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.

USL PDL’s Victoria Highlanders Fold

By Benjamin Massey · January 31st, 2015 · 8 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

So farewell then, Victoria Highlanders FC. The last USL PDL club in British Columbia is, suddenly, gone. CTV News Victoria’s Chandler Grieve tweeted it Saturday afternoon[1] and on CTV’s six o’clock news it was made official. Team owner Alex Campbell, Jr. has stunned soccer fans, and after six seemingly-successful seasons Victoria is now without soccer above the University of Victoria and the Vancouver Island Soccer League.

To all appearances the Highlanders did well. They exorcised the demons of the troubled CSL Victoria Vistas, who played only two seasons. Top ten in USL PDL attendance every year, a solid supporters culture by league standards, and no shortage of victories. Three times the Highlanders made the playoffs (hard to do in the Northwest Division), with a good run in 2013 as division champions. This past season saw a playoff appearance plus their first Juan de Fuca Plate, the supporter-created British Columbia semi-pro championship. Popular local players like Tyler and Jordie Hughes, Andrew and Adam Ravenhill, and goalkeeper Elliott Mitrou combined with memorable veterans like Blair Sturrock, Riley O’Neill, and former Canadian international Manny Gomez to create a likable, talented crew. Last year they were even nominated for a USL PDL marketing award[2].

Almost until the last minute fans and staff had their eyes on professional soccer: though the Canadian Soccer Association forbade them from joining USL Pro, the NASL seemed a tantalizing possibility when the Canadian division rumours started. Their attendance seemed to prove they could take a step up. Indeed, the Highlanders were successful enough to finish off PCSL club Victoria United, who dated back to 1904[3].

Victoria Highlanders Attendance
Year Avg/G PDL Rank
2009 1,734 3rd
2010 1,375 4th
2011 992 10th
2012 1,017 8th
2013 1,637 5th
2014 1,314 9th
2009 to 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 statistics from kenn.com via the United Soccer Leagues.

For their first three seasons the Highlanders played at Langford’s ironically-named City Centre Stadium, a considerable trek from Victoria. But after moving to Royal Athletic Park downtown fans returned. Victoria’s attendance was several times better than, to pick a name not at all at random, the PDL-era Ottawa Fury, now in the NASL. They were competitive with the resurrected Austin Aztex, now in USL Pro. Apart from perennial off-field powerhouses like the Des Moines Menace, the Highlanders were a tier behind nobody in North American semi-professional soccer.

It would be interesting to know what happened to Victoria’s partial supporter ownership. At the beginning of 2013 the Highlanders announced that season ticket holders would take a 30% stake in the team, exercised by an elected board[4]. Little was heard of this board in 2014 and that 30% seems to have vanished into smoke without warning, let alone consultation with fans who’d purchased Highlanders season tickets up until the last moment.

How last moment? The Highlanders’ early-bird season ticket offer is still available, as of this writing[5]. The Vancouver Whitecaps have their annual friendly at the University of Victoria February 15; the Highlanders have been promoting the game, promised a merchandise booth at Centennial Stadium, and offered a discount for season ticket holders[6]. The Highlanders Academy informed their academy members the game was up only after the news had broken on Saturday[7]. Their U-21s played January 17, defeating Peninsula 5-1 and staying top of the Vancouver Island Soccer League U-21 table; no word yet on their scheduled January 31 fixture against Nanaimo.

It’s hard not to stagger when confronted with the sudden end of such a vibrant organization. What the hell happened? Travel was tough this year, with the Vancouver Whitecaps PDL team withdrawn. It’s replaced by the Calgary Foothills U-23s: a long ride from the Island. The departure of the Whitecaps’ W-League team helped kill the Highlanders’ entry back in 2012. But we’ve known the Whitecaps were leaving PDL for months and, with plenty of regional rivals remaining in Washington and Oregon, it hadn’t held the Highlanders back. At first.

In his telephone interview with CTV from Phoenix, owner Campbell said a deal with unnamed investors had fallen through. We’ve known for years Campbell wanted a partner and when the Highlanders ran out their seemingly-valueless supporter ownership scheme there was even a 20% share left open for a future “operator”[8]. Yet there was no suggestion that their demise was imminent.

It’s hard to hold a grudge against Campbell, who brought high-level soccer back to Victoria after almost twenty years, invested in new players while retaining local favourites, hired a young Canadian coaching staff and a highly competent front office, worked with his supporters, fought Victoria City Council’s hopeless addiction to low-level baseball, and even in the best-case scenario was never going to make serious money. But as demises go this one stinks even more than usual. The optics of Campbell winding up his team from Arizona, the end descending on fans, employees, and players like a flight of bombers over Pearl Harbor, are appalling. Surely the end could have been handled better than this. It could only have been worse if Campbell flew over Royal Athletic Park crapping out the window. The unavoidable impression to the fans is that the Highlanders have been rather murdered than killed.

Despite their premature end the Highlanders made a mark on North American soccer. Defender Jamie Cunningham, who played for Victoria in 2010, had a brief professional career with the NASL’s Puerto Rico Islanders. Matt Polster, a midfielder for Victoria in 2013, was just drafted seventh overall by Frank Yallop’s Chicago Fire[9]. Jared Stephens briefly played in England with Sheffield FC, the world’s oldest soccer club[10] and later with Belper Town. Defender Andrew Ravenhill, son of the CSL’s Dave and brother of teammate Adam, had a good trial in 2013 with the San Jose Earthquakes[11]. Sly, strong ex-Highlanders forward Sasa Plavsic turns out for IK Frej in Sweden[12] and versatile teammate Jamar Dixon just signed not too far away with Finland’s FF Jaro[13]. 2013 Highlanders star Brett Levis got a look with the Vancouver Whitecaps and, after playing PDL in Vancouver last year, is expected to be part of the Whitecaps’ USL Pro side. FC Edmonton trialed Victoria’s Michael Marousek and Diaz Kambere, and Victoria’s inaugural head coach Colin Miller now runs the Eddies.

Persistent rumours of a semi-professional league in British Columbia like those in Ontario and Quebec have left some pundits optimistic: the div-3 semi-pros will come along in a year or two, Victoria will certainly have a team in that, it’s more a nap than a death. But, firstly, if you think serious semi-pro is coming to BC above the VMSL Premier level in the next decade you’re way more optimistic than I am, and secondly the international and developmental nature of USL PDL seems to appeal more than regional semi-pro. The best League 1 Ontario teams draw crowds a quarter of those the Highlanders got, and that’s without considering the way the Highlanders’ vaporisation will poison the well for any future soccer team seeking fan acceptance and civic support. BC semi-pro in Victoria may be the best chance the city has – cry even more for Victoria United now – but the Highlanders are probably irreplaceable.

(notes and comments…)

The Juan de Fuca Plate Finale: Rain and Ringers

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

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

While I have a moment, my brief thoughts about the upcoming Juan de Fuca Plate finale between the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s and the Victoria Highlanders at UBC Thunderbird Stadium (5PM, free admission).

It is a credit to both the Highlanders and the Whitecaps how seriously they take this competition. I don’t mean on the field, where technical priorities must always come first, but off it: they hype the Plate up on their websites and Twitter feeds, they mention the competition with an awareness of its history, they give the impression that they gladly support this fan-created endeavour in the spirit it’s intended. This year’s two-leg format means that, for the first time, a draw is a practical possibility: after an approach from supporters the Whitecaps and Highlanders have apparently decided to settle such a draw by penalty kicks[1]. It’s one of those little things that the Whitecaps and Highlanders didn’t have to do, that won’t get big headlines or impress thousands of fans, but will profoundly please a dedicated few. Both the Whitecaps and Highlanders organizations therefore deserve all the praise in the world for the Plate.

I won’t rehash my preview of both the Whitecaps U-23s and the Highlanders from earlier this month[2]. With Vancouver having played only three games, all on the road, and Victoria having played two, both at home, the season is too young to tear up the script, particularly when the games have been close to it. Victoria’s played well, though they have four points when their fans must have hoped for six, while by most accounts Vancouver has promise but is still trying to find their chemistry and their legs.

With that said both teams have big-name help on the field tonight. For the Whitecaps U-23s, attacking midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy is expected to make his first appearance in Vancouver silks[3]. Ballouchy is best-known for playing 74 USL PDL minutes with the Boulder Rapids Reserve in 2005, directing two shots, but has also enjoyed an eleven-season MLS career[4]. That limited PDL experience will have to serve Ballouchy well in his first taste of Juan de Fuca Plate competition. Significantly, his debut with two surgically-reconstructed knees will be on wet Thunderbird Stadium Polytan, which means a chance of re-injury in slick conditions and possible mental concerns on artificial turf. Certainly, if he can go at something like full speed, Ballouchy is liable to give the Victoria back line trouble, but that’s a massive “if”, and it would be stunning if he went the full 90.

Not to be outdone… okay, somewhat to be outdone… Victoria has all-time leading scorer Jordie Hughes back. Hughes won’t start this evening[5] but could still be a significant addition to an offense that has Cam Hundal, Blair Sturrock, Carlo Basso, and Riley O’Neill all looking threatening. Hughes was last year’s joint-leading scorer on the Highlanders (with current Whitecaps U-23 player Brett Levis) and the joint-leading scorer in the Juan de Fuca Plate (with another Whitecaps U-23, Niall Cousens). He’s a solid, veteran forward, the sort of player who isn’t the most remarkable either technically or athletically but can teach young defenders a thing or two every game. And the Whitecaps are liable to have quite a young back line.

Victoria’s most recent game was a 1-1 draw at home to Kitsap in which Sturrock scored and the Highlanders forced six saves out of Kitsap’s Matt Grosey[6]; not great but not bad. Meanwhile, since the Victoria loss the Whitecaps U-23s have played twice more on the road, drawing at both Portland and Kitsap, and in the latter case emerging with less credit than the Highlanders: Vancouver was out-shots-directed 11-5 and the Whitecaps got only one shot on target[7]. The much-ballyhooed Levis is still looking to break through, but he’s been shooting and against Victoria he was highly energetic. Niall Cousens scored in Kitsap but is also looking to recapture his imposing 2013 form. The leading early surprise has been Cody Cook, a first-year PDL player who has two goals and was one of the more impressive Whitecaps in Victoria.

Victoria’s been playing better soccer than Vancouver and, unless a few more MLS loanees come to keep Ballouchy company, might well out-gun Vancouver. There are two major wild-cards, though, that might help the Whitecaps.

The first is that a few Whitecaps players are due to stand up and make an impact. Ballouchy, obviously, has the quality to own this game if he’s fit. Cousens has scored but needs to generate more chances. Levis has only a single assist. Marlon Ramirez has professional experience and might well start this evening. These are all players of known quality at the USL PDL level who, in a very small number of games, haven’t done what we’d hope for. The best of them will have a big day sometime; such players always do. The question is whether they’ll have in the Juan de Fuca Plate, as both Levis and Cousens did in 2013. Levis, in particular, should have a burr up his ass against his former side, and while none of his teammates could get on the end of his service in the first leg he was a hard-running bastard with something to prove.

The second is the Highlanders schedule. Victoria needs to hop right back on the ferry after the game and be at Royal Athletic Park for a 7 PM Saturday start against the Washington Crossfire. If I may speak on the Highlanders’ behalf, I think they’d say that the Whitecaps game is bigger on paper, but they can’t run their team ragged and put on a poor show for the home fans either. The Crossfire have played a lot of mediocre seasons but they’ve picked up some players this year, including Canadian national futsaller Robbie Tice[8]. Even if it’s only unconscious, there will be a certain element of “saving ourselves for Saturday” that might cause the Whitecaps to push just a little harder than their opposition, and that could be the difference.

If the Highlanders win or draw, they will take the Juan de Fuca Plate for the first time in their history. If the Whitecaps win by a two-goal margin, or win 2-1 or 1-0, they will for the third straight year take the Plate while tying Victoria on points. A 3-2 Whitecaps victory and we should be heading to the spot. The two-leg format is a shame, in that the tournament is over in a flash, and I hope more than ever that a third British Columbia USL PDL team comes to strengthen the trophy for 2015. But it’s going to be exciting tonight.

(notes and comments…)

Juan de Fuca Plate III: Beyond Thunderbird

By Benjamin Massey · May 2nd, 2014 · 4 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever

This Sunday the third Juan de Fuca Plate kicks off at Victoria’s Royal Athletic Park (2:00 PM, tickets $15). As you know the Juan de Fuca Plate is an annual competition between British Columbia’s USL PDL teams, similar to the Cascadia Cup or the pre-2008 Voyageurs Cup. The Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s have taken both previous championships, both times under thrilling circumstances, and the Plate has earned a growing following on both sides of the Strait.

The game is also the opening act of the short but punchy play that is the USL PDL season, and after rave reviews for 2013 this year’s set of players have a tough act to follow. The Whitecaps U-23s had their best campaign in years. Led by a rambunctious attack that tried to win every game 4-3 (and a backline you could take a wheelchair through), they snuck into the final playoff spot in the PDL Northwest Division before going out to the Portland Timbers U-23s on penalties[1]. Victoria did even better. Boasting maybe the most well-rounded attack in the Western Conference plus a solid defense, the Highlanders under first-year coach Steve Simonson won the Northwest Division, brushed aside Portland, and beat the Ventura County Fusion (not far removed from a 1-1 draw with the senior Canadian men’s national team) in extra time. Only Canadian rivals and regular season champions Thunder Bay proved a match for Victoria in the league semi-final. A far cry from 2012, when British Columbia’s PDL teams were at best mediocre and at worst almost historically bad, leading to my writing one of the most hand-wringing articles about USL PDL in history[2].

After that neat 2013, this year sees a change of focus for the Whitecaps U-23 that should be welcomed by your average supporter. Vancouver will carry only seven CIS players on the roster, along with up to three first team loanees per game; the rest of the roster will be Residency players[3] (plus, one suspects, one or two others). While some of the previous Whitecaps CIS players were obvious talents the large majority were, frankly, no-hopers, seemingly brought in just to cheaply fill a lineup card: seven is probably plenty to give blue-chip university players a chance to shine. More importantly, the best of the U-18s can now once again play valuable minutes against grown men, as was done prior to 2012 with such success.

The best CIS player from last year’s Whitecaps U-23s, forward Niall Cousens, is back, as is popular midfielder Harry Lakhan and 2012 U-23 standout Reynold Stewart (not far removed from a crack at the NASL combine[4]). Attacking midfielder/forward Brett Levis is the biggest addition: a member of the 2013 Victoria Highlanders, Levis played magnificent soccer as a PDL rookie, finishing tied with Jordie Hughes for the team lead and joint eleventh in USL PDL with nine goals. This earned him a trial with the Whitecaps first team[5] and 36 minutes of a single Reserves match, with an assist, in Seattle on August 26; I am convinced Levis has professional promise. New addition Cody Cook out of Cranbrook joins Vancouver from a Mount Royal University program that includes former Whitecaps U-23 man Tyrin Hutchings and Thiago Silva (not that Thiago Silva), while Levis’s Saskatchewan teammate Jordan Farahani will help returning diminutive fullback Colton O’Neill bolster last year’s shakey backline. The key missing names are those of Whitecaps-affiliated NCAA players such as Callum Irving, Ben McKendry, and Brody Huitema. Hopefully we’ll see a few pleasant surprises, but the presense of MLS-contracted professionals will make the NCAA players unlikely to appear.

There’s talent there. I’ve been wild about Levis for a year now. Not only was he arguably Victoria’s best player in the 2013 PDL season, he led Canada West in shots and shots per game despite scoring “only” seven goals (tied for sixth in the conference). Reynold Stewart had one of the best university seasons in the country: captaining UBC to the national championship, finishing tied for fourth in Canada West scoring with Cook[6], and being named Canada West Player of the Year and CIS First-Team All-Canadian. Cousens had a relatively disappointing campaign numerically at UBC, but his performances still looked good and he lit up the national championships enough to be named tournament MVP[7]. Cousens, Stewart, Levis, and Farahani were first-team Canada West All-Stars. Lakhan was Second-Team, and Levis was also Second-Team CIS All-Canadian[8].

The team also has a new head coach, Niall Thompson. You talk about coaching instability, Thompson is the Whitecaps’ sixth PDL boss in six seasons, joining Stuart Neely, Craig Dalrymple, Richard Grootscholten, Colin Miller, and Thomas Neindorf. That said, in recent years the U-23 coaching job has seemed like a bit of a sideshow and Thompson is an admirably ambitious appointment. Best known as a former Whitecap and Canadian international (scoring twice) as well as one of the best players in the amateur ranks late in his career, Thompson comes from outside the program. His most recent success has been as head coach of the Surrey United adult men. Thompson led Surrey to the finals of the 2013 Canadian Challenge Trophy, losing a closer 3-0 game than the score suggests[9] and winning, along with a cabinet-full of team awards, BC Soccer Adult Coach of the Year honours in 2012-13[10].

Then there are the MLS players. The selection will vary from week to week. USL PDL rules allow three MLS loanees in the eighteen per game, and you can almost count on one of those loanees most weeks being goalkeeper Marco Carducci. Carducci played a bit of PDL last year and, more than any other player, was responsible for securing the Juan de Fuca Plate for Vancouver in the final game, including an absolutely heroic double save off Jordie Hughes and Blair Sturrock. His save percentage last season was a frankly obscene 0.882 in three games; it’s impossible for him to keep that up, but won’t it be fun to see him try? Other first teamers will doubtless put in appearances: based on nothing at all I expect to see a bit of Sam Adekugbe, a bit of Christian Dean, a few others. More importantly, some U-18s will try to make the step up. Kianz Froese, a top U-18 midfielder, played some PDL in 2012 and scored a goal. Marco Bustos will (probably) get his first PDL experience this season and ought to bring some playmaking flair. Aspiring professionals like Nicholas Prasad, Dario Zanatta, and Jordan Haynes will get a big opportunity on a higher stage against stronger players. With seven CIS guys plus up to three MLS loanees making ten, that’s a minimum of eight other players in the lineup every game, and it’s great for development. As the 2008 Whitecaps Residency, who advanced to the PDL final on the backs of U-18s Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Ethan Gage, Philippe Davies, Simon Thomas, Antonio Rago, Gagan Dosanjh, and others could attest, the kids can be pretty competitive too.

The Victoria Highlanders lineup, with their greater success and different priorities, has had less of a makeover but features some big changes. Lower Mainland fans will recognize more than one Highlanders addition. They hit NCAA D2 Simon Fraser University for three new players[11], all with PDL experience. Forward Carlo Basso bagged the winner off a corner in a scrimmage against the Whitecaps Reserves earlier this week and has scored ten goals in 1,453 minutes minutes over 29 games with the PDL Ottawa Fury in 2012 and 2013[12]. Basso also scored eight goals with Simon Fraser in NCAA D2 play last year, fourth on the team[13]. A big, classic target man, Basso’s scored goals before and could be a handful for small Northwest Division defenses. Midfielder Alex Rowley was formerly with the Whitecaps Residency, and while he didn’t get the press of flashier comrades his improving all-round game drew the right sort of attention. He played about six hundred PDL minutes with Vancouver in 2010 and 2011 without scoring, and in 2011-12 had a (cracking) goal and a couple assists in 1,682 minutes with the Whitecaps U-18s. Goalkeeper Brandon Watson was Victoria’s starting keeper in their inaugural 2010 season, playing 1,170 minutes[14] with a 0.731 save percentage and three clean sheets, and will fight the returning Elliott Mitrou for minutes between the sticks. A fourth SFU player, midfielder Tarnvir Bhandal, is a returnee from 2013 where he played 261 minutes.

Another well-known Highlanders addition is Cam Hundal[15]. The Victoria native and UVic student played the last two PDL seasons with the Whitecaps U-23s, recording eight goals and four assists in 2,045 minutes, as well as 19 minutes of MLS Reserves action on June 5, 2013 against Chivas USA and three Canada West All-Star nods with the good Vikes team. He’s an attractive wide-right midfielder and hasn’t looked out of place against the Whitecaps first-teamers at UVic. With his hometown Highlanders Hundal will be alongside several UVic teammates, which can only lead to improved performances. We can argue about whether he squares the balance for the Whitecaps poaching Levis, but either way he’s a dandy addition who’ll bring flair to what was an effective but often workman-like attack. A few ex-Highlanders have turned out for the Whitecaps U-23s over the years such as Sasa Plavsic, Michael Marousek, and now Levis, but I believe Hundal and Rowley are the first to go the other way.

More casual Canadian fans will be most interested in one-time Canadian international Emmanuel “Manny” Gomez, who joined the Highlanders midfield earlier this month[16]. Gomez has spent his entire professional career in Argentina so isn’t really a known quantity in his homeland, but came to national attention in a big way when he was named by Colin Miller to the senior national team’s January 2013 camp for friendlies against Denmark and the United States[17]. Gomez did not appear in either game but it was enough to make him, along with captain Tyler Hughes, one of two Highlanders with senior international experience (Hughes appeared for Frank Yallop at two training camps in 2004 and 2005 while with the Toronto Lynx, also without a cap[18]). While it’s hard for us unfamiliar with Argentine lower-division soccer to say what Gomez will bring, it’s reasonable to guess expectations will be high.

The Highlanders also return a strong core of playoff-hardened veterans including Riley O’Neill, former Football Leaguer Blair Sturrock, the Ravenhill brothers Andrew and Adam, Ryan Ashlee, and defender/captain Tyler Hughes. More than a few of their younger players are coming off high honours. Mitrou and Andrew Ravenhill were first-team Canada West, and forward Cam Stokes was second-team after tying, with Hundal and UBC’s Milad Mehrabi, for the lead in conference scoring[19]. Ravenhill was second-team CIS All-Canadian, continuing a solid career progression for the excellent young defender that a year ago got Ravenhill a trial with the San Jose Earthquakes[20]. They’ve also brought in a few new players about whom I am not well-informed, notably CIS First-Team All-Canadian and Cape Breton University captain Ian Greedy[21].

And of course, the team retains the pair of general manager Mark deFrias and head coach Steve Simonson which paid the Highlanders such dividends last season. Simonson wound out of the USL PDL Coach of the Year running (that went to Austin’s Paul Dalglish, which frankly was fair enough) but I think it’s fair to say everyone was thoroughly impressed during his first year as a high-level men’s coach. Last year’s Highlanders were exceptionally strong and earned their record, and while the loss of Levis is a titanic one, the additions of Gomez, Hundal, and Basso are a good shot at compensating.

Is it enough to win Victoria their first Juan de Fuca Plate? It’s hard to say. The Plate is just a two-leg series and anything can happen over 180 minutes. Nobody, and I mean nobody, will deny the Highlanders were a better team than the Whitecaps U-23s last year, but the Whitecaps won the Plate (thanks again, Marco and Niall). So a certain prediction in either direction is bloody rash. But Victoria does seem to be the stronger team, particularly in the early season when most Whitecaps U-23s will be adjusting to PDL pace but the Highlanders will already, by and large, be familiar with each other. And that matters, since the Juan de Fuca Plate ends May 23.

So yes, I have Victoria taking the plate, which is the one way to guarantee they won’t.

(notes and comments…)

That Victoria Highlanders Review Post, in Full

By Benjamin Massey · August 26th, 2013 · 6 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

The 2013 Victoria Highlanders, eh? Bloody hell. Steve Simonson, where have you been all my life?

Under Canadian legend Ian Bridge Victoria had seen a single playoff game in their history, in 2011, where they lost 3-1 to the Fresno Fuego[1]. That aside, it had been all mediocrity all the time. The Highlanders benefited from a number of veteran players and an unusual amount of roster stability for a PDL team, with the Hughes brothers, Andrew Ravenhill, Elliott Mitrou, and Craig Gorman particularly omnipresent over the years. Many of those same players knew each other from the University of Victoria or the Vancouver Island Soccer League, leading to an unusual amount of chemistry and camaraderie. Yet for all that the Highlanders, while never terrible, also never got over the hump separating the decent teams from the good.

Well, back in June of 2012 the Highlanders canned Bridge after a 2-3-4 start[2]. Bridge is probably the most significant modern Victoria soccer icon save Bruce Wilson, so to say this raised eyebrows outside Victoria would be an understatement. His replacement, Steve Simonson, was best known for being a former assistant coach with the Whitecaps’ W-League team. Then during the offseason the team added a new general manager, bringing Mark deFrias[3] into a position that had been vacant for most of 2012.

But boy did it work. The 2013 Highlanders finished 8-4-2, taking their first ever Northwest Division championship. They came within an ace of winning the Juan de Fuca Plate, losing out only due to Marco Carducci’s heroics[4]. They improved tremendously in average attendance, from 1,017 fans per game in 2012 to 1,637 in 2013 (in fact, the Highlanders’ least-attended game of 2013 was 50 fans greater than their best-attended game of 2012)[5] despite a plethora of Friday night dates and a home schedule heavily weighted towards the early season; a pre-season $35 season ticket promotion probably helped. This past season Victoria had a winning record against Seattle (1W-1D-0L) and even records against Vancouver (1W-1D-1L) and Portland (1W-0D-1L), showing they could get it done against serious competition. They hammered lesser lights, with only a 2-2 draw against North Sound on May 25 and a 1-1 draw against Washington on July 6 marring a perfect record against the lower-half teams in the division. In the playoffs, Victoria managed a dazzling extra-time victory over the Ventura County Fusion (not far removed from a draw with the Canadian senior men’s national team) and a tidy 1-0 victory over Portland, winning the Western Conference playoffs with style despite having further to travel than any of their rivals. Only in the USL PDL championship series did Victoria stumble, losing 2-0 to a highly experienced Thunder Bay Chill team that had, to that point, dropped only four points all season.

It was the best season in Highlanders history from top to bottom; the best from any western Canadian USL PDL team since Vancouver’s 2008 championship, and depending on how you rate the PCSL probably the best season in the history of any high-level Victoria soccer team. Bravo, misters Simonson and deFrias. Not bad for your first full season.

Most Minutes
Name YoB GP Min G
Ashlee, Ryan 1992 14 1260 0
Hughes, Tyler 1980 14 1260 2
Levis, Brett 1993 14 1241 9
O’Neill, Riley 1985 13 1170 3
Mitrou, Elliott 1991 13 1125 0

So how did the Highlanders do it? Did they bring in a boatload of veteran players? Not really. There were two newly-arrived veterans who stood out on the 2013 Highlanders roster. One is Riley O’Neill, a 27-year-old midfielder/forward born in Vancouver and raised on the Island with professional experience in Germany and Finland[6]. O’Neill was one of Victoria’s leading players in midfield, particularly early in the season; he played every minute of every game but one, but all three of his goals came in the first four games of the season and from then on he was without a goal or an assist until the playoffs. (All stats are regular season only, unless otherwise specified.)

The other veteran acquired was a much bigger name, former Football League journeyman Blair Sturrock. Sturrock was signed in April as a player and youth coach[7] and came with plenty of hype, at least by PDL standards. But he didn’t make his debut until May 31 against Vancouver and took a while to chip into the offense. His first six games saw 496 minutes but only one goal against bottom-feeders North Sound and no assists; disappointing for someone who once had a five-goal season with Swindon Town. But he improved later in the year with two goals and an assist in his last four (three of which were on the road and two against Portland), plus a pretty useful playoff run that included an assist on the decisive Brett Levis goal against the Timbers. Sturrock certainly contributed in the end, but you can’t lay too much of the credit for Victoria’s season at his experienced feet.

Returning veterans helped Victoria a great deal. Tyler Hughes, 32 years young, captained the Highlanders from fullback and may have had his career year. Not only did Hughes play every minute of every game, regular season and playoffs (one of only two Highlanders to do so), not only did he chip in with two goals and an assist, not only was he a PDL Western Conference all-star[8], but he was the most solid, reliable defender on a back line that made its money from solid reliability. Hughes’s career year benefited from a more stable back line than the team’s had in the past. Young centre back Ryan Ashlee was the other player to go every minute and did so without much glory but stolid reliability. His usual centre back partner was Andrew Ravenhill, who didn’t play quite so often as the other two thanks to a trial with the San Jose Earthquakes[9] but in his fourth PDL season is another player you can pretty much count on to make few mistakes. Finally there was Kalem Scott, the only player who along with Hughes who could someday be called “excellent” rather than “solid”. After a magnificently promising 2012 Scott only got into 982 minutes due to injury and inconsistency, but many of those minutes still showed something. As individuals not one, except arguably Hughes, was remarkable: as a unit their cohesion and consistency granted the Highlanders an above-average defense. It was nothing extraordinary but still a great improvement on a Victoria team that had, in the past, juggled its back four and been prone to shipping goals.

Leading Goalscorers
Name YoB Min G G/90
Hughes, Jordie 1984 1054 9 0.769
Levis, Brett 1993 1241 9 0.653
Sturrock, Blair 1981 845 3 0.320
O’Neill, Riley 1985 1170 3 0.231
Mallette, Tommy 1990 237 2 0.759
Hughes, Tyler 1980 1260 2 0.143

One name showing up near the top of all these lists is Brett Levis. The University of Saskatchewan forward came into Victoria with few expectations; he was Saskatchewan Youth Player of the Year in 2008[10] and had an impressive CIS scoring record but was not well-known on the national stage and had never represented Canada at any level. Yet his rookie USL PDL campaign was a thing of beauty, as the 1993-born youngster tied for the team lead in goals (nine; tied for first in the Northwest Division and 11th in the league) and was alone in the lead for assists (five; second in the Northwest and tied for 10th in the league). With fourteen goals plus assists, Levis was nearly involved in as many goals as the North Sound SeaWolves (15). In short, Levis was the catalyst of probably the West’s best offense*. Levis also scored three of Victoria’s four playoff goals, because why not? He played primarily a withdrawn forward role and was strikingly effective, even against quality opposition. His intelligent running underlied many of his achievements but he was also a capable shooter and passer, and certainly wasn’t so athletic that he over-relied on it. Moreover, the 20-year-old was still young compared to many of the defenders he was up against.

There are few who would say Levis was not the Highlanders’ team MVP in 2013. He was rewarded with a place on the USL PDL Western Conference All-Star Team[11] and, maybe more importantly, a trial with the Vancouver Whitecaps[12]. I think that an NASL roster is a better fit for Levis at this stage rather than the tightly-restricted world of MLS. MLS teams have a harder time carrying many players who can’t immediately contribute than NASL teams, and Major League Soccer has no record of giving CIS players a fair shot. Jon Robbins pointed out on Twitter that Ante Jazic came to MLS after playing a year at Dalhousie, but that was with almost a decade in various European leagues in between[13]. Still, it’s a hell of an opportunity for a fine young player and hopefully it leads him to bigger and better things.

While not on Levis’s level as an overall attacker, founding Highlander Jordie Hughes also had a career year to go along with his brother Tyler’s. Hughes managed nine goals of his own (tied with everyone Levis was tied with, obviously) along with a couple assists. Hughes’s nine goals were a PDL career high and equaled his combined total from 2012 and 2011. That doesn’t tell the whole story: in 2012 Hughes was primarily employed in midfield while this past year Hughes was much closer to an out-and-out striker with O’Neill and Levis doing much of the dirty work. It was an effective combination for all parties. Hughes surely would have finished in double digits but late in the season injury hurt his chances. After going 90 minutes for each of the first ten games Hughes was substituted out of games eleven and twelve, missed the last two games of the regular season, and was only a part-timer in the playoffs. Hughes is now on 32 career goals for the Highlanders: needless to say that leads the team.

The offensive strength is particularly impressive given serious losses in Victoria’s forward corps from last year. One of Victoria’s better depth strikers from last season, Sasa Plavsic, spent 2013 with the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s. Long-timer Ash Burbeary also moved on and Jared Stephens tried his luck in England, first with non-League Sheffield FC and then with super-minnows Belper Town[14]. Between them they accounted for ten Victoria goals last year. Sturrock carried some of the load and Victoria also got a few contributions from part-timers Craig Gorman and Tommy Mallette, but most of the difference was made up by Hughes and Levis grabbing the division by the balls. An emphasis on front-line scoring rather than having several threats of perhaps lesser quality, and it seems to have worked.

Leading Assistmakers
Name YoB Min A A/90
Levis, Brett 1993 1241 5 0.363
Gorman, Craig 1988 634 3 0.426
Hughes, Jordie 1984 1054 2 0.171
five others 1

Levis’s adjustment to USL PDL is made all the more impressive by his playmaking record. Given his lack of pedigree at this level Levis’s ability to hold the ball up and find attackers on the go, or to be productive off set pieces, was quite inspiring. Nor did he rely on Jordie Hughes’s finishing: his chemistry with Hughes obviously helped both parties a great deal but Levis also provided goals to Mallette, Gorman, and Gavin Barrett. Levis’s variety in distribution is almost as promising as his quantity; it’s one thing to set up a striker on a career year like Jordie Hughes, it’s another to get your teammates involved.

The aforementioned Craig Gorman managed three assists in relatively limited minutes. Gorman is a tough one. He’s been a Highlander since 2010 and has posted some occasionally fairly impressive numbers but has never quite made the breakthrough. In 2010 a 21-year-old Gorman played over 1,000 minutes and three assists for his trouble, but 2011 didn’t really build on it, and while in 2012 he posted a few goals (and led the inaugural Juan de Fuca Plate in scoring) he was still behind players like Stephens and Burbeary. In 2013 Gorman managed only 634 minutes despite appearing in 11 of 14 games and only 49 more in the playoffs. In that amount of time three assists is not a bad haul, but two of those were in the first two games of the year. The other came on July 14, where Gorman also scored his only goal of the season but that was against North Sound, whose ineptitude has already been commented upon. Gorman had a good season in a depth role, and to be the team’s second-leading playmaker in 634 minutes is an achievement, but one which doesn’t quite match the hopes once held for the soccer-playing pride of Yellowknife.

The rest of Victoria’s assists came in dribs and drabs up and down the lineup, reflecting the Hughes-and-Levis-centric nature of the offense. Jordie Hughes had a pair, both incidentally in consecutive games and one a real gem to Levis. USL PDL scorers can vary in how they score assists; these figures should not be taken as gospel, but while erratic between stadiums they are as a rule less generous and therefore perhaps more meaningful than in Major League Soccer. They also seem to reflect the Victoria style fairly accurately. It should be mentioned that only one assist was awarded to a Highlander in three playoff games, and it was to Blair Sturrock.

Goalkeepers
Name YoB Min GA GAA Sv%
Mitrou, Elliott 1991 1125 16 1.28 0.771
Wilson, Joel 1988 135 2 1.33 0.714

There is little to be said about the goalkeeping. Elliott Mitrou, by the numbers, looked very good, but evaluating save percentages in 1,125 minutes is a tricky business. That said, I like Mitrou. He seems to be good for a dandy reflex save every time I see him, but more than that he is both aggressive and quietly assertive. No doubt he has the advantage of playing with unusually familiar teammates by PDL standards: Mitrou is in his fourth year and has spent more time with the likes of Ravenhill, Scott, and Hughes than most USL PDL goalkeepers can boast with their defenses. Yet he is a player who, in an ideal world, would at least get a chance to impress at a higher level. At 21 years old he isn’t too old for a goalkeeper to be considered a prospect, and he’s had two fine seasons as a PDL starter after taking over from Trevor Stiles. Goalkeeping jobs are at a premium and Mitrou has a good sideline as a coach in Victoria, but it would be nice to see an ambitious NASL team bring him in for a look.

Backup Joel Wilson played two games; the season opener and the second half of the last game. In that opener against the Kitsap Pumas Wilson stopped a penalty; good for him! There’s not much to say about backup goalkeepers, especially when the backup is over three years older than the starter. The third-stringer was Rab Bruce-Lockhart, who got no minutes but a USL media guide claims he’s a 1994-born player on the books of the University of Toronto who’s already made several CIS appearances[15]. The Varsity Blues recently produced fine FC Edmonton backup John Smits, so one to keep half a lazy eye on there.

Given their veteran-heavy lineup it’s hard to pick many Highlanders to watch for in the future, in spite of their impressive season. Players like Sturrock and the Hughses have their professional chance behind them, and even O’Neill may be too old to break back into the pro ranks barring a stroke of extraordinary luck. Obviously, Brett Levis should get a look from one of Canada’s professional teams, and happily, however it turns out, his trial with the Whitecaps shows he’s not being ignored. But beyond that one no-brainer there aren’t many interesting targets to pick out.

Of the defenders, I would be most interested in Kalem Scott, who isn’t as consistent as the likes of Ravenhill or Tyler Hughes yet but is quite a bit younger (1994-born) and showed considerable promise as a solid, no-nonsense fullback, especially in 2012; on the other hand, one hopes to see more attacking élan from a serious fullback prospect at this level. And as I mentioned, Elliott Mitrou now has two good PDL seasons behind him and I’d be interested in seeing him in an NASL backup spot. It’s hard to see Mitrou landing one in Canada: Edmonton has Smits and Ottawa should certainly give priority to their own star PDL goalkeeper, Chad Bush, who is younger and just had a better season. Neither Mitrou nor Scott is an iron-clad prospect. Perhaps we should just enjoy the Highlanders in their own right rather than looking to the future… which, given how good the Highlanders just were, isn’t such a bad thing.

(notes and comments…)

Juan de Fuca Plate and More On the Line Friday

By Benjamin Massey · June 27th, 2013 · 4 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

I had hoped to make the bulk of these points in episode twelve of Two Fat Bastards this week. Unfortunately, we ran into technical problems with the recording: we did the podcast but recorded it with a different program than usual and it turned out the result was about 50% static. You couldn’t even hear most of what Brenton had to say. So the podcast is off and I’m getting my Juan de Fuca Plate thoughts out in article form.

Obviously, Friday’s match between the Victoria Highlanders and the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s (Thunderbird Stadium, 7 PM) is about as big as USL PDL regular season soccer gets. It’s the finale of the Juan de Fuca Plate, for one thing. Victoria won the opening game in Vancouver 3-2, then the Whitecaps U-23s won in Victoria by the stunning score of 5-3. The result is that Vancouver has the advantage on goal differential. If Vancouver wins or draws, the Whitecaps U-23s retain the Juan de Fuca Plate. If Victoria wins, the Highlanders take the Plate for the first time. It’s as simple as could be hoped for; once again, the Juan de Fuca Plate is coming down to the last game.

PDL Northwest Standings, June 27
Pos Team GP Pts
1 Victoria 9 22
2 Portland U-23 9 20
3 Vancouver U-23 10 16
4 Seattle U-23 9 13
5 Kitsap 10 8
6 Washington 8 7
7 North Sound 9 4
Each team plays 14 games.
First place advances to Western Conference semi-final.
Second and third place play off in a single leg; winner advances to Western Conference semi-final

It also has substantial playoff implications. Victoria is first place in the USL PDL Northwest Division with 22 points in nine matches. They’re two points up on Portland and have a tough schedule: four of their last five games on the road, not a single gimme (Washington is close), and their one home game against the Timbers U-23s. First place is important. Three teams make the playoffs but the second and third-place teams play off while the first-place team proceeds directly to the Western Conference semi-final[1]. Victoria will badly want to hold off Portland and a win against Vancouver will be essential.

Meanwhile, the Whitecaps are also in the playoff picture but only just. With 16 points through ten matches, the Whitecaps U-23s are three points up on the Seattle U-23s but Seattle has a game in hand[2]. Nobody below Seattle is a major threat. The good news is that Vancouver’s schedule is relatively easy. Three of their four games are at home and the road game is at North Sound which should be automatic points.

With an easier schedule we can probably count on Seattle taking at least nine points from their remaining five games and very possibly more; the Whitecaps need results. But if Vancouver manages some big wins it’s just possible they’ll reel in Portland. Victoria is probably too far ahead to catch unless they’re swept by the Timbers in their two games (and can probably print tickets to their second-ever PDL playoff appearance one way or another); Portland itself might be just doable. Apart from one game home to Washington Crossfire Portland’s schedule is not easy, and they still have to play in Vancouver. Most importantly, Portland and Victoria still need to play both their games this year. Those two will decide a great deal. But even if the Juan de Fuca Plate didn’t exist, both Victoria and Vancouver would desperately want the three points Friday.

As of this writing the Highlanders have two players in the top ten of USL PDL scoring. Veteran Jordie Hughes is tied for third with nine goals in 810 minutes. USL PDL rookie and University of Saskatchewan product Brett Levis is tied for eighth with seven goals in 792 minutes; Levis is also tied for eighth in assists with four. Hughes and Levis lead the Northwest Division in scoring and Levis is tied for second in assists with Vancouver’s Niall Cousens. Levis is young and, as I expressed hope and confidence in him back in May[3], I’m thrilled to see he’s having a remarkable first USL PDL season. Hopefully he gets attention from the professional ranks. FC Edmonton needs a domestic forward.

Vancouver is getting good offense (six goals and four assists) from Cousens, another first-year USL PDL player but one with professional experience in the Czech Republic. Harry Lakhan has six goals but doesn’t really fit the mould of a high-scoring midfielder and seems likely to come to earth. Beyond that there aren’t many big scorers. The likes of Bobby Jhutty should bag a few here and there (Jhutty is coming off a brace against Seattle) and ex-Highlander Sasa Plavsic is waiting to get off the schneide, but this team is missing Gagandeep Dosanjh.

So give Victoria the advantage in front-line scoring. Meanwhile, Vancouver is down on squad depth. First-team players will be concentrating on Vancouver’s game Saturday against DC United, and the Whitecaps U-23 lineup will have only MLS no-hopers. The Whitecaps U-18s are also likely to be unavailable, having played a Thursday afternoon USSDA playoff game in Texas. The defense will be hurt by the release earlier this week of Adam Clement; Clement was actually not a strong PDL player but he was still one of the regulars in the lineup at left back and occasionally centre back. There is little defensive depth without Clement: captain Derrick Bassi is good, James Farenhorst was terrific in 2012 and deserves more playing time than he gets, but nobody else stands out in a good way. (A good reflection of the first team, that.) Victoria’s defense isn’t sterling, but it is good. Elliot Mitrou is a reliable keeper and Kalem Scott is having another good year.

In the Whitecaps’ favour, they have scored seven of the twelve goals Victoria has conceded this year (nine games). They played Victoria very tough in the game at Thunderbird Stadium, and while I missed the Victoria leg I am told it was a USL PDL classic with both teams hammering each other like heavyweights. In both cases Vancouver acquitted themselves well. The U-23 players (as opposed to the MLS Reserves and the U-18s) also look good for Vancouver this year: Jhutty has improved over last year, Cousens is the real deal at this level, and there’s plenty of quality in players like Bassi, Hundal, Plavsic, and Farenhorst. The main weakness I’ve seen is that the Whitecaps are a bit too donut-like: they’re great on the outside but there’s a big hole in the middle.

One must hesitantly call the Highlanders favourites for Friday. They are playing excellent soccer and Vancouver will be understrength. But these are two of the USL PDL’s better teams clashing for a trophy and more. It looks like we can expect a barnburner.

(notes and comments…)

Juan De Fuca Plate Act Two, Scene One: British Columbia’s Supporters Soccer Championship

By Benjamin Massey · May 17th, 2013 · 3 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Tonight is the first game of the 2013 Juan de Fuca Plate. The Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-23s will take on the Victoria Highlanders on the hallowed Polytan of Thunderbird Stadium at 7 PM in USL PDL action. A decent contingent of traveling Lake Side Buoys is expected, given that it’s a Friday evening game, and of course the Southsiders and Curva Collective are both promoting the game to their members. Both Victoria and Vancouver won their first game of the season (thanks, Kitsap Pumas!) so a competitive affair looks to be on the cards.

The Juan de Fuca Plate is a supporter-owned, held, and paid-for trophy to honour the best British Columbia semi-professional soccer team (currently defined as USL PDL). It was created last year by an alliance of Victoria Lake Side Buoys, Vancouver Southsiders, and Curva Collective, driven by Vancouver Island-based Victoria/Vancouver supporter Drew Shaw and named by prominent Lake Side Buoy Ted Godwin. 21 donors collectively raised almost $900 in a matter of weeks[1], paying for the trophy, a wooden base, a banner, and a new supporters championship in the spirit of the Cascadia Cup. There was no corporate sponsorship, no team or league support. It was all by the supporters and for the supporters, just like it should be.

Last year’s Plate was fought between Victoria, Vancouver, and the Fraser Valley Mariners; this year the Mariners are out of PDL so Victoria and Vancouver will duel over three matches. It is the hope of every fan that a third British Columbia USL PDL team arrives soon so the Plate may expand its reach. Indeed, one goal of the Plate is to raise awareness of USL PDL soccer in British Columbia and to draw support in what is a surprisingly excellent level of soccer. You hardly see a supporter who goes to a PDL game and doesn’t enjoy it. The play is fun, tickets are cheap or free, and the banter in the stands brings back memories of Swangard and the USL First Division.

The Highlanders beat Kitsap 3-0 in the very first game of the 2013 USL PDL season. Two of the goals were scored by familiar Victoria soccer faces, with pocket-sized University of Victoria Vikes standout Tommy Mallette scoring the first and Highlanders legend Jordie Hughes the last; Vikes alumnus Joel Wilson stopped a penalty kick. The other scorer was Brett Levis, a standout 20-year-old forward out of the University of Saskatchewan who may be far from the Highlanders’ usual recruitment territory in British Columbia but is off to a good start.

Levis is the sort of player who PDL ideally gives chances to: a fine CIS player, second-leading scorer in Canada West last year behind Gagandeep Dosanjh and first in shots[2] on a competitive Huskies team. Levis was 2008 Saskatchewan Youth Player of the Year[3] but has otherwise never gotten major attention and never played for a Canadian youth national team. A solid PDL campaign represents Levis’s best chance to get attention from the professional ranks, as indeed Dosanjh did when he got a trial at FC Edmonton[4] after an excellent 2012 PDL season captaining the Whitecaps. Other notable CIS recruits from outside BC include the University of Alberta’s Jermele Campbell and St. Francis Xavier’s Ryan Ashlee (though he is Victoria-born). They are, of course, loaded with Vikes and the occasional UBC name as well; that’s without mentioning returning Canadian professional Riley O’Neill or random Scottish veteran and Football League journeyman Blair Sturrock[5]. The Highlanders do it right.

No complaints about the Whitecaps U-23 team either. Some fans and parents have been unhappy that, over the past two seasons, the Whitecaps have prioritized bringing in CIS players rather than just letting the Residency boys play PDL. Certainly, the mostly-U-18 Residency teams of old were great fun and often surprisingly competitive. But in 2012 and now 2013, a collegiate-heavy team has allowed both the Whitecaps and other professional teams to get a look at some forgotten talents. Derrick Bassi, captain of the 2011 Whitecaps Residency PDL team and a trialist at Toronto FC earlier this year[6] is the highest-profile returnee. Dosanjh is back as well, although a potentially nasty leg injury last week against Kitsap might rule him out. Other big names back from 2012 are centre back James Farenhorst (in the running for team MVP last year), excellent University of Victoria winger Cam Hundal, and fullback/midfielder Bobby Jhutty. Residency players Sean Melvin, Sam Adekugbe, Spencer DeBoice, Yassin Essa, and Carlos Marquez will probably be the biggest U-18 names on the team sheet, while others will doubtless slot in from time to time. And of course the Whitecaps can play up to three of their MLS players in any given game.

There are many new additions, the two highest-profile ones both being big forwards. Niall Cousens will be starting at the University of British Columbia this year after a European professional career that included time with the Slavia Praha academy and a number of appearances on the Canadian U-20 national team. The University of Fraser Valley’s Sasa Plavsic will be familiar to Highlanders fans as he played for them last year, managing to be the team’s second-leading scorer with four goals in only 670 minutes. Both Plavsic and Cousens looked dangerous against Kitsap, although it was the old Vancouver hands that did the damage: Hundal and DeBoice scored excellent goals in quick succession, with DeBoice in particular managing a superb left-footed shot from range. Kitsap’s one goal never should have counted as the ball was dribbled out over the end-line before being crossed, but the linesman missed it. That said, the run of play was disconcertingly close, and based only on two games against the Pumas the Highlanders look like a stronger team early.

Good news for Victoria, looking to win the second Juan de Fuca Plate. The Whitecaps won the first in maybe the most exciting PDL game I’d ever attended: after the Highlanders shocked the Whitecaps U-23s at Richmond’s Minoru Park, the Whitecaps went to their spiritual home of Swangard Stadium needing only a win over the Fraser Valley Mariners to take the inaugural Plate. The Mariners had only one point and three goals in PDL play all season; the Whitecaps seemed dead certain to win. Except, incredibly, Fraser Valley gave the Whitecaps a tremendous game, even taking the lead in the second half through Justin Isidro (their first lead in two months). The Whitecaps finally struck with quick goals from Hundal and Dosanjh after eighty minutes, securing themselves the Plate on goal differential in unexpectedly classic fashion[7].

After a first season like that, no wonder teams, leagues, and media are taking an interest in the nascent Plate. The top story on the USL PDL website talks of the “opening game in battle for Juan de Fuca Plate”[8]; the article is a Whitecaps press release which talks of the Plate at what, for a press release, counts as length[9]. Typically, the Victoria Highlanders front page has nothing on the upcoming game, but their Twitter account has been promoting the Plate clash with excitement[10] and they had an article on the Plate last week[11]. Even the Victoria Times-Colonist has started mentioning the Juan de Fuca Plate[12].

If you at all can get to Thunderbird Stadium at 7 PM tonight for the game, do so. Admission is free, the soccer is quality, and you might be surprised how many of these college kids you wind up hearing from down the line in the professional ranks. Above all, every fan helps grow sub-MLS soccer in British Columbia. The Whitecaps first team draws 19,000 fans a night and nobody else regularly breaks 2,000. It’s staggering in a province as soccer-mad as ours. The Juan de Fuca Plate is one small thing trying to change that.

(notes and comments…)

UVic, Whitecaps Back at Centennial Stadium

By Benjamin Massey · March 17th, 2013 · 7 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever

Apparently most of the Whitecaps beat writers gave the team’s friendly against the University of Victoria on Saturday afternoon a miss. With the Seattle – Portland match, the Canucks at home in their novelty jerseys, the Residency in Bellingham… there were plenty of distractions which dragged most of the Whitecaps press gallery away from what was supposed to be a miserable rainy weekend in Victoria. But I was there, baking under the surprising sun with my camera. The game was streamed for free online so anybody who wanted to watch could have, but there’s no replacement for being there in certain respects. So I find myself Johnny-on-the-spot, recording my impressions just so somebody has.

I like these friendlies against university teams teams. As UBC vividly demonstrated on Thursday, good CIS teams can be competitive with professionals if the pros get complacent. Obviously man-for-man most of the Whitecaps are better than the college players, but the college players still have talent and don’t lack for determination; a solid lesson for reserve players who may have all the tools but aren’t quite putting them together yet.

And, of course, a trip to Vancouver Island for the Whitecaps is a great tradition; only eight years old but that feels ancient by Whitecaps standards. The Whitecaps began playing UVic in preseason friendlies in 2005; the earliest full match report I can find is from 2006, where Sita-Taty Matondo was the hero in a 4-0 win[1]. In 2007 UVic actually won, 1-0 (no boxscore there, damn the luck), and in 2008 they managed a 0-0 draw with the eventual USL First Division champions[2]. The Whitecaps have a 6-1-1 record in these contests, but even though the games aren’t always tight they’re also a great chance for Victoria and Vancouver fans to get together, have a few pops, and shoot the shit.

There are a bevy of connections between the University of Victoria and the Vancouver Whitecaps. UVic has produced a fistful of Whitecaps players, the best probably being Geordie Lyall. They’re coached by a former Whitecap, the eternal Bruce Wilson[3]. Whitecaps chief operating officer Rachel Lewis got her BA in Sociology from UVic in 1996[4]. Whitecaps co-owner Jeff Mallett played for the Vikes during his year at the University of Victoria, and more tangentially Steve Nash’s sister Joann captained the women’s team.

In 2011, their first year in MLS, the Whitecaps skipped this friendly in favour of an admittedly-fun “Cascadia Summit” at Starfire in Tukwila, Washington with the Sounders and Timbers. Happily, in 2012 the Whitecaps returned to Centennial Stadium, and in 2013 it looks like all is still right with the world. With a busy pre-season and every excuse to skip this game again, Vancouver instead sent a strong reserve squad over during an MLS off weekend.

Vancouver won 3-0, in case you didn’t hear. The Whitecaps have been kind enough to post the match highlights[5], which mostly shows the goals; of these I think you’ll agree Erik Hurtado’s was the best of the bunch. It was the only serious impact Hurtado made on the game but it was an awfully good one. On the other hand, second-half substitute Kekuta Manneh was just flying, dribbling past defenders, cranking shots from everywhere, and failed to get one of those shots on target, never mind in the back of the net.

Of the regulars and semi-regulars, Jordan Harvey struggled a little at left back and was vexed at times by little Tommy Mallette, a second-year forward and bit player with the 2012 Highlanders generously listed at 5’3″, but whose shiftiness gave a not-entirely-committed Harvey surprising trouble in the first half. Camilo took his goal well, showed tremendous vision to send through Hurtado, had a couple other half-chances, and was giving a reasonably solid effort while apparently having some fun out there. Brad Knighton did everything he had to, which wasn’t much. Matt Watson was the weakest of the bunch offensively, with some lousy touches and consistently overhitting his long passes by about 20%, but his slide tackles were hilarious to watch as he’d rev up for one with three strides to go and just lunge in. He got the ball, more-or-less, and thus avoided trouble; it was pretty hilariously aggressive stuff, though.

For the second year running Greg Klazura impressed. He was up against Cam Hundal, to whom Whitecaps U-23 fans will need no introduction: a shifty, dangerous attacking winger and once again the University of Victoria’s most effective offensive weapon. Hundal got the better of Klazura a few times but Klazura generally held well, was active in the attack, set up Camilo’s goal excellently, and generally looked both determined and able. He made one mistake overcommitting which, sadly for him, shows up in the highlight video; other than that he had a dandy game.

The most active Whitecap was Russell Teibert; no, really. Playing in a central attacking midfield role Teibert basically ranged everywhere like he was back in the Residency. His turnovers were a little much; he received the same response from those who saw him against UBC, and if he plays this active central role in MLS he will need to increase his discipline holding the ball. That’s my only criticism: Teibert generated some chances and really helped out on defense; in particular he picked Hundal’s pocket a few times and actually muscled Mallette off the ball on a couple occasions. It must have been a real novelty for Teibert, going up against Mallette and having a serious size advantage. Teibert also got the armband when Camilo came off; a nice touch. He wasn’t my man of the match or anything (that was Klazura, probably) but he went the full 90 minutes, was dangerous all over the field, got an assist when Tom Heinemann banged in a rebound from one of his shots, and generally played well.

The return of Omar Salgado got people talking, as did the early departure of Omar Salgado. Just before the fortieth minute Salgado went off for treatment; after he’d been looked at for a few moments he was replaced by Tom Heinemann. The good news is that Salgado walked away, barefoot, under his own power. He was wearing a bandage taped over his left calf (rather than his foot) and showed no sign of a limp; reportedly, he told a Whitecaps fan on the ferry that he was fine. It may have just been the Whitecaps sensibly playing it safe, but at the time it looked like Salgado had sustained some sort of knock.

A few players for the Victoria Highlanders showed decently, although none I thought were exceptional. Dave Craig Gorman was largely invisible but had what should have been the Vikes’ best chance of the first half which he was unfortunate to hit low and right into Brad Knighton. Mallette has been discussed; the Whitecaps just didn’t seem quite sure how to handle him. In goal, Elliott Mitrou will have to wear the third Whitecaps goal, as he really should have held Teibert’s shot; other than that he was fine.

As for the new guys, Johnny Leveron wasn’t given much to do but was fine when he did it. Paulo Jr. wasn’t impressive but didn’t seem to have his legs or the measure of his teammates so gets off with an “incomplete” grade. I was not really impressed by Adam Clement in the first half; wow, he was big, but that’s all. Likewise, Ralph Sampson won some good headers but his footwork and positioning were off. Dever Orgill got on, but by the time he appeared the game had gotten sort of silly. The Whitecaps bench was heavy on attacking players and Martin Rennie just sort of started throwing them on in a patchwork formation for the sake of giving them an appearance: Orgill was playing fullback or something, Corey Hertzog, Heinemann, Caleb Clarke, and Kekuta Manneh all rotated in some sort of ersatz four-man attacking front, it got weird. To my knowledge the only unused Whitecaps sub was Residency goalkeeper Nolan Wirth. (Joe Cannon went along with the Whitecaps on the trip; he doesn’t count.)

I didn’t really get a bearing on Aminu Abdallah, despite his playing 90 minutes as a defensive midfielder. In that role not being noticed isn’t always a bad thing, but he also wasn’t making key passes or winning challenges. I daren’t try to pass any judgment on him. He could have been anything out there. At the same time he was working hard and put in a full effort, I certainly didn’t see him beaten, and a lack of cohesion with the rest of this patchwork squad could simply be him still trying to adjust. He’s in an odd position, that one, and one friendly is far too few to develop any sort of opinion.

The Whitecaps were good value for the win, for what it’s worth, which is nothing. Perhaps it will calm down some of those who were freaked out by the 3-0 loss to UBC. Friendly matches don’t mean a thing, everyone knows that, but still people sometimes underrate the quality of CIS programs then panic when their professionals get beat by amateurs. There’s a reason FC Edmonton had a great NASL expansion team when they were relying on CIS graduates: Canadian university players get almost no attention from the professional ranks but a lot of those kids can actually play. Sometimes we all need a little reminder of that.

Even on Saturday, a lower-ranked Vikes team gave the Whitecaps a few scares, at least threatened to test Brad Knighton or Simon Thomas, and looked like they belong on the same pitch in spite of the score. A 2-0 loss would have been fair; 3-0 was a bit harsh due to Mitrou’s mishandling. It was a good game, both for the fans and the players. Here’s hoping they do it again in 2014.

(notes and comments…)

Things I Hope I Don’t Forget About From 2012

By Benjamin Massey · December 31st, 2012 · 1 comment

It is almost obligatory, when you have a soccer blog, to do some sort of year-in-review roundup thing.

You think I’m kidding when I say “almost obligatory”, but I went down my blogroll of soccer sites. Waking the Red started an entire year-in-review series on Christmas Eve[1]. At my former haunt on Eighty Six Forever, Jon Szekeres counted down the Whitecaps ten best moments of the season starting back in November[2]. Some Canadian Guys Writing About Soccer has been doing year-end interviews with members of the Canadian women’s national team[3] Jono at Out of Touch has his predictions for the men’s team in 2013[4], and the Score’s Counter Attack has multiple posts, of which I select Richard Whittall’s “Five Games that Changed the Footballing Narrative” as typical[5] because it at least mentions Canada and I had to slog through four pages of Eee Pee Ell obsession to find it. Steve Sandor at the11.ca has his top 11 stories of 2012, which I fancy worked even more symmetrically last year but anyhow[6].

So that’s six out of twelve sites in my blogroll, sites selected for readability rather than because they’re big mainstream media guys with asshole editors and a need to churn out content. Of the other six, three haven’t updated for at least a month, leaving AFTN Canada, Monday Morning Centreback, and Mount Royal Soccer as honourable exceptions (and even AFTN comes with an asterisk, as Michael McColl contributed to Canadian Soccer News‘s Canadian-club-goal-of-the-year thing)[7]. That’s a pretty high hit rate for such an obvious conceit from what are, almost entirely, amateur or semi-professional writers.

Not that I’m trying to get all holier-than-thou! Jesus Christ, no! Nothing wrong with that sort of article. I’ve written a few in my time; in fact, I’m going to write one now. Not trying to list my best moments, because they’re probably what you think they’d be, or the nicest goals because they’re probably the ones you remember, or my favourite Canadian players on the Whitecaps who got over 500 MLS minutes, because I want to actually say something.

In no particular order, here are the Certainly First and Probably Last Maple Leaf Forever! Things I Hope I Don’t Forget About From 2012.

Melissa Tancredi goes on the warpath against Sweden

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

July 21, 2012. Canada’s women’s national team is playing in the Summer Olympics; you may have heard about that. What you may have forgotten is that the team got off to a shaky start. A 2-1 loss to defending World Cup champions (and, in my opinion, the best all-round team in the tournament) Japan was no embarrassment, but Canada was well outplayed: outshot-on-goal 5 to 3 and outshot-directed 11 to 5, with a second-half goal by Melissa Tancredi salvaging some pride[8]. Then, against South Africa, maybe the worst all-round team in the tournament, Canada won 3-0 with a startling lack of killer instinct: hell, South Africa had a few chances to chisel the score down in the middle hour[9]! Canada looked respectable, which is a damned sight more than we could have said in the World Cup, but they didn’t look like medalists.

The final group stage match against Sweden looked like it might be critical one to decide whether Canada would go through to the quarterfinal. As it transpired the game didn’t particularly matter. If Sweden had won 2-0, Canada would have finished in the same position: ahead of New Zealand (tied on points and goal differential but ahead on goals for). If Canada had won, they would have either won the group or finished second depending on whether Japan got their heads out of their asses… and wound up with a much tougher knock-out stage draw than they wound up actually getting. If Canada had lost 3-0, well, then things would have been different, but that was hardly on the cards[10].

But going down 2-0 fairly early to Sweden was still a crushing disappointment. Japan is above Canada’s level and losing to them is no shame, South Africa so far below that losing to them is no threat, but Sweden is the sort of team that Canada ought to get results against, but which is good enough that we might not. Just getting thumped 2-0 straight out of the blocks was a blow, in the same way as a boxer in the ring with a rookie professional spends most of the ten seconds lying on his back wondering if he should go into real estate.

Melissa Tancredi turned the game on its head. The Tank was basically the Christine Sinclair of the round robin; I mean, not that Sincy didn’t deserve her assist for the lovely cross late in the first half which Tancredi headed home, but Tancredi, the journeyman forward best known for not being Sinclair, was finishing like Gerd Müller in three games when Canada’s offense struggled to find rhythm. Tancredi’s second, equalizing goal in the 84th minute was also a header from a Sinclair cross, this one of the diving variety, because why not? Even when she wasn’t scoring, Tancredi was involved in one of the best games of possession soccer Canada had played against a quality opponent in years. So much for the cynicism of the Even Pellerud days: Canada dragged themselves off the mat and tied the game up by just being technically superior to a pretty good team.

The 2-2 draw was only an afterthought in the standings. If Tancredi’s outburst changed anything, it was in psychological momentum-and-confidence voodoo no reporter can comment on knowledgeably. But it gave me hope anyway, seeing Canada finally counter-punch against a team really worth their salt. More than that, it was just a great performance on a big stage against a serious adversary with, for all the players knew at the time, the pressure on. It promised more than we knew: this was a Canadian team that wasn’t talented enough to necessarily meet our hopes, but by God, for once, at least they had the heart to fight until the end. What that heart wound up doing for our country, well, that will live longer than any of us.

That Seattle Sounders fan who sang “line ’em up against a wall and shoot ’em” to a bunch of Whitecaps 15-year-olds at a USSDA game in November his team was winning by, like, 4

He smoked about a carton of unfiltered Lucky Strikes a day from the sounds of him. I have no real comment here; it’s just nice to remember that compared to some people, even I look like I have a sense of decorum.

The first ever Juan de Fuca Plate

The Juan de Fuca Plate, a round silver plate on a wooden base shaped like the province of British Columbia.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

I, like many soccer fans, am a jealous individual. So when I heard about the Ruffneck Cup, a trophy sponsored by the Seattle-based soccer scarves company of the same name for the best USL PDL team in Washington State[11], my reaction was shared by many British Columbia supporters: an envious, enraged, and determined shout of “FUCK YOOUUUUUU!” We are not in the habit of being outdone by anybody.

Luckily, there were those who could do more than shout obscenities. A fellow by the name of Drew Shaw, a supporter of the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Victoria Highlanders, suggested that anything they could do we could do better, and a competition for the best USL PDL team in British Columbia was born. Ted Godwin, another prominent Lake Side Buoy, suggested the name: the “Juan de Fuca Plate”[12], an excruciating geological pun which I and every else loved the moment we saw it.

Rather than dig up a corporate sponsor, running with the bevy of “title sponsors” and “community partners” so tiresomely familiar in Washington, hundreds of dollars in donations were collected from ordinary fans on the Island and the Lower Mainland, making this a supporters’ trophy in more than name[13]. The Whitecaps and the Highlanders were enthusiastic almost immediately, lending the Plate a veneer of official approval. A crappy website was hastily thrown together as if to make up for the excellent trophy, with a wooden base and team ribbons by Shaw holding a handsome silver plate commissioned in the biggest size the regional trophy shops could get us.

The competition was between the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s and the Victoria Highlanders from the start, as the Fraser Valley Mariners were facing an awful season with a team assembled on short notice from available locals. Vancouver took an early advantage, but a run of mediocre form as the team’s best prospects were called away to national team camps allowed the Highlanders to close the gap. The Whitecaps held on to a respectable loss on July 8 in Richmond, going down 2-1 when a 4-1 score would have given Victoria the advantage[14]. All Vancouver needed to do was beat the winless, one-point-and-three-goals-all-season Mariners at Swangard Stadium three days later and the Plate would be theirs.

Then, just for the hell of it, the winless Mariners damn near played spoiler, treating hundreds of fans at Swangard to one of the amateur games of the summer, taking the most improbable of all 1-0 leads and holding it… and holding it… until finally Victoria product Cam Hundal and Whitecaps U-23 captain Gagandeep Dosanjh broke through with two quick goals in the last ten minutes and the Whitecaps got to celebrate in front of their home fans after a match that was better, more tense, and with a result that was more exhilarating than anyone would have dared predict[15].

The first Ruffneck Cup had been decided with four matches to go[16]. The first Juan de Fuca Plate went down to the last minute of the last, spectacular, game. Like I said, anything they can do, we can do better.

La Première ligue de Soccer du Québec getting off the ground

One oft-heard demand in this country is for a “national third division”. I’m not convinced that as necessary as people sometimes think it is, so long as everywhere in this country there is some form of semi-professional or very-very-high-amateur soccer where young players and those between professional jobs can stay in shape.

This past summer, the Première ligue de Soccer du Québec got underway with five teams, bringing semi-professional soccer to one of Canada’s most important soccer provinces and one relatively untouched by quality lower divisions. I don’t pretend to follow the league, know much about its sides or its players, but what I know is that it has played one more season than many a Canadian’s dream national division. Saint-Léonard FC won the first championship[17], with Cédric Carrié of FC Brossard taking the Ballon d’Or[18]. At least one alumnus of the league, Cristian Nunez of AS Blainville, has already gotten another professional sniff as he attended FC Edmonton’s free agent combine earlier this month[19]. It’s too early to know if the PLSQ will be back for 2013, but it’s nice to see them taking a shot.

The Canadian Olympic qualifying matches in Vancouver

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

When the Canadian women tried to qualify for the Olympics in January at BC Place, the results were not brilliant. They weren’t bad, Canada did what was required, but no doubters were turned into believers. If anything, the nature of Canada’s qualification raised more questions: a semi-shaky performance against Mexico then an unrelenting hammering at the hands of the United States in the final which provided absolutely no hint of the two competitive games Canada would have against the Americans later that year.

But these were the first international games in Canada, any gender, any age group, west of Toronto since October 15, 2008. There had been two women’s games and five men’s games at BMO Field, one men’s game at Montreal’s Stade Saputo, and that was it. 90% of the country had been completely denied for over three years. There was, and is, bitterness over this policy, and the question was whether said bitterness would translate to decreased support for a women’s team whose most recently public appearance was blowing the 2011 World Cup and losing their coach in bizarre, unflattering circumstances.

In fact, the Canadian women averaged an attendance of 15,306 for their five games at BC Place that January. Games which, with one exception, were against countries of no international standing, three of which were the most hapless minnows imaginable where anything other than a multi-goal win would have been a staggering upset.

15,306! There could be no doubt about Vancouver’s willingness to support Canada now. BC Place brought as raucous and pro-Canadian a crowd as any in the country. Unjustified doubts were erased by a crowd almost entirely clad in red, cheering on their women against the lowliest of opposition. And what fun it was! The Voyageurs section was bouncing, reformed in Vancouver after a multi-year absence, trying their hands gallantly at singing “Heart of Gold” every. single. match and putting new words to old favourites (we all dream of a team of Kaylyn Kyles…). The pre-game pub meetings were raucous, the marches to the match an unstoppable tidal wave. The casual fans waved maple leaves and shouted “O Canada” and went bananas for every one of Christine Sinclair’s eight goals. It was everything we always want Canadian national team support to be.

During the most recent men’s World Cup qualifying cycle, in six matches (of which three were, again, against hapless minnows, two were against first-rate opposition, and one was against whatever Cuba was), BMO Field averaged a gate of 14,224. And this was before Sinclair and company were Canada’s bronze-medal winning darlings; in true Yaletown hipster fashion Vancouver could get an average of 15,306 for the women’s team before it was cool.

That’s not to slight Toronto. Which of us wouldn’t have fallen over in gratitude for 14,224 pro-Canadian fans per game before 2007? Given the mediocre opponents in the first three games and our own men’s national team, 14,224 was better than respectable and Toronto fans have been given deserved plaudits for their support. But of the many bad arguments we hear saying that the Canadian national teams should be kept from 90% of the country, the one saying only Toronto can possibly support them has, at least, been blown out of the water.

(notes and comments…)

The Death of the W-League in the Canadian West

By Benjamin Massey · December 21st, 2012 · 3 comments

So, farewell then, the Peninsula Co-op Women’s Soccer USL W-League team! The Victoria Highlanders announced yesterday that they will not be returning a women’s team to the W-League for the 2013 season, returning to the Pacific Coast Soccer League where their program began[1].

No doubt the Highlanders were hurt when their main regional rival, the Vancouver Whitecaps, pulled out their W-League program earlier this month[2]. Well, I call them the Highlanders, but the name confusion might have been part of the problem. Many hard-core Victoria supporters were also turned off when the team took the sponsorship of regional retail chain Peninsula Co-op as “presenting sponsor”, meaning the team wore red, changed their name to Peninsula Co-op Women’s Soccer, and only had a small Highlanders patch on their chest to remind everyone[3]. The Highlanders are best known outside British Columbia for their scheme of extending part-ownership to season ticket holders[4]; a plan that has so far been more words than action but which also drew the sort of fan who identifies too strongly with their team to cheer on a gas station.

Victoria has a better excuse for pulling out of the W-League than most. It’s obvious the Highlanders underestimated the quality of the W-League and, very probably, the resources required to maintain a W-League team. Travel in the W-League can be greater than that in USL PDL where the Highlanders men play, with road trips to California and Colorado, attendance is lower, and there’s not much savings on players. The Highlanders joined the W-League in 2011 after a successful 2010 PCSL season that saw them finish second behind the Whitecaps Prospects[5], but in the 2011 W-League were tied for second-last with only six points[6]. They did not improve in 2012 as they finished with only four points, all off the Vancouver Whitecaps, and went eight matches without a goal from May 20 to June 10[7].

The Highlanders women managed an attendance of 730 in their 2012 home opener, a double-header with the men against the Whitecaps, but their average attendance all season was only 332 (an improvement over 267 fans per game in 2011, but they also moved from a stadium in suburban Langford to one almost in downtown Victoria). Their team was last with a bullet in the division, again, and among the bottom-feeders in the whole league, again. They had road trips to Colorado and Los Angeles to pay for, as well as a women’s youth program and the Mid-Isle Highlanders in the PCSL Women’s Reserve Division. This isn’t Vancouver, where a long-time champion of women’s soccer and a soccer colossus boasting high attendance and sponsorship killed a still-viable women’s team. The Highlanders run in leagues with low margins and, in the case of their women’s program, hardly a trace of success either on or off the field. It’s hard to blame Alex Campbell and company for deciding to cut their losses.

But this leaves Canada without a single serious women’s soccer club west of London, Ontario. The best league remaining is probably the PCSL, but as the Highlanders so vividly demonstrated it is nothing like W-League quality. A few schools run women’s programs of varying seriousness, and the Universities of Victoria, Alberta, British Columbia, and the Fraser Valley have been at least semi-contenders for CIS honours in the past few years. But even the quality of a decent CIS women’s team isn’t up to W-League standards (again, ask the Highlanders, who relied heavily on CIS and particularly University of Victoria talent).

Just a few months ago, I was at Vancouver International Airport to welcome home Canada’s summer Olympians. It was a weekday afternoon; I (and everyone else in the city) had to work but took a long lunch. A parade of athletes came streaming out of the international arrivals lounge to cheers and applause from an airport hall packed with hundreds, if not thousands, of Vancouverites in the middle of their work day. But when Christine Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt, Karina LeBlanc, and Emily Zurrer came out, the roof came off. A contingent from the Voyageurs gave the four flowers and scarves; there were no spare Voyageurs scarves in the province so volunteers gave up their own personal ones in exchange for vague promises of future replacements. Zurrer had a connecting flight but the other three spent ages among a legion of adoring fans with their eyes agog and their bronze medals around their necks, signing autographs, doing interviews, and looking faintly shell-shocked the whole time. It was staggering. I had genuinely expected that it would be me and a dozen other freaks. Instead there was barely breathing room. If the Highlanders could have gotten as many people who came out just to see four bronze medalists at the airport when they should have been at work or at school into Royal Athletic Park, this article never would have been written.

Canadian women’s soccer is at the highest ebb in its history, and in the past month we’ve lost two of its best women’s teams. The Whitecaps, of course, can take partial credit for developing a third of our national team. With only two seasons in the W-League the Highlanders weren’t there yet, but given time who knows? Cortes Island’s Liz Hansen, for example, managed eight goals and a basketful of shots over two W-League seasons; she’s just the sort of early-20s player that had previously slipped through the cracks who Canada should be concerned about developing, and now she’ll be lucky to play anywhere higher than the PCSL.

It’s staggering. We hear so much about the new American professional league, and how it’s such a great thing for Canada that up to sixteen of our players will find homes in the United States. Well, in the past three weeks Canada has lost spots for 40 to 50 players just in Victoria and Vancouver; not quite at the highest level but at one high enough to produce national team players. And you won’t see the Globe and Mail writing about that. It’s hard to believe, but new pro league and all we’re actually falling behind.

(notes and comments…)