Friendship in Competition

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

Nolan Wirth (Mexsport/Canada Soccer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uwe Welz/Canada Soccer

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

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

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

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

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Bringing Back the Hoop

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

Vancouver Whitecaps FC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vancouver Whitecaps FC

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

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

Vancouver Whitecaps FC

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing the 2019 Voyageurs Cup

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

Martin Bazyl/Canada Soccer

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

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

Canada Soccer

Perhaps I should explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I anticipate questions from the crowd.

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

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

What about the Ottawa Fury?

Fuck ’em.

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

Go play the US Open Cup.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would the MLS teams raise hell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rich Lam/UBC Athletics

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

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

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

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

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

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

We shall see.

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

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

Valerie Wutti/GoRavens.ca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alphonso Davies, Little Fish, Big Ponds

By Benjamin Massey · October 30th, 2018 · No comments

Tony Lewis for Maple Leaf Forever!

Give the Whitecaps credit: their farewell to young star Alphonso Davies last Sunday left no page in the storybook unturned.

In his last match before moving to Bayern Münich Davies scored twice in a win over old rivals Portland before leaving in the 86th minute to a standing ovation. His parents named “Parents of the Match,” a tribute to that beer-sponsored Man of the Match award he’s not allowed to win but should have. Even the Whitecaps’ coach for the day, Craig Dalrymple, was perfect: an unsung hero in the Whitecaps’ youth organization going back to the pre-MLS days, probably the longest-serving man in Vancouver’s soccer operations not on the Football Death Panel and a much-respected man to whom many talented young players, Davies included, owe a great deal.

What else could you ask? For the game to have been relevant, maybe. But then Dalrymple would have been dropping cones for the U-18s rather than pacing an MLS touchline, and the Whitecaps would have sent Davies off far from the fans amid endless recrimination. Whitecaps veterans who should know better, like Russell Teibert and Stefan Marinovic, have already been in the press murmuring about poor team spirit, and aging scrub Efrain Juarez has been delighted to escalate it. Davies’s last day could so easily have tasted like sour grapes rather than ambrosia. All in all, Davies got a blessed ending.

Now he belongs to the ages. Or to Bayern, which is much the same thing, facing that big step up to the pantheon. Ask Kei Kamara, a very fine MLS player who washed out at Norwich and Middlesbrough, or Brek Shea, another pacey winger with size who was a young star in MLS until he went to England and became, um, Brek Shea. Except that neither was a league-record transfer for one of the top clubs in the world. What’s the MLS record for most pressure on a guy?

It comes with advantages. (An inability to choose either good or bad will be a theme of this post.) Learning cultured wing play from Franck Ribéry is good. Given the scale of their investment it’s safe to say Bayern will nurture Davies in the way Shea, say, wasn’t. Opportunities will abound: as Bayern boss Niko Kovač said, “when you spend that much money on a player, you don’t just put him in the second team.” Michael Petrasso could lose important years in the QPR U-23s because the club didn’t have much invested in him; Alphonso Davies, less so.

The kid obviously has every physical gift you could desire and to my knowledge Davies’s work ethic has never been questioned. He isn’t afraid to do the little things to win, whether it’s diving (all the time) or trying to kick Damion Lowe in the head. But his defining skill is his pace, and MLS is a pacey league, and the Bundesliga is not necessarily.

Davies finished the 2018 MLS season with eight goals on fifteen shots on target and 37 shots directed. More than half of his shots on frame, and 21.6% of the shots he attempted, went in. Good for him, but not sustainable even in MLS. Brek Shea could shoot like that in this league, once.

Current Vancouver Whitecaps in Breakout Season Before Europe
Name Year GP Min G G/90 SoG SD Sh% SoG% A A/90
Davies, Alphonso 2018 31 2420 8 0.298 15 37 0.533 0.405 11 0.409
Kamara, Kei 2012 32 2871 11 0.345 49 134 0.224 0.366 8 0.251
Shea, Brek 2011 30 2647 11 0.374 23 74 0.478 0.311 4 0.136
Season given for each player is his big year just before he went to Europe; for Davies it is the MLS season before his full-time departure, for Kamara and Shea the year before. Shea was injured in the 2012 MLS season and Kamara was in and out on loan in 2013.

While a player’s ability has everything to do with how many chances he can create, the proportion of those chances hit the back of the net is usually luck1. In his big season, Brek Shea generated more shots than Davies did in his. Shea was 23, a mark against him, but the enormous regression to the mean he’s suffered was more than just running out of time to develop. Davies would be sure to regress as well: 53.3% goals from shots on target is just not sustainable. If anybody expects him to score at about the same rate in a better league he will be badly disappointed. Even Kei Kamara, whose breakout seasons in hindsight have very little of the smoke and mirrors, could not keep it up in England. Then he turned right back into a very good striker in MLS. MLS to Europe is a long way.

Spreadsheets have good news for Davies too. He had 11 assists this past year, tied for fourteenth in the league, and among “physical wide players” the class is him, Romell Quioto, and human regression magnet Julian Gressel. A big guy who can move the ball like Davies can is… there’s no point trying to estimate his worth, the league doesn’t produce them. You can compare Davies’s finishing to Shea’s but Davies provides so many other contributions, with his assists totals never impressing. Davies didn’t even get statistical padding from a hot teammate cashing in his feeds: Kamara, Yordi Reyna, and Cristian Techera did no better than you’d expect, and between them and Davies that’s pretty much the 2018 Whitecaps offense.

MLS flatters offensive talent. The best striker in league history is Bradley Wright-Phillips, a one-dimensional star who runs well and kicks hard and was exceptional in the English League One but on his best day couldn’t star higher up the pyramid. Davies has never had a season in MLS half as productive as Wright-Phillips’s worst full campaign. Wright-Phillips was a known quantity when he joined MLS and nobody yet knows how good Davies will be. Wright-Phillips is an out-and-out striker; Davies is a winger who played wingback when a sweater cut off circulation to Carl Robinson’s brain. Davies is taller, stronger, more useful in his own third. But the comparison holds value: ain’t nobody spending a king’s ransom on Alphonso Davies for his man-marking. He and Wright-Phillips are both attacking stars whose powers are based on speed and who look very good indeed against second-rate CONCACAF defenders.

We know Canadian-trained players can succeed at Bayern Münich: they once plucked a Calgary lad by the name of Owen Hargreaves2 who enjoyed great success. His transfer to Manchester United fetched Bayern what was then the club record fee, since bettered by Toni Kroos and Douglas Costa, and while injury took out his career soon enough he was a cult favourite everywhere and genuinely excellent when healthy3.

But for all the things we would call Owen Hargreaves, “pacey” is not one. He was successful at Bayern because he played soccer well, and he survived a lot more Canadian coaching that Davies did. A good sign for Davies, who spent his formative years in Ghana and landed in Edmonton needing at most a bit of finishing before he was professional-ready. The argument that Canadian coaching inherently ruins players is overblown, but even if you believe it it hasn’t got much to do with Davies.

My inclination towards Davies is cautiously optimistic. You really can’t teach height or speed, but more importantly you can’t teach work rate, and Davies has all three. If you compare Davies to the like of Juarez, who has proven he can get it done at a world-class level but really doesn’t give a damn anymore, you see how much that’s worth. Davies has tools and desire. We can’t see that he has everything else he needs but that’s two hurdles cleared.

Still, let’s not kid ourselves. Alphonso Davies is a talented young man who in the past year probably looked better than he really is. That doesn’t mean he won’t make it, but don’t be afraid to be cautious.

Edmonton Bargain Hunt Renovation

By Benjamin Massey · September 28th, 2018 · No comments

Paul Giamou/Canada Soccer

Randy Edwini-Bonsu, born in Kumasi, Ghana and raised for several years in Edmonton, has been named to FC Edmonton’s “prospects” roster for two Al Classico friendlies against Cavalry. There are several fine professional and former professional players on the list: Jackson Farmer, Allan and Bruno Zebie, Edem Mortotsi. As Steven Sandor pointed out, both goalkeepers most recently played in Europe. With nobody under CanPL contract or committed in any way this is analogous to a training stint, perhaps. But it is more than nothing: at minimum, mild mutual interest.

Edwini-Bonsu is only 28 years old but—and as an extremely early REB fan I say this affectionately—he is last year’s man. His stint as a teenager with the Vancouver Whitecaps, while ferociously promising, was only moderately productive and he was not retained for Major League Soccer. Probably just as well: Tom Soehn would have ruined him anyway, and a stint in the Finnish second division saw him score in bunches. That led to the German second division, a better level by far, one which sent players to the Canadian senior national team in droves. Edwini-Bonsu was one of them, and he boasts fifteen caps with one goal for his adopted country.

By all accounts, many of his performances in the 2.Bundesliga were not bad, and there was hope among his fans that he’d establish himself. But he never quite held down a lineup spot, and his next contract dropped him down a division. In the 3.Liga he was, again, sometimes good but not good enough. His Stuttgarter Kickers side was relegated, Edwini-Bonsu was one of many players released, and he signed on a division down anyway with FC 08 Homburg in the German Regionalliga Südwest for a season. His last action was with fifth-division Tennis Borussia Berlin in 2017–18, and he is currently unattached.

Needless to say, Canadian soccer supporters have not seen him in some time. German semi-professional games are not regularly televised and Edwini-Bonsu was last called to the national team in June 2015. When last seen he was a pacey striker with decent finish, a bite-sized Tosaint Ricketts; these days he apparently plays more wide right. I thought he was very good almost a decade ago, but I do not guarantee it today. I understand they know something about soccer in Germany, where his career has not been a success, and even those with very modest expectations for CanPL’s initial calibre will certainly expect it to outgun the NOFV-Oberliga Nord.

Besides, Edwini-Bonsu’s one of those players who seems interested in European play on principle. He has spent far more of his life outside Canada than in it, immigrating in 2002 and beginning his foreign adventures nine years later. There’s every possibility that Randy Edwini-Bonsu’s time in Edmonton will end at a couple friendlies.

But he’s still the sort of player Edmonton, and the rest of the Canadian Premier League, should be looking at.

As I said I don’t know if Edwini-Bonsu still has anything left. But I am certain he used to have something. To the assorted German clubs who brought him in and threw him out, he was a tool to be used and replaced like any other. To a Canadian team, he would be a potential investment in the future of our game. He is, very specifically, the sort of player you want to give second chances to.

Jackson Farmer, to pick another Edmonton player I’ve liked for a while, is still a young man on the way up. He needs an opportunity to show what he can do and CanPL can provide that. But there are older players in the same boat. A Canadian player in his late 20s struggling to draw a European paycheque drops out of the game or puts out his shingle for some Lithuanian or Serbian or seventh-division French team would promise, however unreliably, to pay him for six months. Recently some of them have joined the PLSQ or League1 Ontario, but that’s what you do while making an honest living somewhere else. Real second chances have been hard to come by.

Around the world, many useful players have revived their careers from the real depths of obscurity because they landed on a decent team willing to invest in them. Jamie Vardy was playing non-League soccer until he was 25. On the Canadian end, Richard Hastings might well have dropped off the face of the Earth by 2004 had Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who already knew and liked him, not brought him back for a second successful spell and another half-decade of national team service. We need more stories like Hastings’s, and not just because of the golden goal.

Fans sometimes seem to think CanPL is almost a development league: given that they won’t be able to bring in more than a handful of famous players, roster spots should go to promising youth and as many random foreigners as it takes to make it watchable. But think also about the Randy Edwini-Bonsus of the world, or Derek Gaudet, who went from MLS to USL to surviving the Halifax open trials at age 29. Not everybody does anything useful with a second chance; heck, most players won’t. But some will, and the rest will give the kids something to push against. FC Edmonton’s Al Classico roster is heavy on the prospects, heavy on the early-20-somethings, and has a couple guys looking to redeem themselves… and that’s about right.

Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

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

Paul Giamou/Canada Soccer

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

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

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

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

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

So the CSA made an exception.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CanPL’s Historic Duty

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

Lake Side Buoys via Facebook, used with permission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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