Hot Takes for Canada

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

Canadian Soccer Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(notes and comments…)

Red Rovers

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

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

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

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

It was not bad. It was magnificent.

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

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

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

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

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

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

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

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

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

Eight Years of Russell Teibert Hair Choices

By Benjamin Massey · January 30th, 2017 · No comments

Once-and-future Canadian national team standout, and eventual Vancouver Whitecaps captain, Russell Teibert has always had the distinctive fashion sense that has gone along with his outstanding play and gentlemanly demeanour. Even as the Whitecaps were mired in their worst Canada-hating spells there was Teibert, looking brilliant both off and on the field, promising better days without a word. (I am a Russell Teibert fan of the old school; perhaps you can tell.)

With MLS bringing in flashy foreigners every year no home-grown soccer player can stand still. Teibert certainly has not. In his professional career he has gone from a dazzling number 10 to a workmanlike defensive midfielder. He is not only the last Vancouver Whitecap remaining from their pre-MLS era but has almost a year’s seniority on the next-longest servant, Jordan Harvey. He has worn the armband for his club. He has quarreled, and made up, with national team coaches. He has played defense, central midfield, and wing. He has survived many players who supposedly were going to do him out of a job. He is still only 24 years old, barely aged out of NCAA and the MLS SuperDraft.

More importantly, his haircuts have moved with him, up and down, and I mean that literally. Like his own career they have been a roller-coaster of promise and nightmare, but they have always been interesting. Let us recap the most important thing we can talk about in the world today: Russell Teibert’s hairstyles.

(more…)

A British Columbia PDL

By Benjamin Massey · January 18th, 2017 · 2 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

On Monday afternoon BC Soccer began soliciting franchises for the long-discussed provincial senior soccer league. That first statement over a year ago was a corker: following decades of hope deferred, BC Soccer is now publicly planning to kick off with eight[1] teams in 2018.

Our answer to League1 Ontario and the Première ligue de soccer du Québec, the league is awkwardly called the “BC Soccer Regional Tier 3 League” and let’s hope that’s a working title. The model resembles L1O: “an amateur league run professionally” with open-age competition but a developmental mandate. They have no aspiration to paying players. The schedule will appeal primarily to student-athletes while eight of the eighteen players on the team sheet, and four starters, must be U-23[2]. Head coaches must hold the CSA’s national “B” license, and by 2020 the “A” license, and there are minimums on the number of practices per week[3]. League1 Ontario has the same rules.

After waiting so long it would be churlish to look a gift horse in the mouth. BC Soccer has got what appeared to be an immobile ball rolling. Nobody who doesn’t live here will appreciate the innumerable rivalries, jealousies, and simple differences of opinion that make something as simple as “emulating Ontario and Quebec” a veritable streetfight. By accentuating the negative, as I am about to do, I am only contributing to these problems. So a paragraph spent putting it in black and white is a good investment. This league is admirable. I will support it. If I had the cash, I might start a team myself. (More on that topic another day.)

The only problem is that it doesn’t meet every expectation. Rather than filling a role no other league can, it is trying to replace a different, albeit foreign, league.

Many fans were hoping for a new, elite semi-professional league that would improve upon the province’s existing top adult teams. British Columbia already has the amateur players and clubs for a serious, competitive “third division”* atop existing regional leagues that, in addition to improving opportunities for talented youth, could entertain fans, pad the pockets of a few veterans, and develop the modest but spectator-friendly local clubs the province craves. There is a clear appetite for that kind of thing. Cup finals between small-town metro league teams with no exciting prospects in sight draw better crowds than you’d think. The 2015 Jackson Cup final in Victoria brought in a thousand paying fans, for a regional competition where one team played an hour’s drive away.

That’s not what we’re getting. BC Soccer wants fans and is very clear on the need to cultivate a supporter base, separating the new league favourably from what exists today. But the league itself is another youth development league, an adjunct on a player’s Wikipedia page. It’s not the rules about imports or U-23 players which make this; plenty of full-time leagues go that route. It’s the schedule.

A three-month season is short in any event, along the lines of the NCAA-oriented USL Premier Development League and shorter than PLSQ or L1O. PDL fans will know what a mixed blessing that shot-glass of soccer can be, and according to BC Soccer there are no plans for lengthening it. This is bad, but (and this will sound strange to nine other Canadian provinces) playing in summer is just as big a problem.

Historically, British Columbia has played soccer in the winter. Our top leagues of the past, the first incarnations of the Pacific Coast Soccer League, followed winter schedules. Today’s regional leagues, the Vancouver Metro Soccer League, Vancouver Island Soccer League, and Fraser Valley Soccer League, all play in the winter and are highly competitive. The VMSL includes recent professionals like Paris Gee, Jacob Lensky, Alex Marello, Michael Nonni, and Nick Soolsma, along with a selection of former high-end prospects and youth internationals that would provide distinction to any RT3 team.

Not much of this talent ever sees the current, summer Pacific Coast Soccer League, which with its province-wide scope and attraction to collegiates might be called an RT3 precursor. After graduating, many elite players prefer winter play, as it leaves summers open to live life. This talent will choose between giving up the longer and often personally-rewarding metro league season, playing soccer eleven-ish months a year, or skipping RT3 with its 14-game season and no player payment. Bet on the latter.

The current model means an even more developmental league than League1 Ontario, which has a seven-month schedule and a good number of teams. RT3 will be not the crown jewel of British Columbia’s senior soccer scene, but a British Columbia PDL. This is fine so far as it goes but that’s not very far. The actual, USL PDL’s record in British Columbia has been mixed. Victoria and to an extent Abbotsford had plenty of initial interest, then as years passed attendance declined. The league failed to arrest the public. A league that is “the same thing but less good” must have the same problem. There’s a ceiling to the amount of casual interest such ephemeral competition can ever generate.

It’s not that players are developed to star elsewhere; junior hockey and college teams make that attractive to fans. A few weeks’ provincial play will probably be an improvement on just the Highlanders and TSS Rovers at a higher level (probably). It’s that the season is so short. Save for the kernel of die-hard supporters, how do you develop a connection to a team that finishes a season in the blink of an eye? How do you develop love for a player to whom your club is only a footnote? When a PDL player goes pro, he is credited to his NCAA college and his PDL career is trivia for the dedicated. The RT3 league seems headed the same way. Far better than what we have; not as good as what we could.

When Canada went to the 1986 World Cup, it took the cream of British Columbia amateur soccer. The heroic George Pakos was winning Jackson Cups in Victoria, Jamie Lowery was a prominent Island player, and in qualifying Ken Garraway did his share. Serious players for serious teams, and when they played for their local clubs serious crowds cheered them on. Of course no semi-professional player other than a prospect is likely to cap for Canada’s men again, and that’s a good thing. But those were still glory days for provincial soccer, made possible by strong local clubs that weren’t the NASL but fought for fans and trophies in their own right. Keeping college students busy for a few months in the summer will never be the same.

(notes and comments…)

The Pointlessness of Sanctioning Drama

By Benjamin Massey · January 7th, 2017 · No comments

Matt Schlotzhauer/Indy Eleven

Calling the United Soccer League a “second division,” as the US Soccer Federation announced that they provisionally would[1], is only fair. It is also fair for the USSF to maintain the NASL’s second-division status now that it looks like they’ll probably be able to keep going for 2017. On the field, the NASL and USL seem relatively even: the NASL had an advantage over USL teams in last year’s US Open Cup but in 2015 the USL pulled off a 7-0 whitewash. The best-supported USL teams, Cincinnati and Sacramento, outdrew the best-supported team remaining in the NASL, Indy. USL still has more full-on-minor-league teams with 1,000-odd attendances even if you don’t count the MLS reserve squads, but added two good ones from NASL in Tampa and Ottawa.

Neither league meets all the USSF criteria for a second division; thus the “provisional” in their announcement. The USL has its weak-sister clubs, many of which allegedly only pay staff part-time and have no appetite for continent-wide travel. Indeed, this was a selling point for the Ottawa Fury jumping to the USL, and the main barrier to FC Edmonton ever doing the same. The NASL, of course, is a bit of a basket case. But they would have been far more of a basket case had the USSF denied them division-2 status: according to Dave Martinez at Empire of Soccer the reported sale of the New York Cosmos to Rocco Commisso hinged on the NASL being a formal second division[2]. Even the remaining seven teams would have had their exit fee discounted by at least 95% as a third division[3]. There would have been no stranger twist in this unpredictable story than the NASL surviving that.

In short, if the USSF wanted to be fairest to both leagues and ensure the strongest professional soccer environment possible, this is pretty much the obvious decision. The only alternatives would have been to flick a middle finger in USL’s face on poorly-rationalized historic grounds, give up the NASL as a going concern, or to do what they did in 2010 and force both leagues to play a combined second-division schedule, a “compromise” no party expressed even off-the-record interest in. The USL is excited, with enthusiastic press releases and a slightly-ironic “We Are UniteD2” campaign going league-wide. The NASL is less excited with what after all is for them the status quo, but they’re alive. (For now.)

So there are only two questions left. The first: what took the USSF so long? This sanctioning drama started in November and it’s obvious they weren’t planning on putting any horses out of their misery if they could help it. Were they waiting to make sure the NASL could reach the arbitrary number of eight teams (they played with seven in the spring of 2013)? Were they hoping one league would go “surprise, all our teams are suddenly owned by Russian oligarchs and we’re meeting all your standards tomorrow?” Were they just waffling uselessly until the potential Cosmos sale forced them to do something/anything? (Brooks Peck at Howler might endorse that theory[4].) They’re still promising details of what “provisional” means “in the coming weeks.” Whatever the explanation, it’s now of academic interest to the fan until the end of this season when we get to do the whole thing again.

The second question: why does it matter? Okay, the second paragraph of this very article said why, but on a more fundamental level why does it matter? Stop me if this is breaking news but, in Canada and the United States, there’s no such thing as a “soccer pyramid.” There is no promotion or relegation based on squad ability, or organizational quality, or anything beyond a team’s willingness to pay an entry fee and salaries. There have been div-2 NASL teams better than div-1 MLS teams, and div-3 USL teams better than div-2 NASL teams, and I bet there are USL PDL or NPSL teams that could give the Tulsa Roughnecks a run for their money. The business viability of the NASL depended on what number came after the word “division” in their Wikipedia article, and the USL obviously thought it was very important, but it has no inherent meaning. It’s all fake! It’s like basing your business on whether Chris Jericho won on Raw last week! None of it has anything to do with anything! The Orange County Blues are not suddenly a stronger franchise! If the decision had gone the other way, the Indy Eleven would not suddenly be a weaker one! It’s fiction! It’s not even a useful fiction! It’s just an arbitrary number decided by bureaucrats, the most useless concept with the very highest importance.

It’s even worse for us up in Canada. If the NASL had become a third division and shut down as a result we almost certainly would have lost FC Edmonton. 20% of our professional soccer scene up in smoke because Americans quibbled over digits. We would have suffered a serious blow for what amounts to no reason at all.

Eight years ago you could say that the American soccer pyramid, while fake, was nearly rational. There was Major League Soccer on the top, unquestionably comprising almost all of the best-supported and best-financed soccer clubs in the land. Then there was the USL First Division, which was the national second division, then the USL Second Division, which was the third. As the name implies the USL divisions were under the same umbrella, and while there still wasn’t promotion or relegation teams would move up or down depending on their finance and ambition. It wasn’t a working system but it was a coherent one.

Any thin veneer of logic this “pyramid” ever had vanished when the USL-NASL split was finalized in 2011. The USL never pretended to be anything but a second division in temporary exile, with much talk of “the top level of soccer below MLS.” The NASL long wanted to be a first division and justified this on the grounds we’ve just discussed: that the groupings were entirely arbitrary so why shouldn’t a given league be at a given level if it wanted to be? The USSF set increasing standards for a third, a second, and a first division with strict requirements for finance and stadium, then showered waivers every year like a ticker-tape parade because said strict requirements had only a loose relationship with reality. The ostensible rationale was to ensure stability at the sub-MLS level, but this winter’s drama is only the most vivid proof of how that goal has failed.

What is the point of this crap? How does it help the American soccer world, ignoring for the moment the Canadian one? The only thing the current American divisional structure does is encourage investors to act like it matters, and its influence seems entirely malign.

There’s only one solution to this sanctioning question. It’s not USL and NASL sorting out their differences, because that won’t happen and even if it did some second-division team would miss payroll or some third-division team would get a new owner and it would all be irrelevant the next season anyway. The real answer is to say “what the hell are we doing?” and abolish the whole distinction. Set standards for a professional league and let the competitors deal with each other as they will. The free market will decide. MLS is not the top level in the United States because it says “major league” in the name, it’s the top level because it has the best players and the highest calibre of marketing. If the NASL equals them it will not be because a federation said so, but because they invested the cash and did the work.

Let the teams decide which divisions are best, not centralized soccer overlords. Until promotion and relegation come to Canada and the United States, and let us pray every day that it does, that is the only arrangement that makes the slightest amount of sense.

(notes and comments…)

Edmonton, Last Survivor and First Rebirth?

By Benjamin Massey · December 1st, 2016 · No comments

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

After six seasons, the North American Soccer League is looking desperate. Ottawa and Tampa Bay have joined USL, Major League Soccer’s reserve league[1]. Fort Lauderdale seems hopelessly doomed[2] and Oklahoma City is all-but-officially dead[3]. And now the most shocking news, that the New York Cosmos, the New York Cosmos, have started missing payroll[4] and may be leaving the NASL[5]; the front office is brazenly noncommittal[6]. What’s certain is that the NASL and USL are meeting, with the United States Soccer Federation in attendance, to try and save something[7]. Even if the NASL manages to stay afloat the USSF may declare it inferior to USL by fiat. The omens for the survival of an independent professional division are extremely bad.

The NASL still has strong teams, the expansion San Francisco Deltas are set to join in 2017, and the usual rumours swirl of game-changing new investment. This might no longer suffice against a MLS-USL axis that has never stopped praying for what all the reports imply: the NASL coming to pieces as the survivors beg for shelter until Don Garber and Alec Papadakis’s big umbrella. But even if today is the NASL’s last they got six years of independent, lovable soccer. That was probably four more than the average punter would have guessed at the beginning.

The clubs that broke from the USL First Division to form the NASL in 2010 included two strong organizations bolting for MLS almost immediately (Vancouver, Montreal), four teams perennially on the verge of collapse (Minnesota, Atlanta, Puerto Rico, Miami), two teams that actually folded before the league played its first game (St. Louis, Baltimore), another wanting for committed ownership (Carolina), and finally FC Tampa Bay, which just happened to be located in USL’s hometown and would later face a competitor, VSI Tampa Bay, in the rebranded USL Pro.

Sure, the NASL had the Cosmos, but we forget how incredibly fly-by-night they once were. Grandiose announcements, huge renderings of new stadiums, merchandising galore, Éric Cantona-helmed friendlies against Manchester United[8], promises of world-class this and EPL-level that… and an underfinanced and ultimately bankrupt youth academy[9], constant changes among important personnel, with no hint this could be a serious soccer organization until, under new ownership, they hit the field in fall 2013 and kicked everybody’s ass.

As for the other early expansion team, FC Edmonton, nobody thought they had a prayer. I didn’t. And yet as the league founders the Eddies have been its most determined defender. Who could have guessed that Ottawa and Tampa would defect, New York would throw down its arms, Minnesota would long have fled for higher ground, and Tom Fath would hold the last ditch? That FC Edmonton, playing in its unsuitable community stadium with an owner who is openly not a soccer guy and a dodgy on-field record, would outlive its league? They’re hiring sales people, right now! A new fan shop seems set to open! If the NASL goes down it won’t be because Edmonton lost faith: the Eddies die hard.

Poor Edmonton. Their loyalty is unlikely to be rewarded. The NASL’s surviving American clubs will wince at replacing the Cosmos with MLS reserve teams but, barring intransigence to a self-destructive degree, will survive. USL would be mad, absolutely mad, to put roadblocks before organizations of Jacksonville and Indy’s quality. Even Miami and Puerto Rico look good compared to some, and are in markets where USL has an historic interest.

USL admitted an Edmonton team once, the Aviators in 2004. That organization couldn’t hold a candle to FC Edmonton’s and went about as wrong as an expansion team can go. At the time there were independent first teams in Calgary, Minnesota, Vancouver, Portland, and Seattle. All are now gone, or reduced to reserve status and eager to pinch pennies. Today’s USL is a crescent, from the Cascadian reserve teams, through good numbers in California and south of the Mason-Dixon, back up to their traditional powerhouses on the eastern seaboard. You could hardly customize a 31-team geography where Edmonton would look more out-of-place. Ottawa can take the bus to a dozen away games; Edmonton would have no hope of a regional rival and no bus trips from anyone but the Whitecaps and Sounders Reserves.

Why would USL want Edmonton? Their attendance and sponsorship power hardly make them “must-haves.” Their travel problems are legendary even by the higher standard of the NASL. Would they be the price for a USL-NASL merger; would Indy go to the wall to save Edmonton? Nice as it is to imagine that would be taking loyalty, literally, a very great distance. Besides, if Tom Fath’s considerable investment in the NASL evaporates and he faces the reduced crowds of reserve soccer, will he even want to go on? Five long weeks ago, when from the outside the NASL looked acceptably stable, Tom Fath told Steven Sandor there was “zero chance” of Edmonton joining USL[10].

Ah, my Canadian friend, you’re thinking of another option. Well, yes, FC Edmonton has been asked about joining the potential Canadian Premier League. They have been asked many times by many people, to the point that they are reportedly exasperated by the very question. Outsiders occasionally assume Edmonton will join because “well NASL it’s natural,” but while they haven’t been loud about it there’s no doubt FC Edmonton isn’t interested[11].

But what if the NASL folds, and USL is uninterested or impractical? Would CanPL be better than nothing? Of course right now CanPL more-or-less is nothing: no teams, no schedule, no players, one employee. But surely even faint hope is better than certain extinction.

That’s what you or I would say, but it’s not our money. The Faths poured time and treasure into the NASL with limited returns beyond a warm feeling in their bellies. Will they have the heart to try again, back awfully close to square one?

It would be glorious if they did. If you are an Albertan, you spend money on the Eddies, and you enjoy the almost-intimate access which at this level of professional soccer comes so easily for even the most ordinary fan, I hope you agree and will make it known. The Eddies are a rare, precious thing and deserve to live forever, in this league or another.

If the Faths do give up, though, they will leave deserving of our gratitude and respect. (This makes them unique among Edmonton professional soccer magnates.) They will also leave the City of Champions open for another CanPL team to take the reins in good conscience. Edmonton may yet be represented in the greatest Canadian soccer experiment of our generation, as it certainly deserves to be. And so, dementedly, the fall of the NASL could pay off for us.

For many, even when compared to a Canadian Premier League the NASL is a good thing. It has liberty. Its clubs, though part of an American-dominated whole, are not the centrally-run branch plants of MLS franchises. If the CanPL existed and played games, it would be easy to choose… but it didn’t, and the NASL did. You wouldn’t be human if this didn’t affect your calculations, if you preferred solid reality to beautiful dreams. Could Edmonton, for example, be blamed for staying loyal to an NASL that let them serve Canadian soccer with total freedom, as surely as they could in the CanPL?

If you have room in your Canadian heart for more than MLS’s American drama, if you cheer for Toronto FC or the Vancouver Whitecaps or the Montreal Impact because that’s your hometown team but you know the country could and should have better, then there is a sweetness to this bitter fruit. The last continental institutional loyalty that could be defended, the last sublimation of Canadian identity maybe justified on higher grounds, is dying. We are being freed from the indignity of willing national submission. If the NASL ends then it will be Garber’s way or the highway, and that makes the road to independence look very clear.

(notes and comments…)

A Canadian Pro/Rel Manifesto

By Benjamin Massey · September 21st, 2016 · 5 comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

Reports of a coming Canadian Premier League have not died. The usual reporters, Duane Rollins and Anthony Totera, continue to tease us with target dates and rumoured plans. Peripheral feelers and exploratory movements have reached even the least connected members of the soccer community. The Canadian Soccer Association has still not made any announcement, but the winking and nudging and “just you waits” are only intensifying. There’s smoke, and while that does not necessarily indicate fire, somebody is trying to start one.

As far as a fan can tell, nothing is set in stone. So perhaps the time is right for us to say what sort of league we want. The true Canadian fan has been desperate for something, anything he could call his own, and we still are, and would support our domestic league even if it was Major League Soccer with a maple leaf tattooed on its face. However, just because our standards may be low and our expectations not much higher does not mean that we don’t have ambitions. A Canadian soccer league would, to a great extent, be an end in itself, but it would also be a means to other ends, and we should try to promote those while plans can still be changed.

One of those ends is making Canada, as surely as it is a hockey country, a soccer country. Eight teams in eight major metropolitan centres would be great for those in the hearts of big cities, but would still leave the majority of our landmass and a large chunk of our population with teams you could only call “their own” in very generous terms. What makes us a hockey nation is not seven NHL franchises but the hundreds of senior, major junior, and junior “A” teams, based in cities as large as Toronto and podunk towns of a thousand people, that bring the sport to the masses. Even the semi-rural family, the suburb-dweller, the oil patch kid, doesn’t have far to go if he wants to watch quality hockey. Much of the country enjoys the same access to curling, or Canadian football, and if you ever wonder why those sports command so much attention despite seeming so passé in the big city, think about that.

Alone, a Canadian Premier League alone could never imitate that. Only one thing could: promotion and relegation.

Simply saying those three words in North America provokes an instantaneous, tribal response. Many demand it with the fervour of the fundamentalist. Others decry it as foreign, impractical, a cancer that could never exist and we’re better off without. North America has franchises bound to leagues. Owners would never accept it. How could you get investors if that investment might go up in smoke with one bad year? It’s mad, it’s terrible, it could and should never happen.

That’s wrong. Promotion and relegation does not need to be an immediate and extreme load on the country’s back. Here is my view, addressed to the prospective owner, of what it could be.

Protecting your investment

Nobody is saying that you should get relegated tomorrow. We’re not insane. You, the founding franchiser, are going to plow a lot of money into getting this league started. Even in the best case the league’s very survival will be in doubt for several years. If at least one team doesn’t fold outright it’ll be a miracle. A malleable structure sending some $20-million-a-year subsidizer to League1 Ontario for 2019 is a terrible idea and everyone knows it. Even if we were that extreme, the infrastructure and lower divisions do not exist. The Victoria Vistas get relegated from the CanPL; where the heck are they gonna play?

We don’t need promotion and relegation in year one, or year three, or year five. We need a clear roadmap of how we’re going to get there. You can only accept promotion and relegation after fifteen seasons, provided the Premier League has sixteen teams and there are semi-pro leagues in every province? That sounds amazing! But write it down and work towards it.

In fact, you shouldn’t necessarily be relegated at all. You’re spending a lot of money and you want your investment to be protected. Okay. There are ways to promote and relegate teams other than “three up, three down” every year. Both the Argentine Premier Division and Mexico’s Liga MX, the best and most successful soccer league in North America, use a “coefficient” system that relegates teams for sustained incompetence rather than one bad season. The first year of the system could be promotion only: bringing in four less-developed teams to fight your established squads for three relegation places would give you an automatic advantage. Minimum stadium standards, like those used by almost every league in the world, will make sure you don’t get knocked out by some podunk outfit playing Thursday afternoons at a city park. For greater security, institute a playoff between the teams in the Premier League’s relegation places and the lower divisions’ promotion places, so we make sure that only the deserving get to the big time.

Remember, no promotion/relegation advocate has a problem with your team staying in the top division indefinitely. It’s about adding a competitive element to the bottom of the table, and clubs being free to rise as far as their talent and resources can take them. Any promotion/relegation system has to be fair, but “fair” applies to you, the owner, as well.

Making that investment work

Nothing about pro/rel prevents financial responsibility. American opponents regularly assert that promotion and relegation is a naturally reckless system but they are conflating the all-round money madness of European and South American soccer with one element of its system. Teams in no danger of relegation can spend like lunatics and suffer for it; ask the late-’90s NHL. Of course, a team that gets relegated takes a financial hit every time, there’s no way around that, but the measures you may already be taking for fiscal stability can work here.

By all accounts the Canadian Premier League will pursue revenue sharing and cost certainty in the form of a salary cap anyway. Making this work with promotion and relegation is as easy as wanting to. If a cap team in the CanPL gets relegated to the PLSQ, it’s perfectly reasonable for the rules to “grandfather” the newly-arrived club into the PLSQ’s lower salary structure. Work out the details, that’s all they are. The PLSQ team that gets promoted in their place will want to spend more and keep their new position, but a salary cap will keep them from pulling a Gretna. Cost certainty and pro/rel can, in fact should, walk hand in hand.

The other side to relegation is that it frees you from undercapitalized, uncompetitive teams facing either new ownership or bankruptcy. The North American Soccer League spent two years keeping the Atlanta Silverbacks afloat on a shoestring for pride’s sake. Atlanta was a decent market with a good history and a solid soccer-specific stadium, but with MLS coming they couldn’t find a buyer willing to commit to an NASL level of expenditure. The Silverbacks should really have been allowed to fall to their natural level, and without promotion and relegation that becomes a whim of ownership rather than a Darwinian evolution (see San Antonio). It cost the more solid NASL owners both prestige and hard cash.

In Europe, when a team goes bankrupt or misses payments, it is automatically deducted so many points that relegation is almost inevitable. In a franchise system these teams would be near-certain bankrupts but with the lower costs and lesser pressure of a lower division, they can sometimes keep mostly afloat long enough to reorganize into a healthier model as Portsmouth is currently doing. That club is owned by a supporters’ trust that could never possibly have raised the required capital if Pompey was at the basement of a franchise-based Premier League, with all the expenditure and paper-only “value” that implies; the team would have just died. Obviously teams do go bankrupt in a pro/rel system, it’s not a panacea, but it is another way to handle the trouble one broke owner can put your league in.

Remember, more soccer is good for you. You want every sort of fan you can get, of course, but the sort who makes you the most money is the season-tickets-every-year new-kit-every-two merchandise-buying beer-swilling sponsor-supporting diehard. They come back year after year, plow way more of their disposable income than would be considered responsible into your pocket, and feel personally involved in the success of your company. Many of them feel so deeply about your corporate success that they will stand up and sing songs about how terrific your company is; they are literally paying you to use them in your marketing. Subject to pretty modest precautions like making sure the loud ones get their own section and preventing them punching babies or burning the stadium down, they bring other fans in the door. This is a good deal for you.

These fans also don’t come from nowhere. Nobody wakes up one day and decides “I am going to lose my mind for soccer,” or hockey, or football, or ringette, or any other sport. That sort of fanaticism is something that builds with exposure to the sport. It is why, for so long, soccer supporters were such a niche in the United States and suddenly were everywhere: a certain critical mass had to develop, and then things took off.

Sure, you and your fellow franchisers might be able to get domestic soccer that critical mass almost singlehanded, but wouldn’t you rather other people helped pay for it? A healthier lower division, such as is promoted by the competitiveness of promotion and relegation, is in your interest. In principle you might lose a meaningful number of fans to local, lower-division rivals, but in practice this hardly seems to happen. You only need look at the rise and fall of attendances as teams go up and down the divisions to see this: many fans want to see their local side, many fans want to see the best, and sometimes those two groups overlap. Sports fandom is not zero-sum. League1 Ontario fans still go to Toronto FC games, and at every level, atmosphere attracts atmosphere.

And if a new first-division team appears in your city, within walking distance of your stadium? Around the world those games are the most intensely-fought and lucrative of all. If you can’t make money off passionate clashes between neighbours and rivals, what are you even doing in this business?

More soccer is also good for you on the field. One of the best-established ways to train a young player is to send him on loan so he can get experience playing meaningful games at a level that suits him. At risk of stating the obvious, this requires a team to borrow him from you. Except in rare cases it’ll be a lower-division team for the also-obvious reason that if he was good enough for the first division the kid would be playing for you in it. There needs to be multiple options; you don’t want to be stuck because your only choice doesn’t need help at that position. Preferably the team will also be nearby, in case you need the kid back, and run by staff you know and trust. Heck, you probably even need successful teams at multiple levels, to accommodate players at different stages of development. That’s a long list of requirements and it takes a very healthy lower-division pyramid to accommodate them all. The United States does not have that. Bring in promotion and relegation, give lower-division teams that boost, and Canada could.

That’s an unquantifiable benefit, of course. But another reason you should want healthy lower divisions is that, if it turns out that kid isn’t good enough for you after all, you can sell him to that lower-division team that liked him so much last time. Right now, unless you’re Miami FC, there’s not much point in the NASL paying cash on the barrel for an MLS reject: the MLSer will just be released in two months anyway and they can get him for free. If that NASL team was angling for promotion, or for that matter if an MLS team was battling relegation, matters might look a little different, and you make money.

Finally, ask yourself what would promotion and relegation cost you? So long as you stay up – and as we said a few paragraphs ago, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t – very little. In ten or fifteen years or whatever, when the league reaches the point of stability where promotion and relegation are introduced, you will lose out on sweet franchise fees with every expansion. On the other hand, if you’re able to charge new investors big money then pretty-much-by-definition your business will be in good financial shape, and you will also be able to command a premium for the franchise fees in the years before promotion and relegation. “Buy in now or start from the bottom” is a decent pitch. Besides, franchise fees are a finite resource. Eventually your league will get as big as it can. They’re a crutch, not a structural revenue source.

Other than that, it’s hard to see how it’ll cost you a dime. A rival gets relegated? Given the probability that the new league will be spread across this huge country, it’s much more likely that new geographic rivals will appear. Travel costs are going to be a bastard whether you’re going from Toronto to Edmonton or Toronto to Sherwood Park. Minimum facility standards, common around the world, will save you from road games where friends and family pay a buck each to watch your $5-million roster. You may want to introduce parachute payments for relegated teams, and modest stadium subsidies for teams being promoted would be a good idea, but weren’t we just talking about revenue sharing? This is the same thing by other means, the rich giving a certain proportion of their revenue to benefit the poor for the benefit of all. The total amount of money you pay out doesn’t need to change.

And if it goes wrong?

Of course, there’s every chance that you hire the wrong guy, he signs the wrong players, blows through your money like a politician in election week, and in spite of all protections you get relegated. I’m sorry. There’s also every chance that you sell all your capital to buy Bre-X stock and wind up fishing for change on Granville and Nelson. We can give you a sporting chance, we can shield you from ordinary bad luck, so that one comes down to “don’t make stupid decisions.” If you can’t handle that as a condition, maybe capitalism isn’t for you.

The Top 10 Horrible Ways Teams Have Been Eliminated From the Canadian Championship

By Benjamin Massey · July 1st, 2016 · No comments

2016’s Voyageurs Cup final game was one for the books. By this, I mean it tore out the hearts of Vancouver Whitecaps fans and laughed at them as they died. This is what the Voyageurs Cup is for. Since its formation in 2002 the Whitecaps have, more often than not, enjoyed a long series of wide-awake nightmares. The same applies for fans of FC Edmonton, and to a lesser extent every team that isn’t the Montreal Impact. The Voyageurs Cup is wonderful and it is horrible, like eating a pound of bacon for breakfast.

In honour of this latest addition to the pantheon of misery, I thought I’d compile my list of the top ten most horrifying defeats since the beginning of the Canadian Championship in 2008. (Why not the beginning of the Voyageurs Cup in 2002? Partially because I don’t remember that far, partially because few teams cared, and mostly because I will be getting quite nerdy enough without dragging in Mesut Mert and the 2004 Calgary Mustangs.)

I am, of course, biased. As an ex-Whitecaps and now-FC Edmonton fan, you will notice these teams prominent on this list. All I can say is that I honestly believe they have had the bulk of the blackness. From another point of view these moments of agony will be moments of triumph. Soccer is a zero-sum game and one man’s collapse is another’s miracle. But let’s face it, happiness is not in the Voyageurs Cup spirit. Losing feels much worse than winning feels good, and it’s the bad beats that have always defined this tournament. Or maybe that’s the westerner in me.

Since this article is so image-heavy, it begins after the jump.

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Goals Galore on the North Shore

By Benjamin Massey · May 22nd, 2016 · No comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

On Saturday afternoon, four years after the demise of the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Victoria Highlanders Women, the North Shore Girls Soccer Club finally re-launched elite women’s club soccer in western Canada. Their new Women’s Premier Soccer League team kicked off for the first time at North Vancouver’s handsome Kinsmen Park, marking the hugely overdue return of elite interregional competition to Canada’s most women’s-soccer-mad province. A respectable crowd of at least a hundred paid $5 each to watch local amateurs in an out-of-the-way suburban park, not counting ten or so freeloaders squinting through the chainlink fence. Organization was good, the free program missed only a little information, the concession did fine business, and the kids had a lovely time. In every area save on the field, it was a terrific start to a much-anticipated story. Their next home game is 4:30 PM on Sunday, May 29 against ISC Gunners FC; do come if you can.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Because this is North America, the WPSL’s place in our soccer pyramid is complicated. Primarily a summer league for college players, and using NCAA substitution rules, it is probably the third-best women’s soccer league in the United States. The best is the National Women’s Soccer League, and the second-best probably United Women’s Soccer, which also played its first ever game yesterday afternoon. UWS was formed mostly from surviving Eastern teams of the former USL W-League, which folded at the end of 2015, plus four of the more ambitious WPSL teams, which had been on the “semi-professional” side of an amateur/semi-pro divide. UWS would have included Quebec City and Laval’s late W-League teams, but the Canadian Soccer Association (and, according to Duane Rollins on the Two Solitudes podcast, the United States Soccer Federation) did not want Canadian teams in the American league[1].

Question: how is the North Shore in the American WPSL, then? It’s a good one. Quebec’s soccer federation supported their teams joining UWS[2] so it isn’t that. British Columbia doesn’t have a high-level semi-professional women’s soccer league, but neither does Quebec. Their best hope is that the PLSQ might form a women’s division in 2017 or so. Then again, British Columbia doesn’t even have a men’s PLSQ, nor does its provincial neighbours. Laval and Quebec could play in League1 Ontario; NSGSC would have no such option. Not that Laval and Quebec thought it was an option for them, preferring to fold. It was also suggested they play in Quebec’s top amateur league, and NSGSC already plays in British Columbia’s. It may be similar to how Ontario’s USL PDL men’s teams are being told to join League1 Ontario for 2017[3] while Calgary Foothills, the Victoria Highlanders, and WSA Winnipeg go unmolested. The west is the hinterland, even in areas (like Quebec semi-pro women’s soccer) where the big provinces aren’t ahead of us.

Theoretically NSGSC enters the first rank of Canada’s elite women’s clubs with the nine L1O sides. In practice, an NSGSC team featuring many of their WPSL players finished second in Vancouver’s Metro Women’s Soccer League and was demolished, 4-0, by Richmond in the Provincial Cup final. Other lower mainland clubs has talent at this level, but only the North Shore had the wherewithal to take a step up. That is a terrific move by them, a risk that deserves reward. We need more clubs to show such ambition. I will give them my $5 a game, and you should do the same. If it’s a success then, with all the talent in the Vancouver area, there’s no doubt the NSGSC can become competitive. But just because they aim at a high level doesn’t mean they automatically achieve it.

That afternoon, the North Shore didn’t belong on the same turf as OSA FC, one of the Northwest Division’s historically better teams but hardly a powerhouse. As FC Tacoma 253, OSA finished second in the division last year behind Issaquah, now called “ISC Gunners.” (Amateur soccer is confusing.) Although many of the NSGSC players knew each other from the MWSL, they didn’t play like it. Possibly it was down to a coaching change; Tony Seddon coaches the MWSL team, but NSGSC technical director and former Whitecaps Girls Elite boss Jesse Symons has the helm in the WPSL.

OSA FC was more connected than NSGSC. They were significantly more athletic, and repeatedly split the North Shore’s defense for stunning scoring chances. The final score was OSA 4, NSGC 1, and could have been worse. OSA scored a 35-yarder. They scored off a volley. They scored off a scramble in front of the keeper. They scored from an own goal. North Shore’s only goal, from midfielder Katelyn Erharden, came from a terrific cross from Margaret Hadley, but that was one of few well-worked opportunities. When the North Shore tried to hit on the counterattack they resorted too often to long balls, and the OSA defenders were so consistently faster than NSGSC’s forwards that it only tired the Canadians out. OSA’s Chyalisa Baysa, Kennya Cordner (man of the match), and substitute Lindsey Patterson had an entire North Shore’s worth of scoring chances each. Our local heroines were badly beaten at home, albeit by a strong team, and have work to do. It was a rude welcome.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Most of the NSGSC roster is young locals, and three North Shore players have international experience above the U-17 level. The most famous, World Cup observer and frozen yogurt veteran Selenia Iacchelli, did not play. Forward Rheanne Sleiman, an elder statesman at 26 years old and an eleven-time U-20 international, captained the team and put in a decent shift given her lack of service. The last was former University of Victoria midfielder Jaclyn Sawicki. Sawicki is a four-time Canada West first team all-star, played W-League with the Whitecaps and the Highlanders, was a key member of our U-20s in 2012, and in September 2011 made a single, oh-so-brief appearance with our senior WNT against the United States.

I’ve always liked Sawicki, and not just because she’s a UVic alum. She has excelled at every level where she’s got an opportunity. Had she gone to some crappy NCAA school instead of a good Canadian one we’d have heard much more from her. When Andrew Olivieri underused her in the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup I repeatedly whined about it, and wrote her onto my imaginary U-20 Women’s Player of the Year ballot. Well, guess what? At 23 years old, with no experience above the Universiade in four years, she’s still good. Unlike most of her teammates she passed accurately at medium range, and it was her superb ground ball down the left that sent Hadley off to create the North Shore’s only goal. When NSGSC had a promising development, as opposed to a big hoof that the forward happened to get on this time, it usually developed through Sawicki. She was substituted off with twenty minutes left, the score 2-1 to OSA, and from then on NSGSC’s resistance essentially collapsed. Sawicki showed a WPSL standard from the off; one of the few North Shore players who did. She is still only 23 and her CIS career is over. Hopefully she has the desire and gets a chance to play at a higher level, because she belongs there.

No other sparks were quite so bright. Midfielder Jenna Baxter was feisty in the early going and made a few good interceptions. Unfortunately she was substituted off after half an hour only to return late in the game, so I suspect Jesse Symons disagreed. Though complicit in a sloppy-spaghetti-mess of giveaways the midfield made of the first minutes, many players on both teams were as they struggled to settle in. Katelyn Erharden, the goalscorer, had another good chance and was extremely vocal trying to organize her teammates. Forward Margaret Hadley, who set Erharden up, had a few good touches in the minutes after she came off the bench. Unfortunately chasing several hopeless long balls seemed to wear her out, and there’s an opportunity to improve there.

As individuals, not many regulars looked really awful. As a team, it didn’t go well, and late in the game they were obviously downhearted. In a debut where everything else went great, that’s a let-down. However, it is at least soluble. Experience will look after a lot. The WPSL season is a short one, two games a weekend until the middle of July, so it doesn’t leave much time to become the Portland Thorns, but let’s face it. If NSGSC’s WPSL team becomes as important to Canadian soccer as it should, it won’t be because they have a great 2016 but because they build something that can last into 2026. The very fact that they’re trying, and taking it seriously, is the most promising thing to happen in western Canadian soccer since FC Edmonton started their academy.

(notes and comments…)

A Brief Word on the TFC Travel Restrictions

By Benjamin Massey · October 28th, 2015 · 1 comment

Bookmark this page. I am defending Toronto soccer OOOOOOOLTRAs. It will not happen again.

Many serious supporters dislike “pyro” – flares and smoke bombs – at a match. This is more than their right. If you wish to stand and chant with your view unobscured and your lungs unblocked, you must be able to. It is a widely-held aesthetic, and in many cases medical, desire. It does not make you any less dedicated or intense. This is obvious.

Moreover, pyro can be annoying, and even unsafe, when wielded by unregulated imbeciles or inexperienced men. This goes for flags and even standing itself. The drunk yobbo smoking out his own keeper is a shame to himself and his group.

However, an also-large number of supporters love well-deployed pyro, both participating and watching from afar. It is common in matches around the world, almost invariably without ill effect. Set up with knowledge and preparation it is no more dangerous than waving a huge floppy flagpole for ninety minutes. In North America real mass supporters’ culture is still very young, and who can predict whether pyro will be a part of it in 2065?

The way to deal with it is to permit pyro, in an organized supporters’ section. This has two key advantages. First, those who dislike it may stand in another supporters’ section. Second, by giving responsibility for pyro to dedicated people, you contribute to a safe environment. Knowing that openness is good for a productive relationship, the supporters will have every incentive to self-police for those lone loons with a flare smuggled in their anus. The loons themselves will be less motivated, for the atmosphere they want already exists. Useful safety equipment like buckets of sand will be as easy to come by as a banner, and knowledge on safe support will be passed on openly from veteran to enthusiast.

The way not to deal with it is to insist on rigorous control by franchise and league front offices, then when repression inevitably leads to haphazard smuggling and crimes of opportunity, collectively punish a mass of supporters which was 99% incapable of stopping it even if they did know in advance, while fans who expected something else entirely choke and curse. And then to add insult to injury, using those very supporters (and very possibly that very pyro) in your marketing.

I would not smuggle pyro into an MLS game even if I were still a supporter in that league. I think you shouldn’t. But we have a mass supporters culture now, and the more you stomp on them for no good reason the more they’ll resent it. Wouldn’t we all? And with all that resentment pyro becomes something far worse than a display not everybody likes: it becomes a way for the disaffected and sometimes dumb to stick it to the Man who doesn’t give a shit about them as more than a cash machine.

You can have a proper supporters’ section. Or you can have franchise-funded cheerleaders. If you try to turn one into the other, for the sake of the twee faux-Britishness you imagine soccer moms want to clap along to, these things will happen. And if you then react by collectively punishing the innocent, you show even the rule-abiding what you really think of them.