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. At my former haunt on Eighty Six Forever, Jon Szekeres counted down the Whitecaps ten best moments of the season starting back in November. Some Canadian Guys Writing About Soccer has been doing year-end interviews with members of the Canadian women’s national team Jono at Out of Touch has his predictions for the men’s team in 2013, 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 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.
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). 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
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. 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! 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.
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
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, 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”, 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. 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. 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.
The first Ruffneck Cup had been decided with four matches to go. 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, with Cédric Carrié of FC Brossard taking the Ballon d’Or. 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. 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
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.