Fine, Buy That Scarf (With Reflections)

By Benjamin Massey · March 30th, 2015 · No comments

There’d be no need for this article at all if I hadn’t tossed off a Saturday morning quickie using the Whitecaps scarf scandal to promote southwestern British Columbia’s cup finals weekend. Funny ol’ world. A few hours after that post went up the Whitecaps announced they’d donate the proceeds from their controversial “Kings of Cascadia” scarf to the Vancouver Street Soccer charity[2]. A sensible compromise in time to save the Portland Timbers game (which the Whitecaps won), everyone was happy, good job.

However, I wish to raise three matters today.

First, how in God’s name were people calling this controversy “#ScarfGate”? I realize the “-gate” suffix has achieved a post-ironic cachet where it’s used simply because it annoys so many of us, but didn’t “scarf scandal” in that first paragraph look ten times better? If you must hashtag it in nine characters go with “#ScarfScam”. Bear that in mind if it ever becomes relevant again. Why didn’t I write this when it could have done some good? Because I’m shit, that’s why.

Second, consider a précis of what happened. The Cascadia Council – the group of Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver supporters who protect the Cascadia Cup after the 2013 trademark dispute – has a legal agreement with MLS wherein, if the Council fails to object to a proposed use of the trademark by MLS within a certain period of time, permission is automatically granted. Because the Cascadia Council e-mail listserv/spam filter/POP3 daemon/Christ knows what stopped working, the Whitecaps supporter representatives never heard about a proposal they would certainly have objected to and therefore, while the Whitecaps were (and are) legally clear to sell this scarf, many supporters were outraged.

We still haven’t heard the full story (what sort of e-mail breakdown? Are we sure… no, are we sure… that the e-mail didn’t go through but nobody read it?) And as I said on Saturday, this version of events leaves a neutral observer with a lot of sympathy for the Whitecaps. I’m not at all a neutral observer and I still calmed down a hell of a lot when I heard what “technicality” the Whitecaps had used to produce this scarf. It wasn’t a technicality; legally they did their duty and were absolutely in the right. The moral question is an open one and, honestly, there’s room for reasonable people to disagree.

That said, the Whitecaps knew very well that the trademark of the Cascadia Cup was the single most sensitive issue among their most passionate, influential supporters. They further knew this sensitivity was shared by the Timbers Army, who might well show solidarity over any exploitation. The Whitecaps front office is in constant communication with their supporters, and these channels (official and unofficial) were not used. If it was me, and I were genuinely interested in a respectful, cooperative relationship with my supporters, the supporters who make my entire marketing campaign possible, and I knew that I was about to try and profit off the one thing in the world they were most concerned about me profiting off of, I would have been very careful. I would have at least asked a representative “so, what do you guys think of the Cascadia scarf?” during one of our cold pizza meetings. To do otherwise would have been to risk the perception that I was sneaking it through, trying to crack the dam so the tide of commercialism could come rushing in. If I wanted my supporters onside and happy, this would have been absolutely the last perception I’d want to risk.

When the scarf dropped, the Vancouver Southsiders suggested a compromise similar to the one eventually adopted: the scarf would be sold but the proceeds would go to charity. This was not adopted until the supporters took the matter public, made their stand, and put pressure on the club hours before one of their marquee fixtures. This pressure produced the desired result. In short, the Whitecaps, having wounded their supporter relations for something like the billionth time, appeared content to let that wound fester until said supporters turned the wheel. The eventual outcome was highly creditable to all parties involved, maintaining both the supporters’ and the front office’s rights while boosting a charitable organization long supported by club and fans, but the way that outcome arrived was somewhat unsatisfactory.

Third, we should appreciate how close the near-revolt came to being a fiasco, for reasons entirely the supporters’ own. The averted sanction was almost preposterously mild. The Southsiders would not buy that scarf, encourage others to do the same, and sit down in silence for the first fifteen minutes of the Portland game. For the final seventy-five they’d be free to go nuts, as usual. I was worried this would be too soft and thank God I was wrong, but it was so short, so moderate, and so obviously aimed at the suits rather than the players that at least there was no room for anyone to object.

Naturally, many people objected. Among the most dedicated and hard-working supporters, support for this idea was not quite unanimous but probably as close as you’ll get in such a diverse group. Some dissenters made serious, cogent arguments against a protest on this particular issue, arguments that deserve respect. But among the less committed members of supporters sections, there was actual anger.

Let me quote from a popular post on the Vancouver Southsiders Facebook page. I promise I’m not cherrypicking: this post attracted huge comment and was “liked” as many times as the Southsiders’ founding president’s appeal in favour of action. All grammar and word choice as in the original:

I’m kind of embarrassed to be a Southsider at the moment. All I hear and read is how to protest a, albeit poor, business decision. Are you actually suggesting a silent protest?!?
I respect the Southsiders business practices and property. It has NOTHING to do with the players. Don’t buy the scarf, don’t buy beer, don’t buy food, don’t buy merchandise. All great protests. But, not cheering?!? Not making the atmosphere in our home stadium, in our first Cascadia match, ELECTRIC?!?
How preposterous!!!
Are we more worried about our relationship with the FO or how we look and act in the players eyes.
We will garner more respect with more proactive and respectful protests.

This was far from the only expression of this sentiment, right down to being “embarrassed” in a group standing up for its rights. Many said, while the issue was still in the balance, that they would break the sit-down strike on the same flimsy grounds: “it’s nothing to do with the players!”. Some were unaware even of how the Southsiders voted for their board members, but regardless felt their opinions on this subject were strong and informed. Had the Whitecaps called the supporters’ bet, we can’t be sure if their solidarity would have held. It would have been shattering if it hadn’t, a demonstration that we all roll over in the end.

It’s inexaggerably obvious this issue was nothing to do with the players. Likewise, when those same players came within an ace of going on strike a few weeks ago, it was obviously nothing to do with the fans. In both cases, an aggrieved party tried to get justice from a massive corporation by putting pressure on them in the strongest possible way. Only a dim-witted infant could have been confused by that, and in fact if you held your breath in the social media shitstorm for long enough you would have heard such infants saying “just get a deal done m8 ur business shouldnt hurt teh soccr”, as if there was no principle at stake whatsoever.

Anything which might impair these cretins’ ability to shout “BOOM!” on goal kicks for ninety minutes is “business” and therefore unacceptable. Questions of justice, of supporters’ culture, of being exploited are utterly irrelevant. Taking a meaningful stand is inherently a bad move because it shows disrespect for the players. The “players”, in this universe, are uninformed and incurious morons who live in cardboard boxes and take everything that ever happens as a personal affront. They hear silence around the cenotaph on November 11 and think “what did I do?” They are unaware that their supporters are humans and bewildered by the idea that they might have interests or desires. If the supporters section took fifteen minutes off, these mythical players would think “how dare they!” and not “hmm, I wonder what is going on.”

Such belief is a transparent facade for “hey, I’m just here for the party, don’t try to harsh my buzz.” We’re seeing this sort of thing around Major League Soccer. Even the most passionate and pressed-upon supporters groups are capable of only limited action, because as outraged and dedicated as their most important members may be there’s a mass of complacent selfishness behind them restricting their options. This has led to continuing encroachment on supporter privileges in many cities. Any “don’t buy merchandise or beer if you don’t like it” so-called sanction is unenforceable even by public pressure, ineffective, and ultimately still gives MLS what it wants.

Silencing the atmosphere at a major derby match is a public statement which reaches ears otherwise unengaged in club-supporter politics, and would-be scabs face the spotlight as they stand and shout while surrounded by seated silence. This is precisely what those “think of the players!” opponents dislike about it. But it is also, as we have just seen, a good way to get results.

I’m not promoting myself as a paragon of supporters’ culture here, and would be swiftly shot to ribbons if I did. We’re all ultimately dumb, selfish creatures who stand up and shout abuse at strangers because we like it. Making that good time bad to prove a point is a sacrifice, and not one that should be treated lightly. Standing up to a front office that’s exploiting you may, in fact, be the only valid time for a supporter to stop supporting. However, for such gestures to have any value they must be made in solidarity. Excuses to invalidate any serious protest show a selfishness that has no place in the collective culture of a soccer supporters group. If you’re that sort of self-absorbed fan then, by all means, attend all the soccer games you like, but don’t pretend you’re part of something larger than yourself.

(notes and comments…)

Whitecaps Rape, Pillage Vikes; Campus Protests Offensive Headline

By Benjamin Massey · February 16th, 2015 · No comments

I didn't take any photos of the match so here's some classic UVic literature. (Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!)

I didn’t take any photos of the match so here’s some classic UVic literature. (Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!)

When the Vancouver Whitecaps left the University of Victoria yesterday afternoon, it was with a bachelor’s in the inhumanities. Final score 6-0 to the Whitecaps over UVic, with Canadians (Teibert, Bustos, and Froese) accounting for three. It took three minutes for Pedro Morales to score the afternoon’s first goal from the Student Union Building parking lot and from then on it was easy. The Whitecaps lads had more trouble getting into the buffet on the ferry home, while Victoria was reduced to stumbling around like extras in Saving Private Ryan. I think Cam Stokes carried his own arm off the field.

With the Highlanders gone that was the highlight of the Victoria soccer season. Poor, poor fuckers.

The goat of the hour was UVic goalkeeper Noah Pawlowski. Not only did he suffer Whitecaps supporters heckling him about his haircut and his GPA, but two of the goals he conceded were certifiable stink-a-roos and two others didn’t smell much better. When you put your team down 1-0 early by forgetting the accuracy of a set piece specialist from La Liga, you frankly earn a bit of abuse.

However (as I was reminded on Twitter), Pawlowski played well against Vancouver last year and was brutalized by his defending. Russell Teibert made me a happy man by scoring against my alma mater but it couldn’t have been much easier: a header from the UVic midfielder straight down to his feet at point-blank range, even I would have buried it. Marco “PLEASE DON’T PLAY FOR CHILE” Bustos is becoming something of a wondergoal guru and his UVic effort was one of the best yet, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Sam Prette’s windmill impression. And the sixth goal was a sheer failure of effort: Caleb Clarke had nobody within five yards of him when he made the cross, and while Kianz Froese was being marked you could hardly tell.

I’ve been to all six of these games since 2009. Every year Vancouver looked better, as you’d expect from professionals against amateurs, but that was the first time I’ve felt UVic didn’t belong on the same field as the Whitecaps.

What does that mean? Probably nothing, let’s be honest. UVic was behind so far so early they obviously lost heart. Cam Hundal, who keeps playing well in these bloody games, generated opportunities and would have had an assist if forward Michael Baart hadn’t been too tired or dispirited to reach his cross. It’s a bit surprising this is the first time in the MLS era the Vikes have really been waxed: UVic generally loses but makes Vancouver work for it, as in last year’s game decided by a last-minute goal in miserable conditions. Back in the bad old days of Lilleyball the Whitecaps managed a 4-0 win in 2006 on a Sita-Taty Matondo brace, and that was a team that famously only attacked when supported by heavy artillery.

Moreover, for the most part it wasn’t the big names who were dominant. Morales and Rivero both scored but needed goalkeeper mistakes to do so, and the stars of the day were known quantities like Teibert, Bustos, and Waston. In short: draw grand conclusions, about the strength of MLS or the quality of the Whitecaps, at your own risk.

Which individuals showed well? If you missed the highlights, the Whitecaps have a package of more-or-less just the goals (then again, there were six of them).

You will see Bustos good in those highlights. Besides his terrific goal he launched several incisive passes and influenced the offense more than Morales. He also threw one of his patented Canadian hip-checks, though this time referee Alain Ruch called him on it (PLEASE DON’T PLAY FOR CHILE). Carl Robinson ran out eight of his possible starting eleven, with Tornaghi, Adekugbe, and Bustos in place of Ousted, Harvey, and Manneh. The keeper change didn’t signify and Adekugbe blew hot and cold, but Bustos made a hell of an argument for himself.

Kendall Waston was, as the stereotype goes, a beast. Hundal will be feeling one of his almost Bryan Marchment-like tackles for a while. As for the new lad beside him, Diego Rodriguez, he was never extraordinary and Pawlowski should have done better on his goal, but nor did he blunder. Victoria had more offense than a 6-0 scoreline might imply and under the circumstances the Whitecaps defenders can’t be blamed for switching off a little.

Many Vikes chances came after Carl Robinson’s 63rd-minute line change; it was weird seeing Tim Parker at centre back and Jackson Farmer at right back, and the results did not impress. The other Residency lad, midfielder Mitch Piraux, didn’t get many opportunities to make an impact and was maybe too unobtrusive. Ethen Sampson, who must be approaching “playing for his career” level, had a rough time: worrying, given that his predecessor Greg Klazura was the Dani Alves of the UVic friendly. Trialist Robbie Earnshaw nearly made the highlight reel with a bicycle kick, generated other offense, checked back defensively, and revved his motor to the max the whole afternoon: afterwards he was especially prominent in applauding Vancouver’s supporters and seemed to try everything to get into the fans’ good graces.

There was nothing too negative to say and the positives come with a grain of salt. It was a 6-0 win, with Canadians standing out. There isn’t much to do besides hope it’s the first of many.

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…)

Professional Soccer’s Responsibility to Canada

By Benjamin Massey · December 3rd, 2014 · 1 comment

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Very early indeed this morning, your friend and mine Michael McColl published over at AFTN Canada a post explaining his opinion that MLS has no obligations to Canadian soccer[1]. As someone whose opinion notoriously runs the other way, I have been called out to reply. I will oblige.

I do not mean to address McColl’s preference for club over country; that’s personal. (And he’s Scottish so, y’know, he’s responding to the incentives he’s got.) What I’m discussing is his argument that the Canadian MLS teams have no responsibility, and should have no responsibility, to develop Canadian talent.

These sorts of arguments always come down to two things: GIT DAT MONEY and WIN DOZE GAMEZ. Weird things for supporters to say. We all want our team to win, obviously, but that’s clearly not the most important thing: if it was we’d all cheer for Bayern Münich. We certainly wouldn’t be fans of the MLS Vancouver Whitecaps, a team proud of barely finishing in the top half twice in four years. There’s got to be something beyond numbers on a spreadsheet that keeps us coming to the park week in, week out. This is, in fact, the point.

And then there’s the financial argument. “Did Canada put any money into the MLS teams?!” Well, as it happens, yeah[2]. These self-sacrificing MLS team owners who only want to turn a wee little profit have by no means paid their own way. In terms of dollars and cents the Canadian public has bought a right to demand something from our MLS clubs. But it doesn’t matter.

If professional clubs are meant to be just another company then there’s no reason for them to ever have a single fan. You don’t see people going around wearing Telus shirts saying “yeah, they’ve been my phone company since I was a kid.” Even I don’t do that, and my dad works for Telus. In Vancouver you more commonly get people protesting corporations they feel put profit ahead of community. The entire business model of professional sports requires that we devote ourselves to an idea higher than any corporate interest: as fans we are entitled to demand something in exchange.

Why should we, as fans, give a hoot about franchise fees? We’re not shareholders in the Montreal Impact or the Vancouver Whitecaps. (You might be an investor in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment I guess.) I have no objection to Canadian soccer teams making money; in fact, I hope they do. But I’m not going to ignore everything that should turn a mere franchise into my club so Joey Saputo can have more caviar in his luxury suite.

Of course, nobody wants Canada’s professional teams to go broke. Look at the Whitecaps of the mid-2000s: playing Canadians for 20,000 minutes a season they won league championships[3]. Pretty sure they went utterly bankrupt. Pretty sure that’s what happened. If they routinely sold out Swangard Stadium, had a captain from Vancouver Island, and a bevy of beloved, successful local players, somebody would have mentioned it.

Or the Montreal Impact of that era. Routinely in the top of the table, the “least Canadian team in domestic professional soccer” which would make them the most Canadian team in MLS by miles, a bunch of long-term players and the occasional native son on a star turn like Ali Gerba. I seem to recall that they wound up building a soccer-specific stadium, won a dozen Voyageurs Cups, and got deep in a CONCACAF Champions League while drawing formidable crowds… but that’s probably a pot-induced hallucination. Next you’ll tell me that even the Toronto Lynx, who were an advertisement for how not to run a professional soccer team, are still around in USL PDL. Everyone knows that playing Canadians makes you broke. That’s why, when a long-forgotten MLS franchise named Toronto FC was founded with a high Canadian quota in place and they lost most of their games, the team plunged into obscurity and team owner Mr. MLSE can now be found outside Union Station giving handies for pocket change.

But isn’t it true that the biggest soccer nations in the world don’t do this sort of navel-gazing? Look, as McColl urges us, at the foreigner-replete Spanish La Liga, English Premier League, and Italian Serie A! They don’t demand a proportion of Spanish or English or Italian players and they’re doing great! (This amounts to saying “these countries are in the European Union”; it is difficult legally to rule out European foreigners in these countries. La Liga restricts non-EU players but can’t restrict non-Spaniards.)

These are three of the strongest leagues in the world: not exactly comparable to a podunk salary-capped regional league. Besides, as McColl ought to have known, England is plagued by just this problem, despite domestic representation that would make a Canadian jump for joy: the Football Association’s tightening work permit rules are one attempt at a solution[4]. And what of Germany? The world’s top soccer league requires a high proportion of homegrown players on a team’s roster, and their football association sets strict standards and demands heavy investment in youth academies[5]. The Germans, I shouldn’t need to tell you, have enjoyed some success with this approach.

In Australia, a country comparable to Canada in many ways, the A-League restricts teams to a maximum of five imports, a number that’s actually going down[6]. The result? The A-League has ten teams, nine in Australia proper (population 24 million), international television coverage, and a fast-rising salary cap. Their national team has moved to the tougher Asian region for more of a challenge and A-League-developed players like Mitchell Langerak, Joshua Brillante, and Robbie Kruse have joined some of the world’s top teams. If only we had Australia’s problems. Nor is their approach unusual: leagues in Russia, Japan, South Korea, and other strong countries have adopted increasingly strict pro-domestic rules.

Yeah, the men’s national team only plays a few times a year (and never in Vancouver). Yeah, it’s incompetent. Yeah, over the years the Canadian Soccer Association hasn’t been able to find its ass with a 15-page PDF titled “Roadmap to Canada’s Ass 2025”. That’s not the point. The Canadian national teams don’t represent the CSA, they represent us, the people of Canada. They are eleven men or women who unify us from Victoria to St. John’s. They are the apex of what we can hope to achieve: five MLS Cups in Vancouver wouldn’t add up to the world-wide attention and the domestic hope from a single Canadian World Cup appearance.

Telling us our MLS teams should ignore that so they can make more money is an offense to the entire concept of supporting a club.

(notes and comments…)

Random Thoughts on WFC2, Not in Anything Like Full

By Benjamin Massey · November 26th, 2014 · 2 comments

Because I just put down my $50 season ticket deposit, and because I haven’t posted anything for two weeks, my random thoughts on how the Whitecaps Reserve team in USL Pro is shaping up off the field.

Boy, That Name Sure Is Stupid!

Is it ever! I like to think that there was a meeting to determine the name, and all the suits from the Whitecaps, MLS, and USL got together, and some unfortunate member of the Football Death Panel said “why don’t we call them ‘Vancouver Whitecaps FC Reserves’, because that’s what they are.” And everyone turned around and stared at him until his head exploded like in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

So I’m just going to call them the Whitecaps Reserves. Could be worse. I got a press release which referred to “S2” in the subject line and thought for a second I was on Microsoft Excel’s mailing list.

(That said, be exasperated for the right reason. I’m not one of those “WFC-is-Watford-shurely” types. The Vancouver Whitecaps dropped the “Vancouver” for a time in the A-League days, after the 86ers got the rights to the name. The important part of the team’s identity is the “Whitecaps” part; there are loads of Vancouver soccer clubs.)

And the Ticket Prices? Whoo!

Actually it’s not too bad. In absolute terms, $149 at the top end plus taxes and fees for what figures to be at least 14 professional soccer games isn’t nasty at all; about $11 per game maximum. Supporters and season ticket holders will pay noticeably less. It’s significantly below the cost for a 2010 Whitecaps season ticket, which was a higher level but the nearest local comparison.

Actually, Hang On, Let’s Have the Playing Level Discussion Now

USL Pro is the linear successor of the USL First Division, where the Vancouver Whitecaps played through 2009. It is not, however, in my opinion as high a level.

In 2011, when USL Pro was formed, it combined the few remaining clubs of the USL First Division with the USL Second Division. This immediately weakened the talent and financial wherewithal of the league. Many USL-1 clubs which hadn’t joined the NASL were teams that didn’t have the ability or inclination to meet the USSF’s high requirements for second division soccer. Since then USL Pro has lost its best side off and on the field, Orlando City SC (née the Austin Aztex). Only one club from the 2010 USSF D2 Pro League, the last “unified” second division season, survives in USL Pro: the Rochester Rhinos, once a powerhouse but not what they used to be. The Charleston Battery, who played in the USL-1 until 2009 and USL-2 in 2010, nearly count. The rest are long-termers from USL-2 (Wilmington, Richmond, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg), old USL PDL sides (Dayton), or post-2010 expansion teams (everyone else).

The attrition for USL Pro, as in the A-League, has been bad: in four seasons eight teams have folded*, four of which were from the ill-fated Caribbean division. Compare this to one NASL team folding in the same timespan (the Puerto Rico Islanders), with the Atlanta Silverbacks potentially following this year. Attendances are iffy: Sacramento has been brilliant, Orlando City and perennials Rochester have been good enough, and four clubs drew under 1,000 last season[1].

Rather second-rate players like Matt Delicâte and Chandler Hoffman dominate USL Pro. Dom Dwyer famously decided the 2013 championship almost single-handed while swinging by Orlando City’s training ground on odd weekends. This kind of thing is less common in the North American Soccer League and was less common in the USL First Division. Remember that when MLS entered a Project-40 team to the A-League from 1998 to 2000 featuring what we’d today call Generation Adidas players plus some league-wide reserves, they were generally mediocre.

This isn’t to say that USL Pro is a bad league: it’s good, fully professional soccer, and as I’ve said I’m going to pay money to watch it. If you prefer a fun product to marketing you will be entertained. The games I’ve seen on YouTube have been lively and fun. But it’s diluted a lot since the salad days of the USL First Division.

That Was Fun, Let’s Talk Ticket Prices Again

Consider what reserve teams in competitive leagues charge throughout the world. At the top end of world soccer Barcelona “B” tickets start at €5 (CDN$7.04), with steep increases for better seats or coveted matches, but club members and children get in free[2]. General admission for FC Bayern II starts at €5, with discounts available[3]. Clubs nearer the Whitecaps’ actual level, like those in the 2. Bundesliga or Liga Adelante, typically don’t charge for reserve fixtures at all.

So yes, by world standards the Whitecaps demand top dollar to watch their reserves. However, as we know, ticket prices are not determined by the quality of soccer. There’s a lot less competition for the soccer buck in Vancouver: the Whitecaps, the Whitecaps Reserves, and then down to VMSL or taking a ferry to Victoria. There aren’t even W-League or USL PDL Whitecaps teams anymore. And try as I might, I just can’t get worked up over at most $11 a match. I can’t. Sorry, outrage enthusiasts. I’m paying it and I’m fine with that.

Is Anyone Going to Watch This Other Than Lunatics Like You, Though?

If I’ve learned anything over the past four years it’s never underestimate the marketing power of Major League Soccer. The Whitecaps are portraying these games not so much as a new experience than an old one. They’re soliciting fan input, as their Facebook page cheekily says, on everything “from beer to bouncy castles.”[4] Their website promises that “the fan experience will have a strong family and community feel, and will be similar to the atmosphere we created at Swangard in our pre-MLS days.”[5] Between that and mandatory Canadian content, it’s like they read my website and said “God knows why but we’re trying to make this guy happy.” And there are a few guys like me in Vancouver.

But the amount of money they ask is more than many families can “throw away”, especially during a hot season for soccer in Vancouver: remember that the Women’s World Cup is coming to town. Moreover, around the world, reserve clubs tend to draw far lower attendances than independent clubs at the same level.

This past season in the German 3. Liga, out of twenty teams the two reserve clubs (Borussia Dortmund II and VfB Stuttgart II) were 16th and 20th in attendance respectively[6]. The same trend prevails through the Regionalligas, with a couple reserve clubs among the attendance leaders but the vast majority anchoring the bottom. Of 22 clubs in the 2013-14 Liga Adelante, Barcelona B was 17th and Real Madrid Castilla was 21st[7]. And last year, when the Los Angeles Galaxy ran the first full reserve team in USL Pro, they drew 597 fans per game, second-last in the league[8].

Hell, look at North American minor sports. The Toronto Marlies are the top farm team of the world’s biggest hockey team in the world’s most important hockey market. Since the most recent NHL lockout their average attendance has significantly improved and the quality of play in the American Hockey League is respected internationally. Their average attendance has never exceeded 7,000 fans per game[9], which is below several independent youth hockey teams in the Canadian Hockey League. If the Marlies were an NASL team, their numbers would be fairly average. Farm teams, even in the best possible situations, simply tend not to be big draws.

I suspect that the attendance at Whitecaps Reserves games will be fairly modest, particularly given the inconvenient-to-some location. But I wouldn’t bet against the occasional 3,500-strong crowd, because if any organization can pull it off, it’s Major League Soccer.

UBC, Eh?

Probably. I don’t mind the team playing at UBC; I live in Richmond and it’s a nice place to visit (though Thunderbird Stadium is, soccerwise, a shithole). But a lot of people who have to cross bridges do. It’s mildly inconvenient to reach by transit, unless you want to sniff a hippie’s farts on the 99 B-Line. The parking situation is better than it used to be but still not great, and it’s a fair stroll from Surrey or Maple Ridge (at least by Lower Mainland standards; where I come from people call Los Angeles “almost driving distance”[10]). New Westminster would have been much more central.

However, at UBC you’re reasonably convenient to centres of population, plus the Kitsilano hipsters who are just the people who go nuts for this kind of thing. As a taxpayer, I am pleased that (unlike proposals in New Westminster and Surrey) this team won’t require residents to subsidize the Whitecaps’ business model any further than we already do.

That said, USL PDL matches at UBC were very sparsely attended, me and a couple dozen others even on sunny days against Victoria or Seattle. And those were free. Of course the USL Pro team will have a lot more marketing on their side, but we’ll see.

An Irrelevant Digression About the Juan de Fuca Plate

Since the Whitecaps are terminating their USL PDL team, the Juan de Fuca Plate seems to go into abeyance. When we started the Plate in 2012 there were three USL PDL teams in British Columbia; now only the Victoria Highlanders remain. As a donor to, webmaster of, and enthusiast for the Plate, this galls me.

The Whitecaps have actually been really solid promoters of the Juan de Fuca Plate. They’ve mentioned it in their web previews, posted it on their Twitter and Facebook, made announcements over the deafening loudspeakers at Thunderbird Stadium. Last year saw the possibility of the Plate being tied: the Whitecaps and Highlanders agreed to go to a penalty shootout if that happened, which is going above and beyond for a fan trophy they didn’t ask for and had no personal stake in. It would be a pity to lose this.

So why couldn’t the Highlanders and the Whitecaps Reserves play a two game, home-and-home series to decide the winner of the 2015 Juan de Fuca Plate? Oh, I know there are a million reasons: both teams share their stadiums, league matches must take priority, in Victoria’s case their players are only available in the summer meaning fewer opportunities to squeeze in two more games, and bluntly it’s a fair bit of effort to thrill a small number of die-hards.

But from the Whitecaps’ perspective it’s another couple good games for the Reserves against a different sort of opposition than usual. The Highlanders get a marquee home game in a season that’s going to lack exciting opponents. Both teams get something a little special to market; in Vancouver’s case they might like that additional perk for USL Pro fans. The Whitecaps Reserves will certainly be stronger than the Whitecaps U-23s were, but not so much stronger that a fixture would be a waste of time. USL Pro schedules include US Open Cup fixtures but that won’t be a problem for the Whitecaps Reserves, who are expected not to compete in the Voyageurs Cup: that’s a couple open dates right there.

I hope the supporter groups from both cities bring this up to their teams. It’s difficult but not impossible, it has benefits as well as costs, and wouldn’t it be nice?

(notes and comments…)

So Farewell Then, Bryce Alderson

By Benjamin Massey · November 14th, 2014 · 1 comment

Les Meszaros/Canadian Soccer Association

Les Meszaros/Canadian Soccer Association

While not yet official, John Molinaro at Sportsnet has reported that the Vancouver Whitecaps are about to release midfielder Bryce Alderson[1]. Alderson did not play a single league game with the senior Whitecaps and only two in the Voyageurs Cup despite success in USL PDL, USL Pro, and, recently, a Canadian senior national team call-up[2].

I think Bryce Alderson is an excellent young player, but he’s a defensive midfielder and even I won’t say he’s a better one than Matías Laba. Nor is he necessarily better than Gershon Koffie or Russell Teibert right now, though Alderson is only twenty years old. The Canadian Vancouver has given up on might be younger than the American Vancouver gets in the first round of the next SuperDuperDraft.

You know where I’m going with this but there’s something to consider first: to an extent the Whitecaps and Alderson are being screwed by MLS contract rules. As soon as a player like Alderson signs a Generation Adidas contract the clock is ticking: the youngster is getting a lot of money, off the salary cap, but someday soon the team is going to have to pay for him and work him into their cap structure.

In the latest MLS Players Union list Alderson has a guaranteed compensation of $115,000[3]. Alderson signed young, 17 years old in November 2011[4], and from the instant his pen hit the paper he had to make a very quick impact indeed to prove he was worth all that money when his option came up. Julian de Guzman, to pick a name, spent most of his 20-year-old season as a reserve player on a mediocre 2. Bundesliga team. It’s hard to think he would have stuck around if he’d been an MLS player suddenly representing a six-figure cap hit, and how much poorer would the Canadian national team have been as a result?

If a young player hasn’t become a first team regular by the time that $115,000 hits the salary cap the team has a problem: even if they like him, how are they supposed to keep him? In short, not everything is Vancouver’s fault, and the ideal solution is for homegrown Generation Adidas contracts to hit the salary cap starting at a certain age, rather than after a certain number of seasons. Under the current system, Alderson being a quality player for his age is completely irrelevant.

You might have to take my word for this. I’ve seen a lot of USL PDL matches, I saw Alderson captain the Whitecaps USSDA U-18 team, I even watched webstreams of some of his Charleston Battery games before he got hurt. He was getting the job done, typically against players bigger and older than him. He captained the Whitecaps U-18s and the Canadian U-17s. Sure, he’s one-footed, he isn’t a dazzling offensive player, but he’s hard to knock off the ball, he’s calm and confident winning it, he’s a good passer, he is, in short, a good young defensive midfielder. In his two (two!!!!!) games for the Whitecaps first team over three seasons, he held a certain Michael Bradley down very well in the Voyageurs Cup. I’m not sure what else he was supposed to do. Wax Martin Rennie’s car? Hit Laba and Koffie in the knee with a tire iron?

Isn’t it funny how there’s always an excuse, always some foreign player to bump Canadians out of the lineup? We couldn’t play Alderson in 2012 because John Thorrington was too valuable to lose in the playoff race. We couldn’t play Alderson in 2013 because what would the Whitecaps have done without Jun Marques Davidson or Matt Watson? Just like how Jordan Harvey and Ethan Sampson keep Sam Adekugbe out of the eleven, and Russell Teibert gets kicked to the bench as soon as Gershon Koffie is healthy. Etc. etc. ad nauseum, we’ve seen the same thing every year since Teitur Thordarson got fired. It’s gotten beyond “coincidence”.

No, of course this isn’t some “Whitecaps hate Canada!” conspiracy, but if the Whitecaps wanted to give Canadian kids a chance they had plenty of opportunities to do so. It wasn’t a priority. Promising players lost prime development years because the Whitecaps thought it was more important to bring in some fractionally better foreigner than to play the kid and invest in the future. And look at the rewards that policy has brought: two blink-and-you’ll-miss-them playoff appearances and no Voyageurs Cups. This isn’t the old “Whitecaps hate Canada” gag, and I suspect a healthy proportion of since-2011 Whitecaps fans support this. But it’s clearly happening. You look at those team sheets and you tell me.

Even the Laba signing, which was maybe the best single piece of business the Whitecaps have done as an MLS franchise, shows this attitude. To compete immediately the Whitecaps needed high-end reinforcements to several positions at the start of 2014: a forward, an attacking midfielder, a couple defenders. Knowing that Kenny Miller would leave, and that Caleb Clarke has European aspirations, Vancouver could wisely have chased a DP forward without blocking any Canadians. A top DP centre back would also have been a bold, but justifiable, move, with the star helping apprentice young Jackson Farmer until he’s ready for MLS minutes. Instead Vancouver spent heavily on Laba, an obstacle to both Alderson and Russell Teibert. Teibert also lost potential attacking midfield minutes, still where I think he’s best, to Pedro Morales and Nico Mezquida. Look at where Vancouver is allocating their resources. Look at their priorities.

Possibly the Whitecaps get these great 18-year-old players who do well against the world’s best in their age group but suddenly turn to crap when they sign MLS contracts. In this case the technical staff should not merely be sacked but set on fire. From my viewing, though, the only things Alderson was missing was his health and a chance. FC Edmonton and especially the Ottawa Fury would be well-advised to call him.

Also on his way out is Omar Salgado, another youngster coming off his Generation Adidas contract. You might remember Salgado: big, tall, trouble at practice. Though he was almost continuously injured and seldom delivered when healthy, Salgado played 1,100 MLS minutes over four seasons in Vancouver[5]. It’s strange, isn’t it, that Salgado got several opportunities despite being older and having less success than Alderson against adults? But, of course, Salgado was a high-profile United States U-20 international and a first overall draft pick. Alderson was just some guy from Kitchener the team signed. As a Whitecap Salgado did nothing to deserve more of a shot than Alderson, yet the American played and the Canadian didn’t. Isn’t that weird?!

EDIT, 14:50 PST: Alderson has officially been released[6].

(notes and comments…)

That Soccer Saturday in Canada, in Full

By Benjamin Massey · October 24th, 2014 · No comments

Real Madrid v. Barcelona, 9 AM Pacific, beIN Sport — I know, I know, el Clásico is the soccer equivalent of pizza. Everybody has it, almost everybody loves it, but we know every worthwhile variation off by heart. The last original thought was back in 2003, there’s hardly any point in Tweeting about it, every comment you make was made six hundred times before your synapses even warmed up. But, again like pizza, even when it’s very bad it’s very good. And the Spaniards, who know a thing or two about sleeping in, have scheduled this world-dominating affray at a perfectly reasonable time for us left-coasters. Enjoy a bit of classic Spanish flair, flopping, and inadequate defense over your tea and scones. (beIN Sport isn’t common in Canadian households but this is going to be the most illegally-streamed game of the fall so don’t sweat it.)

Canada WNT v. Japan WNT, 1 PM Pacific, all the Sportsnets — After our Iberian appetizer comes lunch. Given that Japan is one of the world’s leading women’s soccer teams and Canada’s not quite that, our occasional meetings have been a lot of fun. Japan beat Canada 2-1 in the round robin of the 2012 Summer Olympics; a well-deserved victory for the Japanese who wound up being the tournament’s best team, but also an exciting contest. Prior to that, Canada whooped Japan 3-0 at the 2008 Cyprus Cup on a Christine Sinclair hat trick. The Edmonton crowd, which has worshiped Sinclair for twelve years now, would dearly like a repeat performance. Don’t hold your breath.

Japan is one of the world’s top teams: not Germany good but medal contenders in anything. Their recent form has been solid; check out Emily Dulhanty on Red Nation Online for an up-to-date perspective but suffice to say they are fresh off their first ever win at the Women’s Asian Cup. It’s a big achievement, and yet…

I didn’t watch the Asian tournament but Japan’s results weren’t quite the standard I’d expect. The Japanese got a fortunate draw, avoiding both Koreas and facing only teams they should enjoy a comfortable margin over. A 1-0 victory over Australia in the final was unusually tight for the Japanese against the third-rate-but-improving Aussies. In the round robin the pair actually drew, with Japan lucky to get the single point thanks to an Aussie own goal. We can say that in Asia Japan is still comfortably better than China and Australia, but they’ve been fairly even lately with both Koreas while a couple years ago Japan was a solid half-stride ahead. They look, in short, like a team that’s still dangerous, and still probably Canada’s superior, but just starting to overrun their prime.

It’s so stupid! There’s no reason for that! Of Japan’s core players only goalkeeper Niko Fukumoto is over thirty years old. Midfielder Aya Miyama is going to be in the Ballon d’Or argument and at 29 is in the prime of life. Yuki Ogimi is still kicking around, still dangerous. The legendary Homare Sawa is off this roster after playing the Asian Cup, but she hasn’t been a first-rate player for a couple years. The one thing you can say about the Japanese is that they haven’t much young blood: forward Mana Iwabuchi is their only player under 23 and her early accomplishments have been slightly disappointing. Have they just relied on the same core for too long and worn it out?

Doubt it. Japan can safely expect four points from their two games in Canada and wouldn’t be surprised to take all six. Even at their best they’ve never really been terrifying in the way France, Germany, or the United States could be: they just sort of win games, and they’re gonna be a cut above Canada. I don’t forecast a tonne of thrills, but Miyama is an absolute top player and worth the price of admission on her own. Attendance is looking disappointing, maybe below 10,000, so I’d urge you all to get your asses down to Commonwealth Stadium and load up. For those of us not in Edmonton, the game will be on all four of the main Sportsnets with Gerry Dobson in the booth, so the afternoon holds promise.

Fort Lauderdale Strikers v. FC Edmonton, 4:30 PM Pacific, NASL Live — How about this for some pressure? FC Edmonton, after being buried alive like the Undertaker this summer, is now playing for their playoff lives in Fort Lauderdale. The Eddies and the Strikers are competing for the last playoff spot in the North American Soccer League. Fort Lauderdale is two points up but this game means Edmonton controls their own destiny. Win, and Edmonton just needs a result at home (in November, against an Atlanta Silverbacks team that seems weeks from folding or self-relegating) to make the NASL playoffs for the second time ever. Lose, and Edmonton is eliminated. The one time the Eddies made the playoffs was in 2011, when they lost their only playoff game 5-0… in Fort Lauderdale, to the Strikers. Call this one the Rein Baart Revenge Match.

Fort Lauderdale is a hard team to beat. The Carolina Railhawks found this out last week to their woe. Their game was terrific but in the end only luck let Carolina get out of that home game with a point. Fort Lauderdale has a couple players who will be especially hungry to stick it to Edmonton: midfielder Chris Nurse was an Eddie last season but left in a tsunami of bad blood, while winger Martin Nunez was signed to FC Edmonton at the beginning of the 2013 season then cut in training camp by Colin Miller. And Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium is a bloody difficult venue. The Strikers have lost once at home this fall, 3-0 to league leaders Minnesota, and won three on the trot.

The bad news for Fort Lauderdale? Strikers head coach Günter Kronsteiner, who is a little insane, has spent the past few weeks feuding with his best player, Fafà Picault. Picault was benched in Carolina and is widely rumoured to be leaving the Strikers at the end of this season. No coach would be crazy enough to leave Picault out in this kill-or-be-killed home fixture… but then again no coach would be crazy enough to force the Edmonton city police to throw him out of Clarke Stadium and Kronsteiner’s done that too.

Most importantly, after years of utter haplessness as soon as they got on an airplane FC Edmonton has somehow learned how to play road games. Recent road results include a rollicking 3-2 win in Carolina, a 3-0 loss in San Antonio that was ruined by truly shambolic refereeing, a 1-1 draw in Indy where Edmonton was the better team, another referee-marred 1-1 draw in Tampa, and last weekend a 2-0 win in Ottawa where the Eddies punched the Fury around for about half an hour then sat back for the rest of the game smoking cigarettes, playing pinochle, and letting Tony Donatelli knock out the seats behind the goal with his errant shooting.

This game isn’t on Canadian television, so if you’re not an NASL Live subscriber you’re going to be stuck with me going “AAAAAGH!” on Twitter for two hours. But it’ll be well worth it.

Vancouver Whitecaps v. Colorado Rapids, 7 PM Pacific, TSN — Speaking of playoff lives! The math for the Whitecaps is easy: equal or beat the result of the Portland Timbers. Win and they’re in, taking fifth place in the MLS West (which does count as a playoff spot, Toronto fans). Draw and they qualify if Portland doesn’t beat FU Dallas. Lose and the Whitecaps need Dallas to beat the Timbers outright. Dallas and Portland kick off at 5:30, so we’ll have a good idea of the required result by gametime.

The game is sold out, Fan Appreciation Night, the last home match of the season barring some true playoff glory. Fans are stoked after Toronto FC choked their lives away and the Whitecaps qualified for their first CONCACAF Champions League through the back door; we seem guaranteed a ballsy crowd. The Cascadia Cup champions will be in a strong position, both morally and statistically, to lay yet more pain on the Timbers who, after a dodgy couple of months there, have resumed their traditional place as Cascadian whipping boys. Former captain Jay DeMerit will be in the building being applauded for taking up a load of salary cap room to be Vancouver’s third-best centreback for a few years (hey, when’s Martin Nash night?). In short, it could be a good advertisement for the excitement of Major League Soccer. Or it could be absolutely jackshit if Dallas runs riot over Portland and this game winds up being a friendly.

Most competitions play critical games on the last weekend like this simultaneously, so results in one don’t influence results in the others. In MLS this is allegedly impossible because of television requirements. I actually sort of understand Major League Soccer’s position here: the English Premier League can play hardball with its television stations knowing that if they swing their dick around Sky Sports will happily preempt the darts for some soccer. MLS hasn’t got that sort of leverage. But from a competitive advantage it’s a long way from ideal; luckily this year the scheduling plays into the Whitecaps’ hands, so everything is fine.

Anybody who reads this page will know I’m not really capable of previewing this game intelligently. Even if I was, at any moment standard MLS hijinks could intervene and make all forecasts worthless. So I’ll just say that, for the sake of the Whitecaps organization, fans, and a few of its players, I’ll have my dodgy web stream on and hope in my heart. If MLS must exist, it’ll be a little more tolerable for the Whitecaps doing well in it.

Son of Forward Perspective!

By Benjamin Massey · September 23rd, 2014 · 3 comments

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Last year, when I wrote about the Whitecaps a bit more often, people were prematurely jazzed about the Whitecaps’ forward corps. Seeing signs of human happiness around me, I chugged a bottle of Haterade then sounded the horn of perspective. Sure, Camilo was the real deal, I said, but Kenny Miller probably isn’t. (The very next day, Martin Rennie signed Miller to a contract extension. Max lulz were had.) I also had a word or two in defense of Darren Mattocks[1]. My statistical predictions were largely overtaken by events, with Camilo fucking off to Mexico and Miller heading back to the United Kingdom.

Now, I haven’t watched 400 minutes of Whitecaps soccer this year so I’m not the most qualified son-of-a-bitch to repeat that exercise. But clearly nobody else is going to do it. When not excreting clickbait bullshit about women daring to be soccer fans while having breasts, our mainstream soccer writers have banged the “omg teh fukking witecaps forwards!!!!” drum like Keith Moon on speed. I even braved the Vancouver Southsiders Facebook page and forum to check the mood and came back with eye herpes. People, it is fair to say, are unhappy, crying things like “why didn’t we keep Camilo by offering him a bigger-money contract, like the one he walked out on?” and “why didn’t we sign Leo Messi?” and “how can I blame Vancouver conceding field goals every other week on Darren Mattocks?” and “I’m seven years old and can’t remember before mid-August, why have the Whitecaps never scored?”

So fuck it. How terrible are the three young forwards, Erik Hurtado, Kekuta Manneh, and Darren Mattocks, who are causing this drama factory to run overtime? I have no idea, I don’t watch the games, but here’s a table anyway. All statistics from MLSSoccer.com.

2013 2014
GP MIN G A PKG SD SoG SoG% S% SD/90 SoG/90 GP MIN G A PKG SD SoG SoG% S% SD/90 SoG/90
Hurtado, Erik 15 489 0 2 0 13 3 23.08% 0.00% 2.392 0.552 25 1493 5 2 0 42 17 40.47% 29.41% 2.532 1.024
Manneh, Kekuta 20 764 6 2 0 38 15 39.47% 40.00% 4.476 1.767 24 1009 3 1 0 47 18 38.30% 16.67% 4.192 1.606
Mattocks, Darren 20 911 3 1 0 45 14 31.11% 21.43% 4.446 1.383 26 1664 6 3 1 51 23 45.10% 26.09% 2.758 1.244

We have three players who saw fewer than 1,000 minutes last season. Short sample sizes suck. But at a glance two guys are trending as expected.

Erik Hurtado is still sort of crummy. Nothing like a hot streak to make a coach think you might be the real deal, but luckily he’s cooled off in time to not get a big raise. 1.0 SoG/90, a forward who’s doing that might be tolerable as a depth guy, but why bother when there are so many underappreciated NASL and USL Pro players around with something to prove and a modicum of technical ability? Long Tan just made the USL Pro All-League Second Team[2], but there’s probably a decent forward around there somewhere.

Only Darren Mattocks has genuinely regressed, losing 1.7 shots directed per 90 minutes. He’s dropped an entire Gershon Koffie in offense! Admittedly, this is with Canadian Soccer Jesus, one of MLS’s leading playmakers last season, having dropped back to d-mid to keep Matty Laba from getting lonely. But this is also with Pedro Morales existing and somehow not straining a hamstring for weeks. I suspect that, looking at Mattocks’s 2012 figures and bearing in mind his nasty case of shoot-from-anywhereitis at points last year, the SD/90 we’re seeing now is in line with Mattocks’s actual skill.

Even Mattocks’s season has been acceptable. Not great, not what you want from a first-rank striker, but 0.325 goals per 90 minutes runs 43rd in MLS among players with at least five goals. That sounds worse than it is: there are a lot of Max Urrutis/Luis Silvas/Michels who are banging in penalties, shooting over 60%, and having the one good goal-scoring season they’re going to live off for the rest of their hilariously overpaid careers. There’s no reason to think Mattocks’s percentages aren’t sustainable, and this level of performance is well worth holding onto. Not that they suggest any danger of a 20-goal-carrying-the-team-on-his-back season.

I’ll tell you one thing I am pretty darned confident of. Kekuta Manneh is a serious soccer player. He’s still the youngest on this list. He turns 20 in December. He’s not progressing by the numbers, but the team’s exploded so much around him and his playing time has been in such fits and starts I’m not sure what we could expect. Anyway, his current level of performance is fine, he just needs the shots to start going in and that’s only a matter of time.

If it were my team, I’d throw Manneh at the top for the rest of the season as long as his body could take it, have Mattocks as my second guy, and send Erik Hurtado to a nice house in the country where he could play every day and eat all the kibble he wants.

(notes and comments…)

Dissecting the Whitecaps’ New Westminster Failure

By Benjamin Massey · September 17th, 2014 · No comments

In 2006 the Vancouver Whitecaps tried to build a new soccer-specific stadium on the Vancouver waterfront. The Waterfront Stadium would have displaced no residents or businesses. It would have been in the very heart of Vancouver’s transit network and surrounded by a traffic and parking infrastructure that services hundreds of thousands of downtown commuters every weekday. And it would have been entirely privately funded by Greg Kerfoot, one of Vancouver’s most-respected businessmen. The Whitecaps launched a campaign over several years to try and get this stadium, the potential crown jewel of Canadian soccer, built. They failed utterly, scotched by NIMBYism, politics, the opposition of the Vancouver Port Authority, and the province of British Columbia’s none-too-hidden aim of tenant involved in the billion-dollar BC Place renovation. When they joined Major League Soccer the Whitecaps made vague noises about going forward, but today the Waterfront Stadium isn’t even mentioned on their website and they seem, reasonably enough, unwilling to keep forcing a $60 million gift onto an unwilling city.

There are a lot of lessons the Whitecaps could have taken, like “Vancouver is horrible” and “an awful lot of politicians in the Lower Mainland need to be punched very hard in the face.” But when they approached the City of New Westminster to get a USL Pro team in the Royal City for 2015, they didn’t apply any.

According to the Whitecaps the “opportunity” for a USL Pro team in New Westminster arose four months ago[1]; the first the public heard about it in July when the Whitecaps and the city made an announcement[2]. Since that time there have been two public consultations, council meetings, attempts to harness community support, and a general storming campaign leading up to a council meeting earlier this week where New Westminster council rejected the plan.

And look at what we didn’t get. For months we had no idea of public costs, essentially taking advocates’ word that the public wouldn’t lose out. The City of New Westminster’s web site on the project had next-to-nothing on financing[3]. We didn’t see a rendering of a renovated Queen’s Park Stadium until late in the day*, and professional soccer teams in 2014 do renderings of a new stadium when they go to the bathroom. FC Edmonton commissioned several previews of a new stadium which wasn’t even seriously planned just to show what was possible[4]. The Whitecaps wanted support for an awfully indeterminate amount of money and a real community sacrifice without a vision of what New Westminster taxpayers might get for it.

The matter came formally before New Westminster city council on September 15, almost literally the last minute for a team meant to start play in 2015. The Committee of the Whole got an information package, summarized by Director of Parks, Culture, and Recreation Dean Gibson[5]. This summary seemed to have its tongue somewhere in its cheek; saying that most of the public responses had been supportive “given the limited information that has been available”; but the community was complaining about being ill-informed. Even some councillors, like Jaimie McEvoy, seemed to agree. Small wonder.

That committee heard that there wasn’t enough parking to meet projected demand, there would be a reduction in public availability during peak seasons, the baseball community would need renovated facilities, and the stadium renovation would contradict a community plan that envisaged reducing Queen’s Park Stadium’s capacity. We also, finally, heard a cost: an estimate of $11.4 million, of which $3 million had already been budgeted. $3.9 million would be “repaid” by the Whitecaps with a lease over twenty years, and $4.5 million would presumably be an out-and-out subsidy from the City to an MLS reserve team, all from a city of 66,000 people with, according to councillor Jonathan Cote, no up-front contribution from the Whitecaps whatsoever.

There were easy community concerns, all foreseeable, all soluble given time. But there was no time. Meanwhile, otherwise-supportive council members saw costs already higher than anticipated before a shovel had gone in the ground. And so the Committee of the Whole killed the proposal stone dead. At the full council meeting Mayor Wayne Wright said “it wasn’t possible for us to get this business done in a timely manner with the people of New Westminster because there were too many questions.” He got a lot of applause for that one. Wright even apologized to the audience for bringing the matter up without sufficient consultation.

Look, obviously there were NIMBYs, but there were also real concerns. Baseball being kicked out of Queen’s Park? Baseball’s a sport too, of course they’re worried about losing a good site. People moaning about parking? I know we’re all good transit-loving urbanists but the local situation isn’t brilliant; Columbia Skytrain station is a kilometer and a half away on a pretty solid hillside. If I was on my own I’d walk; taking my grandparents we’d want to drive. These are questions worth arguing out and answering, and the opportunity barely came up.

The Whitecaps can’t do much about Major League Soccer not running a reserve league or the 2015 USL Pro season coming up fast. Clearly everybody involved knew the Whitecaps were negotiating in good faith, with the enthusiastic support and leadership of a New Westminster resident. But the resulting proposal was, from a public perspective, borderline unsupportable and without any time to work a compromise. I was in favour of the USL Pro team, apart from the public funding, and even I was becoming a skeptic by the time the trigger was pulled. There was just nothing, nothing except a seven-digit price tag and a massive hurry.

I mean, with the deepest respect to people who are better businessmen then I, what the hell did you think was going to happen?

(notes and comments…)

Whitecaps II to USL Pro (or: Hey, This is Going Well!)

By Benjamin Massey · July 8th, 2014 · 1 comment

Negativity is a narcotic, but glad tidings from the Vancouver Whitecaps have me kicking the habit. There is a bounce in my step, a twinkle in my eye, a bit of colour in my cheeks. Finally, something is good, for the biggest news in world soccer today is that the Vancouver Whitecaps are forming a USL Pro affiliate in New Westminster, to play out of venerable Queen’s Park Stadium[1].

Devotees of my ramblings will know I have never liked United Soccer Leagues obviating their decades-old independence to operate as a feeder league for MLS, representing the homogenization, dishonestly, anti-supporterism, and anti-Canadianism I despise in North American soccer. Based on the poor support for farm teams around the world[2] I thought it would be a disaster at the box office and the Los Angeles Galaxy II are proving me right with every game in the empty StubHub Center[3]. When you see someone considering starting a professional soccer team in Canada, prefer NASL to USL.

But there are no independent Canadian teams in USL Pro, so let the Americans worry about their own pocketbooks. An affiliate in this league is the best practical option for the Whitecaps. It would be a surprise if attendance broke 1,000 but what matter? Presumably the Whitecaps know what they’re in for financially; attendances and the Whitecaps’ own sorry crowds for PDL are public information. (One hopes the two USL Pro-specific partners in the team, Ian Gillespie and Gary Pooni, are also well-informed.) So if Vancouver, or Toronto FC or the Montreal Impact, want to take advantage of United Soccer Leagues then be my guest! Pick the bones clean, Canada; it’s high time we got something for ourselves out of this relationship.

The presence of elite sport is a fillip to New Westminster, with no serious outdoor sports and not even junior “A” hockey (though the local lacrosse scene is strong). Queen’s Park Stadium is a characterful but old and dreary facility and the upgrades planned to bring it up to professional standards are desperately needed, provided the Whitecaps are paying: the public shouldn’t be subsidizing professional sport, and the fact that nobody has mentioned the funding source for the refurbishment in this press release raises worries. I also hope, for reasons a couple paragraphs above, this Whitecaps affiliate is not preempting an independent team. And while a regional rival might provide a lever to help the Victoria Highlanders finally go professional, as a part-time Highlanders fan I always hoped to see them in the NASL. (Some full-time Highlanders fans disagree; for them this should be a day of unqualified fist-pumps and lunchtime beers.)

Some wonder why this team won’t be in the interior, perhaps the Okanagan, where a large population starved of summer sport and too distant to regularly attend Whitecaps games might be go nuts for USL Pro. But, setting aside commercial considerations, having their USL Pro team close to home means Whitecaps players can work with the first team at UBC in the morning and be at Queen’s Park for a game in the evening. The further afield you get, the more independent the market but the more difficult soccer integration becomes.

Having wasted a few hundred words, such navel-gazing soccer structure bloviations are irrelevant to your average Whitecaps supporter, who care about what’s on the field rather than behind it. This new affiliation represents, in the current climate, the best chance for the Whitecaps to get Canadians into professional soccer. USL Pro is a decent enough level and will provide a good test for young Whitecaps. No doubt the core of the roster will be MLS depth, the usual combination of NCAA-trained American scrubs, journeyman bench talent, and trialists we remember from the MLS Reserve League, but your Bryce Aldersons and Sam Adekugbes can count on big minutes. As we saw even in the Reserve League, the number of players required will ensure playing time for Canadians (and Chileans) from the Whitecaps Residency. I remind you that USL still uses the “five from seven” substitution system, so there are more chances for players off the bench than other leagues. Those bench players will be predominantly Canadian.

In fact it’s possible that a 2015 Whitecaps II team would record more Canadian minutes in a single season than the senior Whitecaps have recorded in their entire MLS history[4], at a level that isn’t senior national team stuff but will draw exposure and could point the way to better things. That’s nothing to scoff at, and that’s the reason I’m grinning now.

Many assume this spells the end to the Whitecaps’ long-time partnership with USL PDL. The Whitecaps have made no announcement either way, but USL Pro and USL PDL are not “either or” propositions, and maintaining a presence in USL PDL would fill gaps that might otherwise open even with the arrival of USL Pro.

Most obviously, not every promising U-20 player will be ready for USL Pro. It is a lower level than the NASL, and the example of Jordan Hamilton in Wilmington shows teenage Canadians can succeed there, but it is indisputably a professional league with quality veterans like Matt Delicate, Allan Russell, and Samuel Ochoa making mincemeat of the unprepared.

The Whitecaps will know this, based on the mixed experiences with affiliates Charleston: Omar Salgado played well while he was there, Andre Lewis has settled in nicely, and Mamadou Diouf has enjoyed a depth role, but Marlon Ramirez and Emmanuel Adjetey were or are out of their depth and quality young centre back Jackson Farmer was just too young to get minutes. Last year Ben Fisk and Bryce Alderson played decently when healthy but struggled for minutes late in the year, to the detriment of their development. Charleston is near the bottom of the table, so we’re not talking about a formidable lineup. Even talented young players sometimes just aren’t seasoned enough for that sort of soccer, and throwing a player in out of his depth is no solution to anything. USL PDL still has a role as a valuable transitional step for those trying to graduate from dominating the USSDA U-18s to making a contribution against men.

Secondly, now that the MLS reserves will be in New Westminster, a Whitecaps PDL team could help the team keep tabs on NCAA players who have come through their system. The Whitecaps would be a richer organization if Residency graduates such as Callum Irving, Ben McKendry, Brody Huitema, and Alex Rowley had remained involved over the summers, turning out with the Whitecaps U-23s and perhaps staking a claim to a senior contract after their school days.As long as the Whitecaps had professionals playing PDL NCAA rules made this impossible. With these professionals out of the way the PDL team can return to its original youth development role, and that opens the door for participation from the NCAA ranks.

Thirdly, and more aspirationally, bringing in CIS players as the Whitecaps have over the past few years, as well as new NCAA faces, could pay for all parties. Ex-Whitecaps U-23 captain Gagandeep Dosanjh seemed to be carving out a decent NASL career at Edmonton until injuries intervened, Reynold Stewart got a good look at the NASL combine, and I still hope to see players like Niall Cousens, Brett Levis, and increasingly Cody Cook get an opportunity. Over in Victoria Carlo Basso is having another decent PDL season, but because he attends Simon Fraser University the Whitecaps could never have given him a look. This wouldn’t just be good for FC Edmonton and the Ottawa Fury, the main beneficiaries today of Canadian college talent, but potentially the Whitecaps, who now have a USL Pro team they’ll want stocked and who, hopefully, will be able to give players developed there first team places.

In the grand scheme of things a reserve team is small beer. Remember that the Whitecaps entered a team at this level for their first three MLS seasons and it didn’t matter. Three Canadians other than those affiliated to MLS teams are in USL Pro this season and the average fan could not name one, while Canadian graduates of USL Pro include almost nobody you’d be interested in. What counts is not getting Canadian players into USL Pro; what matters is getting them beyond.

Until the Whitecaps prove they have both the ability and the will to graduate Canadians to some quality league rather than burying them at intermediate levels this is an opportunity for New Westminsterites to see cheap soccer rather than meaningful change. Cynicism, alas, has its place: we’ve seen the Whitecaps take measures that should theoretically be good then fail us (investing heavily in a Residency program then favouring foreign players in the first team, or showing no commitment to ensuring Canadians play for Canada). British Columbian representation, as well, is a serious, separate concern for many fans, with the Whitecaps exerting a dominance over the provincial soccer community this new team will only increase. The Whitecaps are on a cash basis with domestically-oriented supporters: we’ve been burned too often to extend them credit.

But this omen is auspicious. The team is spending time and money on a change to their organization that should benefit Canadian talent. It won’t matter a whit if further measures aren’t taken, but that’s no reason to scoff at this hopefully meaningful move.

(notes and comments…)