Saying Bad Things About Good Times

By Benjamin Massey · March 23rd, 2019 · No comments

Canada Soccer

You’ve probably noticed all the positivity in Canadian soccer lately. Daniel Squizzato: “It’s different this time, this CanMNT — just hear me out.” (He means it’s better.) Steven Sandor: “Where does current CanMNT roster stand all-time?” (Got the potential to be the best; suck on that, losing to Jamaica two years ago!) Michael McColl, “Canadian national team marvel at ‘complete change of culture’ under Herdman.”

There is nothing more Canadian than unwarranted optimism about the men’s national team. With luscious attacking talents like Hanson Boakai and Kevan Aleman showing their excellence, Simeon Jackson plowing in goals in a good European league, veteran Dwayne De Rosario still performing at a high level with a club that considers him an icon, and the commitment of star dual national Tesho Akindele, Benito Floro will… wait, how do you delete a paragraph?

Not trying to be holier than thou. We’ve all done it. I once nicknamed a player “Canadian Soccer Jesus,” and if you don’t know which one don’t look it up. A Canadian soccer fan who is not temperamentally optimistic won’t last, he’ll wind up in a Manchester City kit before you can say “Janine Beckie.”

And we shouldn’t lose to French Guiana. Bookies make Canada 1-to-5 to win. French Guianan starting goalkeeper Donovan Leon, a professional in France, is suspended due to yellow card accumulation so the job will fall to either Soleymann Auguste or Jean-Beaunel Petit-Homme, both young men from the local league1. They had to fly from Cayenne, French Guiana to Vancouver through Paris. French Guiana is no Saint Lucia-esque minnow but under the circumstances if Canada doesn’t win it’ll be because in sports shit happens.

Still, as people who dislike John Herdman keep reminding us, this version of the national team has proven absolutely nothing. If we look at our achievements after the last Gold Cup, Canada defeated New Zealand 1-0 in a friendly, which as these things go beats one point from six against Mauritania but isn’t exactly a ticket to Qatar. We also won several Nations League qualifiers we had no excuse to lose. Sure, there’s an optimistic outlook in the Canadian dressing room. You’d feel good too if you spent months beating the hell out of construction workers and soldiers in an official CONCACAF tournament. Turns out taking candy from babies is both easy and deliciously rewarding.

So, in the spirit of contrarianism, here are some black pills.

Alphonso Davies was removed from the Canadian squad because of “injury.” Supposedly he hurt himself celebrating his first ever Bundesliga goal last weekend; the first goal for Bayern by a Canadian since 2005. Bayern left him on for twenty more minutes in a game they were winning 6-0 over Mainz and their press release says Davies will rest for a few days when the club is taking three days off anyway. They are barely pretending this is real.

Herdman says Davies is heartbroken. Bayern obviously isn’t bothered, which could be a problem. For decades, Canadian players have been persecuted for answering their national team’s call. It hurt the career of Paul Stalteri and cost Canada the services of Davies-like talent Tomasz Radzinski in many a tournament. If Bayern is doing wink-nudge injury withdrawals for Davies when he’s a bench player, what’ll happen if he locks down a starting spot? And if he never becomes a starter does that mean he’s falling short of the expectations Canadians place upon him? There’s a lot of “whatever happens, we have got / Alphonso Davies, and they have not” from fans, and the performances it takes for him to meet those hopes may mean that we hardly get to see him.

Jonathan David is sometimes mentioned in the same sentence as Davies. Admittedly, not the same part of the sentence, but as of this writing David is averaging 1.929 goals per 90 minutes for the senior Canadian national team. This is a solid figure, surpassed over a CanMNT career only by Gavin McCallum’s 10.000. What we mean is that David, in 150 minutes of senior national team action, has got two goals against the US Virgin Islands and one against Dominica. Nothing wrong with that, you can only score against the teams you’re playing against2. We know those gaudy numbers are a joke, but it’s not a joke at David’s expense. What’s worrying is that his club statistics, based on a scarcely larger sample size, actually are cranking expectations up.

David (who was born in the United States and was also eligible for Haiti) is currently co-top-scorer at Gent of the Belgian top division; a decent team, a good league, and a damned good result for a 19-year-old rookie professional. But, in shades of his obviously-silly MNT scoring rates, four of those goals came in his first four games (and 167 minutes). In his most recent 917 minutes David also has four goals, which is still pretty good but not circus stuff. Marcus Haber has had years like that at equivalent levels.

Gent scores by committee. Only one goal behind David stands centreback Dylan Bronn, who has scored a few goals every month since September despite a knee injury and suspensions. Prior to this David had been a part of the Canadian youth pool and the national training centres. A prospect, but nothing indicated an obvious blue-chipper. Obviously some players bloom late, and we shouldn’t hesitate to call him up while he’s hot, but it is way too early to say David is our goalscorer of the future rather than an athletic kid doing well in a system where lots of goalscorers can.

We have seen this movie before. Simeon Jackson scored 13 goals in the Championship one year. It happens, to good players and to indifferent ones on a hot streak. Maybe Jonathan David can prove it but don’t pretend he’s written in pen. David’s automatic vault ahead of Tosaint Ricketts, the best Canadian striker of the century, on everyone’s depth chart means that our optimism may do us positive harm.

Our defensive situation is lamentable. Herdman called up veteran David Edgar, currently with Hartlepool of English non-League soccer, and fans were upset we didn’t call Manjrekar James from his comfy bench in Norway. This bodes ill. At left back Marcel de Jong may have a career-ending injury and Sam Adekugbe happens not to be injured now but usually is. Right back? Marcus Godinho is enjoying a good run in Scotland but is hurt so often his club doesn’t let him play on artificial turf, while Zachary Brault-Guillard has proven nothing. Eddie Edward, the standby of the “call up a no-nonsense right back” set, has now retired, Nik Ledgerwood is aging and banged up, and you get into Juan Cordova territory awfully fast. Canada’s top fullbacks are, indisputably, Davies and Atiba Hutchinson. Which sort of says it all.

This site praised the Whitecaps’ signing of Derek Cornelius, but under admittedly tough circumstances his MLS career has started horrendously. Adam Straith seems to be the forgotten, underappreciated man, as usual. Steven Vitoria is falling off the face of the Earth, which is only a good thing because he should never be allowed near a self-respecting national team… there’s Doneil Henry, the human highlight reel both for and against us, and Dejan Jakovic, who happily is sort of hanging around at age 33 but can’t be counted on forever, and then we’re crossing our fingers with the Edgar/Cornelius/James class. Costa Rican attacks will be a problem.

Add on a bunch of little things. Atiba Hutchinson is on his way to retirement with no foreseeable heir. Cyle Larin’s career is tottering in Turkey, and while you aren’t going to close the door on the kid, combined with his indifferent performances for Canada it’s not looking good. We still can’t seem to play enough games, especially not against anybody even reasonably good. And, last but not least, while most everyone is pretending to love John Herdman now, there’s still a hater brigade out for him and if Canada totters he will be devoured like a limping antelope among the hyenas.

So don’t worry, fans. There’s still plenty of opportunity for a Typical CanSoc Disappointment. (Probably not against French Guiana though.)

MaloudaBowl 2k19

By Benjamin Massey · March 15th, 2019 · No comments

Mexsport/Canada Soccer

CONCACAF Nations League qualifying is the stupidest thing Canada’s men’s national soccer team has ever done, including that Merlion Cup we fixed.

Let’s see if I can explain it in a paragraph. Lesser teams, such as Canada, are trying to qualify for the 2019 Gold Cup and the top divisions of the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League. The six teams from the last World Cup qualifying hex got automatic spots; the top ten of 34 teams in this tournament will join them at the Gold Cup and the top six will also play in the Nations League first division starting this fall. Nations were seeded into four pots based on their ranking, to play one nation from each pot including their own. For example, Canada is in the top pot, Pot A, and play a game each against a team from each of pots A, B, C, and D. To date Canada has whipped the US Virgin Islands and Dominica without shipping a goal, and beat St. Kitts and Nevis by a handier-than-the-scoreline-looked 1-0. Our final game is against pot A rival French Guiana, Sunday, March 24 at BC Place (good seats most emphatically still available).

This is all very stupid, but just wait. (Dammit, two paragraphs.) The teams are not drawn into groups. So pot A Canada plays French Guiana, Dominica, and the US Virgin Islands; also-pot-A French Guiana plays Canada, Guyana, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Anguilla. The schedule isn’t home-and-away, either. So French Guiana, a relatively weak pot A team, has to travel from South America to Vancouver and doesn’t even get a home rematch out of it. If I was a French Guiana fan I’d think I’d pissed CONCACAF off a couple years ago or a Canadian ran the confederation or something.

Teams play schedules of unequal strength and are measured against teams they don’t play at all. Goal difference, creating an urgent need to hammer as many goals past pot D minnows as they can. Canada, with its 3-0-0 record and no goals conceded, is currently tied for third with Cuba. A draw on the final match day will assure Canada both qualifying spots, but a loss would introduce more permutations that can easily be calculated; it would probably be fine, but we could theoretically fall as low as thirteenth1. Basically it’s American college football.

This is bad sport, and fans are not interested. Toronto hosted 10,523 fans for our previous home game against Dominica on a Tuesday in October, and Vancouver will be around that on a Sunday afternoon. CanMNT boss John Herdman called up four hometown Vancouver Whitecaps and four more popular alumni, including Bayern Munich depth player Alphonso Davies for his first match back since being sold a few months ago. Davies’s face has been all over the advertising to an almost pitiful degree. “It is impossible to care about this game,” they plead, “but wouldn’t you like to see Alphonso again?”

We can try to gin up some rage from the 2017 Gold Cup. French Guiana’s squad that year included one of their better locals, 37-year-old former Chelsea man and 80-time French international Florent Malouda. In the past, CONCACAF had allowed former French internationals born in the overseas départements like Guadeloupe’s Jocelyn Angloma and Martinique’s Frédéric Piquionne to spent five years outside of international soccer and then play in the Gold Cup. Malouda had been out of the French setup since 2012 and played in the Caribbean Cup but, come the actual Gold Cup, CONCACAF informed French Guiana that he was cap-tied to France and considered ineligible. Reeling from this change of policy, Malouda was left out of their first match, a 4-2 loss to Canada. In their next game against Honduras French Guiana defied CONCACAF, started Malouda to the delight of their supporters, and got a 0-0 draw on the field that became a 3-0 default loss in the standings for fielding an ineligible player. Canada’s goal difference in their win was +2, Honduras’s in their default was +3; los Catrachos were one up.

The French Guianans, who knew what would happen, gave Honduras an unfair advantage over Canada. It would have been a scandal if it had mattered: Canada finished ahead of Honduras in the group anyway. Frankly, if it was my team suffering an abrupt rule change to strip away a core player when the president of CONCACAF was from a nation that profited, I would have been defiant too. We were mad at the time, being partisans, but it’s hard to muster much of a grudge now.

Unfortunately for Vancouver-area Chelsea fans, the French Guianans have learned their lesson and have left Malouda off their squads ever since. Their roster includes a number of players from the French Ligue 2, but these guys already lost to St. Vincent and the Grenadines at home and now faces maybe the longest road trip in confederational soccer outside Australia2. They barely beat Regular Guyana at home. Their current lofty position with the rest of the CONCACAF second-raters is exaggerated, based largely off good luck and a 3-0 win over Cuba in 2017.

Fans are calling for us to run out the big guns and light up French Guiana like a malfunctioning Ariane 5. After all, we have a fast guy who had a hot streak in Belgium, a fast guy who Bayern Munich paid a fortune for, and a centreback from English non-League soccer, so no collection of Ligue 2 scrubs can possibly oppose our excellence. Canadian men’s national team fans are, somehow, always overconfident, always sure that this batch of foreign mercenaries and alluring prospects will definitely turn it around this time. You can’t spell “cognitive dissonance” without “cansoc.”

Mathematically, the idea of us failing to make the top Nations League group is close to unimaginable and that of failing to make the Gold Cup very unlikely, but that doesn’t mean we’re certain to overwhelm the distant visitors. At the Gold Cup we went up 3-0 then let them peg us back to 3-2 in about 90 seconds; it wound up a comfortable 4-2 win but between that result and others Canada has not earned the right to sneer at French overseas départements. We should win, we really should, and with goals in hand, but this isn’t Dominica or Saint Lucia. It’s a team just good enough to be a tripping hazard, but bad enough that if we do get a 4-0 victory and a brace from Junior Hoilett there’ll be no honour in it.

This may be the least appealing competitive home game in Canadian men’s national team history. Thanks, CONCACAF.

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.