Any Weather for the All-Stars

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

When Ontario and Quebec have an All-Star double-header on Dominion Day weekend the temptation is to call it the future of Canadian soccer. In fact, League1 Ontario and the Première ligue de soccer du Québec are the present. PLSQ is the senior men’s circuit, its first games coming in 2012. League1 Ontario kicked off its men’s division in 2014 but was first into the women’s game in 2015, while the PLSQ’s women’s division is playing its first season right now. These are two mature organizations with talented players, good facilities, and credible business models. For the first time at an all-star game L1O and PLSQ met on equal terms for both men and women, and all four teams put on a show. Even nature added to the drama.

We will not be happy with everything about the present. Tickets were free but attendance on a Saturday afternoon was in the dozens. The game took place at Laval’s Stade Desjardins, which though way out in the Montreal suburbs was recently packed, and damaged, by AS Blainville supporters for the Voyageurs Cup. It’s not even Blainville’s home ground! All-star games, well, they are not a real grassroots local soccer experience. They’re fun. And there was beer and soccer, boy was there soccer, and just enough of that lower-division amateurishness that you never forgot where you were.

Stade Desjardins, normally the home ground of CS Monteuil, is built in the middle of some kids’ fields out of chainlink fence and shipping containers. It looked nice. Most communities do not have old characterful 500-seat grounds and Desjardins is the perfect cheap and cheerful solution. It has everything you need, in fact rather more than FC Edmonton had for the NASL for two seasons. Had it not been 35 degrees Celsius with 90% humidity I’d have enjoyed watching a game there.

The women kicked off first and anyone who thought the PLSQ ladies would be at a disadvantage was disillusioned. Ontario had a slight edge in play for the first quarter, but when Evelyne Viens made it 1-0 PLSQ with a cheeky finish that kissed off the far post and in, it was the signal for the Quebeçois to grow into the game. Not that Ontario lacked resources but an awful lot of them were named “Jade Kovacevic,” who looked like a 20-year-old among U-17s. Gabby Carle for Quebec was not so physical but just as impressive, setting up almost every chance for the PLSQ including one by accident on a high-speed deflection off her face. (She bounced right up and was fine.)

PLSQ finished the first half up 1-0 but Kovacevic struck in the second; Ashley Campbell shouted “Jade!”, hit a long ball nowhere near her, it bounded out of the resulting maelstrom and onto Kovacevic’s boot with no defenders in sight. To give the League1 superstriker credit, Kovacevic then dangled PLSQ keeper Sophie Guilmette out of her shinguards before slotting the shot home to tie the game. The rest of the game lacked clear-cut chances, and the two teams of All-Stars failed to sync (who would have guessed?) as naturally-occurring long balls sapped the energy of both teams in broiling conditions on artificial turf (also shocking!). There was an unpleasant moment when the excellent Kovacevic went down late, got back up, struggled on for a few seconds, went back down, and left the stadium on a golf cart. It was a grim coda to a fun game, and a 1-1 after-regular-time result was fair to both teams

The play wasn’t casual, there were gritty challenges and a couple heat-aggravated knocks besides Kovacevic’s. The referee was picky on where free kicks should be taken and a bit loose on physicality, leading to an odd but aggressive tempo that rewarded guts. Quebec – Ontario can never be truly “friendly.”

But the overall feeling was goodwill. Quebec provided a concession, Ontario provided game commentary by Oakville guru Pierce Lang. There were 40-minute halves, hydration breaks every 20, a relaxed approach to substitutions (Carle re-entered, permitted in WPSL but not normally in PLSQ or L1O), and after the draw we went directly to a shootout.

PLSQ shot first, and after five attempts straight into the corners Jen Wolever missed Ontario’s third kick. She was not too cut-up, dropping a casual “sorry” to keeper Sara Petrucci, who acknowledged it with equal sang-froid. There was more accurate shooting, including a bardownski by Ontario’s Julia Benati. The PLSQ’s fifth shooter, Marika Guay, could score to win but Petrucci got Wolever off the hook with a kick save. Then those darned referees, who probably wanted to get out of the heat, ruled that Petrucci moved early. Lacking VAR, though Petrucci was nowhere near as bad as anything Kasper Schmeichel got away with in Russia, Guay buried her second chance top corner and that was it, Quebec won 1-1 (5-3 apk).

The men’s game afterward was men’s league soccer. Physical, frustrating, loud, the only thing unfamiliar to me was that the cursing was bilingual. Ontario’s Jarek Whiteman made himself felt, and heard, up top in the first quarter, striking the best half-chance and offering hot takes to all like a Canadian soccer blogger. Dom Samuel, the compact Ontario centre back, blocked a shot with his face. Marko Maletic got a yellow card for beaking the ref. Anthony Novak scored Ontario’s opener with muscle, guts, and skill, and if it wasn’t an Edinson Cavani special it was still the sort of side-net turn and strike that reminds frustrated ex-players that yeah, these guys are a lot better. Almost immediately afterward Joey Melo tried to kill a guy. It was an apotheosis of the semi-pro men’s game, the thing you’ll like if you like that kind of thing, which I do.

The PLSQ had one quality chance when Bastien Aussems one-touched a cross from Stefan Karajovanovic and was robbed blind by Ontario goalkeeper Tristan Henry. It was great skill, but you don’t win semi-pro men’s soccer that way. Ontario had the more traditional idea. Whiteman dribbled into the area, flopped, and won a penalty (again, no VAR). Taking his own kick he tucked it past former Haiti senior international Gabard Fénélon as the last kick of the first half to give League1 Ontario a surely-insurmountable 2-0 lead.

Then the soccer gods chose to add some drama. The halftime interval was unusually long, such that the sun had nearly set by the time Ontario and Quebec returned to the field. In the second half the clock refused to count properly so after only eight extremely long seconds Quebec’s Kevin Le Nour cracked one over new Ontario keeper Roberto Stillo and off the crossbar from a scramble. Guys were fouled, insults thrown, then it started to rain, turning instantly into a torrent. And then they took a hydration break, pouring slightly more water into their mouths than landed on their faces.

The rain passed after ten minutes, but ominous booms in the distance augured no good. It was 10 PM local time, it was wet, it was still hot enough that soaked soccer patrons were almost steaming dry despite lingering drizzle. Nobody, and I mean nobody, wanted a postponement. Frankly had I been Ontario and lightning flashed I would have gotten on the bus and gone home.

Maybe they should have gone home regardless. The artificial turf was slippery enough to make for some audacious tackling even if both teams hadn’t already demonstrated a very loose interest in the FIFA Fair Play standings. Kevin Cossette got Quebec on the board, and with time running out the PLSQ’s Simon Spénard-Lapierre skipped onto a through ball, ran through a jersey pull, shot past Stillo, and tied the game at two with little more than stoppage time to play. Even in the few minutes left Ontario’s Jose de Sousa was robbed by Fénélon and Spénard-Lapierre had two chances to win it: the first mis-hit in the damp and cleared off the line, the second low from a corner and smothered by Stillo.

Stillo, who came to League1 Ontario via Serie A (yes that one), was on the hook for two vital goals against through no fault of his own. In the shootout he made instant amends, stopping Le Nours brilliantly on a leftward dive and Emad Houache on a highly-stoppable central shot. The first three Ontario shooters kept their nerve while the stormclouds broiled. The third Quebec shooter, Spénard-Lapierre, stared down Stillo as the thunder boomed ever-closer. He scored. Lightning flashed through the sky, igniting the air above Stade Desjardins. Everyone tacitly agreed to ignore it, and Jose de Sousa walked to the mark for Ontario. He scored. And the crowd, or at least the League1 Ontario All-Stars, went wild.

It was a fascinating end to a fun day. An interprovincial All-Star doubleheader should be a day-long festival of football, fun, free (or cheap), family-friendly, utterly unpretentious. This game in the suburbs did not achieve Nirvana. But so what? A fun evening and two good games.

A Voyageurs Cup for the Rest

By Benjamin Massey · June 7th, 2018 · No comments

Martin Bazyl/Canada Soccer

The Voyageurs Cup is broadcast poison. Early rounds are no longer even televised; the semi-final and final make TSN on weird Wednesday evenings packed with Canadian Soccer Association house ads. Yesterday, when the 2018 edition kicked off, you could watch only on an obscure streaming service. I know a few serious Canadian soccer fans who had forgotten it was starting at all.

That match was a historic one, too, between AS Blainville of the Première ligue de soccer du Québec and League1 Ontario’s Oakville Blue Devils. It was the first time teams from a domestic Canadian league had ever played in our national soccer championship, which for its first ten tournaments belonged to MLS, USL, and the NASL.

A big occasion, featuring little teams with few names. I consider myself well-informed and could remember precisely two players from Blainville: futsal star Nazim Belguendouz and former Impact and Fury journeyman Pierre-Rudolph Mayard1. For Oakville I can get to one, veteran Stephen Ademolu. And I could not fault you for picking out three totally different names, or not recognizing any at all. I have seen L1O and PLSQ games, and liked them, but USL they ain’t.

However, I live in British Columbia so these two teams should not care what I think. Nor should they care about those TV or web-stream viewing numbers. Even MLS doesn’t make serious money from television, and no team at the local level will rely on broadcasts to survive. Mocking ratings for these games is like criticizing Vic Rauter for his political commentary, it misses the point completely.

If you did watch the stream you’ll understand. Nominally a Blainville home game, it was played a half-hour drive away at the Bois-de-Boulogne Complex in Laval. Yet the touchline was crowded with fans. The Blainville supporters were passionate enough to be criticized, setting off pyrotechnics mid-play, barracking any Ontarian in sight, allegedly even prodding players with flags. In MLS, or any North American major league, those guys would not have gotten past security and been swiftly tazed if they had. In the first leg of the Voyageurs Cup’s first round it provided an electric atmosphere. When Mayard scored a stoppage-time winner and the smoke went off and the supporters destroyed ad hoardings as they rushed the pitch, it was pure, communicable happiness.

Now some of this was undoubtedly General Quebec Solidarity. Quebec’s grassroots supporters culture is not like the Rest of Canada, and sticking it to the anglos will always draw some support regardless of context2. I would bet, with no inside information at all, that a significantg part of that pitch invasion was carried out by people at their first AS Blainville match. But to the Montreal Impact that game would have been virtually pointless, hardly worth a train ride to Pie-IX even if the ticket was free. To Blainville it was enormous, and some of those supporters will be back. Us few distant viewers loved the spectacle, but next to the 1,000-odd fans who paid to get in we are as ants compared to the biggest day in AS Blainville history.

This is not a Quebec soccer slobberfest, much though I admire them. After all, next Wednesday we have the return leg at the Ontario Soccer Centre in Vaughan. Tickets are $15, which for amateur soccer is quite a lot. But the game is regardless expected to sell out, and while Oakville has fans who go every week this match has captured many more imaginations than that. This competition, which by Internet standards is trivial, is to the teams involved a sensation.

Let’s hope the Canadian Soccer Association recognizes that. We are talking these days about the Canadian Premier League, hoping for attendances of seven, eight thousand, while Toronto FC fills BMO Field and the Vancouver Whitecaps are derided for only spending a handful of millions on their roster. It is easy to focus on the big time. But that Blainville home game was, by its lights, a huge success. The Oakville leg looks set to be as good. We cannot help but be overjoyed for Ontario and Quebec, but we can still regret how many fine teams in the country could do as well given the opportunity.

There are plenty of communities in Canada that show more interest in very local soccer than outsiders would guess. Hundreds of fans already come out to support Cowichan Valley for a Jackson Cup final in the Vancouver Island Soccer League. Imagine if Cowichan Valley was facing TSS Rovers of the USL PDL in the second leg of the Voyageurs Cup. It would be a riot. Grown men would cry, win or lose. And then the winner of that game plays CanPL Langford, the winner facing the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place, and it all kicks off twice more. Then, multiply that by all the regions of this vast country. You think Edmonton Scottish – Calgary Foothills wouldn’t be a success? You just saw 3,000 people watch Foothills play the FC Edmonton academy, come on.

Of course there are obstacles to a truly open Voyageurs Cup. The Americans manage it, but the Americans also get three rounds before they risk boarding an airplane. If WSA Winnipeg wins their first-round match then all of a sudden Eduardo Badescu is selling poinsettas fundraising for a trip to Hamilton. Moreover, while a USL PDL team could theoretically win the US Open Cup, there are enough professional teams in their way that everyone knows one never will. If Calgary Foothills was in the Voyageurs Cup they would only need two upsets for a team of part-timers and university students to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, and that might get awkward. And Foothills could do it, on their day. To you and me that is a thrill; to the Canadian Soccer Association nervousness is reasonable.

But surely the rewards outweigh the risks. When we talk about how Canada can make the men’s World Cup, we don’t talk about how TFC Academy needs more foreign ex-pat kids who’ve gotten elite coaching since they were four. We talk about how we need the enormous breadth of this dominion to be involved, and recognized, in the common effort. MLS clubs can never do that. Nor, even, can USL or CanPL or any professional league: the population density just isn’t there for some of us to ever make that work. We need ordinary local teams with a chance to display somebody’s excellence. More than that, we need a chance for some community to step forward and say “we have earned a share of the spotlight.” The Voyageurs Cup is the best vehicle we have or will ever get to make that happen.

The reward? One player who would otherwise have slipped through the cracks makes Canada’s senior men’s national team. Let’s be generous and say two. But more than that, somewhere out there, a kid who would have said “I want to play for Paris Saint-Germain” instead says “I want to play for CS Mont-Royal Outremont,” because the first memory he has of truly heart-lifting soccer is CSRMO putting paid to Toronto FC against all odds in the 2022 Voyageurs Cup. And once young Canadians are, more than anything, dreaming of Canadian soccer, then our job is more than half done.

The Other Side of the Cereal Box

By Benjamin Massey · July 21st, 2015 · 1 comment

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

My June visit to Montreal happily coincided with a cup weekend in Quebec’s semi-pro soccer league, the Première ligue de soccer du Québec or PLSQ. You seldom see it discussed in the English-language media; even the English section of their official website is in French. Yet despite its lower profile than League1 Ontario the PLSQ is in fact older, playing its first season in 2012. It’s not just the language barrier that’s kept the PLSQ relatively obscure: Ontario has developed young players while Quebec’s stars have been its veterans, seldom catching an out-of-province eye, and Ontario has higher-profile established clubs like TFC Academy and Sigma FC. So despite reasonable success the PLSQ can be overlooked even by die-hards.

But if the much-ballyhooed British Columbia semi-pro division ever happens the PLSQ model might be the one to follow. While L1O has a developmental mandate PLSQ teams operate more like, well, competitive clubs: young players appear, many clubs have youth setups, but first-team stars are the best players available. It’s akin to British Columbia’s existing teams in the VMSL, FVSL, VISL, and PCSL, some of which could already give the Quebec semi-pros a run for their money. An attractive, competitive league is important because the PLSQ is geographically almost as spread out as British Columbia. Two teams in Ottawa-Gatineau join five teams spread very broadly around greater Montreal and, starting in 2016, an expansion club in Quebec City. At such distances travel costs become an obstacle and you better be able to draw fans.

The game I saw would have brought ’em in. Powerhouses CS Mont-Royal Outremont, based in the picturesque community of Mont-Royal, hosted FC L’Assomption, mid-table make-weights representing a farming community of about 20,000 people, for the first leg of the PLSQ Cup semi-final. Familiar names abounded. The most famous was L’Assomption head coach Eduardo Sebrango, ex- of the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact, Quebec soccer legend, and leading goalscorer in Voyageurs Cup history. In 2013, aged 40, Sebrango scored five goals for L’Assomption, second on the team behind indoor legend Frederico Moojen. The next season saw Sebrango finally hang up his boots and move to L’ACP Montréal-Nord as coach and technical director. Montréal-Nord finished tied for last and folded at the end of 2014, so Sebrango returned to L’Assomption as head coach for this year.

Nor was Sebrango the only Impact alum. Forward Pierre-Rudolph Mayard, so recently signed he wasn’t on the program, played three years alongside Sebrango on the pre-MLS Impact and saw time in 2014 with the NASL’s Ottawa Fury. Mayard was influential at the beginning of the game, though he wasn’t fully match-fit and seemed to think he was above this calibre of league (he was wrong). Starting goalkeeper Greg Walters was a random sighting: an American who spent some time in New Zealand and on the USL-1 Carolina Railhawks in 2008, now coaching at McGill. Some players other than the ex-pros impressed too: midfielder Bilal Lachoury was a sly, creative presence, and right back Julien Beauséjour was much more active and aggressive than you sometimes see at this level, eager to get involved and more than able to spread the attack.

The home team boasted ex-professionals as well. The most notable was Moojen, far and away the leading scorer in PLSQ history, who joined CSMRO in 2015 after three successful years at L’Assomption. He did not start but skipper Abraham Francois did, a great veteran of Canadian soccer who played A-League in Toronto and Montreal, a couple years of Ontario semi-pro, a couple years of indoor, and had brief stops in Vietnam and Paraguay. Francois had turned 38 a week before the game but was in fine fettle. Midfielder Dimitrios Anastasopoulos had a brief career in the Greek leagues, and a couple other players spent time on nowhere teams in France. Despite running a few imports the large bulk of the CSMRO squad, as usual at this level, was from the region, and it had worked out for them with championships in 2013 and 2014. One of those locals was winger Adama Sissoko, 22 years old and a former CIS player at the Université de Montréal. Crafty and fast, just the sort of player who should get chances in these leagues; he sure took this one.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

The ground at the Parc de récréation Mont-Royal was modest but very attractive. I am told CSMRO’s field is the finest in the league and it made for picturesque viewing: sitting in front of the ivy surrounded by suburban peace, the players on new-ish and well-lit artificial turf, plum on the corner of Churchill Street and Montgomery Avenue, sun setting through the clouds. Tickets were five bucks and a few steel bleachers provided seating, though some fans preferred to sit on the boundary or pop out to a barbecue run by volunteers; I estimated attendance of around a hundred. Kids were kicking a ball around on the touchline and the linesman had to gently warn them for encroaching. The crowd was quiet but knowledgeable, save one old man who gave no fucks and shouted fake “man on!“s to discombobulate L’Assomption. It couldn’t have been better calculated to appeal to my sensitivities, and when I think of similar grounds around British Columbia my hopes go up.

The game, especially in the first half, was rousingly high-paced with speed down the flanks prominent for both sides. Sissoko was the early star, having a great chance for CSMRO then setting up another for midfielder Renan Dias, but both shots were poorly hit. Mayard had a dangerous free kick for L’Assomption nicely saved by CSMRO goalkeeper Nizar Houhou, and a promising run into the CSMRO area was snuffed out when Anastasopoulos stripped the ball cleanly off Mayard and, seemingly knowing he was safe from what passed for Mayard’s tackling, merrily strolled out of his own eighteen without a care in the world. L’Assomption struck first when CSMRO’s Samuel Thomas stuck an arm out to knock down a cross in the eighteen and the penalty was given. L’Assomption captain, and centre back, Jean-François Fournier took a sly penalty to put the visitors up 1-0.

Clutch play by the skipper but Fournier almost immediately gave it back, fouling Armel Dagrou millimetres from the corner of his own eighteen-yard box. Anastasopoulos took the free kick, direct, and planted it past L’Assomption’s Walters. At once the flag went up and the CSMRO players went mad with outrage: offside off a direct free kick? A rare call! The referee consulted with his linesmen, surrounded by protesters… and the goal was given. 1-1. Now it was L’Assomption’s turn to shout, this time to no effect. In truth the referee made few bad decisions but he didn’t have an easy game: physicality abounded and there was more controversy to come.

Those goals, just past the half-hour, were the signal for attack. Not always accurately: three balls were shot clean out of the park and CSMRO’s Dagrou blasted a shot way high but so hard it rebounded off the fence and lodged itself between the chain links and the fencepost. Sure, it was no technical masterclass, but it was great fun, and even a polite suburban audience could get into it. The game went into the interval tied at one, with L’Assomption already having made two subs that included removing Mayard for Jean-Lou Bessé (the PLSQ, at least in the cup, appears to play the five-from-seven substitution rules used in USL).

In the second half, with fresher legs from Sebrango’s early substitutions, L’Assomption went on the attack. Bessé stung a shot that was parried by Houhou, but he spilled the rebound and the second bite at the cherry was only just blocked. For Mont-Royal Sissoko remained the most potent threat, turning playmaker and creating two first-rate chances for Felipe Costa de Souza, the first superbly saved by Walters, the second a wide-open header that glanced wide. Felipe was consistently getting into dangerous areas and receiving good service, and consistently failing to finish. L’Assomption might have been put away before the hour mark had his sights been straight.

But CSMRO had quality. Forward Dagrou was on the verge of being substituted off, his number was on the board, waiting for a stoppage. Maybe he noticed. Felipe’s low dagger of a pass picked the broad attacker out at about twenty-five yards, Walters came off his line but caught himself in no-man’s land, and Dagrou launched a magisterial 25-yard chip that just got in under the crossbar, a first-rate finish that would enthuse any crowd and put CSMRO up 2-1. Dagrou wasn’t subbed off.

In contrast to the speedy first half, the second half was a trench fight. No challenge too aggressive, artificial turf and all (so much for soft Quebec soccer). A number of players, including L’Assomption goalkeeper Walters, got their bells rung and had to shake it off or help themselves to one of the many substitutions. CSMRO held onto their lead and, getting into the 80th minute, expanded on it: L’Assomption fullback Stuardo Bonilla may or may not have clipped Johann Loe, but Loe made a meal of it and the penalty was given. Felipe went to the spot, took a stutter-step, and buried the spot kick top left. It didn’t get much better than that for the home team: 3-1 up, ten-ish minutes left, what could go wrong?

Well, in Canadian soccer, there’s always something. Five minutes later, CSMRO’s Thomas was burned for the second time when down in the area to block a cross and may or may not have handled it again. FC L’Assomption protested and, after a moment, the referee pointed to the spot. That got CSMRO’s dander up, vociferously getting into the referee’s face, players on both teams getting into it with each other even as Fournier prepared to take the penalty. Anastasopoulos gave Bessé a shove right in front of the referee. The referee sternly warned Anastasopoulos, who promptly shoved Bessé again. Anastasopoulos saw a yellow card. I’m not sure what he thought was going to happen. With both teams melting down, Fournier kept his head at the spot, showed why he was FC L’Assomption’s captain, and stroked a too-central shot just beneath a diving Houhou, who buried his head in his hands. It was a stoppable penalty and CSMRO’s lead was down to one.

Houhou kept his spirits up. As soon as play resumed the aggressive keeper was back charging down crosses and playing gung-ho. His teammates kept the tempo up, and it was they who got the last chance of the match: Loe busted in on a half-break and got a good shot off, but Walters barely tipped it wide. CSMRO held on for a 3-2 win in front of their home fans, and richly deserved. On July 12 they took the second leg 3-1 in L’Assomption to win 6-3 on aggregate and advance to the PLSQ Cup final against AS Blainville. The man of the match, CSMRO’s Adama Sissoko, deserved the honour, though FC L’Assomption captain Jean-François Fournier was also strong. More important than individual honours, both teams played a very entertaining game, well worth my $5, and I would encourage anybody able to see PLSQ soccer to find out for themselves.

I hope someday we in British Columbia have the same opportunities.