Defeat with Grace

By Benjamin Massey · August 16th, 2016 · No comments

Andrew Soong/Canadian Soccer Association

Andrew Soong/Canadian Soccer Association

I spent all morning beside myself with anxiety. My game-weekdays have a ritual: roll my office chair around aimlessly, pace back and forth for a couple hours, get up for water more than any hydrophiliac would find necessary. Then, go to the pub. Drink, drink, drink, bullshit with comrades, and drink some more. Leap up every time Canada had the ball in the attacking half, collapse in my stool every time possession was squandered. Live and die with the team; mostly die. Hollywood North would be proud. Everything went straight to the script.

So did the result: a 2-0 defeat for Canada against Germany. If this was your first women’s soccer game you’d say “Germany was better” and you’d be right. Germany looked like the more powerful team because they were. Consistently Canada launched an audacious through ball, attempted to cut the corners of the defensive square with a sudden break, and consistently Germany cut it out, because they were a half-step ahead of us through superior vision and talent. The illusion of last Wednesday, when these Canadian women snatched a stunning 2-1 victory over the Germans, is rightly dispelled. If Sweden advanced to the gold medal game by being cowards, Germany advanced by being capable. Despite being near the top of the women’s game throughout its history Germany has never before played for Olympic gold, but now they have a huge opportunity to be champions. You know what? Good for them.

It is a truism of Canadian soccer that winning never feels as good as losing does bad. The glory of Diana Matheson’s 2012 bronze-medal winner against France does not make up for that agonizing semifinal against the United States. Canada played the Americans like hell in the 2007 Gold Cup, but Atiba was onside. FC Edmonton did everything against the Montreal Impact at the 2014 Voyageurs Cup except not get screwed over by Drew Fischer, but what do we remember? Agony pierces through all other memories. This is why torture works. No Canadian supporter will ever be so stupid as to say “as long as I remember the love of my family and my country, ISIS can do what they will.” We’ll hand over the nuclear codes straight away. We’ve been there.

Today?

Today was an exception.

Don’t mistake me. That sucked. I won’t be in any hurry to watch that game again. The backbreaking first goal, when Kadeisha Buchanan flagrantly gave away a penalty in a situation when there was no need to leave her feet at all, was classic Canada shooting itself in the face. God bless Buchanan, she’s a lion, but she spent the whole Olympics believing her own Buchananbauer hype, remembering how we fans would worship her aggressive but accurate tackles, and launching those challenges into situation when she should have just kept her footing and played straight defense. Frankly, we could have lost our quarterfinal thanks to an identical foul on Eugenie Le Sommer, but the foul against Le Sommer was missed and this one was called. Buchanan is only 20, an age at which Becky Sauerbrunn was playing part-time in the USL W-League and Amandine Henry just breaking into the French national team, young for a centreback of any gender, certainly young enough to iron a mental kink out of a game that is physically dominant and technically proficient enough. I doubt she got this far in her life without costing any of her teams a careless goal and she’s mature enough that we can call it straight. I’m not worried about her. Besides, she deserves us remembering her multiple excellent challenges as well as the late-first-half header off a Janine Beckie corner kick that was only just cleared off, or maybe after, the goal line.

But let’s look at what didn’t happen. There were no scandalous calls against us. There were no six-second-rules, no Abby Wambachs shouting into the referee’s ear. Germany played with class, scored two goals, and unlike some other semifinals past there was also no capitulation. Sure, Canada didn’t have luck on its side, but they clearly belonged in an Olympic semifinal against a German team that will end this tournament ranked number one in the world. We put up a better fight than Sweden did against the United States, but the Swedes got lucky when the Americans didn’t bury their chances, and we did not.

In my post on the first Germany game I pointed out how we’d walk away from the average game thinking “we did okay, considering.” Today we did okay, considering. We were without our starting goalkeeper (never forget that; Erin McLeod would have saved the second goal) and two of our top three fullbacks. Allysha Chapman defied my optimistic projections by not overcoming her shoulder injury and Josée Bélanger was suspended with yellow card accumulation. The difference between the sublime Ashley Lawrence and the inadequate Rhian Wilkinson should suffice to show what a difference top-class wide defending can make, when Chapman and Bélanger had put in two useful weeks.

And what weeks they were! 4-0-1 so far, including wins over Germany and France! Put an asterisk on Germany if you like, but Canada beat France when the French were desperate to win. The France of Henry, of Camille Abily, of Wendie Renard, of the legendary Louisa Cadamuro playing her final tournament before premature retirement, and they were denied their storybook ending by Janine Beckie, Sophie Schmidt, and an impregnable midfield. We’ve beat them before, but in 2012 we hung on by our fingernails and hoped for heroics, while in 2016 France was better but Canada actually played soccer against them. You’ll never confuse us with a tier one team, not yet, but we’ve become “a team which, on every given night, can beat a tier one team;” honest progress.

Time was we relied on Erin McLeod stealing a game and Christine Sinclair being a one-woman wrecking crew. Today, McLeod is hurt and Sinclair a shadow of her former self, good for her starting position but no star. We could have replaced her with Deanne Rose and not lost much. In goal, while Steph Labbé’s mistakes did not cost us the mistakes were made, and it took adroit defending to keep them out of our net. Yet Canada had, by the numbers, the best major tournament in our history, on the backs of Lawrence, a resurgent Schmidt, and Beckie, who snuck between German defenders and got the sort of chances Sinclair used to, even if she missed them. Two goals against in open play, one a meaningless late blunder against Zimbabwe, despite both starting centrebacks being suspended at one point in the tournament and a back line aged, going from left to right, 27, 23, 20, and 21. (The 27 was the most replaceable of the bunch.)

At London 2012 we cried ourselves to sleep in joy over a bronze medal. At Rio 2016, a bronze medal will be consolation, a little gong to commemorate a tournament we’ll never forget anyway. We fluked out a win over France in 2012; if the host Brazilians similarly get lucky against us in 2016 I doubt it’ll burn our guts out. In 2012 we hadn’t really done anything and needed the medal to take something from a tournament that should have been so much more. In 2016, we know what we’ve done, know what we’re capable of, and another bronze would be a bonus. That’s why we can view today’s loss with equanimity rather than heartbreak.

Now, I’m not leaping up and dancing. Sinclair is the greatest player in the history of women’s soccer and of Canadian soccer, and had a wholly unexpected late-career opportunity to win a gold medal. Olympic and World Cup glory have equally eluded her, and though she would have been a supporting player in any Rio 2016 triumph it wouldn’t matter: for her sake, alone, for the sake of putting a luminous exclamation mark on the sentence of a career that should be burned in fire, silverware would have been worth any sacrifice. If Sinclair retires without a championship then we, both the players who weren’t good enough for her and the fans who did not advance women’s soccer in this country when it could have made a difference, will wear the shame of that. We should still feel abashed. After all, there’s still no women’s professional soccer team anywhere in Canada.

However, on the day, can you point to one teammate and say “she didn’t leave everything on the pitch?” Even Buchanan’s mistake was an excess of passion. To blame some of our players for not being talented enough seems to miss the point: we can wish for the game of their lives but can hardly be upset when it wasn’t there. In the first German game (or the Melissa Tancredi game, as I find I want to call it), her friends and teammates sacrificed everything to turn a 2-1 lead into Olympic history. Overturning a 2-0 disadvantage against those same Germans takes more than sacrifice, but the skill is coming. Having just seen what we’ve seen, can we swear that Canada will not be among the contenders in 2020, and that Sinclair will not still be hanging around?

I’m not happy, but I’m content. I’m proud of that team, again. In the 2012 Olympics, the 2015 World Cup, and again this year, they never disappoint. Every time they rise just a little, a team that’s more than the sum of its parts, the best of Canadian traditions. This Olympics might have been the most worthy achievement of the John Herdman era and we haven’t even played for a medal yet.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge

By Benjamin Massey · August 9th, 2016 · No comments

Al Quintero/Canadian Soccer Association

Al Quintero/Canadian Soccer Association

It’s a bastard, but the Canadian women’s soccer team was better off losing today and everybody knew it. Defeating Germany, the current second-ranked team in the world[1] and the overall strongest nation in women’s soccer history, would give Canada its first-ever perfect group stage in a major international tournament and represent our biggest upset of all time. Incidentally, it would also make our lives much worse, all-but-guaranteeing Canada a quarter-final matchup against world number three France rather than a relatively sweet game against China or Sweden.

In FIFA tournaments the knockout-round brackets are drawn before the groups are set and life is unfair: the winner of Group F, Canada’s group, was predestined to face the second-place team of Group G, containing both France and the United States. Whereas the second-place team in Canada’s group would take on the second-place team from Group E; in any event much easier opposition. The Olympics are a twelve-team tournament and, thanks to FIFA’s format, even with Japan out in qualifying it’s probably impossible to balance what Canada boss John Herdman calls the “tier 1” teams of the United States, Germany, France, and Japan fairly. In 2012 Canada got lucky with the draw and in 2016 we didn’t. Such is life.

With the rewards for second place being so great, the attitude of the Canadian supporter was unusual. No result against Germany, however disastrous, could have eliminated us from the tournament, and the pressure was off. I don’t think any fans went so far as to say we should deliberately lose today; this isn’t the NHL. But there was a definite feeling of “not necessarily losing, but losing if necessary;” that while we shouldn’t give Germany the three points, we could put ourselves in a position where it would be easier for Germany to take them. I think John Herdman agreed. Christine Sinclair, the best player in the history of women’s soccer, started on the bench. So did Janine Beckie, the leading scorer of the Olympics so far, and Ashley Lawrence, Canada’s presumptive 2016 player of the year. They joined Kadeisha Buchanan, the 20-year-old world-class centreback who had been suspended thanks to a yellow card against Zimbabwe that definitely looked deliberate, and Erin McLeod, one of the five best players in Canadian history but out for as long as two years with a knee injury, on the shelf.

As for the Germans? The senior Canadian women’s team first played them July 27, 1994 in Montreal and lost 2-1, giving up two goals to a debutante named Birgit Prinz who would become the best female player in European history. Since then Canada has played Germany in three World Cup games and nine friendlies, and lost every single one. Our women’s U-20s have also lost every game against Germany, including the 2-0 German victory in 2014 that eliminated us from the U-20 Women’s World Cup at home, and our U-17s can boast only a single 2-2 draw on March 15, 2014, when Jessie Fleming and Marie Levasseur got us a precious point at the U-17 World Cup. By any measurement, at any age group, Canada is hugely inferior to Germany. There is no improvement with context and no space for an asterisk. The Germans have played us more than a dozen times and dominated almost every one. Canada plays Germany, Germany wins easily, and we walk away thinking “we did okay, considering.” That is how it works.

Now, the remorseless calculus I detailed above applied to Germany as well. They wanted to finish second in their group as much as Canada did, but there was a hitch. In a shock result on Saturday, Germany managed only a 2-2 draw against Australia. As a result, while a draw would have suited the Germans very well, a loss might have been a problem as there was a possibility they’d finish third in the group and life would suddenly get a little too interesting. Besides, when you’re Germany, the prospect of facing France isn’t quite so intimidating.

Therefore Germany did not dare run out the full “B” squad. Anja Mittag, the closest German equivalent to Sinclair, started. So did skipper Saskia Bartusiak, legendary midfielder Melanie Behringer, and defender Annike Krahn, one of the best defensive players to ever live. Their second-best forward, Dzsenifer Marozsán, started, but their best, Alexandra Popp, did not. Call it an A- team against Canada’s full B. A boring 0-0 would have been fine by Germany’s lights, and when Behringer converted an early penalty (well-deserved by the lovable but aggressive Allysha Chapman) to put Germany up 1-0, that should have been that. Canada wouldn’t mind losing, Germany might give up one the other way but no more than that, the two teams would fight about the details but that would be all. As a truly competitive fixture this would be done.

That’s where we were wrong.

I don’t mind tooting my own horn here. On Twitter and this past weekend’s episode of 99 Friendship I was unequivocal: I wanted Canada to go for it and beat Germany, if we possibly could. Sure, it would give us a tougher quarterfinal game, but the rewards in terms of morale and pleasure would be well worth it. Canada doesn’t beat “tier 1” teams, except for the bronze medal match at London 2012, and that game has lived forever. To do it again, albeit in a somewhat lesser context; yes, that would be worth giving up a good shot at a fourth-place finish.

But if I brag, you’ll take it in context. Because the one thing I believed more fervently than “we should beat Germany if ever we can” was “Melissa Tancredi should be nowhere near the Canadian starting eleven.” In fact I wouldn’t have taken her to Rio at all. 34 years old, slow as hell, uninspiring even against Zimbabwe, having never recovered her accuracy or reflexes from when she took time off to get a fake chiropractic degree, she didn’t belong in the same universe as a national soccer team. The jokes I made about her were actually cruel, and though I sometimes tried to temper it with “but I remember when she saved our asses in 2012…” I didn’t always. 2015 was ever-so-much-more-recent, after all, and had we taken Janine Beckie instead of Tancredi that World Cup might have gone very differently.

It wasn’t personal. Big, humble in both attitude and origin, always giving her 100%, and willing to be a complementary player while also being unafraid to take the team on her back, Tancredi is everything you want a Canadian athlete to be. Her flaws are age and athleticism and neither is her fault. But this is high-level sport, and so I was right out in front saying Tancredi should be given a fake “retirement game” in which she plays six minutes then gets put out to pasture without so much as a handshake and a plaque. God love her but she’s useless. The idea of her taking minutes from a Janine Beckie, a Deanne Rose, or a Nichelle Prince is an actual insult, and while friendship and connectedness are all very well, this is a business and John Herdman needs to make a business decision once in a while. When the Canadian Soccer Association announced that both Sinclair and Diana Matheson were sitting, and that Tancredi was not only starting but taking the captaincy for the day, I reacted badly.

If ever you read this blog again, please remember that I am an idiot.

Forget the goals. Tancredi started great. She launched a beautiful flick-on header to Josée Bélanger, then swept another one-touch ball to Bélanger off her foot, in the first ten minutes. Neither amounted to anything because, as I said above, Germany is excellent, but Tancredi was all over the shop in the best way. Making herself available for passes, playing the pass accurately when it arrived, looking like the woman of four years earlier. It was inspiring stuff, even before she’d troubled the scorers, even when Behringer had converted that penalty and Germany was outchancing Canada ten to one. Even when it looked like we were about to lose 3-0 and not mind too much. You couldn’t say Tancredi had done a thing wrong, come what may.

Then the game changed. Desirée Scott (another popular whipping girl for the past few months) pushed the ball forward through an open channel to Tancredi, and am I crazy or did Tank take it out left, try the shot, and miss the ball? Hahaha! She’s so old! She’s so awful! Janine Beckie would have scored! Except one of the advantages of her experience is that you know how to compose yourself when things don’t go just right, and Tancredi was going for another shot before Germany had realized their chance. This time she got it just right, sliding it low into the corner, and Canada had tied the game.

Now, at this point it was 1-1 in the first half and Germany was still playing well. Tancredi was in line to be Canada’s man of the match but no more than that: a “she exceeded my expectations, fair play to her,” a footnote in history, a little “hey you remember when Tancredi…” in five years’ time. She kept working hard, giving the German defense fits, and throwing herself around the field to make plays, but that’s no more than even her most fervent haters would have expected.

What changed the game was not, without diminishing her accomplishments, Tancredi as an individual. It was that her teammates picked up on her energy and raised their own level to meet it. An old, popular player was absolutely on form against a marquee opponent, and which of those Canadians was going to give anything less than her best and cause Tanc to lose face? Which of them would dare be responsible for turning what might be their friend’s last great game into a lowly piece of trivia? The long-time comrades of Tancredi’s, like Rhian Wilkinson and Sophie Schmidt, certainly felt it. But so did the solid Rebecca Quinn and relatively recent re-introduction Josée Bélanger. Maybe we shouldn’t make fun of #99friendship and the #mostconnectedteam so cavalierly, because that game was a demonstration of its value.

We sat down to watch a meaningless scrimmage, and an all-time classic broke out. Germany was still on their game, still pushing, but Canada was a step ahead and slowly gaining the ascendancy. At half, jokes about “well, what if Canada wins and has to play France?” had suddenly become a little more serious and a lot less terrifying. The spark of magic was in the air, and Tancredi getting her head to a bombed-in free kick from Quinn was only justice. 2-1 to Canada! It was the first time Canada had led against Germany in over a decade, when Charmaine Hooper and Kara Lang staked Big Red to a 2-0 lead on September 4, 2005 that they’d subsequently blow for a 4-3 loss.

We didn’t blow this one. Tancredi was a massive reason why, clearing defensive headers from our own box on set pieces. So was Diana Matheson, who came on as a substitute and immediately threw herself into slide tackles like she was playing for two medals at once. Steph Labbé, another player I think I may have said a few bad words about, not only shagged some crosses but made a dandy save late in the second half to preserve a 2-1 lead. The Germans brought out Popp, threw everyone forward, went like hell to get a draw and a point that might be precious. In reply, John Herdman sent on Nichelle Prince for Deanne Rose, and I would bet a million dollars that, before the game, Herdman had conceived that move as “Prince for Tancredi.” But a good coach knows how to adapt to the situation, and it wound up being a good move in its own right. Prince showed an unexpected level of defensive intensity, winning the ball in the climactic minutes of stoppage time to get Canada that 2-1 win and its first ever point at the senior level against the Germans. A relatively new player, but she wasn’t going to let her friends down either.

As a result, Canada will face a quarterfinal of death against France. There will be no restraint in France, no “well a draw would be better…” They will be too happy to avenge their loss in the London 2012 bronze medal game. We played them very hard in a recent tune-up friendly, but France held some of their stars back and still won 1-0. The bookies will make them big favourites to beat us and, let’s be honest, squinting through the haze of victory, they’re probably right. If we’re dispassionate, odds are that despite playing much better than we did four years ago, Canada’s 2016 Olympics will end in the quarterfinal.

And you know what? I don’t care. For the first time ever Canada beat Germany. They did it without Buchanan, without McLeod, without Sinclair. They did it to a German team that, notwithstanding some early uncertainty, definitely wanted to stop us and ran out every gun they had. They did it in the Olympic Games, and in women’s soccer it’s debatable whether the Olympics rank behind the World Cup at all. I hope we can beat France, keep this wonderful run going, but even if we do lose it’ll be worth it. We beat Germany, fair and square. That’s one to tell the grandkids about. And Melissa Tancredi was the heroine, reminding us all that you don’t get to the pinnacle of sport if you can’t prove the haters wrong once in a while.

(notes and comments…)

Reaction to That #CanWNT Roster, in Full

By Benjamin Massey · June 20th, 2016 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

You know those women you thought were going to the Olympics? They’re going to the Olympics.

The Greatest Canadian Game Ever

By Benjamin Massey · January 22nd, 2016 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

There are some good old Canadian soccer videos on YouTube, and today I found the crown jewel: the complete match video of the biggest day in Canadian men’s soccer history, when on September 14, 1985, Canada beat Honduras 2-1 in St. John’s, Newfoundland and qualified for the 1986 FIFA World Cup.

I had never before watched this game. It took place fifteen months before I was born. The game was broadcast live nationally on CBC, today not a home for the men’s national team, so there are few opportunities for the network to pull it out of the archives. The only chance was home videotapers, some of whom recorded this game, a smaller subset of those keeping both boxes of tapes in good order and the means to play (and digitize) them. Apart from the 1986 World Cup itself, where YouTube has varying-quality foreign-language videos of all three Canadian games, the earliest matches available online even as decent highlight reels dated from the 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign… until a magnificent user gave us this piece of history.

You know the story. Canada needed a draw or a win to qualify; a loss would see Honduras through. English-born Carl Valentine, late of the Vancouver Whitecaps and then with West Brom, had finally agreed to represent his adopted homeland. The game was scheduled for St. John’s and the Newfoundlanders packed King George V Park to standing room only, fans crowded around the thin white rope that protected the field of play. Meanwhile, according to imperishable legend, most Hondurans who traveled to support their side wound up in Saint John, New Brunswick, across the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the action and scrambling to find a friendly pub. In the end, despite struggling with the flu, Valentine set up Canadian goals from two players as different as ice and fire: scrapper’s scrapper George Pakos, the Victoria amateur who’d clawed his way into the national program with sheer persistence and guts, and super-skilled Torontonian forward Igor Vrablic, 20 years old and already making his 34th cap, but less than two years away from being forced out in disgrace for match fixing.

You see it all in the video. Pakos’s opening goal is superbly gritty; Valentine’s corner gets only a glancing header from Ian Bridge, the ball falls into a sea of Honduran white, and from outside the post George Pakos charges into the mob like a raging bull and puts his boot through it, driving it right off Honduran goalkeeper Julio César Arzú and in. Vrablic, on the other hand, does it almost like you draw it up: tied 1-1 just past the hour mark, Valentine’s corner is flicked on by David Norman and Vrablic makes the perfect run, chucks his leg in the way, and deflects it home.

However, when you know a game as only a legend, it’s so easy to be disappointed in the imperfect reality of a 90-minute soccer match. Especially a thirty-year-old one on a dodgy pitch during the salad days of defensive soccer. Early on I yelped at a Canadian backpass into goalkeeper Tino Lettieri’s hands before remembering that wouldn’t be a rule for seven more years, and his long holds of the ball would have driven Abby Wambach to distraction. This was not soccer’s finest era and, mentally, I prepared myself for Canada gritting out an undeserved three points. What I got was a match living up to its reputation.

There are so many little moments Wikipedia just can’t tell you about. Lettieri, officially listed at 6’0″ but definitely smaller (Bruce Wilson, no giant, has a good few inches on him), running down everything like a maniac, taking every chance, and sprinting down the pitch to celebrate with the team on Pakos’s opener. The aggressiveness of the defending. A constant press, mad challenges (particularly from Pakos and Norman) in spite of what we still recognize as Honduras’s trademark flopping. Vrablic’s first-half chance, an absolute sparkler of a ball flashing across the face of goal, only for him to cement-foot it sideways, the sort of thing that could have lived in infamy on another day. Vrablic cannoning a shot from distance off the post with barely ten minutes to go; that miss wouldn’t have to haunt him either.

Late in the first half, with Canada holding on to a 1-0 lead, Randy Samuel making one of the great goal-line clearances, outrunning both Lettieri and the ball to hammer it most of the way to Cape Breton. Lettieri spilling a dangerous free kick but Ian Bridge thundering in without regard for life or limb to clear the ball behind. Late in the game, a charging Lettieri being stamped on by Macho Figueroa, and an irate Bob Lenarduzzi immediately shoving Figueroa to the ground. Randy Regan and Paul James, of all people, hooking up for a European counter attack that ended with James two feet from a highlight-reel goal. Ken Garraway, another Victoria amateur legend making his second-last cap for Canada, coming on to help kill the last half-hour and in his charmingly limited way tying the desperate Honduran defense in knots, like a particularly awkward bull tossing aside Pamplona tourists.

And Canada running, running, running, living up to our every stereotype of a country that emphasizes fitness, guts, and desire rather than sheer technical skill, a negative cliché that, on this enormous day, worked in the most positive fashion. The game was even in the middle of the park but Honduras generated little. They wanted it, don’t kid yourself, but pushed on by one of the all-time great crowds Canada outworked them. A crowd so energetic that, even in the pre-supporters group era, on the dough-like mid-’80s CBC microphones the atmosphere flows though the video like lifeblood. Singing “na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey hey hey, goodbye”… in the sixty-fifth minute. The Voyageurs wouldn’t have the nerve to taunt the Hondos like that today, but St. John’s did, and they were right. There weren’t even moments of danger, just Canada working harder, holding on, and at the explosion of the final whistle thousands of fans invading what had suddenly become a hallowed pitch.

What a show it was, the best of Canadian soccer as it was then. Knowing the outcome and knowing that, in the long run, it would amount to nothing more than a story takes nothing away in 2016. These players gave their all for their country; there were a few flashy, uncommitted professionals, but old-school players who’d run through a wall for the maple leaf proved more important. Pakos and Wilson, in particular, were the very incarnation of what Canadian players should be. Even Valentine, born and raised in England and preferring to play for them, was an honest man whose heart belonged to two homelands and would give everything he had for either one. They weren’t as technical as the Hondurans but they were skilled enough, not to mention well-led and utterly committed, and that’s what mattered (indeed, their performance against a nasty group in 1986 should be a source of pride in itself).

Bringing in the most talented players regardless of other considerations is a valid approach. But it’s not the only successful one.

Scatterbrained Canada 2015 Thoughts

By Roke · July 8th, 2015 · No comments

So that was a World Cup, held in Canada no less. I guess these are some late (especially with the Gold Cup having kicked off) and scattered thoughts.

It certainly did not end the way I had hoped with the Americans winning and more than once during the final I thought, “at least that isn’t Canada getting blitzed.” Carli Lloyd’s performance made it a good spectacle though, topping it off with that wonderful goal from halfway. The Americans were worthy winners, turning things up when the knockout stages came about. Most of the followers of the US Women’s National Team I follow didn’t think Jill Ellis had it in her to make the player and tactical changes necessary to get the Americans to play well but she did, and they did. Kadeisha Buchanan picking up the Young Player Award at the end made it all the more worthwhile

Canada played pretty well, if nothing else this team makes it easy to be incredibly proud when cheering for them. It would have been nice for them to reach the semi-finals but losing in a very even match of a single-game knockout can hardly be disappointing. That sort of thing happens all the time in sport. At least the quarterfinal featured another wonderful Christine Sinclair performance, there cannot be many more of those left. Ashley Lawrence’s marauding play in midfield and Kadeisha Buchanan’s stellar play at the back were particular highlights. With Jessie Fleming continuing to show promise the future is reasonably bright, in some areas.

The attack was the most underwhelming part of the Canadian performance. The setup and talk was all about a fluid front three but it seemed to me to lack structure and had difficulty carving out chances short of moments of individual brilliance. Herdman not having much in the way of attacking options may have compounded that. I thought the team also struggled more than most teams playing out from the back and they never seemed to having the passing options the other teams had but I am not observant enough to figure out why that is (or whether I am in fact completely wrong). While there were some poor individual performances in matches, the thought that quickly followed was often, “Jesus, I didn’t realize player –x- was in already in their 30s.” With the peak performance age in soccer being in the 23-28 range it is not very surprising for players on the wrong side of that to not be at their best.

The tournament in general was wonderful. Goal-line technology kept working (I still hold out hope that we’ll have offside technology one day to free up the assistant referees to help spot fouls . The expanded field was rarely exposed, the officiating was largely solid, and there was a nice variety of playing styles. China’s nearly successful bus parking against Canada contrasted nicely with France’s flowing attacking play. There were magnificent team goals, brilliant strikes, and as heartbreaking (and spectacular) an own goal as you will ever see.) It had pretty much everything that makes soccer great.

Shockingly the artificial surfaces did not lead to MASH units having to set up tents pitch side, nor cause cricket scores, nor make headed goals impossible, nor lead to soccer matches spontaneously combusting into Canadian football games. The one tangible thing to come about was that sports reporters and media know that infrared thermometers are on sale (congratulations on catching up to home cooking). You would think that any surface temperature issue would be obvious with artificial surfaces used throughout North America for soccer and football but in the buildup to the tournament the only mention I saw was in a few of Duane Rollins’ tweets.

To be honest I am still not sure of the effects of artificial surfaces have on how soccer is played. The surfaces seem to merely be a Rorschach test for any number of grievances. On social media I saw turf blamed for the ball rolling too quickly on the surface and too slowly, the ball bouncing away from players on long passes and the ball held up by the surface when it bounces. With my eyes I still cannot pick out the differences between the turf and grass. I may well be terrible at watching soccer the lack of tangible evidence or consensus on turf effects make it seem like complaints are nothing more than appeals to tradition or some naturalistic fallacy.

If there was one thing that bothered me throughout the tournament it was the completely patronizing, “there’s no diving, antics, of faking in women’s soccer” that seemed pervasive throughout the tournament. I can only assume these people do not watch women’s or men’s soccer because they sure as hell did not watch the London Olympics if we are talking about antics. For one, the diving and playacting were not up to CONCACAF levels but CONCACAF men’s antics are in a league of their own. This tournament did not seem any different from your average English or European fixture. For another I am not sure why a dive is worse than any other foul and it is certainly not as bad as harming your opponent with say, dangerous tackles (of which there seems to be much less moralizing). Yes, I would like to see more yellow cards handed out for diving but I would like to see more handed out for iffy tackles and tactical fouling.

At the end of the day, the World Cup was a tournament and I quite enjoyed. If hosting FIFA events did not mean supporting and dealing with FIFA I would like for it to happen again sometime.

The American Hate Conundrum

By Benjamin Massey · July 5th, 2015 · 3 comments

Anti-Americanism is the Canadian vice. Not sporting rivalry but the full-blown Carolyn Parrish “damned Americans, I hate those bastards” experience. When Americans run into this attitude they treat it with the indulgence of an older sibling seeing the younger’s inferiority complex – quite correctly, too – but I think your average American would be surprised to realize just how deep and widespread genuine antipathy to his country can be up here.

This places the soccer fan in an awkward position. On the one hand, the genuine anti-American nauseates anybody of feeling. The attitude ranges from an “I like a lot of them as individuals, I just don’t like their culture” to, well, Carolyn Parrish, and provokes a careful changing of the topic or a robust neighbourly defence, depending. All very proper, but naturally it leads to some reluctance to cheer against American national teams too zealously, lest one become the sort who expresses distaste for rap music and winds up chatting to the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

On the other hand, rivalry is rivalry and the United States is the most ancient of enemies. That alone doesn’t cover the unique virulence of the loathing many Canadians feel, but there is something especially awful about this United States team. Our domestic clubs chafe under the Yankee yoke and condemn too much Canadian talent to obscurity. Abby Wambach is the bane of sports, an opinionated, arrogant, self-promoting and self-absorbed moral dumpster fire who is finally turning off even her own fans as her ability falls far behind her attitude. The only thing saving Wambach from being Lucifer incarnate is that she plays on a team with Hope Solo, who simply put ought to be in remand rather than a World Cup final. Add Sydney Leroux, who seeks all the affection and benefits of a Canadian star without any of the responsibilities, and tries to escape the consequences of her actions behind a phalanx of sycophants, and you have the best recipe for legitimate hatred ever concocted. Even players both decent off the field and skilled on it like Alex Morgan indulge in nauseating gamesmanship, and while real jewels like Megan Rapinoe may shine the more brilliantly for their rarity, they are too few to make the difference.

If you are a non-American, and particularly a Canadian, you have plenty of reason to boo the USWNT even if you wear a tattoo of George Washington over your heart.

But did that paragraph not restate the bad sort of anti-Americanism in a different way? For why do we so intimately know about Wambach’s swineishness, Solo’s actual evil, Leroux’s dishonesty? Because they are Americans. Their media are our media, and for every four rah-rah-U-S-A reporters there’s still one to dig in the dirt, and in a country that size it adds up to quite a few.

If a Japanese player smacked around her family, and two more had gone on TV shouting superstitious fear-mongering about artificial turf, and the locker room was a hotbed of the worst sort of infighting, how many Canadians would know? The Americans are disadvantaged because they speak our language and we know them, or think we do.

Moreover, don’t the sins for which we excoriate the USWNT – colossal arrogance, violence, hyper-competitiveness mingled with entitledness – match awfully well with the worst Canadian stereotypes of Americans? German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, while unquestionably gifted, is by all accounts an unpleasant customer and was highly active in the anti-artificial turf controversy. Which Canadians booed Germany because of her? Some of our attitude is a bit too pat, a bit too flattering to ourselves, to withstand much criticism.

In the end the heart wants what the heart wants, and those American women are hard to like while the Japanese team plays an attractive style and is otherwise a blank canvas onto which we can project our ideals. Oh, I’ll be rooting for Japan today, make no mistake. Leroux alone makes any team she plays for my least-favourite team in women’s soccer. But let’s keep our brains running as well as our hearts, and stay away from the Canadian vice, that twists disliking a national team into disliking a nation.

By Benjamin Massey · June 30th, 2015 · No comments

Just so you know, this was all Roke’s fault.

Tune: Stan Rogers, “Barrett’s Privateers.”

Oh the year was two thousand and fifteen,
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now.)
A World Cup tourney came from the Swiss,
To a country whose fields were plastic piss,

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

Oh, Johnny Herdman, he searched Canada,
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now!)
For twenty-three women, all talented, who
Could win for him a trophy true.

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

The BC Place pitch was a sickening sight.
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now!)
She had lines from the cars and plastic bits,
Would rise every time the ball was hit.

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

On the sixth of June we took the field.
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now!)
We scraped past China at the death,
And never drew calmly a single breath.

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

Three more times we’d play again.
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now!)
They were just little countries filled with sheep,
But even the Swiss nearly made us weep.

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

Then at length we met the English gals.
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now!)
They were tall and quick and full of guts,
While our fans punched each other in the nuts.

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

The Canadians rocked and fell apart.
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now!)
There wasn’t an answer from the boss,
And Canada went straight down to the loss.

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

And the Americans killed the German side.
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now!)
There’s a Surrey girl playing for the Yanks,
’cause when Canada called she said “no thanks!”

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

Now here I await the final game.
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now!)
Four years ago we got the Cup,
How I’d wish we’d given the damn thing up!

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

Wiping Away the Tears

By Benjamin Massey · June 27th, 2015 · 2 comments

Prior to Canada’s World Cup quarterfinal against England, the Canadian Soccer Association and local Voyageurs moved heaven and earth to assemble a proper supporters’ section on next-to-no notice. Fans abandoned pricy tickets already purchased and plunked down in an improvised mob behind TSN’s set with the anything-for-our-ladies attitude that defines the Voyageur. It was a feat of improvisation that did credit to both the officials and fans of Canadian soccer. TSN and the British press had run articles criticizing Canada’s church-like atmosphere and the players themselves had put out a video calling for drums and chants; this was no time for half-measures.

Unfortunately, a family of four in front of this section was uninformed of this. First they objected to the drum, with ominous words about “making an issue out of this,” and in the spirit of kindness it was moved back. Then it turned out they objected to noise full stop. While stewards sought to move them elsewhere in a sold-out stadium, the father claimed that chanting for 90 minutes was stupid, embarrassing. The aforementioned video calling for just that was mentioned, whereupon the gentleman attempted to fight a Voyageur. Cooler heads prevailed that time, and another Voyageur, one who’d literally bought this section on his personal credit card for the sake of Canada, tried to reason with this fellow. This fellow naturally suckerpunched the Voyageur in the penis, and praise God that was it for him at last.

There is a point to this story. Most of the 54,000 fans in BC Place were all for the Voyageurs, or at least benevolently neutral. Two people were not, and those two held up the whole show. By the time they were finally removed, and the supporters could focus on supporting, it was 2-0 England and in spite of a gallant pushback our World Cup was ending. Were I a believer in this sort of karmic energy, and when it comes to soccer I sort of am, I’d say that was no coincidence.

It’s useless saying who was right or wrong, at least until a father decided chants were so embarrassing he’d try to fight two strangers in front of his children. But we’ve all seen this sort of thing from many Canadian fans in many grounds. It’s cultural. As undeniable as Canada’s love affair with its women’s national team is, the culture hasn’t really changed. And as long as the culture is so parochial, we’re going to have big problems.

There. Now does it sound more generally applicable to Canadian soccer?

I leave today as I leave most Canadian soccer campaigns, hoarse and traumatized and broken and tired. It’s hard to say where this falls in the pantheon of awful Canadian moments, but bombing out of the World Cup in a quarterfinal at home before a record crowd to a team we ought to defeat and, indeed, outplayed takes some beating. Yet there are so many little joys to take. A thousand fans stuck around for half an hour after Canada was eliminated, cheering and crowding the rail and showering their heroines in love. Christine Sinclair is still in all the Coke commercials, but the cheer for Kadeisha Buchanan tells me she’s no longer the only player Canadians can name. And the country fell in love with these women all over again – more than that, we’ve seen thoroughly decent crowds in far-flung cities for completely neutral games. It’s not just the women’s national team that can work in Canada, it’s women’s soccer.

Many people are viewing this game with a cynic’s eye, knowing that we would go wrong, and telling us all why. This is well and good and some of those pundits are right, but honestly? I attended every Canada game at the U-20 Women’s World Cup last year and every Canada game at the senior World Cup this year, and I just don’t have the energy. I really thought Canada would have a good tournament. Fourth place, I said it again and again, and we were one mistake in central defense from it coming true. And the women who played for us are such wonderful representatives of their country that… well, there’s no point saying a team deserves anything for that reason, but if ever a team did, it was this one.

Christine Sinclair apologized to Canada for the result through coach John Herdman. There’s no way Sincy’s reading this but if she is, come on. Nobody has ever less owed an apology. Canada should apologize to you for not cheering hard enough, for not packing the stadiums enough, for not supporting our programs enough years and years ago when it could have made a difference and gotten you the silverware you so deserve. Sinclair will retire as the greatest female player to never win a World Cup or Olympic gold medal. And we – you and me – could have helped prevent that. 2012 was far, far too late.

I leave with one thought for the future. There’s been talk of how the proposed Canadian national soccer league can work in competition with three MLS and two NASL teams. But the solution is self-evident: make it a women’s league. Put that on TSN every week and maybe the next World Cup won’t end in tears.

A Team Worth Cheering For

By Benjamin Massey · June 21st, 2015 · No comments

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Josée Bélanger scoring the winner for Canada against Switzerland could not have been more perfect. Bélanger is the archetypical Canadian player in 2015. Coming up through the youth ranks, undersized and largely unheralded, Bélanger spent the formative years of her soccer career puttering around Canadian universities and the USL W-League. For many years she was in Canada’s national pool but never swimming very far, serving up the occasional lovely cross then returning to obscurity. She probably would have retired by now, another casualty of the near-inability to make a living in Canada playing women’s soccer, had John Herdman not been so persistent.

Instead the life-long forward started a home World Cup at right back, because Rhian Wilkinson was hurt and somebody had to do it. Bélanger played with hustle and heart until Wilkinson returned, then moved back to her natural role with more hustle and heart, banging in Canada’s biggest goal in Canada’s biggest-ever tournament before Canada’s biggest-ever crowd for one of our soccer national teams. She ran like an antelope for 90 minutes and would have been one of the highlights of the night even if she hadn’t scored. But she did, and the former Quebec City Amiral is now a national heroine. Because that’s how these women work.

One hates to sound like that chauvinist who smears on a smug grin and says “those girls, they’re so nice, and they try so hard.” Spouting the most overused canards from the Big Book of Cliché to cover their inability, indeed their lack of inclination, to cover a women’s national team seriously. But what else are you supposed to say when women ranging from 17 years old to their mid-30s fight to the point of collapse in game after game, and every goal sends every player into a jumping frenzy of joyous love, and the bench is exhorting 55,000 Vancouverites to get up and cheer like champions, and the team celebrates one of the biggest wins of their lives by sticking around signing autographs for children until the stadium almost empties? This is a lovable team, a valiant unit made up of quality people, and every victory is twice as good because they’re the ones winning it.

Admire the hell out of Sophie Schmidt for grinding out 90 minutes of pain, and respect her ability keeping the Swiss on the back foot late when they were desperate to attack, but love her for giving her time and her heart to her country seemingly without limit. Love Karina LeBlanc’s near-abashed reaction the crowd chanting for her in Montréal, and Erin McLeod saving the day for Canada in Vancouver. Kadeisha Buchanan, who misses three days of practice with injury and puts on a lionine defensive effort on a back line in need of a 19-year-old who plays like a veteran. Christine Sinclair, who shyly smiles her way through being a flawless ambassador for both her friends and her country, and facing doubters in the World Cup puts her body on the line to make Bélanger’s goal possible. It’s no tacky sportswriter tripe to praise these women for their personality, because it’s earned, and their skill on the field only emphasizes their class off it.

These women – these specific women – are more than a Canadian national team. They reflect what we wish Canada could always be. Confident without arrogance. Proud of each other and humble as individuals. Not always winners, alas, but always fighting until the end. An attitude you can see, you can feel, you can even hear, that they’re doing all this for someone other than themselves. No other Canadian national team, male or female, can boast the same, and we shouldn’t be so self-conscious about acknowledging how special that is. It’s not taking the women less seriously to say all this: quite the contrary. There are plenty of good soccer teams, but this one is something more, and holding them up as an example for once feels right in the world of involuntary and inappropriate role models that is professional sport.

A mere four years ago, things were so different. Many of these players were in the press for the wrong reasons, arguing with the Canadian Soccer Association about money. They were isolated, occasionally surfacing in Europe for a friendly nobody would see. It was more “professional”, more “serious”, less personal, led by a high-profile and high-priced coach to whom “Canadian” seemed an epithet rather than an ideal. It was a team that was hard to know, let alone adore, and the result of all this was to finish dead last in the 2011 World Cup, a disaster enlivened only by Christine Sinclair suffering a facial injury and playing through it, reminding us of the Canadian grit that still hid beneath deep European waters.

How quickly things change. Oh, the bronze medal at London 2012 meant the world, but it takes more than that. Plenty of teams have enjoyed one success. Not Canada. This has already been a good World Cup, only our second ever trip to the quarterfinals and a decent chance of going further. The country bleeds with its heroines, goes crazy for every save, dies for every goal. We are surpassing the halcyon days of 2002 and 2012. At this point how can any fan not shelve the cynicism, close his eyes, and just go with it?

Oh, You Panicking Canadians

By Benjamin Massey · June 18th, 2015 · No comments

Ian Jackson/Canadian Soccer Association

Ian Jackson/Canadian Soccer Association

Canada has won its group at the Women’s World Cup for the first time ever. Naturally fans are terrified. Only two goals, one from open play! An indifferent draw against débutantes the Netherlands! We drew New Zealand, a notorious country of sheep-shaggers, and they hit the crossbar on a penalty! Now we have a round-of-16 date with Switzerland, which, says the narrative, is surely to God going to be a difficult test for our underachieving women.

Before the tournament everyone worth listening to agreed Canada should win its group. We did so, though not in the style we hoped for. Everyone also knew that this group was as deep, top-to-bottom, as any. New Zealand was not at all bad. They looked good, played attractive soccer, threatened Canada and China, and with a TSR of 0.545 and an average of 46.67% possession had the second-best numbers of any eliminated team and the most impressive in context. Finishing fourth was very hard cheese indeed for the Kiwis: put them in groups B, C, E, or F and odds are they’re in the round of 16. So when we say “Canada’s scored fewer goals than…” we, to an extent, complain that the good New Zealanders were our fourth-place team. No Ecuador, no Thailand, no Costa Rica (yes, they really were that bad), no Mexico for us to beat up. We also conceded only a single goal against three teams that we know, from their qualifying results, are able to finish chances against truly lousy opposition. The results, while far from brilliant, were fine: it turns out there really is no bad way to win your group undefeated.

2015 WWC Group Stage TSRs
Team Group Pts TSR PDO
Germany B 7 0.902 116.59
France F 6 0.875 90.00
Brazil E 9 0.712 126.67
Cameroon C 6 0.701 109.52
Spain E 1 0.667 53.33
Canada A 5 0.606 99.05
Switzerland C 3 0.598 107.94
United States D 7 0.585 116.07
New Zealand A 2 0.545 100.00
China A 4 0.532 90.37
Japan C 9 0.520 118.27
Australia D 4 0.500 95.24
Nigeria D 1 0.493 92.50
Norway B 7 0.474 127.57
England F 6 0.453 100.45
Sweden D 3 0.422 110.00
South Korea E 4 0.419 77.78
Ivory Coast B 0 0.411 67.14
Mexico F 1 0.380 75.16
Netherlands A 4 0.357 108.18
Colombia F 4 0.333 143.59
Costa Rica E 2 0.236 143.33
Thailand B 3 0.179 105.24
Ecuador C 0 0.169 68.10
All statistics from FIFA.com
Italics indicate an eliminated team

So were our results just luck? We were second in the group for shots directed (one behind China) and second in shots directed against (one behind New Zealand). Our TSR, 0.606, led the group by a healthy margin and is a completely respectable sixth in the tournament. Drawing broad conclusions from three games is intensely dangerous, but look at the list of group stage TSRs to the right: account for group strength, especially the truly useless minnows like Thailand and Ecuador, and there are few surprises. Don’t take it as the gospel, of course Spain’s not actually that good and Japan’s not actually that bad, but if you can find misery from that table you’re even more of a pessimist than I.

Small sample size and all that so run the “eye test” if you like, but run it in context. Yes, we got a stoppage time penalty against China, but it was absolutely deserved and we’d knocked on the door several times in the game. New Zealand hit the woodwork against us; we hit the woodwork against them twice. The Dutch came back against us after Canada’s best surviving midfielder, Sophie Schmidt, had to come out due to injury. Both teams generated chances and a draw was a just result. Canada’s generated chances but hasn’t managed to put them home despite being without Diana Matheson, probably our best player. Our defense has been quite good even as we’ve moved a forward to right back and Lauren Sesselmann has struggled mightily. Jessie Fleming’s had some good minutes, Ashley Lawrence has been an X-factor incarnate, and Kadeisha Buchanan has been Canada’s all-but-undisputed player of the tournament to date, so we aren’t relying on the same crowd of veterans. Finally, the crowds, even in frequently-neutral Montreal, have been solidly pro-Canadian: there’s a risk that this will change as we move into the later rounds, but despite dark rumours of Chinese and Dutch supporters getting well-organized chanting sections at heavy discounts we’ve enjoyed that still-too-rare phenomenon of Canadian soccer crowds rooting, by and large, for Canada.

You may well say “ah, but none of this points to Canada being world-class” and you’ll be right. Germany and France absolutely brutalized their groups. Brazil enjoyed playing against an abominable Costa Rican team and the fast-decomposing South Koreans but may still be unpleasantly close to recapturing their prime. Even the Americans, despite looking like a washed-up batch of reprobates occasionally taking breaks from infighting to whine about playing on the same surfaces as their opponents, have got the job done well enough with only a little help from the referees and at some point we have to say that’s a built-in American advantage, not “luck.” Canada, based on its group performances, is probably not going to win the World Cup. But nobody expected them to, nobody in their right mind at least.

Are our programs still inadequate, our women’s club teams all-but-non-existent to even a high amateur level, our youth development troublesome? Of course, none of that has changed, go ahead and ride whatever your hobby horse is. Yet a handful of under-20 players are having nice games on women’s soccer’s biggest stage as we speak. Given that we were stone dead last in the 2011 Women’s World Cup and barely crawled out of the group stage at the 2012 Summer Olympics, a little credit is called for.

Big Red is playing pretty well. They aren’t making the French shake in their boots, but it’s been a show for the home fans. Smile, cheer, and enjoy the ride for as long as it shall last. I think there are still a couple games left.