Alphonso Davies, Little Fish, Big Ponds

By Benjamin Massey · October 30th, 2018 · No comments

Tony Lewis for Maple Leaf Forever!

Give the Whitecaps credit: their farewell to young star Alphonso Davies last Sunday left no page in the storybook unturned.

In his last match before moving to Bayern Münich Davies scored twice in a win over old rivals Portland before leaving in the 86th minute to a standing ovation. His parents named “Parents of the Match,” a tribute to that beer-sponsored Man of the Match award he’s not allowed to win but should have. Even the Whitecaps’ coach for the day, Craig Dalrymple, was perfect: an unsung hero in the Whitecaps’ youth organization going back to the pre-MLS days, probably the longest-serving man in Vancouver’s soccer operations not on the Football Death Panel and a much-respected man to whom many talented young players, Davies included, owe a great deal.

What else could you ask? For the game to have been relevant, maybe. But then Dalrymple would have been dropping cones for the U-18s rather than pacing an MLS touchline, and the Whitecaps would have sent Davies off far from the fans amid endless recrimination. Whitecaps veterans who should know better, like Russell Teibert and Stefan Marinovic, have already been in the press murmuring about poor team spirit, and aging scrub Efrain Juarez has been delighted to escalate it. Davies’s last day could so easily have tasted like sour grapes rather than ambrosia. All in all, Davies got a blessed ending.

Now he belongs to the ages. Or to Bayern, which is much the same thing, facing that big step up to the pantheon. Ask Kei Kamara, a very fine MLS player who washed out at Norwich and Middlesbrough, or Brek Shea, another pacey winger with size who was a young star in MLS until he went to England and became, um, Brek Shea. Except that neither was a league-record transfer for one of the top clubs in the world. What’s the MLS record for most pressure on a guy?

It comes with advantages. (An inability to choose either good or bad will be a theme of this post.) Learning cultured wing play from Franck Ribéry is good. Given the scale of their investment it’s safe to say Bayern will nurture Davies in the way Shea, say, wasn’t. Opportunities will abound: as Bayern boss Niko Kovač said, “when you spend that much money on a player, you don’t just put him in the second team.” Michael Petrasso could lose important years in the QPR U-23s because the club didn’t have much invested in him; Alphonso Davies, less so.

The kid obviously has every physical gift you could desire and to my knowledge Davies’s work ethic has never been questioned. He isn’t afraid to do the little things to win, whether it’s diving (all the time) or trying to kick Damion Lowe in the head. But his defining skill is his pace, and MLS is a pacey league, and the Bundesliga is not necessarily.

Davies finished the 2018 MLS season with eight goals on fifteen shots on target and 37 shots directed. More than half of his shots on frame, and 21.6% of the shots he attempted, went in. Good for him, but not sustainable even in MLS. Brek Shea could shoot like that in this league, once.

Current Vancouver Whitecaps in Breakout Season Before Europe
Name Year GP Min G G/90 SoG SD Sh% SoG% A A/90
Davies, Alphonso 2018 31 2420 8 0.298 15 37 0.533 0.405 11 0.409
Kamara, Kei 2012 32 2871 11 0.345 49 134 0.224 0.366 8 0.251
Shea, Brek 2011 30 2647 11 0.374 23 74 0.478 0.311 4 0.136
Season given for each player is his big year just before he went to Europe; for Davies it is the MLS season before his full-time departure, for Kamara and Shea the year before. Shea was injured in the 2012 MLS season and Kamara was in and out on loan in 2013.

While a player’s ability has everything to do with how many chances he can create, the proportion of those chances hit the back of the net is usually luck1. In his big season, Brek Shea generated more shots than Davies did in his. Shea was 23, a mark against him, but the enormous regression to the mean he’s suffered was more than just running out of time to develop. Davies would be sure to regress as well: 53.3% goals from shots on target is just not sustainable. If anybody expects him to score at about the same rate in a better league he will be badly disappointed. Even Kei Kamara, whose breakout seasons in hindsight have very little of the smoke and mirrors, could not keep it up in England. Then he turned right back into a very good striker in MLS. MLS to Europe is a long way.

Spreadsheets have good news for Davies too. He had 11 assists this past year, tied for fourteenth in the league, and among “physical wide players” the class is him, Romell Quioto, and human regression magnet Julian Gressel. A big guy who can move the ball like Davies can is… there’s no point trying to estimate his worth, the league doesn’t produce them. You can compare Davies’s finishing to Shea’s but Davies provides so many other contributions, with his assists totals never impressing. Davies didn’t even get statistical padding from a hot teammate cashing in his feeds: Kamara, Yordi Reyna, and Cristian Techera did no better than you’d expect, and between them and Davies that’s pretty much the 2018 Whitecaps offense.

MLS flatters offensive talent. The best striker in league history is Bradley Wright-Phillips, a one-dimensional star who runs well and kicks hard and was exceptional in the English League One but on his best day couldn’t star higher up the pyramid. Davies has never had a season in MLS half as productive as Wright-Phillips’s worst full campaign. Wright-Phillips was a known quantity when he joined MLS and nobody yet knows how good Davies will be. Wright-Phillips is an out-and-out striker; Davies is a winger who played wingback when a sweater cut off circulation to Carl Robinson’s brain. Davies is taller, stronger, more useful in his own third. But the comparison holds value: ain’t nobody spending a king’s ransom on Alphonso Davies for his man-marking. He and Wright-Phillips are both attacking stars whose powers are based on speed and who look very good indeed against second-rate CONCACAF defenders.

We know Canadian-trained players can succeed at Bayern Münich: they once plucked a Calgary lad by the name of Owen Hargreaves2 who enjoyed great success. His transfer to Manchester United fetched Bayern what was then the club record fee, since bettered by Toni Kroos and Douglas Costa, and while injury took out his career soon enough he was a cult favourite everywhere and genuinely excellent when healthy3.

But for all the things we would call Owen Hargreaves, “pacey” is not one. He was successful at Bayern because he played soccer well, and he survived a lot more Canadian coaching that Davies did. A good sign for Davies, who spent his formative years in Ghana and landed in Edmonton needing at most a bit of finishing before he was professional-ready. The argument that Canadian coaching inherently ruins players is overblown, but even if you believe it it hasn’t got much to do with Davies.

My inclination towards Davies is cautiously optimistic. You really can’t teach height or speed, but more importantly you can’t teach work rate, and Davies has all three. If you compare Davies to the like of Juarez, who has proven he can get it done at a world-class level but really doesn’t give a damn anymore, you see how much that’s worth. Davies has tools and desire. We can’t see that he has everything else he needs but that’s two hurdles cleared.

Still, let’s not kid ourselves. Alphonso Davies is a talented young man who in the past year probably looked better than he really is. That doesn’t mean he won’t make it, but don’t be afraid to be cautious.

Blowouts and Blowouts

By Benjamin Massey · October 16th, 2018 · No comments

Mexsport/Canada Soccer

We Canadian soccer fans have had a good six weeks. Unusually, both the men’s and women’s senior national teams are playing competitive tournaments, with the gentlemen playing qualifying for the first ever CONCACAF Nations League, and the women playing the confederal championship that doubles as World Cup qualifying. Even more unusually, both teams are living up to all our hopes against, admittedly, shabby opposition.

Neither tournament is an end of itself. The women have three goals: first, qualify for the 2019 Women’s World Cup (already done in style), their second to beat the United States, God willing, and their third to lift CONCACAF’s huge, silly trophy for the third time. The MNT is in a double qualifier: they must finish top ten in this 34-team tournament to make the 2019 Gold Cup1, and a top six finish puts them in the top group of the Nations League proper starting next September with all the teams you care about.

Since the men’s tournament is the 34 teams in CONCACAF that didn’t make the hex, among whom Canada actually looks pretty powerful, and the CONCACAF women’s tournament is, well, a CONCACAF women’s tournament, you will guess that we are playing lousy teams. We are. In four women’s games and two for the men there has hardly been a moment of adversity. Give or take Scott Arfield and Desiree Scott the teams are even healthy. It is, and this is not a word you get to use much in Canadian soccer, relaxing.

When the women beat Panama 7-0 in the Sunday semi-final that was gratuitous, even unsportsmanlike, but goal difference might have counted in the earlier group stage where both Mexico and Costa Rica were burned by big upsets. The final, Wednesday against the United States, is not likely to be a large Canadian victory, and if somehow it is then sportsmanship can go hang. The men are cursed with needing as many touchdowns as possible: the ridiculous Nations League format has each team play different opposition then compares the goal difference, with all the favourites guaranteed plenty of chances against minnows. Without some big wins Canada could go undefeated and miss the Nations League’s top tier anyway. Even Junior Hoilett flopping in the box with an early 2-0 lead against an island with less population than Saanich had a purpose.

Anyway, our country is scoring more than a ten on Tinder. The MNT broke its record win by beating the US Virgin Islands 8-0 away in September. The WNT’s record 21-0 win over Puerto Rico in 1998 is, we almost hope, unbreakable2, but 12-0 over Cuba set the national record for a win against an independent nation-state.

gg jk ez no re
Date Team vs. CAN Opp
09-09 MNT USVI 8 0
10-05 WNT JAM 2 0
10-08 WNT CUB 12 0
10-11 WNT CRC 3 1
10-14 WNT PAN 7 0
10-16 MNT DMA 5 0

In both cases, teams cap-tied exciting teenage talent. Okay, maybe we weren’t worried about Julia Grosso turning to Portugal, but this is the best soccer we’ve seen from her yet and we should be glad to have her. Liam Millar, Jonathan David, Ballou Tabla, and Alessandro Busti are getting quite a bit more hype and, until FIFA changes the rules again, they’re stuck with us. Besides, there are other teenagers: Alphonso Davies, Jordyn Huitema, Jessie Fleming, you might have heard of them.

Both teams are bidding adieu to legends. Atiba Hutchinson, on a shortlist for the best Canadian men’s player of all time, has already announced his plans to retire from international soccer after the 2019 Gold Cup. Christine Sinclair has not given us her timeline, but at age 35 she’s obviously winding down and may well be done by 2020. She’s on the shortlist for best female soccer player ever, full stop, and both Hutch and Sincy are worth showing the grandkids while you can under any circumstances at all.

And of course, given Canada’s unbiased love of skipping international windows, it’s delightful to get the lads/lasses together for extended camps. This goes double when you’re getting used to a new head coach, and it so happens both teams are doing that as well. John Herdman left the WNT to coach the MNT, his assistant Kenneth Heiner-Møller replaced him, and as such they have had more-or-less identical amounts of time as the new boss.

Really, the similarities are spooky.

But there are differences. The men are, through no fault of their own, engaged in a truly risible tournament. Their game in September against the US Virgin Islands was played in Bradenton, Florida, because facilities in the islands were considered inadequate. Soccer fans of Toronto did a magnificent job making BMO Field look good for the Dominica game: the Voyageurs were in fine voice and an attendance of 10,500 on a Tuesday evening was terrific. Compare it to 9,749 when Dominica visited for a World Cup qualifier in 2015 and I guess all that promotion of Ballou Tabla did some good. But the game itself is ridiculous. Busti, the 18-year-old backup goalkeeper with Juventus’s U-23 team, made his professional debut starting in goal for a competitive international; John Herdman admitted quite frankly before the game that he wanted to captie the kid. Given that we wanted goals, we couldn’t go full silly-season: the outfield starting lineup was something like our best ten minus the injured Arfield. But later in the game Herdman brought in two teenagers, Tabla and Zachary Brault-Guillard, plus one 23-year-old trying to find his international scoring touch in Cyle Larin. Sam Piette and Tosaint Ricketts sat, unneeded, on the bench. It was goofy, a friendly in which you were obliged to humiliate the other team. Dominica played with pluck throughout and deserved a more dignified context.

Martin Bazyl/Canada Soccer

The way the Nations League qualifying works is that each of the 34 teams are separated into four spots, based off ranking. Given that the six 2018 hex teams aren’t included, you run out of quality teams before you finish Pot A: top-seeded teams include Haiti, Cuba, and three French overseas departments, including a Florent Malouda-less French Guiana. Each team plays four games, two home and two away, one against a member of each pot. But there are no groups: Canada plays the US Virgin Islands, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, and French Guiana. French Guiana plays Anguilla, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Guyana (ooh aah), and us. Everybody gets thrown into one huge table and may the most lopsided scores win.

Whose bright idea was this? We have four games that would be comic if it wasn’t so important to pummel these trash bags as hard as ever we can. Many fans are getting excited for these games and I don’t know how. At least when we go to Spain and play Mauritania we’re seeing something different and potential unpleasant surprises. These games are nearly pointless, apart from cap-tying kids: you could build as much chemistry and get a better game by gathering in Toronto and playing the League1 Ontario all-stars.

The women’s tournament has blowouts, but also structure. Canada went to a semi-final as a top seed because we won the group. The real minnows, the 21-0 teams, got a chance to qualify fair and square but were weeded out long before they faced anybody of quality. It’s not all according to Hoyle: nobody would have picked either Jamaica or Panama to impress before the tournament but one of them is going to the World Cup and the other has a shot in a playoff against Argentina. Plus there’s the #ChasingAbby factor, with Christine Sinclair grinding four goals closer to a world record. Tosaint Ricketts is playing so little behind all these kids that #ChasingDeRo isn’t even on the board for the five of us who’d cheer for it.

In hindsight Jamaica’s 2-0 loss to Canada, while flattering to the Reggae Girlz, laid the groundwork for their famous win over Costa Rica. Nations League qualifying will give us no such consolations. The closest thing to an upset so far was St. Vincent’s win over French Guiana, and despite their 2-0 loss to Nicaragua they are alive in the race for the Gold Cup, but to be the top six of 34 teams playing four games each means more than one upset win.

This format is not the Canadian Soccer Association’s fault. 10,500 fans at BMO Field prove the CSA is doing all they could. Nor is it their fault that the women, playing the more interesting games, are playing down south for the third consecutive championship, in empty stadiums with indifferent media attention and broadcast rights allocated to the federation’s streaming service. CONCACAF is CONCACAF and always will be. But while blowouts are always fun, for now the women’s are more compelling.

Edmonton Bargain Hunt Renovation

By Benjamin Massey · September 28th, 2018 · No comments

Paul Giamou/Canada Soccer

Randy Edwini-Bonsu, born in Kumasi, Ghana and raised for several years in Edmonton, has been named to FC Edmonton’s “prospects” roster for two Al Classico friendlies against Cavalry. There are several fine professional and former professional players on the list: Jackson Farmer, Allan and Bruno Zebie, Edem Mortotsi. As Steven Sandor pointed out, both goalkeepers most recently played in Europe. With nobody under CanPL contract or committed in any way this is analogous to a training stint, perhaps. But it is more than nothing: at minimum, mild mutual interest.

Edwini-Bonsu is only 28 years old but—and as an extremely early REB fan I say this affectionately—he is last year’s man. His stint as a teenager with the Vancouver Whitecaps, while ferociously promising, was only moderately productive and he was not retained for Major League Soccer. Probably just as well: Tom Soehn would have ruined him anyway, and a stint in the Finnish second division saw him score in bunches. That led to the German second division, a better level by far, one which sent players to the Canadian senior national team in droves. Edwini-Bonsu was one of them, and he boasts fifteen caps with one goal for his adopted country.

By all accounts, many of his performances in the 2.Bundesliga were not bad, and there was hope among his fans that he’d establish himself. But he never quite held down a lineup spot, and his next contract dropped him down a division. In the 3.Liga he was, again, sometimes good but not good enough. His Stuttgarter Kickers side was relegated, Edwini-Bonsu was one of many players released, and he signed on a division down anyway with FC 08 Homburg in the German Regionalliga Südwest for a season. His last action was with fifth-division Tennis Borussia Berlin in 2017–18, and he is currently unattached.

Needless to say, Canadian soccer supporters have not seen him in some time. German semi-professional games are not regularly televised and Edwini-Bonsu was last called to the national team in June 2015. When last seen he was a pacey striker with decent finish, a bite-sized Tosaint Ricketts; these days he apparently plays more wide right. I thought he was very good almost a decade ago, but I do not guarantee it today. I understand they know something about soccer in Germany, where his career has not been a success, and even those with very modest expectations for CanPL’s initial calibre will certainly expect it to outgun the NOFV-Oberliga Nord.

Besides, Edwini-Bonsu’s one of those players who seems interested in European play on principle. He has spent far more of his life outside Canada than in it, immigrating in 2002 and beginning his foreign adventures nine years later. There’s every possibility that Randy Edwini-Bonsu’s time in Edmonton will end at a couple friendlies.

But he’s still the sort of player Edmonton, and the rest of the Canadian Premier League, should be looking at.

As I said I don’t know if Edwini-Bonsu still has anything left. But I am certain he used to have something. To the assorted German clubs who brought him in and threw him out, he was a tool to be used and replaced like any other. To a Canadian team, he would be a potential investment in the future of our game. He is, very specifically, the sort of player you want to give second chances to.

Jackson Farmer, to pick another Edmonton player I’ve liked for a while, is still a young man on the way up. He needs an opportunity to show what he can do and CanPL can provide that. But there are older players in the same boat. A Canadian player in his late 20s struggling to draw a European paycheque drops out of the game or puts out his shingle for some Lithuanian or Serbian or seventh-division French team would promise, however unreliably, to pay him for six months. Recently some of them have joined the PLSQ or League1 Ontario, but that’s what you do while making an honest living somewhere else. Real second chances have been hard to come by.

Around the world, many useful players have revived their careers from the real depths of obscurity because they landed on a decent team willing to invest in them. Jamie Vardy was playing non-League soccer until he was 25. On the Canadian end, Richard Hastings might well have dropped off the face of the Earth by 2004 had Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who already knew and liked him, not brought him back for a second successful spell and another half-decade of national team service. We need more stories like Hastings’s, and not just because of the golden goal.

Fans sometimes seem to think CanPL is almost a development league: given that they won’t be able to bring in more than a handful of famous players, roster spots should go to promising youth and as many random foreigners as it takes to make it watchable. But think also about the Randy Edwini-Bonsus of the world, or Derek Gaudet, who went from MLS to USL to surviving the Halifax open trials at age 29. Not everybody does anything useful with a second chance; heck, most players won’t. But some will, and the rest will give the kids something to push against. FC Edmonton’s Al Classico roster is heavy on the prospects, heavy on the early-20-somethings, and has a couple guys looking to redeem themselves… and that’s about right.

John Herdman.

By Benjamin Massey · January 8th, 2018 · No comments

Bob Frid/Canada Soccer

I believe it was John Molinaro who broke it, but as soon as it was broken the news rushed through Canadian soccer like water through a breached dam. John Herdman, the most accomplished coach any Canadian team has ever had in any sport other than hockey, is out of the Canadian women’s senior national soccer team… and in for the Canadian men’s senior national soccer team. Octavio Zambrano, after nine months as men’s coach, a Gold Cup quarterfinal that was relatively a success and objectively a failure, and enough enemies in Canadian soccer that every dialed-in media person in the country was saying “well that part wasn’t a surprise” before the ink on the tweets was dry, is out.

This is the most surprising thing that has ever happened. Not just to us fans, though we’ve spent several hours of our Monday evening trying to get our heads around the news. Our players seem just as taken aback. Stephanie Labbé, the starting goalkeeper for the women’s team for almost a year now, kicked things off with:

Diana Matheson, one of our best ever players and possibly still a member of the national pool if she ever recovers from her latest knee injury, had this to say:

And, while all teammates are equal, we know in our hearts that some teammates are more equal than others, so take a moment to realize that Christine Sinclair, the best player in women’s soccer history, used her first Tweet since November to give every indication of having found out about this through the press release:

This was handled abysmally. A good rule for the Canadian women’s national team is the “is this going to make Christine Sinclair speechless” test, and this failed1. The new women’s coach, Kenneth Heiner-Møller, was already a first team assistant as well as the former boss of Denmark. He is a familiar face and, professionally, no joke. From the perspective of keeping the women onside he’s probably the safest appointment this side of telling Sinclair “sorry, this happened suddenly and we had to get it out before Sportsnet did, we didn’t have time to ask if you wanted to player/coach.” But my God this is going to be a hard one to swallow for a team that, as of January 7, 2018, was one of the five favourites for the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

In the interests of equity I looked through some Canadian men’s national teamers’ Twitter accounts for their reactions. Scott Arfield, Milan Borjan, Junior Hoilett, Nik Ledgerwood, Atiba Hutchinson, Anthony Jackson-Hamel, Samuel Piette, none of them seemed to be bothered. They surely have thoughts and reactions, but aren’t exactly rushing to their cellphones2. Which makes sense. The men’s national team is only a very small part of a player’s life. Julian de Guzman recently retired as the Canadian men’s national team’s all-time appearance leader with 89 senior caps. This would not be anywhere near the women’s leaders: Christine Sinclair has 262 and counting. Women’s players, by various means, almost always get most of their income and exposure through the national team. For men’s players the national team has, if anything, been an impediment except at the best of times.

Which is bad news for John Herdman. Herdman has done some very good things in the conventional coaching arena. His players are consistently fit, which was not always the case under Carolina Morace or Even Pellerud. He is responsible for a couple brilliant innovations, such as the Ashley Lawrence Fullback Experiment, and a bevy of young players who stepped right into the first team and looked like established parts of his tactics. But his greatest strength has always been forging a team that would run through brick walls for each other. That is not a skill that translates to the international men’s game. Training camps are short and infrequent, and you never have the same team for two in a row: player A prefers his club commitments, player B is unattached and trying to find work, player C would love to come but it’s not a FIFA window and he’d have a 19-hour flight with seven connections between Oslo and Fort Lauderdale and his coach told him that if he tries he’ll be training with the junior handball team. And it’s hard to become devoted to your soccer family when half the times you play somebody ranked north of El Salvador you get your ass kicked. It’s also hard for a male Ashley Lawrence to become a world-class fullback when he’s trying to learn with 360 minutes of MNT soccer every year, 180 of which are against countries you forgot were countries. And while Herdman’s tactical history is good, he can get stuck in his ways and has never looked like a Football Manager-style genius who is going to turn an awful team into a great one.

Herdman’s team-building will be an asset for, even if he can’t get the full 99 friendship, he can at least avoid some of Octavio Zambrano’s more flagrant pratfalls—provided he can connect with young men who are only with him because they couldn’t make Portugal and earn $500,000 a year in the same way he can communicate with young women committed to their country doing it for an ordinary middle-class salary. His history with youth players is also positive in the MNT context, and of course he knows how to deal with Canada Soccer and Canada Soccer knows how to deal with them. He and youth development supremo Jason de Vos have a mutual admiration society that can only be beneficial. I would go so far as to say that Herdman will not be any worse than Zambrano, or Benito Floro, or Stephen Hart, or Dale Mitchell, or any of the other coaches who underachieved and did things wrong and left in disgrace. But probably not any better.

Molinaro’s Sportsnet article implies, and Duane Rollins outright says, that he would otherwise have taken the vacant England women’s job; he was certainly being pursued by the FA. While my preference would have been for the Canadian Soccer Association to write Herdman the biggest cheque the bank would cash for him to stay at the WNT, if Herdman was out of the women’s team regardless this may have been the least bad option. Even giving them the benefit of the doubt, the transition was handled incompetently: if they couldn’t give Herdman a signed contract promising him the MNT in 2020 if he guided the WNT through the World Cup and the Olympics, they could have at least sacked Zambrano today and pushed the Herdman announcement back long enough for all the women to be informed3. This is 1990s CSA stuff, and if it pushes Sinclair twelve months closer to retiring in disgust it’ll hurt us as badly as the actual coaching change did.

Yet even in the best-case scenario, Herdman being “promoted” from the excellent WNT to the abysmal MNT will quite fairly feel like an insult. Many Canadian soccer fans, including me, like the WNT either as much as the MNT or a bit more, because they’re nicer and win a lot. The women get higher attendances (against, admittedly, superior opposition) and have a stronger national fanbase. Objectively, on a national level in 2018, the Canadian women are a bigger deal than the Canadian men. However, John Herdman is not Canadian, he is English. The English women, though quite good, are not a bigger deal than the English men. Herdman’s gaze is not consumed by the maple leaf. World-wide being a good men’s coach is a much bigger deal, with much more fame and enormously more pay, than being the best women’s to ever live. Like any of us he wants to rise to the top of his profession, which is “soccer manager.” Not “women’s soccer manager.” And that would mean coaching men.

I quite understand Herdman’s logic. If he wants fame and fortune outside this humble dominion this is the greatest opportunity he will ever have. There’s been talk that Herdman wanted to coach men going back to after the London Olympics, but I don’t think he imagined he would be thrown straight into the shark-infested waters of a reasonably serious, if lousy, senior men’s national team like it was an entry-level job. Yet he is also forfeiting the best chance he will ever have, barring miracles at CanMNT that lead him to Real Madrid or something, to win silverware: the 2019 Women’s World Cup and 2020 Olympics with the best team in Canadian women’s soccer history.

Soccer coaches have flipped genders at the professional club level, with mixed success. Harry Sinkgraven will be the name best-known to Canadians: the former SC Heerenveen women’s boss went on to briefly coach the FC Emmen men, disastrously, before joining FC Edmonton and accumulating a legacy of failure. Prior to her Canada days Morace coached A.S. Viterbese Castrense, then of the Italian men’s Serie C1, and French legend Corinne Diacre had a respectable spell with Clermont Foot of the French Ligue 2. Hong Kong’s Chan Yuen-ting led powerhouse Eastern Sports Club to the first division title in 2015–16. But all three were all-time great players in their own countries. Morace and Diacre went back to women’s soccer in the end, and anyway none were coaching men at a level anywhere as high as even the Canadian men4. To my knowledge Herdman’s path, from no playing career to speak of to elite women’s coaching to elite men’s coaching, is absolutely unique.

You can’t blame him for trying. You can’t blame the Canadian Soccer Association for resorting to this if it keeps him. The players are shocked but if it works out they’ll be fine, and this is not the fragile group of 2011. The great thing about a team of friends is that they don’t actually need a coach to keep them together; perhaps they will discover the magic was in them all along. And yet this whole affair feels distinctly shabby, in the way only Canadian soccer can.

Blooding the Pups

By Benjamin Massey · November 21st, 2017 · No comments

Prior to the Canada – US friendly in San Jose, California on Sunday, November 12 I had never attended a United States women’s national soccer team match in person. The experience was instructive.

In every way the show played to national stereotypes. The northern Dominion has insurance companies moving adorable families to sweet seats, Karina LeBlanc pumping us up on the video board, and Big Shiny Stadium Tunes 1867 on the PA. Modern enough for me, in my “kids these days” fashion. The Americans are exactly what someone who knows the United States only from television would expect: brasher, brassier, and louder.

Pregame and halftime were the private property of a just unbelievably incompetent video host who, in between condescending to teenagers and mispronouncing difficult names like “Rapinoe” and “Abby,” tried like Henry Ford to sell us US Soccer merchandise, memberships, and “upgrades.” It was so loud that in an empty section I had to yell to be heard. Seldom do I get to use this phrase correctly: it was literally unspeakable.

Anyway it got worse. A DJ, with pink hair, whose name I have no excuse not to remember since she displayed it on the Jumbotron a lot, “energized” the “crowd” with dance remixes of crappy teen songs including proud American Justin Bieber1. This lasted something like half an hour, with frequent exhortations to get on up and make some noise which every man jack in my section, at least, ignored pitilessly. The Band-Aid company made teenagers smile awkwardly for a really long time to support the USO, then asked all current or former military to stand up and be applauded at. Carli Lloyd appeared in public service announcements. Whoever sang the anthems massacred the Canadian one so badly that Maegan Kelly, who isn’t even from here, grinned with as much bewilderment as long-time Canadian Christine Sinclair. But don’t be offended: “The Star-Spangled Banner” got it in the neck as bad. It was awkward. And noisy.

I was blown out by sensory overload and ready for a nap. This was all before kick-off which, by the way, was twenty minutes late. And I didn’t even have to play.

Imagine being a young Canadian player in that situation. Not just Ariel Young, Julia Grosso, or Jayde Riviere, the 16-year-old debutantes. Imagine Jordan Huitema, who had only ever played in Canada before 20,000 friends or in Portugal before 20 strangers. Or Kelly, making her second Canadian cap against people she must have hoped would be teammates only months ago. Or Lindsay Agnew, fresh off a 291-minute rookie professional season, marking a scorching-hot Megan Rapinoe at the unfamiliar position of right back before an amped-up and hostile crowd. Even Olympic bronze medalist Janine Beckie had never played in the United States against the USWNT before, and as an American-born former member of the US youth pool this was probably an Occasion.

The crowd, though disorganized and smaller than BC Place (from our section we heard one American Outlaw and heard her a lot), was enthusiastic and admirable. The field, on the other hand, was among the worst I had ever seen for an international. Patchy, frequently divoted, with rugby lines highly visible, US Soccer kindly provided their Canadian guests with a first-rate advertisement for artificial turf even before players started slipping on it and Christine Sinclair nearly suffered a serious non-contact injury.

So the new players were in trouble from the start. Kelly, not a native fullback, was torn to shreds by Rapinoe, and was redeemed only in hindsight by even-less-of-a-native-fullback Agnew looking even worse (but with a darned good excuse). Young, who had probably never before tried to mark anybody tougher than Jade Kovacevic, was awkward against Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd, though a couple lovely balls forward showed that she definitely has something. Julia Grosso actually looked good but that was in garbage time down two goals. Deanne Rose, for her half-hour, couldn’t accomplish anything including “get out of her teammates’ way.” Beckie did one very good thing indeed but otherwise was hard to notice for the second game in a row. Even Jessie Fleming, who has done it all if any teenager has, put in probably the worst game I’ve ever seen her play, turning the ball over with the generosity of the stereotypical Canadian on tour, although with the caveat that by the end of the game she was trying to play three positions at once.

Even the veterans could let us down. Shelina Zadorsky made mistakes. Christine Sinclair, who once put in the single best day’s work for Canada against the United States since Sir Isaac Brock, was up high to hold the ball up but aerially against defenders of the Sauerbrunn standard is now sound and fury signifying nothing. You can see her winding up to go for a jump from space, and she doesn’t get a hell of a long way anymore. Ashley Lawrence hurt us worst by jetting back to Paris and not being around to help Canadian woman of the match Allysha Chapman hold things down at fullback.

On the bright side, Adriana Leon, though clumsy in her usual way, was trouble. Chapman was up for both punishing runs from left back and some murder. Stephanie Labbé, after getting kicked in the head by Megan Rapinoe, had the crayon in her brain that made her treat the ball like quantum physics knocked loose and was positively brilliant both distributing her kicks and coming out. And Nichelle Prince, who I could have sworn would be the answer to a trivia question someday, has begun compiling an undeniably substantial highlight reel.

Never get carried away praising any match in which Canada was dominated as thoroughly as the Americans dominated us. Looking on the bright side is Canada Soccer’s job but their so-called “signal to the world” has been rightly mocked. I wouldn’t care to take this team to the 2019 Women’s World Cup if I could help it. But there were, in context, more good things than bad on display. Now John Herdman has a year and a half to test options like Jenna Hellstrom or Amy Pietrangelo, and fire his squad in the crucible of an occasional intense friendly. We play the Americans in the United States too seldom. There are lots of good national teams, but the United States are unique in providing talented opposition plus a crowd that sort of wants to kill us. Even for a fan, that atmosphere takes some getting used to. Let’s give the players as many chances as we can.

Raising the Middle

By Benjamin Massey · November 12th, 2017 · No comments

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Canada’s women’s national soccer team drew a close-to-full-strength United States 1-1 at a very well-attended, if atmospherically indifferent, friendly in Vancouver last Thursday. This we’ve done before, twice in the John Herdman era. What’s unique is that we really, really deserved it!

The Americans were, as they have been for the past two years, mediocre. Shelina Zadorsky probably committed a penalty that went uncalled in the second half. And we would have lost anyway had Steph Labbé not made a miraculous kick save on a deflection. That said, Jordyn Huitema had a foul called against her late in the game for getting her head busted open in the penalty area, the American goal only happened because of a Labbé punching mistake, and we made a veteran-laden American team featuring Rapinoe, Lloyd, Morgan, and Press look incapable of retaining possession for, and I am being absolutely literal here, the first time in Canadian history.

Therefore, that game was automatically a Very Good Time. ESPN named tireless Jessie Fleming the woman of the match. Deanne Rose mauled Megan Rapinoe so severely that after Rose came off Pinoe broke up with her girlfriend by text. Huitema looked plainly inexperienced at this level but was a net contributor all the same and played great off Christine Sinclair. She survived her head wound, which contrary to what condescending writers would clickbait you into believing, is exactly what an elite athlete like her should do. Then she celebrated with a post-game ginger ale because she’s nine. Our wünderkinds were, by any fair standard, wunderful.

But everyone talks enough about them. We’re so enthusiastic that Huitema wearing a bandage becomes Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. That’s good, really; Fleming, Huitema, and Rose deserve support. The trouble is that we risk forgetting our solid but not headlining prospects. In a way, they should excite us more, because that indicates that something we once did wrong, we now do right. But I am damned if I can figure out what.

Even our worst youth teams, coached by mad Italians losing to Mexico and Costa Rica, have provided interesting players, but the leap from U-20 to senior soccer has been a long way. Even players who came into the senior team as useful pieces at a young age have tended to remain only useful. I am thinking particularly of Brittany Baxter (née Timko), Jonelle Filigno, even Sophie Schmidt. We would have been poorer without them, but they never seemed to make the leap they should have made. Their games did not evolve.

In the past few years, this has begun to change, a long, slow process whose fruits are only beginning to appear. If we exclude the obvious deities the best mortal on the pitch Thursday was Rebecca Quinn. Never as preternaturally gifted as her confrere Kadeisha Buchanan, Quinn has always gotten good reviews after coming into the national team at a young age. She recalled a young Emily Zurrer, the very archetype of the useful young player with a long way to go to become a star.

The difference is that Quinn keeps getting better. Born a centre back, she is now a safe starting option in defensive midfield and has an Olympic qualifying hat trick in her scrapbook. Boasting a new, 2015-Sophie Schmidt-like haircut, Rebecca looked like a new woman on Thursday… but in fact it was the same Quinny, only improved, facing threats as varied as Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, and Andi Sullivan with equanimity. She was better than her defensive partner, Shelina Zadorsky, who has a few seasons’ NWSL experience and has herself improved a bit the past couple years. And Quinn’s best position may be in defensive midfield, where she has, implausibly, surpassed Desiree Scott on many fans’ depth charts.

And Quinn’s not even the most impressive mid-lister. The gold medal for development goes to Adriana Leon, who at age 25 should surely not be classed as a prospect at all. In two years when most players’ destinies are fixed Leon has gone from an on-field liability and one-time Twitter malcontent to a magnificent opposition-bothering impact sub and scorer of two fine senior goals this year. I cannot explain how this possibly happened. After an indifferent NWSL career, not much for the senior WNT, and being changed for a better thing, she went to FC Zürich in 2016. With that underrated little club she showed well in Switzerland, had a three-goal-and-two-assists game in the Champions League, returned to both Canada and the NWSL, and was suddenly pretty good. Thursday’s goal-scoring turn against the Americans was only the most entertaining moment in seven months of good form.

A lot has changed since Adriana’s early days: she was the star striker on that U-20 team Carolina Morace got eliminated very early indeed. But John Herdman and company can’t take credit from a technical perspective: they didn’t see her for over a year. The person most responsible for Leon’s mid-career development spurt must be Adriana Leon. But the country did something right, insomuch as it remembered her and let her stay in the game, and brought her back when she was ready.

These things never used to go so well. For decades the classic Canadian role player was a physical specimen rather than a technically developed, versatile contributor. Changing this was a conscious goal of many coaches and administrators throughout the country. Now that it is happening, and the results are before our eyes, we are so blinded by Roses and Huitemae that we can’t see it. Leon, a hard-charging bull in a china shop, and Quinn, who is tall, would both in a different era relied upon their obvious physical powers too heavily. In November 2017 they look like soccer players.

We are not World Cup champions yet. Quinn has learned much of her trade at Duke, Leon picked up her magic boots in Europe; the path to long-term success requires a road through Canada. Nor has everybody been equally successful, because that never happens. But we’re going the right way. Leon scoring against the US because Quinn hit the crossbar bodes just as well for our program as Jessie Fleming descending from heaven.

Soccer as Extended Warranties

By Benjamin Massey · October 30th, 2017 · No comments

Canada Soccer/Mexsport

The other half of 99 Friendship and I are visiting San Jose in a couple of weeks to watch the Canadian women’s national team lose to the United States. Canada’s senior team has not beaten the United States since a 3-0 win at the 2001 Algarve Cup. In our last ten attempts we have eight losses and two draws with a goal difference of -15. Canada Soccer has been promoting the Vancouver leg of this two-friendly series with a “#Top5 #CanWNT v #USWNT moments” featuring two meaningless draws and three heart-shattering losses.

Will we succeed where the best Canadian teams ever have failed? Diana Matheson is still injured. Due to European or NCAA commitments an enormous list of players is doubtful: Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan, Sophie Schmidt, Deanne Rose, Rebecca Quinn, Shannon Woeller, plus potential dark horses like Amy Pietrangelo, Jenna Hellstrom, Gabrielle Lambert, Genevieve Richard, and Emma Fletcher. We might get Erin McLeod back after a long injury layoff, partially because she no longer starts for her club in Sweden. The Americans are without the injured Mallory Pugh, but except for Crystal Dunn every man jack of their team plays in the NWSL and should have nothing better to do.

What I’m saying is,a we know what’s going to happen, we are spending a reasonably substantial amount of money for a virtual guarantee of unhappiness, and the only reason I can imagine is that Carolyn and I are degenerates. (Also that the game is in San Jose which is basically San Francisco and neither of us have been to San Francisco before.)

But by US Soccer standards we are apparently emblems of sanity. Earlier today US Soccer sent me an e-mail offering a chance to buy “upgrades” and “make [our] matchday even more memorable.” For $141.91, for example, I could own the 1’x8′ photoboard used in the pregame photos of the starting eleven that nobody ever looks at except the players who were in them. Should that seem too dear, $37.16 would win me “a photo of yourself in the goal after the match, taken by your own phone.” But for a more exclusive memento, an astonishingly reasonable $380.01 (why one cent?) buys an official match ball, with the combating teams emblazoned on it and everything, from this nothing November friendly. It goes without saying that no upgrades “include any interaction with the USWNT or Canada players,” so if I want Alex Morgan to autograph that ball I have to go to Epcot.

In the few hours since I got this e-mail, multiple upgrades have sold out. A chance to take two post-game penalty kicks, no goalkeeper, has gone for $46.68 a piece. I was too late to even price out “Pregame Field-Level Access,” where you can “watch from field-level as the USWNT warms up.” This once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Lindsey Horan passing the ball in a circle was lost to me in ten-odd minutes between my receiving the e-mail and opening the link. As of this writing the photoboard is still available but act fast.

US Soccer has mastered gouging their supporters. Every first world soccer association will sell you a t-shirt or a kit; the Americans will sell you a $2,850 US Soccer watch. Don’t worry, you can save money by buying a “US Soccer Federation membership.” Only $55, not only do you get 10% off swag but you earn elite status by buying more match tickets. It’s just like everybody’s favourite experience, commercial air travel. Spend the surplus on a US Soccer fantasy camp, for only a $3,995 “donation” (half tax-deductible, so your fantasy is subsidized by single moms working at 7-11s).

The commercial principles here are highly sound. American fans are second to very few in overall spending power. Soccer associations, especially in CONCACAF, go to even more than the usual efforts to accommodate visiting American fans. The American Outlaws, the major US supporters group, have even poached the Voyageurs’ (and the Vancouver Southsiders’) usual pre-game pub. When our city was overrun by US Soccer fans during the 2015 Women’s World Cup, their official fan party was at the Commodore, a club downtown. This “#FanHQ” featured separate queues for walk-up admission, people with tickets to the party, and “VIPs” on the guest list. The place, needless to say, was absolutely packed.

Some of the point of this post is to laugh at the vulgar, cash-obsessed Americans and their comical penny-ante greed. I am Canadian and as vulnerable to our sins as anybody. More important, however, is the cautionary tale. Canada echoes the United States in many trends, and like all echoes we are late and inferior.

Our soccer association is not a natural at profiteering. Until more recently than you think it was actually very difficult to buy a Canadian soccer kit in most of the country. Despite holding the pursestrings of the most popular participant sport in the country the Canadian Soccer Association was habitually short of money and endearingly awkward trying to make a commercial proposition out of just about anything. Even the famously successful 2002 Women’s U-19 World Championship was fueled by free tournament passes to the youth soccer players of the Edmonton area, though in the case of one attendee, at least, the CSA has more than recouped that investment.

But times are changing. A Canadian soccer friendly is no longer automatically a money-losing proposition; over 22,500 tickets have been sold for this Canada – US affair, guaranteeing us one of the ten best-attended home friendlies in Canadian history a week and a half before kickoff. Nearly every equally-successful friendly has been in the past six years. The Canadian Premier League is said to be coming, and for many fans and businessmen part of that should be a soccer marketing organization akin to the United States’ SUM, who have proven so adept at taking advantage of patriotism and partisanship. We aren’t where the Americans are today, but we are thoughtfully eying the same roads.

Saying “this is what happens when the games get big” is lazy excuse-making. I have been to sold-out Gold Cup and Women’s World Cup games, games much larger than any November friendly, where my pregame was drinks in the pub with like-minded supporters and “upgrades” meant splurging on merchandise at the stadium. Nobody would call FIFA or CONCACAF altruistic, but while there were opportunities for fans to spend those events stayed on the right side of “crass.” For their many sins they never fell into the trap of trying to upsell status symbols to supporters like some soccer version of Best Buy.

Canadian soccer will grow. This will—already has—cost those of us who have followed it for a long time some of the intimacy we have enjoyed. Too bad, but the advantages are worth it. What’s not worthwhile is turning supporters into columns in a SQL database, to be statistically analyzed for profit potential down to the penny, like any old business nobody could ever get on an airplane to cheer for. As an old fan this is not what I signed up for. If you’re a new fan I bet one photoboard this is not what you signed up for either.

May Canadian soccer resist the lures that have ensnared our American brothers and sisters.

Hyping Handsome Bowties

By Benjamin Massey · August 31st, 2017 · No comments

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

In a century of international futility Canadian men’s soccer has had more cautionary tales than fairy tales. Hanson Boakai, the 20-year-old former FC Edmonton homegrown phenom, should have been the latter and is now the former.

Having become the youngest player in NASL history and dazzled most prominently against Montreal in the 2014 Voyageurs Cup, Boakai left Edmonton at the end of autumn 2015. For all his talents he had not become a regular starter, but the Eddies made an unsuccessful offer to keep him. He trained with notable European clubs, and in November of that year Duane Rollins called a move to Toronto FC “close to done.” It never got there. Despite many rumours he didn’t land for another eight months and when he did it was after a fall.

Joining Swedish third-division side Landskrona in July 2016, Boakai played less than two hours over four appearances and left in November. Since then he has been the Littlest Hobo. In January he trialed with Albanian champions Skenderbeu but no contract resulted. He trained with Lebanese club Nejmeh and got a kit number and again did not sign. Caronnese, of Italy’s Serie D, announced his signing but didn’t deign to spell his name correctly. Thanks to trouble with his residence paperwork, Boakai allegedly was close to joining CS U Craiova’s second team, which would put him in the Romanian third division. This deal has not closed; until tomorrow he’ll just keep moving on.

It’s not often you say this about a soccer player but he should have stayed in Edmonton, which while not La Liga is surely to Christ not Lebanon. Even under supposedly anti-creative coach Colin Miller, on artificial turf, before indifferent crowds, and burdened by youthful weakness, Boakai won a rep at Clarke Stadium. We clamoured for him to star on the youth teams, where he hardly played but looked good when he did. We insisted Benito Floro give him a look on the senior squad which, technically, happened, Boakai participating in a camp in October 2014. The Edmonton Journal called him a potential “Canadian Messi,” and that is still quoted abroad. After leaving FC Edmonton everyone expected Boakai to ascend the soccer pyramid. The idea that he would go down was unthinkable, yet here we are.

Never write off a kid with talent, but he has more mileage than the US Air Force. If his career winds up a success it’ll be the greatest comeback since the Resurrection. This is a player who has been viewed by dozens of coaches from a multitude of cultures on three continents, and many of them saw something, but not enough to be worth the bother.

What happened? Obviously it isn’t his natural talent that keeps him from sticking in semi-pro Scandinavia. No, I mean that: obviously it isn’t. Did you see this kid, back when he used to play? A world in which, on skill alone, Erik Hurtado prospers and Hanson Boakai can’t get a contract does not exist.

Paperwork hurts him. Boakai was born in the Republic of Guinea and his parents are Liberian. He has played official youth competitions for Canada so presumably his passport is settled, but when trying to get a work permit (not always easy for a Canadian without EU residency), bothersome bureaucratic bologna brought by small-African-village-migrant upbringings can make life even worse. Stars and big clubs can batter through such obstacles with cash and prestige; Serie D teams, and the players they attract, less so.

Then again, Boakai actually did get his contract in semi-pro Sweden, and actually did play, and actually couldn’t get much action. Reportedly, the company which sponsored Boakai’s contract at Landskrona backed out. That sounds bad. FC Edmonton, community-minded but not a soup kitchen, claimed FIFA-mandated compensation for a player they developed, invested in, made the reputation of, and lost. But that’s not unique and not that expensive. So what happened? Well it’s 2017 and this is a thinkpiece so here’s the boilerplate: it was we, the people. We did this to Hanson Boakai. We hyped him up too far. Remember that “Canadian Messi” remark? Boakai himself has referenced it with what can only be called an insufficient level of self-aware irony. What seems like it should be a personal responsibility in fact rests on all our shoulders, for making him what he is.

Of course, upon examination, the theory is ridiculous. First off, what you’d expect from a kid who has been convinced he is God’s gift to cansoc is that he is so secure in his superiority that he dogs it in training, and that is one thing I have not heard about Boakai. He has his foibles but work rate is not one. Indeed, as a little kid who faces frequent abuse from larger veteran pros, his ability to take and avoid a licking was a prominent asset. He was no theoretician, he had put in the work and could handle clumsier adversaries.

Other Canadians have become aware of hyper-flattering nicknames and if they haven’t met our hopes (because Canadian soccer players never do unless they are Christine Sinclair) they also haven’t flamed out. Prospects do become tubby and useless in their early 20s and retire young or go to League1 Ontario, but generally the attitude that allows that to happen is incompatible, in today’s competitive fitness-focused world, with becoming a professional in the first place.

Second off, what hype?! Have you walked around Canadian soccer lately? Alphonso Davies, a wunderkind in a bigger media market and at a higher level than Boakai, with a more impressive physique, superior statistics for club and country, and a life story that appeals even more directly to cansoc’s sensitivities, is enormously well-known by diehards from Halifax to Port Hardy. The Canadian Soccer Association ranks him beside Atiba Hutchinson and behind only Christine Sinclair in their advertising.

But among casual fans in Vancouver, people who go to a couple games a year and consider themselves Whitecaps fans but “not like those Southsiders, whoa, my buddy got a couple tickets in their section and we had to stand all game,” it’s not the same. They know him, remember him, but struggle for detail. He is not Connor McDavid. He is a blur on a field whose precocious powers are recognized but not obsessed over. He can walk down the streets here, which a hockey player as average as a Ryan Kesler finds difficult.

Boakai’s hype was below Davies’s. Among civilians he is behind even Jessie Fleming and Deanne Rose in name value. If that much praise ruined him, he was doomed regardless. The sort of love Boakai got would not overwhelm a strong junior hockey player. Soccer is catching on in Canada but it doesn’t come close to attracting the obsessive attention that hockey… Jesus, that curling enjoys in large parts of the country.

Yet we soccer fans possess a strange self-consciousness about openly praising our young men, and for that matter our young women. We can’t get too enthusiastic, because it might all be a dream. Not only in the sense of “Jessie might blow out her knee while playing for UCLA because when has that ever happened HAW HAW,” but there’s an idea that our promotion is part of the problem. We few fanatics convince our kids that they are stars, and the rest is doom.

I do not say that it is impossible for our praise to go to a player’s head. On the contrary, I know that it has happened. But our community’s praise doesn’t get you a good table at a crowded restaurant, let alone freighters of cocaine and women. We hardly exist in the real world. There are people philosophically incapable of sustaining the pressures of professional sport, and if the Voyageurs forum is swelling your head you’re one.

However, there’s a curious flip side. The Internet age has made a commonplace of seemingly-informed profiles provided by nothing more than thorough Googling; hey, this site hosts a couple. But these analyses can be influential. As a former Vancouver Whitecaps fan I remember well the excitement when we found that midfielder Davide Chiumiento was supposedly known—by whom we never discovered—as “the Swiss Ronaldinho.” This was not only fan buzz but got mainstream traction. When Chiumiento arrived in time for the 2010 USSF D2 playoffs he was fat and bored, and his short MLS career was more potential than realization. But we knew that former fans of his had thought he was something special, and were ever-so-slightly but importantly biased in his favour. What’s more, we weren’t wrong: Chiumiento may or may not have been worth it, but he possessed an undeniable spark that made him beautiful in a way that transcended how many points he helped the Whitecaps win. Take them in broad strokes and such fan assessments contain a lot of truth.

Boakai’s “Canadian Messi” title has followed him to Romania. Obviously such plaudits won’t carry a career on but they can make a difference, elevate someone above other unknown trialists. Though Boakai himself may not pan out, if he does it’ll be because some serious club is willing to take a chance on him despite the complications, and Boakai does enough to exploit that chance. We fans are almost impotent in that process. But if our hype convinces some otherwise-indifferent manager to view Hanson’s highlight tape, we could actually do something positive. Just yesterday FC Edmonton announced the signing of midfielder Abraham Dukuly who, they tell us unabashedly, is “a special 1-on-1 player with great instincts that draws comparisons to former Academy graduate and FC Edmonton player Hanson Boakai.” Quite right.

Sometimes good prospects bust. It’s lousy if your team needs them, and ours does. But in Canadian soccer the deficiencies are inborn. The 300 of us who care do not have the power to create them. On the other hand, we can do a minuscule but non-zero amount of good. Do not forfeit the pleasure of promoting a young player you love. If it ruins the kid, he was never going to make it anyway. And it is our positive duty to promote those who we think are worth it, even when we fear we may be wrong.

Doing It to Ourselves

By Benjamin Massey · July 20th, 2017 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Let me take you back, to the heady days of last Friday evening. After a 0-0 draw with Honduras that was more than respectable as these things go, Canada has emerged from the group stage at the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the first time since 2009.

The 2009 crew was a rag-tag bunch of misfits plus Atiba Hutchinson, and while they outplayed Honduras in the quarter-final they were always an average team overachieving. This year, by contrast, we have the future of the Canadian national team minus Atiba Hutchinson. Hoilett, Arfield, Vitoria, Cavallini (!), hardly a dodgy dual-national is missing. The sole blot on the copybook is Cyle Larin, who, returning from Canada’s June friendly against Curaçao, had far too much to drink, got in his car, drove down the wrong side of the road, and tried to excuse himself to the arresting officer by saying he was a professional soccer player from Canada. We learned that there was video footage of Larin inexcusably, disgracefully drunk at the wheel of his vehicle and that this was as open and shut an incident as you will ever find. Even fans who disdain soccer teams playing judiciary felt a distinct uneasiness.

It’s interesting, how the Canadian Soccer Association handled the Larin case. There clearly was discipline, since he was left off a Gold Cup roster he obviously would otherwise have made. They can’t claim it’s none of their business since they intruded into it. But there was no announcement saying Larin had been suspended for x games, and he was on the “taxi squad” of players to be recalled in contingencies. One is inevitably left with the impression that Octavio Zambrano would sooner have not punished Larin at all, and the Canadian Soccer Association was most concerned with public relations. Had Canada been eliminated in the group stage, as in the previous three Gold Cups, they could have said “we suspended Cyle for the tournament” and nobody could have contradicted them. In the event Canada was not only alive, it was well, and for the umpteenth time principle was discarded for expediency.

You see where this is heading. CONCACAF rules permit a coach to replace six players from his team with guys from the taxi squad, and Zambrano replaced one. The successful Canadian team was broken up only so far as Cyle Larin, who missed Canada’s earlier achievements on account of his literally criminal selfishness, replaced the blameless Raheem Edwards. On top of that, come Thursday evening, Larin was immediately put into the starting lineup. Team? What team?

It’s hardly necessary to say Larin was terrible, because for Canada he usually is. Larin has scored two goals in fourteen games, including ten starts, against remotely serious soccer countries and one was by accident. His howling misses outnumber his tidy finishes. He scores in Major League Soccer, but MLS is too poor a league to predict quality. Bradley Wright-Phillips, a bad English Championship striker with only one aspect to his game and never anywhere near international honours, may be the best striker in MLS history. Add in Larin’s incapacity in other aspects of his game and there’s no reason, beyond a superstitious admiration of the Americans, to give him the benefit of the doubt in the tougher CONCACAF arena.

Larin was just trash. Breaking up a winning setup he had no part in making, he missed an open header, failed to make challenging runs, went wide left a couple times and did nothing, failed to harass his defenders into mistakes, failed to execute a single defensive or midfield play. The man is garbage when he can’t finish chances, so for Canada he is almost always garbage.

But a team can survive a selfish, one-dimensional, mercurial player. In fact Canada did: infinitely-ballyhooed mercenary Junior Hoilett played almost every minute of the Gold Cup like he thought England would notice him if he just dangled one more guy, but in this quarter-final his selfishness also yielded a stunning goal from a mile out. When Hoilett is on the ball his teammates almost slump in despair, they know they’ll have to run sixty yards back when he almost-inevitably turns it over, but the point is they do know and they account for it.

The real damage was not in having a bad striker. The damage was that the team collapsed around him. By the time Larin was finally removed we were down 2-0 to Jamaica. Jamaica! A team Canada, even in its present decadence, consistently outplays. A team whose idea of a star is Darren Mattocks. Jamaica.

Lucas Cavallini, who replaced Larin, is no holy terror. I would have preferred Anthony Jackson-Hamel or Tosaint Ricketts, the maligned man, the guy who doesn’t create drama or try to get on SportsCentre so doesn’t get his minutes, he just delivers. But Cavallini has a defender-annoying hip-checking level of pissy effort that Larin hasn’t. Canada tried countless long shots with Larin on: Jamaica smothered them like unplanned babies. With Cavallini agitating the Reggae Boyz, not only could Hoilett score an unchallenged thirty-yarder but he could damned near do it twice. In the last half-hour, especially when Jackson-Hamel entered, Canada looked like they could play heroes and overturn a two-goal deficit for the first time since, according to the Carolyn Duthie Research Bureau, October 1988. They didn’t, but what a reasonable effort it was all the same.

We are cynical men, we soccer fans. We sneer at the idea of intangibles, of friendship and connectedness and team cohesion and other woo-woo nouns. Any Canadian men’s head coach of the last twenty years would have done what Zambrano did and give liquored-up Larin his starting spot based on pedigree and club form. But John Herdman, coach of Canada’s women’s team, definitely wouldn’t. And ask yourself, out of the men and the women which team consistently outperforms the theoretical sum of its parts, and which team consistently underperforms it?

People and Places

By Benjamin Massey · June 16th, 2017 · No comments

André Donato/Canada Soccer

When North American sports teams report their “attendance” they usually mean the number of tickets distributed rather than the number of people actually attending the game. More concisely, they are lying: giving a larger number that makes them look good rather than a figure which might reflect how many fans were interested.

So even the announced 6,026 fans at Saputo Stadium to watch Canada play Curaçao (formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles, now a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands with a population of 160,000) was fake news. Saputo holds 20,801. One sideline and one endzone were basically empty. The other sideline stand was probably not half full. The southern terrace, where the few dozen supporters congregated, was very empty indeed. Only one gate was open and it had no queue to speak of despite plenty of security theatre. Samuel Piette got a few hundred tickets for friends, family, and friends of family and created a statistically significant part of the crowd. The number of bums in seats was probably nearer four thousand than six.

You have to go back to pre-2012 women’s friendlies for a crowd that small. Granted we’re talking about a Tuesday evening friendly against an opponent that, while ranked ahead of Canada in the latest FIFA tables, is so obscure I felt the need to parenthetically describe it in an earlier paragraph. Even those going expected the game to be fairly terrible, and they were right. Though Canada came from behind to win 2-1, the match was overall a dog.

Canadian soccer fans are fond of argument, so this caused one. Montreal had disgraced itself! Canada has hosted only seven men’s friendlies in the past decade; wasting something so rare on a city that can’t be bothered is crazy. There are cities which would have fallen over themselves supporting even such a drab game. It’s too late to fix the past, but we can at least look to the future and keep Canadian soccer out of Montreal until they give a damn.

First off, those who weren’t there should know the Montreal experience had huge positives. Fans who did show up were enthusiastic, from top to bottom. The standard of the supporters’ section was excellent. An anglo there will always enjoy trying to figure out what those crazy bilingual bastards are on about, but more than that they were energetic and fun. Not to walk into the satanic mill that is supporters’ politics, but every time we have a game in Montreal I hear about how those damned Impact ultras are all too Frenchified to ever support Canada willingly, and every time I walk out thinking that it would criminal not to give those blessed maniacs all of the games their intensity and effort deserve. Despite dismal predictions there was no phalanx of Canada haters cheering Curaçao out of separatist spite. It was a perfect crowd in everything but numbers. It was good enough for the players, who fought back, won, and stayed late to salute the crowd. Milan Borjan scooped up a supporter’s cigarettes after he accidentally spilled them onto the field. It was a nice night.

But what of all those empty seats? What of Montreal’s lukewarm interest in Canadian soccer? It makes sense when you remember that, lately, Canadian soccer has had a lukewarm interest in Montreal.

Infamously, Montreal hosted a men’s World Cup qualifier in September 2008 that saw Canada lose 2-1 to Honduras in one of the most horrifying experiences of all time. In nearly nine years since then, Canada’s second-largest city has hosted four Canadian games: the Curaçao match, a 2010 men’s friendly also against Honduras, a U-20 Women’s World Cup group game against North Korea, and a senior Women’s World Cup group game against the Netherlands. In the same timeframe Toronto has hosted 19 games (not counting the Pan-Ams in Hamilton), Vancouver 14, and Edmonton six. Those cities also had more glamorous matches; only Montreal’s Women’s World Cup game could exactly be called must-see.

Vancouver did not host any senior international Canadian games between March 2006 and January 2012. That January 2012 game, at newly-renovated BC Place, saw only a very-generously-counted 7,627 fans to watch Canada’s women beat Haiti 6-0. Haiti, like Curaçao, is a small Caribbean island nation that is better than you might guess. It was another midweek evening match, not saved by strong promotion of hometown heroes (Patrice Bernier and Samuel Piette in Montreal, in Vancouver an obscure young lady named Christine Sinclair). Unlike last Tuesday’s game, the Canada – Haiti match was a competitive fixture as the teams tried to qualify for the London Olympics. The tickets were cheaper, starting at $10 for a double-header. Had you judged Vancouver on that game alone, you might never have gone back.

Fortunately the Olympic qualifiers were a multi-game tournament. As the women won stylishly attendance grew, culminating in a competition-record 25,427 to see Canada lose 4-0 to the United States in the technically-meaningless final. Those 7,627 fans, it turns out, witnessed the first steps of the John Herdman golden generation that’s so far won two Olympic bronze medals. Vancouver now regularly packs them into BC Place, including 22,508 for a recent women’s friendly against Mexico.

Every city in the Dominion has experienced the unjust withdrawal of international soccer. Toronto prior to the opening of BMO Field, Vancouver between 2006 and 2012, Montreal now. Fans in each of these cities know the stagnation that comes from only seeing “your” national team on television, as those without an existing, unbreakable bond inevitably find not only that their interest wanes but that it does not automatically return with a single game. Then, when their city is blessed and another loses out, they forget those lessons and criticize that unlucky town for facing the same challenges in the same way.

This country is big, and it’s hard for anyone but the well-heeled or fanatical to travel for many games even domestically. The only solution is for every part of the country to get a reasonable share of national team matches. Between the men and the women there’s no excuse for Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal to not each see a game every year, with additional fixtures spread between your Edmontons, Calgarys, Winnipegs, Reginas, Hamiltons, Victorias, Monctons, and St. John’ss. It’s the only way to build a truly national fanbase for this program, because otherwise you see what we’ve seen in Montreal: the diminution of interest, and the alienating blame that goes along with it.