Canada’s Women’s Championship Challenge

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

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But couldn’t we prove that?

The Return of the Juan de Fuca Plate

By Benjamin Massey · June 23rd, 2017 · No comments

Benjamin Massey for the Juan de Fuca Plate (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In January 2012 fans on the Vancouver Southsiders message board and the Lake Side Buoys Facebook group decided that they would like to emulate, on a smaller scale, the storied Cascadia Cup. The previous year goalWA.com and scarf manufacturer Ruffneck had put up a trophy for the USL Premier Development League clubs in their native Washington, and anything they could do, we could do better. Both the Whitecaps and the Victoria Highlanders had PDL teams and their fans, who don’t agree on much, concurred that a supporter-driven British Columbia trophy for the lower-division sides was essential. The Fraser Valley Mariners, also in the league, had no supporters to contribute but were not forgotten by those who did.

By that summer funds were in place, all donations by individual supporters and families. The trophy was commissioned. Drew Shaw, the Lake Side Buoy who’d come up with the original idea, also carved a handsome trophy base out of Western Maple in the shape of the province of British Columbia. A banner was ordered. The trophy got the best name in semi-professional sports, the Juan de Fuca Plate, and one of the worst websites. There were ribbons and brass plates for the winner. It was all done with, by the standards of the supporters involved, immense professionalism, patience, and expertise. When the trophy was first unveiled it was genuinely gorgeous, even if the Plate itself is so light you can use it as a frisbee. (Note to winning players: please do not use it as a frisbee.) The fact that the Plate itself is the perfect size to fit as a lid on the Cascadia Cup is a coincidence, but not an inappropriate one.

Benjamin Massey for the Juan de Fuca Plate (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There’s no point denying that, to players, these things can be a joke. A trophy you get for playing between two and six games, depending on the season. Unbalanced schedules, no prizes or further competitions, not much history, lower-division eccentricity everywhere you look, and a dozen guys screaming like that few hundred dollars worth of wood and silver plate is the biggest prize in soccer. Players, coaches, and supporters have different perspectives, and this goes double in a developmental league like USL PDL when every player’s dream is, ultimately, to leave.

But the Juan de Fuca Plate was never quite risible. The Whitecaps PR staff, to their eternal credit, loved it immediately and went to some lengths promoting it. The Highlanders soon followed. Every game a few more fans came out to cheer a bit louder for this thing, and every year whichever team won it… well, they laughed and they shot the breeze, but they posed for photos, celebrated a little, passed the Plate around with honest interest, and seemed genuinely pleased to triumph. This was important to their fans and, when you’re playing on such a small scale, that importance can’t help but be felt on the field.

Indeed, we built better than we knew. Highlanders and Whitecaps supporters built and piloted the project. Yet everyone was instinctively cautious about perpetually committing it. The engravings on the Plate declare that it was donated “by supporters of football in the province of British Columbia.” The ribbons were procured in the colours of Vancouver, Victoria, and (rolls eyes) Fraser Valley1, but a set of generic BC ribbons were also ordered. Conceived with USL PDL in mind, the trophy is really for “lower-division soccer;” it’s about a BC derby in some form rather than specific clubs or leagues.

This was wise. The Fraser Valley Mariners folded after the first Plate. The Whitecaps PDL team seemed to be in jeopardy every spring and, after the summer of 2014, it was formally shut down. That same year Alex Campbell pulled the plug on the Highlanders and, with nobody left to play for it, the Plate went into abeyance. Two seasons passed. The Highlanders returned under new ownership, alone. As the 2014 defending champion and the sole representative of British Columbia their fans held the Plate by incontestable right, but they could only serve whisky off it in solitude until, late in 2016, it was announced that Richmond’s Total Soccer Systems had bought the Washington Crossfire and would bring them to BC.

It is June 23, 2017. After three years, one month, and one day, the Juan de Fuca Plate will again see the light of day at Swangard Stadium.

In USL PDL, that’s a century. Since the last Juan de Fuca Plate match the newco Highlanders have assembled an almost-entirely-new roster missing, among many others, their formerly totemic brothers Jordie and Tyler Hughes. Cam Hundal, the only three-time Plate champion, is out of the league this year. The Rovers boast several Whitecaps Residency alums but nobody who happened to get into a Plate game. The only player on either team with a second of Juan de Fuca Plate experience is 35-year-old Highlanders forward Blair Sturrock, a veteran of the Scottish and English Football Leagues as well as, much more importantly, the 2013 and 2014 Plates. Indeed Sturrock contributed to the greatest moment in Plate history, when Marco Carducci robbed him blind in the 86th minute of 2013’s final game to get the Whitecaps the trophy.

Yet the Plate remains, its fans loyal as ever. The banner has apparently been lost but the trophy was pulled out of storage and shined up before the Rovers move was even official. It helps that many Rovers supporters are current or former Whitecaps south-end standees, who either feel alienated from the franchise or want local flavour to go along with their full-time MLS fun. A few of the Vancouver donors to the Plate already go to Rovers games. Michael McColl, who took care of the Plate’s on-field history at AFTN Canada, donated to the Plate in 2012 and does Rovers colour commentary in 2017. The Highlanders have been through very tough times, but the Lake Side Buoys are with us still and God willing always shall be.

2017 Juan de Fuca Plate Schedule
Date Time Home Away Venue Stream?
06-23 19:00 TSS FC Rovers Victoria Highlanders Swangard Stadium, Burnaby YouTube
06-25 18:00 TSS FC Rovers Victoria Highlanders Swangard Stadium, Burnaby YouTube
07-09 14:00 Victoria Highlanders TSS FC Rovers Centennial Stadium, Saanich YouTube

We’re a small community, British Columbia soccer supporters, but we’re good at what we do. The Ruffneck Cup, which partially inspired the Juan de Fuca Plate, has been defunct since 2015 even with two Washington teams remaining in PDL. The Cascadia Cup is stronger than ever but politics, both of the soccer and the non-soccer varieties, have taken away some of the old joy. Nothing could be more oblivious than to praise the purity of an semi-professional soccer competition that hardly anybody knows about and which took the past two seasons off as some moral success. But though the Plate’s grassroots, intimate character is as much a product of circumstance as design, it’s still terrific. Every fan who shows up at tonight’s Plate match is going to get close enough to hold the trophy and get a photo with it, if he so chooses. That can only happen because there are so few, which is a mixed blessing, but it sure is fun.

Not that we shouldn’t want the Juan de Fuca Plate to grow. This very article, in its minute way, will hopefully push a few more fans towards it. Sometimes I fantasize about that very trophy being presented to the professional champion of British Columbia before 25,000 screaming Canadian Premier League supporters. Growth does not have to sever our connection to the trophy we made. The Canadian Soccer Association has handed out the Voyageurs Cup for the past ten years and the main complaints from long-time Vs is that the name of the corporate sponsor was too prominent and the presenting Voyageur only sets the trophy on a plinth rather than passing it to the winning team. If you laughed at how penny-ante those problems are, you understand why I’d love to see the Plate become as big a deal in our league as the Cascadia Cup is in the American one.

Such dreams are years in the future, and not just because a CanPL with multiple British Columbia teams is so far away. The Juan de Fuca Plate has to rise to that dignity. TSS Rovers play the Victoria Highlanders at Swangard Stadium on both Friday and Sunday evenings (tickets $10, online or at the door). The return engagement is in Victoria on Sunday, July 9 at the University of Victoria’s Centennial Stadium (tickets $12). You should come, if you are at all able, or watch on YouTube if you are not. Do it to support the local game. Do it so you can say you were there when this was all green fields. Do it because it’s a sunny day and Swangard Stadium in the sun is the best place in the world. Most of all, do it because dozens of supporters, players, coaches, and front office people have somehow combined to create a perfectly beautiful gem that you can enjoy on the most intimate terms, in a soccer culture where we’re usually competing to be the most cynical.

Red Rovers

By Benjamin Massey · May 14th, 2017 · 1 comment

Through three games, Vancouver-based expansion club TSS FC Rovers is last in the USL Premier Development League with minus two points. Daniel Davidson appeared for TSS in Calgary before the paperwork for his registration had been completed, saddling Rovers with a three-point penalty for fielding an ineligible player. Given that ill-starred debut saw the Rovers blow a 3-0 lead to lose 4-3 to Calgary Foothills, this was an unusually direct addition of insult to injury.

TSS lost the second game of their Calgary doubleheader and returned to Vancouver 3 under par after two holes. Fairly frightful, though with many excuses; TSS (short for Total Soccer Systems) has risen to become one of the top private soccer academies in western Canada but this is their first season of competitive, national-level play. Their squad, all-Canadian but drawn from all over the West, had only been training together briefly before the PDL season started. Though many are alumni of the Whitecaps Residency almost none are of an age to have played together. And the Calgary Foothills, defending PDL finalists recently reinforced with former Canadian youth international Ali Musse, are no joke at all.

Even so, there’s no good way to botch paperwork or blow a 3-0 lead this side of terrorism. So when the Rovers walked through the tunnel at Swangard Stadium on Friday evening for their home opener against Eugene-based Lane United it could have been a ghastly experience. Vancouver loves winners, the big leagues, and feeling world-class. Down the Expo Line a popular Irish beat combo was playing a show for a sold-out, though not physically full, BC Place. Vancouver’s had PDL soccer before through the Vancouver Whitecaps, and crowds for those games were typically family members, girlfriends, and a couple resolute diehards even when the Whitecaps challenged for titles and produced national teamers by the handful. TSS is a big outfit but has no history in the spectator game. It could have been bad.

It was not bad. It was magnificent.

The game was entertaining, as the Rovers learned more about each other for 90 minutes, pushing a strong Lane side harder and harder, coming from 1-0 down to a 2-1 lead and control of the game, and settling for a draw only due to a bad but atypical mistake from defender Eric de Graaf. There is talent on this team: De Graaf is better than that blunder and UBC’s Zach Verhoven, a young player who was new to me, demonstrated electrifying pace and trickery down the right flank. If this team gels it’ll be capable of even more highlights than their first goal of the night, a tricky run from Verhoven leading to an even trickier finish by North Vancouverite Kristian Yli-Hietanan.

That’s not the most important thing, though. The Lower Mainland has something back which it lost years ago: high-level soccer free of nonsense. Not a monolithic corporate experience, nor a near-empty park where one is reluctant to speak lest he distract the midfield. A real game, with high quality and a spectator focus, but still intimate and downright fun.

Hundreds of fans filled Swangard Stadium for, to my memory, the best PDL crowd greater Vancouver had ever seen. Many wore TSS scarves. Even five minutes after kickoff the line for tickets was larger than the entire attendance for some PDL games. The girls scanning tickets at the entrance to the stand were almost breathless with amazement. “I really thought it would be just TSS people,” one said.

The Lane United support helped, as six fans made the seven-hour drive with drum, banner, cowbell, and songbook. Away support makes everything better. Former MLS Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit was at the game flogging stereos, and that was neat, but it was pleasant how few fans were there to gush over a celebrity.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Fans sat peaceably in the grandstand, chatting, watching the game, enjoying themselves. Others leaned on the rails and talked tactics. Kids kicked the ball around Swangard’s open spaces while the game went on. It is still the best stadium to watch soccer in the country, mountains dramatically backlit by the setting sun through a passing storm, though there are a few more condos on the skyline than I remember. The Swanguardians, TSS’s nascent supporters group, appeared in strong numbers for their first day. Chris Corrigan, one of the ringleaders, had memorized a voluminous songbook based largely off old Tragically Hip singles, the sort of thing which never works. Except that, because these were a couple dozen people there to participate rather than be tourists, it did work, brilliantly, and many of those tunes could become staples.

Anybody who remembers Swangard in the Whitecaps USL days would have recognized the configuration: main grandstand on the west side, steel bleachers to the east and the south, with those on the south safely protected by temporary fences so that the rowdies would have to move slightly out of their way if they wanted to invade the pitch.

The supporters had great respect for these health and safety arrangements. When some decided to flee for the sunny north side they took part of the fence with them. Mamadi Camara stepped up to take TSS’s second-half penalty and supporters moved the fence nearer behind the goal, cheering Camara on to success. There’d been some social drinking but the real joy was in the freedom to enjoy a soccer game, to sing and move and cheer and heckle and have some fun rather than fit into the regimented world of a 20,000-seat stadium with in-house security, a supporters group with bureaucracy and politics, and a front office fretting over PR. There weren’t that many beers about, believe me: mostly we were drunk on liberty. We go where we want, we go where we want, we’re the Swanguardians, we go where we want.

What about the non-standing-and-chanting experience, the majority of the fans there for a good game? There were food trucks, cold beers (not that the evening needed cooling off). There was a constant, knowledgeable chatter in the air. And as mentioned the game, livestreamed on YouTube for the out-of-town crowd, was well worth the $10 for a ticket. Apart from the result, which was hard luck to an improving young team, the night was perfect. I walked away from Swangard feeling like a pain so old that I had forgotten about it had finally, blissfully gone. The arrival of TSS FC Rovers is the best thing to happen to Vancouver soccer in a long time.