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 Canadian Messi

By Benjamin Massey · February 12th, 2016 · No comments

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Mexsport/Canadian Soccer Association

Yesterday, 16-year-old Deanne Rose of Alliston, Ontario took Guyana to school. In her first competitive start for her country Rose scored two goals, had an assist, and would have added to her total had John Herdman not subbed her off in the sixty-second minute. Canada beat Guyana 5-0 (thanks to Ashley Lawrence recording the most overlooked hat trick of the century) and seldom have we faced an opponent so hopelessly out of their depth. Usually it’s Canadian teams that look like that, defending in desperate fear, putting eight women in the box, hoofing without even trying to maintain possession, their only hope of a goal being Lauren Sesselmann apparating at centreback and backpassing up a storm. But the Guyanese team is mostly Canadian, so that makes sense[1].

What a shellacking. By the end of the game Guyana looked like they just wanted to go home. (To Toronto.) Canada had 80% of the possession and 100% of the shots. Despite spending the first half crossing so badly even John Herdman was obliged to notice, Canada was constantly in control and treated the minnow as a minnow deserves. Without some awkward non-finishes and a great save it would easily have been 8-0. It wasn’t always pretty, but our dominance was absolute even with Sinclair, Schmidt, and Matheson jogging, Chapman and Belanger launching runs for the six-yard box like over-excited U-8s, McLeod visibly bored, and Herdman practically screaming “hell with it, it’s Guyana” as he played some real-life FIFA 16 and brought on Jessie Fleming for a fullback.

The kids played like they had something to prove. Gabby Carle shot from everywhere, Fleming tried to play keepaway, Lawrence scored a goal or three or something, Buchanan and Zadorsky were both fine on those rare occasions they were in the picture, and the real star of the show was Rose. As is tradition, I am using a handful of games against mostly second-rate opposition or worse to formally anoint her the Canadian Messi.

Rose’s best comparable is Christine Sinclair, who surely would have named the Canadian Messi herself had Uncle Leo not been a 13-year-old with Newell’s Old Boys. Sinclair’s first senior goal for Canada came on March 14, 2000, when she put one past Norway in a 2-1 loss at the Algarve Cup. She was 16 years, 9 months, and 2 days old. When Rose scored her first two goals yesterday she was 16 years, 11 months, and 8 days old, the fifth-youngest scorer in Canadian senior women’s history and 13 days younger than her teammate Jessie Fleming[2].

The pity is that Rose was substituted out after only an hour before she could complete her hat trick. With Guyana’s defense impotent on the flanks another goal would have been almost probable. Carle had a good fistful of chances off the left wing but struck them just wide or into the keeper. She very nearly got a piece of Lawrence’s first. Had Rose managed another goal she would have been the second-youngest hat trick hero in Canadian history behind Aysha Jamani. Well ahead of Sinclair, whose first hat trick came at the age of 17 years, 26 days against… Guyana, finished with two quick goals in the 73rd and 76th minutes.

With these omens, not to mention speed that left the Guyanese gasping and technical ability which isn’t limited to South American minnows but looked interesting last December in Brazil, it is clear that Rose is the future of Canadian sport. Anybody who said “who’s Aysha Jamani?” in the last paragraph and thinks that maybe we should reserve judgment on young goalscorers is clearly a pessimist.

Poor Ashley Lawrence. Sure she scored three, but the first ended in a gratuitous defensive miscue by Guyana’s Kayla de Souza (from Scarborough and normally a midfielder at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology), inexplicably standing a foot and a half behind her own goal line when she attempted a last-ditch “clearance.” The second probably should have been an own goal, though Lawrence played it well. The third was a terrific finish made possible by Sinclair’s munificence. She’s twenty years old, by our standards an old lady, and has scored before – at a World Cup, no less. Yawn. Make way for the new generation, Ashley.

Some talk, as Steven Sandor did in relation to another Canadian Messi, about the dangers of over-hyping a young player. But how on Earth do you over-hype a Canadian woman? The Houston crowd watching Rose’s excellence probably didn’t amount to a hundred people. The game was webcast by CBC with Andi Petrillo, Karina LeBlanc, and Nigel Reed taking it half-seriously from a studio in Toronto, and that was unusually major coverage. News and blog articles, raving over Rose, have come exclusively from the usual suspects. As of this writing the CBC’s recap of the match isn’t on the front page of their sports site, although the Jerome Valcke ban is, and if you go searching in the bowels of their page you’ll find only Gavin Day’s story for the Canadian Press. The die-hards who watched the Brazil tournament last December already had a pretty good idea that Rose was worth following, and said so, but it didn’t amount to a hill of tweets in this crazy world.

What Canadian girls have been talked up at all by the general public? Sinclair, who became the greatest female forward ever to live. Kara Lang, who could have been a superstar if not for her knees. Jessie Fleming, more recently, but there’s no sign that a couple interviews during the Women’s World Cup or her young goal against Scotland have ruined her. She hasn’t been seduced by the cash, the 24/7 media frenzy, the fast cars, the supermodels, because none of those bloody things exist and she’s going to UCLA this fall. She missed a recent training camp because she had to study. 20-year-old Kadeisha Buchanan won the Holy Grail by scoring against the Americans and bulldozing Abby Wambach in a wildly-attended 2014 home friendly, being Canada’s best player at a home World Cup, and becoming the only defender nominated for 2015 FIFA World Player of the Year. Even she, among the world’s best defenders and as widely-covered as any non-Sinclair Canadian, has fewer than half the Google hits and 4% the Twitter followers of, say, Jay DeMerit.

No of course Deanne Rose isn’t on the verge of succeeding Christine Sinclair. She has so much more work to do it’s unbelievable. But that doesn’t mean we fans should restrain ourselves from getting excited out of some misplaced sense of caution that we will ruin potential by our applause. Any young woman whose head fatally spins from the infinitesimal Canadian woso hype machine never had the mentality to succeed anyway. Let’s have fun, and allow ourselves hope, and give a young player her due for a great game entirely without self-consciousness.

(notes and comments…)

Canadian Soccer Studies

By Benjamin Massey · November 27th, 2015 · No comments

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Yesterday Canada announced its roster for CONCACAF Women’s U-20 World Cup qualifying[1]. There are many interesting names on it – senior national team fullback Sura Yekka, Calgary talent Sarah Kinzner, promising 16-year-old Pan-Am Games veteran Sarah Stratigakis, and two 15-year-olds in Vancouver’s Emma Regan and Brampton’s Shana Flynn – and many interesting names absent. Marie Levasseur, Gabrielle Carle, Deanne Rose, and Kennedy Faulknor are all eligible for the U-20 team but are staying in Vancouver with John Herdman and the senior team. More importantly, wünderkind Jessie Fleming is nowhere, left off both the senior and U-20 rosters.

We freaked out when the roster was announced yesterday and we noticed she was missing. (And I mean “we;” me and Carolyn Duthie.) It took hours for the explanation to come, but when it did it was good. Canadian women’s soccer journalist Sandra Prusina reported[2] that Fleming is staying in school but will join the senior women for an invitational tournament in Brazil starting December 9.

Who can blame her? Fleming is in Grade 12 and expected to play for UCLA in the next NCAA women’s soccer season[3]. However, women’s soccer is not football: you can’t snatch a full-ride scholarship with a fractional GPA and a bogus major. You have to be a bona fide student, and Fleming’s missed more class than a juvenile delinquent. Focusing on the Women’s World Cup during the middle of exam season is tough enough; how about two-week trips to Cyprus and China, or friendlies across western Canada and the US, all in Grade 11? It’s not like she can shrug off scholastics for a lucrative professional career; there are no professional women’s soccer clubs in Canada and those in the United States don’t pay well. Even marquee NWSL players paid by the Canadian Soccer Association earn McDonald’s wages, and an ordinary office worker’s salary will get you on a list of the ten highest-paid women’s soccer stars[4]. Careers are short, and benefits aren’t great, and to start a family you quite literally have to retire.

So yes, Jessie Fleming, please take a week now and again to do your homework. Your teammates did and they turned out all right.

Many Canadian female internationals have honest four-year degrees, but often in sports-related subjects. After their playing careers they go into coaching or physiotherapy. Others enter the sports media: as with many men below the international level, soccer is what they know and they stick to it. However, this is not the rule, and I wonder how many of the world’s major teams have been as well-rounded as the Canadian soccer women. For example, until earlier this month Selenia Iacchelli and Emily Zurrer operated a food truck in Vancouver[5]. Selling frozen yogurt out of a van sounds goofy but few professional athletes have such humble side businesses; Zurrer has a degree in advertising, for heaven’s sakes, and how much less of a prototypical jock can you be? Well, you can be Erin McLeod, who not only has an advertising degree from Penn State herself but is a professional artist when not busy being the best money goalkeeper in the world.

Diana Matheson, the beating heart of Canada’s midfield, has a bachelor’s in economics from Princeton, which has led to many “microeconomist” jokes over the years. Melissa Tancredi holds three degrees and memorably missed almost a year of games to finish up a doctorate in chiropractic. Stephanie Labbé has a degree in Early Childhood Development and Education, Shelina Zadorsky’s is in psychology. Kadeisha Buchanan, already one of the ten best female defenders alive, is an honours student in criminology at West Virginia. According to Sportsnet’s Kristina Rutherford, Fleming aims to study science or engineering at UCLA[6], hopefully bringing a little STEM rigour to what has been a very soft-science-focused locker room.

Among former players, Dr. Clare Rustad (45 caps from 2000 to 2008; scored against Brazil at Commonwealth Stadium in 2002) had a BSc in molecular biology from Washington during her playing days and is now a real doctor. (Christine Sinclair is also a doctor, but an honourary one; her real degree is in biology from the University of Portland.) Silvana Burtini, a former national player of the year and the third-most-capped Canadian of all time, is a police officer and holds the British Columbia Police Award of Valour. Countless former Canadian national teamers have gone on to productive careers outside soccer, from advertising to yoga. After all, they had to.

This is because of an unequal system. Elite athletes who, if they had penises, could count on prosperous careers and six-figure salaries instead spend their glory days with one eye on the future. Elite male athletes doing well in school have an “insurance policy;” for a top female player, like the rest of us, it’s necessary to put food on the table. Only your Sinclairs and Alex Morgans will earn enough as players to save for retirement, and full-time coaching gigs are very thin on the ground. Their performance as athletes suffers, for nobody does two things at once perfectly, and adds to the stress of their lives. It’s unavoidable economics, and not even unfair, but it’s the way it is.

However, speaking strictly as a fan, there is a bright side. The Canadian women’s soccer team is embraced by those who, like your humble correspondent, stand quite outside the mainstream of women’s sport. It’s not just the usual platitudes about girls being inspired and these women work so hard and they’ve proven they belong etc. etc. ad nauseum, it’s that our national teamers are genuinely interesting people. Your average top athlete got there by being so consumed by his sport that he was able to succeed in the most cutthroat environment in the civilized world; there’s no time to develop a personality, and if one does come through it’s usually bad or boring. An NHL player can become a cult favourite with a sense of humour that’s tiresome and derivative at an office party.

Our women are a cut above. We can relate to them on a personal level. While you can’t get to know a professional athlete from afar, any fan young or old can see there is someone there to know. Catch them outside the bubble of an active player and they can be interesting company. Journalists like talking to them (though it’s not always reciprocated). Even Sinclair, who’s spent twenty years learning to mouth platitudes on demand to microphone-wielding strangers, flashes genuine personality to the world just often enough to notice. They’re people, with varying interests and intellects and ideas. We like people! We want the athletes we cheer for to be people, and because we cheer for them and spend so much money on them we create a system where those athletes become automatons under constant pressure to suppress whatever glimmers of positive individuality they may possess. It is destructive, and self-defeating, and unavoidable.

Canadian women’s soccer has not yet reached that point. Let us be grateful, and let us be glad when Jessie Fleming hits the books like any other 17-year-old, just as we are when her shots hit the target.

(notes and comments…)

Presented Without Comment

By Benjamin Massey · July 15th, 2015 · No comments

Attendances at Canadian national team home games in the past two years, by city.

Attendance at NT Home Games, Past 2 Years
Date City Team Comp Attendance
7/14/2015 Toronto MNT GC 16674
7/12/2015 Hamilton U23MNT Pan-Am
7/11/2015 Hamilton WNT Pan-Am
6/27/2015 Vancouver WNT WWC 54027
6/21/2015 Vancouver WNT WWC 53855
6/16/2015 Toronto MNT WCQ 9749
6/15/2015 Montreal WNT WWC 45420
6/11/2015 Edmonton WNT WWC 35544
6/6/2015 Edmonton WNT WWC 53058
5/29/2015 Hamilton WNT Friendly 23197
10/28/2014 Vancouver WNT Friendly 14328
10/25/2014 Edmonton WNT Friendly 9654
9/9/2014 Toronto MNT Friendly 12162
8/16/2014 Edmonton U20WNT U20WWC 22421
8/12/2014 Montreal U20WNT U20WWC 13031
8/8/2014 Toronto U20WNT U20WWC 16503
8/5/2014 Toronto U20WNT U20WWC 14834
6/18/2014 Vancouver WNT Friendly 15618
5/8/2014 Winnipeg WNT Friendly 28255
11/24/2013 Vancouver WNT Friendly 21217
10/30/2013 Edmonton WNT Friendly 12746

Note: I have no source for attendance on the Pan-Am Games. If you can fill in the blanks, please send me a tweet, a comment, or an e-mail.

Attendance Per City, Past 2 Years
Total Per Game Competitive Friendlies
Edmonton 133423 26685 37008 11200
Hamilton 23197 23197 N/A 23197
Montreal 58451 29226 29226 nan
Toronto 69922 13984 14440 12162
Vancouver 159045 31809 53941 17054
Winnipeg 28255 28255 nan 28255

Note: Missing Hamilton games excluded from calculations; if all figures were available, their average would be lower.

Goodbye Canada (It’s Been Nice)

By Benjamin Massey · August 17th, 2014 · No comments

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

The better team won. Germany was clearly superior. (Classy young ladies too, one arguable dive, no dirty tricks, loads of skill.) Canada had its chances, failed to bury a couple good looks and sometimes wasn’t able to shoot from strong positions inside the eighteen, but Germany missed as many and buried two. Their first goal might have been offside, but even so it’s not the sort of goal you should ever concede, and their second was sheer set piece superiority.

I can suggest a couple excuses. Nichelle Prince, who went from supersub against Ghana to integral piece against North Korea, left the game injured after only fifteen minutes and was wearing a knee brace post-game. Kylie Davis, who I thought put on an underrated show as a ball-possessing, troublesome number six, was injured against the Norks and played no part Saturday. But these will ring hollow, every team gets injured in short-turnaround tournaments.

So am I despondent? Well, yes, in a sense; Canada goes out of a 2014 home tournament in the quarter-final and, while it’s not bad compared to our past results, it’s sooner than any of us were hoping for.

But, mostly, I feel nothing but pride. Canada played pretty well against one of the two best women’s youth setups in the world, a team that ran the United States off the park in the group stage, a team that’s everybody’s pick to make the final. We made the Germans work for it, were probably their biggest challenge, skillwise, in the tournament, and this after a group stage where our young ladies fought like lions. So Canada clearly isn’t among the four or five best U-20 women’s teams in the world; nobody with a lick of sense expected them to be. The world of women’s soccer has moved forward rapidly but, in this tournament at least, Canada has not only kept pace but gained a little ground. My expectations were met and exceeded.

Let’s look at one point in detail. Canada hung with Germany despite being at an athletic disadvantage. Especially out wide, the Germans could run the Canadians into the dirt. What happened to the old Canadian teams that outran everybody but generally struggled at the soccer part? When Canada got chances it was with the ball at their feet, beating players one-on-one, generally showing genuine skill rather than the old hoof-and-hope. Obviously it’s better to be fast than slow, and on a warm muggy day at Commonwealth Stadium it looked like some of the Germans had better endurance as well. But it’s a welcome statement about where our program has gone, if the best young women we can get in this age group turn out to be, as we all hoped pre-tournament, technicians rather than athletes.

The Ghana game, I felt at the time and still feel, was all Canada but with some bad luck. It happens. As for Finland, there’s no such thing as a non-inspiring comeback to win from 2-0 down. But such a comeback, over a nation that’s at best “up and coming”, is only meaningful if the ladies go on to make it a memorable tournament.

They sure did. A 1-0 win at Olympic Stadium over the mighty North Koreans was like a hammer from the gods, probably the upset of the tournament so far and 100% well-deserved. North Korea is an excellent team: they beat Finland easily, whipped Ghana, and Canada ran out deserving 1-0 winners in a storming counterpunching game that could have gone any direction until the referee blew a halt to some excruciatingly long stoppage time. It was a tremendous, tremendous match, absolutely essential after Ghana got a questionably-deserved and surprising win over Finland, and despite playing in Montreal’s concrete mausoleum with the smallest crowd for any Canadian game, the fans who did show were grabbed by the scruff of the neck by the talent and sheer balls of the Canadian ladies.

Then Edmonton. The largest crowd of the tournament, facing down the best team, the Canadians giving it their all… and losing. Realistically, as soon as the draw came out we were in deep trouble: an almost-guaranteed quarter-final against either Germany or the United States, and a very probable loss unless the Canadians got lucky or played the game of their lives. It was tough, and the Canadians couldn’t pull off another upset, but if you’re going to lose, lose like that. Lose in a way that gives us all something to hope for.

Take Janine Beckie, pictured in the upper left. Beckie made her Canadian debut in this tournament, coming over from the United States. One saw at once what the fuss was about. She scored two vital goals: the comeback-starter against Finland and the winner against North Korea. She assisted Prince’s Finland winner. She nearly tied the game against Ghana. She had the audacity to attack players on the dribble and the skill to pull it off. She played dangerous crosses and looked, if not quite terrifying, certainly like Canada’s most consistent attacking threat. (It was also a fillip for the travelling Saskatchewan Voyageurs to see one of their own running the show!) Her arrival in Canadian colours was a pretty stylish one; the Beckie family is on their way to being a new generation’s Hoopers.

A brief interlude. The U-20 Women’s World Cup is a FIFA-organized event, so the Canadian Soccer Association has little say in terms of ticketing, stadium organization, security, etc. That said, the CSA went above and beyond for their supporters in this tournament, particularly in Montreal and Edmonton where the supporters’ own organization was slap-dash and impromptu. My god, how far we have come in a few years, with CSA staffers busting their asses just to make sure a couple dozen of us can shout into the voids of Olympic Stadium or Commonwealth Stadium? If you are a Voyageur, buy your local CSA executive a beer.

Edmonton’s announced attendance of 22,421 compares decently to the 23,595 in the 2002 U-19 Women’s World Championship quarterfinal, and that was a more attractive opponent, a home team with Christine Sinclair and Kara Lang, and had many more tickets given away. The crowd last night was hurt by that old enemy, Edmonton transit, who didn’t lay on extra service for the match despite the fact that every ticket was a free transit pass. As a result, thousands of fans were waiting for the LRT to take them to the stadium even through half-time, and no doubt many simply bailed. It’s a frankly bizarre failure of foresight from the City of Edmonton.

But that’s why the host of the Women’s World Cup automatically gets the preceding U-20 Women’s World Cup: to shake out the bugs in the system. Finding and correcting these mistakes is what, from an organizational standpoint, 2014 was for.

Us fans weren’t too interested in such matters. We care about the women who, hopefully, will be representing Canada at the senior level within a few years. And I can’t remember the last time I saw more names I was excited about. Kadeisha Buchanan, who needs no introduction. Sura Yekka, who stumbled now and then playing on her off wing but saved her best performance for the Germans. Jessie Fleming, who didn’t rise to the occasion as we hoped but also didn’t look out of place at her age. Janine Beckie. Kylie Davis. Nichelle Prince. Rebecca Quinn. Emma Fletcher. Kailen Sheridan was at fault against Ghana but made amends against Germany. Captain Kinley McNicoll was consistently effective, and even regular substitute Amandine Pierre-Louis had some dangerous touches and good reviews. Obviously not all those players will work out, but that’s a long list. If we still don’t have that “next Christine Sinclair”, we still might have more young talent than ever.

We Didn’t All Cheer for Canada

By Benjamin Massey · August 9th, 2014 · 15 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

This particular post does not address the Canada – Finland game itself. My thoughts on it are underway and will be posted later. Right now I am talking about an event, last night, which should be of some symbolic importance to Canadian soccer supporters, though very probably only myself and one or two others will care.

Let me set the scene. On Tuesday, at BMO Field, there was a large, boisterous Ghana contingent cheering against Canada, going into joyous delerium after Ghana’s 1-0 upset win. I didn’t like their team’s play but the supporters were beyond criticism. Friday night and these Ghana supporters are back, this time less jubilant as their side loses the early game 3-0 to North Korea. But they stick around for the late game and, by and large, decide to cheer for Canada against Finland. (A Canada win was in Ghana’s interest: now Finland is all-but-eliminated for the Finland-Ghana match in Montreal Moncton while Canada needs points against the fearsome North Koreans.)

We’ve all picked a team to root for in the second half of a double-header, out of affection or for the sake of our own side, so this should have been no different. Yet with the Ghana supporters cheering for Canada as a second choice or out of self-interest, so-called Voyageurs were so happy to see them that the “Vs” more-or-less went over to Ghana’s side. As seen in the photo, a Ghana flag was flown on a pole beneath the Canadian one for most of the match. A capo leaped into the Ghana stands and led us in Ghanaian rhythms. By no means did the Voyageurs exclusively follow the Ghana supporters lead, but throughout the remainder of the game the atmosphere was very much “Ghana Appreciation Society”. All this because some supporters who were against us Tuesday cheered us Friday when it was to their advantage, and when Canada needs more points than Ghana to make a quarter-final.

(That said, my actual walk-out from the game was when the aforementioned capo called me a “xenophobe” for objecting and said if I didn’t like it I could get out. I might have lived with it under protest otherwise, but am not in the habit of taking insults from guys who skip any Canada game outside their own backyards. A fellow Vancouver supporter had already walked out prior to the half-time whistle because his objections were similarly dismissed. So we repaired to a pub and went insane for Nichelle Prince from there. Well worth it: there were only three Canada supporters there, but we were all in for Canada.)

Why do I object so much I’m spending a lovely train ride writing a blog post about it? Firstly, because I flew a long way to support Canada. Not to “support Canada in Ghanaian style” or to “support Ghana supporters who cheer for us as convenient”. I thought we were all on the same page, but last night’s experience and subsequent correspondence suggests not. You try eye-of-the-needle subversions like “we weren’t cheering Ghana, we were cheering their supporters” if you like; when you’re flying their colours and doing their tunes and going gung-ho for them, you are supporting Ghana. If there were Columbus Crew fans at a Toronto FC match, and the Crew fans were behind TFC because it was good for Columbus’s playoff hopes, and the Red Patch Boys signaled their appreciation by flying a Columbus Crew flag and doing Nordecke chants… what’s the point of putting an “if” on that sentence, it would so clearly never happen, and yet change “Toronto” to “Canada” and it’s apparently fair game.

Would our show of Ghanaian solidarity turn those Ghana supporters into Canada fans? Even if that is our priority at an honest-to-God home soil World Cup match, and it most certainly is not, why on Earth would any of those Ghana fans switch permanently to our cause? Do we think they’re schmucks?

As a well-traveled Voyageur I have a lot of experience being a novelty. Mexico fans spending two hours asking us to pose for photos, astonished British podcasters putting us on YouTube, that kind of thing. It’s an atmosphere I recognize well and I recognized it last night. How can someone honestly think that those Ghanaian supporters, cheering on a program even more troubled than ours in a tournament when they’re serious underdogs before a crowd they must have expected would be hostile, are so weak in their belief they’ll abandon in because of our approval? “Yeah, those Canadians thought we were great; therefore I will get out of this great thing and join them!” I cannot begin to connect the dots. Having demonstrated that we view them as admirable and that cheering against Canada is not only easily forgiven but acceptable, a show of spineless subordination is going to create a generation of new Vs?

The times opposition supporters have shown the Voyageurs respect, it has increased my respect for the Voyageurs. It has not made me think “gee, maybe I’ll root for El Salvador now,” because that’s not an actual human reaction.

I am making an assumption here, but from the consistent crowds, the lines of Ghana kits at the GO Train station, the general mentality, experience, and geography, I think the majority of those Ghana supporters were probably from southern Ontario. In short, a bunch of people living in Canada came out on Tuesday to cheer against Canada. On Friday they cheered for us, and at least a vocal minority of Toronto supporters decided that was fine. Happy to be a second choice.

Now, like anybody with an ounce of human decency I’m all for hospitality to opposing supporters. If they want to come to the pub then by all means! If we’re dancing for joy or for TV cameras outside the stadium together then let’s go fucking mental! And if they want to cheer for Canada outside Ghana matches for whatever reason then have fun. Outside the ninety minutes we are all comrades in the world’s game. On Tuesday we actually did applaud the Ghana supporters post-match to salute their fine work; this raises the question “if waving Ghana’s flag during the match was necessary to be friendly, how were we so friendly on Tuesday?” The answer is honestly simple: hospitality does not mean deference, and waving a black star and telling people to go away if they don’t like it is deference. It is making Canadian fandom inferior to “the old country” in a way that many supporters apparently pretend to oppose.

We already live in a country where it’s accepted for Canada to not be your “real” soccer nation. “Who are you cheering for in the World Cup?” is a question we’re all tiresomely familiar with. People born and raised in Canada wearing Italy and Germany kits when the Reds are fighting for their sporting lives. Whenever any country visits our stadiums you can count on a bunch of locals wearing enemy colours. And you can count on our young players too-often choosing another country over ours, just as fans do. This is what we condone every time we greet somebody who days earlier cheered against Canada and danced on the grave of our defeat with “you guys are fantastic, let’s follow your lead and fly your colours!”

That, to me, is the final straw, as if I bloody needed another. On what grounds could someone wave the flag of supporters for whom Canada is the second choice but boo a player like Asmir Begovic, Owen Hargreaves, Teal Bunbury, or Marco Bustos? The situations are identical: “Canadians when convenient”. Actually the players come off rather better: at least Begovic is looking to his career while the Ghana fans are looking for a good time. You cannot fly the flag of a fan who uses Canada for convenience and denounce a player who does the same while having even a trace of intellectual or moral consistency.

There is an impression around the country that Toronto fans only care about Canada when they’re in front of their faces. We all know that’s not really true, we’ve all seen Toronto fans travel great distances, even if they’re fewer than the Saskatchewan contingent, and we’ve all seen Toronto-based fans who live and die with every U-17 World Cup. Yet the lakeshore crowd cheering on a team which we need to overcome to get out of the group sure reinforces every stereotype. “If it’s not happening at BMO Field I don’t care.” How better could you distill it? Spare me your platitudes about “waving the Ghana flag will make people cheer for Canada” or “the only alternative to going Ghanaian was to be incredibly unfriendly and make them resent us.” It was a weak, soulless, craven display, in stark contrast to the sheer guts shown on the field, and no rationalization holds up to a moment’s scrutiny. If you’re only coming to the games for a local party and don’t give a damn about the event at least have the guts to admit it. Those of us here to support Canada will go our own way, as friendly as ever.

Canada – Ghana Mid-Misery Post

By Benjamin Massey · August 6th, 2014 · No comments

Throats lubricated with a dozen pitchers of Mr. Molson’s best, the Voyageurs marched down the street. We’re red, we’re white, we’re very polite!

Eyes to the left! We march past a fellow not far from the parking lot, selling merchandise for the opposition. Good-natured “boo, boo” is our wobbly platoon’s salute.

On our way to the stadium. Enemy forces, strategically positioned inside the gate. The platoon’s morale falters. Up the stands, into our section, commanding a masterly view of about eighteen yards worth of field. Going to strictly check our tickets, Mr. Canadian Security Man? Naturallement. Maybe he’s being prudent, you want to have the supporters together but separate from their foes, otherwise well-respected professionals start throwing Hondurans over railings.

FUBAR. Many more opposition fans here, waving flags and everything; we knew the Canadian supporters section would be an organizational Ypres and we were right. The duffel bag of Voyageurs banners is barred, shoved into storage, a flag does double duty as improvised tifo. A couple sections over, a large group of boisterous enemy supporters, not exactly choreographed but enthusiastic as all get out and going the full 90 to support their country (not meaning the country they live in). Well, we’ll do our best in our divided way. (“What’s that chant?” “I don’t know that tune.” “‘Canada’ doesn’t fit the same way ‘Toronto’ does.” “Are we really yelling ‘fuck’?”) Shouting ourselves literally stupid.

Canada’s battering away and getting some half-chances but starting no five-alarm fires, then the enemy scores a goal on the counter, their first and it turned out only chance of the game, and the other team starts time-wasting and playing negatively and Canada is hammering away but just can’t get the door down and oh god! I’ve seen this one before! Stop the ride, I want to get off!

There’s not much point in talking about the game (consult Daniel Squizzato or Duncan Fletcher if you like), because I was standing in the south stands and haven’t rewatched the match from a proper angle yet. I tried the highlights but started screaming at the missed chances. Story of the game: missed chances. Story of Canadian soccer. Canada was the better team, be in no doubt, top to bottom: the Black Princesses knew it, too, from their negative tactics, time-wasting, and jubilant ten-minute post-game celebration. Slim comfort.

Canada’s hopes are now razor thin: they must not only beat Finland, which ought to be no harder than beating Ghana was, but produce a real upset against the rampant North Koreans. A draw against the Norks would be enough if Ghana loses out or they draw one and the goal differential gods favour us; very possibly Ghana will beat Finland and we’ll need a win. It’s not over, but we’ve put ourselves in a position of needing a big upset against a better team in our last game in what will likely be a sterile Olympic Stadium. We didn’t want to do that.

I’m disappointed at the crowd, of course. This tournament was always going to be a tough sell across the country, but since Toronto isn’t getting any World Cup matches in 2015 I hoped we’d see their best. Alas. For the first time in BMO Field’s history the stadium is hosting a competition where the home team has a real chance of honours on the world stage, and to celebrate this occasion we got a supporters section that wouldn’t suffice against Luxembourg. If you’re a soccer supporter in this part of the country, and you could have come to that game, and you didn’t, then frankly what the hell is the matter with you?

(This isn’t a Toronto shot. The Voyageurs who came out were mostly A+. The chantless lulls were few. Would any other part of the country have done much better? I don’t know. I bet Montreal next Tuesday won’t.)

And the bright sides? Um. The stadium didn’t collapse. Some of the security people were pretty reasonable; about half of my section attempted to concentrate with a cluster of supporters in another section for the second half and we weren’t tazed. Canada’s technical quality wasn’t bad. There’ll be handwringing, of course, but players like Fleming, Buchanan, Fletcher (when she was able to get into position), and Prince (when she was substituted on inexplicably late) showed the quality we need in the future. Anyone who sees Canada resoundingly outplaying Ghana and losing because of bad luck and a keeper’s blunder as a sign of doom isn’t watching the same game as I am. Yes, Ghana has a much-improved youth program, yes, Canada needs to work harder to keep ahead of countries like them, yes, we need a proper women’s professional league rather than hoping the Americans will love us and spending our limited resources on World Cup bids, and yes, bah Gawd some of those players are still cinder blocks, but the performance itself was no humiliation.

There had been some serious weather in Toronto the past couple days, thunder and lightning and deluges of rain. Where was that on Tuesday evening when we could have used it? Andrew Olivieri might have failed the Aron Winter Test anyway. I still can’t figure him out. How did Prince come in so late? Was she nursing a knock? (She didn’t look it.) The formation was weird. Why was Fletcher thrown out onto an off wing and spent so long unable to influence the game? I don’t object to substituting her off after a scoring chance as such; hitting the post doesn’t make a player less tired, but her initial employment wasted a lot of skill and energy for no gain.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

U-20 Women’s World Cup Predictions

By Benjamin Massey · August 5th, 2014 · No comments

Douglas Portz/Canadian Soccer Association

Douglas Portz/Canadian Soccer Association

This afternoon, at 7 PM Eastern time (4 PM Pacific), Canada kicks off its FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup campaign at BMO Field against Ghana (CBC and CBCSports.ca, good tickets still available). By reputation they’re not the most skilled team on two feet, but Ghana’s going to be tricksy like Sam Gamgee and the Africans are always good for an upset or four at women’s youth competitions. Better teams than ours have been stunned by tenacious, hard-running Black Princesses in money games. Let’s just hope that upset’s not against us; Canada’s group is tough enough.

I’ve considered Canada’s group stage opposition, and their surprising depth. I’ve considered the Canadian team itself, and our promising crop of young technicians. I’ve done about all the considering I can do. Now it’s time to write down some predictions, so in three weeks we can laugh uproariously at how wrong I am.

These predictions continue my trend of “basic optimism”. Yes, I have Canada finishing in a top-two position that will get them out of their group, and while that won’t satisfy a public hungry for victory and unaware of the development of the rest of the world, that would be a result worthy of applause.

Unfortunately I don’t have Canada getting much further, but that’s not their fault.

GP W D L Pts GF GA GD
North Korea 3 3 0 0 9 7 2 +5
Canada 3 1 1 1 4 4 4 0
Finland 3 0 2 1 2 2 4 -2
Ghana 3 0 1 2 1 3 6 -3

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Finland 0-2 North Korea
Canada 2-1 Ghana

Friday, August 8, 2014

North Korea 3-1 Ghana
Canada 1-1 Finland

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Canada 1-2 North Korea
Ghana 1-1 Finland

A Strange Interlude

Normally there’s a big advantage in finishing first in the group. You get the weaker team out of whichever group you’re up against. It’s especially true at this level where, let’s be blunt, one or two weak-ish teams probably are going to sneak into the quarterfinal.

Unfortunately, the luck of the draw has gouged our eyes out and spat into the holes. If Canada wins the group we’ll face the second-place team in Group B at BMO Field on Saturday, August 16. If Canada finishes second in the group, we’ll face the first-place team from Group B at Commonwealth Stadium that same day. The problem is that Group B is the Group of Death: Germany, the United States, China, and Brazil.

Brazil’s on the downswing but could still do some damage normally, China isn’t worth that much but is really good for a fourth-best team, and Germany and the United States are probably the two best programs in this tournament. The Germans and Americans are almost certainly going to finish one-two in some order, and that means we are almost certain to get one of them in the quarter-final, and that means, very probably, that’s where our tournament ends regardless of the group stage.

How About the Rest of the Groups?

If you’re interested I’ll mention it but I haven’t done the research to the same degree.

Obviously, I have the United States and Germany coming out of Group B, probably in that order. I think you might be surprised how much the Brazilian women’s program has slipped relative to the rest of the world. The struggles of their senior women are well-known, but their U-17s are failing to qualify for World Cups and getting bollocked by Colombia and in the last U-20 World Cup they were weak sisters in a simple group. Their qualifying campaign was quite impressive, but not “gonna beat the Americans and Germany” impressive. Yeah, they’re third, barring a serious upset.

Group C looks like it’ll be entertaining. England’s been playing really good soccer, so they’re winning it. I think South Korea is coming out second, because the Nigerian federation is in well-documented turmoil and their pre-tournament preparations have been very sketchy, but as in the case of Ghana you can’t count the Nigerians out. Poor Mexico, they’re third or fourth, but this won’t be the last we hear of them. (Fun fact: this is Mexican goalkeeper and captain Cecilia Santiago’s fourth U-20 Women’s World Cup. That’s got to be an all-genders record, hasn’t it?)

Group D is the Group of Life. France is going to win it, no doubt in the world about that, and the only question is which bundle of mediocrity is going to stumble into the honour of getting whacked by England. Costa Rica? They might be the worst team in the tournament. New Zealand? They might have been the worst team in the tournament if they weren’t in a group with Costa Rica. Paraguay? Well, I guess it’s gonna be Paraguay, and they’ve been getting quietly not-terrible results on the youth side of the ball, but boy howdy.

In the group stage, North Korea (my 1A) will have a very interesting match with Germany/United States (one of them is 2B). I have to say that the unknown democracy is going to win, but superb upset potential there. Canada fights the other German/United States team, with the passionate crowd behind them; both matches are grueling all-out war between strong sides, the pitch raised by historical rivalries and the expectations of victory.

Meanwhile on the other end of the bracket, France is rolling through South Korea like the Chinese didn’t while England’s players don’t even need to put away their tea to send Paraguay home. This, I suspect, will give the nations of the Entente cordiale a slight advantage going forward.

France and England play each other in one semi-final. Germany and the United States in the other. It’s getting very 1941 in here. Both matches are closely contested, but consider the travel factor: England and France had just played their quarter-finals in Moncton and Montreal, and the semi is in Montreal. Germany and the United States have just played their quarters in Edmonton and Toronto, and the semi is in Moncton. So not only did the Group C/D side of the bracket have an easier road to the semi, they now have slightly easier travel.

As a result, when the United States and France face off in Montreal, the French have not had to move from their semi-final location, one more little advantage to a knockout stage that’s gone pretty much their own way. That, combined with France’s superb technical ability and a crowd of disappointed Canadians that will certainly be anti-Yank, leads to France taking the 2014 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.

What’s Canada Got for the U-20 Women’s World Cup

By Benjamin Massey · August 3rd, 2014 · No comments

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Inevitably, we look at the 2014 Women’s U-20 World Cup through the glasses of 2002.

The 2002 FIFA Women’s U-19 World Championship (as it was then) was the inaugural edition of a tournament nobody was much interested in, hosted in western Canada, a footnote in the sad annals of Canadian soccer, until we realized that a team full of personable, talented young women was kicking the bejeezus out of the world. 3-2 over Denmark, bit sketchy maybe, but then 4-0 over Japan, Lang and Sinclair each with a brace, the game that defined “announcing your presence with authority”. 2-0 over the 23-year-olds of Nigeria, a perfect record in the group stage, off to the quarter-finals for England, the old country, a country everyone knows is better at soccer, and 6-2 later the newspapers think we might have something here[1].

In Edmonton, the organizers had made the savvy decision to hand out a complimentary tournament pass to registered youth soccer players in the area, meaning that as Canada ran the table the stands at Commonwealth Stadium got fuller and fuller, a penalty victory over Brazil that’s still the best game I’ve ever seen in person providing the finishing touch. The legendary final on September 1, 2012 saw 47,784 Edmontonians get behind the Canadian U-19 women, who lost a 1-0 golden goal heartbreaker to Lindsay Tarpley, Heather O’Reilly, and the United States*.

That little tournament wrote the modern story of Canadian soccer. On the women’s side, many of those players have made an immortal impact on the world’s game and were integral to our greatest triumph: the bronze medal in London. And on the men’s side the success of 2002 led to Canada bidding for, and hosting, a men’s U-20 World Cup (successful off the field, if not on), which led to a national soccer stadium in Toronto and the birth of Toronto FC, which led to the ascent of Vancouver and Montreal into MLS and didn’t hurt the arrival of NASL teams in Edmonton and Ottawa. 2002 was Genesis, or more precisely The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway; even those who ignored it were influenced by it. And now 2014 is being looked at as its successor. Good luck.

For one thing, 2002 was a stand-alone tournament in a country that had never known its like. 2014 is an apertif for the full Women’s World Cup in 2015; even had we not been bloated by the U-20 World Cup, the 2012 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifiers, more Gold Cup games being played close to home in Seattle and Columbus, this tournament would still be doomed to be an afterthought.

For another thing, the 2002 Canadian team won, and in style. That was an essential part of its appeal. Sure, the players were stunningly likable but had the team not run all the way to the final nobody would have bothered talking to them to find out. The 2014 team has some fine players, but have they got that sort of generational depth?

Everywhere, everyone asks “where is the new Christine Sinclair?” Well, Christine Sinclair is one of the five best women’s players of all time; you don’t pluck a replacement for her off the apple tree. But where is the new Kara Lang? She was the second-best player on that 2002 U-19 team at fifteen years old (there will never be enough exclamation marks for that)! Where is the new Brittany Timko? Our Candace Chapman and Clare Rustad? Our Erin McLeod? There was a lot of talent on that team, from back to front: that’s why they won.

Last week I considered Canada’s opponents in the group stage and had to set my jaw a bit: we knew the North Koreans would be stars, but close examination makes Finland and even Ghana look more dangerous than we probably hoped. Canadian fans who only follow women’s soccer in passing may expect a larger margin of superiority than we, in fact, have. There’s a risk of earth-shattering disappointments.

But do not despair. This team has some serious soccer players with the potential to dazzle, to delight, to lift Canada to only the third quarter-final appearance in their U-20 Women’s World Cup history.

Take Jessie Fleming, pictured in the top left. I think she might be a genius. A central midfielder who, at sixteen years old, came on as a substitute against Germany and was able to get involved. Looking fit against the best technical women’s team in the world when they were trying to defend a one-goal lead? I call that a compliment. In the 2013 CONCACAF Women’s U-17 championship she was both took the Golden Boot[2], scored one of the goals of the tournament[3], and while not so remarkable at the 2014 U-17 Women’s World Cup she remained the midfield maestro, the Carli Lloyd/Camille Abily we’ve always cried for. Our eventual quarterfinal loss to Venezuela wasn’t her fault. What a tournament this could be for her. She’ll have to play up and handle bigger, stronger, older (potentially much older in North Korea’s case) women with nothing but her developing smarts and quick feet; it’ll be enough of a challenge to be interesting, but with the potential for thrills. She’s not as well-known to the common fan: unlike some of the other young players Fleming has not had her decisive coming-out on the senior national team. It will happen, though. Duane Rollins called her “wunderkindin a headline back in December[4]. I can’t blame him.

Those who saw Canada play the United States in Winnipeg will remember Kadeisha Buchanan, women’s U-20 player of the year[5] and already an important part of the senior women’s national team. Buchanan has the fitness of a thoroughbred on steroids, tackles like mad, isn’t averse to a charging offensive run, plays with blood and guts and brings a dimension to the Canadian defense we’ve never seen before. I’ve raved about her at length[6], and centre backs don’t usually get raved about. There’s a lot of work to realize her potential but if there is any justice this will be her coming out party, a nationally televised announcement that “guess what, Canada? We have another world-class player. Get ready to see her in bank ads.” Her senior centre back partner, Rebecca Quinn, will also be at this tournament, and if she seems like the Watson to Buchanan’s Holmes, remember that Watson was a bit of a badass himself.

We all should get to know Sura Yekka, the scintillating left back, maybe our best player (and certainly the most audacious) at the U-17 Women’s World Cup, a capable defender who uses space and keeps ball-side better than usual for a young Canadian, but also loves to beat guys and cause trouble. Yekka is just 17 years old, also young for this level, and her inexperience catches up with her from time to time, but I remember her doing a pretty good job dealing with Heather O’Reilly and I find I don’t mind her chances against 24-year-old North Korean wingers. Yekka is reigning Canadian U-17 Women’s Player of the Year, a fine honour when Fleming’s also on the ballot[7]. At that age it’s impossible to guarantee a prospect’s future; the most lauded players at 16 have been selling sandwiches by the time they’re 22. But Yekka’s done everything right and handled senior friendlies with skill; the next step is to establish herself as a standout in this tournament, with some of the world’s best at her age playing for money against her and all the pressure on.

That’s two good defenders, but they won’t win the games by themselves, and a fine young midfielder, but one who needs a supporting cast. Who will score the goals? Nichelle Prince is a thumping forward for Ohio State who’s scored for Canada at levels all the way up our pyramid, including one for the senior women at last year’s Yongchuan invitational[8]. She isn’t tall but she’s solid, the most “old-school” bull-in-a-china-shop-style Canadian player on this team, and has trundled in goals for OSU against older, larger women: good practice for this year. She’s no Sinclair, I’m not saying that, but if the ball is moving out of the back and through midfield you don’t need Sinclair, you need a poacher with a nose for goal. (A big “if”, I realize.)

We will feel the absence of Summer Clarke, probably Canada’s best forward at this age group but in self-imposed exile from the national program. Thinking of this team with Clarke starting makes me scream to the heavens, because then we’d really have some balance, but there’s nothing Andrew Olivieri or John Herdman should be expected to do about it and Prince should be good for a couple goals this tournament.

I haven’t even gotten into players like Emma Fletcher, who I have seldom seen but is widely admired and was compared to Luka Modric by her college webpage[9]; she’s probably the top British Columbia player at the tournament and will be making her first appearance at an international tournament for Canada. After time in the Canadian U-15 setup Fletcher represented her father’s New Zealand at the 2012 U-17 Women’s World Cup, but a storming couple years have got her back on the Canadian radar and expectations are now high.

This talent means that I currently have Canada advancing out of its group, but it also makes our recent struggles stand out in Copperplate Gothic. Canada has fallen over in its preparatory friendlies. A two-game series in Mexico ended with a 0-0 draw and a 3-0 Mexican victory[10], and while the Mexican program has improved astonishingly we still shouldn’t be seeing scores like that on tournament eve. In May, Canada drew and lost two games in Burnaby against South Korea[11]; they have a talented team this cycle and are U-19 Asian champions, but are the sort we’ll have to beat if we want honours this year.

The Mexican experience was partially blamed on travel and tough conditions, and I wonder if our raw team might feel the same pressure in the World Cup. There are just a long of young-ish players. I like Yekka and Fleming, but they’re kids, if we win they have to celebrate with orange soda, and we’re counting on them to largely run the show. Nor are they the only U-18s: defender Jordane Carvery is 17 (18 in September), Vanessa Gregoire is a recent 18, Sarah Kinzner is much-respected but is another 17-year-old. Many of these players are known talents and it’s an old saying that “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.” But this is a quick-moving tournament with short turnarounds, more travel than usual, pitches varying wildly in quality from muni training grounds in Vaughan to BMO Field, and a group where our opponents might frankly be cheating: physical immaturity may out.

Also inexperienced is our coach, Andrew Olivieri. The former journeyman pro goalkeeper was named women’s U-20 boss in 2012 despite having little bootroom experience. His coaching at the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup obviously wasn’t why we failed to get out of the group, but I had questions: he seemed to lack aggression and even in must-score situations was leery of players who’d shown glimpses of quality like Jaclyn Sawicki and Jenna Richardson[12]. Now he has another two years under his belt. Coaches, like players, need time to develop: hopefully that time’s been on our side. Certainly, the development of promising young players looks very good on Olivieri. But I remember, in 2005, another player-turned-coach named Dale Mitchell leading the Canadian men’s U-20s to a disappointing World Cup, featuring only a single draw against Syria[13]. The Canadian Soccer Association kept faith in Mitchell, who took Canada into the 2007 tournament on home soil and did even worse, scoring no goals, no points, nothing but embarrassment[14]. I don’t care to imagine a distaff repeat.

I present concerns because I have to, but this is Canada’s most promising youth team since 2002. We have to remember that when Canada was kicking butt and rolling through the world early in the century, the women’s game was substantially undeveloped everywhere except Canada, the United States, and western Europe. If you had some gritty, powerful athletes with modest technical abilities, you would win, especially at the youth level. That rule does not apply anymore. You can see it with our senior national team, caught in a long transition between athletes and technicians (if it seems Diana Matheson has gotten more valuable every year it’s because the style has been changing to suit a 5-foot-nothing mid with smart feet).

Today’s Canada has its athletes, but most do more than push and run. Buchanan is as strong and tough as anybody but what makes her Kadeisha Buchanan is her skill at defending. Fleming, Fletcher, and Yekka would be unrecognizable on the Canadian youth teams of 2004 or 2006. Probably Canada will get out of the group but maybe we won’t, and come what may our approach is heading in the right direction. I’m looking forward to Tuesday with hope in my heart, even if we’re unlikely to see another 2002 miracle.

Later this week, I’ll have my group stage predictions and a couple other notes.

(notes and comments…)

Considering Canada’s U-20 Women’s World Cup Opponents

By Benjamin Massey · July 30th, 2014 · No comments

Of course I don't have a photo of the North Korean women's U-20s so here's the trophy. (Canadian Soccer Association)

Of course I don’t have a photo of the North Korean women’s U-20s so here’s the trophy. (Canadian Soccer Association)

Next week, the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup kicks off in Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, and Moncton. The first match comes on August 5 at 5 PM Eastern, when Finland and North Korea cross swords at Toronto’s BMO Field. Canada kicks off three hours later against the Black Princesses of Ghana.

The hosts are drawn against Ghana, North Korea, and Finland, a worryingly deep group but one that lacks a superpower. That’s by design: teams are seeded by their rankings except for the hosts, who are automatically “A1”: therefore, the place in Canada’s group that would otherwise have belonged to a world-class side instead goes to Canada. Thanks, FIFA! But not too much, as the absence of a Germany or a France just means Canada could finish from first to fourth without turning too many heads.

The three teams who Canada will face in the group stage from August 5 to August 12 are mostly enigmas to the soccer public, so here is a look at this surprisingly dangerous troika. In the coming days I will also give my opinion on Canada’s own roster, as well as a quick glance around the rest of the tournament, and as I will be attending all the group stage matches I hope to have something there as well.

Conveniently for us armchair pundits Canada’s group include two teams nobody can ever be an expert on, allowing us to make vague prognostications without risking any specifics that might make it look like we don’t know what we’re talking about.

Take one of the favourites, North Korea. This country, you may have heard in the news, is somewhat secretive. Information they release is not always reliable. The high level of patriotism in what I’m sure is a totally fair and free press leads to articles about former Dear Leaders shooting 34 on their first-ever rounds of golf[1], when more sober analysis suggests such a result is unlikely. I’m sure the journalists laughed about it over their rice gruel the next morning. “Do you believe we printed that?! Oh, well, can’t run a retraction, the power’s gone out again!”

North Korea

Even confronted by outside witnesses and television cameras, North Korea’s women’s youth teams are very good. In the last U-20 Women’s World Cup, Japan 2012, the Norks slapped fifteen kinds of hell out of Group C. They ran the table, 3-0-0, including a 2-1 win over Canada that was North Korea’s game from the captains’ handshake. A 9-0 win over sadsacks Argentina set a tournament record, but in the first knockout round they had the bad luck to run into the United States, who had barely escaped in second from a nasty group. Even the eventually-tournament-winning Americans needed extra time to bounce North Korea 2-1[2], probably the stiffest test they got in the whole knockout stage. This spring at the U-17 Women’s World Cup the North Koreans drew Canada and we were somewhat flattered by the point, though North Korea had an iffy tournament. We have seen a lot of North Korea and have not prospered by the acquaintance.

In U-20 Asian qualifying last year North Korea finished second out of six teams and qualified easily. A loss to South Korea and a draw with the strong (but disappointing) Japanese would have saddened the eternal shades of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, but the glorious Juche ideal was pushed forward by a win over hosts and champions China and a 6-2 bollocking of the decent Australians, the tournament’s largest victory over anyone who wasn’t Myanmar. Ri Un-Sim scored three goals; Canadian fans will recognize her from the 2012 U-17 Women’s World Cup where her brace sent Canada down in flames in the quarter-finals. (I am really sick of North Korea.)

The 2012 team is a big influence: fourteen of twenty-one players on this year’s roster were with those U-17s who went all the way to the final before losing to France on penalties[3]. These players include Silver Ball winner Ri Hyang-Sim and forwards Ri Kyong-Hyang and Kim So-Hyang (who scored a memorable brace against Germany)[4]; I guess they haven’t been purged but, frankly, if you replaced all the players with someone completely different nobody would be able to tell. It’s North Korea; these women are a mystery to the world.

Why does North Korea do so well? With 95% of participating nations being mediocre or worse, and funding generally low, you can make an impact in women’s soccer by investing only a few thousand starving peasants. Also, the Norks play dirty; their senior women are disqualified from the 2015 Women’s World Cup for industrial-strength doping[5]. Though not yet proven in soccer, that classic trick of the trade among shadier countries in youth competition, passport fraud, is familiar to Pyongyang: they got their gymnastics program banned for a hilariously transparent case[6]. Bear in mind, their senior women have never risen to the heights implied by their rampant youth, with only one trip out of the group stage in either the World Cup or the Olympics.

Cheating or no, whoever isn’t afraid of the North Koreans isn’t paying attention. Though Canada outranks North Korea at the senior level, 7th versus 11th[7], and has won the only game ever played between the two senior sides[8], our young ladies are winless in three tries against the Nork youth[9]. It’s impossible to get meaningful information on the team beyond past results, but past results are in North Korea’s favour so, by hook or by crook, we have to assume they’ll be formidable.

North Korea is my provisional pick to win the group. The Juche spirit marches on!

Finland

In women’s soccer Finland is, and there’s no other way to put it, kinda crappy. Their best-remembered player is sturdy forward Laura Österberg Kalmari, who went out with WPS because she couldn’t make a living at the game. If you know any of their current senior players it’s probably Sanna Talonen, not merely their leading active scorer but a 2008 Vancouver Whitecap[10]. They’ve never qualified for a World Cup, never made an Olympic Games, probably would have done both on any other continent but, alas, are stuck being another sorta mediocre European team, interesting only for the obsessives. Canada actually has a surprisingly mixed record against the Finns but has won both of the last two times out, took our only ever youth meeting (at the 2006 Women’s U-20 World Cup)[11], and is basically better.

So what, you might be asking, in Christine Sinclair’s holy name are they doing here? UEFA qualifiers were back in August 2013 and the unseeded Finns had to start from square one: they topped Group 7 with a perfect record in the first round, including a 2-1 win over Spain. In the second round they were again perfect, though a group of Iceland, Portugal, and Northern Ireland was not quite the World Cup. In the third round things got serious but the Finns were up to it, getting a vital 1-0 win over Nordic rivals Norway and drawing Germany and a collapsing Sweden to earn an implausible trip to the Women’s U-20 World Cup. In the knockout stage, to determine the continental championship, England crushed the Finns 4-0[12], but by then plane tickets for Canada had already been handed out.

I know, right? Sweden was burning up like a Buddhist monk but four points of six against Norway and Germany is good work. Finland conceded four goals from the nine group stage matches, a tidy sum bested only by Germany and France. The Finnish attack, while in no danger of setting any records, is well-balanced. Juliette Kemppi, Adelina Engman, Nora Heroum, and Natalia Kuikka all had more than two goals through qualifying, with Engman leading the way on seven (two from the spot) and Kemppi leading in open play with six. Engman, Kemppi, Heroum, as well as Riikka Ketoja and Emma Koivisto, are already senior internationals[13]. Heroum has a remarkable twenty-six senior caps (more than, to pick a name, Kadeisha Buchanan) and Engman four goals. In fact, in their most recent senior international (a World Cup qualifier against Austria) Finland’s eighteen featured five players from this squad: Koivisto, Ketoja, Heroum, and Engman started while Kemppi was an unused substitute[14]. Famously youthful Canada played five U-20s in their most recently senior international against Germany, but that was a lowly friendly. In short, Finland’s young guns are getting as much of a work out against grown women as anybody in the world, and some are already making their names.

Once before, Finland made a U-20 Women’s World Cup: they snuck into Russia 2006 and spent three games getting creamed: they lost every match, their one goal for was an own goal, and they conceded 12, including the indescribable humiliation of losing 8-0 to Nigeria in a city that’s a two-hour flight from Helsinki; the only reason Switzerland took the Wooden Spoon was Switzerland’s much tougher group[15]. It probably goes without saying that debacle did not herald a golden generation for the Finns, though a few players, most notably captain Maija Saari, are still hanging around.

This year’s side looks far more imposing. They’re a more experienced lot, they’ve shown more quality against decent countries, and only the England result suggests that they’re still the same old sloppy side. They shouldn’t be competing for medals, but Finland looks sneaky. I don’t trust them. If we charge into their forests confident of a quick victory their Molotov cocktails are going to rain down on us like a hurricane of fire. The back of the envelope suggests that they’ll be in the three-way dance for second in the group, but Canada probably has the advantage thanks to home advantage and a strong team defense… probably. It could easily go the other way and we should desperately hope it doesn’t. Canada versus Finland on August 8 might be the climactic game of Group A.

Ghana

African sides at this level are enigmas, unseen teams with unknown players bobbing onto the world stage every couple years, without even an obsessive insider to feed us the scoops. These teams receive little exposure at home and seldom play abroad, so bar flying across the ocean and walking to the park, World Cups are the only chances we get to see them. And there’s little incentive for the would-be expert to plumb too deep because (let’s be frank here) we expect these teams to be terrible. Only once has an African team made a serious impact at the senior level: in the 1999 Women’s World Cup, Nigeria shockingly got out of their group took Brazil to the brink in the first knockout stage, coming back from 3-0 down but losing 4-3 in extra time with only ten women on the field in what’s still remembered as a classic game[16]. They are the only African side ever to advance out of the group stage in a Women’s World Cup; they also advanced from the group stage at the 2004 Summer Olympics but just about everyone did. Nigeria did have a good show in the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup, but Ghana got thumped in a strong Group D.

Along with Nigeria and (lately) Equatorial Guinea, Ghana is one of the only three African nations worth considering. You will understand this is strictly relative. Ghanaian head coach Bashir Hayford got into the papers saying he “wanted to win the Cup.”[17] Well, good luck to you, sir: me, if I were you I should be pleased to win a game.

Normally it’s helpful to consider these smaller countries by how they did in qualifying. In Ghana’s case this is a waste of time. The 2013-14 African U-20 Cup of Nations for Women (catchy!) consisted of home-and-away ties until only two teams were left. Those two went to Canada 2014 straight away without the indignity of a final. So Ghana got a first round draw against Guinea-Bissau, who withdrew[18]. In the next round, Ghana faced Uganda, who had previously whooped South Sudan 22-0 then seen Egypt withdraw. Uganda withdrew[19]. As a result Ghana found themselves in the final qualifying tie against Equatorial Guinea without having so much as played a game: the Black Princesses won on penalties after a 1-1 aggregate draw and that’s all it took[20].

Ghana has been in the Toronto area for more than a week now, playing friendlies against local U-20 and U-21 women’s teams. They’ve compiled an undefeated record, with wins over G-S United and Burlington Bayhawks and a draw with North Mississauga Panthers[21]. Ghana played four friendlies against Nigeria in June with a record of 1W-1D-2L[22]; that suggests that they’re about level with their African rivals and therefore should be group makeweights. Their roster contains a few famous names, in that they have players named “Appiah” and “Boateng”[23], but none of these U-20s appeared at the most recent full pre-U-20-World-Cup senior national team camp in April[24].

So you see the problem in assessing Ghana. Their qualifying run was, with the best will in the world, a complete joke. They’ve gotten good results against local rep teams and were a half-step behind their biggest African rival. Their players are all-but-anonymous and haven’t made a mark on the hardly-world-class senior squad. What the hell do you want me to say about them?

Yet it’s as true in soccer as in ancient Rome that ex Africa semper aliquid novi. What if Ghana and Nigeria have improved relative to the world? How would we know? At this spring’s U-17 Women’s World Cup Ghana made some noise, winning the group against extremely tough opposition in Germany, North Korea, and Canada. It took penalties for Italy to prevail in the knockout stage; earlier that afternoon Canada had lost to bloody Venezuela. Nigeria ran the table in their much weaker group then got throttled by Spain in the first knockout round. That’s two stirring performances from traditional makeweights, though no Ghana U-17s were named to the U-20 roster[25]. Were the African U-17s a pair of flukes or the sign of much-improved youth setups?

The thing is, it wasn’t Ghana’s first good U-17 run. In the 2012 U-17 World Cup Ghana finished second in a tricky group, then scored one of the tournament upsets by beating Japan 1-0 in the quarterfinal. Having claimed that enormous scalp, they lost 2-0 to eventual champions France but bagged the tournament upset by knocking off Germany 1-0 in the third-place game, putting paid to the most technically proficient country in women’s soccer. It was serious balling and though only eight of the 2012 U-17s return to the 2014 U-20s[26], with team scoring leader Jane Ayieyam one of those absent, they still boast a largely returning midfield including Priscilla Okyere, who scored three goals in Azerbaijan 2012 and was named Sports Writers Association of Ghana female soccer player of the year[27]. A worrying sign for Canada, who will need to show attacking pluck against a side that knows how to win upsets and doesn’t concede many goals.

And, like North Korea, Ghana hasn’t got a reputation for playing fair. Ivory Coast pundit Mamadou Gaye, when asked who’d win the 2011 men’s U-17 World Cup, famously answered that any of the African teams could do it “because at that level we like cheating on our age.”[28] The president of Ghana’s football association admitted in June that they had engaged in age cheating, but specifically said the women’s program was clean[29]. On the women’s side there is much less money to be made, keeping out the for-profit academies often linked to fraud, but when combined with Ghana (and Nigeria)’s disproportionately good youth teams compared to their adults it’s a big question mark.

I still have Ghana favourites for the bottom of Group A on the grounds of lesser competition, high squad turnover, and Canada’s home field advantage… but anyone who gives you a certain answer is a liar or a fool. It is certainly possible for these young ladies to spring an upset on the hosts, as better teams than us have found out against some of these players.

(notes and comments…)