The Vancouver Whitecaps Do Not Hate Canada

By Benjamin Massey · July 27th, 2017 · No comments

The Vancouver Whitecaps made news earlier in the week when they exiled two young Canadians to inhospitable Arctic climes. Don’t worry, for once I don’t mean that in a bad way.

Calgary-raised left back Sam Adekugbe is off to IFK Göteborg of the Swedish Allsvenskan. You know Adekugbe from persistently promising cameos. In MLS, in the most recent Gold Cup, last season in the English Championship with Brighton and Hove Albion. Then he gets hurt and has to try to break through again. Usually in a different country. Lots of players get hurt; Adekugbe’s most serious injury is always to the memory of the coach who used to rate him.

Second, local boy Ben McKendry has joined FC Edmonton. McKendry is not even the flashiest player named “Ben” on the Eddies from his Whitecaps Residency class. In those days he ways always respectable and rarely a future professional. He reeked of someone who’d play a PDL season or two, be okay, and eventually you’d see him running second in the VMSL in assists and go “oh yeah.”

But he stepped up for the Whitecaps U-18s; no star but someone you always wanted in the lineup. He went to the University of New Mexico, stepped up, was no star but someone you always wanted in the lineup. Trained with the Whitecaps, stepped up, was no star but etc., got his pro deal and settled in with the reserves, stepped up. In 55 career USL appearances with the Whitecaps reserves, he has 53 starts.

This is not a phrase you often hear on Maple Leaf Forever!, but the Whitecaps have done right by both Canadians. Adekugbe, born in England, has an undisguised desire to play in Europe. Since Jordan Harvey appears invulnerable in Vancouver’s affections and Carl Robinson hasn’t yet appreciated how washed-up fellow Canadian Marcel de Jong is, Adekugbe could either be a rotation player in Vancouver or go to Sweden and fight his way into the eleven with a clean slate. Sweden, like Canada, plays on a summer schedule, so Adekugbe is even positioned to recover and win a Whitecaps starting spot in 2018 if it comes to that. The Swedish league is nice and good players come out of it, but it flies under the radar and it took open minds to make this loan happen, whereas Brighton was an obvious target league-wise and has an old relationship for Vancouver through CEO Paul Barber. Well done Whitecaps.

The MLS Whitecaps have loaned players to Europe before, but it was all very second-rate. A prospect’s dad gets a team from the German third division on the hook, the Whitecaps say “why not?” Top-division Sweden is quite a bit better, and it probably took some doing.

McKendry is the opposite. He isn’t forgotten or anything: CONCACAF Champions League and Voyageurs Cup games for the Whitecaps, one MLS appearance, even a start earlier this year for the Canadian national team against Bermuda. He never embarrassed himself, but he also never gave the Whitecaps a reason to bench Matias Laba or Cristian Techera or other central midfielders that haven’t been superstars but possess some fascinating aspect in their games (Laba has been a stud before but you take my meaning). And he’s 24. He’s not a prospect anymore. Whatever he’s going to be he is; now he needs to go prove it’s good.

The Whitecaps have been a service to McKendry too. You’d be stupid to write him off when he’s stepped up so often before. He is, in fact, somebody Edmonton needs, a safe team-first right foot in the middle of the park who runs all day. The Eddies need that guy so badly they’ve tried to turn Allan Zebie into a left-footed version; with, it must immediately be declared, early success. He won’t help their desperate offensive problem directly, but if he frees Dustin Corea to go insane for attack that’ll be something.

Ben McKendry is not somebody who impresses you with his tools. He never has been, and that’s why I underestimated him with the Whitecaps Residency. The only way McKendry will have an MLS career is if he goes to a level just below MLS and proves that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; to put his coach into the position where he says “well, I know Ben can do it.” I do not say that McKendry has that additional rise in level, but he did it the same way from USSDA U-18 to PDL to NCAA to USL.

This space has put much effort into hating the Whitecaps for their handling of Canadians. Philippe Davies, Bryce Alderson, Russell Teibert (still!), Ben Fisk (McKendry’s new Eddies teammate), Daniel Stanese, you’d need a few hours for me to get through the Canadians who I think the Whitecaps didn’t give their due.

The Carl Robinson epoch has been an improvement. Recently I was in a Twitter argument about whether Alphonso Davies could be considered a “bench player” because he has made slightly more than half of his Whitecaps appearances off the bench, and whether that was justified. Then I realized that arguing in those terms was, itself, a sign of progress that shouldn’t be discounted. McKendry and Marco Bustos and Kianz Froese have at least seen the chances Bryce Alderson never did, and I won’t pretend they seized them. Among the veterans, Marcel de Jong plays and David Edgar did when he could. The Whitecaps plucked de Jong from the Ottawa Fury for God’s sake.

Now we have McKendry and Adekugbe away on loan. These are happy moves. Vancouver and Edmonton have been friendly for the entire Colin Miller era, but McKendry is actually the first Canadian Whitecap loanee to go to Edmonton. At least two other Canadians in an earlier era refused a move after the teams agreed, but that was a failure of Vancouver salesmanship as much as anything. The Whitecaps coach in question didn’t believe he was doing anything more than keeping a write-off occupied.

As for Adekugbe, much though I wish he was starting in Vancouver, I bet young Sam himself would prefer to start in Sweden. He is the closest thing to a bad old Vancouver story: the young Canadian who did great in limited action but never got past the mediocre American, the MLS-standard crappy veteran of whom Jordan Harvey is the anthropomorphic personification. But Sam’s injuries are very real; not “nagging knocks” that are half-excuse, necessitating three months to get over a cut little toe, but serious surgery-demanding problems. It’s a point of view even if it’s not one I agree with.

Steven Sandor has been tracking Canadian minutes every week in Canada’s three professional leagues. As of this moment Vancouver runs fourth in MLS at about an hour per game, behind not just the other two Canadian teams but Cyle Larin’s Orlando City. They are also behind four NASL teams, and the NASL has one Canadian side in it. This is very bad. No other country would tolerate this from a club that’s allegedly part of it. But oh my God it is so much better than what we used to have.

The Whitecaps should give young Canadians more minutes. Their first team prospects aren’t good enough to sacrifice the future for, and their U-18s and U-16s (minus Alphonso Davies of course) just had a nice run in the USSDA playoffs. However, progress and good intentions are important when they have been absent for so long. Sam Adekugbe and Ben McKendry are two players who, under Martin Rennie, would have languished until their contracts expired and everyone forgot about them. Now they have excellent first-team chances and, if they don’t make it, it won’t be for want of an opportunity. Give the Whitecaps credit for what they’ve worked hard to do.

That Cosmos – Eddies Thing In Full

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

New York Cosmos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is still not the weird part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pointlessness of Sanctioning Drama

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

Matt Schlotzhauer/Indy Eleven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(notes and comments…)

Edmonton, Last Survivor and First Rebirth?

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

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(notes and comments…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

Wes Knight Retires, Aged 28

By Benjamin Massey · July 31st, 2015 · No comments

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

So farewell then, Wes Knight. Enjoying what seemed to be a renaissance with his hometown Carolina Railhawks, Knight has announced he will be hanging up his boots[1], aged only 28, and moving into coaching. In hindsight, this isn’t a total surprise: Knight’s struggled with injury for several years and already kicked off his coaching career, earning his USSF “A” license in May. But 2015 had been a long-overdue success for Knight, who had played every minute with the Railhawks and been an important part of a veteran back four. The fans’ loss is Carolina soccer’s gain: Knight is joining the Colorado Rapids program to coach at their Carolina youth academy.

Knight’s best years were his first, when was with the Vancouver Whitecaps from 2009 until 2011. There he was a one-time USL First Division finalist, passed over for league honours by narrow margins, and one of the great cult favourites. Born, raised, and educated in South Carolina, Knight appeared at the USL Men’s Player Showcase at the end of 2008 and caught the eye of the Whitecaps staff, but passed through the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. So the southern man made the long trek north, signing with Teitur Thordarson and the Whitecaps on February 11[2]. It was the same day future Canadian international Marcus Haber joined the team; Haber would have an fine 2009 season, be purchased by West Bromwich Albion, and become a semi-regular on the senior Canadian national team, but in strictly local terms you have to say Knight was the better signing.

The odds were against Knight from the start. The 2008 Whitecaps had won the USL championship, and while several core players departed during the offseason a strong defensive crew remained. Steve Kindel, the popular local leftback, was gone, but ageless wonder Takashi Hirano was more than a replacement. In the middle was St. Vincentian colossus Wesley Charles, teaming up with talented American androstatriendione user Jeff Parke. Right back, where Knight would be expected to make his mark, could be occupied by Parke as well as incumbent Lyle Martin, a Whitecap since 2007 when he was team Newcomer of the Year, and a tough boulder to push aside.

In the event Charles and Parke were much less of a team than you’d like: they fought in training, Charles was released, and Parke left anyway to explore European options. The depth was called upon again and again, from veteran Marco Reda to youngster Luca Bellisomo in the second season of his underrated professional career. Most importantly, in preseason training Martin broke his foot. The door had opened a crack, and Knight barged through.

(more…)

Returning to Pain Like Moths to a Flame

By Benjamin Massey · May 21st, 2015 · No comments

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

The Voyageurs Cup is the worst tournament in the world. Every year I and thousands like me end it with spears through our hearts, mouths agape like male salmon, eyes shot red with gin and hate, staring up at the ceiling wondering where it’s all gone wrong and knowing that each fœtid whiff of miasma from our decomposing soul is our own responsibility, for being stupid enough to get caught up in this game.

For thirteen years this competition has been an unrelieved parade of misery. First you are dumped straight into a tunnel full of sewage. You climb, headlong, through the filth, grasping vainly towards the light, and when you finally flop out, reeking of damnation, you discover that light was the portal to Hell and the next eternity will be a perfect specimen of agony, suitable for the Canadian soccer fan who has endured everything the mortal world can throw at him. There is no joy, no respite, and any alleged bright spot is merely an apertif to make the torture go down less smoothly.

Take last night’s semi-final between FC Edmonton and the Vancouver Whitecaps. The superior Whitecaps played a solid B+ team and took the early lead on a (deserved) penalty. But Edmonton raged, raged. Chances were missed. Hanson Boakai squared off against Russell Teibert in the battle of Canadian soccer saviours. Frank Jonke, the über-goat, a man booed by his own supporters, came on in the last minutes and made himself a hero, hip-checking Darren Mattocks into the North Saskatchewan and drawing a penalty from Kendall Waston. Tomi Ameobi buried the spot kick and became the all-time leading scorer in Canadian Championship history, thrilling maybe the best crowd FC Edmonton had ever drawn to Clarke Field. Heroism! Glory! Extra time! Bonus soccer in a tie that completely deserved it! What could be finer?

Then, in the seventh minute of stoppage time, Matt Van Oekel, who has already cost FC Edmonton multiple games with his howlers, who had given away a penalty in the first ten minutes, conceded a goal five-hole to Matias Laba, a man who had scored once in six years of professional soccer. Hello darkness my old friend…

Whitecaps fans are happy. The better team won, though it was close. Both teams flopped all over the pitch and wasted time when it was to their advantage so there is no moral high ground. The refereeing was fair; Vancouver supporters were outraged at the seven minutes of stoppage time given in the second leg until it went in their favour, and while the decisive free kick was a dodgy call against Eddie Edward, it wasn’t as bad as all that and the real responsibility falls on the Eddies for conceding when they needn’t have.

You might think that Vancouver’s faithful will, therefore, be happy about the Voyageurs Cup, disproving my thesis that it is non-stop anguish, like watching a child die every single year for a decade and a half. Not so. In August the Vancouver Whitecaps will play the Montreal Impact in the final. The Impact are the Voyageurs Cup equivalent of that bad guy who just won’t die no matter how many times you frantically pump shotgun rounds into the spasming ruin that was once his body. There is nothing that is beyond them in this tournament. By August the Whitecaps will be the acme of MLS fixture congestion and the Impact will be eliminated from the playoff race: I predict that the Whitecaps will dominate Montreal to a greater degree than they did Edmonton, and lose, because welcome to the Voyageurs Cup sunshine.

Of course these endless nightmares made flesh do not reach Montreal or even Toronto. Kurt Larson was quite right to scoff at the Canadian Championship in the Sun a couple weeks ago, because he is a Torontonian so cannot understand its true purpose. For most of us it’s not about qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League, or crowning a professional champion of Canada. It’s about us fans being kicked incredibly hard in sensitive areas, until we’re curled up and coughing blood and limping back to the pubs and stadiums next year for another thrashing, another chance to discover how low we can go, what fresh glaze of despair the soccer gods will put on the dry, crumbling cake that is Canadian soccer.

This year, for example, FC Edmonton fans will be thinking “if we put in this effort, and got this calibre of refereeing, we would have gone to the final in 2013 or 2014. Even this year, if we hadn’t inexplicably used some Chesapeake cretin as our starting goalkeeper and ran out Toronto’s John Smits instead, it at least would have gone to penalties. Instead Colin Miller made the worst possible choice and ran smack into the worst possible opposition, right when the stars seemed finally to have aligned.” That’s a very fæcal cupcake for a second division supporter to swallow, his team ignored by the national media for another twelve months and the thousands of part-time fans who showed up at that game thinking “fun, but the Eddies lost again!” Not much hope of positives from that valiant defeat, unless you count Van Oekel grabbing his false passport and fleeing to Argentina.

Readers of this site will be experts in torturing themselves. A surprising proportion supports the Edmonton Oilers, possibly the most consistently disappointing collection of athletes in world history. Most cheer on the Canadian men’s national team, whose last triumph came in the year 2000. Many are fans of Toronto FC, whose incompetence need not be described. Yet these teams are just terrible. Except for rare nadirs that remain in a fan like Thor’s hammer gouged out a piece of his heart, Toronto and Canada and the Oilers just lose, a lot, to everybody. There’s nothing like the feeling of someone punching you in the stomach, tearing out your heart, and openly relishing the sound of your screams as he squeezes the life out of you, every single damned year. That’s the Voyageurs Cup. Oh God, why will we all be back for 2016?

But we have one-goal leads to keep, / And miles to go before we sleep.

By Benjamin Massey · May 14th, 2015 · No comments

Bob Frid/Vancouver Whitecaps via FC Edmonton

Once again, FC Edmonton has stunned an MLS club. We should be used to this by now.

Oh, not because they’re some elite NASL side capable of hanging with anybody. Edmonton just visited the league’s best team, the New York Cosmos, and got killed. Hanging around the bottom of the table is where they belong. But yesterday the Whitecaps trotted out the bench guys, scrubs, players who could do with some match practice. This was a blunder. Ritchie Jones harried Gershon Koffie into making the careless mistake typical of players who haven’t seen a midfielder sprinting at them with murder in his eyes for a while. Tomi Ameobi converted, since he always does. It was no fluke, for the Eddies spent the next twenty minutes giving the Whitecaps an R-rated beating. They could have been 2-0 up before goalkeeper Matt VanOekel had even touched the ball. How people still believe an MLS press box is automatically superior to NASL starters, I honestly have no idea.

After that twenty minutes of dominance Edmonton sat back, absorbed pressure, pounded clearances into False Creek, tried to score on the counter. Some Whitecaps fans flatter themselves that this was a response to their superior skill. But welcome to Colin Miller route-one soccer: Mallan Roberts or Kareem Moses or whomever slamming his foot through the ball and regrouping for the next attack, the enemy coming in waves like a Japanese division on the Solomon Islands, and somehow hardly conceding any shots from within eighteen yards. He does the same thing against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and it works, more-or-less. MLS fans haven’t yet compared Edmonton to Marc dos Santos’s Ottawa Fury, who play the ball out of the back, and attack down the flanks, and show individual skill, and lose.

Were I a dime-a-word shitposter for The Daily Beast I’d whine about negative tactics but that game was terrific fun. Say what you like about Erik Hurtado, preferably peppered with obscenities and anatomical impossibilities, but he does make a game interesting, running past guys and blazing shots wide of the mark like a sniper with Parkinson’s; between him and Johann Smith both teams had players who were caricatures of lower-division mediocrity. It is only a matter of time before Hurtado realizes his destiny playing wide right for the Carolina Railhawks. Sam Adekugbe looked good before his worrying injury, and in relief Jordan Harvey looked very good, which is hard for me to say. Tim Parker may already be the best MLS ginger since Richard Eckersley and he stunned Lance Laing, no slowpoke himself, with a second-half turn of pace and a lovely shoulder-check to force a goal kick. I like Tim Parker. NCAA Americans forever. But it wasn’t good enough. The Eddies had been run ragged by travel and the soccer gods, Daryl Fordyce looked bagged in the first half, several others were almost falling down in the second, and Vancouver couldn’t take the win.

The Whitecaps will never get a better opportunity against Edmonton than the one they just squandered. They are maybe the best team in Major League Soccer and even their weakened lineup held a thousand advantages. Home field, an energetic crowd, and an Eddies squad that had never gotten so much as a point off the Whitecaps in any match, friendly or Cup. Vancouver had just destroyed the Philadelphia Union, at home. The Eddies had just been destroyed by the Cosmos, away, then flown across the continent in economy class to bounce their ragged-ass knees off a chewed-up artificial surface that’s weeks away from replacement. Edmonton is a horrible road team. They were humiliated by the expansion Jacksonville Armada, should have lost to the Carolina Railhawks, beat the Ottawa Fury by the direct intervention of the soccer gods after being hopelessly outchanced, and that Cosmos match was nowhere near as close as a 4-2 scoreline made it look. Their defense, already the weakest part of the team, was missing its best player in skipper Albert Watson. How in God’s name did Edmonton not only hold on for a draw but earn it?

Colin Miller’s an old-school manager, higher on aerobics than ability, and people hate that. But another team would have folded in those conditions and today he looks very clever. So does VanOekel, the much-criticized goalkeeper who made easy saves look difficult but still had a good game. Johann Smith is the worst soccer player of all time, but with Watson and rookie fullback Allan Zebie both injured Miller didn’t have many options. Maybe a piece of wood with a frowny face drawn on it, and even that could have been an upgrade, for Smith was culpable not only on the goal against but many of Vancouver’s best looks.

Now, the Eddies have a home match against the San Antonio Scorpions, who are not very good. Watson will probably be ready to play for Edmonton Wednesday, which means no Smith. Miller might well rest a few of his troops against the Scorpions and they’re so mediocre he might get away with it. Players like Sadi Jalali, Hanson Boakai, and Tomas Granitto could use some minutes, allowing Tomi Ameobi, Lance Laing, and Cristian Raudales to kick back on the bench, sip mai-tais, and rest up. Vancouver’s best players must deal with a Cascadia Cup derby against Seattle filled with blood, sweat, and tears. They also have to look forward to a trip to Colorado, neither talented nor a rival but apparently still more important than the Voyageurs Cup. I can’t imagine Edmonton holding onto a 0-0 draw and making that away goal count, but if their best players are at their best next week they can outscore the half-strength Whitecaps.

Even now, even having watched their bench guys failing to overwhelm a depleted team that spent an hour looking like it might throw up, Whitecaps fans by and large want their club to focus on the league and send the second-stringers, maybe augmented by a Russell Teibert or two, to Clarke Stadium. It is hard to imagine Carl Robinson disagreeing. On the radio he says the Voyageurs Cup is important, but then he treats it like a practice for the U-12 West False Creek “B” Final. I don’t get the impression he’ll be really bothered if the Whitecaps lose: with the CONCACAF Champions League and a playoff push he’ll have enough games to play. The fact is that Whitecaps fans will judge Robinson on whether he wins in MLS, but Eddies fans will give Miller big points just for getting to the Voyageurs Cup final. That will explain a lot.

Lucky Results and Lucky Lineups for FC Edmonton

By Benjamin Massey · April 30th, 2015 · 1 comment

Trident Photography/FC Edmonton

Trident Photography/FC Edmonton

Okay, Ottawa Fury friends, let’s level with each other. That refereeing was a sin. Verily it is written that Drew Fischer giveth and Drew Fischer taketh away. Certainly one of those two first-half incidents on Wednesday should have been a penalty; neither was clear-cut but if you deny a team a 50-50 call you should probably give them the next one. Unfortunately I suspect that Fischer, who ruined last year’s Voyageurs Cup by handing the Montreal Impact an undeserved victory, was thinking too hard about his screwup and overcompensated in the Eddies’ favour, which is why you shouldn’t put lesser referees in that position. Your coach chilling in the press box giving Steven Sandor and Gareth Hampshire pronunciation tips didn’t help, not that Marc dos Santos has ever been much of a winner in this tournament.

The NASL scheduling gods had already screwed you, the Eddies enjoying a pleasant weekend at the spa or whatever the heck they do on off days while you got clawed in the eyes by Fort Lauderdale. Moreover, the Fury punished Edmonton for about 70 minutes of the first leg and weren’t far inferior in the second; a neutral commentator would say you guys deserved better than a record-tying 6-2 aggregate loss.

So by all means, Fury faithful, feel free to be angry and leave hateful, profanity-flecked comments. Make a huge banner showing Drew Fischer with a white stick and a bewildered impression. Write a half-drunken 1,000-word blog post saying the Canadian Soccer Association wanted the Eddies to go through because they love oil.

In exchange, grant me that the result, if not the score, was basically just. Edmonton won two penalties this series, deserved both, and missed one. The score in the second leg would have been far more one-sided but for Romuald Peiser, who went full 2009 Jay Nolly in a losing cause. Matt Van Oekel, on the other hand, was relatively unchallenged (though he had no chance when he was beaten). While Ottawa maybe got more chances than Edmonton, when Edmonton had a chance it was full-bore odd-man-rush-from-45-yards-out five-alarm stuff. In the second half, needing four goals for victory, the Fury barely gave themselves a prayer of one. The Eddies defense is not strong, we saw it again, but compared to Ottawa oh boy. The better team won, it did, it just did.

As a result the Eddies now face the Vancouver Whitecaps, again. When Edmonton and Vancouver play it feels like incest. The Whitecaps have loaned a whack of guys to Edmonton in the past, Colin Miller is a former Whitecaps assistant coach, up until this year the two pretty much always had a preseason match, and there are a lot of warm, fuzzy feelings between the two organizations when you consider that the Whitecaps hate Canada grr grr hate hate hate. Many of die-hard Whitecaps supporters consider the Eddies are their second-favourite team and while that isn’t always reciprocated there’s not a trace of hostility anywhere. There are even some bigamous, immoral, square-headed fans who sort of cheer for both teams and can only decide which to support by which league hates Canada least at the moment.

Now, I do not believe in the fake Canadian soccer pyramid. One club being in a titular first division and another club being in a titular second, in leagues with no promotion or relegation, has no inherent meaning. Because Canada’s MLS sides have larger player budgets than their NASL teams they will tend to be better but it’s far from law. MLS Toronto FC was the worst professional team in Canada between 2007 and 2009. Since 2011 MLS clubs have been ascendant in the Voyageurs Cup, but against an FC Edmonton that has never been top half in the NASL and has consistently been victimized by disastrous refereeing. Major League Soccer is not a meritocracy, and players who are good enough for MLS can and do find themselves in the NASL or USL for reasons unrelated to ability or attitude. Most of the gap in quality between MLS and the NASL comes in the handful of designated players but these are often pure marketing signings or, especially in Cup play, uninterested underachievers. I mention this not to start an argument, but so you understand my perspective when I pronounce the following sentence:

If the Whitecaps play their first eleven, FC Edmonton is going to have a big problem.

Don’t kid yourself. FC Edmonton is still not a contender in the NASL. Their early performances have flirted around the lower-mid-table, maybe lower. They got destroyed by a Jacksonville Armada team playing its first ever game. They deserved to lose at home to the incredibly mediocre Carolina Railhawks and drew. They pulled off a great comeback for a home win over Fort Lauderdale, but that was their only really nice performance of the season and even then the Strikers outchanced them. The offense is taking their opportunities but not generating enough, the defense misses Neil Hlavaty in midfield more than I think anyone expected. Their goals have come to a disconcerting degree through quick breaks and counter-attacks that often dry up when teams expect them. Edmonton’s not going to embarrass themselves or anything but nor are they going to be good.

The Vancouver Whitecaps, on the other hand, might be honestly solid for the first time since 2008. They’re the Supporters Shield leader, which doesn’t mean much when everyone has games-in-hand on them, but look at some of those results. 2-0 at home to Los Angeles, 1-0 away to Salt Lake, two opponents who have traditionally given Vancouver fits fairly ruthlessly dispatched. Carl Robinson’s crew has stumbled in front of some mediocre teams like Toronto and DC (yes, DC is still mediocre, I’m not buying their shit for a second) but this is MLS, that’s gonna happen. Even that home loss to DC was a good one, Vancouver dominating offensively, doubling up DC’s shots total despite spending 48 minutes with ten men, and falling only due to bad luck and a classic Gantarizing. No, I don’t think the Whitecaps are going to become the first Canadian team to win a Supporters Shield. But they have to be odds-on to host a playoff game.

Albert Watson’s a good defender, but he’s physical, and he grabs guys, and he tries to tackle from behind, and Octavio Rivero is strong and quick enough to deal with that while you know referees will be looking for a reason to call a penalty. They’ve also had trouble with speed, which the Whitecaps possess in Darren Mattocks and Kekuta Manneh. In midfield, Vancouver has the advantage both man-for-man and as a unit. The sole edge Edmonton enjoys is that if they turn a couple quick counters, Pa Modou Kah and Kendall Waston are fairly cement-footed central defenders. Kah is also cement-headed, and while Waston has serious quality asking him to babysit both the size of Tomi Ameobi and the skill of Daryl Fordyce every time Matt Van Oekel pounds a sixty-yard dropkick up to Sainey Nyassi is asking too much. Even David Ousted has more match-stealing potential than any goalkeeper in this tournament. If we see the Whitecaps’ best, Edmonton needs a miracle.

But will we see the Whitecaps’ best? In last year’s Cup Carl Robinson trotted out a B- lineup of beardless youths and Nigel-Reo-Coker-as-a-right-back which still took Toronto FC’s billion-dollar studs to spot kicks. Vancouver’s in an important stretch of games, including two Cascadia Cup derbies, and unless Robinson’s rethought his attitude to the Voyageurs Cup we will probably see the kids again. The Whitecaps might well start more Canadians than Edmonton for the first time ever, which is strange given their undeniable, seething hatred of Canada. Some of those kids are very good, but their presence may still alter the balance of the tie. I like Marco “Please Don’t Play For Chile” Bustos as much as anybody, and Ritchie Jones will need to be on his game to keep Bustos contained, but it’s not quite the same thing as facing primo Pedro Morales. Can Caleb Clarke poach some goals? Absolutely. Is Ben McKendry tough and intelligent in central midfield. No doubt. The problem is that they lack experience and, in many cases, cohesion.

Even if Vancouver plays its reservists, Edmonton won’t have it too easy. The Eddies’ have the worse schedule: while the Whitecaps spend most of May in the Pacific time zone, Edmonton has the Whitecaps home game, then a tough road trip to New York, then straight to Vancouver. The Whitecaps’ young players will be highly motivated. Remember, they outplayed most of Toronto FC’s top lineup across two legs last year, not because they were more skilled but because TFC didn’t meet expectations and the Aldersons, Froeses, and Adekugbes of the Whitecaps were going for the throat. The 2014 Whitecaps benefited from departed professionals in the Carlyle Mitchell and Johnny Leveron mold, but on the other hand the surviving kids have another year’s experience and there’s no Nigel Reo-Coker at right back either.

The Whitecaps have the better chances in this tie. If FC Edmonton wants to win then they’d better hope that Carl Robinson trots out the youngsters again, and they better maintain their killer instinct and intensity for 180 minutes. There can be none of the five-minute switch-offs which the Eddies have loved, particularly early in games. None of the airheaded mistakes that have cost them goals. The defending must be as stifling as in 2014 while the attack must be even more dangerous than it’s been this year. A lot has to go right. It can happen, but the 2015 Whitecaps are not the 2014 Impact.

Voyageurs Cup: An Easy Lead to Lose

By Benjamin Massey · April 23rd, 2015 · No comments

Steve Kingsman/Ottawa Fury

Steve Kingsman/Ottawa Fury

Yesterday’s Voyageurs Cup opener was not one for the purists. Sloppy soccer. FC Edmonton had absorbed a Sunday battering coming back from the dead against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Ottawa was better rested (second home game on the trot, extra day off), but it’s early in the season and their Minnesota game Saturday had been no picnic. A few players (hello, Julian de Guzman) still looked to be playing their way into shape.

God, but it was fun, wasn’t it? An hour of near-total Fury dominance which should brighten the day for the few fans who ignored a must-win NHL playoff game to come to Lansdowne Field. The second-quickest goal in Voyageurs Cup history by young forward/strangulation specialist Oliver* and very nearly a couple more. FC Edmonton actually saw a dodgy call at a Voyageurs Cup game in their favour, when referee Geoff Gamble gave a spot kick for a tough hand ball on Ottawa right back Ryan Richter; Richter clearly had the ball hit his hand but was trying to protect his face. All’s well that ends well: Lance Laing struck the penalty hard and sideways but at a perfect height for the goalkeeper, and Romuald Peiser made a fine save.

The missed penalty, though, marked the point where it turned from a one-sided battering into a real soccer game. From there on out the Eddies attacked hard and owned most of the good chances. They tied it up through Daryl Fordyce’s third Voyageurs Cup goal against the Fury, took the lead when Laing read Rafael Alves like a children’s comic and stripped the ball with almost casual ease, and made it a 3-1 win late in stoppage time when the Fury defense had already succumbed to despair and Laing hooked up with Tomi Ameobi. The Ottawa Fury commentators seemed bewildered that Laing hadn’t started but this was by far his best effort of the season: maybe Ottawa had been lulled to sleep by the general uselessness of Johann Smith, but this was the first 2015 performance worthy of Laing’s highlight reel. The final score was very harsh on the Fury thanks to the Eddies’ gutsy, magisterial comeback: rumours that Laurie Hawn snuck a rally rabbit into Lansdowne Park at half were not confirmed by press time.

So FC Edmonton heads home up 3-1 on aggregate. They have not lost a home game since July 27, 2014 (nine matches) and have not lost at home by two goals since May 3. They have an unfair scheduling advantage: Edmonton has this weekend off while Ottawa hosts Fort Lauderdale on Saturday. Ottawa’s actually a fairly good road team, and got three two-goal wins away from home in 2014, but this season has seen a very disappointing, referee-influenced loss away to Carolina and a draw in Atlanta where an unremarkable offense carved them open more than once. The Eddies, a decent defensive side on paper, have a schwack of away goals to cling onto like the last potato in Latvia. In short, everyone will call Edmonton the favourite next Wednesday for good reason.

Naturally I am less confident. Coming into yesterday’s game I’d never anticipated a Voyageurs Cup less: last year’s criminal refereeing, and the consequent Montreal Impact fellatio for a CONCACAF Champions League run they never earned, has made me jaded, cynical, and bitter. 90 minutes of classic Canadian soccer has helped cure me, and the old nerves are back. The thing about the Voyageurs Cup is that its gods are capricious, and absolutely anything can happen at any time.

You no doubt spotted me calling the Eddies defense decent “on paper”. Albert Watson is an implacable stalwart and former NASL Best XI, Mallan Roberts makes inexperienced mistakes but also does a lot right, versatile Eddie Edward is underrated outside Ottawa and Edmonton, and even the much-maligned Kareem Moses has apparently taken classes in poise and alertness this winter. However, there have been a lot of blunders from that crew so far in 2015. The Rabbits were humiliated in Jacksonville thanks in no small part to Johann Smith at left back, making the most horrifying debut since chlorine gas. But they easily could have allowed more than one goal to Carolina, and Fort Lauderdale passed the ball through Edmonton with effortless ease at time last Sunday. According to the official statistics Edmonton has allowed 16, 12, 16, and 15 shots directed against in their four matches this year. Those are big numbers. They have been outshot every game.

In goal, Matt Van Oekel has been a human question mark, and even if Colin Miller wants to switch to John Smits he can’t since last year’s number one is on loan at Montreal. Moreover, the Eddies have already allowed two first-minute goals this season and very nearly allowed a third. If Ottawa pegs the aggregate score to 3-2 early, watch for the small crowd at Clarke Field to grow awfully nervous.

On Wednesday, the Fury easily could have scored a field goal. Wiedeman had a couple good looks. Oliver could have added one or two to his tally. Even Julian de Guzman had too much space and nearly scored from distance. Paulo Jr. was highly erratic but in midfield could be big trouble. Now that Neil Hlavaty’s gone Edmonton doesn’t really have that pain-in-the-ass defensive midfielder; Ritchie Jones isn’t really that guy and anyway that night he was either tired or dogging it. Ottawa was the best team, by a long way, for a long time, until it all fell apart and Edmonton showed superior character and cohesiveness. It’s great for fans, and even better for their heart surgeons, but guts, glory, and going for it gung-ho are no long-term replacement for preventing shots and getting more chances than the other guys.

After the game Edmonton head coach Colin Miller said all the right things about acting like it’s 0-0 and taking the second leg seriously. Good, but easier said than done. As much as you can with a heavy margin coming home against mediocre opposition, the Eddies look vulnerable.


* — The quickest goal in Voyageurs Cup history was on May 20, 2009, when the Vancouver Whitecaps’ Marcus Haber scored 33 seconds in against Marc dos Santos’s Montreal Impact at Stade Saputo. The Canadian Soccer Association press release says Oliver scored 65 seconds in but I think this is a typo: the correct time was 56 seconds. According to the best available information Haber and Oliver are the only first-minute scorers since the Voyageurs Cup began in 2002.