The Best Canadian PDL Northwest Ever

By Benjamin Massey · June 2nd, 2018 · No comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Four years ago, soccer fans in Western Canada lamented the demise of a formerly-strong tradition in the United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League. USL PDL is an unglamorous amateur or semi-professional summer league, aimed largely at NCAA athletes looking to fill up the collegiate offseason. But it is excellent, and underrated, soccer which can lead to the professional game and, in some cities, produces great entertainment for four-figure crowds in communities that could not support the trials and tribulations of USL, let alone MLS.

But in the middle part of the decade we lost every single team west of Winnipeg. The Fraser Valley Mariners, playing at Abbotsford’s pretty but isolated Bateman Park, couldn’t justify the expenditure for tiny crowds and put out a lousy team anyway, folding after 2012. The Vancouver Whitecaps, stocking what had once been a highly successful PDL program with CIS players and Residency alums they had no interest in developing, pulled their team after the 2014 season when it somehow failed to pay dividends. Deprived of local rivals and denied a chance to move up to USL by Canadian Soccer Association restrictions, the Victoria Highlanders shut their doors. In the winter of 2014–15, the semi-professional game in western Canada looked very bleak.

The turnaround since has been gradual, unexpected, but brilliantly total. In 2015 Calgary Foothills, a prominent youth soccer organization, made the move up to USL PDL. Though they pay heavily for their distance from the Pacific Northwest and draw only average crowds, they have been a remarkable on-field success while in the stands they are slowly but surely developing a core of passionate support. Brilliantly-coiffed supremo Tommy Wheeldon, Jr., an English-born alumnus of the USL Calgary Storm, emerged unexpectedly as a great champion of Canadian soccer and has been building on his legacy since.

2016 saw the return of the Victoria Highlanders, now based at the University of Victoria. Victoria’s soccer community is quietly one of the best in the country, supporting teams down to the metro-league amateur level in 1,000-man throngs, defying changing demographics to maintain an old Canadian localist tradition in sport. The knock on Victoria has always been “there are enough fans, but you can’t get the corporate support;” well, when an amateur Highlanders team entered the Pacific Coast Soccer League in 2015 their fans were so numerous and raucous that the league president wanted them to calm down. Maybe devotion is enough. In 2016 local owners with no capital to speak of brought Victoria back to PDL through sheer willpower, and so far it has been a success. While nobody is tapping them for the Canadian Premier League, they’re doing something even better: they’re running a low-level, strictly local club and making it work.

And in 2017 we added TSS FC Rovers, another expansion of an existing organization, playing out of Burnaby’s hallowed Swangard Stadium. Like the Highlanders, their ownership hardly has more money than you or me but was willing to stake a successful business on building a spectator-friendly soccer club at a level high enough to be expensive but not so high as to be glamorous. So far their remarkably accessible ownership has not gone broke or suffered from embarrassing Twitter meltdowns, and while the crowds have not been universally excellent this is an organization that always looks like it’s having a good time. They have even entered a team in the WPSL, surely one of the most frustrating experiences a Canadian soccer sponsor can ask for, and emerged with good humour.

This gave western Canada three semi-pro teams again. But in the old days one of the western teams was always a weak sister, neglected or incompetent or otherwise dodgy, restricted to lunatics who would come watch soccer in a garbage dump if there was grass and sunshine. In 2017 TSS was interesting to devotees but, objectively, a pretty poor soccer team that took a three-point penalty from a paperwork mistake. Victoria underachieved while counting pennies; Calgary was excellent but fell short of the highest honours. It was the best summer western Canada had enjoyed in years, but not quite enough.

So far, the 2018 USL PDL season has been different. All three teams are proving well-worth following for even the ordinary fan.

The fans of TSS FC Rovers still bill them as “all-Canadian.” It’s slightly shame-faced since they must also say things like “Nick Soolsma1 is pursuing permanent residency” and “William Rafael’s from South Sudan, he didn’t come here for the soccer!” There’s no need to be embarrassed, really, since even by the strictest possible criteria the Rovers count as “very, very Canadian indeed” on the field, on the coaching staff, in ambition and mindset. They are bringing up underappreciated players such as the Polisi brothers, Matteo and Marcello, and Erik Edwardson, who will deserve at least a look when the Canadian Premier League comes into its own. Goalkeeper Andrew Hicks is continuing from a sterling 2017 and establishing himself as one of the best Canadian keepers outside the professional ranks, and this year he’s platooning with a remarkable duo of ex-Whitecaps Residency star Luciano Trasolini and former PLSQ and British Columbia provincial standout Mario Gerges. Their roster can no longer entirely qualify for our national team, but they’re still doing as much for our country as anybody this side of the Ottawa Fury.

No, no, that’s unfair. Take for example Calgary Foothills. If Foothills don’t win the Northwest Division it’ll be because the season is too short to show their excellence, but they’re as Canadian as it gets. The one all-out foreigner on the Foothills roster is defender Jay Wheeldon: he’s English but also coach Tommy’s brother, which surely gets him some slack. They also boast a legion of noteworthy dual-nationals like Carlos Patino (Colombia), Ali Musse (Somalia), Elijah Adekugbe (England and Nigeria), and Moses Danto (Sudan), but so does TSS. The fact that Foothills don’t get the same “all-Canadian” reputation as Rovers is down to a failure of marketing, not on-field focus. In fact, if you’re looking for really excellent Canadian players who are of an undisputed professional standard but need a fair chance, you’re looking to Calgary: Marco Carducci, Jordan Haynes, Jackson Farmer, Nathan Ingham, Dominick Zator, all men who should be making a living playing this game, and I haven’t even said the words “Nik Ledgerwood” yet, who with 50 senior international caps must be among the most accomplished men ever to walk onto a USL PDL pitch.

Calgary is stunning. Honestly, stunning. This site chronicled one of their demolitions of the FC Edmonton academy back in April, Already this year they have two wins over the Victoria Highlanders and a win and a draw against the Portland Timbers U-23s; the draw was a game Calgary absolutely deserved to win. Moses Danto has four goals, neither Carducci nor Ingham have put a foot wrong between the sticks, and across their first five league games they allowed only fifteen shots on target. (Rovers, by comparison, have allowed 30.) Add in shots directed and Calgary outshoots their opponents two-to-one, and they have not played anybody bad yet.

So the Victoria Highlanders, who have lost four of their first six, are the forgotten men. Which is too bad because Victoria’s assembled what would, in most years, look like a very interesting team. Cam Hundal and Noah Cunningham are both players who wouldn’t be playing PDL if there were decent professional opportunities in this country. Utility man Blair Sturrock, though aging, actually is an old pro in England and Scotland. Goalkeeper Simon Norgrove looked good last year but has been supplanted by Canadian senior international and Vancouver Island native Nolan Wirth. Most interestingly their coach is a very familiar name, Thomas Neindorf, the native German who’s earned a hell of a reputation for developing first-class youth prospects all over western Canada. After a few turbulent years the team enters 2018 under new local ownership that, to pick two well-known names from a long list, includes former salesman/general manager/front office do-it-all-man Mark DeFrias and a man with one of Canada’s most difficult but remarkable playing resumes, former CIS Canada West MVP, Highlanders goalkeeper, and, after a traumatic concussion, Canadian parasoccer international star striker Trevor Stiles.

We now know that Victoria, or rather the Victoria suburb of Langford, looks set to get a Canadian Premier League team in 2019 as Josh Simpson’s audacious Vancouver Island bid absorbed Rob Friend’s stadium-deficient “Port City” entry. The Highlanders are not yet involved but have made all the right noises about working alongside the CanPL crew. Local derbies between the professionals and semi-pros will be a delicious prospect to a community that still embraces its Vancouver Island Soccer League and turned out in big numbers for the old Community Shield matches between the Highlanders and the late PCSL Victoria United. We all want to see local rivals duking it out in defiance of North America’s geographically-restrictive franchise system, but Victoria is especially suitable, and looks likely to get it.

Friday night at Swangard, TSS and Calgary met for the first time all year and put on a gem of a game. The Rovers won 2-1, which was harsh on the Foothills, who despite lacking Ledgerwood demonstrated remarkable quality in all areas of the field. But that sentence in turn is harsh on the Rovers, who rose to the levels of their opponents to play a very good match on their own. With the Vancouver Whitecaps playing at the same time and rain in the forecast attendance was lower than usual, but those fans who did take the time were well-rewarded with ninety entertaining minutes. This follows TSS’s first ever road points, taking all three from the Victoria Highlanders a week earlier in another brilliantly fun game, and ahead of a Sunday return tilt against Victoria that promises more excellence.

The Canadian Premier League is drawing all the ink, for very good reason. But it is not the only part of the Canadian club soccer renaissance. Those of us on the right side of Saskatchewan are already enjoying some of the best soccer we’ve been able to see in many years. If CanPL can build upon this, ours will be a very fortunate country.

The Greatest Al Classico Ever

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

Tobi Oliva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

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

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

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

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

People seemed to enjoy the game.

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

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

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

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

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Canada’s Women’s Championship Challenge

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

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But couldn’t we prove that?

That Calgary Foothills U-23 – Whitecaps Match, in Empty

By Benjamin Massey · June 8th, 2014 · 1 comment

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

I had intended to use this space to describe the Calgary Foothills U-23 match against Vancouver Whitecaps U-23, which I had flown out to see. Calgary is moving to USL PDL for the 2015 summer season with a roster that currently includes ex-Whitecap and national team goalkeeper Simon Thomas. They’re taking the on-field side seriously. Unfortunately, circumstances made this impossible.

You see, I arrived at the park with a family member in plenty of time for kickoff only to be confronted with a line running through the parking lot. Part of that was because the sign directing people to will-call or ticket sales was the wrong way around, so there was mass confusion at the gate.

Arriving at the front of the queue well after kickoff, we discovered that they were cash only, a 19th-century sort of convention which was not indicated either on the box office or the Foothills website. I was informed that there was a bank machine in the field house across the parking lot. There was not. Tracking down a facility staff member, I was told that there was a bank machine on the other end of the large field in an arena. There was not.

Returning to the box office, by this point midway through the first half, the clerk was surprised by the non-existent ATMs but there was definitely a CIBC just a fifteen-minute walk across the highway. And I believed him, too! I just wasn’t arsed anymore, even to watch for free from outside the fence like many people.

(Of course, since the box office had run out of change and were bawling down the customer lineup for spare small bills when we arrived at the front, having a couple twenties might not have availed anyway.)

Anyway, that’s why I decided not to pay $15 per person for a U-23 exhibition game. Obviously Foothills has plenty to work with. The crowd was great, given the prices. If even half those in attendance were paid tickets I anticipate real success. But the front office has work to do.

So that’s why there’s no match report. Sorry.