CanPL’s Historic Duty

By Benjamin Massey · August 9th, 2018 · No comments

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.

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.

The Greatest Al Classico Ever

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

Tobi Oliva

Although FC Edmonton has wrapped up their professional soccer program, the Canadian Premier League might still bring it back. The organization is selling $40 memberships towards future professional season tickets, and have been before Edmonton city council trying to secure Clarke Field as a permanent home. Their Academy still plays and practices, investing in what they hope is the future of the team.

It’s a good academy which has produced professionals and prospects, but today the top team in Alberta is Calgary Foothills. A team that was good enough to contend for the USL PDL title before they added Nik Ledgerwood and Marco Carducci. Their first team outguns any PDL-standard combination of college journeymen, to say nothing of Edmonton’s high schoolers.

PDL can be good soccer but only occasionally draws fans. U-18 academy games are even less spectator-friendly. The natural rivalry between Edmonton and Calgary makes things spicy, but spice is irrelevant when there’s no food. A few supporters have gone to previous meetings, been rowdy, and gotten kicked out of pubs, but academy soccer is for coaches, scouts, family, and degens, not the ordinary fan. And rightly so.

But that was before, when Edmonton had a first team. Times are leaner now and an Edmonton – Calgary match, any Edmonton – Calgary match, looks awfully tasty. The nickname “Al Classico” has kicked around for a year or so, half-joke, half-goal for the upcoming CanPL derby, and though neither Edmonton nor Calgary are in that league yet, in that Canadian soccer way the fans memed it into reality1. (The second leg is Saturday, May 5, 2 PM at the Calgary Soccer Centre.)

The two teams were planning on April 3. On April 19, FC Edmonton began giving away tickets for a game ten days later at Clarke Field, admission free but RSVP required. It was a Sunday afternoon, usually Eddies poison. The next day, 1,000 tickets were spoken for. Three days later they cracked 2,500. Beer tents and concessions were arranged, volunteers found, mothballs blown off the Big Blue stand. The final announced attendance of 3,205 was better than FC Edmonton’s average NASL Sunday gate last year.

Foothills has a solid academy but sent the first team, like the Alberta soccer colossus they are. Two senior Canadian men’s internationals got the start: former Eddies skipper Ledgerwood (50 caps) and Edmonton native Jackson Farmer (1 cap), plus uncapped pool member Marco Carducci and several youth stars. This is without counting Spruce Grove’s Stephanie Labbe, PDL trialist and starting goalkeeper for the Canadian women’s team, who came off the bench.

But the local underdogs had their secret weapons as the alumni came out in impressive force. Paul Hamilton, the original supporters’ player of the year. Edem Mortotsi, one of the original Academy signings. Shaun Saiko, vying with Lance Laing as the all-time provider of goalscoring excellence. Allan Zebie, one of the best of the last generation and a new-minted CanPL poster boy. And Sam Lam, short of superlatives but a quality player in his day. Saiko and Hamilton in particular left the club under such unfair circumstances that just seeing them in blue and white again was worth a night of your life.

The stage was set for a “meaningless” friendly that would live forever.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

If you know your Eddies history you’ll know the punchline. After a week of fabulous weather Sunday dawned cold, cloudy, crap. The Eddies advised fans that parking would be limited so they should come by LRT: bad advice, since half the Capital Line was shut down for maintenance. Kickoff was delayed so fans could get in which is a lot riskier when you’re not an MLS team and only have the field for two hours.

Despite great interest and at least one camera operator in the house, there was no chance of streaming the game. TITAN, the hallowed portable video board, was out of town. Playing the first half in training tops, FC Edmonton came out for the second in their 2015-vintage striped Adidas kits, with different numbers (Hamilton, for example, switched from #9 to #25). Of course there were no programs or names on the kits, so most of the young players were anonymous anyway. A cold afternoon saw the beer tent sell out of hot chocolate. The field had initially been booked for a mere practice and on their way out fans ran into the kids of Edmonton Scottish, who had it next.

The kids looked like kids. The veterans have real jobs and families now; class is permanent and some of these guys could make CanPL if they trained for it, but rust made it hard to see. Foothills looked like a team which is probably going to win quite a fine PDL Northwest Division. Some of the play was… I mean, I am a Jackson Farmer fan going way back but I had never associated him with dirty dangles until he slaughtered the entire Eddies defense for goal number three.

The Eddies had one terrific chance when Carducci punched a rebound straight onto a forward’s foot, who shot wide. With the B team on to close out the game Edmonton also made Steph Labbe work a bit; she twice showed exceptional timing to sweep the ball off David Doe and Prince Amanda’s feet2 and made the best save of the game off Decklin Mahmi in the 90th minute. But Calgary could have had a few more themselves before they took off the pros. None of this reflects poorly on Edmonton, any more than Foothills would feel bad losing 4-0 to Chivas de Guadalajara. The Eddies Academy’s 16-year-olds are not yet as good as Nik Ledgerwood. Oh darn. But if you showed up expecting a rock-’em-sock-’em soccer classic, you would not have enjoyed the game.

People seemed to enjoy the game.

The crowd was large, fun, there for a good time. Though transit was a mess, the weather was crap, and the game was out of reach seven minutes in, most of the crowd stuck out the full 90. There was banter in the stands, banter in the beer line. The Foothills got their four goals in two savage flurries, and the Edmonton crowd sagged in the aftermath, but joie de vivre came back in a hurry. We were happy to be there.

The Vancouver Whitecaps recently lost a game 6-0, provoking the Vancouver Southsiders to hold a protest against their management. At the end of this 4-0 loss to the auld enemy, the Edmonton supporters chanted warmly and set off smoke until we had to give up the field, coaches, general managers, and owners, who responded by running over and applauding. It was not your usual blowout.

After all, it wasn’t your usual game. The chant went “you can’t beat us, ’cause we don’t exist.” This was true more metaphysically than literally. The Eddies could be humbled on the pitch, that sucked but it didn’t matter. What mattered was getting the band back together, from legends down to the 15-year-old future stars, and from the lunatics who traveled to watch an academy friendly to families who wanted a free night out. We could not be beaten, not really, because the only thing that mattered was reuniting, celebrating the past, and, with the help of the Canadian Premier League, moving into a sunny future. We needed this game to happen, but the game itself was the least important part of the experience. Celebrating the kids, the city, and the Eddies did not need a close match, it needed a match of any sort.

Someday we will lose 4-0 again, and we will exist, and we will scream obscenities on Twitter and call for scalps. And it will be beautiful.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

FC Edmonton and Canada’s Doom

By Benjamin Massey · November 24th, 2017 · No comments

Steve Kingsman/Canada Soccer

If FC Edmonton can’t make it in Canadian soccer, nobody can.

Go to Steven Sandor for the news, if you missed it: FC Edmonton is ending operations as a professional team. Their Academy, which has contributed to both the men and women’s youth national team, will continue for now, but against expectations the first team has pulled the plug before the North American Soccer League has.

As the Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC, and Montreal Impact are proving, Canadian cities can make it in American soccer. All you need are brilliant marketers from New York telling you that this is the authentic experience, replete with Italian and English national teamers, and people in a Canadian city will come out in droves. There doesn’t need to be anything Canadian about the experience except the accident of geography; in fact it’s better than there isn’t, beyond a couple homegrown players you keep to wave the flag and visit children’s hospitals.

But Canadian soccer? Meaning not branch plants of an American corporation but clubs owned and run by Canadians for Canadians, which not only say that they’re going to develop Canadian talent but go out and do it? Where the attraction is not “Don Garber tells us this is major-league” but a Canadian-bred culture? If you could sustain that at the professional level, Edmonton would have.

FC Edmonton was not perfect. In their early years they had stadium problems. The team was bad; in seven seasons with a league where it was easier to make the playoffs than miss them, the Eddies played two road playoff games and both stank. Because their stadium is owned by the City of Edmonton the Eddies had mostly Friday and Sunday game days throughout their history, hurting attendance. In 2017, the one year they got a meaningful number of Saturday games, they averaged 3,822 fans a game for Saturdays and 3,085 the rest of the week, meaning that the Eddies perish after their best-ever season at the gate. Now isn’t that funny?

Not that it matters. 3,822 fans a game would be, what, a third of the way to breaking even? Clarke Stadium was too small to sustain professional soccer these days and almost never sold out anyway. This is why I take no comfort from the back door Tom Fath has left open, that he’ll join a Canadian Premier League if his team can be sustainable. Unless Paul Beirne has the money to buy Fath a soccer stadium and the magic to change the country’s culture, that condition cannot be met. The sole hope for FC Edmonton is that the Faths go back on their word and sacrifice more for a dream crazier than co-founding the NASL.

This is not a criticism of the Fath brothers. After eight years’ setting money on fire for the sake of Edmonton despite not particularly being soccer people, they should have the absolute, unconditional, and eternal loyalty of every fan in Canada. If they’d rather close up shop than immolate more of their children’s inheritance with no end in sight, they’ve earned that right.

Tom Fath was a regular on the sidelines at home games, mingling with fans, chatting to players, rocking the hell out of an Eddies golf shirt whenever weather allowed. He even came to a supporters match between Edmonton and Whitecaps fans in Vancouver, not to make a big deal of it (I don’t know that he introduced himself) but just to enjoy what he’d helped create. In every detail except one the Faths were perfect owners: they weren’t oligarchs who could put a 15,000-seat privately-funded grass stadium by the North Saskatchewan River.

What didn’t they try? Local heroes like Shaun Saiko, Chris Kooy, and Antonio Rago helped the Eddies get into the playoffs for one of those two games. Attendance stank. The local heroes were dropped and replaced with Icelandic internationals and Ameobis. Attendance stank. They plastered LRTs and billboards with advertising. Attendance stank. They went to a more grass-roots approach. Attendance stank. The stadium needed new stands and a big screen, so the Faths paid for them though they didn’t own the facility. Attendance stank. Video quality the first couple years was unacceptably poor, so the Faths bought a design company in a successful bid to improve the show. Even in their last season, when games were broadcast on Facebook rather than television, FC Edmonton games were consistently among the best-produced in the NASL. Attendance stank. Criticize the details, as fans of failed teams always do, but the Eddies were not 90% of the way to success. They were 33%.

Unlike most Canadian cities Edmonton now has a perfectly decent soccer stadium. After the 2015 Women’s World Cup brought new artificial turf Clarke became an unimpeachable place to watch a game. Intimate, lots of parking, easy transit access, simple but effective facilities. It had a history of soccer and, with the aforementioned Women’s World Cup, a world-class event that made the sport look good. It began with a hometown star, Saiko, and ends with a nearly-hometown star, Nik Ledgerwood. The ownership was everything I have described and more. These weren’t the Edmonton Aviators, with all their hopes staked on immediate success. They were in it for the long haul and proved it.

A fan who would support a Canadian soccer team if it won lots and had a first-rate stadium and was attractively marketed and had Fernando Torres in a fan of the show, not Canadian soccer. His money counts the same as anybody else’s, but the only way to lure him is the MLS method: to sell out, completely, down to the very bottom of your soul, and make the exercise pointless for anything other than profitmaking. To turn your community club into Molson, right down to being owned by an American conglomerate, because the Americanness is fundamental to the success.

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

“But it worked before!” True, with the USL Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps living long and happy lives. The Impact were owned by a man who combined the Faths’ willingness to lose money with a fanatical devotion to soccer, were subsidized by government with advertising and generous stadium terms, and gave away tickets like water. The Vancouver Whitecaps were usually close to going broke, performing the soccer equivalents of living in their dad’s van. But more importantly, they played in an age where professional soccer could be credible on a much smaller budget than today, and they had their close American rivals. Seattle, Portland, Rochester. It’s the same old song, though performed more prettily.

The sole exception of this generation has been the Canadian women’s national team, an intersection of ability and charisma not seen elsewhere in Canadian sports. Even they continue to be defined, by and large, by their relationship to the United States. Why did the 2016 Brazil bronze medal count for less in our collective consciousness than the 2012 bronze when 2016 was a more impressive achievement? Because in 2012 we went through the United States and in 2016 we did not.

Maybe Canadian teams can thrive as semi-professional or high amateur outfits, in the way the Thunder Bay Chill have for seventeen years, and that League1 Ontario, the PLSQ, TSS Rovers, Calgary Foothills, and the Victoria Highlanders will hopefully continue to. Your players make a pittance if anything, you take the bus everywhere, if you run a youth academy it’s considered perfectly reasonable for parents to pay for it, life is not easy but it’s easier. There are enough fanatics to make that work, in some format.

But full, national-league professional men’s soccer? With an all-Canadian identity and Soccer United Marketing’s millions against them? Oh I’ll support the Canadian Premier League if it ever kicks off, FC Edmonton or no, and I’m sure you will as well. We Canadian soccer fans are used to lost causes. And maybe the MLS fans have the right idea. Their teams are fake, but at least they survive.

The Vancouver Whitecaps Do Not Hate Canada

By Benjamin Massey · July 27th, 2017 · No comments

The Vancouver Whitecaps made news earlier in the week when they exiled two young Canadians to inhospitable Arctic climes. Don’t worry, for once I don’t mean that in a bad way.

Calgary-raised left back Sam Adekugbe is off to IFK Göteborg of the Swedish Allsvenskan. You know Adekugbe from persistently promising cameos. In MLS, in the most recent Gold Cup, last season in the English Championship with Brighton and Hove Albion. Then he gets hurt and has to try to break through again. Usually in a different country. Lots of players get hurt; Adekugbe’s most serious injury is always to the memory of the coach who used to rate him.

Second, local boy Ben McKendry has joined FC Edmonton. McKendry is not even the flashiest player named “Ben” on the Eddies from his Whitecaps Residency class. In those days he ways always respectable and rarely a future professional. He reeked of someone who’d play a PDL season or two, be okay, and eventually you’d see him running second in the VMSL in assists and go “oh yeah.”

But he stepped up for the Whitecaps U-18s; no star but someone you always wanted in the lineup. He went to the University of New Mexico, stepped up, was no star but someone you always wanted in the lineup. Trained with the Whitecaps, stepped up, was no star but etc., got his pro deal and settled in with the reserves, stepped up. In 55 career USL appearances with the Whitecaps reserves, he has 53 starts.

This is not a phrase you often hear on Maple Leaf Forever!, but the Whitecaps have done right by both Canadians. Adekugbe, born in England, has an undisguised desire to play in Europe. Since Jordan Harvey appears invulnerable in Vancouver’s affections and Carl Robinson hasn’t yet appreciated how washed-up fellow Canadian Marcel de Jong is, Adekugbe could either be a rotation player in Vancouver or go to Sweden and fight his way into the eleven with a clean slate. Sweden, like Canada, plays on a summer schedule, so Adekugbe is even positioned to recover and win a Whitecaps starting spot in 2018 if it comes to that. The Swedish league is nice and good players come out of it, but it flies under the radar and it took open minds to make this loan happen, whereas Brighton was an obvious target league-wise and has an old relationship for Vancouver through CEO Paul Barber. Well done Whitecaps.

The MLS Whitecaps have loaned players to Europe before, but it was all very second-rate. A prospect’s dad gets a team from the German third division on the hook, the Whitecaps say “why not?” Top-division Sweden is quite a bit better, and it probably took some doing.

McKendry is the opposite. He isn’t forgotten or anything: CONCACAF Champions League and Voyageurs Cup games for the Whitecaps, one MLS appearance, even a start earlier this year for the Canadian national team against Bermuda. He never embarrassed himself, but he also never gave the Whitecaps a reason to bench Matias Laba or Cristian Techera or other central midfielders that haven’t been superstars but possess some fascinating aspect in their games (Laba has been a stud before but you take my meaning). And he’s 24. He’s not a prospect anymore. Whatever he’s going to be he is; now he needs to go prove it’s good.

The Whitecaps have been a service to McKendry too. You’d be stupid to write him off when he’s stepped up so often before. He is, in fact, somebody Edmonton needs, a safe team-first right foot in the middle of the park who runs all day. The Eddies need that guy so badly they’ve tried to turn Allan Zebie into a left-footed version; with, it must immediately be declared, early success. He won’t help their desperate offensive problem directly, but if he frees Dustin Corea to go insane for attack that’ll be something.

Ben McKendry is not somebody who impresses you with his tools. He never has been, and that’s why I underestimated him with the Whitecaps Residency. The only way McKendry will have an MLS career is if he goes to a level just below MLS and proves that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; to put his coach into the position where he says “well, I know Ben can do it.” I do not say that McKendry has that additional rise in level, but he did it the same way from USSDA U-18 to PDL to NCAA to USL.

This space has put much effort into hating the Whitecaps for their handling of Canadians. Philippe Davies, Bryce Alderson, Russell Teibert (still!), Ben Fisk (McKendry’s new Eddies teammate), Daniel Stanese, you’d need a few hours for me to get through the Canadians who I think the Whitecaps didn’t give their due.

The Carl Robinson epoch has been an improvement. Recently I was in a Twitter argument about whether Alphonso Davies could be considered a “bench player” because he has made slightly more than half of his Whitecaps appearances off the bench, and whether that was justified. Then I realized that arguing in those terms was, itself, a sign of progress that shouldn’t be discounted. McKendry and Marco Bustos and Kianz Froese have at least seen the chances Bryce Alderson never did, and I won’t pretend they seized them. Among the veterans, Marcel de Jong plays and David Edgar did when he could. The Whitecaps plucked de Jong from the Ottawa Fury for God’s sake.

Now we have McKendry and Adekugbe away on loan. These are happy moves. Vancouver and Edmonton have been friendly for the entire Colin Miller era, but McKendry is actually the first Canadian Whitecap loanee to go to Edmonton. At least two other Canadians in an earlier era refused a move after the teams agreed, but that was a failure of Vancouver salesmanship as much as anything. The Whitecaps coach in question didn’t believe he was doing anything more than keeping a write-off occupied.

As for Adekugbe, much though I wish he was starting in Vancouver, I bet young Sam himself would prefer to start in Sweden. He is the closest thing to a bad old Vancouver story: the young Canadian who did great in limited action but never got past the mediocre American, the MLS-standard crappy veteran of whom Jordan Harvey is the anthropomorphic personification. But Sam’s injuries are very real; not “nagging knocks” that are half-excuse, necessitating three months to get over a cut little toe, but serious surgery-demanding problems. It’s a point of view even if it’s not one I agree with.

Steven Sandor has been tracking Canadian minutes every week in Canada’s three professional leagues. As of this moment Vancouver runs fourth in MLS at about an hour per game, behind not just the other two Canadian teams but Cyle Larin’s Orlando City. They are also behind four NASL teams, and the NASL has one Canadian side in it. This is very bad. No other country would tolerate this from a club that’s allegedly part of it. But oh my God it is so much better than what we used to have.

The Whitecaps should give young Canadians more minutes. Their first team prospects aren’t good enough to sacrifice the future for, and their U-18s and U-16s (minus Alphonso Davies of course) just had a nice run in the USSDA playoffs. However, progress and good intentions are important when they have been absent for so long. Sam Adekugbe and Ben McKendry are two players who, under Martin Rennie, would have languished until their contracts expired and everyone forgot about them. Now they have excellent first-team chances and, if they don’t make it, it won’t be for want of an opportunity. Give the Whitecaps credit for what they’ve worked hard to do.

Canada’s Women’s Championship Challenge

By Benjamin Massey · July 11th, 2017 · No comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

At this moment, Canada is #4 in the world in women’s soccer. On merit we must be in the top eight, in an international pool that’s never been deeper. Our national team is stronger than ever and for once we’ve accomplished as much as, on paper, we should. Yet on the club side, we can’t even decide a national champion.

Every year Canada’s men’s professional clubs play for the Voyageurs Cup. The high amateurs of League1 Ontario and the Première ligue de soccer du Québec were excluded, hurting the title’s credibility, but from now on their champions are in, leaving only regional amateurs and USL PDL outside the tent. And they think they have problems! Women’s soccer, miles ahead of the men in many ways here, is behind here.

There are ten reasons for this, but the original sin is that the Voyageurs Cup was financed by, well, the Voyageurs, and for historic and cultural reasons they’ve tended to be more interested in the men’s game than the women’s. A “women’s Voyageurs Cup” has been mentioned on message boards and Wikipedia pages but was basically fictional, even when a heavily-Canadian USL W-League made it easy. The 2014 W-League Central Conference was exclusively made up of every Canadian team in the league, and the Ottawa Fury would have been lady Voyageurs Cup champions had it existed. It didn’t.

Even the name is unsatisfactory. “Women’s Voyageurs Cup?” Nobody really wants to call it that, it’s a concept. “V-Cup” would be a fun double-entendre but it’s not worth it.

For years Canadian club woso roamed the wilderness as teams and leagues collapsed like Alex Morgan being brushed against, but today we’re back to the point where a national championship would be fun. Calgary Foothills currently runs a team in United Women’s Soccer, anchored by former Canadian youth international star Sarah Kinzner. The North Shore Girls Soccer Club plays in the Women’s Premier Soccer League, with a few former senior and youth internationals, and has a fair shot at winning the Northwest Division. Next year NSGSC will be joined by TSS, currently operating a team in USL PDL and soon to bring British Columbia its first ever local lady’s derby. Both circuits claim to be successors of the old USL W-League, once indisputably the top level of women’s club soccer in Canada.

Three teams in two leagues make life complicated enough, but then there’s League1 Ontario. Any so-called national championship which didn’t include L1O’s eleven women’s teams would be incomplete. Familiar Canadian soccer names from both the past and the future are scattered all over their rosters. It would take a gargantuan inferiority complex to assume that the likes of Vaughan Azzurri and Unionville Milliken couldn’t play with North Shore and Calgary just because some of them are in an Ontario league and some of them are in an American one. Remember, we’re good at this game.

Each league is, obviously, amateur. Travel costs are kept low (or, if you’re Calgary flying to Los Angeles and Houston, low-ish) by playing within your region. WPSL and UWS especially serve as summer leagues for NCAA players, which limits how much spare time they have on their schedules. League1 Ontario plays into fall, but every September a lot of students need to be replaced in a hurry. To summarize three paragraphs into two sentences: while L1O, WPSL, and UWS share a niche, it’s hard for them to share an ecosystem. You could not get the teams to play each other, and therefore a lady Voyageurs Cup cannot happen.

There’s just one problem with this conclusion: a lady Voyageurs Cup has to happen. Women’s soccer in this country is too popular. Women’s club soccer in this country is too fragmented. The Canadian Soccer Association is too worried about starting Canada’s third-best men’s league to get us a women’s soccer championship. They didn’t help us start a men’s championship in 2002, either, so we made our own. Sometimes history ought to repeat itself.

Our past has other lessons too. In its early days the Stanley Cup, of which you may have heard, was in a similar boat. Multiple leagues played at a standard sufficient to produce “the champion hockey team in the Dominion.” Most teams were amateur and competitors were spread across Canada in an age when travel was far more difficult than it is now. The challenges to establishing a national hockey championship were daunting… so Lord Stanley, the Cup’s benefactor, embraced challenge. Like a boxing championship, the trophy’s holder would face a challenge for the Cup, the winner would get it, and the process would repeat itself.

Such contests could be farcical, like when the Ottawa Silver Seven beat a Dawson City team 32-4 on aggregate in 1905. The Cup’s champions, like the country as a whole, were centred in the Laurentian corridor. But in general fixtures were competitive. Western teams gave a good account of themselves, and on a few occasions Winnipeg won. After twenty years the challenge format was superseded by a battle between league champions which in turn evolved into today’s NHL championship. But it was the challenge format which got the Stanley Cup started and established, and that is what we’re looking for today in women’s soccer. If our new cup is something else in twenty years that’s amazing: it lasted twenty years. The men’s Voyageurs Cup has already moved on from its humble beginnings, and that’s part of what we love about it.

Anoint the first champion by some fair-ish method: the L1O champion, round-robin, pick two interested teams and have them play off, it doesn’t matter. The point is, that team then fields challenges. The challenger flies out to the North Shore (say) and plays NSGSC. If the challenger wins, they bring the trophy back for future challenges of their own. If NSGSC wins, they keep it.

The challenger pays its own way out, which for the sake of one or two games in a short period would not be brutal. A team without the interest or the financial wherewithal to make a challenge doesn’t have to. The schedule is only congested voluntarily, though there’d have to be some trusteeship to keep a champion from ducking challenges on feeble excuses. Ambitious clubs thirsting to prove their Dominion-championship bona fides can do so. Exotic out-of-town clubs playing for silverware, many of them meeting only with this trophy on the line, would give us a national championship unmatched by anyone else in the soccer world. Distinctive and, in fact, form, and heritage, distinctively Canadian.

Not that this is a panacea. The Voyageurs Cup, and its brothers like the Cascadia Cup and the Juan de Fuca Plate, succeeded by asking nothing of the teams involved. They played each other as they normally would except at the end some fans ran out with a trophy. This tournament, however we try to ease the burden, would unavoidably impose one. More than buying a trophy, we would need to prove that enough fans and sponsors would come out for these games to make it worthwhile.

But couldn’t we prove that?