Waste of a World Cup

By Benjamin Massey · April 10th, 2017 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

On Monday the Canadian Soccer Association, along with Mexico and the United States, announced we are bidding to co-host the 2026 FIFA World Cup. All three countries had expressed individual interest and collaboration had long been in the wind, especially when the 48-team format was announced. The expectation is that Canada will host ten of a total 80 games.

To the Canadian this is a mixed blessing. Should we get an automatic spot Canada’s players will probably be humiliated, because after thirty years getting worse at men’s soccer there’s no sign we’ll be any better in the next nine. Our men’s U-20s, who will be in their primes in 2026, just got the everloving hell beat out of them at the CONCACAF championships. On the other hand, to play is to have a chance. Eddy Berdusco scored against Brazil once. Richard Hastings scored the golden goal against Mexico. Anyway even in defeat it would be a hell of an experience.

There’s the overhyped development angle. Mythology says that, after the ill-fated NASL, the 1994 World Cup kickstarted professional soccer in the United States. Well, in 1993 the Americans had 43 professional soccer clubs between the fully-professional APSL and the weird-hybrid USISL. By an equally generous count Canada has five. 2026 is a long way away, but unless there’s a revolution comparing ourselves to the 1993 Americans is honestly embarrassing. The generation which grew up in the shadow of Canada’s success at the 1986 World Cup happens to be the current one; it is vile.

Hosting ten games worth of World Cup couldn’t hurt of course. If the Canadian Premier League is limping along, maybe it’ll even be the vital shot in the arm, but for the money surely to Christ we could do a lot more. Because that’s the only real objection to this plan: money.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Canada could host ten games tomorrow. Shove teams into BC Place, Olympic Stadium, Commonwealth Stadium, even SkyDome if Toronto isn’t busy with the North American synchronized diving championships. Buy new artificial turf maybe, but all those buildings meet structural requirements and are in cities that have trains, airports, and hotels. Sell ’em out for Belgium – Botswana, it’ll look respectable, total cost six bucks. This is more-or-less what we did for the 2015 Women’s World Cup and that was great!

But that’s bullshit, we both know it, it absolutely does have to be that way. Abby Wambach and Sydney Leroux were wrong that artificial turf is a misogynist plot but right that it is impossible in any sense but the physical for a first world country to host the men’s World Cup so efficiently. For 2015 Canada’s only hosting competition was Zimbabwe and even they dropped out. In 2026 we’ll face a lot worse, including comparisons between us and the Americans with their trillion-dollar taxpayer-subsidized gold-plated NFL palaces. If Canada cheaps out we’ll look second-class before the world next to the Americans. It is inconceivable that FIFA would approve us hosting our games on artificial turf in CFL-calibre stadiums, but equally inconceivable that our governments would have the strength of character to let us.

Can you honestly imagine FIFA, or the Canadian government, letting a billion people watch a World Cup game at SkyDome? On artificial turf? Cathal Kelly’s head would burst like an balloon full of blood. We’re going to have to build, or rebuild, everything. None of our existing facilities, save Commonwealth Stadium, are even theoretically capable of taking real grass, which you can bet your life will be a requirement. Even a token role in this tournament is going to cost a fortune.

2026 is a long way off and even if the World Cup doesn’t happen we’ll have something new by then. No doubt paid for by irresponsible public servants capitulating to pro sports owners, like the already-crumbling new Winnipeg Blue Bombers stadium. But that is no reason to invite even more expensive mistakes for the sake of an eighth of a World Cup.

With 48 teams playing between three countries, disconnected bureaucracies, and participating regions not known for probity, the opportunities for graft will be colossal. Maybe no single event in the history of the First World will give as many opportunities to the crook. Huge “public works” not meant for much more than looking pretty for a month, spread out between ridings. The semi-legal embezzlement of environmental impact statements, First Nations consultations, economic benefit analyses, that already put insiders’ kids through university. The knowledge that, whatever happens, we daren’t look like the poor cousins, and that the chequebook always has one more page.

I am a great soccer fan. The Canadian men have never made the World Cup in my lifetime and to experience that, even on television, would be the sort of sports pleasure I can barely imagine. Moreover there ain’t nothing wrong with taking it through a host’s spot in an inflated tournament. They don’t ask how, just how many. But none of that justifies me asking that the 99.99% of this country that doesn’t care about Canadian soccer be compelled under threat of force to pay enormous sums for my hobby.

Even if you don’t think maybe Canadians should keep their own money, surely (to pick one of a thousand examples) a Toronto downtown relief subway line would be cheaper, generate more jobs, help more people, and have more benefits than 12.5% of a soccer tournament, and I don’t even live in Toronto. Compare it to what proponents will call the “once-in-a-lifetime” chance to host part of a World Cup, though at age 30 I’ve seen four World Cups we hosted by ourselves. It could be justified if all we needed was to repaint what we’ve already paid for, as in 2015, or if it was a self-confident country in a spirit of vigour and celebration splurging on a luxury, and here I can’t help but cite the Montréal Olympics though even they went pearshaped. Neither describes Canadians spending billions of dollars to play third fiddle to Mexico and the United States, as if we didn’t live that every day for nothing.

Fonseca’s Unusual Firing

By Benjamin Massey · March 1st, 2017 · 1 comment

Martin Bazyl/Canadian Soccer Association

Today the Canadian Soccer Association announced that it has “released” long-time technical staffer Tony Fonseca. The statement is so brief it can profitably be quoted in full:

Canada Soccer announced today that it has released Director, High Performance, Tony Fonseca effective immediately.

Fonseca joined Canada Soccer in 2006 on an interim basis as an Assistant Coach with the Men’s National Team before becoming a full-time staff coach including responsibility as Head Coach with the Men’s U-20 and U-23 Teams in 2008. He was named Director, High Performance for the Men’s National Team Program in 2011 and became the organization’s Technical Director in 2012 before transitioning to his most recent role as Director, High Performance.

Canada Soccer would like to thank Tony for his years of service and for his professionalism and commitment to the development of the game in Canada.

This is weird. The announcement falls between CONCACAF U-20 men’s World Cup qualifying, where Canada did horribly, and U-17 qualifying in a few weeks. Fonseca enjoyed overall responsibility for the men’s youth setup and coached both teams in the past. The Gold Cup is also this summer. Canada is currently searching for a senior men’s head coach, and it’s possible that Fonseca’s being pushed out to make room for a candidate who will want all the keys to the castle, such as John Herdman enjoys on the women’s side. But there’s been no announcement of a coach, no reports of anyone notable, no sightings of Luis Enrique at Ottawa airport or anything. Moreover, after all these years as a good soldier it would be striking to sack Fonseca so perfunctorily, without the figleaf of resignation or reassignment, to make room for a coach.

By no means was Fonseca unanimously loved. More than a decade of prominent roles in the Canadian men’s game coincided with mixed results at all levels, and as the longest-serving technical staffer Fonseca drew automatic heat. That said, his record as a professional coach in this country before joining the CSA was good, he’s always been on hand for thankless jobs, from chipping in at camps to helping with the futsal team, and steady promotions in a high-turnover field suggest he was well-thought of. Though much sport was made of his transforming three senior caps for Portugal into a whole career at Canada Soccer, the man did the work and until the moment he was sacked there was never any suggestion he’d become disposable.

Only last Monday, Fonseca was in the news for “positive Boys’ U-15 identification camps,” speaking as if to his knowledge he was in the program for the long haul, and hanging out with fellow coaches. If press releases are any indication, Fonseca’s job title was changed from “technical director” back to “Director, High Performance” between December and February 7, though without any announcement. He was also, in hindsight, conspicuously unmentioned when changes were made to development staffing in January.

The boys’ results have been poor for a few years but, frankly, that’s seldom a firing offense in Canada. The routine is for a contract to quietly expire and for fans to learn about it when the old boss is replaced with the new boss. A talented women’s U-20 team had an appalling World Cup last November and head coach Danny Worthington took much of the rap. To this day, Worthington’s fate has not been formally announced, but when the women’s youth department was juggled in January Worthington was absent, and program director Bev Priestman led a U-20 identification camp in January.

Fonseca’s predecessor as technical director was Stephen Hart, who changed roles to become the men’s head coach; his predecessor was Richard Bate, who drew a very pleasant press release despite resigning only ten months into his appointment.

When senior men’s head coach Benito Floro’s contract was not renewed last September, he received a relatively-lavish send-off that included quotes from Floro and CSA president Victor Montagliani. The previous coach, Hart, another long-term CSA servant, also got a dignified “resignation” announcement and Montagliani’s thanks. Dale Mitchell, perhaps the least popular coach among players and fans the Canadian men ever had, was tersely “released” like Fonseca in 2009, but again then-president Dr. Dominic Maestracci put his name an explicit quote about a new direction and, unlike Fonseca, Mitchell’s canning had been in the wind for weeks. Former women’s boss Carolina Morace, the ugliest departure of note after the ugliest tenure in the CSA’s recent history, abruptly resigned in a cascade of sour grapes and while there is no announcement on CanadaSoccer.com about it, they didn’t exactly bury it either.

Fonseca’s departure looks more like authority stuck its head into the CSA’s press office and said “Tony’s been canned, put out a release” than a deliberate, long-contemplated and decisively-executed action. This is so out-of-the-ordinary that speculation can’t help but swirl. From outside, unless there was some serious misdemeanour that hasn’t yet seen the light of day, it looks like Fonseca may have fallen victim to politics. Former men’s national team captain Jason deVos was named director of development in September, with a remit that overlapped many of the traditional activities of a technical director. Simple intraoffice friction may have culminated in this explosion, and it may even be for the best. But in the absence of knowledge all we can do is raise our eyebrows at how odd this is, and guess.

Eight Years of Russell Teibert Hair Choices

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

Once-and-future Canadian national team standout, and eventual Vancouver Whitecaps captain, Russell Teibert has always had the distinctive fashion sense that has gone along with his outstanding play and gentlemanly demeanour. Even as the Whitecaps were mired in their worst Canada-hating spells there was Teibert, looking brilliant both off and on the field, promising better days without a word. (I am a Russell Teibert fan of the old school; perhaps you can tell.)

With MLS bringing in flashy foreigners every year no home-grown soccer player can stand still. Teibert certainly has not. In his professional career he has gone from a dazzling number 10 to a workmanlike defensive midfielder. He is not only the last Vancouver Whitecap remaining from their pre-MLS era but has almost a year’s seniority on the next-longest servant, Jordan Harvey. He has worn the armband for his club. He has quarreled, and made up, with national team coaches. He has played defense, central midfield, and wing. He has survived many players who supposedly were going to do him out of a job. He is still only 24 years old, barely aged out of NCAA and the MLS SuperDraft.

More importantly, his haircuts have moved with him, up and down, and I mean that literally. Like his own career they have been a roller-coaster of promise and nightmare, but they have always been interesting. Let us recap the most important thing we can talk about in the world today: Russell Teibert’s hairstyles.

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I Don’t Want to Be Elfstar Anymore! I Want to Be 2016 Canadian Players of the Year!

By Benjamin Massey · December 8th, 2016 · No comments

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

This is the time of year when the Canadian Soccer Association asks coaches, members of the media, and even soft-brained, slobbering bloggers to shamble out of their mothers’ basements, shield themselves from the light, and try to vote for the Canadian men’s and women’s players of the year without pooping themselves.

Placing a vote is one thing but broadcasting our rationale for it in a 3,000-word blog post is uncut narcissism. Or not quite, for these sorts of awards often feature indefensible voting based off reputation or the candidates’ team. The upcoming FIFA Women’s Player and Coach of the Year awards already look demented and we haven’t even seen the winners yet. Being able to hold the worst voters accountable not only helps us know who the idiots are, but encourages those who are merely lazy to put a little more thought into an award that, after all, can mean a great deal to an athlete’s career. The Canadian player of the year awards have historically been more intelligently selected than others but they aren’t perfect, and those who help decide the winners should be unafraid to publicly stand by their choices.

For more examples of how I am the idiot, see my votes for 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012.

Men’s Player of the Year

Every year, deciding on the best men’s national team player is like picking your favourite Nazi. “Well, Speer downplayed his part in the Holocaust and his knowledge of slave labour, but he at least said sorry and his books were interesting.” For Albert Speer read “Atiba Hutchinson,” who I and lots of other people vote for on an almost-annual basis because he’s the best player. There’s another good argument for him this year: with much help from Atiba Beşiktaş won the 2015–16 Turkish league, is undefeated so far in 2016–17, and is playing respectably in the Champions League. Because of World Cup qualifying he was also able to play for Canada quite a bit, contributing his usual reliability and poise. He will probably win player of the year, again, and nobody will mind, again.

So here’s the argument against. First, while Hutchinson is still a core player at Beşiktaş, he hasn’t been at his best. In 2015 we had Arsene Wenger singling him out for praise amid rumours he might move at last to the Premier League. This year he’s been the Turkish team’s talisman, and the fans love him, but he has not enjoyed the same daunting run of form. Second, for country, his standard has slipped a little. He’s 33 years old, for God’s sake, he’s entitled to slow down, but the Hutch we saw, particularly at Azteca and San Pedro Sula, was not the same almost-intimidatingly imperturbable presence. Now that World Cup qualifying is over he has returned to his usual habit of showing up for the NT only now and again; he’s skipped every post-WCQ friendly and you’d be unwise to bet on him playing the Gold Cup. Unless you’re punishing him for playing at Beşiktaş any ballot without Hutch on it is incomplete, but there’s no easy, automatic first place vote here.

I also rule out the other two Canadians playing at the highest-level clubs. Scott Arfield is a neat guy but a foreign mercenary, and Junior Hoilett, besides not actually playing that well for anybody this year, is still a poster boy who couldn’t bother with us for a decade. Giving either of them a high national honour, particularly in an uninspiring year where they’d essentially win by default, is an insult. Hoilett might earn forgiveness with dedication and effort, Arfield might embrace his Canadian passport of convenience, and either might play so brilliantly that to deny them recognition would be the greater sin. But none of that has happened yet.

So who’s left? The leading scorers on the Canadian men’s national team this year were Tosaint Ricketts and David Edgar, each with two. Ricketts bagged a brace in the Mauritania Revenge Friendly. Edgar had singles against El Salvador and what was functionally Uzbekistan’s U-23 team; though normally a centreback he was playing striker at the time against El Salvador. Every word of those sentences looked like a cruel joke but was completely accurate. Both play in Major League Soccer these days, Ricketts with Toronto and Edgar with Vancouver. Well, we say “both play,” but actually Ricketts has better fit the MLS mold. Edgar has been on the field but hasn’t found a consistent role with Carl Robinson despite being, in principle, exactly the defensive stalwart the Whitecaps needed. Yes, as we all know the Whitecaps hate Canada, but he was also culpable for more MNT mistakes than anybody would have liked. The weird thing about Edgar isn’t that he’s been a rotation player in MLS, it’s that you can understand why.

Tesho Akindele did a bit for FC Dallas, a very small bit indeed for the MNT, scored against Azerbaijan (still not a joke), and I guess is defensible in another weak year. Cyle Larin inevitably regressed towards the mean for Orlando City but still had a good season, scored a goal for Canada on purpose, missed his sitters less screamingly than before, and will get well-deserved votes. Milan Borjan’s a nice shout as well, though he’s become a flamboyant goalkeeper who looks like he could steal us a big game but never does. Patrice Bernier is oddly effective for the Montreal Impact but is basically no longer a member of the national team pool. The other finalists (Marcel de Jong, Jonathan Osorio, and Adam Straith) provoke varying levels of “are you kidding?” Steven Sandor argued in favour of a player from our fascinating futsal team, and frankly if I had more bottom I would have wrote in Josh Lemos, but my almost Germanic love of order proved too strong to accept voting for a guy who doesn’t actually turn out for the senior MNT.

This brings me back to Ricketts. When he joined Toronto FC I joked that, much though fans revile him as a one-dimensional speedster, a one-dimensional speedster named Bradley Wright-Phillips is having a decent MLS career. No, Ricketts isn’t scoring like Wright-Phillips yet. He is, however, having a strong early run. On a team whose approach had been “get Giovinco the ball and let him deal with it” Ricketts provided a real spark, scoring three goals on nine shots on target in 399 minutes during the regular season; 0.676 goals and 2.030 shots on target per 90 minutes. Small sample size, absolutely. But he was also the most reliable attacking threat on the senior men’s national team, for the very little that’s worth. And, though it doesn’t feel strictly fair with the MLS Cup still ahead of us, we can’t help but note Ricketts’s two playoff goals and an assist in 117 minutes. He’s not the team’s playoff MVP, but would they have gotten this far without him?

By voting for Tosaint Ricketts, we’re voting for a criminally underappreciated player finally getting some love. He has, for both club and country, achieved something positive. Rare things in the MNT. 1. Tosaint Ricketts 2. Atiba Hutchinson 3. Cyle Larin.

Women’s Player of the Year

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Last year, Christine Sinclair’s brutal dominion over the Canadian Women’s Player of the Year award was finally broken by the heroism of young Kadeisha Buchanan, a stalwart, hard-tackling centreback who won a country’s love by having an excellent Women’s World Cup at a tender age and wrecking Abby Wambach. At long last, Canadian soccer fans were liberated from the limitless malice of Sinclair, ensconced upon her throne of skulls, laughing mercilessly as she ruthlessly drove pretenders like Diana Matheson and Sophie Schmidt into the blood-soaked dirt. (This may be slight poetic license.)

A year later, the Red Queen has marshaled her forces to restore her rule. At the Rio Olympics, Sinclair had a fine run with three goals, including the bronze medal winner, and a fine assist against Australia. Add three more in Olympic qualifying (two against relative non-minnow Costa Rica) and another in a friendly against the Netherlands for seven goals and another very respectable season. She was nominated for FIFA Women’s Player of the Year and actually outscored two of the three finalists, Marta and Melanie Behringer (though Behringer is not a striker). Less importantly, but still impressively, in a season shortened by injury and Olympics Sinclair was also the most dangerous striker for the NWSL regular season champion Portland Thorns, while younger players feted by FIFA neglected their clubs in favour of book tours, not naming any names.

Can Buchanan defend the crown wrested so heroically from Sinclair’s iron claw? No. Of course she was unbelievable for West Virginia University, a no-doubt first-team All-American and ESPNW’s national collegiate soccer player of the year. At WVU she’d boredly rampage on the attack just to keep busy as she was normally, to a hilarious degree, head-shoulders-and-hips above the low standard of the Big 12. WVU, helped by a Canadian corps on defense that most notably included Bianca St-Georges and Rylee Foster, conceded 12 goals in 27 games and none (zero!) in their eight regular-season Big 12 games. That’s a hard record for a defender to improve upon. Buchanan improved upon it anyway, scoring three goals and adding three assists.

But nobody votes for the player of the year based on what she did in the Big 12, and nobody should. In the year’s major friendlies and at the Olympics Buchanan was no more than acceptable. Compared to 2015, her tackles retained aggression but had lost common sense: she racked up the yellow cards, should have given away a penalty against France and ended our medal hopes right there, did give away an unnecessary penalty in the semifinal, and was too often just a quarter-step behind the play. There were great moments, and really bad ones; the term that comes to mind for 2016 Buchanan is “high-event” and in a centreback that’s bad. Ending 2015 on such a high then spending most of the year as a woman among girls in the NCAA, she just wasn’t precise enough at the highest level. This was her last year of college eligibility, we can count on her joining the NWSL if she’s willing, so with luck Buchanan will be back among the top three in 2017. Because she isn’t now.

So who remains to repel the dreaded Sincy, her black heart burning in hopes of revenge? Is it Steph Labbé, who was less bad than we feared during the Olympics and lost her starting spot on the Washington Spirit because they are eccentric? (No.) Is it Sabs D’Angelo, who didn’t do much for the national team but did backstop the Western New York Flash to an NWSL championship? (It is not.) Does a brace by Melissa Tancredi against Germany put her over the top? (I am more sympathetic than you might think but no, I doubt it.) How about the usual Old Pretenders, the Sophie Schmidts and the Diana Mathesons and the Desiree Scotts? Some had better seasons than others, Schmidt had an immortal moment at the Olympics, but none, you must confess, was the team’s beating heart. Matheson’s four goals and four assists in 800 NWSL minutes was very good but usually she’s in the MVP argument; not this year. (Again, though, Washington Spirit, eccentric.)

Though Buchanan is not among them, it is to the Young Pretenders that we must look if Sinclair is to be denied. In her first year at UCLA Jessie Fleming was a third-team All-American, which as 99 Friendship listeners have already been told is a very high honour for a freshman. Her ability to humiliate absolutely everyone made her a meme. She was fifth in the Pac-12 in points and tied for second in goals despite not being a natural forward; UCLA used her as a trequartista late in the season simply because she was so much more talented. She also had a strong Olympics, starting all six games, going 90 minutes in four, and achieving a magnificent assist on Sinclair’s goal against Australia. Finally, she bagged her first two goals for the senior national team, against Trinidad and Tobago and China, which is impressive for an 18-year-old if grammatically awkward.

When you vote for a senior player of the year, though, it can’t be because she was “impressive for an 18-year-old.” Fleming was certainly that, but had we lost her for the Olympics would we still have won that bronze medal? Probably. I’m glad we didn’t have to find out, but she was not our most irreplaceable player.

If super-young, super-skilled Fleming does not yet sneak into the top three, the next-most-glamorous choice is poacher Janine Beckie. Like Sinclair, Beckie scored three goals at the Olympics; unlike Sinclair, two of them were against lowly Zimbabwe. But the third was against Australia, briefly the quickest strike in Olympic history, and against France Beckie provided unquestionably the Canadian soccer assist of the season on Sophie Schmidt’s winner. Elsewhere she scored in both her starts at Olympic qualifying, had two at the Algarve Cup, and bagged a beauty on 90’+4 to beat Brazil in Ottawa. All-in-all she scored nine times for Canada in 2016, leading the charts, and just for fun added three goals and two assists in 916 minutes for the same Houston Dash team some teammates couldn’t bother to play for. It was a marvelous season for Beckie, and while it’s too soon to say she’s now Canada’s best striker, you can’t say she isn’t either. Certainly she had a better season than our friend Sinclair.

Shelina Zadorsky has risen from a relatively quiet spot to be a regular starter for Canada at centreback. This is impressive. Centrebacks of her ilk, not too physical and more focused on doing the little things right, don’t always get their credit (though it was Zadorsky’s long switch of play that started the sequence leading to Schmidt’s Olympic goal). It is a shameful omission that I am perpetuating, for her game is a modest one and was not sufficiently close to perfection to break onto the podium.

The winner is Ashley Lawrence. Moving from the wing to fullback so effortlessly is amazing, but not inherently player-of-the-year stuff: there’s no automatic “degree of difficulty” bonus. What makes Lawrence the player of the year is that she was an incredible fullback. Moving between the left and the right with ease, absolutely indefatigable despite playing an extremely quick, pacey game. Unafraid to challenge players in her own third, and sufficiently talented that she won those challenges. Disciplined but damned difficult to beat. An offensive threat not only in the way that her speed and aggression forced defenders to defer to her, but in terms of the two assists she bagged in 2016 including one in the bronze medal match, an annihilating run putting Brazil on the back foot before she sauced it up to Deanne Rose. She was probably the best fullback in women’s soccer in 2016 despite playing the position for the first time and remaining in midfield with West Virginia. Internationally, she was incredible almost every game, started eighteen of twenty appearances for Canada, was probably man-of-the-match in the Olympic games against Australia and France, and despite her workrate was only subbed off once. Oh, and she was another first-team All-American, but her national team play was so fabulous that no such tinfoil slivers of distinction are needed to establish her pre-eminence. In the future teams will be used to Lawrence, they will plan for her, and we’ll see if she can build on this. But no player can take more personal pride in that bronze medal. 1. Ashley Lawrence 2. Janine Beckie 3. Christine Sinclair.

Awards I Can’t Vote For

Licensed Canadian soccer coaches are eligible to vote for the youth players of the year. I am not, but will say what I would have done anyway.

It was an off year for baby broso, so opinions there are formed in great ignorance. For the U-20 men’s player of the year, for example, it is hard to see past Shamit Shome: the FC Edmonton Academy product turned in 18 starts and 1,654 minutes in the NASL last year, totals none of the other nominees have come close to on a professional first team. As Sadi Jalali or Hanson Boakai would tell you, no amount of “potential” will get you playing time from Colin Miller unless you are a consistent contributor, and Shome (who has already spent more time on the field than either higher-touted player did in their FC Edmonton careers) was. He’s become a regular on the national U-20 team, as well, and has captained them in a few games. Compared to him the likes of Kris Twardek, who recently saw his first action for Millwall in the former League Cup but has never played a real game, just seem inadequate. Twardek and Shome are the only nominees to have played a single minute of first-team soccer, though Ballou Tabla has an MLS contract. Some have done very well with the reserves: Tabla had five goals and five assists in 1,685 minutes last year for the mini-Impact and Thomas Meilleur-Giguère was omnipresent on their backline. Still, there’s no substitute for leadership and the first eleven. 1. Shamit Shome 2. Ballou Tabla 3. Kris Twardek.

In principle the women’s U-20 player of the year is a gimme, but here’s a philosophical question. There was a U-20 Women’s World Cup this year, and can you be U-20 player of the year if you deliberately skipped it? This applies to Jessie Fleming, who is easily the best candidate except for the fact that she chose to stay at UCLA rather than make the trip to Papua New Guinea. If the girls had enjoyed a great World Cup this might have got very interesting, but in fact they were absolutely destroyed and the less said about the tournament the better. Judging players by their performance on other stages is an act of mercy, with the exception of centreback Bianca St-Georges. At the end of the U-20 World Cup I genuinely felt bad for her: no defensive starter ever deserved a 4.33 goals-against average less. By the way, Deanne Rose is not on the official nominee list, which is so obviously insane I can only assume it’s a typo. 1. Jessie Fleming 2. Deanne Rose [write-in?!] 3. Bianca St-Georges.

The men’s U-17 player of the year is even easier. The Vancouver Whitecaps’ Alphonso Davies played like he was three or four years above this age cutoff all year. As long as he appears on this list of under-17 players, he’s a leading contender. So let’s talk about second place. Once again there’s been next-to-no public action from this age group, incidentally justifying the CSA limiting the vote to accredited coaches. Toronto FC’s Terique Mohammed scored three times for the U-17 national team, including one against the United States and a last-ditch winner against Panama. He also managed just over an hour with their League1 Ontario team, and that’s excellent work for a forward of that age. The Whitecaps’ Gabriel Escobar enjoys a decent reputation, so in light of no clear third-place contender let’s pick him. 1. Alphonso Davies 2. Terique Mohammed 3. Gabriel Escobar.

How about the women’s U-17 player of the year? For just a tenth of a second, I flirted with contrarianism. The best player on Canada’s U-17 Women’s World Cup team was not who you’re automatically nodding towards, Deanne Rose: it was fullback Emma Regan, who in a disappointing tournament was truly excellent. Playing a position where Canada has historically been rubbish at the youth level, and still eligible for this award next year, Regan was dynamic in both offense and defense and even waged a respectable fight at the U-20 Women’s World Cup despite being thrown into soccer hell. After just missing out on my ballot in 2015 she certainly deserved recognition. Then I woke up and said “wait a minute, Deanne Rose was a useful player at the actual Olympics, stop being so stupid.” It was a moment’s madness, it passed, but seriously Regan did really well in a summer where Canadian women’s youth soccer did not win any laurels. Third place is Sarah Stratigakis, because she was successful at the U-17 Women’s World Cup and okay at the U-20s given that she was, for most of the 270 minutes, literally our only midfielder. 1. Deanne Rose 2. Emma Regan 3. Sarah Stratigakis.

Insulting Chants

By Benjamin Massey · October 5th, 2016 · No comments

Jay Shaw/Canadian Soccer Association

Jay Shaw/Canadian Soccer Association

The Canadian Soccer Association has again been fined 20,000 Swiss francs (about CDN$27,000) for “insulting chants by supporters.” This fine, their third of the past World Cup cycle, came at Canada’s 3-1 win over El Salvador on September 6. One earlier fine was for pyrotechnics, the other for the infamous streaker and more “insulting chants,” and we also got a warning for the team coming out late for the second half at Honduras – Canada. Which is fair enough since it did.

“Insulting chants” fall under section 67 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code, which reads:

67. Liability for spectator conduct

  1. The home association or home club is liable for improper conduct among spectators, regardless of the question of culpable conduct or culpable oversight, and, depending on the situation, may be fined. Further sanctions may be imposed in the case of serious disturbances.
  2. The visiting association or visiting club is liable for improper conduct among its own group of spectators, regardless of the question of culpable conduct or culpable oversight, and, depending on the situation, may be fined. Further sanctions may be imposed in the case of serious disturbances. Supporters occupying the away sector of a stadium are regarded as the visiting association’s supporters, unless proven to the contrary.
  3. Improper conduct includes violence towards persons or objects, letting off incendiary devices, throwing missiles, displaying insulting or political slogans in any form, uttering insulting words or sounds, or invading the pitch.
  4. The liability described in par. 1 and 2 also includes matches played on neutral ground, especially during final competitions.

So visiting fans are probably innocent. The phrase “insulting chants by supporters” implies repetition and organization, which in turn implies that it couldn’t have been Salvadoran agents provocateurs scattered through the crowd.

Last year’s pyrotechnics charge against Belize was a fair cop. That did happen, in the Canadian supporters section at BMO Field. Of course responsible pyro should be allowed in soccer stadiums, but whatever may actually be just, in that case supporters undeniably broke a clear rule. An apology would be disingenuous since it’ll probably happen again, but we can take responsibility. “Insulting chants,” though? How do you even respond to that? That could be anything.

FIFA does not say what the insulting chants were and nowhere defines the term beyond its plain English meaning. According to Duane Rollins, the Canadian Soccer Association has not replied to requests for clarification. The Voyageurs, Canada’s semi-demi-hemi-official supporters group, have no idea what they might have done. I don’t mean that in the sense of a guy going “it’s a football match innit it’s just some banter” when he’s upset someone. We genuinely don’t know. My truculence and rudeness are not typical of a Vancouver crowd, which is for the most part mild-mannered and at pains to avoid anything that might hint at offense.

During the Mexico game, some Voyageurs brought in rainbow flags to protest a Mexican chant that offended them and there was serious support for an organized campaign. A dozen people chanting “build a wall and make them pay for it” for a few bars when we were getting stomped caused serious internal recriminations. And while there are drunken louts in any big crowd, “insulting chants by supporters” must mean more than some university idiot fifteen beers deep bellowing “go home you spic.” Otherwise every country with liquor sales would get fined. Vancouver supporters aren’t saints, but they are less outspoken than most within Canada, let alone the whole soccer world.

Local supporters believe the “insulting chants” were the traditional Vancouver shouting of “you fat bastard” when the opposing keeper takes a goal kick. This chant, dating back way into the USL days, has gotten the Vancouver Southsiders some limited heat from Major League Soccer over the years without affecting its popularity. There are no more obvious candidates so its guilt has been sort of assumed. But there’s nothing official or semi-official, no leak, no unnamed source, saying so. Vancouver fans shouted “you fat bastard” at the Honduran goalkeeper last year and nobody was fined.

Section 67 is so broad that the only way to avoid it is to stay silent. “Football mafia, CONCACAF!” is a popular chant whenever a call goes against us; that sounds pretty insulting. Any of the many variants of chants accusing players of being diving weenies qualify. “Uttering insulting [. . .] sounds” is sanctionable; did we boo anybody during those games? FIFA’s refusal to explain exactly what the fine was for only makes them look more arbitrary, and the CSA staying mum suggests they don’t want to bother even asking the supporters to change. (We should, incidentally, appreciate the hell out of that.)

No doubt FIFA is trying to stomp out something it, or a member association, finds offensive. The fact that there is nothing to be offended by in the average Canadian eye is irrelevant. We are being judged by standards not our own, and the unsurpassable effrontery of FIFA technocrats thinking they of all people can be our moral tutors chafes like steel underwear. The fact that outsiders are taking our kids’ registration fees to enforce their cultural values and dictate what’s offensive in a Canadian culture they do not understand is appalling, but that’s modern international soccer, isn’t it?

Being Paid to Do Your Job

By Benjamin Massey · September 6th, 2016 · No comments

I assume you’ve heard of the latest CONCACAF match-fixing scandal. Either way, I’m gonna sum it up so grab a snack and hold on.

Yesterday, at a pre-World Cup qualifier press conference, the El Salvadoran men’s national team played audio proporting to be of Salvadoran businessman Ricardo Padilla offering the team, on behalf of Honduran soccer interests, up to $30 per player per minute to beat Canada, or at least lose close.

Naturally we laugh. We laugh at the idea that you should bribe players to win (“shit, maybe we should try that”). We laugh at some Honduran being so worried Canada might run up the score that he’s dialing his fixer. We laugh at the incompetence of the whole approach, from the piddling sums of money (a maximum $2700 per player, with unused substitutes not paid at all, won’t buy a lot of silence with careers at stake) to carelessly being recorded over the phone. We laugh because it’s funny, and because the Salvadoran team did the right thing and took the sting out.

But how serious is this? The Salvadorans, after all, would be bribed to do what they want to do anyway. How bad could that be? Is it even really match fixing?

We could ask the El Salvador men’s national team. They are coming off a recent match fixing scandal in 2013 that saw players banned for life, and thought seriously enough of this one to go to the press. Didn’t seem to be much conflict in their hearts, and they would have experience sorting those particular thoughts in their collective conscience.

But we could also ask the doyennes of match fixing, the gods of gambling, the crown princes of the crooked result. I am, of course, referring to the Victorian English.

You see, the El Salvadoran approach is not new. In the old days, gamblers really ruled the roost. Some sports, like single-wicket cricket, literally died out because match fixing was so prevalent. Gentlemen and common professionals could equally be snared, retribution for a double cross was physical and extreme, and the possibility of blackmail made a gambler’s life potentially far too easy.

And they’d have recognized this El Salvadoran situation at once. You see, bribing a player to win was a classic approach for exactly the reasons we’re not sure this is a proper scandal. The player will only do what he wanted to do anyway, and (being a Victorian Englishman and therefore not lavishly-paid for athletics) the money would be a nice bonus. There’s a good chance he’d accept. Even if he didn’t, the gambler might forward the bribe on anyway after the athlete won, counting on him not to actually hand the cash back.

Of course, at that point, the match fixer was in. The athlete had accepted money to influence a sporting result from, probably, a known bad egg. In this example, El Salvador bunkering to hold a 1-0 deficit is the sort of not-horrible-but-off complication that can arise.

There’d be witnesses. The athlete would be under that much more pressure, applied quite overtly, when the time came for the player to lose. The consequences were predictable.

Probably El Salvador wasn’t in any danger of being called upon to tank a Gold Cup qualifier any time soon. But they couldn’t know, and they behaved rightly. Match fixing can be funny but it is no joke.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

By Benjamin Massey · September 3rd, 2016 · 1 comment

Paul Giamou/Canadian Soccer Association

Paul Giamou/Canadian Soccer Association

Despite our latest 2-1 loss in Honduras it’s not mathematically impossible for the Canadian men’s national team to qualify for the World Cup; just the regular kind.

To advance we have to beat El Salvador at BC Place on Tuesday (reasonable), and Mexico needs to simultaneously annihilate Honduras at the Azteca. Canada is currently three points behind Honduras for the vital second place in our group; worse, our goal difference is five behind theirs. We seem constitutionally incapable of scoring more than once and would need at least a 5-0 Mexico victory*. In 1980 Mexico beat Honduras 5-1, and if you go way back to 1935 Mexico scored an 8-2 win in a prehistory when Honduras lost by a converted touchdown to pretty much everybody[1]. Mexico’s already through but when you’re taking on a rival for the Azteca crowd, pride actually counts quite a bit. Not “five goals” though.

In games like this even the balanced mind becomes bipolar. On the one hand, there is the urge to resist defeatism. The odds of Canada advancing with a win are one in a million, but that’s a damned sign better than the odds if Canada doesn’t win, so give ‘er gusto. Roar the boys on to a victory that, to any true fan, would be worth it for its own sake anyway. Those of us who were in Edmonton to see an already-eliminated Canada play Mexico in 2008 won’t soon forget that game as, with nothing to play for, Dale Mitchell’s squad played like it was the World Cup itself and won a glorious 2-2 draw. Just because a difficult job will have no larger purpose doesn’t mean you don’t have to give it your all. What were we just saying about Mexico? Pride counts; the BC Place crowd isn’t as intimidating as the Azteca’s but it’s still worth effort.

On the other hand, we’re done and everyone knows it. Even if that one-in-a-million chance came through we’d advance through no fault of our own. We could try to fool ourselves, like the lottery winner who says he must somehow have deserved it, but deep down we’ll know. So we’re searching for someone to blame, and by “searching” I mean we already know exactly who to blame because it’s always the head coach.

What sin is Benito Floro innocent of? Nepotism (his son, Antonio, is an assistant with the first team and led us through a disappointing Pan-Ams)? Arrogance (the Doneil Henry Right Back Experiment has been the most destructive since the Manhattan Project)? Obliviousness (with Canada effectively needing a goal in Honduras, Floro subbed on defensive player Nik Ledgerwood for a striker, the superbly useless Cyle Larin)? Does he even care (seriously, people were upset about Floro not celebrating Manjrekar James’s goal enough)? What a useless empty sack. He didn’t even call up the players I like! Small wonder he’s been sacked from almost every job he’s ever held like 99% of the world’s soccer managers.

Benito Floro looks set to get scapegoated. Just as Stephen Hart was in 2012, after losing that 8-1 game in Honduras following up a qualification campaign in which Canada was hopeless in front of goal. Hart currently coaches Trinidad and Tobago, who are winning their qualifying group and already assured of a place in the hex. Oh, yeah, Trinidad and Tobago’s group was a bit easier than ours, but Hart got a 0-0 draw with the United States at home and a 2-1 victory over Guatemala away, both results we’d give our eye teeth for.

Just as Colin Miller was after the 2013 Gold Cup. Miller was acting as interim coach during a Gold Cup that saw Canada embarrassingly lose to Martinique, play a decent loss to Mexico, and a rather boring nothing-to-play-for draw against Panama, all without scoring a single goal. Three quarters of his team was sick and others had better things to do. As the interim coach Miller was not exactly sacked, but Floro’s appointment was announced during the Gold Cup Miller was coaching. Anyway, despite plenty of criticism over the years Miller’s FC Edmonton squad just played a rollicking 2-2 draw at Ottawa despite missing two starters on international duty and is in the middle of its best-ever season, with very strong odds of a playoff spot.

Dale Mitchell, our 2008 Judas, has never returned to professional coaching after that letdown. Instead he is director of coaching at Coquitlam Metro-Ford, the latest in a series of developmental spots he’s held across the Lower Mainland. Coquitlam’s youth clubs, boys and girls, are perennial provincial contenders, their boys U-18s participating in nationals this year. A number of current youth internationals including Kadin Chung, Julia Kostecki, and Caitlin Shaw have come through their program. So Mitchell is doing all right for himself.

It wasn’t many months ago that Benito Floro was Canadian soccer’s hero of the hour. Not merely because he coached Real Madrid, but because he got us that long-awaited home win over Honduras and convinced several waverers and non-Canadians to join our national setup. Junior Hoilett and Steven Vitoria had long pushed Canada off in favour of other ambitions but, with their careers not leading to the European Championships in the foreseeable future, accepted Floro’s call. Scott Arfield, of course, is not Canadian in any sense whatsoever, but had a coincidental family connection and accepted the summons from a country he’d never been to when Scotland seemed uninterested. All these additions were much-touted, put squarely in Floro’s favour, and in the end made very little difference.

You know, I’m beginning to think it’s not the coach.

Long-term everybody knows that the problems are far deeper than any senior national team personnel, and most of us agree that a proper Canadian soccer pyramid will help us in twenty years, but that doesn’t explain our underachievement now. If I had a quick solution I would tell you. But slapping another coat of paint on top of our crumbling wall obviously isn’t going to help. Sure, many of us disagreed with Floro’s decisions but that’s just another way of saying “Benito Floro coaches a sport.” Had our first taste of John Herdman been 2015’s backpasses-and-Tancredi show rather than the 2012 miracle, women’s fans might have called for his head, which would have been the greatest mistake in Canadian soccer history.

Of course, John Herdman does have one advantage. While his teams always have the occasional me-first player (every team does), they are for the most part a collection of women who have spent a lot of time together and who are whole-heartedly devoted to the maple leaf. They don’t need to be coddled and given perks in excess of their performance. They don’t need to be mollycoddled on higher, strategic matters like what city games will be held in. They aren’t replaced two, three at a time by lukewarm Canadians who only answered our call because their preferred country wasn’t coming and immediately got slammed into the starting eleven.

This isn’t a gender thing. Plenty of international-calibre Canadian men’s players fit the ideal I just described. They’d run through a wall for the red and white. Some of those players got left out in favour of foreign mercenaries and Canadians who couldn’t care less, flopping and hot-dogging with one eye on the stands for scouts. That strategy has been a constant for as long as our coaching carousel. Maybe that’s where we should change first? If you can’t be the most talented, and Canada can’t, you can at least work the hardest, want it the most, and drive on your teammates the furthest.

(notes and comments…)

Making Up Our Goddamned Minds

By Benjamin Massey · June 8th, 2016 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

If we Canadian soccer fans had died on Saturday, we would have died sad.

Friday morning saw our Canadian men’s national team in Austria up against Azerbaijan, current world football Elo ranking 112, nestled between Réunion and Lebanon and thirty spots below even lowly Canada. The oil-rich Azerbaijanis have been investing heavily in their soccer team; president Ilham Aliyev is both a fan and a ex-Soviet kleptocrat of the first rank whose passion is diverting public money to his own interests. Azerbaijan’s head coach is ex-La Liga star Robert Prosinečki, who succeeded ex-Borussia Mönchengladbach star Berti Vogts in 2015. In 2011 they built a fabulous new national stadium in the capital of Baku which will host matches at Euro 2020. But money can’t buy everything and Azerbaijan is crap, with most of their players stuck in their uninteresting domestic league. Not Canada crap, though: 2.Bundesliga journeyman Dimitrij Nazarov was able to turn the Canadian midfield inside-out and buried a well-deserved penalty past Simon Thomas. The Azerbaijanis had the bulk of the chances and while Tesho Akindele’s goal was pretty nice, it’s all that was.

Benito Floro’s company was under strength. No Atiba Hutchinson, no Milan Borjan, no Will Johnson, and Marcel de Jong was hurt in the first half. Yet nobody forced us to send out six centrebacks, Johnson is a useful international but no star, and Atiba is 33 years old; we should probably learns to play without him one of these decades. A 1-1 draw against a team that recently drew to Malta was well-deserved, arguably even fortunate, for Canada, who was outshot and outpossessed by the Baku boys almost from the beginning. It was our sorriest friendly performance since that time we took one point from six against Mauritania, or maybe since we tied the Ventura County Fusion.

But at least we have the women, Canada’s sweethearts, who will redeem the Dominion’s honour against Brazil before a raucous Toronto crowd oh hell. Kadeisha Buchanan looked like she was six years old, Diana Matheson and Christine Sinclair looked like they were 600, Desirée Scott had developed a paralytic phobia of the ball. Brazil’s first goal was actually an embarrassment, the sort you give up in Football Manager. After multiple comic failures to clear the ball Allysha Chapman decided to serve it delicately to Marta, who has always appreciated good service, with inevitable results. On her second goal Marta proved she could do it herself, sauntering through non-existent marking and skimming a low central shot from range that would have been easily saved most of the time, but this time bounced off Steph Labbé’s hands into the far corner. Speaking of Labbé, her Adventures In Goalkeeping drew two anguished screams in the first six minutes and had us seriously considering a #Sheridan2016 campaign, while in the booth Jason deVos and Karina LeBlanc dished out every crumb of faint praise they could sweep up. We had some positives but, in front of excellent Canadian support, Brazil beat ten kinds of crap out of us then sat back and laughed.

After the game I had two reflections. The first was that, though she is putting in an MVP-candidate season with the Washington Spirit, I hadn’t seen Matheson good with the WNT for a couple of years. Nobody contradicted this, except to add to the list of long-disappointing midfielders. The second was that, halfway through the year, I really had no idea who could possibly deserve to be Canada’s women’s player of the year, then I caught myself, said that I knew exactly who the front-runner is, and it’s Ashley Lawrence. Which, with all respect to an emerging core player, is a little frightening.

So it was a black weekend. The men were in full-on minnow mode. The women weren’t capable of living in the same universe as Brazil. Woe to the conquered.

Then again, if we Canadian soccer fans had been born, screaming and crying, on Monday night, how brilliant our lives would have looked.

First off, the Canadian men opened the week with a friendly against Uzbekistan. There could hardly be a better recipe for Monday morning misery. The Uzbeks are actually solid: their Elo ranking is 48, a worthy mark between Ghana and Wales. Save for a 4-2 loss in Pyongyang, which I suspect is a difficult road trip, they have blitzed the field in Asian World Cup qualifying and were on an eight-game winning streak when we met. They called a young team, with twelve players on fewer than ten caps and many regulars absent; in principle Canada would give them a match. But those young Uzbeks qualified for the 2015 U-20 World Cup, unlike Canada, and had an extremely respectable exit in the quarter-finals. After that Azerbaijani debacle, well.

Yet Canada did exactly what they were supposed to do. The game started well and stayed that way. David Edgar, in holding midfield, not only got his head on the goal but contributed to other attacking movement, particularly in the first half. Scott Arfield dribbled around most of central Asia and Tosaint Ricketts was always a whisker away from getting in clear. Another early injury in defense, with Manjrekar James coming off 14 minutes in, was handled far more gracefully than on Friday. We didn’t look brilliant, conceded a few chances, our goal against was a bit of a shambles, and of course there was nothing glorious about the winning goal. A bullet header from 20-year-old fullback Akramjon Kolimov, making his second ever international appearance, getting on the end of a Junior Hoilett cross and piledriving it beautifully into the back of the net, with the only blemish on the strike being that the net was his own. So no, Canada didn’t deserve the win, but they were the better team and deserved to deserve it, which against that level of opposition is good enough.

Steve Kingsman/Canadian Soccer Association

Steve Kingsman/Canadian Soccer Association

That afternoon the women went for revenge against Brazil in Ottawa. Again the crowd was good in a non-traditional city, notwithstanding the capital city dickery of Lansdowne security, who confiscated flags and generally made trouble for the Canadian supporters. Youngsters Ashley Lawrence and Deanne Rose, who had in Toronto earned another chance, got it. Fellow youngster Jessie Fleming also got a start and added style to the lineup, right down to fizzing a shot from distance just wide after two years of me shouting “Fleming needs to shoot more!” Buchanan settled in, though she flubbed a great scoring chance. Matheson, playing high, was so lively and involved in the play that I thought guiltily about deleting my Twitter. Sinclair didn’t turn any of her looks into brilliant shots, but those looks were plentiful and she distributed the ball well. Lawrence is basically the player character in a video game now, running around doing absolutely everything. And that worrisome Labbé could have played cards for all it would have mattered; Brazil handicapped its offense by leaving Marta on the bench, but Cristiane is a heck of a second choice and she was neutralized. Even when Marta came on she didn’t get a sniff.

Like the men, the women were not perfect. Buchanan was much better but not exactly A1 and Scott struggled again, but more importantly they dominated the chances through all 90 minutes. Many came off the #CanadaRED boots of sparkling impact sub Janine Beckie. She earned her moment of stoppage-time heroism: coming out of midfield Matheson could not possibly have arced her pass any better and Beckie leisurely lobbed Luciana with one touch to win it with seconds left. Then she went over to Jennifer Hedger and had a calm interview about how they pressured Brazil’s back line before posing for some photos, though scoring a dramatic winner against quality opposition in front of 20,000 fresh-baked Beckiemaniacs did rate a smile. We saw the same thing when she piled on the misery for a pleb in Olympic qualifying and was barely interested in high fiving her teammates: Janine Beckie is stone cold. She is also 21 years old and has every chance of being among our top ten all-time women’s scorers by the end of the Olympics, provided she isn’t forced into goal again.

We all swallow clozapine by the pallet in the Canadian soccer community but the past few days have been, even by our high standards, bipolar. From confirmation of how miserable we are to a bright spark of hope in less time than it takes to tie your shoes. Both pessimism and optimism have been justified by games that were exactly as miserable/promising as the worst/best of us could have feared/hoped, and the result is that we stand in the middle of the parking lot throwing our arms around and not knowing what to think. Has the MNT got the creativity and guile to break down the Hondurans at San Pedro Sula, who after all are not by any rational calculation properly good? Well, maybe? Can the WNT overcome the fact that its goalkeeping is reduced to crossed fingers and a hashtag campaign, pump goals by Zimbabwe, get out of the group stage with credit, and scrap into a knockout round which could easily bless us with a kind draw? It might happen? At their best, both our senior national teams looked plenty good enough to do what we ask of them. But at their worst, back on the pills. It’s going to be a long year.

The Greatest Canadian Game Ever

By Benjamin Massey · January 22nd, 2016 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

There are some good old Canadian soccer videos on YouTube, and today I found the crown jewel: the complete match video of the biggest day in Canadian men’s soccer history, when on September 14, 1985, Canada beat Honduras 2-1 in St. John’s, Newfoundland and qualified for the 1986 FIFA World Cup.

I had never before watched this game. It took place fifteen months before I was born. The game was broadcast live nationally on CBC, today not a home for the men’s national team, so there are few opportunities for the network to pull it out of the archives. The only chance was home videotapers, some of whom recorded this game, a smaller subset of those keeping both boxes of tapes in good order and the means to play (and digitize) them. Apart from the 1986 World Cup itself, where YouTube has varying-quality foreign-language videos of all three Canadian games, the earliest matches available online even as decent highlight reels dated from the 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign… until a magnificent user gave us this piece of history.

You know the story. Canada needed a draw or a win to qualify; a loss would see Honduras through. English-born Carl Valentine, late of the Vancouver Whitecaps and then with West Brom, had finally agreed to represent his adopted homeland. The game was scheduled for St. John’s and the Newfoundlanders packed King George V Park to standing room only, fans crowded around the thin white rope that protected the field of play. Meanwhile, according to imperishable legend, most Hondurans who traveled to support their side wound up in Saint John, New Brunswick, across the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the action and scrambling to find a friendly pub. In the end, despite struggling with the flu, Valentine set up Canadian goals from two players as different as ice and fire: scrapper’s scrapper George Pakos, the Victoria amateur who’d clawed his way into the national program with sheer persistence and guts, and super-skilled Torontonian forward Igor Vrablic, 20 years old and already making his 34th cap, but less than two years away from being forced out in disgrace for match fixing.

You see it all in the video. Pakos’s opening goal is superbly gritty; Valentine’s corner gets only a glancing header from Ian Bridge, the ball falls into a sea of Honduran white, and from outside the post George Pakos charges into the mob like a raging bull and puts his boot through it, driving it right off Honduran goalkeeper Julio César Arzú and in. Vrablic, on the other hand, does it almost like you draw it up: tied 1-1 just past the hour mark, Valentine’s corner is flicked on by David Norman and Vrablic makes the perfect run, chucks his leg in the way, and deflects it home.

However, when you know a game as only a legend, it’s so easy to be disappointed in the imperfect reality of a 90-minute soccer match. Especially a thirty-year-old one on a dodgy pitch during the salad days of defensive soccer. Early on I yelped at a Canadian backpass into goalkeeper Tino Lettieri’s hands before remembering that wouldn’t be a rule for seven more years, and his long holds of the ball would have driven Abby Wambach to distraction. This was not soccer’s finest era and, mentally, I prepared myself for Canada gritting out an undeserved three points. What I got was a match living up to its reputation.

There are so many little moments Wikipedia just can’t tell you about. Lettieri, officially listed at 6’0″ but definitely smaller (Bruce Wilson, no giant, has a good few inches on him), running down everything like a maniac, taking every chance, and sprinting down the pitch to celebrate with the team on Pakos’s opener. The aggressiveness of the defending. A constant press, mad challenges (particularly from Pakos and Norman) in spite of what we still recognize as Honduras’s trademark flopping. Vrablic’s first-half chance, an absolute sparkler of a ball flashing across the face of goal, only for him to cement-foot it sideways, the sort of thing that could have lived in infamy on another day. Vrablic cannoning a shot from distance off the post with barely ten minutes to go; that miss wouldn’t have to haunt him either.

Late in the first half, with Canada holding on to a 1-0 lead, Randy Samuel making one of the great goal-line clearances, outrunning both Lettieri and the ball to hammer it most of the way to Cape Breton. Lettieri spilling a dangerous free kick but Ian Bridge thundering in without regard for life or limb to clear the ball behind. Late in the game, a charging Lettieri being stamped on by Macho Figueroa, and an irate Bob Lenarduzzi immediately shoving Figueroa to the ground. Randy Regan and Paul James, of all people, hooking up for a European counter attack that ended with James two feet from a highlight-reel goal. Ken Garraway, another Victoria amateur legend making his second-last cap for Canada, coming on to help kill the last half-hour and in his charmingly limited way tying the desperate Honduran defense in knots, like a particularly awkward bull tossing aside Pamplona tourists.

And Canada running, running, running, living up to our every stereotype of a country that emphasizes fitness, guts, and desire rather than sheer technical skill, a negative cliché that, on this enormous day, worked in the most positive fashion. The game was even in the middle of the park but Honduras generated little. They wanted it, don’t kid yourself, but pushed on by one of the all-time great crowds Canada outworked them. A crowd so energetic that, even in the pre-supporters group era, on the dough-like mid-’80s CBC microphones the atmosphere flows though the video like lifeblood. Singing “na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey hey hey, goodbye”… in the sixty-fifth minute. The Voyageurs wouldn’t have the nerve to taunt the Hondos like that today, but St. John’s did, and they were right. There weren’t even moments of danger, just Canada working harder, holding on, and at the explosion of the final whistle thousands of fans invading what had suddenly become a hallowed pitch.

What a show it was, the best of Canadian soccer as it was then. Knowing the outcome and knowing that, in the long run, it would amount to nothing more than a story takes nothing away in 2016. These players gave their all for their country; there were a few flashy, uncommitted professionals, but old-school players who’d run through a wall for the maple leaf proved more important. Pakos and Wilson, in particular, were the very incarnation of what Canadian players should be. Even Valentine, born and raised in England and preferring to play for them, was an honest man whose heart belonged to two homelands and would give everything he had for either one. They weren’t as technical as the Hondurans but they were skilled enough, not to mention well-led and utterly committed, and that’s what mattered (indeed, their performance against a nasty group in 1986 should be a source of pride in itself).

Bringing in the most talented players regardless of other considerations is a valid approach. But it’s not the only successful one.

My 2015 Canadian Soccer Awards Ballot, Eventually

By Benjamin Massey · January 7th, 2016 · No comments

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

In 2014 I set what must have been the world record for laziness by posting my Canadian soccer players of the year ballot on December 26, long after the award winners had already been announced. I’d gotten my votes in on time, but actually sharing them with the world took ages. Yet that was as mayflies compared to what happened in 2015, when I find myself typing out my list of awardees at, er, the beginning of January.

This is not (exclusively) an exercise in hubris, nor an excuse to “start a conversation” since hardly anybody comments on this blog anyway. There’s a selfish element: I like being able to look back, see what I thought in 2013 or 2014. But there’s another dimension: voters for major awards have a minor moral duty to make their votes public. The recent Baseball Hall of Fame announcement, which again saw the tremendous Tim Raines left out of Cooperstown, shows why. Raines appeared on 77.8% of the ballots made public, nicely above the 75% required for election, but only got 69.8% of the vote overall. Raines is probably the greatest leadoff man in National League history but played in a small foreign market and was overshadowed in his own time by Rickey Henderson. He’s easy to overlook by those unaware of his greatness and unwilling to do the research, but as the public voters showed, accountability promotes responsibility. (Not that, as the FIFA Player of the Year awards demonstrate, it is a panacea.)

Canada’s official soccer awards are very vulnerable to this sort of slackness, as Christine Sinclair’s player of the year win last year showed. To my knowledge only a minority of media members publicize their ballots. Most of them, not coincidentally, have opinions you can take seriously, because they’ve put the thought in. I try to keep the same spirit even when I fall short in rigor. In fact, as you’ll see, I think I got one of my 2015 votes wrong already.

Enough tiresome preamble. Let’s begin. Here are my votes from 2014, 2013, and 2012.

Women’s Player of the Year

The Women’s World Cup in Canada captivated the nation. Being the major soccer event of the summer right in front of our noses, it should have led to a more informed level of voting than you usually get on the distaff side of the ball. And it did! Kadeisha Buchanan, born fifty-six days too soon to be eligible for the U-20 team, took what we can more-or-less guarantee will not be her last Player of the Year award, breaking Christine Sinclair’s unsurpassable run of eleven straight going back to 2004 (she also won in 2000, aged 17; another record that will never be broken). Sinclair still came in third. Josée Bélanger, scorer of the year’s biggest goal and first-rate feel-good story, was a well-deserved runner-up.

About Buchanan, there is nothing more to add. She would be a starting centreback on the World XI today. She made the 10-woman shortlist for FIFA World Player of the Year, as high an honour as she can get given that no defender has ever been voted into the top 3. She cracked the World Cup all-star team and was named Best Young Player despite a nagging injury and dragging the decomposing Lauren Sesselmann and Carmelina Moscato around like a sack of bricks. She won the Voyageurs Player of the Year award with an unusually heavy majority, 13 out of 18 first-place votes. She genuinely is that good. Canada is rightly condemned for its female player development and complete lack of professional opportunities, but if we can create a Buchananbauer then something must be going right. Anybody who didn’t have her on the ballot must be suspected of either disrespecting the defensive arts or knee-jerk contrarianism. Her victory, and the end of Sinclair’s dominance, can hardly be better deserved.

Bélanger is hardly be a reputation vote, since prior to this year she had effectively left the picture. But such a year catches a lot of attention. Not only the goal against Switzerland, a scrappy but skilled strike in the most critical of situations, but her general play up top, giving Sinclair a forward partner she could actually do something with. More than that, Bélanger actually played most of the World Cup at right back, substituting for the injured Rhian Wilkinson and doing, despite some dodgy moments, a better job than the veteran she was allegedly backing up. Today’s argument over Bélanger, which continued into the December Natal tournament, is whether the team is better starting her on the back line or starting her at forward. There aren’t many players on many national teams, male or female, who can boast that sort of versatility.

While it’s hardly of the same importance as her gallant national team play, Bélanger also tore the UEFA Women’s Champions League a couple new orifices. Turning out with Rosengård, a good women’s side, Bélanger had four goals and an assist in four matches. She was only the second-leading striker on Rosengård, but since the leader is Marta I bet she can live with that. Club soccer on the women’s end is less important than internationals but it’s still a good tie-breaker and Bélanger had as good a club season as any Canadian. Between that and her World Cup heroism I had her second place on my ballot with the rest of the voters. Incidentally, 2016 will see Bélanger play in the NWSL, leaving Rosengård just as Erin McLeod (and Ella Masar) join it but staying closer to the Canadian soccer spotlight.

Third place is where it all gets interesting. Erin McLeod had a lousy club season in Houston (again, tiebreaker) but proved once again she is the greatest money goalkeeper in the world at the World Cup. The Natal tournament, though it came too late to influence the CSA’s voting, was a vivid demonstration of just how vital McLeod is. When she went off with a knee injury in the final against Brazil Steph Labbé came in, and while Labbé wasn’t bad exactly she definitely was not Erin Fucking McLeod, and Canada lost.

Allysha Chapman was another great story. Last year she burst out of obscurity into the first team, slotting in at left back and making us all go “huh.” This year, her first as a regular, saw her be (with Buchanan) one of only two Canadian defenders you could pretty much trust. She started sixteen games, including the entire World Cup, and scored her first international goal in Cyprus against Italy. In the end she has more to learn at the highest level, was slightly too erratic to get many votes[1], and had a nearly non-existent season with the Houston Dash, but I thought long and hard about her and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

Sophie Schmidt didn’t play club soccer in the summer of 2015 at all, but after the World Cup signed on with maybe the best women’s soccer club in history, 1. FFC Frankfurt. She has instantly become a regular, starting seven of twelve games. Her World Cup itself was a slight disappointment, aggravated by injury, for the woman who should have been Canada’s best player, but she remained perfectly competent and you could tell how much the team missed her when she was gone. Though it was only a friendly, she scored the prettiest damned goal by a Canadian woman all year in the Hamilton match against England. Schmidt is who I wound up putting in third place. I deeply enjoy the way she plays, the creativity, the willingness to go on the attack. Even if she didn’t do everything we wanted after a superb 2014, she deserves a nod of respect.

Yet, not quite a month later, I think I was wrong. I think that I succumbed to reputation bias. I think I should have given third place to a woman who I left off my ballot because she gets too many votes as it is. I think I should have gone with Christine Sinclair.

I started thinking about this during the Natal tournament, where Sinclair played quite well and eventually tied Mia Hamm as the second-leading scorer in women’s soccer history. This was too late for the CSA vote, which wrapped up on December 11, but led me down the road to reconsideration. Sinclair’s World Cup wasn’t the 2012 Olympics redux. We all wanted it to be, and she couldn’t do it, and we knew that would happen but it saddened us anyway. But what did she do? She was, despite her 32 years, Canada’s most dangerous attacking player (bearing in mind Bélanger was usually a defender): another 2012 hero, Melissa Tancredi, by comparison was obviously completely done. She scored against China, and sure it was a penalty, but it was a 90th-minute penalty at a World Cup in front of the craziest, most desperate crowd she had ever played for. There aren’t many more nervy situations in the world, and Sinclair calmly slid it into the bottom right corner, as cool as it gets. Wang Fei guessed right and couldn’t get there. That’s not nothing.

Her other World Cup goal was against England, when Canada needed her more than ever. 2-0 down thanks to defensive mistakes the Canadians were regardless mounting a few good attacks, and near the end of the first half Sinclair bundled in a spilled ball from Karen Bardsley. Opportunistic, like the penalty. But, first, Sinclair’s inerrant homing instinct for goal made that mistake possible[2], and second, Sinclair got the play going anyhow when she outstepped an English defender and played a precise short pass to Ashley Lawrence, letting her find room and get the cross in. Sinclair couldn’t get the equalizer, and I’m sure she still thinks about that, but she was a threat. She also set up Bélanger’s goal against Switzerland and could easily have had more. Her chance against New Zealand, a specimen of coordination and Canada’s best opportunity, was saved almost miraculously by young Erin Naylor. The second-best opportunity in that game was set up by Sinclair, who sent her strike partner in for a late chance that would surely have given Canada a 1-0 lead if said strike partner wasn’t Melissa Tancredi. Against the Netherlands her strength and determination made her by far Canada’s best player going forward in a horrifying draw. She genuinely played well, led the team in scoring, and deserved better.

What’s more, outside of the World Cup Sinclair also had a good year. She started the year with five goals from her first five games, four against quality opposition. Her performance in the Hamilton friendly, just before her thirty-second birthday, was fine. Down in Portland she only had two goals and two assists in a World Cup-shortened campaign, but her strike rate on her team was bettered only by the sensational journeyman Allie Long. It was a good year. Not a great one, but enough that I should have put her on my podium. I didn’t and I regret it. Sorry, Christine, I know I broke your heart. 1. Kadeisha Buchanan 2. Josée Bélanger 3. Sophie Schmidt (but shoulda been Christine Sinclair).

Men’s Player of the Year

Wait, the men played? Oh yeah, Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying. Look, the men were an afterthought this year. But that’s okay, because in truth there were no performances to get you worked up anyhow.

Atiba Hutchinson is the best player, so absent anything more interesting I voted for him. So did a bunch of other people, and he won for the second year on the trot and fourth time overall. He’s a much-loved key player at Beşiktaş, who as we speak has a good shot of winning the Turkish Süper Lig for the first time since 2008–09. For Canada his calmness, precise passing, and low-intensity but somehow always adroit defending is quite literally indispensable. Canada without Hutchinson is nobody much, a demi-glorified Guatemala with a bit more speed down the wings. Canada with Hutchinson can hang around against anybody and occasionally surprise you with a moment of glory. Hutchinson missed out on the Gold Cup, where Canada was worse than bad, worse even than 2013 when fans said Colin Miller obviously didn’t know how to tie his shoelaces the team was so awful. Then Hutchinson played at BC Place against Honduras, looked vital, and was a key part of a fantastic win. Even in El Salvador he, and Junior Hoilett, were the two players who looked like they might be able to get us three important points.

No doubt there was a strong groundswell for Cyle Larin. For his club, he got more headlines than any other Canadian of either gender, setting the Major League Soccer rookie scoring record with 17 goals, tops at Orlando City and sixth in the league overall. His formidable strike rate was beaten only by Didier Drogba and Robbie Keane, of whom I believe I have heard. For country he scored the goal against Honduras, not that he knew anything about it, and notched a couple against Dominica to be the men’s second-top scorer of 2015 behind the continually underrated Tosaint Ricketts. He did many things right. I am biased against Major League Soccer and tend to discount its players on my ballot, but not even I can deny that Larin was a cut above the “wow Jonathan Osorio really established himself as a viable first-team option!” crap that usually passes for an MLS nominee. So I put him in second place.

Why not first, then? Well, if you’re going to stake your entire candidacy on being an offensive wünderkind, you probably shouldn’t score on 58.6% of your shots on target, the highest non-PK shooting percentage among any of MLS’s leading scorers, and make me scream “oh god he is going to regress so hard in 2016 and people are going to read way too much into it.” An unsustainable hot streak doesn’t take you out of the Player of the Year running but, when it’s so one-dimensional[3], it doesn’t get you ahead of Hutch either. Also, you probably shouldn’t do this.

In third is the usual pu-pu platter of decent but unremarkable choices. Milan Borjan, now inarguably Canada’s first choice goalkeeper, is popular and talented and continues what is a actually a pretty strong post-Craig Forrest tradition of eccentric but able men between the sticks. Tosaint Ricketts can’t get no respect, and I maybe should have been the man to give him some, but despite leading the MNT in scoring he’s currently playing fullback in the Turkish second division and didn’t step up against top countries this year the way some of his teammates did. Cheeky choices include Julian de Guzman, who had a good club run with the Ottawa Fury and is having the weirdest Indian Summer I can ever remember, playing consistent soccer despite being a million years old and seemingly washed-up in 2013, and Junior Hoilett, who wasn’t on the list of nominees but I can guarantee some smartass voted for him anyway.

I plumped for Adam Straith, currently running all over the field for Fredrikstad in the Norwegian second division. This was slightly unfair of me, as my lingering opinion Straith doesn’t quite get his due for club or country must have influenced what was a fairly aggressive voting choice. But look at the man. He’s gone 90 minutes in all six of our World Cup qualifiers to date plus all three of our Gold Cup matches, the only Canadian to do so. He is more versatile than any of our other men, suiting up in defensive midfield and centreback this year, with spells at both fullback positions not too far in the past. While not flashy and in little danger of winning a game by himself, he also makes few blunders and a comparison to David Edgar, a much higher-event player in every category, is not necessarily to Straith’s disadvantage. Sure, his current club form is worth nothing, and you wouldn’t panic if you learned thirty minutes before kickoff that Adam Straith was hurt, but on a team that seems to produce mostly guys who put together an incredible game then disappear for four months Straith’s steadfast solidarity is comforting. I trust Adam Straith. Only Atiba Hutchinson got the same praise. 1. Atiba Hutchinson 2. Cyle Larin 3. Adam Straith.

The Awards I Can’t Vote for

Every year the U-20 and U-17 player of the year awards are restricted to Canadian coaches. However, I like to weigh in anyway.

To name Jessie Fleming women’s U-20 player of the year took no leap of imagination. I wish John Herdman had used her more at the World Cup; her spark would have helped a team dying offensively. But, while not exactly a force when on the field, she did well for a kid. Nobody else was seriously in it, and with Fleming excluded we’re left with an odd field. The CONCACAF women’s U-20 tournament and the Natal senior tournament, which had a heavy U-20 presence, both took place in December and split the roster. Gabrielle Carle and Marie Levasseur were with the senior team and denied the chance to show their stuff against their own age group, while Sura Yekka and the Sarahs Kinzner and Stratigakis looked pretty good with the U-20s. I give Kinzner the edge, partially for her general play but mostly because she had two goals at the CONCACAF tournament and both were dope as fuck. Yekka was allegedly a fullback but more-or-less played every position depending on her mood. She thought she was really talented for her age group and, you know, she was right. Then there’s Deanne Rose, who is on the U-17 list but looked like such a dynamic attacking winger in Brazil that I thought about her for more than half a second, and Kennedy Faulknor, a surprisingly-good U-17 centreback in the same tournament. Apart from Fleming I’m basing this off not many games but oh well. 1. Jessie Fleming 2. Sura Yekka 3. Sarah Kinzner.

The men’s side is another mixed bag. Michael Petrasso, the eventual winner, would have been a good bet. Wearing the number 34 shirt at Queen’s Park Rangers, he’s semi-regularly on the bench in the Championship and has entered three games this season. The other European-based players on the list are Fraser Aird, whose commitment to Canada is so recent I rule him out, and Luca Gasparotto, on the book at Rangers but is loaned to Greenock Morton. Not bad, since they and Rangers are in the Scottish Championship, but is a regular centreback on loan in the Scottish second division better than an occasional midfielder in the English second division? In October’s ultimately unsuccessful Olympic qualifying campaign, Petrasso was Canada’s most dynamic attacking threat, while Gasparotto looked a little slow, a little uncertain, not quite up to it. Nobody, except Hanson Boakai[4], looked good at the disastrous CONCACAF U-20s in January but Petrasso was among the less bad while Gasparotto helped our backline concede multiple goals to pretty much everyone. Among the North American nominees, Chris Serban is a great story but is playing MLS reserve soccer right now, Kianz Froese at least saw MLS once in a while but Petrasso’s doing better, and Cyle Larin wait that’s right Cyle Larin was eligible for this! How did he not win?! We’ll probably never know what the hell the coaches were thinking. This is why it’s worth publishing these, because Cyle got robbed. 1. Cyle Larin 2. Michael Petrasso 3. Kianz Froese.

Our men’s U-17 CONCACAF championship bid went better than the U-20s, but in the playoff they got shredded by Costa Rica and that was that. Tristan Borges, one of the nominees, scored against Mexico, and honestly that always makes you worth at least a look. Sadly, others had more well-rounded years. His Toronto teammate Gabriel Boakye is not only enjoying a growing reputation but made seven starts for the TFC reserves last year. Ballou Tabla, last year’s winner, scored against mighty Saint Lucia for the U-17s but didn’t make noise otherwise. Duwayne Ewart was Canada’s leading scorer at the tournament; as the only nominee outside a professional academy I think he was slightly overlooked but I’m no expert. The sole European-based prospect, Harrison Paton, is something of an invisible man on this side of the pond. That leaves the man who won, Vancouver’s Kadin Chung, a versatile player who got 41 minutes with the Whitecaps reserves in 2015, couldn’t get off the field for the U-17s, and scored against Haiti. You can’t put one ahead of the others unless you’ve spent a lot more time watching them than I have, so I won’t bother giving a ranking, but my instinct leans towards Boakye and Ewart.

The women’s U-17s are easier just because so many of them got a chance at a higher level. We already discussed Rose, Faulknor, and Stratigakis, who impressed alongside players a few (or many) years their senior; Faulknor wound up winning, doubly impressive since her run in the Natal tournament came after the polls had closed. It’s hard not to like her (or Rose) based on the early returns. In some order Rose, Faulknor, and Stratigakis are by far the most reasonable 1-2-3, but spare thoughts for Emma Regan and Vital Kats, who more than held their own at the CONCACAF U-20s. Regan made three interesting appearances and posted a couple assists, showing a bit of dynamism that our fullbacks don’t always have, and as a 2000 kid is insanely young for the level. Kats was a supersub forward despite outplaying the regular starter, Taylor Pryce. Lysianne Proulx is also in the picture. I feel more confident ranking these young women – because I actually remember their games – so let’s go with 1. Kennedy Faulknor 2. Deanne Rose 3. Sarah Stratigakis and a confident “see you next year” for Emma Regan. Well, this year, I guess, now.

(notes and comments…)