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.

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.

The Only Canadians in Jamaica Who Didn’t Get High

By Benjamin Massey · January 20th, 2015 · No comments

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

When Honduras’s Bryan Rochez buried a rebound from a spot kick in the 72nd minute of their CONCACAF men’s U-20 championship match against Haiti, he sealed the fate of the Canadian team. Coming off a 2-1 loss to the Cubans – appalling even by our standards – Canada is now eliminated with a game to go in the group stage. I was a pessimist before this tournament began and even I am horrified by this abject failure.

There’s a game left for Canada; not quite a dead rubber with Honduras playing for position, but to hell with it, the guys who count are done. What the flying fuck happened? This over-ballyhooed team, supposedly the best men’s U-20 crew we’ve ever assembled, produced our worst CONCACAF U-20 result since 1988, when we not only lost to Cuba but drew Bermuda. Even then we had a crumb of comfort: the Mexicans who won the group were cheating on their age. This year there will be no excuses.

Yes, two leading Canadians, Fraser Aird and skipper Dylan Carreiro, were held back by their Scottish clubs. This is trebly bad in Carreiro’s case, since he was pulled at the last minute and has been an unused substitute by Dundee all tournament long. But two players, however talented, should not be the margin of defeat to fucking Cuba.

We’re Canadians, and our tradition is to blame the coach. Rob Gale is making it awfully easy. His background is one some Canadian fans love to hate: English-raised and trained, a longtime Canadian staffer who was technical director of the Manitoba Soccer Association and bounced his way up the CSA ladder. Many fans believe Canada is so deficient technically that only outsiders, or at least Canadians with a non-CSA background, should be in responsible positions. This tournament will give them ammunition.

After the Cuban debacle, Gale made a couple curious comments in his press conference:

Unfortunately I think it was a case of that early mistake and the fragility of the team mentally after conceding late in the last game, and we didn’t put the heart and the effort in that is usually associated with us.

[. . ]

When they put in the effort and commitment and drive [. . .] that has to be the bare minimum at this level. And that’s where they’re looking at themselves now, and the mental fragility (again) of the players in these conditions, and against these oppositions.

So much for a coach protecting the team. Maybe Gale didn’t mean to blame his players but he went without a word of personal responsibility.

Frankly, who thought the Canadian players were dogging it? There was honest effort and few conspicuous slackers. The problem is that the effort was all individual: there was no linkage, the forwards were too high up, the midfielders were trying to beat everybody with their feet, the defenders lacked outlets, the closest Canada came to building an attack was playing it around the back for a while, then if they were very lucky driving down the flanks and flinging in a cross. There was plenty of possession, almost all meaningless. We were playing Cuba and we couldn’t turn the heavy artillery on them. Against El Salvador we kept punching against rampant time-wasting and dodgy tactics, but while we scored on a couple moments of individual brilliance the players’ inability to work as a unit was exemplified by the 90th-minute El Salvador winner. “Effort and commitment and drive” is an easy excuse, but only that.

Gale’s lineups were equally dodgy. With respect to two good young goalkeepers, I’ve spent a lot of time watching both Nolan Wirth and Marco Carducci, I know several other people who have spent a lot of time watching both Wirth and Carducci, and Rob Gale is just about the only guy in Canada who’d take Wirth over Carducci. Carducci, a full-time professional who’s played magnificently at the USL PDL level, started the tournament’s first game against Haiti, allowed a very bad goal, and has been benched ever since. Wirth, an NCAA amateur whose USL PDL record was mixed, did well against Mexico but had a horrible time against El Salvador. Yet while one bad goal finished Carducci, Wirth got the nod against Cuba… and made a back-breaking mistake for the first Cuban goal. “Squad rotation” won’t do; Cuba was Wirth’s third game on the trot. And if Wirth was “mentally fragile”, which I doubt, shouldn’t the coaches have caught that?

Then there’s Hanson Boakai. One of the few regularly-playing professionals in Gale’s arsenal, Boakai was coming off an injury in December and not fully match fit. Boakai did not play against Haiti (but was not needed) and saw only thirteen minutes against Mexico in an impossible situation. Then the Handsome Bowtie came in at half against El Salvador and nearly saved the game for Canada single-handed, scoring the Canadian goal of the tournament and providing Kianz Froese with a lovely marker. It was an electrifying display and surely earned Boakai a start in the effective must-win against Cuba. Yet he did not appear at all, with the final substitution going to the invisible Calum Ferguson. There have been rumours (and relying on the rumour mill for this is condemnation in itself) that Boakai aggravated his injury, but there are other rumours this is incorrect, and Boakai was listed as available. There was no “tomorrow” to save him for.

This isn’t to absolve the players entirely. Many highly-hyped hopefuls did nothing. Cyle Larin was in over his head. Jordan Hamilton pushed Haiti around but against determined opposition couldn’t find space. Sam Adekugbe’s tournament was hit and miss, but his utter pummeling at the hands of Mexico’s Hirving Lozano showed a gulf in class. Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé had a terrific assist against Haiti but that was his one moment of quality. Michael Petrasso got unjustly bad reviews: he was at least generating offense and getting into position but his shooting was wildly off, exemplified against Cuba when, undermarked, he stroked a B+ chance from within the eighteen into the Caribbean.

The thing is, these tournaments matter very little in themselves. What matters is the players they produce. Many of the Canadian individuals were up to snuff, at least compared to middle powers like El Salvador (Mexico throttled us but only the insane dreamed we deserved to compete with them). There were fleeting moments where Canada’s opposition lost cohesion and gave room for individual talents to work, and in those moments (I think particularly of the first half-hour against Haiti and much of the El Salvador second half) Canada kicked ass. Am I wrong to take hope from that? Disaster though we were, talented players will now return to clubs and coaches that seem to have done decently nurturing their abilities so far.

I leave this tournament as confident as ever in Petrasso and Boakai, a little more hopeful for Farmer, Serban, and Bustos, and with slightly larger question marks drawn beside a few names. I mentioned Canada’s 1988 team earlier: those U-20s were a disaster on the field but brought useful players in Paul Fenwick, Carl Fletcher, Eddy Berdusco, and most famously Paul Peschisolido. If the 2015 team generates a similar hit rate, which it easily could, we’ll look upon this generation of players with a smile.

Clearly, the Canadian Soccer Association needs to take this level more seriously. They got the U-20s a host of training camps and warm-up friendlies, including the prestigious Milk Cup, and the investment sunk without trace into a Jamaican swamp. A coaching staff of Paul Stalteri, Ante Jazic, and Bob Gale was an inexperienced crew: there was no professional hand on the tiller, not even a Pesch or a Nick Dasovic. It’s important for the CSA to develop its coaches as well as its players, but those coaches need somebody to follow and learn from. Even an out-of-season NASL coach like Colin Miller, Marc dos Santos, or Alen Marcina would have been useful. Failing that, even a college coach who knows young players like Alan Koch or Mike Mosher. Just not the same old Canadian Soccer Association echo chamber and a vain hope that our staff will learn on the fly.

Considering Canada’s CONCACAF U-20 Chances

By Benjamin Massey · January 5th, 2015 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

Canada had been expected to announce their roster for the CONCACAF U-20 men’s championship tomorrow but, as ever, CONCACAF has stolen their thunder. The confederation announced all the competing rosters, including Canada’s, in a press release this morning[1] (thanks to Philadelphia reporter Jonathan Tannenwald for the heads-up). The Canadian Soccer Association made a slightly different roster announcement later in the morning[2].

For those keeping score at home, the Canadian twenty-man roster is:

GK Marco Carducci (Vancouver, MLS)
GK Nolan Wirth (Oregon State, NCAA Pac-12)
LB Sam Adekugbe (Vancouver, MLS)
LB/MF Jordan Haynes (Vancouver Whitecaps Residency, USSDA)
CB Luca Gasparotto (Rangers, Sco-2 on loan to Airdrieonians, Sco-3)
CB Alex Comsia (RC Strasbourg U-19, Fra-3)
CB Jackson Farmer (Vancouver Whitecaps Residency, USSDA)
CB Brandon John (FC Erzgebirge Aue U-23, Ger-3)
RB Rares "Chris" Serban (University of British Columbia, CIS Canada West)
MF Manny Aparicio (Toronto, MLS)
MF Louis Béland-Goyette (Montreal, MLS)
MF Kianz Froese (Vancouver, MLS)
MF Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé (Montreal, MLS)
MF Chris Nanco (Syracuse, NCAA ACC)
MW/FW Hanson Boakai (Edmonton, NASL)
MF/FW Marco Bustos (Vancouver, MLS)
MF/FW Michael Petrasso (Queens Park Rangers, EPL on loan to Notts County, Eng-3)
FW Calum Ferguson (Inverness Caledonian Thistle, SPL)
FW Jordan Hamilton (Toronto, MLS)
FW Cyle Larin (Unattached FC, Can-1)

The difference between the roster announced by CONCACAF and that announced by the Canadian Soccer Association is that, in the CSA version, midfielder Dylan Carreiro (Dundee, SPL) has been replaced by Whitecaps Residency defender Jackson Farmer. Despite only making his Dundee debut this weekend Carreiro has been kept by his club. With Canada facing a tough road that will call upon the team’s full depth, Carreiro’s presence would have made a difference.

“A tough road”? I say that but supporters expect great things this year. Expectations have never being higher for a Canadian U-20 team. In 2003 we were one of the co-winners of the CONCACAF tournament and went to extra time in the World Cup quarterfinal: that team was less eagerly-anticipated than this one*. The Canadian U-20 soccer version of pressure (a dozen mentally ill maniacs like me screaming black fury at a dodgy webstream) will be on.

Should we be so optimistic? Canada’s list is short of blue-chip prospects in the world’s top academies. Hanson Boakai is a terrific young player, if he’s recovered from the injury he reportedly suffered in training, but FC Edmonton isn’t quite Manchester United. Haiti has Bryan Alceus at Bordeaux and Stephane Lambese at Paris St-Germain. Honduras’s Júnior Lacayo is at Santos Laguna. Most of our opponents are less well-blessed, but majority of their rosters plays each other every week in a domestic league while the Canadian lineup, as ever, comes from all over Hell’s half-acre.

Yet there is reason for positivity. This Canadian corps is more accomplished than, I think, any equivalent group we’ve ever had. By my count twelve of these twenty players have experience playing full professional soccer against grown men. In a few cases this is only a game or two, but players such as Petrasso, Boakai, and Adekugbe have reasonably established themselves in a professional eighteen. The 2013 team included a few professionals such as Caleb Clarke and Doneil Henry but the large majority were collegiates or academy members (including Petrasso, the only returning member of the 2013 team). While Canada’s lineup is widely-scattered, we’re better off than some: eleven Canadian U-20s play in Canada, while only eight American U-20s play in the United States.

One of those professional players is Marco Bustos, who made his first team debut last summer in the Voyageurs Cup and will be on the Whitecaps’ MLS roster in 2015. You’re glad to see him here? Good. Yes, Bustos went flirting with the Chilean national team and we can never know whether Canada is his first choice. But that doesn’t mean we should assume the worst. I’ve always said Bustos’s Chilean aspiration should be forgiven by the fans if he shows commitment to the Canadian program going forward[3] and so far he’s passing the test. I’ll be cheering Bustos on as hard as Boakai, Froese, or any of my other favourites because what else is he supposed to do for us, break Teal Bunbury over his knee like the Iron Sheik? (Actually that would be nice; one thing at a time.) As a fan, I demand loyalty from our players but that’s a two-way street: when the players are doing the right thing they deserve my loyalty in return.

Notable by his absence is Fraser Aird, who has been teasing the Canadian program for years now and is now missing an essential tournament. There is a nice counterpoint to Marco Bustos. Aird has been in and out of the Rangers lineup and, according to Gale, was not released by his club. Maybe so. Some people always have an excuse.

The late naming of Jackson Farmer obviates one worry: the modest aerial powers of Canada’s back four behind Gasparotto and Comsia. I’m informed Brandon John is a centreback but he doesn’t seem to have the height for it: he’s the second-shortest guy in his row on the team photo and the Canadian Soccer Association lists him at 5’9.5″[4]. Sam Adekugbe has good height for a left back but Chris Serban is undersized and, though he can play anywhere on the pitch except possibly goal, Jordan Haynes is really a midfielder. Filling this hole was a sensible move by Rob Gale once he lost Carreiro. Farmer got the nod over FC Edmonton defender Marko Aleksic, another big (6’3″) CB who was involved in the U-20 program leading up to this tournament and has a half’s NASL experience under his belt.

Right back Serban is the only CIS player on the roster and a relatively new name to many fans. I believe, though I cannot prove, that Serban is the first CIS/CIAU to represent Canada in a U-20 tournament since Wilfrid Laurier goalkeeper Pieter Meuleman at the 2001 FIFA World Youth Championship. Serban was largely unknown to the wider community until he joined the Whitecaps Residency in February then spent the 2014 USL PDL season with the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s. There, he was very good against older, larger players at a level that was a huge step up. One of three Calgarians on this team (with Adekugbe and Carducci), Serban is an advertisement for how far the scouting apparatus in this country has to go: how is it someone at his level had to take such a round-about route to the Canadian national program? I’m not saying he’s a dominant player, but he clearly belongs on this stage and we’ll never know what we missed by not realizing that years sooner.

The forwards are getting a lot of hype. Jordan Hamilton is hugely popular out east, and scored prodigiously (a goal per 90 minutes) on loan to the USL Pro Wilmington Hammerheads. But a loan to Portugal’s second division was a disaster and he once again has a lot to prove. I don’t rate Hamilton as much as others: he’s played very well at times but I have yet to be convinced of his all-round game. Yet, the Portugal loan aside, he’s consistently earned results and that’s all that counts. Even with my doubts Hamilton is unquestionably in my starting eleven until someone else proves he’s better.

Alongside Hamilton is likely Cyle Larin, a 6’2″ forward late of the University of Connecticut. It’s hard to overemphasize how highly-touted Larin is by Canadian fans despite having never played a professional game and seeing his production at UConn drop from 2013 to 2014; he’s not exactly a golden boy but he’s close, helped by an American hype machine that loves fashionable NCAA players and the air of mystery that settles over those almost none of us watch regularly. In spite of rumoured European interest it now looks like Larin will settle for an MLS contract and an early pick in the upcoming SuperDraft[5]. He, too, has a lot to prove (actually, much more than Hamilton does). Larin has made three senior appearances for Canada off the bench and hasn’t looked bad, but it’s a long way between fifteen good minutes against tired defenders and being The Man at a full tournament. We will see.

No sign of FC Edmonton’s Sadi Jalali, who’s been a big part of this group, supposedly played well at the Milk Cup, and has U-17 World Cup experience. This was a tough nut to crack for Jalali: he was never going to get past Hamilton and Larin so that left him battling Calum Ferguson for the first forward spot off the bench. Jalali is a relatively compact player without much speed, and there are sharp disagreements on how highly to rate him. I think he has something, can make a reasonably effective battering ram when his work rate and confidence are high, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen in flashes from him (while acknowledging that the aggregate is not brilliant). Ferguson is also a small player but is more of an unknown quantity (he has yet to make his professional debut) and the coaches have seen a lot of him. Brody Huitema, who was a terrific USSDA player and seems to have all the tools but hasn’t put it together at Duke yet, is also missing out. It’s a twenty-man roster and something has to give, but how nice that we can have this sort of debate over depth.

What will Canada do? This format makes exact predictions difficult. The tournament is divided into two groups of six teams each. The first-place team from each group automatically qualifies for the U-20 World Cup and will play in the final. The second- and third-place teams from each group play off against each other, and the winner of those playoff games take the last two U-20 World Cup spots. This means, in short, that for us middling sides it’s going to be a fucking knife fight from kickoff to final whistle.

Canada has the tough group, headlined by Mexico and Honduras with strong second-ranker El Salvador and two of the best third-rate sides in Haiti and Cuba. The island nations are always mysterious, especially Cuba behind their sporting Iron Curtain, but as mentioned Haiti has a couple players in first-rate French academies and Cuba always seems to spring a surprise on somebody in these events. Haiti also has the potential advantage of playing Mexico last: if Mexico has cinched first place the Haitians may get a B-team. Mexico will be heavy favourites for first, and below this group could go absolutely anywhere.

Canada should be able to sneak into third or second. (If they can’t hang with Honduras then this team simply hasn’t got the quality expected.) This would lead to a winner-take-all playoff against one of the Group A teams, and apart from the pressure this won’t be so bad. With the Americans likely to win that group we’d be probably looking at Panama or Jamaica, maybe Guatemala. The downside is that, by this point, Canada will have spent two weeks competing in the Jamaican sun. The Central American teams will be more used to the conditions and may be fresher. If it’s Jamaica, the home crowd will be passionately behind them.

Even today, in early January, temperatures in Montego Bay can reach 30 degrees Celcius with humidity around 80%[6]. This doesn’t just impact the players but the field, as the natural grass at the Montego Bay Sports Complex will host a full twenty-four games during this 15-day tournament and, especially if the forecasted rain materializes, will inevitably be worn down. In such conditions it can become less a battle of skill and more a test of endurance which doesn’t favour a Canadian team that, for once, is short on pure athletes. This augurs very well for our future national team hopes but, looking narrowly at this one tournament, we will be at a disadvantage.

I like many of the players on this team, there’s a lot of skill at all positions, and I’m still not sure we have a 50% chance of getting to the U-20 World Cup.

(notes and comments…)

Another Conditional Canadian: Marco Bustos Joins Chile U-20

By Benjamin Massey · July 6th, 2014 · 17 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

This past Canada Day I was at Minoru Park in Richmond, BC cheering on the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s and one of their star players, Marco Bustos, as he scored a lovely goal against the hapless Washington Crossfire. It was a very small crowd but sometimes lively, brightened up late by a set of drunk patriots, blissed out on Canada, trying to steal the corner flag. This, it turns out, was more than usually ironic.

Bustos, a long-time Canadian youth international who featured at the U-17 World Cup, was on Friday named to the Chilean U-20 roster for an upcoming United States training camp[1]. A youth camp this doesn’t mean the end of Bustos’s potential career in Canadian silks. But young Canadians taking our resources then rushing off to represent other countries and deciding later who they’re going to represent is a problem in our country that’s seldom ended well. This is another example of the endless player drain from Canada to countries people want to escape in any context but soccer.

By every account Bustos is a nice guy, a young gentleman. He’s an exciting young player who I remain high on, a natural playmaker with a quality shot from distance whose hard work in the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency will likely be rewarded with a professional contract. So take my reaction, with yet another Canadian deciding their nationality is just a badge of convenience, as disappointment that Canada is losing both on-field and what before Friday I’d been sure was off-field class.

This isn’t a case of a player going back to the homeland or a player who was neglected by Canada finding a soccer home elsewhere. Bustos was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has accepted Canadian development resources for several years. His soccer career is financed by the Canadian taxpayer, receiving the maximum $10,800 for a men’s soccer athlete in 2014[2], so even the sneering satisfied selfishness of “what does this complete stranger owe you?” is off the mark.

I will say little against Bustos in particular, though if you’ve come far enough to read this article you can guess what I think. Being honest, not betraying those who have helped your career, and giving back to a community you’re part of are not soccer-specific virtues: they are what we demand from any member of society. Taking limited Canadian time and money then saying “thanks anyway” when something better comes along is worse than a slap in the face. Answering “he’s only got one career!” is trite apologia: we all only have one career, with less chance to make it rich than an elite professional athlete, but we still expect each other to be decent citizens.

It’s been suggested, or maybe hoped, that Bustos is going to this camp not out of any interest in the Chilean program but to further his own career with some exposure and different technical training. I’m not here to defend the honour of Chile but that would be cynical even for me. Then it would be Chile, not Canada, spending resources on someone who had no intention of paying them back, and a dishonest act wouldn’t lose its taint because it’s not against us. Somebody, somewhere, is being deceived: that’s what makes this a character issue. With all that said, Bustos is 17 and we all did things we wish we hadn’t when we were 17. I have enough confidence in Bustos’s character to not close any doors, and to shake my head at ill-advised supporters who tweet abuse or declare him dead to them.

What infuriates me is the trend of demanding less pride, less citizenship, less decency, and less honesty from a man (seldom a woman) just because he’s good at kicking a ball rather than writing a program, flipping a burger, driving a truck, or whatever else humans do for a living. You can’t swing a stick without hitting people insisting that any antisocial act which isn’t actually illegal but would get a normal human spat on in the street is fine, because this guy’s a soccer player.

So let’s consider those grown adults who, for whatever reason, have decided to carry the water of players who turn their backs on us. It’s a familiar crowd. In this corner, the people who go “canada has a soccr teem? lololololol” and define their nation in terms of an inferiority complex. In this corner, people who don’t care about Canadian soccer as such and prefer to prop up their preferred, generally American or European, form of the game. (This group is very large: witness the Vancouver Whitecaps enjoying large attendances despite a losing team with almost no Canadian content.) And in this corner, fans and media members who’ll defend any player who’s nice to them, who is a good interview, who makes time for their questions and maybe shares a little something off the record. Canadian sports consumers will be very, very familiar with this last group.

We’ve heard a lot from all three of these groups in the past few days, although they have been with us for years. The mere fact that I’m sitting here defending, in print, the idea that people should be honest is probably an indication of how degraded this conversation has become.

Anybody who steps into the Canadian soccer conversation for ten seconds will hear, for example, people saying that anybody doing anything to screw Canada is justified because “why doesn’t the Canadian Soccer Association get its act together?” These people usually cannot name a single member of the CSA board, let alone show awareness of the changes there in recent years, of new player development models, of successful youth national teams, of that act being gotten together. Naturally they don’t nearly explain how incompetence would excuse habitual dishonesty anyway. Instead they measure the entire CSA by the recent success of the senior men’s national team, success partially prevented by the loss of top players these non-fans encourage to play for other countries. It’s marvelously circular, incredibly ill-informed, craven, stupid on an elementary school level, and this paragraph is already more attention than these so-called arguments deserve.

Then take the media, such as Vancouver Province Whitecaps writer Marc Weber, who I choose for criticism because he’s good. Asking that we “hear from the young lad first” as Weber did[3], besides displaying the chumminess that’s part of the problem, misses the point. The facts are not in dispute. Bustos has happily retweeted his callup, the Chilean soccer association has carried it, we have the Government of Canada’s website with his name next to his subsidy, we have the records of the games he played for Canada. The quality of any subsequent interview is irrelevant; what could be said to alter history? Sure enough, Weber’s article the next day was a list of vanilla quotes that changed nothing[4].

Then there are those who throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Whitecaps radio voice Pete Schaad[5] asked on Twitter whether we Canadian fans would get upset at Bustos playing for Canada if he were a naturalized immigrant. This represents a particularly smelly red herring. We’re not talking about immigration but about a Canadian by any definition representing another country based on 19th-century-style blood quantums; for defenders to raise leering suggestions of xenophobia is a bit too rich.

Schaad’s tweet was retweeted as a “gotchya” by the usual suspects, though, so I may as well answer: no, I don’t object to an immigrant who has embraced Canada playing for their new homeland. Who would? Possibly there’s some psychotic blood-and-soil supporter outraged at nefarious foreigners polluting our national team, but I doubt he speaks for the mainstream. All supporters I know have nothing but love for Carl Valentine (31 caps; born Manchester, England), Milan Borjan (18 caps; born Knin, Croatia), Randy Edwini-Bonsu (4 caps; born Kumasi, Ghana), and many similar players.

Likewise I don’t begrudge those who moved out of Canada and played for their new countries. You will search in vain on this site for a bad word about Canadian-born Swiss international Alain Rochat. I’m more liberal than the usual fan but I have defended Canadian-born Dutch international Jonathan de Guzman on precisely those grounds[6]. And a fair few Canadian men and women have gone to represent other countries when Canada showed no interest. Half of Haiti’s women’s national team is made from Canadian women; who among us complains? On the other hand not a few fans, including myself, have been against the arrival of American born, raised, and trained Rachel Quon in the Canadian women’s program[7] because she isn’t a Canadian immigrant, but an American with the FIFA-requisite drop of “Canadian blood” who can adopt our passport for convenience.

I don’t answer Schaad at such length because the question is germane to Bustos’s situation but to illustrate that this is something Canadian soccer fans think about: it’s not hypernationalism, it’s not “us versus them”. It’s a question of character far more than of country.

We shouldn’t overlook the role of the Vancouver Whitecaps in all of this. One hates to play the “Whitecaps hate Canada” card, but they could have done something to defend their country. Even setting aside the hopes that the Whitecaps would cut or exile a promising prospect for the sake of Canada, Bustos would have needed their consent to accept the invitation to this training camp on a non FIFA date. Instead, they have let Bustos go, and the club website has a news article with an approving quote from Carl Robinson[8]. Given that, even ignoring the near-total dearth of Canadian content in the men’s first team, the MLS-era Whitecaps have given a serious trial and several reserve games to Canadian-turned-Czech-international Jacob Lensky and a USL W-League contract to Canadian-turned-American-international Sydney Leroux back when the Whitecaps had a W-League team, they demonstrably do not care. As a Whitecaps fan, you may argue that the Whitecaps are a private club and owe Canada nothing, but presumably you’d have no objection to the facts being printed for those who do long for the days of a connection between club and country.

In these cases, one is inevitably asked if there’s any serious chance of the ex-Canadian making the senior team of this other country. I don’t know the Chilean U-20 pool, but I do know Bustos is a very good player. He’s dominated the U-16 and U-18 leagues and as of this writing he is the second-leading goalscorer per minute with the USL PDL Whitecaps; extremely impressive for a 17-year-old midfielder in a U-23 league. I was as sure as anybody can be about a 17-year-old that he would have a role to play with Canada for many years. I’m not at all sure today, and if he does it looks like we’re a second or third choice. Let’s take the time to appreciate our young players in countless sports for whom Canada isn’t just “better than nothing.”

(notes and comments…)

Valerio Oh Oh Oooooh…

By Benjamin Massey · May 4th, 2010 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

This is (probably) Valerio Gazzola, the new head coach of our men’s U-20 national soccer team, replacing the promoted Tony Fonseca.

I can hear you protesting. “Hey, Lord Bob! You may not like the guy, but that’s no reason to pick such an unflattering picture scanned off the side of a milk carton. Show some journalistic integrity for once, you hack.”

Naah, I grabbed this picture straight off of the Canadian Soccer Association’s website, in the actual press release they used to announce this hire. I can’t blame them for having such a lousy picture, really. After all, where’s Valerio Gazzola been for the past, oh, thirteen years or so? The CSA tells us he was “technical director” at something called “ARS Laval” and that in the last decade he’s coached at “Dollard”, “Monteuil”, and “Lac St-Louis”. I have never heard of any of those organizations. I do know that they are all comprehensive Quebec youth setups with really ugly websites (although ARS Laval at least has a generic WordPress template rather than trying to get creative). Some of them advertise “high-level” intercity competition, which is nice, I guess?

I’m not saying these are awful youth setups. Remember, I’ve never heard of any of them. I’m just saying, uh, we’re hiring our U-20 head coaches from the ranks of mediocre metro Montreal academies now?

Ah, but I forget myself. Gazzola is also two-time head coach of the Montreal Impact, from 1994 to 1997 and from 2000 to 2001. But those were very different days: when Gazzola started with the Impact the league was still called the American Professional Soccer League and was a far less professional outfit than the USL Division One and North American Soccer Leagues we’ve grown to know and tolerate. To give you an idea how long ago Gazzola’s glory days were, the 1997 USISL A-League featured only three organizations still active in the second division (Montreal, the Rochester Raging Rhinos, and the Vancouver 86ers), one that’s moved up (the Seattle Sounders), and a few others still going in lower divisions, mostly the USL PDL but occasionally USL Division Two. Expectations were far lower, teams were generally worse, and attendance was even more erratic.

Gazzola won the last ever APSL championship and three A-League regular season titles, but playoff success in the A-League eluded him. Gazzola’s return to the slowly improving A-League in 2000 was calamitous as the Impact had the two of the three worst seasons in their history: in 2000 they missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993 and finished behind the Toronto Lynx for the first time in their history coming in fourth in the seven-team Northeast Division. The Impact were once again fourth in the division and out of the playoffs in 2001 and Gazzola got his marching orders mid-way through the season, replaced by Nick De Santis who began the modern era for the Impact and the A-League.

This is not Gazzola’s first spin with the national youth teams; he’s been in on the U-17 team and was the assistant coach for Canada U-20 for a disappointing fourth-place finish at the 2009 Jeux de la Francophonie. That’s probably exactly why somebody with no relevant coaching experience since Ali Ngon was a promising rookie is in charge of the future of our national setup.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November: The Jacob Lensky Saga Part XX

By Benjamin Massey · November 5th, 2009 · 1 comment

Canadian Soccer Association

This is Jacob Lensky, wearing a look taken straight from the “guy you warn the flight attendant about” collection. Never has the term “mug shot” been more appropriate. From the time I saw it, I always thought that this picture made him look like he was in the dock for touching little boys or something. Then again, the Canadian Soccer Association has been known for many things but “a creative and skilled media department” has never been one of them.

Yes, this picture was taken from the CSA’s website. I suspect it might soon become a collector’s item because – in the biggest twist since the last one – Jacob Lensky, a man who has raised changing his mind to an art form, declined an invitation from Stephen Hart to our central European friendlies in favour of playing with the Czech U-21 team. Yes, he declined an invitation to a pair of full internationals in exchange for playing youth football.

Like Canada, the Czech Republic failed to qualify for the forthcoming World Cup in South Africa. They’re better than we are, of course, but the margin isn’t as considerable as it was in the past and the Czechs are getting older rather than younger. There was even a rumour that the Czechs would be playing us in one of our November friendlies that ended up going to Poland, which is surely a sign that you’re starting to slip down the table. However, Jacob Lensky has allegedly looked at them and said that “you know what? That U-21 team sounds good!” Now, in fairness, the Czech U-21s are going to the World Cup, whereas ours are not, but that’s still a pretty ridiculous decision, particularly since the bizarre weightings given to each confederation in U-21 World Cup qualifying means that it’s a much looser test of a nation’s relative skill.

No, I’m not here to make any snide remarks about the “treason scale” or to say that Jacob Lensky is now worse than Hitler. The only reason I thought that Lensky would be true to the Canadians was that I didn’t think the Czechs would want him. Apparently his strong showing at left back with FC Utrecht in the Eredivisie has opened some eyes in Europe, and he’s probably won a spot fair and square. He’s starting for a surprisingly strong team in a vastly underrated league and doing well there; why wouldn’t the Czechs want to give him a look?

Let’s just remember the reason why Lensky is on FC Utrecht in the first place. “Feyenoord is saddened by the player’s departure, given that his footballing qualities were unquestionable,” in the words of Feyenoord’s then-director of football Peter Bosz, after the Dutch giants courteously released Lensky to return to Vancouver after he retired from football and declared his intention to never ever strap on a set of studs again. Almost exactly a year later he returned to the Eredivisie after training with the Vancouver Whitecaps, signing on with Feyenoord’s rivals in Utrecht. Feyenoord, having given Lensky his release under what turned out to be false pretense, didn’t receive a transfer fee in exchange for serving a promising youngster up to a rival on a silver platter.

That’s without even getting into his earlier youth career, where he played for almost every halfway decent academy in Europe before leaving, not because of a lack of skill but because his family had some problem with this or he wasn’t adjusting well to that or in general being a grotesque prima donna entirely out of proportion to his admittedly considerable talent. To quote Lensky in a rather ill-headlined interview with Red Nation Online:

People enjoy talking about me, my brother and father like it’s some pity story, but people don’t know what they’re talking about so those keyhole theories just need to stop.

Well, your father yanked you across the universe to satisfy his own ego to have a son playing as a superstar in professional football, and his pressure drove your supposedly older brother out of the game entirely. I’m not making these things up; talk to the guys who witnessed it. And now you’re taking a big risk and throwing away your Canadian eligibility so you can play for the youth time of your father’s homeland? Where’s the keyhole theory, Jacob? It is a pity story. And what a shame you’ve taken the only country that hasn’t rejected you so far and turned that pity into anger.

I’d say that I wished Jacob the best but I don’t, of course. Well, maybe I do. I hope that he puts the bravado, bluster, and pressure behind him and finds an occupation that he really loves, rather than football which his own interview indicates he sees as a mercenary, merely a means to an end. I wish him nothing but ill on the pitch, but maybe what’s best for Jacob Lensky the athlete isn’t what’s best for Jacob Lensky the man.

The Edwini-Bonsu Show

By Benjamin Massey · August 25th, 2009 · No comments

The blogging has been scarce the last couple weeks. If anybody who worked with me read my blog, they’d notice that the Maple Leaf Forever is most active when it’s quiet on the job and at its dullest when I have a lot of work to get done. And the last couple weeks have been annoyingly productive from an employment standpoint.

At times when quantity is lacking, the wise blogger will make up for it with quality, writing well-researched articles about subjects with broad interest from angles not previously considered. Not being a wise blogger, I will instead write about a U-20 striker who spent most of the last year in the Premier Development League.

Randy Edwini-Bonsu is part of the great crop of Canadian attacking talent coming up through the ranks as we speak. The comparison to Simeon Jackson is an almost irresistable one. Edwini-Bonsu is short (listed 5’5″ and even that’s generous), young, and has obscenely good pace. He was also born outside of Canada and actually spent most of his life in his native Ghana before emigrating to Edmonton at age twelve.

Jackson’s career is trending better than Edwini-Bonsu’s. At nineteen, Jackson was coming into his own for semi-professional club Rushden and Diamonds of the Conference National. Meanwhile, the nineteen-year-old Edwini-Bonsu has been on the fringe of the Whitecaps for the last two years. There are a few reasons for this: he’s been hurt, which has obviously impacted his development, while Jackson has remained supernaturally healthy for a player of his size and role. Second, Edwini-Bonsu has only been playing football at all for seven years, since he moved to Canada.

For somebody with as much raw athleticism as Edwini-Bonsu, this is not as much of a handicap as you might think. Striker is the least technical position on the pitch. If you have good eyes, a good brain, and can leave trails of fire when you run, then you can play for somebody. “Run fast, kick ball” got Edwini-Bonsu a look with F.C. Metz and a contract at the Whitecaps Residency team to start the 2007 season after time in the metro Edmonton youth leagues.

Luckily, in addition to a superb athlete it turns out that Edwini-Bonsu is also a quick study. His progress is remarkably positive, injuries aside. He’s scored three goals for Canada at the youth level and deserved every one of them, tying for the Golden Boot in the CONCACAF U-20 championships despite Canada going down in the group stage.

In his sparse Whitecaps experience so far, Edwini-Bonsu’s progress has been both obvious and exciting. On Sunday against Miami FC, Edwini-Bonsu appeared as a late substitute with Marlon James ailing and made a ridiculous move to set up Charles Gbeke’s second goal, stepping past defender John Pulido as though it were a practice drill and thundering down a quarter of the pitch before laying the ball off perfectly to a wide-open Gbeke for an easy finish.

If he keeps doing that up, Whitecaps fans might not even notice that James is gone.

If Things Didn't End Badly They'd Never End At All: The Jacob Lensky Saga Part XIX

By Benjamin Massey · July 28th, 2009 · 3 comments

Last week, it was made official. Sporting a fancy new beard, Jacob Lensky had signed with FC Utrecht (Dutch).

The manager had a lot of encouraging things to say, considering the fact that Lensky has one career Eredivisie appearance and has been out of football for a year. The technical director was more realistic, calling Lensky a “long-term” project but sounding convinced of his physical and technical abilities. Lensky’s reportedly been getting a look at fullback rather than his native position, which was an attacking midfield role, which will be yet another hurdle for Lensky to overcome as he gets himself back into the professional game.

For those who aren’t familiar with Jacob’s story, the previous edition of the Jacob Lensky Saga is highly recommended reading: to summarise, Lensky was a brilliant prospect since he was old enough to kick a ball whose only question marks were his own desire and a family that may have desired a little too much. If Lensky has genuinely rediscovered his passion, all the luck in the world.

Lensky’s been predominantly getting action at fullback rather than his native midfield positon, and in a 3-1 friendly loss for Utrecht against Ankaraspor of Turkey he got bad reviews (Dutch) for his play in the first half. There’s been some very moderate anxiety over Lensky potentially jumping ship to the Czech Republic national team (his father, Boris, is of Czech descent) after Lensky badmouthed the Canadian programme in an interview back in the Netherlands. But Lensky’s been a good servant of the Canadian team for his entire life to date, including in the Olympic qualifiers and, more importantly, it seems doubtful that the Czechs would want him.

Frankly, for at least a couple years, it seems doubtful that the Canadians would want him.

The big question around Lensky is “is he doing this for the right reasons?” Is he simply another man in his early twenties facing the prospect of working for a living and realizing that kicking a ball around doesn’t seem so bad in comparison? Because if so, it might not be long before he remembers what drove him out of the professional game in the first place. Worst of all, is he succumbing pressure from people around him trying to live out their ambitions through Jacob?

Or maybe he’s someone who’s been flying around Europe since he was a boy, trialing here and getting a youth contract there, who broke into the freedom of adulthood, went to live a normal life for a year, and in so doing rediscovered everything he had loved about the game to begin with? If that’s the case, then the sky’s the limit. Maybe he won’t be the incredible attacking midfielder we’d all dreamed of, a worthy heir to Dwayne De Rosario, but he’ll be a Canadian playing professional football on his own terms. And that ain’t bad.

The Jacob Lensky Saga, Part XVIII

By Benjamin Massey · May 29th, 2009 · 4 comments

He was one of the rarest of players. Canadian to the bone, a young west-coast superstar who was being scouted by the Europeans almost from the moment he first saw a football pitch. He was with the Celtic youth academy by the age of 15 and then moved up to Feyenoord, getting an Eredivisie match at age eighteen.

How many Canadians have done that? He was big, quick, and talented: three pretty good attributes to combine. Particularly good off set pieces and probably the best young midfielder this country had since… actually, I’m not sure we’d ever had one at his level.

Alas, success was not to be. Rotterdam was a long way from his native Vancouver and he’d been packing suitcases on a tour of Europe when he was younger than most of us were when we started driving. In an interview later with The Province, he said, “I just wanted to completely remove myself from the situation because I burnt out so badly I couldn’t take it anymore.” So 19-year-old Jacob Lensky requested his release from Feyenoord, one of the best sides in Europe.

Said Peter Bosz, technical director of Feyenoord, “Feyenoord is saddened by the player’s departure, given that his footballing qualities were unquestionable.” But the Dutch giants were class until the end and let Lensky go on his way. The young starlet retired and flew home to Vancouver.

You know what just about everybody in Canadian football said at the time? Good for him! There had always been rumours, and more than rumours, about the Lenskys. Jacob’s father Boris Lensky was your stereotypical football father, flying Jacob around hell’s half acre, openly gunning for a youth deal with Manchester United before inking terms with Celtic. Before Feyenoord, all the Canadian footballing world knew of Jacob Lensky was what Boris Lensky told us and the exciting quotes that filtered through the youth academies of the big European clubs as Boris jerked Jacob around from country to country. As a teenager Jacob played for five European youth setups in three countries. And these are simply the facts of record, before getting into the usual whispers that surround cases like this.

Then, out of nowhere in January, stunning news came down the wire. Lensky was on trial with a football club again. But for the alumnus of Celtic and Feyenoord, the side this time was more humble: the defending USL Division 1 champion Vancouver Whitecaps. In a report from The Province, Lensky identified the reason he was back: he was happy to be playing closer to home and away from the pressures of a big European club. All around, Canadian fans applauded at a young man seeming to be getting back into the game the right way. He impressed in Vancouver and received a trial offer from the MLS’s Seattle Sounders. All was right with the world.

Then Lensky left Vancouver camp. Not to go to Seattle, but to go home. The Sounders confirmed Lensky hadn’t accepted their trial offer. Had he simply grown sick of the game again? Nobody in the Lensky camp was talking, and Jacob was left to fade into the obscurity that is the rightful due of every nineteen-year-old.

Finally, today, almost exactly four months after the Vancouver-Seattle soap opera, Jacob Lensky is back on the footballing pages. Back in the Netherlands, Lensky was on trial with FC Utrecht (Dutch) – and, in spite of eight months layoff, impressing. Lensky is back in Canada now, and the question does not seem to be whether Utrecht wants Lensky but whether, so soon after his release from Feyenoord for personal reasons, he is eligible for another Eredivisie contract.

Of course, there’s still the open matter of whether Lensky really wants to play again or if he’s just being pushed from a certain direction. But not to worry! According to FC Utrecht head of scouting Edwin de Kruijff, Lensky was just taking a gap year to resume his studies.

Where did that come from? In which parallel dimension can one take the words “gap year” from the quote “I burnt out so badly I couldn’t take it anymore?” Burned out so badly that he wasn’t even willing to play for Seattle in North America’s second-best football league, on a team so close to his home town that he could drive back. And after about a semester, he decides “wow, I feel great, and all that studying that I never told anybody about and that was so intensive that I couldn’t, say, stay in shape by playing for a university or in the USL PDL or something has really paid off! I think I’ll go back to the Netherlands and really, really piss off Feyenoord by signing for one of their rivals after securing my release quite possibly under false pretenses!”

Believe me, this is not the last chapter of Jacob Lensky’s footballing soap opera.