FC Edmonton refused to die, and TSS FC Rovers brought PDL back to town, and there was no reason to regret the loss.

No, I will never again truly be a Vancouver Whitecaps fan. Their ship has sailed, their gondola has departed, their Grouse Grind has been closed. However, as a local and a supporter of Canadian soccer I reserve the right to be excited when they’re doing good things, and the winter of 2018–19 has contained several.

  • They sold Alphonso Davies to Bayern Munich for a trillion dollars. Fans will miss him and will inevitably lament the cash not being spent on new players but, both as a piece of business and as a way to persuade young Canadian talents that the Whitecaps really can be good for their careers and they won’t necessarily be sent to Phil Davies Island, this is a Very Good Thing.

  • They hired Marc dos Santos, the first permanent Canadian head coach of their senior team since Dale Mitchell in two thousand and fucking one. In that time the Montreal Impact sent out John Limniatis, dos Santos himself, Mauro Biello, and like four different incarnations of Nick DeSantis, the Ottawa Fury got two great seasons from dos Santos, FC Edmonton had Colin Miller, and Toronto FC… well, most teams did better. Anyway, the Whitecaps’ record of giving Canadian coaches a chance had been lamentable going well back into the USL days.

    Secondary, but still neat, is Vancouver bringing in Nick Dasovic to run a resurrected U-23 team, a role that in the PDL days attracted the likes of Stuart Neely and Niall Thompson. Said U-23 team has no league, making this merely the latest of Daso’s many temporary-acting-part-time gigs, but he’s been good everywhere he’s gone and tempy-acting is better than no gig at all.

  • dos Santos has a reputation for preferring Canadian players and so far in Vancouver he’s living up to it. As of January 25 eleven of their twenty-two first team players are Canadian1. This proportion will probably fall by kickoff time but we can almost guarantee at least three domestic starters even with Davies gone. Cornelius, in particular, is a first-team Guy Who Should Look Great in MLS All-Star.

  • They’re offering general admission sections to their supporters’ groups. This is only important to a few, but to them it’s very important indeed.

  • They gave us Jordyn Huitema, who is probably off to two-time European Cup finalists Paris Saint-Germain at age 17. Alas, unlike the men, the Whitecaps Girls Elite REX will not receive a dumptruck full of money for their big transfer, but Huitema’s development is still a timely credit to a recently lacklustre program. There’s no first team, there’s a shortage of recent British Columbia players in the WNT picture, but no Canadian woman has played at so high a level at 17 or 18, ever.

  • Last, and not at all least, they have given us this.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Canadians on the field, a big blue hoop around their chests, and fans standing whereever they please, drinking beers and singing songs. The Whitecaps actually look like the Whitecaps again.

Scuttlebutt and fake MLS “leaks” have told us for months that the Whitecaps are bringing back the hoop for the 40th anniversary of their 1979 NASL Soccer Bowl victory, but to be honest I thought they’d blow it somehow. In fact they have so completely not blown it that I am unironically posting their marketing.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC

It is beautiful in broad terms and it is beautiful in detail. The classic touches are gems, and I am a sucker for a collar. Their innovations—the “1979” maple leaf on the shoulder, the red numbers, the vintage logo on the hip—ring true. Even the obligatory and intrusive Adidas triple-stripes on the shoulders do not appear offensive, not that any of the Whitecaps’ photos draw attention to them. It is, as a particularly annoying person would say on HGTV, classic contemporary.

After eight years in Major League Soccer I am genuinely shocked they had the ability to pull this off. Even the caption is a nod to us autistic traditionalists the franchise had been going out of its way to alienate. “The hoop is back.” I had casual fans at work asking me what that even meant and boy did I tell them. When I buy one with Brett Levis or Russell Teibert’s name on the back I am going to lose twenty pounds so that the “Bell” across the middle doesn’t refer to what that hoop makes my belly resemble.

This is a lot of nourishment for certain Vancouver fans who have been dying of starvation for many years of MLS mediocrity. It’s enough to raise suspicious, looking-gift-horse-in-the-mouth-type questions about such a spontaneous display of respect and patriotism. Is this bounty no more than an attempt to outflank the competition?

The Canadian Premier League is starting in 2019, a few weeks after MLS’s season does, and while the closest team to Vancouver is currently across the water in Langford that may well change. Surrey, who would have had a founding team if they’d done this sooner, recently approved a 2,200-seat stadium. The possibility that Burnaby might host a CanPL team at scenic Swangard, or that early success would lure a franchise to an expanded Percy Perry Stadium in Coquitlam2, is real, and then the Whitecaps have a local competitor for the soccer dollar, beyond a few hundred TSS Rovers patrons who mostly have Whitecaps season tickets anyway.

So far the Whitecaps have been pretty obliging about Pacific FC in all their public statements, and they have a good history of working well with smaller teams, including NASL-era FC Edmonton. I’m actually not cynical about this at all, but some even more died-in-the-wool MLS haters than me might be. Have the Whitecaps done the right thing for the most commercial, the most cynical, of reasons? Who cares if they have? The chances of the Whitecaps driving Pacific FC or a Surrey team out of business because they started wearing a hoop and giving Simon Colyn minutes are nil; that battle, if it is waged, will be decided on a level well beyond the few fans who base their purchases on that. Maybe the excitement for the Canadian Premier League has awoken a true pride in their flag and their legacy that the Whitecaps organization had almost forgotten. Maybe they want to squeeze a few bucks out of people like me that we won’t spend on ferry trips to the Island. It doesn’t matter, the effect will be the same. A Canadian MLS team is a little truer in both body and spirit than it once was.

The Canadian Premier League is going to be amazing, and its effect on the lower levels of the Canadian soccer pyramid should be very good. But if it’s a positive for the higher levels too, well.

Fixing the 2019 Voyageurs Cup

By Benjamin Massey · January 10th, 2019 · 4 comments

Martin Bazyl/Canada Soccer

The Canadian Soccer Association today announced the format for the 2019 Voyageurs Cup, to determine the Canadian club soccer champion. Played in its current form since 2008, the Voyageurs Cup is a simple cup-style competition, well-known to soccer fans the world over. Two teams play, the winner goes on. Sure there are wrinkles with seedings, number of legs or away goals or penalty shootouts or whatever but everyone, everywhere understands what a cup competition looks like.

Below I reproduce the actual, no-kidding, this-is-actually-what-they-made graphic the Canadian Soccer Association put out to explain how the 2019 Voyageurs Cup is going to work.

Canada Soccer

Perhaps I should explain.

In round one we have the two officially-sanctioned representatives of Canada’s huge amateur club soccer community: League1 Ontario champions Vaughan Azzurri and Première ligue de soccer du Québec champions AS Blainville. Players are not paid at this level, though it is elite soccer taken seriously. Most would say that L1O and PLSQ set the highest standard of Canadian amateur play, but not everybody. Their teams don’t enter the national amateur championship and we have no way of measuring this so it’s an arbitrary, but fairly well-agreed-upon, cut-off. (This will be important later.) We then add four teams from the new Canadian Premier League to get a six-team first round. This pool will be drawn into three home-and-away two-legged ties, with Vaughan and Blainville prevented from meeting each other. The winners advance to the second round.

The other three Canadian Premier League teams (FC Edmonton, Forge FC, and Valour FC) are seeded directly into the second round. As the Canadian Premier League has never played, this is based on the dates these three teams were registered with the Canadian Soccer Association; Edmonton goes all the way back to 2010 as an organization, while Forge and Valour were the first two Premier League teams announced. This may seem like a weak reason for seeding a team, but whatever: they skip a round of competition and face the three winners from the first round in three more two-legged ties.

Those winners advance to the quarterfinal, where they meet two MLS teams (Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps) as well as, for some reason, the Ottawa Fury. The Fury, memorably, have refused to join the Canadian Premier League and threatened to sue CONCACAF when they tried to step in. As a professional organization they are younger than FC Edmonton which, by the second-round logic, should seed them behind the Eddies. But, as a direct reward for their anti-social behaviour, they get ahead of the Canadian Premier League teams. Well, if you can swallow Valour FC being seeded ahead of Cavalry I guess you can swallow that.

Anyway, three more two-legged ties ensue, and the winners get into a semi-final with Toronto FC, the defending Voyageurs Cup champions, and finally our cup competition looks a bit real.

I am not enamoured of this format. However, working one out is not easy, and though obviously this is finalized and will not be changed, I didn’t want to spit invective without coming up with a better solution. So here it is. (Click for a larger version.)

The best feature of this bracket is that I don’t need to tell you how it works.

To keep costs low for the little guys the bracket is divided into western and eastern halves. Fortunately, since western Canada produced both the winner of Canada’s national amateur championship, the Challenge Cup (BC Tigers, out of Surrey) and the uncontested best Canadian team in USL PDL (Calgary Foothills, who actually won the whole thing) balancing the bracket is trivial. This format is not likely to work in 2020, but with the probability of more Canadian Premier League teams in year two it was broken anyway. A systematic solution is probably, at this stage, impossible, except “throw everyone who isn’t an MLS team into a pot and let them sort out the last semi-final spot,” which would work for a year or two but is not an ideal long-term answer, and “throw everyone into a pot period,” which the MLS teams would virtually veto.

I anticipate questions from the crowd.

I was looking forward to seeing a distant team! AS Blainville at Pacific FC, what fun!

That would be neat. Sorry to disappoint. In a radical departure from Maple Leaf Forever! practice I have attempted to make life easy for the clubs involved, especially now that we’re introducing two more teams of local amateurs. For me, in “magic of the cup” terms this is balanced out by at least one amateur team being guaranteed a glory game against an MLS side.

What about the Ottawa Fury?

Fuck ’em.

No, what about the Ottawa Fury? They have fans, they’re definitely going to be competitive with CanPL, they got sanctioned for 2019. How do we deal with the Ottawa Fury?

Go play the US Open Cup.

If we needed the Fury as an “odd team” in the east to balance out the bracket, sure, we could include them. But we don’t. Between three Canadian Premier League teams, two MLS teams, the League1 Ontario champions, and the PLSQ champions, eastern Canada is fully subscribed.

They knew from day one that the Canadian Premier League was coming. They helped kill the NASL (and jeopardized FC Edmonton in the process) and got an exemption to Canadian soccer rules banning first teams from the USL. They then said “we prefer the American system, thanks” when called upon to pull with the rest of the country. Nobody in Canadian soccer should be lifting a finger to whisk a mosquito from the Ottawa Fury’s face. They never should have been sanctioned in the first place, they were, we have to live with it, but just because they’re in the family doesn’t mean we invite them to our wedding.

The Fury would contribute to the value of the games, if nothing else. That could get them the Voyageurs Cup if it improved the competition, but when you sit down to draw some brackets they actually cause a lot of inconvenience. So bye-bye.

Fuck ’em. You can’t shit on Canadian soccer, then expect the country to move heaven and earth for your sake. The current format, besides being a joke from a soccer perspective, is one more humiliation the Canadian Soccer Association has heaped on its own balding head.

Surely the Ottawa Fury would sue to get into the Voyageurs Cup!

Is there a legal right for any soccer club in the Dominion to play the Voyageurs Cup if they want to? I think TSS Rovers and the Thunder Bay Chill would be very interested to hear about that.

Do you really, under Canadian law or FIFA statute, get to pick-and-choose at your sole discretion which parts of a nation’s soccer pyramid you want to be a member of? Under the letter of the regulations the Fury shouldn’t be operating in USL at all, but they’re getting away with it because CONCACAF and the CSA didn’t want to fight them over it. I’m not sure how many insults this country is expected to absorb from them before daring them to make their case; the answer from authority and a few fans appears to be “an infinite number.”

The Canadian Soccer Association already prohibits USL League Two teams from entering, though some would like to. They admit amateur teams from the PLSQ or League1 Ontario, but not the Alberta Major Soccer League or any other, older, well-established circuit. This is an accepted part of making the competition work, and while many fans would like to see the whole nation’s soccer community invited to a truly open Voyageurs Cup, it’s not and nobody suggests that’s anything worse than “unfortunate.”

When we have an open Cup in a few years, and the Fury are still in USL, let them enter in the first round of qualifying and try their luck. If through some miracle the Fury stop holding their breath until they turn blue and enter CanPL then all is instantly forgiven and whatever changes are needed to get them in should be made. Either way they will doubtless go far, but they’ll do so on their own merits without hurting the community. For now, let’s limit the Canada’s soccer championship to teams that want to play Canadian soccer as well as, for the foreseeable future, the three MLS clubs that are so much better and better-supported that they should be humoured for the sake of the competition.

Would the MLS teams raise hell?

In the actual 2019 Voyageurs Cup format, one MLS team (defending champion Toronto) is seeded straight to the semi-final and two start in the quarters. In my proposed format, two MLS teams are seeded to the quarters and Montreal enters in the round of 12.

Toronto and Montreal lose out, and could kick up a fuss. It would probably be worth meeting them halfway here; “you enter in the quarterfinals but we make them one-leg ties instead of two-leggers.” The US Open Cup is single-leg. It’s not ideal but, if push came to shove, it would be the best of bad options. One likes to think the MLS teams would be sufficiently interested in such a tournament to play an extra round; one should also be prepared for the reverse.

The Montreal Impact are seeded lower because they had a worse record than the Whitecaps last year. It was only one point worse, with MLS’s unbalanced schedule you cannot possibly say “the Impact were definitely worse than Vancouver,” but unlike the CSA’s idea of seeding at least it’s something that happened on the field. Besides, to be blunt, the Montreal Impact’s second eleven should not have a problem with AS Blainville. Put reserves who could use a game anyway and some academy kids out for two and a half hours. So you have to postpone a USSDA match, oh well. This should not be a problem.

As a strict hypothetical, let’s say Joey Saputo behaves irrationally and refuses to play one extra tie compared to his MLS rivals. Duane Rollins says that seeding all three MLS teams into the semi-finals was a possibility. That MLS-centric solution would still be better than the format we’ve got. It’s not very fair, but is it any less fair than seeding a USL team into the quarters for fun, or putting three CanPL teams a round ahead when nobody’s played a game yet? Having Blainville and Vaughan play each other for the right to join the CanPL teams in a round of eight, with the winner of that joining Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto, wouldn’t be a long-term solution, but none of this is.

A lot of Calgary Foothills’ lineup is joining Cavalry. Having Foothills play based on their 2018 performance when the heart of the 2018 team is gone would be silly.

And the Ottawa Fury have cut two-thirds of their 2018 team but nobody’s saying “they might be terrible, they should have to play Blainville to qualify.”

The Foothills won the 2018 USL PDL, are currently scheduled to enter the 2019 USL League 2, and earned their spot by kicking the hell out of everybody else in their league. If you (or Foothills themselves) really see this as a one-time-exception sort of situation then give their spot to the second-best Canadian team in PDL last year, and the only team anywhere that beat Foothills at all, TSS FC Rovers. Believe me, they’d take it.

The BC Tigers guys have jobs, the PDL players have school, could they really…

This was scary in the old days when, if we had an open Voyageurs Cup and Sam Lam accidentally scored on Chris Konopka in the 90th minute at Clarke Stadium, his Edmonton Scottish teammates would suddenly have to fly to Toronto next Wednesday. Thankfully, with CanPL we have enough teams in the competition that you need two upsets before you have to take a week off work. BC Tigers, Foothills, Blainville, and Vaughan can all take transit to their first-round opponent and, at worst, charter a bus to the second. That’s not unreasonable, American teams do it all the time, and any serious soccer player would jump at the opportunity.

Ben, this is Mr. Canadian Soccer Association. Thank you for the thoughtful article. For reasons which cannot be publicly disclosed we absolutely cannot just tell the Ottawa Fury to, how did you put it, “go play the US Open Cup.” They must be included and this cannot be negotiated. How would you deal with this?

If you have to, if you have to, let the Fury have Calgary Foothills’ spot. Given what they’re putting us through the least they can do is eat the cost of a trip to Spruce Meadows. But my way is better. And anything is better than seeding the Fury ahead of the Canadian Premier League. You’re casting a massive aspersion on your new first division and it hasn’t even started playing yet.

EDIT, 15:52 PM: the first-posted version of this article unforgivably and falsely stated that the two higher MLS teams would enter in the semi-final of my proposed format. In fact they enter in the quarter-final. Thanks to Massimo Cusano via Twitter for correcting this.

2018 CanPL – U-Sports Draft Review: Pacific FC Deep Dive

By Benjamin Massey · November 26th, 2018 · No comments

Rich Lam/UBC Athletics

Anyone who watches players on the lower levels of a soccer pyramid for months winds up biased in their favour. There are no exceptions.

The bigger the league, the more accurately you can see what’s going on. When Toronto FC plays the Colorado Rapids you better know the opposition, which means you can better evaluate your friends, and when you’re uncertain there are a plethora of analysts, statisticians, and fellow fans backing you up. Whereas, down in U-Sports or PDL, you’re got your own two eyes, a handful of questionably-accurate statistics, and a couple other fans dealing with the same problems as you try to figure out why your fave is dominating because he’s brilliant or because he’s facing a future sandwich artist.

All fans want to promote their outstanding talents. Seeing their quality week on week, getting to know their traits, maybe even getting to know them personally. Eventually saying “this kid will be a player.” It’s natural bias: you learn everything about a talent while his opponents are anonymous; it’s fun, but a lousy way to scout.

There are exceptional players in the Canadian bus leagues. Guys who saw Alphonso Davies on the Whitecaps Residency teams are walking around with Jeremy Clarkson-sized smug expressions. I named Russell Teibert and Ben Fisk early on as guys who’d have careers and I was right. I also would have bet big money on Alex Semenets and Jack Cubbon; whoops1. There must be a million other players one of us made a mental note about and evangelized for, and it’s merciful for everyone that we can’t remember them all.

This is the joy of the CanPL draft for the fan, and the agony for the pundit. I’m excited to watch Pacific FC and suddenly they draft players I’ve known for years. I got hype. But I am as biased as can be. Pacific FC head coach Michael Silberbauer is a Dane, co-supremo Rob Friend comes out of the British Columbia interior and has been away from provincial soccer for decades, and his fellow boss Josh Simpson is a Victoria legend who played abroad for almost 15 years. Somehow they hit upon three players from the University of British Columbia, which isn’t even the nearest school to their ground in Langford. Funny, that.

I rate two of Pacific FC’s picks highly and the third gets respect. But trying to be objective, UBC made nationals but was briskly dispatched by Carleton (one player drafted; first overall pick Gabriel Bitar) and UQAM (also just one; old man Andre Bona). It’s hard to imagine the best option being a UBC player every single time. Still, Langford is CanPL’s western outpost, there’s a lot to be said both morally and strategically for recruiting from the region, and for all my partiality I still fly the flag for Thomas Gardner and Zach Verhoven.

We shall see.

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2018 CanPL – U-Sports Draft Review: The Big One

By Benjamin Massey · November 15th, 2018 · 5 comments

Valerie Wutti/GoRavens.ca

The Canadian Premier League’s draft of Canadian university soccer players was right on-brand. It was bespoke, with rules seen nowhere else which neither players nor teams will quite figure out for a year or two. The players chosen were a mix of prospects and full-grown veterans looking for the spotlight, with a handful of intriguing second-chancers mixed in. Inevitably most players picked won’t amount to much but there are flashes of quality and the draft looks set to do what it’s meant to: give overlooked or discarded Canadians a fair shot at professional soccer.

Since there were no standings to base a draft order on, they picked one randomly and used a “serpentine draft” familiar to any fantasy player, where the team that picked seventh in round one would pick first in round two and so on. Not that this draft is going to be anybody’s prime way to stock his team. There were only three rounds. According to the league’s release, players in U-Sports, the top level of university sport in Canada, are eligible for the draft regardless of age or years served. Being drafted essentially amounts to a trial, and the drafting team may offer the player either a developmental contract (if he has university eligibility left) or a standard first-team contract (if he has none).

The draft itself was clearly explained, it’s everything around it that we don’t know. What is the motivation for drafting players who’ve used up all five years of university eligibility? They’re out of school, they have nothing left to protect, they are in principle free agents. Drafting graduated players is explicitly provided for by the rules and was positively mentioned by commissioner David Clanachan, so there is probably a puzzle piece we’re missing. What is the Canadian Premier League equivalent of the MLS “discovery process?” Are undrafted U-Sports seniors just out of luck, or could clubs still bring them in? Because at face value the only reason to draft a senior is because you think someone else will draft him later, and as we’ll see there were cases this year where that looked very unlikely.

Then there is the ability for players to return to school after playing a year of CanPL; in fact, given that U-Sports fixtures take priority over CanPL ones1, you might even say university players will be on loan to the Canadian Premier League. This is a bit undignified but good for the players. Canadian universities have always had much looser rules about amateurism than the American NCAA division one: there are men who actually go play professional soccer and come back to compete in U-Sports with, at worst, a few years of eligibility burned off. Players can try to make it in professional soccer with low risk: they are literally still in school. And players who leave their CanPL teams and return to university play will be entered back into the draft, should they so choose.

Probably related is the geographic bias in selection. Some leagues have formal rules about this. In the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, for example, players are asked to list which areas they’d be willing to play in when they declare for the draft. It’s not a coincidence that les Canadiennes de Montréal just drafted players named Genevieve Bannon, Caroline Daoust, Marie-Joëlle Allard, and Caroll-Ann Gagné. In a league where pay is extremely marginal2 this is a common-sense way to humanely, and cheaply, keep players in the game.

CanPL hasn’t documented anything similar but there are hints that the team sounded out players they were interested in. A majority were from the region the team represents, or went to school in the region, or both. Even among those who weren’t, there could be similar factors: Joel Waterman both lives and goes to school in the Lower Mainland and was drafted by Cavalry, but played PDL in Calgary this past summer. Another Cavalry pick, University of Alberta forward Easton Ongaro, is from Edmonton, which is an easier commute than North Vancouver to Langford. Players expected to sound out European options, like Caleb Clarke, were not selected.

Players Drafted 21 100.0%
Area University 12 57.1%
Area Hometown 11 52.4%
“Area” is loosely defined as the region a team claims to represent. For example, the University of British Columbia is within the Pacific FC area, and Cape Breton is within Halifax Wanderers’, but the University of Alberta is not within Cavalry’s.

The process is of interest, but so are the players themselves. The 21 selected represents a little cross-section of U-Sports athletics: ex-pros, late-bloomers, Academy players who never got a professional look, former youth internationals who couldn’t make the final step, and players who were in the wrong place at the wrong time to get onto Canada’s elite development pathways. Approaches varied from FC Edmonton pretty much drafting its own guys to Cavalry picking from three different schools, none of which was the University of Calgary. Each of these players deserves a comment, and this article will give it, together with the players’ most recent statistics from the 2018 club and university seasons3.

Later on I’ll take a deep dive into two teams whose draftees I know a bit more about: Pacific FC and FC Edmonton. But until then this article—some 8,000 words, altogether—should provide detail enough.

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