Fonseca’s Unusual Firing

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

Martin Bazyl/Canadian Soccer Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insulting Chants

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

Jay Shaw/Canadian Soccer Association

Jay Shaw/Canadian Soccer Association

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

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

67. Liability for spectator conduct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Canadian Premier [Women’s] Soccer League

By Benjamin Massey · July 7th, 2015 · 3 comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

For some time the Canadian Soccer Association has semi-openly been trying to start a national soccer league, in cooperation with the Canadian Football League. So far it’s only amounted to rumour and ambition, but Duane Rollins reports that an announcement is virtually imminent[1]. Dark histories and hard-won cynicism keep fans from daring to hope, but if you’re not excited by the prospect you have no soul.

A domestic Canadian league will face monumental obstacles that may be overcome by the right investors. CFL support means access to stadiums and potential media coverage with CTV/TSN, who did a masterful job at the Women’s World Cup. It also (currently) means operators with a bit of cash and experience rather than fly-by-night confidence men. But there are a lot of problems left.

For casual fans, Canada’s three largest cities are monopolized by Major League Soccer, who may not welcome and will certainly not join a Canadian league set up in response to their inadequacies. Edmonton and Ottawa’s NASL teams would not necessarily take part either. As of the beginning of June neither the Ottawa Fury nor FC Edmonton had even been invited to discussions[2], and with Eddies owner Tom Fath invested heavily in the NASL the only reason for him to jump would be patriotic fervour. These two leagues, both playing at a higher level in the medium-term, would compete for fan interest with any Canadian league. Without huge investment or cunning marketing the new organization would be branded super-minor-league by non-fans, below even the American second division. These are risks worth running, for a national Canadian league is an absolute necessity, yet they are risks all the same.

There is, however, a way to ensure that the Canadian national league would not merely be the top league in the country but one of the top leagues in the world. It would fill a niche left open by MLS and NASL, and possibly encourage those leagues to see the newcomer as a partner rather than a competitor. It would not jeopardize the Voyageurs Cup, nor our CONCACAF Champions League success, nor anything else that the five existing professional teams have helped build. It would appeal to fans untouched by Soccer United Marketing and allow die-hard MLS supporters to develop a second allegiance without compromising their first. Furthermore, it would provide direct help to the Canadian national program immediately: rather than wait a decade for academies and opportunities to increase the level of play, we would see players cracking the senior national team at once. It would even lower costs. And it would capitalize on Canada’s strengths, which saw record-breaking crowds for the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The magic solution? Make it a women’s league.

Canadians support women’s soccer. We have held three serious women’s competitions in 2002, 2014, and 2015, and enjoyed world-class support at each. Germany is traditionally accounted the world’s strongest women’s soccer nation with several top club teams, but Canada 2015 saw higher average attendances than Germany 2011 throughout the knockout stages[3]. When Canada played England in the quarter-final an average of 3.2 million Canadians watched on television, with an average of 2.3 million throughout the group stage[4]: better than some UEFA Champions League finals. TV viewership was even higher for the 2012 Olympics, where the match against the United States ranked behind only the men’s 100 metres[5].

Would Canadians come out for professional women’s clubs? It’s hard to tell, because there has never been a professional women’s soccer club in Canadian history. This is a strength of a sort, because any league would come untarnished by past failures. It’s also a scathing indictment of how we’ve chased the men’s game altogether too single-mindedly. The fact that the likes of Christine Sinclair and Erin McLeod are obliged to go to the United States to make a living should be a national scandal, let alone the diamonds-in-the-rough who have to leave the game early or, if they’re very lucky, pull an Allysha Chapman and find a club overseas.

There is reason to hope. The late Vancouver Whitecaps W-League team, despite being an amateur club and an afterthought to the men’s program, several times achieved attendances that would rank well in the men’s USL[6]. Other W-League teams in Victoria, Quebec City, Toronto, and Ottawa also drew decent numbers for amateur soccer. However, in recent years many of these teams have been shut down in an era of fast-increasing budgets for men’s team and reduced regional women’s competition. The potential for women’s pro soccer exists, but not even an attempt has been made to exploit it.

How about finance? Travel and marketing costs don’t change because you swap men for women, but player payroll plunges. As of 2012, CSA guidelines specified the minimum budget for a fully professional men’s team of $1.5 million with a player payroll of $500,000; the Easton report of that year estimated the actual figures required as $4.2 million with $900,000 on players. Rollins’s report ups the figures to a $3 million budget and a $1 to $1.5 million salary cap. However, a women’s team wouldn’t need to come near this: the NWSL salary cap for 2015 is US$265,000[7]. This doesn’t count the marquee allocated players, but that’s money the Canadian Soccer Association is spending anyway: thirteen players currently sent to the NWSL that could easily be sent to Canada instead.

Canada could pay salaries competitive with the world’s best women’s soccer leagues for less than the cost of keeping pace with USL. You want first-class soccer? The opportunity is in front of us, waiting to be grasped.

Yes, it’s a gamble, an idealistic dream that will succeed only with luck, dedication, and patience. That’s no less true of a men’s league. It’s true of everything worth doing that might improve our position in the viciously competitive soccer world. Women have a unique opportunity here, for the female game is still taken seriously only by a minority of soccer powers and Canada retains an important position. That advantage will not last; is already diminishing. Let us exploit it while we may.

(notes and comments…)

Professional Soccer’s Responsibility to Canada

By Benjamin Massey · December 3rd, 2014 · 1 comment

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Very early indeed this morning, your friend and mine Michael McColl published over at AFTN Canada a post explaining his opinion that MLS has no obligations to Canadian soccer[1]. As someone whose opinion notoriously runs the other way, I have been called out to reply. I will oblige.

I do not mean to address McColl’s preference for club over country; that’s personal. (And he’s Scottish so, y’know, he’s responding to the incentives he’s got.) What I’m discussing is his argument that the Canadian MLS teams have no responsibility, and should have no responsibility, to develop Canadian talent.

These sorts of arguments always come down to two things: GIT DAT MONEY and WIN DOZE GAMEZ. Weird things for supporters to say. We all want our team to win, obviously, but that’s clearly not the most important thing: if it was we’d all cheer for Bayern Münich. We certainly wouldn’t be fans of the MLS Vancouver Whitecaps, a team proud of barely finishing in the top half twice in four years. There’s got to be something beyond numbers on a spreadsheet that keeps us coming to the park week in, week out. This is, in fact, the point.

And then there’s the financial argument. “Did Canada put any money into the MLS teams?!” Well, as it happens, yeah[2]. These self-sacrificing MLS team owners who only want to turn a wee little profit have by no means paid their own way. In terms of dollars and cents the Canadian public has bought a right to demand something from our MLS clubs. But it doesn’t matter.

If professional clubs are meant to be just another company then there’s no reason for them to ever have a single fan. You don’t see people going around wearing Telus shirts saying “yeah, they’ve been my phone company since I was a kid.” Even I don’t do that, and my dad works for Telus. In Vancouver you more commonly get people protesting corporations they feel put profit ahead of community. The entire business model of professional sports requires that we devote ourselves to an idea higher than any corporate interest: as fans we are entitled to demand something in exchange.

Why should we, as fans, give a hoot about franchise fees? We’re not shareholders in the Montreal Impact or the Vancouver Whitecaps. (You might be an investor in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment I guess.) I have no objection to Canadian soccer teams making money; in fact, I hope they do. But I’m not going to ignore everything that should turn a mere franchise into my club so Joey Saputo can have more caviar in his luxury suite.

Of course, nobody wants Canada’s professional teams to go broke. Look at the Whitecaps of the mid-2000s: playing Canadians for 20,000 minutes a season they won league championships[3]. Pretty sure they went utterly bankrupt. Pretty sure that’s what happened. If they routinely sold out Swangard Stadium, had a captain from Vancouver Island, and a bevy of beloved, successful local players, somebody would have mentioned it.

Or the Montreal Impact of that era. Routinely in the top of the table, the “least Canadian team in domestic professional soccer” which would make them the most Canadian team in MLS by miles, a bunch of long-term players and the occasional native son on a star turn like Ali Gerba. I seem to recall that they wound up building a soccer-specific stadium, won a dozen Voyageurs Cups, and got deep in a CONCACAF Champions League while drawing formidable crowds… but that’s probably a pot-induced hallucination. Next you’ll tell me that even the Toronto Lynx, who were an advertisement for how not to run a professional soccer team, are still around in USL PDL. Everyone knows that playing Canadians makes you broke. That’s why, when a long-forgotten MLS franchise named Toronto FC was founded with a high Canadian quota in place and they lost most of their games, the team plunged into obscurity and team owner Mr. MLSE can now be found outside Union Station giving handies for pocket change.

But isn’t it true that the biggest soccer nations in the world don’t do this sort of navel-gazing? Look, as McColl urges us, at the foreigner-replete Spanish La Liga, English Premier League, and Italian Serie A! They don’t demand a proportion of Spanish or English or Italian players and they’re doing great! (This amounts to saying “these countries are in the European Union”; it is difficult legally to rule out European foreigners in these countries. La Liga restricts non-EU players but can’t restrict non-Spaniards.)

These are three of the strongest leagues in the world: not exactly comparable to a podunk salary-capped regional league. Besides, as McColl ought to have known, England is plagued by just this problem, despite domestic representation that would make a Canadian jump for joy: the Football Association’s tightening work permit rules are one attempt at a solution[4]. And what of Germany? The world’s top soccer league requires a high proportion of homegrown players on a team’s roster, and their football association sets strict standards and demands heavy investment in youth academies[5]. The Germans, I shouldn’t need to tell you, have enjoyed some success with this approach.

In Australia, a country comparable to Canada in many ways, the A-League restricts teams to a maximum of five imports, a number that’s actually going down[6]. The result? The A-League has ten teams, nine in Australia proper (population 24 million), international television coverage, and a fast-rising salary cap. Their national team has moved to the tougher Asian region for more of a challenge and A-League-developed players like Mitchell Langerak, Joshua Brillante, and Robbie Kruse have joined some of the world’s top teams. If only we had Australia’s problems. Nor is their approach unusual: leagues in Russia, Japan, South Korea, and other strong countries have adopted increasingly strict pro-domestic rules.

Yeah, the men’s national team only plays a few times a year (and never in Vancouver). Yeah, it’s incompetent. Yeah, over the years the Canadian Soccer Association hasn’t been able to find its ass with a 15-page PDF titled “Roadmap to Canada’s Ass 2025”. That’s not the point. The Canadian national teams don’t represent the CSA, they represent us, the people of Canada. They are eleven men or women who unify us from Victoria to St. John’s. They are the apex of what we can hope to achieve: five MLS Cups in Vancouver wouldn’t add up to the world-wide attention and the domestic hope from a single Canadian World Cup appearance.

Telling us our MLS teams should ignore that so they can make more money is an offense to the entire concept of supporting a club.

(notes and comments…)

Hooray for the CSA and the USL Pro Domestic Quota

By Benjamin Massey · September 6th, 2014 · 7 comments

Earlier this week on The 24th Minute Duane Rollins reported that the Canadian Soccer Association has set high domestic player quotas for the three reserve teams that Canada’s Major League Soccer franchises are entering into USL Pro. Half of the active team roster, as well as six of eleven starters, will have to be players eligible for the Canadian national team[1].

With the ostensible reason for these USL Pro teams being the young Canadian talent our MLS franchises have failed to integrate into the first team, you’d expect the MLS sides to accept this without a complaint. And, so far, they pretty much have. (Score one for the bright side of life!) Vancouver is still pushing the New Westminster scheme hard, the Montreal Impact just announced their own USL Pro team[2], and Toronto FC seems to be moving forward with their plans[3]. Obviously the franchises knew this was coming. It’s enough to almost make you believe the life of a Canadian soccer fan isn’t uniformly terrible.

Naturally some fans of MLS organizations aren’t as calm as the organizations themselves. The comments of Rollins’ post are filled with the usual. I look at my Twitter feed and this is being framed in “club versus country” terms like every other discussion that combines the words “Canadian” and “soccer”. It’s gotten a shade repetitive, and long ago became the sort of argument that ceased to persuade anyone ever.

How often have you heard the club-first people scoff “well, why doesn’t the Canadian Soccer Association do something to make the men’s national team relevant, anyway?” with the “pssh” and the “pfft” of the supporter dismissing Canada in favour of the accomplished winners that are our MLS teams. Well, the Canadian Soccer Association has done something! “Okay,” they’ve said “you guys want to put yet more teams in yet another American league and you’re saying you’re going to develop Canadian talent, then we’re going to hold you to that.”

When the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact joined Toronto FC in Major League Soccer, the CSA made a mistake that’s set Canadian soccer back years: it trusted the MLS group. The Whitecaps had given Canadian players over 10,000 minutes every season in the USL First Division, Montreal was behind but still not bad, and Toronto FC was making all the right noises. Bob Lenarduzzi wanted no quota at all, saying the Whitecaps should produce enough quality players to make one irrelevant[4], so the CSA compromised with an extremely low requirement for three domestic players, including Canadian citizens ineligible for our national team.

As a result the number of Canadians playing professional soccer in their home country has declined precipitously[5]. Whatever the intentions of Toronto FC or Vancouver or Montreal, in the real world they’ve found it easier to draft American NCAA players and sign imports for a season and a half rather than buck the MLS model and build around Canadian talent. With young players not able to get anywhere in Canada, and potentially talented veterans leaving the professional game in despair so they can raise families and play for Edmonton Scottish, the Canadian men’s national team has never been worse.

We know that hopes and aspirations aren’t good enough when you’re dealing with MLS, so the CSA is forcing them to do the right thing. It’s a pity that it’s necessary, but we’ve seen that it is. Clearly the people with the money, the Vancouverites and Montrealers and Torontonians, don’t think this is a deal-breaker (I mean, half these reserve teams can still be foreign; that’s more than enough for all your NCAA scrubs). And the fans who don’t care about developing Canadian players will whine, but let them: these are literally the last people on Earth the Canadian Soccer Association should answer to.

(notes and comments…)

FIFA Intervention a Boon for the QSF

By Roke · June 17th, 2013 · 4 comments

FIFA’s intervention into the Québec Soccer Federation turban debate on June 13th[1] was a welcome reprieve, allowing Québec Sikhs to return from their backyard exile and back to the soccer pitch. I had cynically expected FIFA to do nothing and see the matter resolved until it went to the courts, whether through the parties aggrieved the QSF or the Canadian Soccer Association. Thankfully, that did not happen.

It was striking how favourable FIFA’s release was to the QSF; they could have hardly had a more favourable release if they wrote themselves.

The one issue FIFA’s release did not address was the QSF’s concerns about the safety of turbans on the soccer pitch. Of course, this turgid kerfuffle was never about safety in the first place. The QSF failed to present any evidence corroborating their safety concerns. Furthermore, the Québec Soccer Federation hasn’t exactly been quick to act when other safety concerns are raised, even in the case when there has been a death[2].

What is in FIFA’s release is as interesting as what is missing. Notice that the release makes no reference to the Canadian Soccer Association’s directive in March extending the approval of the wearing of headscarves to the wearing of turbans[3]. Rather than explicitly (and retroactively) affirming the CSA’s decision, FIFA’s release reads like a new, development only reached after the QSF acted out.

That is why the ruling is great for the QSF. Not only did they manage to perform an end-run around the Canadian Soccer Association and get away with it, the end-run and the turban ban can be justified because they caused change. With the QSF reinstated in what appears to be a return to the status quo ante[4]. I believe we will see the QSF emboldened by the outcome and their insubordination.

When he wrote about the turban ban, Duane Rollins pointed out that the ban in the realm of soccer was as much about a reaction to recent CSA reform as anything else[5]. FIFA’s intervention makes the CSA look weak.

This probably will not be the last time the Québec Soccer Federation tries to assert itself in an attempt at independence and given that they faced few consequences (other than outrage outside of Québec), I do not see them being reluctant to do so in the future. I hope that the next time they do so their actions won’t be seeded with bigotry.

(notes and comments…)

Canada to Play Friendly at BMO Again (or: Well, I Never!)

By Benjamin Massey · February 19th, 2013 · 3 comments

The Canadian Soccer Association has announced that the much-anticipated home return of the Canadian women’s national team will be held at BMO Field[1]. Huh. Who would have guessed?

There was a time when I ranted angrily about the Canadian Soccer Association sticking it to 90% of Canada at every opportunity. But this has become too much business-as-usual for me to feel the old rage. It’s just exasperation, now; a few hundred words of “Jesus Christ, this is stupid”. A national facepalm.

Eleven of the eighteen home games by any senior Canadian national team since 2010 men’s World Cup qualifying have been at BMO Field[2]; five of the seven exceptions were CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifiers held in January 2012 when playing at BMO was impossible (remember that Toronto was unable to play a CONCACAF Champions League match at BMO as late as March[3]). The only two occasions since 2008 when the Canadian Soccer Association played outside of BMO Field by choice were the men on September 7, 2010 in Montreal against Honduras and the women on May 30, 2012 in Moncton against China.

Small wonder. In January, Duane Rollins of The 24th Minute reported that the Canadian Soccer Association signed contracts in 2005 and 2011 which encouraged the CSA to playing as many games as possible at BMO Field[4]. This at least provided an explanation beyond sheer bloody-mindedness for the CSA’s “heads Toronto wins, tails Canada loses” mentality: the way there was always some excuse, differing every game, for why BMO Field was really the only place Canada could possibly play.

Not that this stopped Peter Montopoli from telling Daniel Squizzato how the Americans “preferred an east-coast environment this time around” and how “when it came down to that decision, you’re looking at the opportunity and the availability” and that “we like to play in Toronto” (you don’t say)[5]. Toronto isn’t actually on the east coast, it’s hard to imagine why BMO Field is perfect whereas Stade Saputo, a 2015 Women’s World Cup host venue, is unsuitable (the Impact play on the road the day before), and why are we working our national soccer strategy around making the Americans as comfortable as possible anyway? They’re a poor choice of opponent, as John Herdman will be unable to keep up his semi-rebuild-for-2015 strategy against them, and the last time we played a women’s friendly against the Americans our ladies traveled to Sandy, Utah, which is a damned sight more “out there” than Edmonton.

At least the past 24 hours have again shown why Vancouver Whitecaps fans shouldn’t worry about how many Canadians the ‘Caps run out. We may all like cheering for locals, but I’m referring to those who think the Whitecaps’ failure to use affirmative action to prop up the rotten Canadian structure is some sort of moral failing. Those mad dogs first got to see our U-20 national team humiliated by Cuba (Cuba!!!) 2-1, a deserved Cuban win in spite of a national hype engine saying this was our strongest team in ages because MLS ACADEMEEZ. Now the CSA is once again reminding us that those of us outside Toronto barely exist when it comes time to make decisions. Making an argument that the Whitecaps should sign provably-inferior players for the satisfaction of fans at BMO Field looks even stupider than usual today.

So yeah, nothing has changed and there’s no reason to believe anything ever will. Do you see why I can’t keep up the proper, incandescent rage that’s so much fun to read? After four years of this it gets sort of hard to do more than mock and sigh. Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Canadian soccer supporters.

(notes and comments…)

Things I Hope I Don’t Forget About From 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Tancredi goes on the warpath against Sweden

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first ever Juan de Fuca Plate

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

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

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

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

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

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

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

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

La Première ligue de Soccer du Québec getting off the ground

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

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

The Canadian Olympic qualifying matches in Vancouver

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

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

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

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

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

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

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

(notes and comments…)

Dreams of a National (Women’s) Soccer League

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

Government of British Columbia

My greatest dream for Canadian soccer is that one of our billionaires falls in love with the Canadian game. He builds stadiums from coast to coast: Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Sudbury, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Halifax, Charlottetown, and St. John’s. Pick your favourite eight, ten, or twelve of those if you prefer; this is a dream. Each of those stadiums are modest in capacity (8,000 seats, say), not too fancy, and probably have artificial turf… but they also have roofs, preferably retractable of course but not necessarily, so we could play first-class soccer in the depths of a prairie winter.

This billionaire then starts up a Canadian league on the MLS model: single entity, salary cap, with a fair minimum salary so even the meanest player can make a living but taking a hit on the top end; only the very best players would make over $100,000. Winter schedule; not for Eurosnobbery reasons but because that would minimize competition with MLS and allow the players to focus on national team duty in the summer (and improving the national team is a major reason this is a dream of mine). A salary cap of, say, a million dollars per team would allow a 25-person roster mostly made up of players around the minimum but with a handful of big earners. If you have an eight-team league playing a balanced schedule of 28 games each plus playoffs, then a profit of $71,428.57 per home game allows you to break even on player expenses, and offering a salary of $100,000 would allow you to lure over some world-class players. This could, quickly, become the best soccer league of its type in the world.

No, really. (I may have neglected to mention: in my dream this is a women’s league.)

The Americans announced their new women’s league today, following up on the failures of WUSA and WPS. There will be eight teams from coast to coast and play is expected to begin this coming spring. After two much-hyped disasters the Americans are making all the right noises about “sustainability”[1], and it’s easy to see why, for even a modest league that’s a long-term success will cement the United States’s place at the top of the women’s soccer world.

If you’re interested in improving performance, women’s soccer should offer such a great return on investment without going for MLS levels of support. Professionalism, even among near-elite countries, is often the exception rather than the rule. The Canadian women’s national team, which you may recall just won a fucking bronze medal, had two players playing professionally full-time in 2012 (Rhian Wilkinson and Diana Matheson, both in Norway). Every player in our national pool has to do “coaching sessions” or public appearances to make ends meet; time in travel and glad-handing that could be spent training. Unlike some male athletes, when they go to school they have to get degrees they can earn a living with (Matheson has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Princeton, making her Canada’s best-known microeconomist). All of this is a distraction from what should be their full-time job. The less famous players who represent the future of our national team more than the present are even worse off. “Own the Podium” and the like don’t cut it; that program will split $1.27 million between only 24 players over 2012-13[2]

Bringing professional standards to the full Canadian player pool requires money; full-time professionalism, in other words. Money requires fans. But Canadian women’s soccer has plenty of those.

Five January Olympic qualifying games in Vancouver drew an average crowd of 15,306, compared to six men’s World Cup qualifying games in Toronto with an average of 14,223. 7,514 came to watch a friendly in Moncton this past May. Even the 5,427 at BMO Field for a friendly against China in September of last year, while appalling at the time, would have been perfectly reasonable for an NASL game. The average attendance for Canadian women’s games in Canada for the past five years is 12,586 (nine games, three cities, four friendlies)[3]. The money for an investment is there. Indeed, today the Canadian Soccer Association announced it will finance the salaries of up to sixteen women’s national team players in the American professional league[4][5]. The CSA is not known for being either rich or generous, but they’re making an annual salary commitment that will be well into six figures and may push seven because they expect that, if sixteen of their players are playing and training full-time close to home, they’ll get a return on investment.

There are two reasons why investing in women’s soccer should be attractive to Canadian soccer mavens. One is that, as mentioned above, it’s popular. Casual fans love the Canadian women: they win, which is always helpful, and they have a great public profile thanks to winning personalities and public interaction. The second is that it takes so much less money to make a difference, because the money already in the system is relatively small. If you wanted to invest in the Canadian men’s national team you’d be building infrastructure, bringing in expensive foreign coaches, trying to create comprehensive scouting and coaching networks, and maybe scattering a few $50-million soccer-specific stadiums around the country. If you wanted to invest in the Canadian women, a relatively cheap first step could make all the difference.

Forget my billionaire dream above. Why couldn’t we put teams in Victoria (Royal Athletic Park), Vancouver/Burnaby (Swangard Stadium), Edmonton (Clarke Field with FC Edmonton expansion/Foote Field), Toronto (Lamport Stadium), Montreal (Claude-Robillard), and Moncton (Moncton Stadium) and start a six-team professional league tomorrow? Why not? Why couldn’t we? Yes, it would take an investment, but what an investment it would be if Canada’s current and future national players could come home, play full-time, and be close to hand for John Herdman? We wouldn’t need to worry about the strength as, purely by virtue of bringing in the best Canadian players, many good American players, and foreign nationals who want to play fulltime, this would automatically be one of the best women’s leagues in the world.

Six teams with a salary budget of $1 million each per year. That’s less than the CFL’s salary cap. There’d be travel expenses, of course, but we wouldn’t be asking any owner to lose as much on their women’s team as Tom Fath lost on FC Edmonton in their first year. We’re not swinging for the fences and trying to bring over every Marta or Abby Wambach type (although Christine Sinclair might need a Bobby Hull-style exemption so she could play for the Whitecaps).

WPS and its ilk weren’t able to bring the fans out. That last year their average attendance was just 3,518 (still better than FC Edmonton), although that was for a league everybody knew was dying and previous seasons were better. Would Canadians come for women’s professional soccer? They already do! Did you see BC Place during Olympic qualifying?!

That whole outpouring of support doesn’t need to go to the clubs; half would be more than enough. We’d need NASL numbers for one of the best leagues in the world. The Whitecaps women repeatedly boasted attendances of over 1,000 this summer, and that was a fully amateur sub-playoff team of college students playing a short season at stadiums all around the Lower Mainland[6]. There has never been a fully professional women’s team in Canada, and trying to paint Canada with the US’s brush because WPS was a shambles is the same argument used by those who said Toronto FC could never make it in MLS.

A Canadian national women’s league would have two advantages over the much-ballyhooed “men’s second division”. The first is that the Canadian league wouldn’t be a second division: it would be able to compete with the coming American league, particularly for young, journeyman, and Canadian players, and a North American open cup would make fascinating viewing. It would be one of the best women’s leagues in the world. You wouldn’t have to choose between seeing Hamilton Bumfuck SC in person or Toronto FC on television, because the best soccer would be local.

The second is nationalism. For the men, pride in Canadian soccer is reserved for morons like us; for the women it’s the default. We hear again and again how well the women represented the Maple Leaf in London, how the country had soccer heroes who hailed from the Pacific to the Atlantic and almost everywhere in-between. Canadian women’s soccer belongs to the rank and file, the soccer moms and casual fans who make any professional enterprise work. Moreover, a professional Canadian women’s league would be among the highest levels of it sport. A fan in Moncton would bring his daughter out to see Christine Sinclair and the Whitecaps one weekend, then Sophie Schmidt and the Edmonton Wild Roses would be in town the next, followed by Diana Matheson’s Toronto Blue-and-White or whatever I’m done making up names. A small league could mean that every team had some recognizable Canadian star, to say nothing of some excellent soccer. There’d be a summer break where the best of those players got together and John Herdman went to kick some ass, and their profile would just go up.

Canada meets every fundamental requirement to start a league like this. We have fans in the tens of thousands. We have stadiums which are perfectly suitable, perhaps requiring minor expansion but even in those cases expansion schemes have already been planned and acted upon (Royal Athletic Park was expanded for the U-20 World Cup and of course the fables of expanding Clarke for FC Edmonton have become legend). The game is strong at the grass-roots level. We have elite-level players who could anchor such a league from both an on-field and public relations perspective for years to come. Nothing needs to be built from whole cloth.

Accuse me of optimism if you like. There would be problems: paying for travel, finding qualified coaches, trying to get the support of the professional men’s teams (for if they viewed this women’s league as a threat and tried to crush it we’d have a serious problem). Canadians are not used to coming out for women’s club soccer, but then again they weren’t used to men’s club soccer either once, not so long ago. A few television ads just showing Christine Sinclair ventilating Hope Solo followed by a location and a date would help a lot.

Why not try? Something like this has never been attempted in Canada, even on a small scale; professional women’s soccer in this country has always consisted of either sending players abroad or making them do three-hour drives to earn gas money at community coaching clinics. Rather than the same old proposals for a national men’s league or a U-23 league or rambling about “the CHL model” and trying to wring incremental improvements out of the men’s game so the nation will grow to love it, why not revolutionize the women’s game Canada already loves? The money involved, relative to the boatloads required to get anywhere in the men’s game, is small. Greg Kerfoot could run a few seasons of a six-team league himself if he was in the mood.

Sometimes it seems that as a soccer country we lack ambition. Canadians rant and rave and slave like dogs at trying to go the extra mile for what we have, and countless people smarter and harder-working than I am have gone elbows-deep in proverbial muck to reform the Canadian soccer system. Yet we shy away from revolution. We have never attempted to become a world leader. A Canadian professional women’s league would give us that chance at an uncommonly low price. It would require a willingness to take risks, and that’s a willingness we’ve never shown in soccer. But there’s no better time to start.

(notes and comments…)

The Folly of Received Wisdom

By Benjamin Massey · November 12th, 2012 · 4 comments

Canadian Soccer Association

This morning I spent part of my holiday Monday reading a post by Justin Connolly on Red Nation Online[1]. I read it because Jason deVos linked to it on Twitter saying it “reeks of ignorance”[2] and, frankly, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

I didn’t think the article reeked but I have some experience with awful sports teams. Connolly starts by saying “few sports fans in the world that have endured the run of incompetence like those who follow the Canadian men’s national soccer team” but, as an Edmonton Oilers fan, I am one of the few. If Canada was like the Oilers we would have lost to Puerto Rico, failed to get out of the second round, and fired Paul Fenwick while the CSA insisted everything was fine. Then there would have been a lockout. Say what you will about the Canadian Soccer Association, and God knows I have, but they acknowledge there are critical problems and they must be fixed.

Which isn’t to say Connolly’s article was correct. He starts off weakly, writing about “teflon coach” Stephen Hart whose failings were apparently glossed over (yes, the coach who was fired in disgrace after one World Cup qualifying campaign with the near-unanimous agreement of the Canadian soccer world but who also not crapped on by the media once he was gone). Having accused Canada of making excuses for Hart, Connolly makes excuses for Canada by saying we’d be excellent if players like Owen Hargreaves, Jonathan de Guzman, Junior Hoilett, Daniel Fernandes, Asmir Begovic, and “budding defensive star” Steven Vitoria had just played for us.

It’s not unfair to say it “reeks of ignorance”, though, when that’s just the same old Canadian soccer fan attitude. “Fire the coach, blame the staff, and also it’s not our fault.” Anyone who hangs out with our soccer fans has heard it: it’s the default stance of message board posts, of nine out of ten pub talks. The only thing missing was a discourse on how the new head coach has to be a bright up-and-comer who “knows CONCACAF” and has a history of development talent but wants to come to Canada and earn their reputation.

What brought me up short was the criticism of Tony Fonseca. At the time I didn’t approve of Fonseca’s hiring as technical director. I think the Canadian Soccer Association needed new ideas and that Fonseca, as a long-time CSA insider, wasn’t the man to provide them. More than that, I was terrified that the CSA started soliciting candidates for technical director back in July[3] with an application deadline of August 3, 2012 and, after three months, wound up with Stephen Hart’s right-hand man, as if either that long search was fairly pointless or there just weren’t many qualified candidates. Since then respectable pundits have said Fonseca was a voice for the right sort of change in the CSA. His coaching record in Vancouver was unimpressive, but I have been reminded he was responsible for bringing up a lot of local talent with the Vancouver Whitecaps, starting with bona fide A-League stars like Jason Jordan and Steve Kindel. That’s just the skill you want from your technical director. I still have reservations about Fonseca but am willing to give him a chance.

Connolly comes from a different perspective, one I find harder to reconcile with but one which also speaks for many Canadian fans. I will quote his criticism at length.

Which leads the how the CSA failed to get the Technical Director hiring right.

Tony Fonseca may be a great individual and a class act just like Stephan Hart. Fonseca is a former international with Portugal that once plied his trade with historic Benfica. His coaching experience however is far less glamorous involved exclusively in Canada with Vancouver and then the CSA.

This important hire should have been made so people across Canada knew about it. [. . .]

Instead of using the hiring of a key position, long noted by many as a vital to the growth of the game, they announced it the same day our American cousins were electing their president.

In political terms, they buried it.

The “buried” Fonseca has already appeared on TSN FC with Jason deVos and Luke Wileman[4] and FAN 590 with Jeff Blair[5]. He was written about by de Vos[6], Gerry Dobson[7], and Ben Rycroft for CBC.ca[8]. The hiring was well-received by blogs, with Waking the Red[9] and, of course, Red Nation Online[10] bringing original content that American election day. The CSA sent out a press release and held a well-subscribed conference call hours before election results started rolling in; the same level of attention they give to pretty much everything, and have since made Fonseca available to the press. The news leaked on the Monday anyway. If this was a burying it was the most incompetent on record.

Fonseca’s coaching record is not unassailable. His coaching of Canada’s U-23s in Olympic qualifying, in spite of a famous win over the United States, was undistinguished. While he ran the Whitecaps from February 2002 to the end of the 2004 A-League season[11], his achievements were modest: a conference final appearance and a league semi-final appearance, three successful qualifications for the playoffs in three years but no great regular season records and no championships. It was a tumultuous period for the Whitecaps: Fonseca’s coaching run overlapped with David Stadnyk giving up ownership of the team and the desperate fight for a new owner that eventually led to Greg Kerfoot. But all the same, Fonseca’s onfield accomplishments must be considered “fair, but not great.” If he is remembered well in Vancouver it is because of the success he got from local players and because his successor, Bob Lilley, was the most hated Whitecaps coach until the Tom Soehn days.

But the argument isn’t that Fonseca isn’t qualified because of his coaching, but that he isn’t qualified because of his Canadianness. Despite being Portuguese he is, in almost every meaningful sense, a “Canadian coach”, and that in of itself seems to disqualify him. I’m not just trying to pick on Connolly here for we see the same argument made by Canadian soccer fans from coast to coast; Connolly is just an unusually eloquent writer with an unusually large platform to promote some very common views for which he cannot be held responsible.

They’re also views I once agreed with. Here is an article from July written, by me, with the not-so-subtle headline “Canada’s Technical Director Should Be Anything but Canadian”[12]:

Canada needs foreign talent. Yes, a foreign technical director would cost money and come with risks: will he just flee back home, job undone? But ambition isn’t cheap and it isn’t risk-free, and “technical director” is an efficient area to spend money. If you have somebody at the top who can provide expert guidance and training for the most important members of your technical program, that can be far more helpful than any national team head coach or other more public but more expensive hirings.

It’s a delusion to think Canada’s men’s national team can pull itself up by its own bootstraps. The trouble is that there simply isn’t the expertise in this country to develop the team we need to qualify for World Cups. There isn’t an active Canadian who can say he’s been a steady winner at the professional level, or who can boast of a record developing players or staff. Our professional clubs are making great progress training young talent but even they found it necessary to bring in foreign heads for their academies. The Canadian Soccer Association, with such a vast responsibility and so much more work to do, is certainly no exception.

I hope you see why I’m trying not to bash Connolly too much, for very recently I was on the same side of the argument. I come by my conversion honestly.

Name Age Left Canada At Pro Debut With
Attakora, Nana 23 23 Toronto
Bernier, Patrice 33 23 Montreal
Edwini-Bonsu, Randy 22 20 Vancouver
Henry, Doneil 20 N/A Toronto
Hirschfeld, Lars 34 19 Edmonton (indoor)
Hutchinson, Atiba 29 21 Toronto Lynx
Morgan, Ashtone 20 N/A Toronto
Stinson, Matt 20 N/A Toronto
Teibert, Russell 19 N/A Vancouver

To the right is a list of the players currently in our national pool who I consider “developed in Canada”. You may argue with most of them. Lars Hirschfeld, the elder statesman, spent a couple years in Germany from 1998 to 2000 but was otherwise Canadian-based from childhood until 2002, when as a 23-year-old he had his shot with Tottenham. His professional debut was with, depending on how you’re counting, the old indoor Edmonton Drillers or the second-division Vancouver Whitecaps. He’s Canadian-developed to me, but you may disagree. Atiba Hutchinson was in Canada until he was 21, playing Canadian Soccer League and A-League soccer before moving abroad; he was obviously well above A-League level and was soon overseas but, again, spent his prime development years in Canada. Patrice Bernier spent a year in American college soccer but was primarily developed in Canada; he was an elite hockey player who spent two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League[13]. Randy Edwini-Bonsu came up through the Whitecaps Residency and played for the first team but couldn’t stick and had to go to the Finnish second division. The only players who aren’t arguable cases are the young ones.

Every player on this list is either on the downside of their careers (Hirschfeld, Bernier), are too early in their professional careers to call up regularly (Attakora, Edwini-Bonsu, Henry, Morgan, Stinson, Teibert), or is Atiba Hutchinson (Hutchinson). Of the six young players, odds are most of them will fade into obscurity because that’s just what happens. As Canada’s best player since deVos’s prime Hutchinson alone lends this list gravitas but he is an unusual case: a fantastic talent who somehow slipped through the cracks, joined the Lynx as a 20-year-old, and immediately made everybody say “that’s it, he’s too good for us.” And the fact that, from the entire Canadian senior national team pool, I found nine players who could by any definition qualify as “developed in Canada” and four of those nine are under 21 is rather shocking.

This is for many reasons. One of them is that there is a shortage of qualified coaching in Canada relative to our size (meaning both “population” and “area”). A kid in Fort McMurray, however talented, has next-to-no chance of becoming a first-class soccer player, for there is unlikely to be a good coach within a four-hour drive of his house. When we say that Canada needs some foreign impresario this is usually one of the reasons: there just aren’t enough talented soccer minds in Canada to train the vast next generation of coaches we need.

The trouble is that the technical director job is such a far-reaching one that there’s more to it than just technical expertise. We’ve been perfectly capable of developing elite players like Hutchinson domestically, and there have been no fewer than three fully professional clubs in Canada every year since 1997. Our elites have had no trouble getting access to the best teams in Europe. But it’s never tied together. Kids have bounced up the ranks of youth clubs, going from coach to coach, club to club, hoping to be noticed by a scout or sign on professionally.

Lately the provinces, the clubs, and the CSA have improved matters, but there is no substitute for a high authority with the knowledge and the mandate to tie together disparate regional strategies. There’s no reason that high authority can’t be a former Canadian coach; indeed, somebody like Fonseca will have a better understanding of the unique world of Canadian soccer than a foreign voice however talented. The technical director doesn’t need to be somebody who can “win in CONCACAF”, nor necessarily even somebody who is a great teacher, but somebody who can finally start getting our players from cradle to national team within the Canadian soccer system.

I’m still not convinced Fonseca was the best man for the job, but that isn’t because of his Canadian coaching roots. Were the CSA to appoint somebody like Dwight Lodeweges with extensive Canadian experience but also superior technical qualifications, I’d have been thrilled partially because of his time in Canada. The best soccer mind in the world would be useless if he didn’t have the knowledge and the connections to give Canada a consistent, useful platform for player and coaching development. On the other hand, somebody could be a mediocre coach but if they were able to create a structure which gave Canadian players and coaches the best chance to develop in this country, they would be the greatest technical director in our history.

The idea that Canada must always go abroad for help is tempting; after all, we’re a weak soccer nation. But it’s one of those ideas that have gained currency among fans without sufficient challenge. It’s become accepted wisdom based on “we need to do something different, and this is something different.” The one time Canada brought in a foreign technical director, England’s Richard Bate, he fled within a year having achieved absolutely nothing[14], but this is just one bad apple while the failure of any ill-chosen Canadian is proof we need a foreign hand.

Over the years Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact teams staffed primarily with Canadians, often local ones, and as often coached by them, have won second-division championships. We’ve produced professional coaches, good teams, and excellent players; again, our best active soccer star played entirely within Canada until he was 21. We all know that Canada has some expertise but faces unique challenges because of geography, demography, and history. Yet every time a major vacancy in this country comes open fans shout that we need an outsider to show us what we’re doing, preferably that young guy we’ve all heard of and who develops great players while knowing CONCACAF.

There’s no doubt that Canada has much to learn from other soccer nations and we shouldn’t hesitate to bring over outside talent where we think it can help us. The work, however, needs to be done on a low level: teaching our community coaches that there’s more to the game than athleticism, that there’s more to youth development than trying to win. The job of a technical director is to improve the game from the highest strategic perspective, not to personally teach every coach his business. That’s a job which can as easily be done by a Canadian, one who knows the landscape, as anyone. Dragging in a European or Latin American just because they are an outsider is how you wind up with Aron Winter and Mo Johnston.

The sort of lazy thinking which brings us “we need a foreigner!” as a knee-jerk response is the same lazy thinking which says we’d be fine if only the traitors had played for us. It’s the same lazy thinking which just shouts “reform!” without considering the nature or the objective of that reform, that wants to sack the coach for bad results without thinking of anyone better (or hire the coach in the first place despite an underwhelming resume because “the players will play for him”). I’ve been as guilty as this sort of thinking as anyone, and I’m sure some of you can point out other examples where I’m part of the problem. We all are, from time to time, and we all need to check each other’s assumptions.

The one sure way to make sure Canadian soccer doesn’t get any better is if we don’t critically analyze all this received wisdom. “Everybody knows” these sorts of lazy assumptions, has known them for years, and look where it’s gotten us.

(notes and comments…)