Three Candidates for Pacific FC Depth

By Benjamin Massey · May 10th, 2019 · No comments

Stewie the Starfish’s stalwart seamen have become impotent.

From first place in the Canadian Premier League they have dropped to a lowly sixth after a mid-week 3-0 battering by Forge FC. Vainly do we say that first place was after the second game in league history, or that our two losses were another midweeker to better-rested Valour and a game well-earned by the Hamiltonians but not the worst 3-0 ever1. Pacific has not looked great by eye or numbers and this weekend’s tilt, away to FC Edmonton, will pit us against tenacious defending and lots of athleticism to weary a tired team.

We knew Pacific’s defensive depth would be a problem but maybe not so early. Former League1 Ontario man Lukas MacNaughton had two games full of quality and violence. But he was suspended for the Valour match, while Hendrik Starostzik has missed two and counting with a foot problem. In their place Ryan McCurdy was abominable and Émile Legault, a neat little player, is too short and inexperienced to play centre back professionally right now. Given Starostzik and MacNaughton Pacific likely beats Valour, and while Forge was another thing altogether being able to spell fullbacks Blake Smith and Kadin Chung with Legault would have done a power of good.

Pacific have recently added Saudi youth trainee Ahmed Alghamdi and former TSS FC Rover Zach Verhoven to their roster. Even so they stand at 20 players signed, counting the seriously injured Marcel de Jong. They had very few reserves to draw upon, have drawn upon them early, and didn’t even get wins out of it: add depth, please, and the sooner the better.

But there’s no merit in complaining about a lack of signings if you can’t suggest any, and while Sergio Ramos would be a quality addition my source at Pacific says they’re unlikely to agree terms.

Here are three ideas for Pacific FC. All are meant to be realistic. They are professionally out of contract but have played recently at a high level (no stirring Luca Bellisomo comebacks). They are not so accomplished as players that they’d automatically demand large wages, and possess some tenuous connection to British Columbia soccer. We are looking for useful players here to fill out the back of the roster, not superstars. They might make a disproportionate difference.

Alberta Soccer

Noah Cunningham

Born: December 10, 1997, St. Albert, AB
Height: 6’2″
Weight: 195lbs
Last Club: University of Alberta (Canada West)
Tenuous BC Connection: member of the 2018 Victoria Highlanders (USL PDL)

There were serious rumours that Edmonton would sign Cunningham, who in fitting with some of Jeff Paulus’s goals is an old Edmonton Academy boy and played at the University of Alberta. In the event the Eddies managed to land Amer Didic to finish off the defensive core, then lanky local striker Easton Ongaro became available from Cavalry as Paulus’s last pre-season signing. Fair enough, everyone would take Didic over Cunningham and I’d have a hard time turning down Ongaro. But Cunningham is therefore available, and the Ongaro precedent suggests he’s a free agent.

Cunningham is not a household name. He appeared in one of Rob Gale’s U-18 national team camps in 2014, alongside Marcus Godinho, Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, Shamit Shome, and David Choinière. But you’re not expecting household names in this part of the roster; you’re hoping for underrated young players and Cunningham is all that. His university career at Alberta has covered him in laurels, while his USL PDL career has been mixed but positive. Neither athletic nor flamboyant, you won’t confuse him for Franz Beckenbauer, but he has size and smarts. He seems like a good guy to have around, and just because he wasn’t Jeff Paulus’s type of player doesn’t mean he couldn’t fit in at Pacific. He also provides versatility, having played a fair bit of central midfield in his time.

If Cunningham signed it would mean the 2018 Victoria Highlanders, a poor defensive team, had put two defenders in the inaugural CanPL plus goalkeeper Nolan Wirth. This does rather offend reason, especially since Cunningham’s partner Peter Schaale doesn’t look overwhelmed at HFX. In Cunningham’s defense he played only 725 minutes across 10 matches last year (Schaale had 1009 in 12) and with Calgary Foothills in 2017 he was a key player on a fine team. Victoria’s struggles were down to lacking a consistent lineup and having to gun for goals as much as anything. He was by no means the problem, his other PDL campaign was good, and surely his USports excellence earns him the benefit of the doubt.

By all accounts Cunningham is a serious student, working on his education degree: he aspires to teach high school and has at least a year left. But that just means he should get used to summers off. Van Isle could do a lot worse than giving Cunningham a developmental deal.

MexSport/Canada Soccer

Jackson Farmer

Born: May 3, 1995, Edmonton, AB
Height: 6’2″
Weight: 181lbs
Last Club: Calgary Foothills U-23 (USL PDL)
Tenuous BC Connection: Whitecaps Residency and Reserves from 2011 to 2016

Jackson Farmer just turned 24 years old. Time flies when you’re not having fun. He got a full senior international cap in his teens (against Mauritania on September 8, 2013) and peaked right there. Captaining the Whitecaps U-18s and dominating the centre back spot next to Alex Comsia, Farmer graduated to play regularly for the Whitecaps reserves under Alan Koch and trained with the first team, but never received an MLS contract. He was one of several young Whitecaps to be neglected in an ill-fated affiliation with the USL Charleston Battery, making only a handful of appearances. Farmer got in for Canada’s U-20 and U-23 teams at every opportunity, and played at home in the Pan-American Games, but those teams never went far.

The Calgary Foothills had Farmer for their 2018 championship season, and in dropping down to USL PDL he became a bench player, getting eight matches for 299 minutes plus two stoppage-time appearances in the playoffs. He lost minutes to Jordan Haynes, Nik Ledgerwood, Dean Northover, and Chris Serban, slotting in at centre back or fullback as opportunity allowed. There was never much talk that Cavalry would bring him to the Canadian Premier League, and while FC Edmonton had him in pre-season, where he played another Al Classico on the opposite end, he didn’t stick. Koch, Mike Anhaeuser, Tommy Wheeldon, Jr., Jeff Paulus, and a few Whitecaps bosses all gave Farmer a good long look and said no thanks.

There are some good coaches on that list. We can’t kid ourselves: Farmer is going the wrong way. But that doesn’t mean he’s done. Pacific, who are desperate for a decent, affordable, versatile domestic defender acquainted with CanPL-level competition, might be the perfect landing spot. Moreover, context flatters him. The 2018 Foothills must have been one of the best teams in USL PDL history: their defense allowed 7 goals in 14 regular season games and two in four playoff games. And yet, by goals against per minute, Farmer was better than average on his excellent team: Calgary conceded only one goal (to TSS FC Rovers’ Daniel Sagno) while he was on the field. When he played for Calgary against an FC Edmonton XI in the 2018 Al Classico friendly at Clarke Stadium he was a star of the day. A natural centre back, Farmer has played quite a bit of right back lately and has even suited up at DM. Versatility is good for a depth player.

FC Edmonton loaded up on attractive ball-playing defenders with high athleticism, and their big blonde guy, Amer Didic, is much bigger and almost as blonde as Farmer. The Whitecaps and their reserve teams were notorious dumpster fires, and it was no shame for Farmer that he couldn’t be a regular USL defender when he was 18. He’s played so many quality games against his peers over so many seasons, it’s hard—impossible—to believe that Farmer just turned bad. If I was Pacific and had the option I would let him and Cunningham duke it out. I might sign both, short-term, if I could.

St. FX Athletics

Ryan Ashlee

Born: 1993, Victoria, BC
Height: 6’4″
Last Club: Bays United (VISL)
Tenuous BC Connection: Born and raised in Victoria, now plays amateur soccer there.

Alas, despite their Tenuous BC Connections, both Farmer and Cunningham are Alberta boys who may not want to move to Victoria on the cheap. So we should find a local option.

Ryan Ashlee is your classic centre back. Tall, lanky, likes nothing better than getting his forehead on a soccer ball and sending it far, far away. Though born and raised in Victoria Ashlee gave the other coast a try for college, spending four years at St. FX and making all sorts of Atlantic all-star teams. But he came home for the summer, playing PDL (and PCSL) with the Victoria Highlanders and growing into the level, winning the Juan de Fuca Plate in 2014 and supporters’ player of the year in 2015. After leaving school he played first-division amateur with Coquitlam until in 2018 Ashlee starred with the awkwardly-named Surrey BC Tigers Hurricanes, a name we’ve all had to get used to as they won the national amateur championship.

Moving back to Victoria for the 2018–19 winter campaign, Ashlee joined the Vancouver Island Soccer League’s Bays United and was most unsurprisingly named rookie of the year. He also came up in the most valuable player conversation, a rare thing for a centre back in a metro league, and was most valuable player of the league All-Star game against the Fraser Valley. Bays United had an average defensive record, relying on a killer attack but still only finishing mid-table; the fact that Ashlee was so highly-touted all the same is major praise.

You see the theme. Never given a chance at a truly elite level, but everywhere Ryan Ashlee has gone he has succeeded. Without a doubt, if the Canadian Premier League had started in 2014, somebody would have brought him in. Instead he arrived too early. Yet he hasn’t gone away. The VMSL and VISL, where Ashlee stands out, is good soccer. We’ve seen what some unheralded League1 Ontario players, like MacNaughton, can do given full-time training and elite teammates, and Ashlee is certainly in that class.

And while one hates to build his first team this way, considered as a gesture, signing Ashlee could not be bettered. The VISL has been an enthusiastic promoter of Pacific FC since their announcement, a friendship which the team reciprocates, but turning Island amateur players into professionals is the real holy grail. McCurdy and goalkeeper Nolan Wirth, who both played with the Highlanders and Vic West last year, made a good start. Ashlee would keep the pipeline flowing. He would also, somehow, be the first Victoria native in team history2. From a tactical perspective, his aerial game would be valuable both defensively and on the attack, given Pacific’s overreliance on the high cross and the set piece. He’s taller than any other defender on the team, and while not a natural ball-player in the same way as Cunningham or Farmer the best-case scenario has him as the no-nonsense bastion for Starostzik to free-wheel around.

The problem is that it probably is too late: Ashlee has his degree and a real job, he’s a grown man with responsibilities now. Probably there’s no realistic offer Pacific FC could make to have him put in two weeks’ notice. But I’d like them to try. At least pick up the phone and ask the question. Ashlee’s generation has mostly either made it or moved on already, but sometimes life does have a second act.

Another Day One at Westhills Stadium

By Benjamin Massey · April 29th, 2019 · 1 comment

Never go into the archives of Maple Leaf Forever! without expert supervision. Any post written before about 2016 is pretty much unreadable. But this morning I dove into the crap to get a particular nugget: my first visit to Langford’s ironically-named City Centre Park in May 2010 to watch the Victoria Highlanders host the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s in the USL PDL season opener.

A lot has changed in nine years. For one thing I ripped Russell Teibert, who was a year or so from becoming Canadian Soccer Jesus. Both the Highlanders and the Whitecaps U-23s folded then came back as completely different setups. Also, the ironically-named City Centre Park is almost unrecognizable. 2010’s aluminum-bleachered main stand now has beautiful purple seats with “PFC” picked out in white and wouldn’t look out of place in England’s League Two. The “Bear Mountain Stadium” sign now says “Westhills Stadium” (though it is otherwise exactly the same, which is fun). The neighbourhood has built up; a weirdly obscure tree-shrouded ground nestled in with the industry and parking lots is now in a fast-growing part of Langford that’ll probably be 50% condos by the time Noah Verhoeven gets his testimonial.

But a few things are the same. Quoting myself:

God, what a fantastic place to watch a soccer game! The sun is shining, the birds are tweeting, there’s a little man-made lake at the east end of the park which is simultaneously incredibly twee and incredibly cool. The plastic pitch is still new enough that the game is quite enjoyable on the surface, security guards aren’t uptight bag-checking assholes, and the fans have the good-spirited nature of people who are watching a semi-professional soccer game in the middle of nowhere and just having a whale of a time.

[. . .]

3-2 Victoria stood as the final, and the better team won. But it was a good contest and one that involved some pretty good fans from the Highlanders, who sang and made noise that you associate with a far higher level than USL PDL. Even the soccer parents in the grandstand were more involved in the game than your stereotypical Canadian fan, applauding and following events with visible agitation. I know there are travel issues, and stadium issues, and all sorts of issues in the way of further growth. But if the Victoria Highlanders keep this up and they’re not in the second division within five years, it’ll be a disgrace.

It took nine years, and they’re not the Highlanders, and it’s actually the first division. And security checks bags now, though they’re still human beings rather than dicks with badges and let us bring in cookies for Clare Rustad1. Otherwise 2010 Ben would be pretty happy with how those paragraphs worked out.

In April 2019 Langford hosted another opener, when Pacific FC welcomed Halifax for the second game in the history of the Canadian Premier League. The fans are still fun and, like the stadium, mostly new. In 2010 the approximately 2,000 people at that game were considered a massive success. In 2019 official attendance was 5,154, which as far as I can tell is the best-attended soccer event on Vancouver Island since the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup2. And those 5,154 men, women, and children were bouncing. The Lake Side Buoys tailgate was not only visited but largely manned by people I’d never met in the PDL days. Many of them packed into the bustling general admissions supporter stands where they cheered, shot the shit, and had such a great time that the organized chanting, for all the numbers and enthusiasm, was drowned out by spontaneous fun.

Fans lined up in the sun for merchandise and refreshment; the fish-and-chips guy probably put his kids through college. They went berserk for Hendrik Starostzik, the 3. Liga veteran who not only scored the first goal in club history but showed that Albert Watson-like ability to impose his will aerially despite not being that tall and has “fan favourite” written all over him in pen. They crowded in the general admission area, or congregated in the very handsome beer garden, or hunkered down in the new seating, howling at the fouls, cheering the passes into space, and were engaged for all 90 minutes; when the Pacific players sprinted over to the supporters after the final whistle to celebrate their win it felt completely natural despite both groups having literally just met3. It wasn’t all perfect; there were not one but two appalling DJs vomiting noise and queues for almost anything were long. The game-day experience needs some refinement. Oh well. When we have to search our memories for minor flaws in the name of balance, you did a good job.

Day one, for Pacific, was nigh-perfect. But we will need many, many more such days. You may have been surprised by that 2,000-strong USL PDL crowd at a lesser version of this stadium in 2019. The problem is they didn’t stay around. In their debut 2009 season the Highlanders’ averaged 1,734 fans per game. In 2010, 1,375, still fourth-best in the league. In 2011, 992, at which point they moved out of Langford into historic Royal Athletic Park near downtown Victoria. A more convenient stadium, attention-grabbing promotions like “supporter ownership,” and some preposterously cheap tickets brought attendance back to a high-water mark of 1,637 in 2013 but by then the business model had become completely unsustainable4.

PDL has big problems as a spectator league. The level of soccer is way below what the Canadian Premier League has shown. Media coverage and match-day operations comes from amateur enthusiasts. Probably most importantly, teams play only seven or eight home games in a season that lasts three months, then in the winter half the roster changes. It’s easy to enjoy a PDL game but really, really hard to form a lasting connection to a team. CanPL has none of these issues: Pacific FC is trying to build on more solid ground. But right now good seats are available across Westhills Stadium for the Wednesday night game against Valour. Even with the opening-day excitement over, momentum has to build.

The Highlanders would have been laughing had they brought 2,000 fans to every game; Pacific FC will need more than 5,154 every game to make money. This is why the City of Langford, the province of British Columbia, and BC Hydro are exploring how they can spend millions of dollars moving a hydro pole that prevents building stands on the north side of the ground5. Getting Westhills Stadium as ready as it was for opening day was a triumph of public works but, in five years, that stadium probably needs double the capacity it has today. There is ever-so-much to do.

Then again, think about how much was done to get to this point. Every word of this sentence deserves to be printed in bold: 5,154 fans just sold out a stadium in Langford and paid to watch a Vancouver Island soccer team play Halifax in a Canadian Premier League match. Three years ago nothing about that seemed possible. There was never going to be a Canadian Premier League, and if there was Halifax and Vancouver Island wouldn’t be in it, and if they were nobody would come. What we saw on Sunday was unbelievable. Every expectation was blown out of the water. The mountains we still have to climb don’t seem so tall today.

Terry Dunfield nailed it on the OneSoccer post-game show: “if you’re a young boy or girl watching this, how do you not play soccer tomorrow?” Or watch it, for that matter.

2019 Canadian Premier League Preview

By Benjamin Massey · April 26th, 2019 · 1 comment

On October 4, 1992, the Winnipeg Fury tied the Vancouver 86ers 1-1 and won the Canadian Soccer League title on aggregate. The next match in a Canadian national soccer league comes 9,701 days later, tomorrow, April 27, 2019. Forge FC versus York 9 (10 AM Pacific, CBC television). We’ve waited long enough.

Nobody knows how this league is going to shake out, and unusually for Canadian soccer, nobody pretends they know. We’re all excited. We’re all smashing rosters with the hammer of criticism on the anvil of looking players up on Wikipedia. I am trying to track publicly-made predictions, because that should be good for a laugh; in fact I can’t remember the last time I had this many laughs just reading about and listening to Canadian soccer takes. There are well-respected veteran pundits who were not alive the last time a national Canadian soccer league played a game and they’re gushing with the best of them. Enthusiasm is more contagious than measles in a Montessori.

Coming up is Maple Leaf Forever!‘s official 2019 Canadian Premier League preview. Like all the others it is insane in spots, biased everywhere, and probably wrong more than it’s right. But who cares? Our hopes are unblemished by the scars of experience. Here’s the one prediction you can take to the bank: there won’t be many better years to be a Canadian soccer fan, ever, than the year 2019.

Overall Prediction

Positions
Ov Team GK DF MF FW
1 Forge FC 2 4 1 2
2 Cavalry FC 1 1 2 5
3 FC Edmonton 7 3 4 1
4 Pacific FC 3 5 3 3
5 York 9 FC 5 2 7 4
6 Valour FC 4 6 5 6
7 HFX Wanderers 6 7 6 7

Consuming other league previews has been instructive. While most pundits pick the two coastal teams to struggle, Halifax-based Dylan Matthias at The Merchant Sailor favours the Wanderers to beat expectations, and Ben Massey at British Columbia-based Maple Leaf Forever! thinks Pacific will do fine, though he’d like them to sign enough locals to fill out a bench. Duane Rollins, based in Toronto, has York 9 ahead of some others. Edmonton’s Loyal Company of the River Valley podcast argues FC Edmonton’s depth is underrated. TSN 1290 Winnipeg’s Ryan Brandt told the Young Gaffers podcast that Valour is going to come together and win the fall season. Strange coincidences, these.

So given regional bias, we should pay attention when it’s absent: almost everybody has got Forge and Cavalry in the top three. Cavalry took the best part of a hilariously dominant 2018 USL PDL championship team then added a bunch of quality. Forge has a respected Ontario coach and more Canadian glamour boys than anyone else in the league. This blog is not going to dissent.

When previewing the league much is made of home-field advantage. It sucks traveling to Halifax or Langford, which means that it’s equally hard to travel from them. We each know our local ground fairly well, but the CanPL is changing them so much that the only way we’ll know what playing in each city is like will be experience. Making predictions about a brand new league is a fool’s errand; trying to guess at the differing home field advantages doubly so. Other analysts try to draw conclusions from preseason games in the Dominican Republic, or the lack thereof, that we’re hearing about second- or third-hand. This doesn’t seem a lot better.

So, in an effort to make my preview actually useful I have chosen to break the league down position-by-position rather than team-by-team. You can see my ranking of each team by position above, but if you want the details, keep scrolling.

Position-by-Position

Goalkeeping

Bob Frid/Canada Soccer
  1. Cavalry (Marco Carducci, Niko Giantsopoulos)
  2. Forge (Quillan Roberts, Tristan Henry)
  3. Pacific (Nolan Wirth, Mark Village)
  4. Valour (Tyson Farago, Mathias Janssens)
  5. York (Nathan Ingham, Colm Vance, Matt Silva)
  6. Halifax (Jan-Michael Williams, Christian Oxner)
  7. Edmonton (Connor James, Dylan Powley)

Cavalry walks away with this category. Everyone who has ever seen Marco Carducci has waited for him to get this chance in the serene knowledge that he’d be good enough. Among the players with less professional experience he’s almost the only lock in this league. Right now Maxime Crépeau is in Vancouver seizing the MLS chance that, had Marc dos Santos arrived a couple years earlier, would have been Carducci’s, and I promise Crépeau is not intrinsically any better. Marco will be fine. Probable league goalkeeper of the year. Giantsopoulos is kind of a fun guy, an attractive-playing goalie whose time in the lower Australian leagues means he’s used to tough travel and dodgy conditions. There’s certainly nothing to complain about in the backup department either.

Forge is also going to get a lot of love because of Quillan Roberts; I personally have never rated him at the Carducci level but he has some strident and knowledgeable defenders, while Tristan Henry is a well-known League1 Ontario name. Those from east of Thunder Bay can swap Forge and Cavalry around if they like. Pacific has a couple good underrated pros in Wirth and Village, both of whom definitely belong in this league; like Edmonton they haven’t got a clear number one at all, but unlike Edmonton it’s in a good way. That probably ends the list of “teams that should be happy in goal.”

By comparison, Valour suffer; while Farago is nice he’s had a rough couple years and his enormous right foot is less of a game-changer than Carducci’s shot-stopping. Young Janssens is a complete wild card, an admittedly unready European signed for the future. Unless you really know this guy’s the next Kaspar Schmeichel that’s a weird use of an international spot. Farago’s as good as Village or Wirth, but it’s a long year and Farago/Janssens together will not surpass Wirth/Village together.

HFX’s Jan-Michael Williams was a pretty good goalie before the last war but is now in the “late-stage Rein Baart” stage of his career, albeit taller. Enormous crowds of pundits tab him for CanPL goalkeeper of the year but he’s barely been a club starter for the past decade and his continued presence in the Trinidadian goal is more a reflection on the country than the keeper. Christian Oxner is an Atlantic favourite waiting for a chance, and there’s every chance he gets the gloves and doesn’t let them go for ten years, but it hasn’t happened yet. York is Nathan Ingham, who has already proven less good than two of the other starters on this list, and two other guys from deep in the Football Manager database. And while I know my low ranking of the Eddies will generate feedback that’s not angry, just disappointed, Connor James and Dylan Powley will be making a big, big step up into the Canadian Premier League without support and without much to suggest even a Wirth/Farago-like ceiling.

Defense

New York Cosmos
  1. Cavalry (Nik Ledgerwood, Nathan Mavila, Dean Northover, Chris Serban, Mason Trafford, Jay Wheeldon, Dominick Zator)
  2. York (Diyaeddine Abzi, Morey Doner, Steven Furlano, Luca Gasparotto, Daniel Gogarty, Justin Springer, Roger Thompson)
  3. Edmonton (Amer Didic, Kareem Moses, Ramon Soria, Mele Temguia, Allan Zebie)
  4. Forge (Kwame Awuah, Klaidi Cela, Jonathan Grant, Daniel Krutzen, Monti Mohsen, Bertrand Owundi, Dominic Samuel)
  5. Pacific (Kadin Chung, Marcel de Jong, Emile Legault, Lukas MacNaughton, Ryan McCurdy, Blake Smith, Hendrik Starostzik)
  6. Valour (Martin Arguiñarena, Raphaël Garcia, Adam Mitter, Jordan Murrell, Skylar Thomas)
  7. Halifax (Andre Bona, Alex de Carolis, Chakib Hocine, Ndzemdzela Langwa, Chrisnovic N’sa, Peter Schaale, Zachary Sukunda)

Good news for those worried that 0-0 draws will turn off casual fans: CanPL will not be a defensive league.

The season-long injuries to Pacific’s Marcel de Jong and Cavalry’s Chris Serban have knocked the whole league down a peg. de Jong is well-known to us all, of course, but his loss not only mauls Pacific’s competitive chances but apparently still counts against their salary cap. It is insane that the Canadian Premier League has a salary cap and no way to account for a third of your budget being injured before kickoff, but for preview purposes it doesn’t matter. They have a problem.

Serban was going to do very well in the Canadian Premier League. He’s struggled with injuries the past couple years, which is the only mark against an otherwise-excellent young player. Even accounting for that, and Nik Ledgerwood getting old, Cavalry’s going to have a deadly backline: Mason Trafford might be the best defender left in the league, Dominick Zator is little-known but very good, and Northover and Wheeldon are fine. I’m not sold on Mavila, the former West Ham trainee who made a Europa League bench but is now best known for insurance fraud, and with Serban gone he might have to carry a lot of mail, but Tommy Wheeldon has a good record here. (Though not listed, Joel Waterman can also fill in at fullback.)

York also has a first-ballot CanPL Guy With Something to Prove in Luca Gasparotto, who I have never failed to see at least decent for the Canadian youth teams. Beyond that stand Roger Thompson, a quality veteran, some pretty good semi-pros, one of the better university guys in Daniel Gogarty, and help out wide from Kyle Porter when needed. That is, by the standards of the league, a quietly solid unit. Edmonton is similar: a couple dandy fullbacks (Zebie and Soria) plus a fair one (Moses) all held together by literally and figuratively enormous centreback Amer Didic. The other spot is a problem, whether it’s dodgy journeyman Mele Temguia, Moses, or (my suggestion) underrated but so far unsigned draft pick Noah Cunningham. More top-end talent than York, less all-round quality.

Forge is like York but a bit worse, and rather than hoping Luca Gasparotto can develop they’re hoping Bertrand Owundi has anything at all. Kwame Awuah is the big dog here, but for all his enthusiasm and MLS experience he’s never gotten me excited. I’d rather have, say, a young Jim Brennan, and as it happens Brennan is constructing his roster on a similar principle.

Pacific’s not great either but has a sneaky asset. Without de Jong the Van Isle fullbacks offer the best combination of youth and excellence at any position in the league. Legault is raw and will probably be exposed but has high potential, and right-back-presumptive Kadin Chung is a fine youth and ex-USL player who has never yet failed to move up a level. Given that the CanPL is set to require a quota of U-21 starters, having Legault and Chung available gives tactical versatility. Among the oldies ex-Montreal Impact man Blake Smith, on loan from MLS, will probably swallow up as many fullback minutes as he can handle and do an unspectacular but commendable job with them. Unfortunately their centreback situation is catastrophic: lanky German Hendrik Starostzik is an intriguing signing, but “part-timer in the lower German leagues” is not something to anchor your backline with, while Ryan McCurdy was an underwhelming PDL player and Lukas MacNaughton is a versatile League1 Ontario guy trying to walk into the starting eleven. Talk that Adam Straith will join after the German season is hopeful, but a tired 3.Liga player rumoured to be arriving later is not salvation.

Halifax has nothing but issues: plenty of PDL experience and a few guys who hung out in USL or got a half-season with the Montreal Impact reserves or something but not an established name in the bunch. Their veteran is an 29-year-old from USports. Their prospect is a former Victoria Highlander also from USports. Not all these guys will be duds but they are set up for problems. At least Valour, who are otherwise in similarly dire straits, have the thoroughly tested Thomas and Murrell to lend some poise, plus the admittedly slim possibility that Martín Arguiñarena turns out to be good. They could play Michael Petrasso at right back, I suppose, but he’ll have better things to do.

Midfield

John Dorton/Canada Soccer
  1. Forge (Kyle Bekker, Tristan Borges, David Choinière, Elimane Oumar Cissé, Giuliano Frano, Alexander Achinioti Jönsson)
  2. Cavalry (Elijah Adekugbe, Julian Büscher, Sergio Camargo, Jose Escalante, Mauro Eustaquio, Malyk Hamilton, Victor Loturi, Oliver Minatel, Carlos Patino, Joel Waterman)
  3. Pacific (Matthew Baldisimo, Victor Blasco, Jose Hernandez, Alessandro Hojabrpour, Noah Verhoeven)
  4. Edmonton (Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Ajay Khabra, Philippe Lincourt-Joseph, James Marcelin, Edem Mortotsi, Son Yong-chan, Bruno Zebie)
  5. Valour (Louis Béland-Goyette, Dylan Carreiro, Nicolás Galvis, Josip Golubar, Diego Gutierrez, Glenn Muenkat, Raphael Ohin, Federico Peña, Michael Petrasso, Dylan Sacramento)
  6. Halifax (Scott Firth, Akeem Garcia, Juan Diego Gutierrez, Kodai Iida, Elton John, Kouamé Ouattara, Andre Rampersad, Elliot Simmons)
  7. York (Manuel Aparicio, Joseph Di Chiara, Emilio Estevez, Wataru Murofushi, Kyle Porter, Ryan Telfer, Emmanuel Zambazis)

Forge has got probably the best player in the league, Kyle Bekker. It’s got one of the most promising, David Choinière. Neither Tristan Borges nor Giuliano Frano are at all jokes, and though Borges has got everything to prove this is the right environment for him. Alexander Achinioti Jönsson is a sneakily good-looking import. Most of these players, and all the stars, are moderately-sized, vivacious, attacking players, but balance is for sissies. This midfield is going to be a hell of a lot of fun and in this respect, if no other, I envy the people of Hamilton.

Not that I’ll be watching trash rolling around for Pacific FC. The excellence of Bekker elevates Forge, but Noah Verhoeven is a first-rate prospect for the level who certainly sustains comparisons with Choinière, Matthew Baldisimo could be a dangerous box-to-box player if he doesn’t have to line up at fullback, and while the depth is young and occasionally highly-touted. Given how many roster spots Pacific has open one has to provisionally leave room for draft picks Thomas Gardner and Zack Verhoven in these calculations, which would only add to Pacific’s punch.

Rounding out the top half of a good midfield crop are the two Alberta teams: Cavalry gets the nod over Edmonton because of the excellence of former Eddie Mauro Eustaquio, a player who alternates between getting the credit he deserves as a potential Julian de Guzman and completely forgotten behind his brother depending on how much he’s on Canadian TV. Julian Büscher is an established, highly-credible import who deserves more press than he’s been getting, and while Oliver Minatel gets a bit too much credit for his time in Ottawa he’s fine. Calgary already knows their depth well and they’ll do what’s asked of them. Edmonton’s midfield is less spectacular, relying too much on a mid-career resurgence from Randy Edwini-Bonsu, and James Marcelin had been called underrated so often lately he’s becoming overrated. But he remains Marcelin a fine player (perhaps a Eustaquio without the potential to get better) and if anyone is going to rediscover his magic in CanPL, it’ll be Edwini-Bonsu in Edmonton. Son Yong-chan is a wild entry who I once heard called the best training-ground player of all time, the Cavalry absolutely would have taken Bruno Zebie if he was available, and Ajay Khabra gets praise as an electric prospect from Edmonton observers.

There is a bit of a dip from number four to number five. Valour boasts Michael Petrasso, who will be first-rate if he can recover from a depressing few years, Croatian Josip Golubar, a quality veteran from the lower Balkan divisions, and some locals who are reasonably well-liked. They won’t be badly let down but, bar Golubar, lack star power. Louis Béland-Goyette is the man to watch; his getting his career back on track would do more for Valour than almost any equivalent player around the league.

Halifax and York are in similarly depressing situations, but for totally different reasons. The Wanderers have a tantalizing young local, Scott Firth, who we should all hope gets his minutes, plus a procession of extremely unremarkable foreign imports who will be expected to step right up and hang with Bekker and Fisk. York’s midfielders are mostly domestic, and import Wataru Murofushi is not likely to be a star, but those midfielders are fairly well known and not of a very high standard. Aparicio, Di Chiara, Porter, and Zambazis have all fallen out of higher leagues and weren’t missed. Telfer is a 25-year-old on loan from Toronto FC and is not getting his option picked up. Good on the Canadian Premier League for giving these local players second chances; that’s why we want this league. Aparicio in particular is a pro. But a bit unfortunate for York that they’re all in one place.

Forward

Uwe Welz/FC Edmonton
  1. Edmonton (Prince Amanda, Tomi Ameobi, Oumar Diouck, David Doe, Ajeej Sarkaria, Marcus Velado-Tsegaye)
  2. Forge (Chris Nanco, Anthony Novak, Kadell Thomas, Anthony Novak, Emery Welshman, Marcel Zajac)
  3. Pacific (Terran Campbell, Ben Fisk, Marcus Haber, Issey Nakajima-Farran)
  4. York (Simon Adjei, Michael Cox, Austin Ricci, Cyrus Rollocks)
  5. Cavalry (Gabriel Bitar, Jordan Brown, Dominique Malonga, Nico Pasquotti)
  6. Valour (Tyler Attardo, Calum Ferguson, Stephen Hoyle, Ali Musse)
  7. Halifax (Mohamed Kourouma, Vincent Lamy, Luis Alberto Perea, Tomasz Skublak, Abd-El-Aziz Yousef)

Stereotypically, a new league loads up on famous, high-producing strikers who’ll sell kits and draw fans. In CanPL, though, the talent appears to have concentrated in midfield, with defenders and strikers nearly an afterthought. I could make an argument for any team ranked from one to six having any other ranking, with only the seventh-place team as an outlier (and even they have one gun). Does that say something?

Edmonton’s struck the right balance. Tomi Ameobi, one of the all-time leading scorers in the Voyageurs Cup, a popular player, and a very well-established (if streaky) goalscorer at this level who knows Edmonton well, should lead the line and be among the league scoring leaders. Diouck is too old to be a prospect and couldn’t stick around even in Belgian semi-pro soccer but you could have worse depth. Of the prospects Amanda is the biggest name, partially on account of his brother Gloire, but I’ve seen Doe good and as Steven Sandor mentioned Velado-Tsegaye is getting a lot of hype ahead of his professional debut.

Pacific’s trying something similar but less effectively. Their depth is not as bad as it looks on the official site: if Issey Nakajima-Farran is a forward then Ben Fisk is and I bet Terran Campbell’s going to spend time up top. But Haber’s strengths and limitations are perfectly clear to any Canadian fan, Issey is not a young man anymore, Fisk is a terrific player but not a prime goalscorer, and guys like Campbell or Victor Blasco are question marks. None really have pace; with a dynamic midfield they can generate offense but will need flowing soccer unusual at this level to excel. They could really, really use a Dario Zanatta type but should be fine.

On the other hand, very high marks to Forge, who have no “names” beyond Guyanese international Emery Welshman, but have assembled a first-rate collection of hungry overachievers who need a serious professional opportunity. I am very excited to see League1 Ontario star Anthony Novak, a fine goalscorer and apparently an absolute bastard to play against, getting a chance at a higher level; he will turn heads in this first season. Novak’s 24. If not for CanPL nobody in North American pro soccer would have given him a second look, but he might be good for ten goals next year. Valour and York both have decent strike-forces-by-committee: York should be headlined by Michael Cox, a pacey and unsophisticated but prolific classic striker, and people like the thicc Simon Adjei. Ali Musse’s left the spotlight but produced here and there in PDL and has gotten stronger, while Tyler Attardo gives Valour another young guy Rob Gale can develop. Stephen Hoyle’s move from New Zealand to Canada might be lateral, and he scored enough against kiwis to be rated against beavers.

Cavalry’s managed to find two players who, five years ago, would have been hailed as stars. Jordan Brown is a former English youth international and Dominique Malonga has scored in Scotland while repping the Congo. But for all the pedigree, breaking down Malonga’s past five years makes him look like a poor man’s Marcus Haber. Brown has gone from West Ham to western Canada for a reason and just flunked out of the Czech Republic. I dislike total washouts, as a rule; USL and NASL teams often take chances on such guys and usually leave disappointed. From the opposite end of the career spectrum, first overall USports draft pick Gabriel Bitar needs to prove he can replicate his sensational shooting percentages against pros. On the other hand, likely at least one of Bitar, Brown, and Malonga will adapt to this league, while Nico Pasquotti is an underrated, versatile player. Though they’re ranked deceptively low in this category we can promise that Cavalry will put the ball in the net.

Halifax has almost nothing. Up top that is a PDL roster apart from 32-year-old Luis Alberto Perea. Perea is only a year removed from being a goal-per-game striker in the decent Salvadoran league, but he’s scored at much lower rates in Colombia, Peru, and Brazil. Halifax is his ninth club in the last five years. He’s aging, living out of his suitcase, and the very opposite of a sure thing. Nobody else there is anybody. It will be a long year on the east coast.

Predicted CanPL Best XI

Marco Carducci (Cavalry)
Nik Ledgerwood (Cavalry) – Luca Gasparotto (York) – Mason Trafford (Cavalry) – Blake Smith (Pacific)
Kyle Bekker (Forge) – James Marcelin (Edmonton) – David Choinière (Forge)
Ben Fisk (Pacific) – Tomi Ameobi (Edmonton) – Michael Cox (York)

Predicted CanPL MVP

Kyle Bekker, with say seven goals and ten assists. If not him then Ben Fisk; if not them then Ameobi.

Coach of the Year

Probably Tommy Wheeldon,. Jr. at Cavalry, who has all the qualifications: his team will be good, he’ll deserve a lot of credit for that, he’s photogenic, and he’s a good quote. An extremely tough candidate to beat, but coach of the year is always implicitly a reflection of team results. If Halifax gets into contention, and this league is so unpredictable that they very well might, Stephen Hart will charge into pole position.

Young Player of the Year

Pacific FC right back Kadin Chung is a fine U-21 player who will probably see at least 1,500 minutes and should do well with them. Should he stay healthy and Pacific even produce respectable results he has to be a very large favourite. But I’m also looking at Valour’s Tyler Attardo. Winnipeg has always been better than you might think at producing very good U-20 players; they just haven’t had the opportunity to develop into adults. Attardo is a rare player who’ll be getting a big chance on a strike force that’ll be hungry for anything it can get, and he’s got the rep of a kid with ice in his veins who knows where the goal is.

2019 Canadian Premier League champion

While I think Forge is the best overall team in the league, it’s by a very narrow margin over Cavalry. And Cavalry knows how to win championships. Most of these guys just did it, and while the quality of play in CanPL will be higher than USL PDL the travel, playing conditions, and other off-field obstacles are if anything going to be easier in Canada. Nobody in Cavalry’s starting eleven is going to be intimidated by a big final, and many of them will have faith in their teammates established by experience. Forge has its share of winners, Bekker best among them. But in a very close struggle, Cavalry’s superior experience over two legs would give them the edge.

A Clearly Canadian Premier League

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

Kick Magazine via Canada Soccer

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

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

But is it looking really Canadian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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