Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

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

Paul Giamou/Canada Soccer

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

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

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

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

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

So the CSA made an exception.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ottawa’s On Fire; TFC is Terrified

By Benjamin Massey · July 19th, 2018 · No comments

Steve Kingsman/Freestyle Photography for Canada Soccer

As it happens the Canadian Soccer Association’s streaming a brace of Voyageurs Cup semi-finals went none too badly. There were performance issues but, if you got off Google Chrome, nothing debilitating. The commentary worked, though the Montreal – Vancouver stream had Nick Sabetti miced way below play-by-play man Rick Moffat. Video quality was fine, they only cut away from the play to show random graphics a couple of times, the cameras were usually aimed at the ball, it was a significant improvement over the MyCujoo “due to high winds commentary of this game cannot be broadcast” experience. Three out of five.

Nor were we starved of viewers. Clearly the media followed along. In Ottawa a group of Toronto FC fans who were absolutely definitely positively not the Inebriatti were caught nearly burning down the Glebe and why yes there is video. Despite the obscure web stream this incident made Global News, the Toronto Sun, and was highlighted in the Canadian Press wire report. Even Canadian journalism inside-baseballist 12:36 threw some, er, love to the Toronto Sun‘s coverage, headlined “VIOLENCE MARS CANADIAN CONTEST.”

That wasn’t violence. Nobody tried to hurt anybody and no injuries were reported. But it was unquestionably dangerous. The ultras set off flares with no obvious way to support or extinguish them. Apparently unfamiliar with exothermic reactions, the ill-informed ultras found the flares growing too hot to hold and threw them onto the pitch, causing avoidable and pricey damage to Ottawa’s artificial turf. Meanwhile yahoos waved flags over the fire, ran around waving flares like morons, and displayed carelessness inappropriate in a six-year-old. Firework explosions were even reported. The ultras were in an isolated section so no “civilians” were in danger but it was still way over the line, enough for Toronto FC to issue a venomous press release. The vital part read “we are left with no choice but to suspend all recognized supporter group privileges indefinitely.” This is apparently a general ban to all groups, though time will tell on how it is enforced.

If you aren’t steeped in this culture you may need some background explained. First: in Major League Soccer “supporter group privileges” refer to exceptions to the usual stadium rules given to recognized, organized soccer supporters’ groups. The supporters agree to sing in marketing-friendly ways, keep everything clean and safe, police their own ranks for trouble, and generally provide an inoffensive facsimile of the European soccer experience. In exchange the MLS team permits these groups to bring in drums, megaphones, enormous flags, and banners which would otherwise be turned away at the gate by security. They can come in early to set up large displays (“tifo,” from the Italian “tifosi” meaning “fans”), may often designate supporters to come onto the field and lead chants, and get other privileges to make them look and sound impressive despite restrictions that ought to neuter them.

These privileges are serious business, and MLS teams usually sign formal contracts with their supporters’ groups representatives which include them. In practice there is quite a bit of leeway, as MLS teams now view supporters as vital marketing tools. For example, formally Vancouver supporters are forbidden from chanting obscenities, but modestly problematic shouts fill the air at BC Place with no trouble provided the capos with field access don’t lead them. That is custom, though, not law. These privileges are given at the MLS team’s discretion and may be unilaterally revoked.

This happens every year or so. Some supporters make fools of themselves or offend a bigwig, the MLS team pulls their privileges, there is a modest hullabaloo, it all blows over. After all, if you didn’t have a fairly high tolerance for being jerked around and treated like a commodity you would not be a supporter in MLS. But the Ottawa incident has led to punishment on an extreme scale. A game that wasn’t on TV, a patch of maybe twelve TFC ultras, an incident that had nothing to do with supporters’ group privileges (the Ottawa Fury ban fireworks and flares in any event and acknowledge that their security missed them until they were deployed), and a suspension that affects thousands of supporters from groups that definitely had nothing to do with the incident.

That leads to the second piece of background. Everyone, inside Toronto as well as out, is inclined to blame infamous Toronto FC ultras the Inebriatti for this incident. They have a reputation for exactly this kind of thing, and their name accurately reflects their approach to matches. They have been formally sanctioned before, as recently as June, and raised a banner that read “football without ultras is nothing” before taking the game off in protest. They favour pyro and have never been averse to skirting the rules. Toronto FC supporters of extremely long standing, true reds from way back, have been public in saying that this is all Inebriatti’s fault. Non-Toronto fans, and for that matter this very post, are therefore nonchalant in assuming this was probably them.

I myself have had my problems with these guys and I am the sunniest, most easy-going fellow it is possible to meet. But there is no proof. The Inebriatti’s statement, linked above, is unequivocal: “We had no part in the flare that was thrown into the field or the explosion at last night’s match in Ottawa.” The statement originally read “alleged explosion” (my emphasis), giving rise to much banter that was not good-natured in the least, but the Inebriatti edited the post later. The video of the evidence is low-resolution and nobody has yet definitively identified one of the masked men. In short, the case is not yet proven, at least not to Toronto FC who would assuredly be happy not to light up all their supporters for this incident if they could instead punish known problem children.

But how to define “problem” is one more typically Canadian complication. Pyro has a difficult place in soccer culture around the world but especially in Canada and the United States. On the continent it is, by and large, accepted, except when it isn’t for reasons opaque to an outsider. In England, the nation which has given the anglosphere most of its soccer traditions, it is more-or-less banned. In Canada, how much pyro you can get away with seems to depend entirely on which level the soccer game is at. USL PDL matches, featuring amateur or semi-professional players before a crowd that is lucky to top a thousand, can be washed out by waves of smoke blowing out of the supporters’ ends after a goal as the delirious ultras set off enough pyrotechnics to sink the Bismarck. At the NASL or USL level you can pretty much get away with it, though opinions vary, and in MLS you are taking your life in your hands. Not that MLS won’t cry out as they strike you, putting supposedly egregiously offenses in their advertising, but despite this hypocrisy punishing fans for pyrotechnics is one of the few things they do consistently.

Now, by any standard, the TFC ultras in Ottawa were way outside the norm. They were reckless with their flares to a degree that might well be criminal and nobody anywhere wants fireworks in the stands. Understandably some (non-Toronto) fans are calling for stricter penalties: forcing the return leg at BMO Field next Wednesday to be played behind closed doors or even expelling Toronto FC from the 2018 Voyageurs Cup entirely. Such punishment would be unprecedented in Canada or the United States. In Europe those are accepted responses to 10,000 ultras setting off flares while chanting “heil Hitler” at a UEFA Champions League match or the like, but Wednesday’s Toronto drunks would barely crack the “It’s a Funny Ol’ Game” column in the back of the Sarajevo Gazette. Elsewhere in Canada, where pyro is winked at if not formally permitted, responsibility for the smoke and the fire falls upon those most able to take it rather than those reckless fools who don’t give a damn, and results are correspondingly safe. We with first-hand experience have seen this in action, but the casual fan cannot be blamed if he sees one Voyageurs Cup semifinal where it isn’t, and lets that inform his view of whether pyro should be permitted.

So here we are. The great mass of Toronto FC supporters is being punished for the actions of an anonymous few who everybody, except the group being scapegoated, is convinced represent a scapegoated group. The actions in question could easily be met with civil penalties, but also feed into an unjustified North American skepticism of pyrotechnics that only encourages them to be deployed unsafely. And, because MLS’s attitude towards supporters is based on allowing a few elites to provide atmosphere rather than assuming atmosphere should be provided but banning hooligans, the reaction to almost any incident is collective punishment, and if you can’t identify specific culprits then just expand the collective.

Welcome to Canadian soccer, where problem fans with firesticks only create more problems. The Canadian Premier League is going to be busy.

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…)

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.


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…)

Considering Canadian Priorities

By Benjamin Massey · January 8th, 2015 · No comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Compare and contrast. Yesterday, two major Canadian soccer bosses spoke to the media about domestic players on their teams. Here is Ottawa Fury head coach Marc dos Santos, as quoted by La 90e minute‘s Marc Tougas and translated from French by me[1].

“To be very honest, at first [using Canadian players] was done in a very conscious manner. I thought that by doing something like that, I was going to actually help Canadian soccer, I was going to help young Canadian players have another option to grow and all that. So it was in our hearts, in our minds. The intentions were good.”

“But ultimately, this is not something that is widely recognized. You do not get much praise at this level as we would have thought, not as much respect as one would think we’d have the right to from some people because of the work we did with Canadian players.”

Although the Fury came to exercise the contract options of two Canadian players, Haworth and Eustaquio, the order in 2015 will be more to pick the best players available, regardless of nationality.

“The fans, they want to win. And we, we are Ottawa Fury FC, not Mother Teresa FC,” said MDS. “What will make the fans happier: miss the playoffs with just Canadians, or win the championship with strangers?”

“So we had good intentions but now our intentions are to win as much as possible, with Canadians, Québécois, or players from other countries.”

Second, the words of Vancouver Whitecaps’ ashen-faced supremo Bob Lenarduzzi, quoted by AFTN Canada’s Michael McColl[2]:

“It’s nice when you look at [Whitecaps on Canadian youth national teams] and you look at the representations from the other professional clubs, it’s something at this stage that we can be proud of. But we’re not going to rest on our laurels. We’re going to continue to put the emphasis on development and I think as much as we want to be a club that develops players, we need for the coaching staff to play those players.”

[. . .]

Lenarduzzi admits that there isn’t too much point developing all this young homegrown talent if they’re not going to get too many minutes on the pitch and sees that as the next step for the Whitecaps to take.

“We’ve stayed the course and now we’re starting to see the dividends from it,” Lenarduzzi feels. “Ultimately, we will see the dividends from it when we have three or four or five of those guys in our first team on a regular basis but I’ve always suggested that development is time consuming. It takes time for players to come through and do what you want them to do at the first team level. You don’t just snap your fingers and have players go from not playing to playing. We’ll continue to do what we’re doing.”

[. . .]

But what of all those naysayers out there who like to say that the Whitecaps hate Canada and do nothing for Canadian football?

“It’s shocking to me, but that comes from a very small circle as far as I can gather,” Lenarduzzi said. “I don’t pay a lot of attention to that but whenever I hear that and I hear that we’re not playing Canadian players, what I often do is turn that question back around on the person that’s making those comments.”

“[I ask them] tell me of a player right now in Canada, that’s not in our Residency program, that should be playing in our first team? And more often or not I get silence. I also believe that if you’re going to make comments like that, you should also have the ability to back them up. A lot of people say it but a lot of people can’t back it up and that’s frustrating.”

Set aside whether it is better to win or to play Canadians. (The Whitecaps, I remind you, used to do both and now do neither.) Lenarduzzi makes good points, and it’s true that only a tiny minority cares about his team’s Canadian content. He also makes poor ones, saying a team founded in 1986 with a Residency program from 2005 needs more time to develop talent and implying the only domestics he can sign already play within Canada. I guess bringing Canadians home from Europe is for giants like Montreal and Edmonton, but if Bob wants my ideas for domestic-based Canadian players he need only ask.

Dos Santos rightly says the 2014 Ottawa Fury were the most Canadian team in the world without much credit from the public and no calls from the Canadian national team. He’s wrong sometimes too. Only a handful of the Fury’s Canadians were in any sense developmental projects (Phil Davies is 24 for God’s sake) and not many NASL fans I met in Ottawa were interested only in results; if they were they wouldn’t have been there.

So what’s the difference?

Last season, Marc dos Santos actually played his Canadians. According to the venerable Out of Touch, Ottawa’s Canadians saw 8,250 minutes in the regular season last year, 30.9% of the team’s total compared to Vancouver’s 2,209 minutes for 6.6%[3]. The most prominent members of the Fury’s Canadian contingent were defenders Mason Trafford and Drew Beckie, midfielder Philippe Davies, and forwards Pierre-Rudolph Mayard and Carl Haworth.

Most of these Canadians did not perform. The Fury defense was average, their midfield was saved only by their imports, and the attack was led by Brazilians Oliver Minatel and Vini Dantas with Mayard more a hindrance than an asset. Canadian bench players such as Andres Fresenga and Kenny Caceros saw the field but did nothing to stay there. Only Haworth and Trafford stood out positively and both are on the 2015 roster. I would take Beckie over Omar Jarun, but he didn’t exactly impress.

Some of these failures were predictable (seriously, Marc, Pierre-Rudolph Mayard?!), some were gambles that didn’t pay (if Phil Davies recaptured his 2010 form he’d have been perfect, but that was ever so long ago), but there were no clear cases of a Canadian performing below his ability. They were plain lousy players.

Even so, smart money says Ottawa will again be more Canadian than Vancouver in 2015. Trafford looks like a starter, Haworth and youngster Mauro Eustaquio ought to see more playing time, and with only nine players signed including five internationals* some of Ottawa’s additions will be Canadian through sheer necessity.

Meanwhile, as McColl points out, no Whitecaps Canadians look likely for the first eleven in 2015 and few will regularly make the bench. Lenarduzzi’s own comments shows he realizes Vancouver has Canadians on the roster but not on the field. The recent release of Bryce Alderson, member of many a Canadian U-20 national team, source of look-at-all-the-players-we’re-developing bragging rights, and player of zero MLS minutes, is merely the most recent example. While in Ottawa international players brought most of the quality, in Vancouver Canadians were and are ranked behind foreign flavours-of-the-month of indifferent commitment or limited skill. Mediocrities Jun Marques Davidson and Erik Hurtado played more as a Vancouver Whitecaps than every one of their MLS Canadians combined.

Dos Santos gave his domestic players a fair opportunity: his frustration comes from legitimate disappointment. Apart from, here and there, Russell Teibert, Canadians in the Whitecaps MLS years have not gotten the same chance. Obviously the Whitecaps have good intentions, but when Vancouver is compared to its rivals Lenarduzzi’s cavalier condemnation of concern seems less-than-earned.

(notes and comments…)

Questions for the NASL Canadian Division

By Benjamin Massey · July 11th, 2014 · 8 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Yesterday afternoon Duane Rollins set off fireworks around the Canadian soccer world. In his much-circulated post Rollins reported that the Canadian Soccer Association, the North American Soccer League, and the Canadian Football League are in negotiations to launch an all-Canadian division within the NASL, with a limited number of teams entering soon as the summer of 2015 and full divisional play by the summer of 2016[1]. This was the first major public discussion of a possibility that’s been kicked around Canadian soccer fandom as “more likely than you might think” for a couple of months, and follows CSA president Victor Montagliani telling Steven Sandor his desire for what’s been called a Canadian “division 1A”, weaker than Major League Soccer but national, fully professional, and with all Canadian teams[2].

The usual suspects have replied with a “no comment”, which is hopeful but still puts this strictly in the realm of the hypothetical. By our modest standards, though, this story is almost solid, and certainly has enough smoke to be taken seriously.

For my part this would almost be the best-case scenario, independence combining with Canada’s oldest rivalry: that with the United States. Fans in this country like seeing the New York Cosmos, coming to grips with the big-ass eagle to the south and, once in a while, winning the fight. Vancouver’s Cascadia Cup matches are must-watch for MLS fans, while the battles between the Montreal Impact and the Rochester Rhinos are sorely missed. A self-contained Canadian division within the North American Soccer League could allow us to control our own soccer destiny while retaining foreign competition.

In the Canadian Football League we have the only entirely Canadian professional sports league that’s worked long-term, with big crowds and higher Canadian TV ratings than the National Football League (more than double the best-watched MLS games)[3]. Much recent success has been thanks to TSN embracing the CFL, so if they show a similar attitude to soccer so much the better: TSN has lost national NHL rights starting this year, leaving them looking for content. And the 2016 NASL season, with a club or two in 2015, is a startlingly quick revolution. Hamilton Tiger-Cats owner Bob Young, according to Rollins the driving force behind this initiative, was part-owner of the Carolina Railhawks from October 2008[4] until January 2011 when Traffic Sports took over[5]; he saw the second division’s best of times and the worst of times. The CFL will know what they’re getting into.

It’s early days, but almost all Canadian soccer must hope this dream comes true. Even those who think it won’t work will surely welcome the attempt. We could hardly ask for more, and if it does happen I will buy a season ticket to the nearest Canadian division team to me no matter who it is (unless it’s Calgary; then I’ll buy the second-nearest). This division would be the greatest development for Canadian men’s soccer since the old Canadian Soccer League and it is incumbent upon every fan of the domestic game to support it as fully as possible, for only with this sort of serious development have we got any shot of winning another Gold Cup or qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.

Most supporter concerns have invoked the image of 5,000-fan NASL crowds in 35,000-seat CFL stadiums. The photo at top left is from FC Edmonton’s last game in Commonwealth Stadium, a Voyageurs Cup match against Vancouver in 2013: only one half of the stadium was open and you can see how packed it was despite an interesting opponent and good traveling Whitecaps support. I’ve seen loads of soccer at Commonwealth and it takes a pretty special crowd to make that building live. This coming Sunday the Eddies host the Ottawa Fury at Commonwealth due to a delay in Clarke Stadium’s new pitch; with the World Cup final earlier in the afternoon expect a sedate night. Yet this shouldn’t be a game-breaker: if anybody knows how to fill up a CFL stadium it’s the CFL teams that do it.

If you’re worried about gridiron football lines on the field then there is good news. Of the four CFL stadiums supposedly looking at new NASL teams, Winnipeg has already hosted a women’s national team game on its field and the soccer lines looked good. The new Hamilton stadium has washable lines and is hosting soccer for the 2015 Pan-American Games[6], the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ new stadium has barely broken ground, and Calgary’s McMahon Stadium just installed new FieldTurf which is the same system used at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field[7]. On top of the new washable-line turf at Edmonton’s Clarke Stadium and Ottawa’s Lansdowne Field, that’s five of six stadiums with washable turf immediately and the sixth opening in 2017.

Nor should fans worry about MLS poaching the TV audience. There is little reason for a neutral fan to watch Major League Soccer games in a world when top European leagues and Liga MX are available easily on Canadian television. MLS ratings reflect this. NASL Canada ratings would reflect it too; apart from patriots or diehards who’ll watch Canadian games anyway there’s no TV audience for MLS to cannibalize. It’ll be fans, not neutrals, tuning in all the way in both leagues.

As for where players will come from, there seems to be an idea that the types of Canadians who saw 18,000 minutes a year for the Whitecaps, Impact, and Lynx have vaporized. In fact there are plenty of twenty-somethings like Paul Hamilton who are of undoubted quality but have been elbowed out of the professional game because there were too few opportunities close to home, plenty of academy players who turn 20 and can’t beat that $300,000 a year Chilean in the first team lineup so go get an education, plenty of CIS stars who knock the stuffing out of every opponent they meet but never get a chance to go any further. With a total of four five professional teams Canada’s soccer world is not markedly more overdrawn than the Americans, with their 16 MLS, eight NASL, and 14 USL Pro teams, invariably with more domestic players than the Canadian clubs, plus a larger overseas contingent. No doubt a Canadian division will have its teething pains but, with a sensible domestic player quota and reasonably ambitious salary structure, they should show NASL-standard on-field quality very quickly.

So I’m going to skip these much-discussed issues; instead, I will ask aloud four questions of a more long-term nature. The answers won’t change whether Canadian fans should embrace this division (they should), but will affect its viability over the years. They may even change whether it gets off the ground at all.

1. What impact will the USSF have on a Canadian NASL division?

Oh Lord I hope everyone has sorted this question out, because it’s a fatal complication if they haven’t.

Fans of the second division will remember that, in 2010 and 2011, there was a vicious streetfight between United Soccer Leagues, the ownership that eventually became the North American Soccer League, and the United States Soccer Federation over how to sanction a second-division league. The NASL owners had broken off from the USL First Division, despite its name the existing second division in North American soccer. Both USL and the new NASL wanted sanctioning as a second division, while the USSF tried to impose more stringent standards than ever to end decades of chronic instability. At times it looked like there might be no second-division soccer for an entire season, with only last-minute compromises averting disaster.

For the 2010 season the USSF forced both groups into an interim “USSF D-2 Pro League” with USL and NASL conferences[8] (that, for competitive reasons, did not perfectly reflect the ownership divide). A new order was finalized after much debate and heartache following the 2010 season: the USSF would sanction only a league where (among other rules) at least 75% of the teams were American and the primary owner of each team would have a net worth of at least US$20 million[9]. The USL decided not to try and meet these standards and merged their First and Second Divisions into today’s USL Pro, a third division which seldom admits it; the NASL won provisional second division sanctioning in the spring of 2011 and has more-or-less kept to the USSF provisions ever since.

This bare-knuckle brawl looked like it might sink the American second division entirely for a time and opened a breach between the second division and the third that has still not healed. But the USSF stuck to their guns because they believed that high standards were essential for the credibility of the lower divisions. So far events have borne the USSF out: in the last four seasons of the USL First Division eight teams folded, suspended operations, or self-relegated. Since the peace accord, seven more teams have been and gone in four seasons of USL Pro. By comparison in those four years only one NASL team, a USL First Division legend from Puerto Rico, has fallen[10].

What was, in soccer terms, civil war has concluded in an American second division that is probably more stable and more successful than at any other point in its history. Will the USSF, having won this victory, let a Canadian division run under the CSA’s rules into an American league without holding the Canadian teams to the American standards? We are mere Arctic nobodies, and the USSF may not care, but if six Canadian NASL owners threw in the towel the knock-on effect for American teams would be bad. Let’s hope that the USSF is obliging, and that all parties have figured this out in advance. Today FC Edmonton and the Ottawa Fury meet the USSF standards, but a CFL-owned Canadian division would smash them to pieces.

Firstly, the sheer volume of Canadian teams would break USSF rules. With confirmed expansions the North American Soccer League will have thirteen teams for the 2015 season, counting Edmonton and Ottawa. This is over the 75% American line with room for one more foreign team. A six-team Canadian division means a 17-team league with only 11 American teams: 64.7% American. The NASL would have to add another four American expansion teams for 2015 to get back to the USSF’s rules: a big ask. The NASL could get a one-year waiver, as they have for earlier issues, but the only real solution would be for the Canadian division to be exempt from USSF requirements entirely.

The USSF requirement for a “primary owner” (someone with at least a 35% stake in the club) with a net worth of US$20 million rules out the CFL’s several “community”-owned teams. The Saskatchewan Roughriders are, next to the Green Bay Packers, probably the most successful fan-owned club in North America: the Roughriders shares are held by ordinary fans who are forbidden to resell the shares for a profit and do not draw a dividend. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are a non-profit owned by private shareholders, and the Edmonton Eskimos operate under a similar, though somewhat secretive, model. The Calgary Stampeders are owned by the Calgary Flames, who in turn are owned by a consortium of six men[11]; doubtless well-heeled but none of them necessarily a “primary owner”.

If the CSA calls the shots for a Canadian division this is no problem. These ownership groups have all proven capable of handling much bigger sports teams than any NASL club, they have dead-certain stadium access in facilities ranging in quality from “hopefully getting torn down soon” (even McMahon isn’t as bad as some div-2 facilities over the years) to “brand new and quite good”, and a single-entity format would provide added stability. Community ownership should be no problem to the CSA — it should be no problem to the USSF either, really, provided they have the capital. Anyway, in Canada the community model has treated us well, but this is an American league.

There are other, smaller problem areas. Regina would fall short of USSF population requirements: they require 75% of division 2 teams to play in a metro market of 750,000 people, but the population of metro Regina was 232,090 in 2013[12]. This is not a problem on its own but could be a handcuff for the future if Victoria (357,327), Halifax (408,702), or London (498,623) show interest. And what about domestic player requirements? In the NASL, as in MLS, American players count as domestic on Canadian teams but not vice-versa[13]; the CSA would probably prefer that Americans count as foreign in Canada.

2. Will FC Edmonton be odd man out with the CFL owners?

FC Edmonton, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is owned by Tom and Dave Fath, Edmonton contracting magnates. The Faths are not associated with the Edmonton Eskimos, which in the event of a CFL-dominated Canadian division would put them in a unique and awkward position. Unlike the old A-League Aviators FC Edmonton has had no public trouble with the Eskimos; the Eddies have enjoyed the use of both Commonwealth Stadium and the indoor Commonwealth Fieldhouse when necessary, as well as becoming the dominant tenant at Clarke Stadium, an important Eskimos training ground. But, though relations might be good, they’re still competitors for the same summer entertainment dollars, and if the Faths become the lone independent wolves in a CFL division the situation could get awkward (the other existing Canadian NASL team, the Ottawa Fury, is owned by Jeff Hunt of the CFL’s Ottawa RedBlacks).

You might think an alliance with the Eskimos would be mutually beneficial, but Edmonton fans are still bitter over how, in 1999, the Eskimos bought the AAA baseball Edmonton Trappers only to sell them off to Round Rock, Texas in 2003 as part of a general exodus of AAA baseball from Canada[14]. If a Canadian division fails it’s too easy to picture an Eskimos-dominated FC Edmonton going the same way, while the Faths were able to stick it alone in 2011 and 2012. In any case the Faths, who have put big money into FC Edmonton and the local soccer community, deserve a real reward for their dedication rather than having the Eskimos shoved into their offices.

The good news is that the NASL, which has managed to avoid a revolving door of ownership so far, don’t seem likely to do anything shady with the Eddies. As I said, to an outward eye the relationship between FC Edmonton and the Eskimos is good, which matters. Moreover, unlike Winnipeg, Ottawa, Hamilton, and soon Saskatchewan, the Eskimos don’t need to fill a brand new stadium. Commonwealth Stadium is owned by the city; not only is there no margin for the Eskimos in taking over FC Edmonton but it may limit the CFL team if they did. If FC Edmonton and the Eskimos can establish an attitude of genial, independent co-operation, we will have the best of both worlds. Likewise, if the Eskimos want to buy and the Faths want to sell, congratulations to the happy couple. The only bad result would be, immediately or down the line, some sort of CFL squeeze play against the recalcitrant Eddies. It’s probably a long shot, but Trappers fans are still chafing.

3. What about potential expansion to non-CFL cities or under non-CFL owners?

So let’s say that the Eddies get along fine with the CFL and everybody is happy, the Canadian division is doing well, all the teams are making money (or at least not losing too much of it), and success is in the air. Over in Victoria, Highlanders owner Alex Campbell decides he wants a piece of this action, picks up the phone, and tries to get Victoria its first fully professional soccer team since the Vistas folded in 1990.

Outsiders may be surprised how realistic this is. Victoria attracts good crowds for USL PDL, has good ownership, passionate supporters, little summer sports competition beyond a merry-go-round of insolvent semi-pro baseball teams, and getting to Whitecaps games on the ferry is enough of a hassle that it’s clearly its own market. Two stadiums, venerable Royal Athletic Park downtown and Centennial Stadium at the University of Victoria, would be acceptable for professional soccer with some work and, in the case of Royal Athletic Park, a new stand. The Highlanders have been first in line for “teams that should promote from PDL to professional” almost since they first kicked off, but they’ve had to wait while the Ottawa Fury of all teams parleyed 300-man crowds into NASL action thanks to a new stadium and a rich owner. A professional Highlanders team is a not-so-secret wish for Canadian supporters from coast to coast.

But in our hopeful future there are six owners in the Canadian division and five own CFL teams. Campbell has no skin in the CFL and can’t possibly buy in: you can just about imagine an NASL side at a spruced-up RAP or Centennial but try to put a CFL game there and the mind rebels. So would the CFL owners accept someone outside their community for the sake of their soccer operation even if it doesn’t help their main business? Where would their priorities lie?

What if some brave multi-millionaire in, say, Surrey, sensing an under-served market in Metro Vancouver, decides to get into the soccer business and damn the consequences of competing with the Whitecaps? If he could get a stadium it might work. Will David Braley protest an infringement on BC Lions territory (the Leos even train in Surrey)? Will whoever owns the Argonauts in five years object if the Toronto Lynx decide they’ve had enough of USL PDL and want into NASL Canada? What if, as seems possible, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment buys the Argonauts and becomes an influential voice against competition with their Toronto FC? The Saskatchewan Roughriders have viewed the whole province as their sacred inheritance for generations; what if somebody wants to put a soccer team in fast-growing Saskatoon?

Does the NASL control expansion? In that case an important aspect of our soccer future would still be in American hands, however benevolent. Does the Canadian division control its own expansion? In that case it is effectively controlled by the CFL and may come second to the big business. Does the Canadian Soccer Association control expansion? That would give us important flexibility, but it would also leave an important business matter to a party with no cash on the table. A negative answer to this question would be no reason not to give this project less than full-throated support, but they are questions worth asking and having answered before the Calgary Mustangs and Winnipeg Blue Fighters kick off.

4. Where can we go from there?

Let’s be optimists. Let’s assume that this NASL Canada experiment is a total success. TV ratings are decent, attendances are pushing five digits, all the teams are healthy, a few outsiders have bought in, we’re up to say eight teams. It’s the year 2022, there’s just been another World Cup which Canada damned near qualified for, and a 35-year-old Ben Massey is still writing this shitty blog and asking the world what we have to do next?

I picked the year 2022 for a few reasons: first the World Cup (experts agree that 2022 is the soonest Canada could realistically have a qualifying team), and second because if this Canadian division does kick off in 2016, in the summer of 2022 it’ll be entering its seventh season. The original Canadian Soccer League lasted six. It’ll be a bellwether moment for those who laboured, endlessly, for a Canadian professional league and who never lost hope.

So the Canadian division is alive and well. What’s the end game?

Do we remain part of the NASL? If it’s worked so well for us why not? But if Canadian soccer grows in strength relative to our American rivals this relationship could sour. The NASL, unlike MLS, has had a Canadian influence since day one but the centre of its weight will always, inevitably, be in the United States. American fans may start muttering “why are we propping up the Canadian program?” Even if they don’t, independence is its own reward… but so is stability, so is a large base of friendly teams on which to draw support, and the best of Canada and the best of the United States scrapping over the Soccer Bowl every year is just so much fun.

There will probably be three Canadian MLS teams, plus affiliates in American leagues like the coming Whitecaps USL Pro entry, still outside our domestic pyramid. By 2022 that pyramid should include good semi-pro soccer from coast-to-coast, combined with our existing solid amateur leagues; if we have our professional division thriving the MLS teams would be a glaring absence. Probably the three biggest and best teams in the country, still going their own way. If the Canadian division 1A is a success then unifying the Canadian professional teams, on some terms, must be a long-term goal, but with the glamour of Major League Soccer and the restrictions of MLS single-entity ownership is that even imaginable?

The question of youth training will have to be faced. Not every CFL team with a soccer interest will decide to develop their own players in the manner of FC Edmonton, but hopefully some will, and then we enter the murky waters of youth territories. The Vancouver Whitecaps already get grief for poaching TFC Academy alumni like Russell Teibert or other Ontario boys like Bryce Alderson, while the Whitecaps probably wish they had one of their former youths, Hanson Boakai, back from Edmonton. Now add six more professional teams fighting over the same pie. Will it be a free market, will there be a territory system, will certain standards be mandatory or will each individual club wing it according to their inclination and resources, and how will this relate to the community clubs and private academies that already fill the country and don’t always get along with their professional brethren?

And, of course, you’ll have zealots like me looking thoughtfully on this beautiful landscape and saying things like “do you know what we need? Promotion and relegation” or “we’re losing ground in the women’s game, where is the Canadian W-League?” Could any of these things happen? The owners of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers trying to pack a 35,000-seat stadium with soccer fans may not look fondly at a money-losing women’s diversion, and they definitely wouldn’t like their team relegated to the Manitoba and Saskatchewan Wheat League (average attendance 36 moms). Is it worth trying to lay the groundwork for these grand goals now, while the structure is still malleable, or is the risk of losing the Canadian division altogether too great to be worthwhile?

And let’s be clear!

Even if the answers to all four of those questions are negative, we would still have a huge advance in Canadian soccer. A six-team Canadian NASL division that exists by USSF sufferance, insists on a CFL monopoly in its ownership, and has no long-term plans for anything beyond putting bums in seats in CFL stadiums fourteen weekends a year? That would still be fantastic news, because at worst it would be a massive increase on what we have, and at best such a division would be the nucleus around which something magnificent, broad, and sustainable would grow.

But, if this division takes off, Canada has an incredible opportunity for a short-cut to the professional soccer respectability that has quite literally eluded us since Confederation. Such moments come less than a mere “once per lifetime” and should not be squandered. The Americans got their break in 1993, with soccer-mad billionaires and a World Cup combining to create Major League Soccer, and whatever else you might say about MLS it’s clearly been good for them. We should, if anything, be even more ambitious, from the CSA through the CFL to every one of the fans been waiting for a chance like this all their lives.

(notes and comments…)

2014 Voyageurs Cup: Thrilling Games, Indifferent Coverage

By Benjamin Massey · April 23rd, 2014 · 1 comment

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Compositional ennui has had me in the gut for weeks. I have a few written projects to half-poke at during any given day, and in the past month or so my total contribution to English discourse has been “half an unpublished blog post and about a page of ‘misc’.” It’s been the most deplorable laziness. Is there no cure?

There’s one. The 2014 Voyageurs Cup kicks off tonight when the Ottawa Fury, recently “promoted” from USL PDL, take on veteran NASL makeweights FC Edmonton at Carleton University (7:30 PM Eastern, 5:30 PM Mountain, 4:30 PM Pacific). It promises to be an interesting game. Neither Edmonton nor Ottawa looks like a contender early but Edmonton’s had a bit more going on: their 1-1 draw in Tampa on a last-minute Tomi Amoebi goal was a genuinely raucous counterpunching affair that could have converted the most sober fan to the excitement, if not the technical excellence, of NASL soccer. They lost 1-0 before an excellent crowd in their home opener to the New York Cosmos but, well, that’s the New York Cosmos: they operate on a slightly different plane from the rest of the league and everyone knows it. Meanwhile, Ottawa has just played mediocre soccer, losing a game home and away against unremarkable opposition. They’re stricken with injuries to the point that Drew Beckie might line up at centre back, paired with the decent but unremarkable Mason Trafford, which could be good for a chuckle. And you can never rely on a Marc dos Santos team not to lose 6-1 at home for no fucking reason.

I’m not saying expect a game for the ages, but the first professional soccer match between Edmonton and Ottawa since August 22, 1990[1] seems set to be close-fought. Small wonder I, and the bulk of the Edmonton and Ottawa soccer communities, are more excited than Jack Warner with a new Swiss bank account.

Yet, somehow, the Canadian soccer media sits on its thumbs. has nothing on the coming game. has nothing. has nothing. Sportsnet, self-proclaimed “home of Canadian soccer”, not only has no Voyageurs Cup news on their site but isn’t even bothering to broadcast the game: it will be streamed live on the CSA’s website[2]. Duncan Fletcher over at Waking the Red gets full marks for essaying a post even though he’ll be the first to admit he’s no NASL guru[3], and you can always count on Daniel Squizzato even if he has an unhealthy love for traumatizing innocent Vancouver-based bloggers[4]. That’s it for national coverage beyond club and league sites. Local scribes have been working: the Edmonton Sun‘s Derek Van Diest took a swing from the “local players” angle[5] and over in Ottawa their Sun‘s Chris Hofley had a look[6]. But if you didn’t live in Edmonton and Ottawa and didn’t already know this game was happening, and what it meant, I can’t imagine how you’d find out.

This is a pity because the Voyageurs Cup is my favourite tournament in soccer. Notwithstanding some recent unpleasantness[7], when you watch a Voyageurs Cup you can count on upsets, games fought furiously for ninety minutes or more, edge-of-your-seat moments, a heap of schadenfreude past the top of Mount Royal, and just enough controversy to keep things lively. The tournament is too short, but as a consequence each game seems absurdly pregnant with meaning. The format is a little goofy, and will get goofier in 2015 when the champion will qualify for the next season’s CONCACAF Champions League, but, well, that’s Canadian soccer for ya. The soccer is fantastic fun. I bet the last game of last year’s tournament would have been the most thrilling game of the season if I hadn’t been missed it because of the blood pouring from my eyes.

As I said, this doesn’t seem like the most thrilling technical matchup on paper. FC Edmonton has some big forwards in Frank Jonke and Tomi Ameobi. If Ottawa does run the Trafford – Beckie centre back combination one presumes Edmonton will try to exploit them physically. Colin Miller has an unquenchable affinity for the long ball, a slightly dicey midfield passing-wise, and two forwards with the height advantage over Trafford and Beckie. (Jonke will also have the weight advantage, but he’ll have that over any centre back in the NASL and most grizzly bears.) Add a road game on an unfamiliar and rudimentary surface and the siren song of route one soccer could be too strong to resist, leaving Daryl Fordyce as “the guy who can run with the ball” and havin him to do the playmaking while hoping Ritchie Jones and Neil Hlavaty straighten their sights. Unless the Ottawa midfield and defense utterly collapse on themselves, of course. Which they might. There’s been an awful lot of Tony Donatelli in that middle four so far…

Meanwhile, at the back, Edmonton has… well, you know how a defensive line that might not be the flashiest but makes few mistakes is called a “no-nonsense lot”? The Eddies are the opposite of that. They’re a nonsense lot. This doesn’t mean they’re bad, oh no, left back Lance Laing could play for anybody in this league and half the MLS, as could Ottawan and right back Eddie Edward (though both have battled injury). Albert Watson was NASL Best XI last year and earned it. But Laing is a feast-or-famine player who is either jockeying the opposition marvelously into the corner, going on diabolical runs with his dangerous left foot, or giving the ball up so cheaply the opposition wishes pennies were still circulating. One of Watson’s centre back partners, Mallan Roberts, is young and has much to learn (and is hurt); the other, Kareem Moses, can handle the ball but makes mistakes like a poor man’s Jordan Harvey (yes, I know what I just said). Last year it worked, with a lot of help from Carlyle Mitchell, a bit of help from Wes Knight, Laing at his best, and Neil Hlavaty in defensive midfield. Early on this year it’s more-or-less held on with Mitchell in Vancouver, Knight in exile, Laing fighting injury, and Hlavaty on the right wing.

On the other hand, with Ottawa’s Tommy Heinemann injured, the Fury attack relies on the undersized and inexperienced Oliver Minatel, the less undersized and less inexperienced but still not-going-to-write-home-about-him Vini Dantas, Carl Haworth, who tore USL PDL to bloody ribbons but has proven nothing against professionals, and Pierre-Rudolph Mayard, who was a pretty good prospect back in the mid-2000s but hasn’t scored against anybody you’ve heard of since Martin Nash was a going concern. On the other other hand, Richie Ryan, Phil Davies, quality journeyman Nicki Paterson, and this mystery Ghanaian Hamza Elias have just enough going on in attack that they gave the decent Minnesota United back four a scare. (I know he got a nice assist but I’m still not buying Tony Donatelli for a minute. He’s too… Tony Donatelli.)

So you see my interest, even if I don’t expect a technical masterclass. My prediction, sitting here with limited knowledge on either team (it’s so so early, still, and both Edmonton and Ottawa could head off in any direction), is that there’s a draw in Ottawa and the Eddies win it next week at Clarke Stadium. Edmonton has been made favourites, largely on the basis of superior experience, but the Fury have several players who know this level and a whack of names (Donatelli, Davies, Mayard, Trafford, Jarun, Sinisa Ubiparipovic, Kenny Caceros, Heinemann, head coach dos Santos, and assistant coach Martin Nash) who’ve played in the Canadian Championship itself. The experience advantage, if it even exists, is not likely to be decisive. I just feel Edmonton has a bit more quality and a lot more strength.

But we’ll see. You never know with the Voyageurs Cup, not until the last whistle of the last minute of the last game. God, what a tournament.

(notes and comments…)