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.

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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.

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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.

Canada Snubs the NASL; Should the NASL Snub Canada?

By Benjamin Massey · March 22nd, 2015 · 2 comments

It’s been a rough week for those of us who worry Benito Floro is snubbing the NASL. Floro announced his roster for the senior men’s national team friendlies against Guatemala and Puerto Rico this month, and no NASL names were on it[1].

There are always excuses. The NASL teams are in preseason, though Edmonton’s camp is only a two-hour drive away from Canada’s. We are told that Floro wants to look at U-23 players for Olympic qualifying this summer and Ottawa’s Mauro Eustaquio, who should be in that pool, has been battling injury. I take the view that the time to examine U-23 depth is in U-23 camp and the senior team should worry more about the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying. But if Floro wants to run the rule over young players then why call Toronto FC reserve captain Chris Mannella and Hungarian league defender Manjrekar James? Neither has played a minute in a top league and both already have two caps. Mannella, a defensively-oriented central midfielder, joins a roster that is full of defensively-oriented central midfielders but lacks Hanson Boakai-esque attacking flair. If Floro is testing his top team neither player is yet near it.

Then, a few days later, defenders Sam Adekugbe and Andre Hainault were obliged to withdraw due to injury. Adekugbe is a youngster, though one who earned his call-up on merit and was finally getting MLS starts at Jordan Harvey’s expense. Replacing him with another kid is fair enough. But with Hainault gone Floro did not call another already-capped veteran like Nana Attakora or Mason Trafford. Nor did he call a veteran who he doesn’t know but really should, like Eddie Edward. Nor did he throw a bone to a player like Mallan Roberts, a good NASL centre back who could start for FC Edmonton this year, got his Canadian citizenship in February[2], and is very close indeed to giving up Canada as a bad bet and playing for his birthplace of Sierra Leone.

Instead the summons went to Jonathan Grant, out of the semi-professional League 1 Ontario. It’s great to see L1O getting a boost but Grant’s another player in a league below NASL level who Floro has already seen. The second injury replacement, Tyler Pasher, recently signed with USL Pittsburgh and is hoping to break though at a sub-NASL level after failing to stick in the also-sub-NASL Finnish second division. These decisions only make sense if the NASL is so, so low on Floro’s radar that anybody in the U-23 pool beats it.

Steven Sandor reports that Julian de Guzman has offers from NASL teams[3], so this might be his Canadian swan song. Too glib? Given that James, Pasher, and Grant apparently thundered past Attakora on the depth chart the instant young Nana joined the San Antonio Scorpions, I don’t see why.

This post’s purpose is not solely to gripe. As this NASL scorn continues for year upon year, we will see NASL fans murmur about playing Canadians at all. What’s the point? Unless our players manage to catch on in the Colombian second division like David Monsalve they won’t get a cap. Why play Canadians if the national team’s not interested? Already the proportion of Canadian minutes for both FC Edmonton and the Ottawa Fury seems set to decline in 2015.

The Canadian Soccer Association is not synonymous with Canadian soccer. Developing the domestic game, and domestic players, is certainly more rewarding when those players may join the national team. But domestic players are worthwhile for their own sake. Ex-Vancouver Whitecap David Morris and ex-Whitecap/Edmonton Aviator Gordon Chin became local favourites despite never making a senior Canadian team. Eddies fans didn’t love Shaun Saiko or Paul Hamilton the less for being left out of the national squad. Albertans succeeding at Clarke Stadium was enough.

Having Canadian players on professional Canadian clubs should not be the means to an end, it should be the end. Every player that winds up on the national team is a bonus and a credit to his club, of course, but the development of a serious domestic professional player base, the presence of local and regional players we can cheer on from Victoria to Moncton, should be its own reward for fans. It is for this reason we shouldn’t worry about the short-term player strength in a Canadian “division 1A” league. It will be weaker than the NASL almost by definition, but over years of full-time professional development the gap will narrow and someday, hopefully, it’ll be too good to ignore.

Until that league comes, let us apply the same philosophy to our NASL teams. The more Canadians the better, and if Benito Floro doesn’t rate them it’s his loss.

(notes and comments…)

Those Sainey Nyassi Statistics, in Full

By Benjamin Massey · February 10th, 2015 · 1 comment

New England Revolution

New England Revolution

Today FC Edmonton announced the signing of Gambian Sainey Nyassi[1]. Nyassi, 26, is a hella-fast diminutive winger who fizzled out in MLS but enjoyed a successful comeback in 2014 with Finnish club RoPS. Nyassi counts as a domestic player in the NASL and will compete with Michael Nonni and loanee Oskar Orn Hauksson for minutes out right.

Nyassi’s performance in MLS was sometimes exciting, oftentimes disappointing. He bounced between “integral starter” and “low-impact substitute” enough to get a concussion. Up until 2011 he was part of the Gambian national team pool, but a couple disappointing MLS seasons put paid to that. At first he was the better of the Nyassi twins, but while Sanna’s established himself Sainey’s injuries caused him to wander the wilderness after 2010. Having rediscovered his scoring boots in Finland, and started two games in the 2014-15 Europa League against Greek side Asteras, Nyassi returns to North America as a question mark.

The last winger with MLS experience the Eddies signed out of Finland was Mike Banner. That did not go brilliantly. Banner’s 2014 season, and maybe his career, was ruined by injury. But Nyassi hasn’t been a healthy bunny either. He missed the end of the 2011 MLS season and most of 2012 with a series of lower body problems, losing his spot in the New England eighteen. He bobbed up and down with DC United in 2013 but was still sporadically hurt and unremarkable when healthy. Nyassi has spent the past nine seasons on artificial turf in Foxborough, Washington, and Finland, and Edmonton’s new surface will hopefully be more forgiving than the infamous carpet in New England and DC, but the Eddies have had their share of leg problems. This is, perhaps, not a match made in heaven.

For Nyassi, whose calling card is speed, it wouldn’t take much of an injury crisis for this banner signing to turn into a Banner-like mistake. Yet you don’t get risk-free players in the NASL and at least Nyassi has produced in the past, while bringing that Horace James-like athletic punch that helped turn the Eddies’ fortunes around last fall. Ex-MLS signings always draw attention in the NASL, but FC Edmonton’s balanced midfield hopefully means Nyassi won’t be relied upon too heavily.

In the approved manner, here are Nyassi’s statistics from his professional career so far in North America and Europe. Regular season only[2]:

GP Strt MIN G A PKG SD SoG SoG% S% Yl Rd G/90 SD/90 SoG/90
2004-05 Gambia Ports Authority Gam-1
statistics not available
2005-06 Gambia Ports Authority Gam-1
statistics not available
2006-07 Gambia Ports Authority Gam-1
statistics not available
2007 New England MLS 1 0 8 0 0 0 0 0 nan nan 0 0 0.000 0.000 0.000
2008 New England MLS 25 18 1661 2 1 0 28 13 46.43% 15.38% 7 0 0.108 1.517 0.704
2009 New England MLS 28 22 1940 2 1 0 28 14 50.00% 14.29% 1 0 0.046 1.299 0.649
2010 New England MLS 28 27 2297 3 2 0 39 11 28.21% 27.27% 3 0 0.118 1.528 0.431
2011 New England MLS 21 8 959 1 0 0 21 10 47.62% 10.00% 1 0 0.094 1.971 0.938
2012 New England MLS 1 0 11 0 0 0 0 0 nan nan 0 0 0.000 0.000 0.000
2013 New England MLS 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 nan nan 0 0 0.000 0.000 0.000
2013 DC United MLS 14 7 676 0 0 0 10 1 10.00% 0.00% 1 0 0.000 1.331 0.133
2014 RoPS Fin-1 19 17 1437 4 2 0 3 0 0.251

As you can see, despite his flash Nyassi has never been a classical attacker. While his shooting percentages have been consistently low this seems to be a family trait: his brother Sanna does exactly the same thing, speedsters hazarding many more low-percentage shots than classical strikers. Sainey’s best season, 2010, saw him tied for fourth on the Revolution in goals, second in shots directed, fifth in shots on target, and tied for fifth in assists. Small wonder that, between injuries and the emergence of more well-rounded attackers in New England, Nyassi struggled for playing time late in his MLS career. Yet there was still some value there, and his trademark direct speed provides a dimension that the Eddies previously lacked.

According to Wikipedia, a young Nyassi got his start with the Gambia Ports Authority team in the country’s first division, based in the capital of Banjul. Statistics are hard to come by, but he clearly did well enough to catch the eye at least domestically.

In a sense, by signing in Edmonton Nyassi returns to where his career started. He got his big break at the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada, making a surprising round-of-16 appearance. New England Revolution boss Steve Nicol scouted Gambia and Nyassi caught Nicol’s eye, even as they lost 2-1 to Austria at Commonwealth Stadium. Nyassi and teammate Kenny Mansally signed with New England shortly after the tournament, and though bureaucracy delayed their debuts both would remain part of the Revolution family for several seasons[3].

Nyassi began his MLS career in earnest in 2008. The season got off on the right foot: Nyassi’s first goal for the Revolution was MLS Goal of the Week for Week 1, a seemingly-straightforward run down the right-hand side in the third minute of stoppage time that simply outpaced the Houston Dynamo defenders until Nyassi plastered a shot from fifteen yards over Pat Onstad[4]. The 2008 Revolution were a good team and young Nyassi was one reason why. Had it not been for his eight minutes in 2007 Nyassi would certainly have gotten rookie of the year buzz (though it’s hard to imagine him beating eventual winner Sean Franklin). It wasn’t all good news: their playoff experience was short, an attempt to defend the US Open Cup ended in the semi-finals, and Nyassi and the Revolution got waxed 6-1 by Trinidad and Tobago’s Joe Public in the CONCACAF Champions League preliminary round. Still, admirable work from a 19-year-old winger. Nyassi was established as one to watch.

The first hiccup came in 2009, when Nyassi failed to make much progress. Another Goal of the Week in Week 3, as Nyassi made FC Dallas’s George John look stupid at range and stroked an 18-yard left-footer home[5] but defenders were giving his speed more respect. He bagged two goals and an assist that year (again), and even managed roughly the same number of shots. The Revolution finished third in the Eastern Conference (again) and fell to Chicago in the first round of the playoffs (again). 2010, which ought to have been when a 21-year-old Nyassi made the leap, was only a half-step forward: his best attacking season to date but the Revolution were on the decline. The question was whether Nyassi was a limited talent who could only stand out on bad teams, or whether his ascent was being held back by the cast of has-beens and never-weres that filled out Steve Nicol’s lineup card. It is a question that, frankly, has still not been convincingly answered.

2011 was where it all went wrong. Nyassi was in and out of the starting lineup, starting three of the first four games but only five more the rest of the year. He recorded neither a goal nor an assist until June 26 in Seattle, his only point of the campaign. Nyassi’s already-troubled season ended August 13 when he strained his right MCL[6] and subsequently his right hamstring, an injury that would recur. When the season ended Nyassi’s long-time fan, coach Steve Nicol, left the struggling Revolution and was replaced by former Revolution defender Jay Heaps. Heaps, it turned out, had little faith in his ex-teammate.

Nyassi had supposedly healed by the 2012 preseason, scoring in a friendly against FC Tucson, but against Boston College he re-injured the hamstring and was sidelined for four months[7]. Even when Nyassi recovered Heaps kept him out of the Revolution lineup. He made what turned out to be his last appearance in a New England shirt on July 18 in Montreal (where he faced Sanna), playing eleven nondescript minutes off the bench. The Revolution were returning to competitiveness, led by young guns like Diego Fagundez and Kelyn Rowe, and Nyassi was hardly going to get into the lineup at their expense. But there was still a fair share of thorough-going scrubs who Nyassi could well have beaten. Didn’t happen. A right adductor strain cost Nyassi what little chance he had of breaking back in, and though he was on the Revolution bench to end the season he didn’t see a minute.

Finally healthy at the beginning of 2013, Sainey rarely even made New England’s bench. Loyal to the last, the Revolution faithful ran a “#FreeNyassi” Twitter hashtag to show their support and in the end he was freed, though not in the manner they wanted: waived on May 16[8]. The lamentable DC United soon snapped him up, and with the Revolution rebounding Nyassi was back in the MLS basement. He made fourteen appearances, with seven starts, on that sorry squad and recorded few statistics of note. Though he participated in DC United’s US Open Cup-winning run, more injuries kept him out of the final rounds and several league games. Nyassi actually recorded a decent number of shots and threatened some offense on a team with few attacking options, but all in all his 2013 campaign was another disappointment.

It was no surprise that Nyassi was among those let go when the chainsaw went through DC’s deadwood at the end of 2013. As he tried to move clubs for the second time in a year naturally Nyassi was hurt; this time with a broken nose[9]. He did not resurface until June, when he went on trial with Finnish first division club RoPS (thanks, ironically, to their injury crisis)[10]. Nyassi made his Finnish debut June 8 at FC Honka and immediately became a regular. June 27, at Frank Jonke’s former club FF Jaro, Nyassi scored his first goal in two years, bumping home an opportunistic header off a failed clearance from a long throw[11]. He went on to score three more goals that year, the best being his last: in the season finale Nyassi capped a goal-and-two-assist performance against domestic powerhouse HJK Helsinki by chasing down a seemingly hopeless long ball, exploiting a mistake by Finnish international Valtteri Moren, and sweeping home a sly left-footer[12]. Nyassi’s four goals and two assists in a bit more than half a season was a fine mark, third on the team. But his hopes of an improved contract were dashed, as RoPS elected to let Nyassi move on[13].

Though naturally a right-sided player, in Finland Nyassi played quite a bit of left wing and looked dangerous. He’s got a bit of touch with both feet and can shoot with power, though his sometimes-dodgy runs and positioning don’t make this as decisive an advantage as I’d like. He’s also been a decent but not brilliant crosser from either side, though he won’t eat Lance Laing’s lunch there. Defensively he’s better than you probably think but that doesn’t mean “good”. And for such a little player he’s fair with his head. Two of his goals for RoPS were headers; both came from dodgy defending but you do get that in the NASL. Given Edmonton’s strength out left with Lance Laing, Hanson Boakai, Tomas Granitto, and the versatile Oskar Orn Hauksson, the smart money says Nyassi will go back to the right wing. He’s even been spotted at fullback, though it’s hard to imagine him returning there.

Given Nyassi’s modest contribution in recent seasons and his nasty injury bug I’m not sold on this signing. Certainly, I hope Nyassi wasn’t too expensive and his is by no means the first position I’d be looking to fill. That said, even a versatile, quick impact sub would fill a need for the Eddies, so keep our expectations modest and we may be pleased.

(notes and comments…)

FC Edmonton Academy Graduates Another One: Allan Zebie Joins Eddies

By Benjamin Massey · January 22nd, 2015 · 1 comment

Les Meszaros/Canadian Soccer Association

Les Meszaros/Canadian Soccer Association

Today, FC Edmonton announced the signing of former Academy fullback Allan Zebie[1]. Born in France but trained in Canada, Zebie’s name may be familiar: he was a member of the Canadian U-20 pool in 2012 and 2013 and a non-playing substitute at the 2013 CONCACAF U-20 championship. Zebie spent most of last year trialling in Europe but returned to Edmonton in the fall, got more good reviews, and has now signed his first professional contract. His younger brother, Bruno, is a midfielder, a current member of the FC Edmonton academy, and has received some positive notice with appearances for the Canadian U-18 team.

A 21-year-old 5’9″ fullback, Zebie will provide cover on both flanks. As always see Steven Sandor for the best-informed take[2], but Edmonton’s roster has room for Zebie. The departure of Cristian Raudales Beto Navarro and the possibility of Lance Laing playing midfield means a need for depth fullbacks: as of today Eddie Edward is the first right back, either Laing or Kareem Moses will play left, and from there it’s wide open. No doubt more signings are coming but there’s a chance Zebie will have what many first-time professionals wait years for: the prospect of cracking game-day eighteens and seeing minutes.

Officially, Allan Zebie is the tenth player signed by FC Edmonton from their Academy since the first five in February 2013. Unofficially I count eleven. Six remain with the team in 2015 and two have become important, though none are yet everyday starters. This is an enviable record: not all of these players have been prominent first-teamers but many have played a part and one, Hanson Boakai, has already been called to the Canadian senior men’s national team. Though roster rules mean you shouldn’t compare raw numbers between NASL and MLS teams, this compares very well to more established youth academies in Vancouver and Toronto. Let’s take a look at those eleven players.

1. Midfielder Hanson Boakai is the most prominent Academy alumnus in the Eddies ranks to date. Boakai was one of the five “original” FC Edmonton reserve players to sign a first team contract in February 2013[3] and during that season became the youngest player in the history of the North American Soccer League. His star turn in the 2014 Voyageurs Cup drew national headlines and a call to a senior men’s national team training camp from Benito Floro, though he did not play. He was also the most electric, and most underutilized, Canadian player at the recent CONCACAF U-20 championships.

Boakai remains at Edmonton for 2015 and, still only 18 years old, will be looking to crack the first eleven (though competition is stiff). The 2014 season saw him become semi-regular, getting a handful of starts and more appearances off the bench, and he was very much the team’s twelfth man during its successful fall.

2. Rock-solid central defender Mallan Roberts was another one of the February 2013 originals. He’d earned a reputation in Edmonton as an amateur athlete, both as a take-no-prisoners defender for Jeff Paulus’s NAIT Ooks and the Eddies reserves, and as a junior football prospect eyed by the Edmonton Eskimos.

For all the Boakai hype, Roberts not only has more appearances for FC Edmonton but more goals, scoring twice so far in the NASL. His appearances in the first team have been marred by inconsistency, indiscipline, and injury but he’s shown upside as well, winning an NASL Team of the Week nod last year. In some ways Roberts recalls new West Ham United signing Doneil Henry, though citizenship problems have delayed the opportunity to play for Canada. He remains with the roster for 2015 and, turning 23 in June, will be expected to make big strides.

3. Strong forward Sadi Jalali arrived with a pallet of promise: while a member of Edmonton Juventus Jalali played the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup for Canada and scored against England. Despite interest from the Eddies Jalali visited Germany’s 1. FC Kaiserslautern academy, then the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency (where he was excellent at the USSDA U-18 level) before, finally and after a little controversy, signing with his hometown club. Thanks partially to injury Jalali hasn’t yet made a decisive impact on the NASL, but he scored his first goal last year against Carolina from the spot. He is on Edmonton’s 2015 roster but will be behind some solid veteran forwards in Daryl Fordyce, Frank Jonke, and Tomi Ameobi.

4. Montreal-born defender Chris de Guise, another NAIT alumnus, was one of the first five 2013 signings. Despite making the bench in the NASL a few times he has yet to see a professional minute and left Edmonton at the end of the 2013 season. De Guise remains in the game, making sixteen appearances last year for Quebec semi-pro league champions CS Longueuil.

5. Forward Ajeej Sarkaria, an Edmonton local, was the last of the “original five”. After starring in Maple Leaf Forever!‘s 2012 Worst Goal of the Canadian Year (So Far) Sarkaria signed first-team terms in February 2013 but did not appear in the Eddies eighteen. At the end of June Sarkaria was dropped back to the Reserves[4] and appeared in Reserve friendlies through the summer of 2014. He was also the leading scorer at the 2013 Canada Games, helping Team Alberta to a fifth-place finish. Though he hasn’t been heard from much lately, Sarkaria is 19 years old and still has time.

EDIT, January 24 10:00: thanks to John Anderson in the comments; Sarkaria spent last year redshirting at Grant MacEwan University.

6. Though not one of the original five, midfielder Edem Mortotsi joined the Eddies at the beginning of the 2013 season. Mortotsi was initially fairly prominent and saw a few games, including one start on November 3 in Fort Lauderdale. However, 2014 was a disappointment and he was released at the end of the season. Mortotsi also played a single Voyageurs Cup game, in 2013 against Vancouver.

7. Goalkeeper Norbert Janas, one of the original Academy members, signed with FC Edmonton in August 2013. Though he appeared on the bench a few times while Lance Parker was injured, Janas did not make an appearance before being dropped at the end of the season.

8. Lanky young central defender Marko Aleksic joined the Eddies before the beginning of the 2014 season. He’s already made a couple first team appearances when injury and suspension intervened, getting a half against Minnesota United and starting at home against Montreal in the second round of the Voyageurs Cup. Aleksic has also been a member of the Canadian U-20 pool, though he was not part of the team Rob Gale took to Jamaica this month. He remains on the Eddies roster for the 2015 season.

9. Goalkeeper Connor James signed with FC Edmonton in May 2014. This was almost openly an emergency signing: his contract was for the spring season only[5]. James got onto the bench once in the NASL and again in the Voyageurs Cup, but moved on after the spring season ended. He now plays at the University of Alberta, alongside other former Eddies and Eddies Academy players such as Tim Hickson, Ajay Khabra, and Niko Saler.

10. Another young goalkeeper, Christian Kaiswatum joined FC Edmonton’s first team in October 2014 after serving with the Academy and as a non-playing substitute for Canada at the 2013 U-17 World Cup. Kaiswatum has yet to make a first team appearance and is probably fourth on the depth chart for 2015, but he’s also turning 18 this season. According to his Canadian Soccer Association profile, one of his favourite goalkeepers is fellow Edmontonian Asmir Begovic.

11. Now, defender Allan Zebie joins the team. He’s the first fullback to come out of the Academy and the first youth signing of 2015.

The success of graduating Eddies Academy players hasn’t been universal, but Boakai, Roberts, and to an extent Jalali show that, even in these early days, there’s a chance to make a professional career in Edmonton. Good luck to Allan Zebie; our youngsters need to play somewhere.

EDIT, January 22: this article originally confused midfielder Cristian Raudales (still with FC Edmonton) with departed defender Beto Navarro.

(notes and comments…)

Those Matt Van Oekel Statistics, in Full

By Benjamin Massey · December 18th, 2014 · No comments

Today, FC Edmonton announced the signing of veteran second division goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel[1]. Virginia native Van Oekel had spent his entire seven-season professional career with various incarnations of Minnesota soccer clubs, starting with the Thunder in 2008, and has been the starter for the Minnesota Stars/United since 2012.

Though seldom classed among the NASL’s best Van Oekel’s had some good seasons behind stalwart defenses. He’s also one of the league’s most stylish players, his various haircuts being a bit of a running gag in NASL circles, and will fill the niche left by the departing Lance “Blue Steel” Parker. Probably more importantly, Van Oekel also brings experience to what is a pretty young goalkeeping corps: John Smits is the most experienced of the bunch with his three professional seasons.

We haven’t done one of these in ages! Here is Matt Van Oekel’s career to date. As always, regular season only, NCAA statistics are unreliable, NASL statistics are dodgy especially in 2013, and though he was the starter I haven’t got his 2007 Rutgers numbers at all[2]:

GP Strt MIN G A PKG Sh Sv GA Sv% GA/90 Yl Rd
2004 Longwood NCAA 17 17 1522 0 0 0 148 107 41 0.723 2.42 2 0
2005 Rutgers NCAA 10 9 829 0 0 0 64 52 12 0.714 1.09 0 0
2006 Rutgers NCAA 14 14 1279 0 0 0 64 52 12 0.813 0.84 0 0
2007 Rutgers NCAA statistics not available
2008 Minnesota USL-1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 nan nan 0 0
2009 Minnesota USL-1 1 1 90 0 0 0 5 4 1 0.800 1.00 0 0
2010 Minnesota USSF D2 6 5 474 0 0 0 29 19 10 0.655 1.90 1 0
2011 Minnesota NASL 1 1 90 0 0 0 2 2.00 0 0
2012 Minnesota NASL 25 25 2250 0 0 0 107 77 30 0.720 1.20 0 0
2013 Minnesota NASL 18 18 1620 0 1 0 27 1.50 1 0
2014 Minnesota NASL 20 19 1720 0 0 0 81 62 19 0.765 0.99 0 0

Van Oekel’s college career began in 2004 at Longwood University. Those bold Lancers were taking their first step into NCAA Division I and were massacred like Russians at Sevastapol. But you mustn’t blame Van Oekel: the freshman started all seventeen games, got a tonne of work, and posted surprisingly reasonable numbers for a guy who conceded 41 times.

Sensibly, rather than get shell-shock as the college soccer equivalent to Ben Scrivens, Van Oekel promptly bailed to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, a cavalry motif apparently suiting Van Oekel just fine. As a sophomore he fought Lubos Ancin for playing time and saw action October 8 at Louisville, a team that included his new Eddies teammate Frank Jonke. Jonke scored twice on Ancin so Van Oekel rolled out of the bullpen for his first action in seven matches; Jonke almost immediately beat Van Oekel to get his hat trick. But the Jonke show against Ancin established Van Oekel as Rutgers’s starter for the rest of the year. Truly, this was a partnership meant to happen.

Though it’s hard to tell because of Rutgers’s inability to post statistics for his senior year, and a pre-season ACL injury hurt[3], Van Oekel ended his college career in 2007 with a good record but few accolades. He was left off the MLS Combine lists and ignored in that year’s SuperDraft despite a weak year for goalkeepers. (It’s not like his program was overlooked: his teammate in 2005 and 2006 was Nick LaBrocca, while 2007 featured a young Dilly Duka.)

Patience is a virtue, even for Lancers and Scarlet Knights, and soon Van Oekel got his chance. Prior to the 2008 season Van Oekel went on trial with the USL First Division Minnesota Thunder and impressed enough to win a contract[4]. The Thunder had a decent veteran team but were weak in goal: Joe Warren had just retired and Nic Platter would see his first season as a pro starter. A great opportunity for Van Oekel, though Platter played every minute in 2008. Still, Van Oekel’s option was picked up for 2009, and on September 13 he made his professional debut at Stade Saputo, stopping four shots to help Minnesota earn a 1-1 draw with the Impact.

The 2010 season was a big one for American second division soccer and it was big for Matt Van Oekel. The United Soccer Leagues and North American Soccer League were having their acrimonious divorce, playing one last campaign together as the United States Soccer Federation Division 2 Pro League. The Minnesota Thunder were no more: the team dissolved, but their hosts at the National Sports Center created a new club known as the NSC Minnesota Stars stocked with former Thunder players. Van Oekel was not signed but stuck around on amateur terms, and while Platter showed interest in the new team[5] he soon went to Martin Rennie’s Carolina Railhawks. The Stars replaced Platter with two veterans: ex-DC United man and Liberian international Louis Crayton[6], already a seemingly washed-up wanderer at age 32, and, seemingly crazily, 35-year-old ex-Thunder goalkeeper Joe Warren, who had actually been retired for the past four years.

Crayton ended his professional soccer career 45 minutes into the Stars’ first game on a bonehead play at Swangard Stadium when he tried to fake out Dever Orgill for no obvious reason, collided with the young Jamaican forward, and blew out his ACL[7]. Warren came on in relief and began one of the more improbably successful second acts in American soccer history. With Crayton gone, Van Oekel was officially added to the roster, saw a few games, and did well enough to earn a contract for the inaugural 2011 NASL season as the badly under-financed Stars mounted a surprisingly decent run. For 2011 Warren remained the starter and Van Oekel played only one match, in (quite pleasingly) Edmonton on May 23, where the Stars lost 2-1 to a Kyle Porter brace. It was hard to blame coach Manny Lagos for sticking with Warren: after a dodgy regular season the Stars surprised everyone by taking the first NASL championship thanks in no small part to Warren’s heroics. The veteran goalkeeper retired for (presumably) the final time after 2011, though, and Van Oekel’s option was picked up.

In 2012 Van Oekel finally ascended to the starting job for his fifth season in Minnesota. With his only competition being rookie Mitch Hildebrandt, Van Oekel was assured the bulk of the minutes, and though Hildebrandt impressed when he played Van Oekel was Manny Lagos’s man. Minnesota, Van Oekel included, was inconsistent but (stop me if this sounds familiar) rode a mediocre regular season to a stirring playoff run that ended only with a defeat on penalties to Tampa Bay in the NASL final. Van Oekel also took part in a memorable US Open Cup giant-slaying when he and the Stars knocked off MLS title contenders Real Salt Lake 3-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Van Oekel’s 2012 season was good enough to earn him an extended trial with MLS’s DC United[8]. It didn’t work out, and while Van Oekel signed a two-year contract with Minnesota the newly-rebranded United also grabbed veteran keeper Daryl Sattler, holder of the NASL Golden Gloves[9]. The good news for Van Oekel was that Sattler was injured midway through the spring season: the bad news was that both Van Oekel and Minnesota played poorly, conceding 14 goals in six games with a pretty lowly 0.611 save percentage. In the fall results improved, though we haven’t got the shooting data to say more: in any case Van Oekel played every minute between Sattler’s injury and the last two games of the year, when United was out of the running and Hildebrandt started.

Van Oekel hadn’t proven he was good enough to start for an elite team, but he hadn’t proven he wasn’t either. At the start of 2014 Mitch Hildebrandt had only played four NASL games and third-stringer Andrew Fontein, recently signed from Tampa Bay, was equally inexperienced. Manny Lagos stuck with Van Oekel through the first seven games , but an injury brought Hildebrandt in for the last two games of the spring. Van Oekel returned to the eighteen in the fall but Hildebrandt continued to play until August 9 when, in a game all Eddies fans will remember, he was sent off and Van Oekel took over. With Hildebrandt suspended Van Oekel played the next week against Indy and remained the starter for the rest of the season, apart from one game in Edmonton.

Now Van Oekel will face the first change of scenery of his professional career. For the second time he’s competing for a spot with the Golden Gloves winner: John Smits took the 2014 award for lowest goals-against average. Then again, goals-against average is not very meaningful as a statistic. Then again again, Van Oekel’s most successful seasons have come behind strong defenses. His 2012 was fairly good but nothing remarkable, his 2014 quite nice (in relatively limited minutes), but 2013 and his backup years showed little to get excited about. Van Oekel’s Minnesota teams have been consistently well-coached and solid under the tutelage of Manny Lagos; Edmonton is also quite a good defensive side but there’ll still be an adjustment there.

Van Oekel has struggled with consistency, which is probably the main reason Minnesota looked for other options while he was there. That said, the younger John Smits is no picture of consistency himself, and some of his mistakes have been high-profile ones. Certainly Van Oekel has the quality to fight for a starting job: equally certainly, neither he nor Smits will want to be the backup. Given FC Edmonton’s long and glorious history of serious goalkeeper injuries, getting veteran cover makes sense for Colin Miller. But the one team we thought would regularly start a Canadian goalkeeper in 2015 is now far from a sure thing.

(notes and comments…)