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?

The Return of the Juan de Fuca Plate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Cosmos – Eddies Thing In Full

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

New York Cosmos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is still not the weird part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Systems) has risen to become one of the top private soccer academies in western Canada but this is their first season of competitive, national-level play. Their squad, all-Canadian but drawn from all over the West, had only been training together briefly before the PDL season started. Though many are alumni of the Whitecaps Residency almost none are of an age to have played together. And the Calgary Foothills, defending PDL finalists recently reinforced with former Canadian youth international Ali Musse, are no joke at all.

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

It was not bad. It was magnificent.

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

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

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

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

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

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

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

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

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

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…)