Edmonton Bargain Hunt Renovation

By Benjamin Massey · September 28th, 2018 · No comments

Paul Giamou/Canada Soccer

Randy Edwini-Bonsu, born in Kumasi, Ghana and raised for several years in Edmonton, has been named to FC Edmonton’s “prospects” roster for two Al Classico friendlies against Cavalry. There are several fine professional and former professional players on the list: Jackson Farmer, Allan and Bruno Zebie, Edem Mortotsi. As Steven Sandor pointed out, both goalkeepers most recently played in Europe. With nobody under CanPL contract or committed in any way this is analogous to a training stint, perhaps. But it is more than nothing: at minimum, mild mutual interest.

Edwini-Bonsu is only 28 years old but—and as an extremely early REB fan I say this affectionately—he is last year’s man. His stint as a teenager with the Vancouver Whitecaps, while ferociously promising, was only moderately productive and he was not retained for Major League Soccer. Probably just as well: Tom Soehn would have ruined him anyway, and a stint in the Finnish second division saw him score in bunches. That led to the German second division, a better level by far, one which sent players to the Canadian senior national team in droves. Edwini-Bonsu was one of them, and he boasts fifteen caps with one goal for his adopted country.

By all accounts, many of his performances in the 2.Bundesliga were not bad, and there was hope among his fans that he’d establish himself. But he never quite held down a lineup spot, and his next contract dropped him down a division. In the 3.Liga he was, again, sometimes good but not good enough. His Stuttgarter Kickers side was relegated, Edwini-Bonsu was one of many players released, and he signed on a division down anyway with FC 08 Homburg in the German Regionalliga Südwest for a season. His last action was with fifth-division Tennis Borussia Berlin in 2017–18, and he is currently unattached.

Needless to say, Canadian soccer supporters have not seen him in some time. German semi-professional games are not regularly televised and Edwini-Bonsu was last called to the national team in June 2015. When last seen he was a pacey striker with decent finish, a bite-sized Tosaint Ricketts; these days he apparently plays more wide right. I thought he was very good almost a decade ago, but I do not guarantee it today. I understand they know something about soccer in Germany, where his career has not been a success, and even those with very modest expectations for CanPL’s initial calibre will certainly expect it to outgun the NOFV-Oberliga Nord.

Besides, Edwini-Bonsu’s one of those players who seems interested in European play on principle. He has spent far more of his life outside Canada than in it, immigrating in 2002 and beginning his foreign adventures nine years later. There’s every possibility that Randy Edwini-Bonsu’s time in Edmonton will end at a couple friendlies.

But he’s still the sort of player Edmonton, and the rest of the Canadian Premier League, should be looking at.

As I said I don’t know if Edwini-Bonsu still has anything left. But I am certain he used to have something. To the assorted German clubs who brought him in and threw him out, he was a tool to be used and replaced like any other. To a Canadian team, he would be a potential investment in the future of our game. He is, very specifically, the sort of player you want to give second chances to.

Jackson Farmer, to pick another Edmonton player I’ve liked for a while, is still a young man on the way up. He needs an opportunity to show what he can do and CanPL can provide that. But there are older players in the same boat. A Canadian player in his late 20s struggling to draw a European paycheque drops out of the game or puts out his shingle for some Lithuanian or Serbian or seventh-division French team would promise, however unreliably, to pay him for six months. Recently some of them have joined the PLSQ or League1 Ontario, but that’s what you do while making an honest living somewhere else. Real second chances have been hard to come by.

Around the world, many useful players have revived their careers from the real depths of obscurity because they landed on a decent team willing to invest in them. Jamie Vardy was playing non-League soccer until he was 25. On the Canadian end, Richard Hastings might well have dropped off the face of the Earth by 2004 had Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who already knew and liked him, not brought him back for a second successful spell and another half-decade of national team service. We need more stories like Hastings’s, and not just because of the golden goal.

Fans sometimes seem to think CanPL is almost a development league: given that they won’t be able to bring in more than a handful of famous players, roster spots should go to promising youth and as many random foreigners as it takes to make it watchable. But think also about the Randy Edwini-Bonsus of the world, or Derek Gaudet, who went from MLS to USL to surviving the Halifax open trials at age 29. Not everybody does anything useful with a second chance; heck, most players won’t. But some will, and the rest will give the kids something to push against. FC Edmonton’s Al Classico roster is heavy on the prospects, heavy on the early-20-somethings, and has a couple guys looking to redeem themselves… and that’s about right.

Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

By Benjamin Massey · September 5th, 2018 · 1 comment

Paul Giamou/Canada Soccer

In October 2016 the Ottawa Fury, then of the North American Soccer League, announced they would move to the United Soccer League for the 2017 season. There was some drama.

At the time it had been the Canadian Soccer Association’s avowed policy not to permit teams in what was then called “USL Pro.” The Victoria Highlanders had once been interested, but the CSA was not and the Highlanders wound up folding out of USL PDL for a couple seasons. Exceptions were made for MLS reserve teams in Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto, but, as the CSA had said at the time, that was different than opening another level of the American soccer pyramid for independent Canadian franchises.

The United Soccer League was then sanctioned in the United States as a third division league, below the NASL and Major League Soccer. Ottawa already had access to a domestic third division: League1 Ontario, also rated below the NASL and MLS. Of course these sanctioning “tiers” are fake news and nobody pretended L1O teams were as good as USL ones, but if the NASL was too rich for the Fury’s blood there was another option, one which fit with the CSA’s official goal to build Canadian leagues rather than American ones.

The reason for the Fury move was nakedly financial. The team, like many in the NASL, lost millions of dollars a year. In USL, as Fury president John Pugh stated quite frankly, he’d be able to send his team by bus rather than plane more often while somewhat cutting his wage bill. Later the bill was slashed further by having the Fury serve as reserve squad to the MLS Montreal Impact, giving him a few free players and a marquee home friendly every season. Seems like good business, though the team’s average attendance has declined year on year since leaving the NASL.

Ottawa could never have brought their team, whole, into League1 Ontario: it would have run away with the league if they had. Their budget, even trimmed, would be way out of line with the competition. Fans would have left and Canadian players would have lost jobs. Most importantly, the Canadian Premier League was imminent. In October 2016 Paul Beirne was picking out furniture for his new office. Surely the most important thing was to keep the Fury going on their terms, to keep the organization running until they could come back into the fold.

So the CSA made an exception.

The Fury’s move didn’t come without a cost for the rest of Canada. It was one of many cuts that led to the NASL suspending operations for the 2018 season, costing us a year of FC Edmonton first team action and leaving talented Canadians like Ben Fisk and Adam Straith to wander the byways of Europe. Nik Ledgerwood, Tyson Farago, and Nathan Ingham had to drop down to PDL, Marko Aleksic and Allan Zebie are out of the pro game altogether. If the Fury had remained in the league then the NASL would have had the vital six teams for 2018 even had North Carolina and Indy both still defected. This was not unforeseeable: any NASL fan will remember the handwringing about getting enough teams for 2017. Still, the most important thing was to keep the Fury operating, and the rest of the chips would fall where they may. The Fury did what they thought was good for their bottom line and the CSA went along.

Now, the Fury have announced that, even though the Canadian Premier League is kicking off for the 2019 season, they will remain in the United Soccer League. There’s all sorts of speculation why: they’re probably over the future CanPL salary cap, they have a roster that they well might want to bring in en bloc against expansion-team competition, and as a Montreal Impact reserve team they’ll come into conflict with a league that absolutely steadfastly wants nothing of the kind. Some of the Fury’s arguments are probably pretty good. But what’s important is that, once again, the Fury want an exemption because they think it’ll be good for their business.

Unquestionably, the Fury have been very good to Canadian soccer the past couple seasons. They give over a dozen Canadians regular USL minutes, many of whom are decent talents who needed an opportunity and are getting it. Without the Fury Carl Haworth would never have had a pro career, but today he’s the team captain and a one-time senior international. Callum Irving needs to be playing pro. Maxim Tissot needs to be playing pro. Julian de Guzman should be involved in the game here, and not “giving two-weekend youth camps for $500 a man” involved. Thanks to the Fury, they are.

But no team can ever do as much for Canadian soccer as an entire league. It’s a mathematical impossibility. The Vancouver Whitecaps play two or three Canadians a week: even seven teams as unpatriotic as that add up to more Canadian content than the laws of the game would permit the Fury to field. In CanPL, with generous domestic content rules, the Fury won’t even look exceptional in 2019. And if their playing USL jeopardizes the Canadian Premier League, then regardless of what they’ve done in the past or might do in the future, for the good of the nation they should be stopped.

This isn’t just about “team eight” in the 2019 CanPL season. Let’s assume that ship has sailed. But if the CSA permits the Fury to remain in USL then every time CanPL totters (and it will), every time a potential owner is counting the pennies and deciding whether this soccer lark is worth his millions, every time a current owner is debating how to wring his budget a little thinner, he’ll look south across the border and say “why can’t I just join the United Soccer League, like Ottawa?” There’ll be no good answer. On what grounds could the CSA allow the Fury but refuse a fleeing Forge? What judge would allow it if they tried?

The Ottawa Fury’s intentions may be the best in the world but it doesn’t matter: willingly or otherwise, they are directly competing against the league that is Canada’s number one men’s soccer must-have. Until the CanPL can offer as many short-range road trips with as many established teams and as many high-profile players as USL—and that will be many years from now, if ever—it will never clearly outperform USL as an investment opportunity, especially in Ontario and Quebec. And no players, no team, nothing in Canadian men’s soccer, is worth risking CanPL’s future for.

The Fury’s permission to play USL is conditional, up for renewal every year. The Canadian Soccer Association has every right to revoke that permission for the good of the game. They already revoked sanctioning from the so-called “Canadian” Soccer League, an Ontario-based semi-pro circuit, for rampant match fixing. The CSL still operates, and players you’ve heard of have laced up in it, but only well into effective retirement as joining a non-sanctioned outlaw league spells the end of your international career. The USL is unlikely to court trouble from FIFA by condoning an outlaw Fury, and even if they did players with any ambition would flee in droves. In short, the CSA could get the Fury out of USL any time they wanted, and if the Fury wanted to stay in business in CanPL afterwards, that would be up to them.

It is a power the Canadian Soccer Association should use. Ottawa Fury fans are good, loyal people, who have put up with a usually-mediocre team with smiles and energy. Their team has done prodigies for Canadian talent, and their supporters are justly proud. But do we want Canada to be one vast American branch plant or don’t we? When Ottawa joins a happy, healthy Canadian Premier League, the rest of the country will be overjoyed to see them again.

Goderich Is Canada

By Benjamin Massey · August 28th, 2018 · 1 comment

Steven Vacher via Flickr, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Canadian Premier League’s corporate interests are literally represented by a company named “Canadian Soccer Business.” This sounds like the invention of a “PRO/REL NOW”-style Twitter lunatic. Team revelation are cut from a template with dramatic fast-cut footage and weirdly-named colours like “starfish purple,” and their logos somehow all look very samey. It is being marketed to an almost parodic degree. CanPL has done a lot right but apart from the team names1 they aren’t exactly trying to distinguish themselves from MLS, are they?

Well, if CanPL is a crappier northern MLS it will fail and die. Don Garber has a firm grip on supporters for soulless soccer corporations like the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Toronto FCs, which makes even less sense than cheering for Etihad Airways or Verizon. Is there anything more tiresome than people acting like the moral aspect of soccer fandom is irrelevant or? If you’re going to cheer for shareholders you may as well cheer for the big ones; the Canadian Premier League does not want to wrap itself up in a numbers game it cannot win.

Our league will almost certainly always be smaller than American one even if we don’t concede Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal to Major League Soccer, which we have. The United States is big and we are little, and trained by decades of practice to attach ourselves to the Americans and hope for the best. An all-Canadian organization needs a lot more than “it’s like the American one but over here!” to succeed.

So we fans try to shape the league while the clay is still soft, turning it into something that suits our Dominion. Already, there are good signs. Many of the league’s brain-men are bona fide Canadian soccer people who have proven that they are interested in the domestic game as more than a temporary source of a paycheque. But fans have been burned before and improvement must be continuous if it is to last.

Example. Earlier in August an anonymous Twitterer shot for the moon by starting an account named “GoderichCPL” dedicated, as their bio puts it, to “bring[ing] the Canadian Premier League to Goderich, Ontario!”

That’s their exclamation mark but they’re entitled to it. Goderich is an obscure little town on the shores of Lake Huron. They won TSN’s “Project Play” this year, which put their name in TV ads. Her Majesty the Queen, who has never visited, is unverifiably said to have admired it. Hockey immortal Father David Bauer is from there. It’s small-town southern Ontario.

This prospective CanPL expansion, alas, is no success story. Momentum has waned in the Goderich camp and they have not tweeted for a couple weeks. A promised website has not materialized, and big-name support is limited to Paul Beirne being one of fifty Twitter followers. Practical concerns may play a role. Their suggestion of a 15,000-seat stadium, for example, seems a bit ambitious given a 2016 census population of 7,628. Cynical though it sounds, there’s just the possibility that their campaign is a bit of a joke.

But why should it be? No, really, why? Goderich is an extreme example but towns that size are not inherently incapable of supporting professional soccer. Look to the mother country. Nailsworth, home of Forest Green Rovers, is the smallest town in the Football League with a population of about 5,800, and though they are newcomers to League Two they had been in national semi- and professional soccer for twenty years before. The second-smallest, Fleetwood, boasts a still-modest 26,000. League Two and League One aren’t even MLS-level but will probably outgun at least the early CanPL. That is a level of play, and a level of success, we should be thrilled to see in 2019.

Okay, maybe Goderich, or Gaspé or Cold Lake or Port Hardy or Dildo or any other city with a thousand locals and shit-all else to watch in the summer, shouldn’t be number one on David Clanachan and Paul Beirne’s hit list. Fans in Saskatoon, Regina, Quebec City, London, Vancouver, Kitchener-Waterloo, and probably Sudbury-Thunder Bay are organizing to get their teams. These are big markets; the list of Canadian markets bigger than Goderich is actually fairly long.

But thinking in terms of markets is the original sin of Major League Soccer, shared by every other professional sports league on the continent. Who cares about Goderich’s potential MyCujoo market share? Do they even have broadband in Goderich? It doesn’t matter. Can they build a field with the correct proportions made of a reasonable material and send out at least eleven men every week? Then we should work them in. Let the locals roll the pitch themselves and sit on lawn chairs, let the players be recruited at the library and coached by the guy who’s watched the most EPL, that is detail.

Why should they get a crack at the Canadian Premier League? Because they are Canadian, and that’s the end of it. Because spectator soccer is not about fat bloggers devouring press box donuts and 4K coverage of every match, nor about beancounters asking “but will they mock us on Bay Street?”, nor even thousands of raucous supporters bouncing up and down on lavish terraces for a full 90. It is about plain local people going out to watch their plain local team, and if anything dazzling emerges from that plainness, even if it is so-to-speak by accident, then that dazzle being automatically whisked to the big stage for the nation’s admiration and the locals’ deserved pride.

Could CanPL work in Goderich? I have no idea, I don’t know the first thing about the place, we established that paragraphs ago. I don’t even know if they could make it in League1 Ontario. But if Twitter interest is worth anything they could make it in League2 Ontario, or the Huron County Amateur Conference, or any of the other levels of the Canadian soccer pyramid that don’t exist yet but which, if we’re ever going to be a meaningful soccer country in any sense beyond watching foreign players in foreign leagues, we will need. And if they do make it work, and come into a golden generation or get finance from an eccentric vegan businessman who turns them into Canada’s first wind-powered soccer club, then they deserve a chance to promote into the CanPL, if that is where their powers can take them. And if their powers are not so great, which let’s face it is way more likely, then no hard feelings. Play the amateur with your neighbours and look longingly on the steep trail to greener pastures.

Most importantly, this pyramid should not be the pipe dream for ten years down the line. You cannot build the top of a pyramid before you even design the bottom. Sure, promotion and relegation in 2020 is probably impossible, and CanPL’s pioneering investors expect and deserve a chance to succeed without getting replaced by Surrey United. Fair enough! Build the pyramid and worry about the escalators for 2028. But build it. For if you do not have that wide base, why would a local fan care about a lousy Canadian-based soccer franchise when there are so many excellent foreign soccer franchises already on offer? What would a monolithic, purely commercial franchise named “York” have to distinguish itself from a monolithic, purely commercial franchise named “Toronto”? Appeals to patriotism only work if you have something to feel patriotic about, beyond a team’s mailing address.

CanPL for Goderich? We should all hope so. Not because that town is something special, but because it isn’t.

CanPL’s Historic Duty

By Benjamin Massey · August 9th, 2018 · 1 comment

Lake Side Buoys via Facebook, used with permission.

In the autumn of 1990 the Victoria Vistas were riding high in the Canadian Soccer League. They had rallied from an atrocious debut in 1989 to finish high-mid-table in the regular season, then knocked off the Winnipeg Fury on penalties in the first round of the playoffs. The mid-dynasty Vancouver 86ers beat Victoria on away goals in the semi-final but, especially in hindsight, there was nothing shameful about that. Victoria boasted local talent, led by veteran Canadian international Ian Bridge, and a few foreign stars like former Aston Villa skipper Allan Evans. Head coach Bruce Wilson, already a national legend from the 1986 World Cup and a Canada West champion coach with the University of Victoria, led a steady improvement throughout his first full season as a professional boss. It was a very good year.

Fans walked away from 1990 expecting more in 1991. But by March the Vistas were dead. Their players went in a dispersal draft, Wilson went back to UVic full-time, most of the locals dropped to the amateur ranks. The long story of Victoria soccer would go on, from the return of Victoria United to the Pacific Coast Soccer League, through the storied Vancouver Island Soccer League, all the way to USL PDL’s Victoria Highlanders, but this was all strictly local stuff. Victoria, one of Canada’s most soccer-mad cities, was deprived of the professional game for a generation.

On July 20, 2018, that finally changed when former Canadian internationals Josh Simpson and Rob Friend unveiled the Victoria area’s new Canadian Premier League team, Pacific FC. The new team is a backup plan after Friend’s attempted “Port City” greater Vancouver team couldn’t find a stadium, they’re is playing in the suburb of Langford rather than Victoria soccer’s spiritual home at Royal Athletic Park, and the city is delighted anyway. The Victoria Highlanders’ supporters group, the Lake Side Buoys, are getting behind Pacific FC with hardly a flicker of doubt. Some diehard Highlanders supporters have waited for this moment longer than their future players have been alive.

It’s a beautiful story. It is also far from unique.

The Nova Scotia Clippers played one CSL season in Dartmouth, didn’t win a thing, and went away, but like Victoria, Halifax soccer has always punched above its weight. In the years since Nova Scotia has produced several professionals two national amateur championship teams. Now the CanPL Halifax Wanderers have an exciting “pop-up” stadium on historic ground and the most amazing grassroots supporters group that actually anticipated their team’s name. Winnipeg has been without professional soccer since 1992 and their PDL team has been bad, but fans there will turn out in the hundreds just to look at Desiree Scott and their CanPL team has already registered over 1,200 would-be season ticket holders.

Hamilton, the CanPL’s cradle if anywhere is, has waited as long without being able to enjoy PDL, but has “enjoyed” years of Bob Young almost bringing in an NASL team. It would be a surprise if Forge FC was not the best-supported first-year team of the bunch. Next to them Calgary looks like paradise; they had an A-League team as late as 2004 and today’s championship PDL team is the likely spine of their CanPL entry. York, the butt of jokes, had two at-least-semi-professional soccer teams in the 1990s and zero for the past half-decade. FC Edmonton‘s problems, spending 2018 without a league, are trivial by comparison.

As individuals we feel our excitement for the Canadian Premier League burning within us, a blazing beacon for soccer communities that have seen so much darkness. But taking a step back to look at the rest of the Dominion reveals that the same stories can be told all across the nation. Each of us, with our prayers, our desperation, and our patience, is repeated ten thousand times across four time zones. It’s inspirational. It is also an enormous emotional, historical, and cultural burden, which this new league will have to bear.

We fans—the ones who already exist, not the ones the league will have to attract—are bringing so many years of barely-sustained hope to these little stadiums. Such undying loyalty should be a point of pride, but it is also a lot of baggage. Do the league’s pioneers realize the weight they are responsible for? When the Canadian Soccer League started in the ’80s it was an ambitious but logical peak for our developing soccer pyramid. Our men’s soccer programs were at their very best and there was no serious American competition. It proved a noble failure, noble enough that we are proud of its legacy, but a failure all the same and one that left scars. And the thing about scars is that time does not make them go away.

Without signing a player or playing a game, these teams have become the targets for a generation of hope from the soccer supporters in seven different towns, all of which have been burned before. Such hopes cannot easily be recreated if dashed. Ask fans of FC Edmonton, a team which has had decent performances and all-time legendary ownership but can only slowly attract mass interest because the Brickmen and the Aviators and the Drillers have poisoned the well so thoroughly. What the Canadian Premier League has is one precious, potentially golden, building block, but it is oh-so-fragile.

The Canadian Premier League is not Canada’s last chance for a national soccer league, but it might be our last chance for anything good.

Even a qualified CanPL success, with Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal permanently lost to MLS and no hope in CONCACAF, one vast Wales, would be a very good thing. We do not need to aim too high. But if it fails entirely, if it turns into MLS-style corporate trash or goes broke, then those lost hopes will maim everything that comes later. The future will look like the new “Canadian” cricket league, where meaningless squads of foreign mercenaries named Vancouver, Montreal, and so on all play in Toronto, and at the end people nobody cared about lifted a trophy with no emotional attachment to it. Great if you want to sit outside for two hours but hopeless if you care about any of what makes sports compelling beyond the literal physical activity.

It’s a hard job. The diehards cannot simply be pandered to; there are too few. To survive any team must attract the common soccer family, this is mathematically unavoidable. Yet experience shows that without those diehards curating an organic soccer culture and bringing an atmosphere to the ground you become Chivas USA. Let supporters support, don’t abandon your community in the name of monolithic corporate genericity, and don’t screw up the business. Most of all, respect your local soccer history. With a league front office full of soccer men and team names like Jim Brennan, Stephen Hart, Josh Simpson, Tommy Wheeldon, and so on involved, that ought not to be too difficult. But you need to be aware of that responsibility.

The Greatest Al Classico Ever

By Benjamin Massey · May 1st, 2018 · No comments

Tobi Oliva

Although FC Edmonton has wrapped up their professional soccer program, the Canadian Premier League might still bring it back. The organization is selling $40 memberships towards future professional season tickets, and have been before Edmonton city council trying to secure Clarke Field as a permanent home. Their Academy still plays and practices, investing in what they hope is the future of the team.

It’s a good academy which has produced professionals and prospects, but today the top team in Alberta is Calgary Foothills. A team that was good enough to contend for the USL PDL title before they added Nik Ledgerwood and Marco Carducci. Their first team outguns any PDL-standard combination of college journeymen, to say nothing of Edmonton’s high schoolers.

PDL can be good soccer but only occasionally draws fans. U-18 academy games are even less spectator-friendly. The natural rivalry between Edmonton and Calgary makes things spicy, but spice is irrelevant when there’s no food. A few supporters have gone to previous meetings, been rowdy, and gotten kicked out of pubs, but academy soccer is for coaches, scouts, family, and degens, not the ordinary fan. And rightly so.

But that was before, when Edmonton had a first team. Times are leaner now and an Edmonton – Calgary match, any Edmonton – Calgary match, looks awfully tasty. The nickname “Al Classico” has kicked around for a year or so, half-joke, half-goal for the upcoming CanPL derby, and though neither Edmonton nor Calgary are in that league yet, in that Canadian soccer way the fans memed it into reality1. (The second leg is Saturday, May 5, 2 PM at the Calgary Soccer Centre.)

The two teams were planning on April 3. On April 19, FC Edmonton began giving away tickets for a game ten days later at Clarke Field, admission free but RSVP required. It was a Sunday afternoon, usually Eddies poison. The next day, 1,000 tickets were spoken for. Three days later they cracked 2,500. Beer tents and concessions were arranged, volunteers found, mothballs blown off the Big Blue stand. The final announced attendance of 3,205 was better than FC Edmonton’s average NASL Sunday gate last year.

Foothills has a solid academy but sent the first team, like the Alberta soccer colossus they are. Two senior Canadian men’s internationals got the start: former Eddies skipper Ledgerwood (50 caps) and Edmonton native Jackson Farmer (1 cap), plus uncapped pool member Marco Carducci and several youth stars. This is without counting Spruce Grove’s Stephanie Labbe, PDL trialist and starting goalkeeper for the Canadian women’s team, who came off the bench.

But the local underdogs had their secret weapons as the alumni came out in impressive force. Paul Hamilton, the original supporters’ player of the year. Edem Mortotsi, one of the original Academy signings. Shaun Saiko, vying with Lance Laing as the all-time provider of goalscoring excellence. Allan Zebie, one of the best of the last generation and a new-minted CanPL poster boy. And Sam Lam, short of superlatives but a quality player in his day. Saiko and Hamilton in particular left the club under such unfair circumstances that just seeing them in blue and white again was worth a night of your life.

The stage was set for a “meaningless” friendly that would live forever.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

If you know your Eddies history you’ll know the punchline. After a week of fabulous weather Sunday dawned cold, cloudy, crap. The Eddies advised fans that parking would be limited so they should come by LRT: bad advice, since half the Capital Line was shut down for maintenance. Kickoff was delayed so fans could get in which is a lot riskier when you’re not an MLS team and only have the field for two hours.

Despite great interest and at least one camera operator in the house, there was no chance of streaming the game. TITAN, the hallowed portable video board, was out of town. Playing the first half in training tops, FC Edmonton came out for the second in their 2015-vintage striped Adidas kits, with different numbers (Hamilton, for example, switched from #9 to #25). Of course there were no programs or names on the kits, so most of the young players were anonymous anyway. A cold afternoon saw the beer tent sell out of hot chocolate. The field had initially been booked for a mere practice and on their way out fans ran into the kids of Edmonton Scottish, who had it next.

The kids looked like kids. The veterans have real jobs and families now; class is permanent and some of these guys could make CanPL if they trained for it, but rust made it hard to see. Foothills looked like a team which is probably going to win quite a fine PDL Northwest Division. Some of the play was… I mean, I am a Jackson Farmer fan going way back but I had never associated him with dirty dangles until he slaughtered the entire Eddies defense for goal number three.

The Eddies had one terrific chance when Carducci punched a rebound straight onto a forward’s foot, who shot wide. With the B team on to close out the game Edmonton also made Steph Labbe work a bit; she twice showed exceptional timing to sweep the ball off David Doe and Prince Amanda’s feet2 and made the best save of the game off Decklin Mahmi in the 90th minute. But Calgary could have had a few more themselves before they took off the pros. None of this reflects poorly on Edmonton, any more than Foothills would feel bad losing 4-0 to Chivas de Guadalajara. The Eddies Academy’s 16-year-olds are not yet as good as Nik Ledgerwood. Oh darn. But if you showed up expecting a rock-’em-sock-’em soccer classic, you would not have enjoyed the game.

People seemed to enjoy the game.

The crowd was large, fun, there for a good time. Though transit was a mess, the weather was crap, and the game was out of reach seven minutes in, most of the crowd stuck out the full 90. There was banter in the stands, banter in the beer line. The Foothills got their four goals in two savage flurries, and the Edmonton crowd sagged in the aftermath, but joie de vivre came back in a hurry. We were happy to be there.

The Vancouver Whitecaps recently lost a game 6-0, provoking the Vancouver Southsiders to hold a protest against their management. At the end of this 4-0 loss to the auld enemy, the Edmonton supporters chanted warmly and set off smoke until we had to give up the field, coaches, general managers, and owners, who responded by running over and applauding. It was not your usual blowout.

After all, it wasn’t your usual game. The chant went “you can’t beat us, ’cause we don’t exist.” This was true more metaphysically than literally. The Eddies could be humbled on the pitch, that sucked but it didn’t matter. What mattered was getting the band back together, from legends down to the 15-year-old future stars, and from the lunatics who traveled to watch an academy friendly to families who wanted a free night out. We could not be beaten, not really, because the only thing that mattered was reuniting, celebrating the past, and, with the help of the Canadian Premier League, moving into a sunny future. We needed this game to happen, but the game itself was the least important part of the experience. Celebrating the kids, the city, and the Eddies did not need a close match, it needed a match of any sort.

Someday we will lose 4-0 again, and we will exist, and we will scream obscenities on Twitter and call for scalps. And it will be beautiful.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Hot Takes for Canada

By Benjamin Massey · May 17th, 2017 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

The Canadian Premier League, like Harry Potter, takes up a lot of intellectual bandwidth for something that’s mostly imagination.

It has now been formally announced, along with Canadian Football League-affiliated ownership groups in Hamilton and Winnipeg. The name, hereto a title of convenience, appears official. They have a website and a Twitter account. In addition to at least one full-time employee, Canadian soccer business guru Paul Beirne, they have contracted out for some public and media relations. Judging from the respectful tone of the international press coverage, that’s working well.

We remain a hundred miles from even imagining the first game, but six months ago we were a thousand. Forget the “interested parties,” Canadian soccer’s powers-that-be, and some serious businessmen who know sports, have stopped winking and nudging and stepped forward, on the record, to say “here we are and here is what we are doing.” It shows confidence. Confidence that may prove misplaced, but after years of an announcement being “imminent” nobody’s being rash.

This story has gone on for so long that it’s hard to remind ourselves it’s still early. Until ten lovely millionaires have ten lovely teams in ten lovely stadia, CanPL skeptics will have every chance to sneer. The three MLS franchises, whose existence indefinitely gives the lie to the CanPL’s “first division” marketing, will “certainly stay” in their American league[1]. NASL diehard FC Edmonton is known to be uninterested and the USL’s Ottawa Fury have, as always, been inscrutable to the point of banality[2].

MLS, NASL, USL, order them how you like. On launch day, Canada’s “first division” may be the fourth-best league in the country. This is not the end, this is not the beginning of the end, and with apologies to Sir Winston it’s not the end of the beginning either.

If you are sufficiently hardcore to read Maple Leaf Forever!, this doesn’t matter as such. Sure we want the CanPL to be the top league in the universe, but it would be our favourite if it was Marty Nash and Rick Titus playing futsal on a tennis court. The status quo, however, is not ideal, so we try to improve the outlook by pushing our own CanPL pet projects and agitating for our dreams. We need more Canadian players, or oppose MLS-style single entity, or want promotion and relegation. I still say it should be a women’s league, though I confess that looks unlikely to happen.

Yet, from announcements so far, even that mad pipe dream isn’t literally impossible. The sum total of what we know about the CanPL is Winnipeg and Hamilton. Halifax has on-the-record interest, Regina’s CFL stadium is hosting a New York Cosmos – Valencia friendly[3] this summer that looks inexplicable except as a test of the market, Ottawa is Ottawa, and rumours are everywhere, but that’s all we know.

No doubt Winnipeg and Hamilton ownerships have an idea how they want to operate, with certain assurances that they can stay in business. Equally certainly, they have areas in which they’d compromise to lure new ownership (or, let us hope, Ottawa, Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto). But some elements of the league structure are clearly up for discussion.

Paul Beirne appeared on Soccer Today! with Duane Rollins and Kevin Laramee, and told us much the same thing[4]. As part of a friendly and wide-ranging conversation he riffed, off-the-cuff, about what he’d like to see from his league perhaps decades down the line. No doubt he’s put a lot of thought into his visions, but he left doors open, and equally undoubtedly nothing has been set in stone.

Now is the time for fans to be heard. The success of the CanPL will depend disproportionately on Canadian diehards who, above and beyond buying tickets and merch, will lend each team the passionate and marketing-friendly support that has driven MLS’s attendance explosion. We know that the league staff pays attention to fan scuttlebutt. Indeed, its very conception responds to the fandom’s urgent need.

Our ideas and dreams may not be listened to. Indeed, since many of us would support a CanPL almost unconditionally, we have a lousy bargaining position. But we can still encourage the powers that be to make the best league they can. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are not soccer people. Hamilton’s Bob Young knows the game, owned the Carolina Railhawks for half an hour, and has presumably had a reason to spend years laying the foundations of this league. Every other Canadian owner will be new to the game almost by definition. Are we ever going to have a better opportunity?

It is pretty damned millennial to say “we need more bloggers with opinions, more hot takes and drum-banging.” But we sort of do. Canadian soccer is an incestuous little family, with the feuds and fornications of the most obscure mountain compound. Our league deserves to be launched not just with message board posts arguing whether the Blizzard should be brought back, but well-thought-through debates on what world we want to live in. It might not make any difference. But then again, it might. This is the only chance we will ever get.

(notes and comments…)

A Canadian Pro/Rel Manifesto

By Benjamin Massey · September 21st, 2016 · 5 comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

Reports of a coming Canadian Premier League have not died. The usual reporters, Duane Rollins and Anthony Totera, continue to tease us with target dates and rumoured plans. Peripheral feelers and exploratory movements have reached even the least connected members of the soccer community. The Canadian Soccer Association has still not made any announcement, but the winking and nudging and “just you waits” are only intensifying. There’s smoke, and while that does not necessarily indicate fire, somebody is trying to start one.

As far as a fan can tell, nothing is set in stone. So perhaps the time is right for us to say what sort of league we want. The true Canadian fan has been desperate for something, anything he could call his own, and we still are, and would support our domestic league even if it was Major League Soccer with a maple leaf tattooed on its face. However, just because our standards may be low and our expectations not much higher does not mean that we don’t have ambitions. A Canadian soccer league would, to a great extent, be an end in itself, but it would also be a means to other ends, and we should try to promote those while plans can still be changed.

One of those ends is making Canada, as surely as it is a hockey country, a soccer country. Eight teams in eight major metropolitan centres would be great for those in the hearts of big cities, but would still leave the majority of our landmass and a large chunk of our population with teams you could only call “their own” in very generous terms. What makes us a hockey nation is not seven NHL franchises but the hundreds of senior, major junior, and junior “A” teams, based in cities as large as Toronto and podunk towns of a thousand people, that bring the sport to the masses. Even the semi-rural family, the suburb-dweller, the oil patch kid, doesn’t have far to go if he wants to watch quality hockey. Much of the country enjoys the same access to curling, or Canadian football, and if you ever wonder why those sports command so much attention despite seeming so passé in the big city, think about that.

Alone, a Canadian Premier League alone could never imitate that. Only one thing could: promotion and relegation.

Simply saying those three words in North America provokes an instantaneous, tribal response. Many demand it with the fervour of the fundamentalist. Others decry it as foreign, impractical, a cancer that could never exist and we’re better off without. North America has franchises bound to leagues. Owners would never accept it. How could you get investors if that investment might go up in smoke with one bad year? It’s mad, it’s terrible, it could and should never happen.

That’s wrong. Promotion and relegation does not need to be an immediate and extreme load on the country’s back. Here is my view, addressed to the prospective owner, of what it could be.

Protecting your investment

Nobody is saying that you should get relegated tomorrow. We’re not insane. You, the founding franchiser, are going to plow a lot of money into getting this league started. Even in the best case the league’s very survival will be in doubt for several years. If at least one team doesn’t fold outright it’ll be a miracle. A malleable structure sending some $20-million-a-year subsidizer to League1 Ontario for 2019 is a terrible idea and everyone knows it. Even if we were that extreme, the infrastructure and lower divisions do not exist. The Victoria Vistas get relegated from the CanPL; where the heck are they gonna play?

We don’t need promotion and relegation in year one, or year three, or year five. We need a clear roadmap of how we’re going to get there. You can only accept promotion and relegation after fifteen seasons, provided the Premier League has sixteen teams and there are semi-pro leagues in every province? That sounds amazing! But write it down and work towards it.

In fact, you shouldn’t necessarily be relegated at all. You’re spending a lot of money and you want your investment to be protected. Okay. There are ways to promote and relegate teams other than “three up, three down” every year. Both the Argentine Premier Division and Mexico’s Liga MX, the best and most successful soccer league in North America, use a “coefficient” system that relegates teams for sustained incompetence rather than one bad season. The first year of the system could be promotion only: bringing in four less-developed teams to fight your established squads for three relegation places would give you an automatic advantage. Minimum stadium standards, like those used by almost every league in the world, will make sure you don’t get knocked out by some podunk outfit playing Thursday afternoons at a city park. For greater security, institute a playoff between the teams in the Premier League’s relegation places and the lower divisions’ promotion places, so we make sure that only the deserving get to the big time.

Remember, no promotion/relegation advocate has a problem with your team staying in the top division indefinitely. It’s about adding a competitive element to the bottom of the table, and clubs being free to rise as far as their talent and resources can take them. Any promotion/relegation system has to be fair, but “fair” applies to you, the owner, as well.

Making that investment work

Nothing about pro/rel prevents financial responsibility. American opponents regularly assert that promotion and relegation is a naturally reckless system but they are conflating the all-round money madness of European and South American soccer with one element of its system. Teams in no danger of relegation can spend like lunatics and suffer for it; ask the late-’90s NHL. Of course, a team that gets relegated takes a financial hit every time, there’s no way around that, but the measures you may already be taking for fiscal stability can work here.

By all accounts the Canadian Premier League will pursue revenue sharing and cost certainty in the form of a salary cap anyway. Making this work with promotion and relegation is as easy as wanting to. If a cap team in the CanPL gets relegated to the PLSQ, it’s perfectly reasonable for the rules to “grandfather” the newly-arrived club into the PLSQ’s lower salary structure. Work out the details, that’s all they are. The PLSQ team that gets promoted in their place will want to spend more and keep their new position, but a salary cap will keep them from pulling a Gretna. Cost certainty and pro/rel can, in fact should, walk hand in hand.

The other side to relegation is that it frees you from undercapitalized, uncompetitive teams facing either new ownership or bankruptcy. The North American Soccer League spent two years keeping the Atlanta Silverbacks afloat on a shoestring for pride’s sake. Atlanta was a decent market with a good history and a solid soccer-specific stadium, but with MLS coming they couldn’t find a buyer willing to commit to an NASL level of expenditure. The Silverbacks should really have been allowed to fall to their natural level, and without promotion and relegation that becomes a whim of ownership rather than a Darwinian evolution (see San Antonio). It cost the more solid NASL owners both prestige and hard cash.

In Europe, when a team goes bankrupt or misses payments, it is automatically deducted so many points that relegation is almost inevitable. In a franchise system these teams would be near-certain bankrupts but with the lower costs and lesser pressure of a lower division, they can sometimes keep mostly afloat long enough to reorganize into a healthier model as Portsmouth is currently doing. That club is owned by a supporters’ trust that could never possibly have raised the required capital if Pompey was at the basement of a franchise-based Premier League, with all the expenditure and paper-only “value” that implies; the team would have just died. Obviously teams do go bankrupt in a pro/rel system, it’s not a panacea, but it is another way to handle the trouble one broke owner can put your league in.

Remember, more soccer is good for you. You want every sort of fan you can get, of course, but the sort who makes you the most money is the season-tickets-every-year new-kit-every-two merchandise-buying beer-swilling sponsor-supporting diehard. They come back year after year, plow way more of their disposable income than would be considered responsible into your pocket, and feel personally involved in the success of your company. Many of them feel so deeply about your corporate success that they will stand up and sing songs about how terrific your company is; they are literally paying you to use them in your marketing. Subject to pretty modest precautions like making sure the loud ones get their own section and preventing them punching babies or burning the stadium down, they bring other fans in the door. This is a good deal for you.

These fans also don’t come from nowhere. Nobody wakes up one day and decides “I am going to lose my mind for soccer,” or hockey, or football, or ringette, or any other sport. That sort of fanaticism is something that builds with exposure to the sport. It is why, for so long, soccer supporters were such a niche in the United States and suddenly were everywhere: a certain critical mass had to develop, and then things took off.

Sure, you and your fellow franchisers might be able to get domestic soccer that critical mass almost singlehanded, but wouldn’t you rather other people helped pay for it? A healthier lower division, such as is promoted by the competitiveness of promotion and relegation, is in your interest. In principle you might lose a meaningful number of fans to local, lower-division rivals, but in practice this hardly seems to happen. You only need look at the rise and fall of attendances as teams go up and down the divisions to see this: many fans want to see their local side, many fans want to see the best, and sometimes those two groups overlap. Sports fandom is not zero-sum. League1 Ontario fans still go to Toronto FC games, and at every level, atmosphere attracts atmosphere.

And if a new first-division team appears in your city, within walking distance of your stadium? Around the world those games are the most intensely-fought and lucrative of all. If you can’t make money off passionate clashes between neighbours and rivals, what are you even doing in this business?

More soccer is also good for you on the field. One of the best-established ways to train a young player is to send him on loan so he can get experience playing meaningful games at a level that suits him. At risk of stating the obvious, this requires a team to borrow him from you. Except in rare cases it’ll be a lower-division team for the also-obvious reason that if he was good enough for the first division the kid would be playing for you in it. There needs to be multiple options; you don’t want to be stuck because your only choice doesn’t need help at that position. Preferably the team will also be nearby, in case you need the kid back, and run by staff you know and trust. Heck, you probably even need successful teams at multiple levels, to accommodate players at different stages of development. That’s a long list of requirements and it takes a very healthy lower-division pyramid to accommodate them all. The United States does not have that. Bring in promotion and relegation, give lower-division teams that boost, and Canada could.

That’s an unquantifiable benefit, of course. But another reason you should want healthy lower divisions is that, if it turns out that kid isn’t good enough for you after all, you can sell him to that lower-division team that liked him so much last time. Right now, unless you’re Miami FC, there’s not much point in the NASL paying cash on the barrel for an MLS reject: the MLSer will just be released in two months anyway and they can get him for free. If that NASL team was angling for promotion, or for that matter if an MLS team was battling relegation, matters might look a little different, and you make money.

Finally, ask yourself what would promotion and relegation cost you? So long as you stay up – and as we said a few paragraphs ago, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t – very little. In ten or fifteen years or whatever, when the league reaches the point of stability where promotion and relegation are introduced, you will lose out on sweet franchise fees with every expansion. On the other hand, if you’re able to charge new investors big money then pretty-much-by-definition your business will be in good financial shape, and you will also be able to command a premium for the franchise fees in the years before promotion and relegation. “Buy in now or start from the bottom” is a decent pitch. Besides, franchise fees are a finite resource. Eventually your league will get as big as it can. They’re a crutch, not a structural revenue source.

Other than that, it’s hard to see how it’ll cost you a dime. A rival gets relegated? Given the probability that the new league will be spread across this huge country, it’s much more likely that new geographic rivals will appear. Travel costs are going to be a bastard whether you’re going from Toronto to Edmonton or Toronto to Sherwood Park. Minimum facility standards, common around the world, will save you from road games where friends and family pay a buck each to watch your $5-million roster. You may want to introduce parachute payments for relegated teams, and modest stadium subsidies for teams being promoted would be a good idea, but weren’t we just talking about revenue sharing? This is the same thing by other means, the rich giving a certain proportion of their revenue to benefit the poor for the benefit of all. The total amount of money you pay out doesn’t need to change.

And if it goes wrong?

Of course, there’s every chance that you hire the wrong guy, he signs the wrong players, blows through your money like a politician in election week, and in spite of all protections you get relegated. I’m sorry. There’s also every chance that you sell all your capital to buy Bre-X stock and wind up fishing for change on Granville and Nelson. We can give you a sporting chance, we can shield you from ordinary bad luck, so that one comes down to “don’t make stupid decisions.” If you can’t handle that as a condition, maybe capitalism isn’t for you.