A Clearly Canadian Premier League

By Benjamin Massey · April 16th, 2019 · No comments

Kick Magazine via Canada Soccer

The Canadian Premier League kicks off in eleven days. For many of us, that Saturday in Hamilton will be the finish line of a generation-long race, for Canada to once again have its own domestic, national soccer league. The Voyageurs will have their own here-to-cheer-on-the-game section at Forge FC’s stadium, which must be close to unprecedented in club soccer. Halifax, whose success will be the most accurate sign for the Canadian soccer pyramid’s prosperity, has sold out single-match tickets for their home opener.

We didn’t ask much. Some of us didn’t even insist it be professional. But we’re getting a lot. Good players are coming home, exciting prospects and second-chancers are getting paycheques. Halifax and Cavalry have thrilling bespoke stadiums, while Edmonton, Pacific, and York are getting much-needed soccer-friendly renovations. The kits look nice, the games will be streamed. In the future there might be promotion and relegation. By God, this is looking like real soccer.

But is it looking really Canadian?

Yes and no. We have the most important things, Canadian players in Canadian cities. But the players are dressed in Italian shirts and the team names are inspired by the European rather than the North American tradition. The split-season schedule makes sense but is a bit foreign, and the fact that our national professional soccer championship will end before our league does is a bit… well, at least nobody can say the Voyageurs Cup is stealing someone else’s format. The point is that Canada still has not really made its mark on this league as a whole except geographically. What about its soul speaks to us?

Obviously one doesn’t want to do old-NASL crap with changing the game rules to appeal to the low-agency North American stereotype, but there is a middle ground between “pretending we’re Italy” and “breaking ties with a shootout where the guy can dribble.” As with the league this post is a starting point, not a finale. There will be cogent traditionalist, and practical, objections to them all. But, that wimpy waffling out of the way, here goes.

  • Canadian commentary, please. We’re all familiar with the old lazy way of a British voice, usually English but occasionally Scottish (Luke Wileman, Nigel Reed, Gareth Hampshire, Dick Howard, Kristian Jack, James Sharman, Alan Errington, etc.) with, in descending order of preference: another native Briton, the Canadian sidekick who has an English accent anyway à la Terry Dunfield, or in a pinch the Canadian-accented Canadian.. Even USL PDL’s TSS Rovers follow this formula, with Canadian-accented Gideon Hill in the commentary alongside most-Scottish-man-alive Michael McColl, though in this case a lack of volunteers probably plays a part.

    Commentary teams are part of modern marketing. Women’s hockey coverage on TSN is anchored by elite female players plus Rod Black, who was grandfathered in and few would miss if he left. In women’s soccer it is perfectly acceptable to put Clare Rustad or Kaylyn Kyle beside Vic Rauter, because in women’s soccer a Canadian accent has credibility1. Everyone understands perfectly well what’s going on here: the commentators reflect the expectations of the audience. Just as everyone understood what was meant when CBC Edmonton journalist and English accent Gareth Hampshire was doing FC Edmonton play-by-play. I mean it’s soccer and he’s English! The star of the broadcast was soccer veteran Steven Sandor, who has a western Canadian accent you could record as an example for future generations, but you can’t have two guys who sound like that even on CityTV Edmonton.

    Gavin Day, who would know, tells us that CBC is going to broadcast around 20 CanPL games this year. It’s “across multiple platforms,” which means a bunch of games buried on CBCSports.ca with the World Cup skiing, but it also means a lot of Nigel Reed. Reed helped call Major League Soccer’s arrival in Canada, turns out to be an exceptional voice of Olympic biathlon, and became another successful voice for Toronto Wolfpack rugby. I like him. But we are, consciously, building something distinctly Canadian and I’m afraid Reed’s dulcet tones won’t do. An English accent isn’t the difference between a Eurosnob tuning in and tuning out, but it makes our domestic league sound foreign. As every sport, and indeed every other field of life except for ours has figured out, such things matter.

  • Hockey-style captain and alternate captain letters on the kits is an idea that the league adopted by accident, when their kit-customization page launched with the hockey lettering feature still on. It was a mistake, just like how as of this writing they still show NHL sweaters at the top. If it wasn’t an accident Nik Ledgerwood would have been strutting through the kit launch with a “C” on his breast and the takes would have been hot indeed.

    Having come up with the idea by mistake, there is no reason for CanPL not to adopt it. According to the FIFA Laws of the Game the captain has one job: to be present for the opening coin toss. Beyond that the duties, and the symbolism, of the captain are a matter of custom, and therefore open for meddling by those whose customs are different.

    You don’t need to lose the armband if you don’t want to. There’s honour in Christine Sinclair handing the armband to Diana Matheson as she’s subbed off. But the “C” and the “A” are something else: a permanent, and clearly Canadian, acknowledgement of the team’s top dogs. Sinclair can give an armband to Matheson but she’s still the captain. Matheson can be a part-time player but she’s still a team leader and, in hockey, would certainly have the “A” on her chest saying so. Some clubs try to get around it by saying their “club captain” is the legend who no longer starts every day while the “captain” is the leader of the regular eleven but, with its gradient of letters, hockey has a better idea. It’s beautiful, and Canadian, and it doesn’t quite duplicate the old armband. CanPL should do it.

  • The Page playoff system is another great Canadian concept, notwithstanding that it’s Australian. In the previous century it was used all over the British Empire, and on the Indian subcontinent it is still used in two colossally popular Twenty20 cricket championships. But to a Canadian today the Page playoff is inextricably associated with curling, and indeed with curling in Canada. The two major Canadian curling championships, the Brier and the Tournament of Hearts, use the Page playoff. The big international tournaments do not.

    Saying the Canadian Premier League needs to emulate cricket and curling is almost too on-brand for Maple Leaf Forever! but hear it out. The Page system is simple: four teams make the playoffs. The first- and second-placed teams play each other: the winner goes straight to the final, the loser faces the winner of the other quarter-final between the third- and fourth-placed teams. The winner of that game is the other finalist.

    This system is ideal if you want to give teams a bonus for finishing first or second… but not too much of one. The best team gets a reward for its excellence but still has a game to play. Winning the Page 1-2 playoff game can be a formidable advantage thanks to the round off but you have to go out and do it, while the loser might as well have finished fourth. Compared to having 1 play 4 and 2 play 3, it’s one more big game to sell tickets for. As a minor bonus, it also gives you a clear bronze medalist without the hassle of playing a dull third-place game2.

    The Canadian Premier League is adopting a split-season regular season schedule, with separate spring and fall campaigns. The spring season is only twelve games long; it is, in short, a little fake. But as modern NASL hands know it can also be entertaining as hell. A Page playoff would give one top spot to the spring winner, one top spot to the fall winner, and make those titles matter without giving a spring champion a disproportionate advantage for a twelve-game hot streak. Teams 3 and 4 could be the top finishers on the combined table not otherwise in the playoffs, so consistency will also get its due.

    For now it’s the perfect format, but it doesn’t scale. The Page playoff breaks down if you let more than four teams in so a sixteen-team CanPL will need to adopt a different system. Oh shucks.

  • Hang a picture of the Queen in a stadium. The Winnipeg Jets gave it up; the field is open for a soccer team to assume the mantle of monarchy. Will Pacific FC be brave enough? They play in a city named aft… okay, it’s Langford, not Victoria, but they’re close! How about York 9? “Duke of York” is a royal title! Fine, I might have to wait until Regina gets a team for it to be really appropriate, but I will!

  • It may seem like I’m going back to curling when I say CanPL should also promote interprovincial teams, but I’m not really. The Brier and the Tournament of Hearts are the biggest occasions when you might see Team Alberta play Team Ontario, but though provincially-branded with all the rivalry that implies, those are established teams that won their provincial playoff. With the Challenge and Jubilee Trophies, Canadian soccer already has that3. The Canada Games are nearer the mark: operate like the provinces were countries and it was the World Cup. You call up the best players from your province, fight it out, and may the best province win.

    Alas, the Canada Games are explicitly a developmental program for young athletes. Most competitions are age-limited (in soccer it’s U-18) and so the bloodlust in each clash suffers; you and the guy you’re tackling are both only here to catch the eye of a national team scout. Even so they’re more popular, among both athletes and spectators, than an EPL-raised fan of big time soccer might guess. It is very, very easy for two Canadians from two different provinces to work up a rivalry; just ask politics Twitter.

    Canadian club nationals involve provincial champions billed by their provinces of origin, but that’s not the same thing4: nationals are independent teams wearing their own club colours, not provincial representative teams. Why couldn’t CanPL, in the one year out of every four not reserved for a men’s World Cup or the Gold Cup, take a summer “intra-Dominion” break for an open-age Canadian soccer competition run under their auspices? Only a few provinces could field a fully professional eleven but given funding for travel, enough notice to book vacation, and the expectation of CanPL scouts and CanPL competition, amateurs would come as they do for club nationals. Take two weeks in June and July, gather the provinces in one place, and fight it out for a big trophy awarded on July 1. For teams in trilliums playing teams in fleurs-des-lis, or teams in trilliums playing teams in wild roses, or actually teams in trilliums playing anybody, both fans and players would come out, I can promise you that.

    We can negotiate on the format. Have the territories, or even the lesser non-host provinces, play to qualify if you like, as the NHL does with their World Cup of Hockey. Certainly you must invite, and try to attract, non-CanPL professionals. The Europeans will be in offseason, they may be obtainable, but the ideal is for an Ontario player on Toronto FC to convince his coach to let him leave MLS for two weeks so he can play for his province. You won’t get there in year one but you might in year nine. Given the naturally-occurring rivalries and the probability of most of Canada’s professional strength winding up in our league, we could make this very prestigious indeed.

  • Finally, and most generically, don’t lose sight of your community’s history. I fear Pacific FC is falling short here. The ancestral home of soccer in Victoria is Royal Athletic Park, a gloriously aging, shabby venue not quite downtown; think Swangard or Lamport but on whatever the opposite of steroids are. In the old days of Victoria United the field was aligned the wrong way, meaning the setting sun completely blinded one goalkeeper a half. It has few amenities and those are controlled by its owner, the City of Victoria, who are ill-inclined to share any resulting revenues. The stadium is also claimed by an annual beer festival and baseball’s Victoria HarbourCats, who play in a collegiate summer league. Parking is awkward; partying is worse, what with RAP being smack dab in a fairly tony residential neighbourhood. The one pub in the immediate area, in my day, was not worth the entering, then you walk into the ground and everything is just a bit awkward.

    I love watching soccer there. You can hear the ghosts in the 110-year-old walls, and when the sun is setting in your eyes you can see the shades of soccer games past, both domestic and foreign, blending together across the ages; “Chopper” Harris charging in on George Pakos, Paul Dolan with the lunging fingertip save off Ron Flowers. We associate these great historic grounds with Europe but, at an admittedly less internationally-renowned level, we have them too. I don’t care what Pacific FC would have had to do to play there, they should have done it. Let Langford develop history beyond “a younger Maple Leaf Forever! writer first learns to admire Shaun Saiko” and then we can talk.

    There are still a few of these itty-bitty shitty old grounds around Canada from coast to coast. Even if they don’t date from 1908 like Royal Athletic Park they have stories of their own. And where it’s not the stadium, it’s old players or colours or traditions. Say what you like about the Vancouver Whitecaps but keeping Carl Valentine and Bob Lenarduzzi as part of their community, remembering Dom Mobilio and trotting out the surviving alumni of the ’70s every year, is more than most professional soccer franchises do.

    We are used to another line of thought, where the Columbus Crew are in jeopardy because their 20-year-old soccer-specific stadium is considered hopelessly obsolete5. The same thing happens in the NHL, to our shame. So Pacific FC plays in Langford, at the original ground of the Victoria Highlanders, a stadium shared part-time with the community and Canadian rugby. It’s not glamorous but it has every amenity you need, plenty of availability, and solid, modern artificial turf for all your needs.

    But nobody likes giving up the Montreal Forum for the Molson Centre. Our very hearts rebel, tell us what a hateful fucking thing we’re doing for the sake of wider seats and luxury suites. No actual human needs to be convinced here. We need that connection to our heritage as surely as we need oxygen.

    CanPL is very new. Its oldest club made its competitive debut in 2011 and everyone else will start in a week and a half. That can’t be helped until the Ottawa Fury and the MLS franchises get with the program. But our communities have history. When FC Edmonton proudly announces Lars Hirschfeld is their goalie coach it’s not because Hirschfeld, who has never coached professionally in his life, is obviously going to be brilliant; it’s because he’s Edmonton, and he deserves to get a shot with his hometown club. Hirschfeld never played for FC Edmonton but this is the right idea and every CanPL team could emulate it. We all have our histories and the Canadian Premier League is a crowning addition, not a new building.

Fixing the 2019 Voyageurs Cup

By Benjamin Massey · January 10th, 2019 · 4 comments

Martin Bazyl/Canada Soccer

The Canadian Soccer Association today announced the format for the 2019 Voyageurs Cup, to determine the Canadian club soccer champion. Played in its current form since 2008, the Voyageurs Cup is a simple cup-style competition, well-known to soccer fans the world over. Two teams play, the winner goes on. Sure there are wrinkles with seedings, number of legs or away goals or penalty shootouts or whatever but everyone, everywhere understands what a cup competition looks like.

Below I reproduce the actual, no-kidding, this-is-actually-what-they-made graphic the Canadian Soccer Association put out to explain how the 2019 Voyageurs Cup is going to work.

Canada Soccer

Perhaps I should explain.

In round one we have the two officially-sanctioned representatives of Canada’s huge amateur club soccer community: League1 Ontario champions Vaughan Azzurri and Première ligue de soccer du Québec champions AS Blainville. Players are not paid at this level, though it is elite soccer taken seriously. Most would say that L1O and PLSQ set the highest standard of Canadian amateur play, but not everybody. Their teams don’t enter the national amateur championship and we have no way of measuring this so it’s an arbitrary, but fairly well-agreed-upon, cut-off. (This will be important later.) We then add four teams from the new Canadian Premier League to get a six-team first round. This pool will be drawn into three home-and-away two-legged ties, with Vaughan and Blainville prevented from meeting each other. The winners advance to the second round.

The other three Canadian Premier League teams (FC Edmonton, Forge FC, and Valour FC) are seeded directly into the second round. As the Canadian Premier League has never played, this is based on the dates these three teams were registered with the Canadian Soccer Association; Edmonton goes all the way back to 2010 as an organization, while Forge and Valour were the first two Premier League teams announced. This may seem like a weak reason for seeding a team, but whatever: they skip a round of competition and face the three winners from the first round in three more two-legged ties.

Those winners advance to the quarterfinal, where they meet two MLS teams (Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps) as well as, for some reason, the Ottawa Fury. The Fury, memorably, have refused to join the Canadian Premier League and threatened to sue CONCACAF when they tried to step in. As a professional organization they are younger than FC Edmonton which, by the second-round logic, should seed them behind the Eddies. But, as a direct reward for their anti-social behaviour, they get ahead of the Canadian Premier League teams. Well, if you can swallow Valour FC being seeded ahead of Cavalry I guess you can swallow that.

Anyway, three more two-legged ties ensue, and the winners get into a semi-final with Toronto FC, the defending Voyageurs Cup champions, and finally our cup competition looks a bit real.

I am not enamoured of this format. However, working one out is not easy, and though obviously this is finalized and will not be changed, I didn’t want to spit invective without coming up with a better solution. So here it is. (Click for a larger version.)

The best feature of this bracket is that I don’t need to tell you how it works.

To keep costs low for the little guys the bracket is divided into western and eastern halves. Fortunately, since western Canada produced both the winner of Canada’s national amateur championship, the Challenge Cup (BC Tigers, out of Surrey) and the uncontested best Canadian team in USL PDL (Calgary Foothills, who actually won the whole thing) balancing the bracket is trivial. This format is not likely to work in 2020, but with the probability of more Canadian Premier League teams in year two it was broken anyway. A systematic solution is probably, at this stage, impossible, except “throw everyone who isn’t an MLS team into a pot and let them sort out the last semi-final spot,” which would work for a year or two but is not an ideal long-term answer, and “throw everyone into a pot period,” which the MLS teams would virtually veto.

I anticipate questions from the crowd.

I was looking forward to seeing a distant team! AS Blainville at Pacific FC, what fun!

That would be neat. Sorry to disappoint. In a radical departure from Maple Leaf Forever! practice I have attempted to make life easy for the clubs involved, especially now that we’re introducing two more teams of local amateurs. For me, in “magic of the cup” terms this is balanced out by at least one amateur team being guaranteed a glory game against an MLS side.

What about the Ottawa Fury?

Fuck ’em.

No, what about the Ottawa Fury? They have fans, they’re definitely going to be competitive with CanPL, they got sanctioned for 2019. How do we deal with the Ottawa Fury?

Go play the US Open Cup.

If we needed the Fury as an “odd team” in the east to balance out the bracket, sure, we could include them. But we don’t. Between three Canadian Premier League teams, two MLS teams, the League1 Ontario champions, and the PLSQ champions, eastern Canada is fully subscribed.

They knew from day one that the Canadian Premier League was coming. They helped kill the NASL (and jeopardized FC Edmonton in the process) and got an exemption to Canadian soccer rules banning first teams from the USL. They then said “we prefer the American system, thanks” when called upon to pull with the rest of the country. Nobody in Canadian soccer should be lifting a finger to whisk a mosquito from the Ottawa Fury’s face. They never should have been sanctioned in the first place, they were, we have to live with it, but just because they’re in the family doesn’t mean we invite them to our wedding.

The Fury would contribute to the value of the games, if nothing else. That could get them the Voyageurs Cup if it improved the competition, but when you sit down to draw some brackets they actually cause a lot of inconvenience. So bye-bye.

Fuck ’em. You can’t shit on Canadian soccer, then expect the country to move heaven and earth for your sake. The current format, besides being a joke from a soccer perspective, is one more humiliation the Canadian Soccer Association has heaped on its own balding head.

Surely the Ottawa Fury would sue to get into the Voyageurs Cup!

Is there a legal right for any soccer club in the Dominion to play the Voyageurs Cup if they want to? I think TSS Rovers and the Thunder Bay Chill would be very interested to hear about that.

Do you really, under Canadian law or FIFA statute, get to pick-and-choose at your sole discretion which parts of a nation’s soccer pyramid you want to be a member of? Under the letter of the regulations the Fury shouldn’t be operating in USL at all, but they’re getting away with it because CONCACAF and the CSA didn’t want to fight them over it. I’m not sure how many insults this country is expected to absorb from them before daring them to make their case; the answer from authority and a few fans appears to be “an infinite number.”

The Canadian Soccer Association already prohibits USL League Two teams from entering, though some would like to. They admit amateur teams from the PLSQ or League1 Ontario, but not the Alberta Major Soccer League or any other, older, well-established circuit. This is an accepted part of making the competition work, and while many fans would like to see the whole nation’s soccer community invited to a truly open Voyageurs Cup, it’s not and nobody suggests that’s anything worse than “unfortunate.”

When we have an open Cup in a few years, and the Fury are still in USL, let them enter in the first round of qualifying and try their luck. If through some miracle the Fury stop holding their breath until they turn blue and enter CanPL then all is instantly forgiven and whatever changes are needed to get them in should be made. Either way they will doubtless go far, but they’ll do so on their own merits without hurting the community. For now, let’s limit the Canada’s soccer championship to teams that want to play Canadian soccer as well as, for the foreseeable future, the three MLS clubs that are so much better and better-supported that they should be humoured for the sake of the competition.

Would the MLS teams raise hell?

In the actual 2019 Voyageurs Cup format, one MLS team (defending champion Toronto) is seeded straight to the semi-final and two start in the quarters. In my proposed format, two MLS teams are seeded to the quarters and Montreal enters in the round of 12.

Toronto and Montreal lose out, and could kick up a fuss. It would probably be worth meeting them halfway here; “you enter in the quarterfinals but we make them one-leg ties instead of two-leggers.” The US Open Cup is single-leg. It’s not ideal but, if push came to shove, it would be the best of bad options. One likes to think the MLS teams would be sufficiently interested in such a tournament to play an extra round; one should also be prepared for the reverse.

The Montreal Impact are seeded lower because they had a worse record than the Whitecaps last year. It was only one point worse, with MLS’s unbalanced schedule you cannot possibly say “the Impact were definitely worse than Vancouver,” but unlike the CSA’s idea of seeding at least it’s something that happened on the field. Besides, to be blunt, the Montreal Impact’s second eleven should not have a problem with AS Blainville. Put reserves who could use a game anyway and some academy kids out for two and a half hours. So you have to postpone a USSDA match, oh well. This should not be a problem.

As a strict hypothetical, let’s say Joey Saputo behaves irrationally and refuses to play one extra tie compared to his MLS rivals. Duane Rollins says that seeding all three MLS teams into the semi-finals was a possibility. That MLS-centric solution would still be better than the format we’ve got. It’s not very fair, but is it any less fair than seeding a USL team into the quarters for fun, or putting three CanPL teams a round ahead when nobody’s played a game yet? Having Blainville and Vaughan play each other for the right to join the CanPL teams in a round of eight, with the winner of that joining Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto, wouldn’t be a long-term solution, but none of this is.

A lot of Calgary Foothills’ lineup is joining Cavalry. Having Foothills play based on their 2018 performance when the heart of the 2018 team is gone would be silly.

And the Ottawa Fury have cut two-thirds of their 2018 team but nobody’s saying “they might be terrible, they should have to play Blainville to qualify.”

The Foothills won the 2018 USL PDL, are currently scheduled to enter the 2019 USL League 2, and earned their spot by kicking the hell out of everybody else in their league. If you (or Foothills themselves) really see this as a one-time-exception sort of situation then give their spot to the second-best Canadian team in PDL last year, and the only team anywhere that beat Foothills at all, TSS FC Rovers. Believe me, they’d take it.

The BC Tigers guys have jobs, the PDL players have school, could they really…

This was scary in the old days when, if we had an open Voyageurs Cup and Sam Lam accidentally scored on Chris Konopka in the 90th minute at Clarke Stadium, his Edmonton Scottish teammates would suddenly have to fly to Toronto next Wednesday. Thankfully, with CanPL we have enough teams in the competition that you need two upsets before you have to take a week off work. BC Tigers, Foothills, Blainville, and Vaughan can all take transit to their first-round opponent and, at worst, charter a bus to the second. That’s not unreasonable, American teams do it all the time, and any serious soccer player would jump at the opportunity.

Ben, this is Mr. Canadian Soccer Association. Thank you for the thoughtful article. For reasons which cannot be publicly disclosed we absolutely cannot just tell the Ottawa Fury to, how did you put it, “go play the US Open Cup.” They must be included and this cannot be negotiated. How would you deal with this?

If you have to, if you have to, let the Fury have Calgary Foothills’ spot. Given what they’re putting us through the least they can do is eat the cost of a trip to Spruce Meadows. But my way is better. And anything is better than seeding the Fury ahead of the Canadian Premier League. You’re casting a massive aspersion on your new first division and it hasn’t even started playing yet.

EDIT, 15:52 PM: the first-posted version of this article unforgivably and falsely stated that the two higher MLS teams would enter in the semi-final of my proposed format. In fact they enter in the quarter-final. Thanks to Massimo Cusano via Twitter for correcting this.

12.5% of a World Cup

By Benjamin Massey · June 13th, 2018 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Congratulations are due, I suppose, to the Canadian Soccer Association for their part in winning the right to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup. I’m honestly not sure how much they had to do with it. The Canadian contribution is expected to be three cities and ten games, including maybe a round-of-16 match or two, in an 18-city, 80-match tournament. Applying to “co-host” 12.5% of the largest World Cup in history probably amounted to not defecating in the hallways while the Americans provided the everything.

If Edmonton, Toronto, and Montreal disappeared from the tournament nobody north of the 49th parallel would miss them. Commonwealth Stadium and Olympic Stadium are, all things considered, the worst facilities in the bid. Toronto’s BMO Field is a handsome ground but, even in its temporarily-expanded World Cup configuration, will be the smallest venue involved. And while the World Cup is still eight years away and things can happen, if you think Canada won’t be the weakest team among the hosts I love your optimism. Assuming all three hosts automatically qualify, which they might not.

At least hosting shouldn’t be expensive; the stadia are built. Then again, imagine hosting a World Cup game at today’s Commonwealth Stadium while the Americans are filling gorgeous ultra-modern NFL palaces. A men’s World Cup, that is. Back in 2015 Abby Wambach said that FIFA and the CSA would never dare put a men’s World Cup on artificial turf, we all went “pooh-pooh,” and now we’re tearing artificial turf out of 2015 host stadiums in Edmonton and Montreal so the men can get grass. Whoops. This is embarrassing but I’m sure the Canadian Soccer Association will apologize with appropriate humility.

No, renovations will be expensive and pricey. Then there are endlessly-escalating costs for security, hospitality, “legacy” projects, and simple corruption. Apparently Olympic Stadium is getting a retractable roof; how could that possibly go over budget?

And yet we get to see a World Cup, live and in person. For a certain definition of “we.” Soccer in Canada is an incredibly bourgeoise sport, none other compares, but even so, ticket prices will drive away many patrons. According to the bid guide, while 7% of tickets fall into the lowest US$21 price bracket, the other 93% start at US$174. Some diehards with good incomes will have to decide between an Argentina – North Korea match or rent.

I am cynical but not resentful. I want it to be a tremendous success, really. The 2015 Women’s World Cup was one of the great experiences of my life even though Canada disappointed. Heck, the Canadian team at the 2007 U-20 World Cup was an actual embarrassment but what a time it was all the same. If the Canadian men’s national team plays three games and loses them all in front of 45,000 screaming maple-leaf-waving partisans, that would still be a lifelong highlight for any of us. And much though taxing waitressing single moms to pay for our hobby should make us sick this bid, explicitly, was based on saving money. The bid book, the document put in front of FIFA for them to vote on, promises “no major public expenditures.” Sure the tickets are expensive, but it’s still cheaper than flying to Marrakech and watching games there.

But this 12.5% of a World Cup exposes all that is most awful about Canada. The public cost, to taxpayers who mostly won’t get anything out of it, is probably going to be ludicrous, and the only people arguing otherwise have an interest in us getting those ten games1. We’re asking for a huge subsidy for our hobby. Not a full World Cup, with the attendant prestige and international attention, but just some soccer games. Prestige is worth paying for; in 2026 we will be America’s hat. Remember, the Americans host 75% of the total games and every single fixture in the quarterfinals or later. Given how diluted a 48-team World Cup will be, Canada’s participation will be truly ancillary.

Our role in this bid was to get the Americans a tournament, and we are expected to be grateful for it. And we have been! This isn’t a shot at the United States; the Canadian soccer community has been debasing itself for this chance to pick up the Americans’ garbage, why should they refuse? The contrary idea that we should build something on our own and decline to be a branch plant is unthinkable. We’re only now getting to the point where a few of us timidly accept that a vast Dominion of 35 million can probably have a soccer league outside the American aegis. A World Cup? Say “yes, sir, Mr. Gulati, sir” and accept what we are given. It’s better than nothing, right?2 Even the name of the bid, “United,” practically begs the observer to mouth the suffix “States.”

And what do we get for it, this expenditure of scarce public money and scarcer civic pride? The Canadian government has produced a lot of probably-computer-generated crap about how Canada is so diverse and how wonderful it is that people move here and cheer for their homelands in the World Cup, so if you like that you got it. The soccer fans boast of all the infrastructure we’ll build, notwithstanding that we’re also told this World Cup will be cheap because we hardly have to build any infrastructure, and also notwithstanding that while some practice fields are great they don’t solve Canada’s shortage of 10,000-seat stadia and don’t achieve anything that couldn’t be done at a fraction of the cost. I suppose we’ll “inspire the youth.” My own cansoc awakening was at the 2002 FIFA U-19 Women’s Championships. But when you look at a World Cup where Canada is trotted out as a token, while the national team does poorly if it participates at all and the meaningful games take place across the border, what do we think we will be inspiring the youth to do?

Telling young Canadians that we are North America’s third fiddle and mean nothing except in relation to other nations is in tune with the past sixty years of our history, yes. But you will forgive those of us left unenthusiastic.

FC Edmonton and Canada’s Doom

By Benjamin Massey · November 24th, 2017 · No comments

Steve Kingsman/Canada Soccer

If FC Edmonton can’t make it in Canadian soccer, nobody can.

Go to Steven Sandor for the news, if you missed it: FC Edmonton is ending operations as a professional team. Their Academy, which has contributed to both the men and women’s youth national team, will continue for now, but against expectations the first team has pulled the plug before the North American Soccer League has.

As the Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC, and Montreal Impact are proving, Canadian cities can make it in American soccer. All you need are brilliant marketers from New York telling you that this is the authentic experience, replete with Italian and English national teamers, and people in a Canadian city will come out in droves. There doesn’t need to be anything Canadian about the experience except the accident of geography; in fact it’s better than there isn’t, beyond a couple homegrown players you keep to wave the flag and visit children’s hospitals.

But Canadian soccer? Meaning not branch plants of an American corporation but clubs owned and run by Canadians for Canadians, which not only say that they’re going to develop Canadian talent but go out and do it? Where the attraction is not “Don Garber tells us this is major-league” but a Canadian-bred culture? If you could sustain that at the professional level, Edmonton would have.

FC Edmonton was not perfect. In their early years they had stadium problems. The team was bad; in seven seasons with a league where it was easier to make the playoffs than miss them, the Eddies played two road playoff games and both stank. Because their stadium is owned by the City of Edmonton the Eddies had mostly Friday and Sunday game days throughout their history, hurting attendance. In 2017, the one year they got a meaningful number of Saturday games, they averaged 3,822 fans a game for Saturdays and 3,085 the rest of the week, meaning that the Eddies perish after their best-ever season at the gate. Now isn’t that funny?

Not that it matters. 3,822 fans a game would be, what, a third of the way to breaking even? Clarke Stadium was too small to sustain professional soccer these days and almost never sold out anyway. This is why I take no comfort from the back door Tom Fath has left open, that he’ll join a Canadian Premier League if his team can be sustainable. Unless Paul Beirne has the money to buy Fath a soccer stadium and the magic to change the country’s culture, that condition cannot be met. The sole hope for FC Edmonton is that the Faths go back on their word and sacrifice more for a dream crazier than co-founding the NASL.

This is not a criticism of the Fath brothers. After eight years’ setting money on fire for the sake of Edmonton despite not particularly being soccer people, they should have the absolute, unconditional, and eternal loyalty of every fan in Canada. If they’d rather close up shop than immolate more of their children’s inheritance with no end in sight, they’ve earned that right.

Tom Fath was a regular on the sidelines at home games, mingling with fans, chatting to players, rocking the hell out of an Eddies golf shirt whenever weather allowed. He even came to a supporters match between Edmonton and Whitecaps fans in Vancouver, not to make a big deal of it (I don’t know that he introduced himself) but just to enjoy what he’d helped create. In every detail except one the Faths were perfect owners: they weren’t oligarchs who could put a 15,000-seat privately-funded grass stadium by the North Saskatchewan River.

What didn’t they try? Local heroes like Shaun Saiko, Chris Kooy, and Antonio Rago helped the Eddies get into the playoffs for one of those two games. Attendance stank. The local heroes were dropped and replaced with Icelandic internationals and Ameobis. Attendance stank. They plastered LRTs and billboards with advertising. Attendance stank. They went to a more grass-roots approach. Attendance stank. The stadium needed new stands and a big screen, so the Faths paid for them though they didn’t own the facility. Attendance stank. Video quality the first couple years was unacceptably poor, so the Faths bought a design company in a successful bid to improve the show. Even in their last season, when games were broadcast on Facebook rather than television, FC Edmonton games were consistently among the best-produced in the NASL. Attendance stank. Criticize the details, as fans of failed teams always do, but the Eddies were not 90% of the way to success. They were 33%.

Unlike most Canadian cities Edmonton now has a perfectly decent soccer stadium. After the 2015 Women’s World Cup brought new artificial turf Clarke became an unimpeachable place to watch a game. Intimate, lots of parking, easy transit access, simple but effective facilities. It had a history of soccer and, with the aforementioned Women’s World Cup, a world-class event that made the sport look good. It began with a hometown star, Saiko, and ends with a nearly-hometown star, Nik Ledgerwood. The ownership was everything I have described and more. These weren’t the Edmonton Aviators, with all their hopes staked on immediate success. They were in it for the long haul and proved it.

A fan who would support a Canadian soccer team if it won lots and had a first-rate stadium and was attractively marketed and had Fernando Torres in a fan of the show, not Canadian soccer. His money counts the same as anybody else’s, but the only way to lure him is the MLS method: to sell out, completely, down to the very bottom of your soul, and make the exercise pointless for anything other than profitmaking. To turn your community club into Molson, right down to being owned by an American conglomerate, because the Americanness is fundamental to the success.

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

“But it worked before!” True, with the USL Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps living long and happy lives. The Impact were owned by a man who combined the Faths’ willingness to lose money with a fanatical devotion to soccer, were subsidized by government with advertising and generous stadium terms, and gave away tickets like water. The Vancouver Whitecaps were usually close to going broke, performing the soccer equivalents of living in their dad’s van. But more importantly, they played in an age where professional soccer could be credible on a much smaller budget than today, and they had their close American rivals. Seattle, Portland, Rochester. It’s the same old song, though performed more prettily.

The sole exception of this generation has been the Canadian women’s national team, an intersection of ability and charisma not seen elsewhere in Canadian sports. Even they continue to be defined, by and large, by their relationship to the United States. Why did the 2016 Brazil bronze medal count for less in our collective consciousness than the 2012 bronze when 2016 was a more impressive achievement? Because in 2012 we went through the United States and in 2016 we did not.

Maybe Canadian teams can thrive as semi-professional or high amateur outfits, in the way the Thunder Bay Chill have for seventeen years, and that League1 Ontario, the PLSQ, TSS Rovers, Calgary Foothills, and the Victoria Highlanders will hopefully continue to. Your players make a pittance if anything, you take the bus everywhere, if you run a youth academy it’s considered perfectly reasonable for parents to pay for it, life is not easy but it’s easier. There are enough fanatics to make that work, in some format.

But full, national-league professional men’s soccer? With an all-Canadian identity and Soccer United Marketing’s millions against them? Oh I’ll support the Canadian Premier League if it ever kicks off, FC Edmonton or no, and I’m sure you will as well. We Canadian soccer fans are used to lost causes. And maybe the MLS fans have the right idea. Their teams are fake, but at least they survive.

Putting the Team Second

By Benjamin Massey · March 5th, 2017 · 1 comment

Ville Vuorinen/Canada Soccer

On a dreary Friday morning, far from and unseen by almost all of her fans, Christine Sinclair scored. She does that a lot. On this occasion, Russian forward Anna Cholovyaga dropped a long way back and attempted a backpass to… well, it’s hard to say who she wishes it went to, but anyway it went to Sinclair, and she buried it with the nonchalance of Kutuzov against Napoleon. The only thing easier would have been to knock away a failed clearance while unmarked, which come to think of it is how she scored against Denmark on Wednesday.

Sinclair, 33 years old, now has 167 international goals, 17 behind American legend Abby Wambach for the all-time lead in the history of international soccer. Two have come at this year’s Algarve Cup and both were cheapies. But the only reason we phrase it that way is because we compare the goals to the good old days when Sinclair could never capitalize on an awkwardly-handled Deanne Rose cross because there was no Deanne Rose to cross it to her. If she’d been doing this all her life we’d call her a “poacher” and count it in her favour, but because we’re used to her being the team, notwithstanding a Melissa Tancredi having the game of her life or a Kara Lang having moments of inspiration between months of injuries, it seems like an insult. This is how genius, as it fades to mere intelligence, becomes its own condemnation.

There are asterisks all over the record. Male soccer players play many fewer international games than women. Sinclair has 253 senior international appearances, no Canadian man has more than Julian de Guzman’s 89, and the leading male worldwide is Egypt’s Ahmed Hassan with 184. The top men’s international goalscorer of all time is Iran’s Ali Daei with 109, dozens away from the both-genders podium. In short women’s soccer is one of the few athletic fields where men are statistically behind the women, and with the enormously different economics of their respective games they will never catch up.

Whichever of Sinclair or Wambach finishes on top will probably be there forever. The age where large, lone strikers can write the record books like Charles Dickens being paid by the word are passed. Alex Morgan caught the tail end of the glory days and possessed a preternatural innate talent, and is still over a hundred goals behind Wambach with no prospect whatsoever of catching her. Brazil’s Marta has 105 goals in 101 caps, hurt by her association’s indifference to the women’s team outside Olympic years, but for all her great early seasons she’s no record threat. Truly excellent young strikers no longer score such circus numbers thanks to tactical developments, and while the men’s record book is full of Arab players who got loads of opportunities against mediocre opposition, this for obvious reasons will not affect the women’s game in the foreseeable future.

The Sinclair/Wambach duel is one for history. It’s like when Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky were fighting for scoring titles: they were both obviously historic greats, but whichever one of them set the highest mark was never going to lose it.

Wambach scored her 167th goal at the age of 33 years, nine months, and ten days, on March 12, 2014 against North Korea (at, coincidentally, the Algarve Cup). On the day of her 167th Sinclair was 33 years, eight months, and 19 days old. Moreover, and I do not pretend to be objective when I say this, on quality I would take March 2017 Sinclair over March 2014 Wambach.

But Wambach infamously hung on too long, all-but-forcing the United States to carry her to another World Cup victory in 2015 when on merit she certainly should have been dropped. Sinclair is already overall less effective than Janine Beckie and has the reputation of a woman who will not put herself ahead of the team. The alarm clock will go for her eventually, and it’s hard to imagine her playing boardroom games to keep her minutes up. Essentially tied with Wambach at her age, Sinclair may not have the same advantage in her autumn years.

The day will come, if it has not already, when Canada will have to ask whether it would rather Sinclair passes Wambach or Canada wins soccer games. Promising Canadian attacking players such as Deanne Rose and Ashley Lawrence have been shuffled around the formation, buying Sinclair time, but this will not last forever. Another promising forward who’s scored plenty in the NCAA, Alex Lamontagne, just made her senior debut. At any time her own development or Canada’s wide defensive frailty might necessitate moving young Deanne Rose to the centre of the park, where Sinclair currently roams. Against the weak Russians, Beckie was involved in several good chances, but she was substituted off for Lamontagne while Sinclair went the full 90. This probably isn’t strategy, since Canada faces the also-feeble Portuguese on Monday and only after that will meet a real team in whatever their placing match is. If anything, Canada should have pumped goals past the mistake-prone Russians to improve their goal difference. But coach John Herdman apparently wanted Christine Sinclair to get them.

This could have hurt the team, though since China and Sweden drew later in the day Herdman probably got away with it. But he was right.

Dedication to the individual rather than the whole runs contrary to what we know we should think, in sports and in life. English writer E. M. Forster, with his usual straightforward contrarianism, said “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” This was most famously quoted by Soviet spy Anthony Blunt when, still unexposed, he defended not reporting friend and fellow-traitor Guy Burgess. In his context the inevitable first thought is that either Blunt did not know what sort of swine his “friend” Burgess really was, in which case protection reflected poorly on him, or that he did know, in which case it reflected even worse. We now know it was the latter: Blunt was himself in the pay of totalitarianism and by supporting Burgess he was supporting “his” country, the Soviet Union. So Forster’s attitude, that of the individual ahead of the institution, did not really apply, and yet the ordure that sprayed from the wound of Blunt’s treachery caught Forster as well.

Yet even those of us who would dissent as a rule have to admit that Forster was, maybe not right, but right enough. His aphorism is unusual because it’s wrong in general but right in detail. Most of the time the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but sometimes the needs of the one trounce them both. It is impossible to define when those times are. Sometimes you need to fire the pleasant but incompetent employee to help save the jobs of six others. But once every blue moon you’ll give up the ship to save one man, and there is no formula to tell you if a dilemma is coming until it arrives.

The object’s own opinion does not always matter. Part of why we honour Christine Sinclair is because we know that if we grabbed her and said “answer now: world record or World Cup?” she’d say “World Cup!” without hesitation. And we’d believe her! Like Cato the Younger, she would subordinate all to the health of her people, and if we insisted on raising personal ambition would not sneer, but remind us when the time came to pay the price. She’s the one we can trust above all, to act for us rather than for herself, and so we should honour her especially. It is the contradiction where sincere public-mindedness in an individual means that individual should get more of our favour.

Every four years, somebody wins a World Cup, and every four years, somebody wins the Olympic Games. Huge achievements that will survive the players who won them. But however great such a victory is, give it a few years and there’ll be another one for somebody else. Galt FC won Canada gold in men’s soccer in 1904, but to the casual or the foreigner it’s an excellent trivia question. So it will be if Canada wins the World Cup in 2019: our grandchildren rubbing foreheads over the Trivial Pursuit board, mumbling, “I know we won it somewhere in there…” A heck of a thing, immortality of a kind, but not Mount Olympus.

I want players like Sophie Schmidt and Desiree Scott and Ashley Lawrence to wear gold medals. I want them to win, lots. I want them to have it all. If a soccer team made up of good, dedicated Canadian men or women wins a world championship, that should be the greatest day of my sporting life. But if Lucifer popped up at the crossroads and said “Ben, I will let you choose. Either a senior Canadian soccer team will win the World Cup, or Christine Sinclair will become the leading scorer in international soccer history,” I’d decide for Sincy. She wouldn’t. If she found out I cast the deciding vote, she’d probably be pissed. That’s part of why I’d vote for her. Nobody said philosophy should be easy.

Magic Realism

By Benjamin Massey · November 14th, 2015 · 1 comment

I got my Voyageurs scarf in 2008. It was my first serious V’s gathering and I remember it oddly well, taking up the woolen red sacrement in a time before functioning websites and easy $20 orders. We were at the Peel Pub in Montréal. It was a remarkable day, no less remarkable for what followed. A march through the Underground City, our voices ringing off the concrete, our bodies jamming the turnstiles good enough for rush hour but not for us. A heady confidence that faded as marched into Stade Saputo, immersed in Honduran kits, in blue and white thundersticks provided by an allegedly Canadian sponsor. A confidence that disappeared entirely as hope became horror. The fights and railing flips, the security as impotent as my country. Tomasz Radzinski went off, Canada went out, and our doom was assured. Montreal, Honduras, 2008. The horror moment. Even 8-1 wasn’t quite that bad. My scarf saw it all. A baptism of blood.

That scarf went around three Gold Cups, a few more World Cup qualifiers, two Women’s World Cups of assorted age levels, and more friendlies than I like to count. It soaked the beer of three countries and innumerable cities from Vancouver to Havana. It was more precious to me than I thought a scarf could be. It was untradeable. If Russell Teibert himself asked for my scarf in exchange for an autographed game-worn kit and a trip to Florida, I’d think about it for multiple seconds before I said no.

Tonight, as the final whistle blew in Canada’s 1-0 victory over Honduras in Vancouver, I threw my hands up, and when I pulled them down that scarf was no longer there. I was quite sober. It was not around me, nobody had snatched it, I had not thrown it. A victory I had been tearfully awaiting for seven years, in a game Vancouver had needed for eleven, and my old scarf had gone to be with the soccer gods. It’s a pathetic expression of superstition and self-absorption but it is, to me, true.

There is an atmosphere around Canadian soccer which, in its most exalted moments, can only truly be called mystical. When Christine Sinclair nearly defeated the United States in 2012 she was more than our best-ever player, she was the avatar of our country, imbued with our vices but more importantly our virtues when we most needed her. When the Canadian men lost 8-1 to these Hondurans it was the exact mirror image, with our lack of genuine confidence (as opposed to arrogance), and our fear and our lack of personality coming out in a horror show redeemed only by a cracking goal by Iain Hume, one of the undisputed Good Guys. That, too, was mystical. Mythology has always dwelt more on Hades than heaven.

So allow me to indulge in a little magic on this glorious night. Canada hasn’t really done anything yet – three points are great but it’ll take at least a couple more such wins for us to even see the next round. On the pitch this is good but a long way from decisive.

Psychically? Even mystically? This is everything. My scarf has gone, but to the most glorious of causes. El Salvador awaits.

A Brief Word on the TFC Travel Restrictions

By Benjamin Massey · October 28th, 2015 · 1 comment

Bookmark this page. I am defending Toronto soccer OOOOOOOLTRAs. It will not happen again.

Many serious supporters dislike “pyro” – flares and smoke bombs – at a match. This is more than their right. If you wish to stand and chant with your view unobscured and your lungs unblocked, you must be able to. It is a widely-held aesthetic, and in many cases medical, desire. It does not make you any less dedicated or intense. This is obvious.

Moreover, pyro can be annoying, and even unsafe, when wielded by unregulated imbeciles or inexperienced men. This goes for flags and even standing itself. The drunk yobbo smoking out his own keeper is a shame to himself and his group.

However, an also-large number of supporters love well-deployed pyro, both participating and watching from afar. It is common in matches around the world, almost invariably without ill effect. Set up with knowledge and preparation it is no more dangerous than waving a huge floppy flagpole for ninety minutes. In North America real mass supporters’ culture is still very young, and who can predict whether pyro will be a part of it in 2065?

The way to deal with it is to permit pyro, in an organized supporters’ section. This has two key advantages. First, those who dislike it may stand in another supporters’ section. Second, by giving responsibility for pyro to dedicated people, you contribute to a safe environment. Knowing that openness is good for a productive relationship, the supporters will have every incentive to self-police for those lone loons with a flare smuggled in their anus. The loons themselves will be less motivated, for the atmosphere they want already exists. Useful safety equipment like buckets of sand will be as easy to come by as a banner, and knowledge on safe support will be passed on openly from veteran to enthusiast.

The way not to deal with it is to insist on rigorous control by franchise and league front offices, then when repression inevitably leads to haphazard smuggling and crimes of opportunity, collectively punish a mass of supporters which was 99% incapable of stopping it even if they did know in advance, while fans who expected something else entirely choke and curse. And then to add insult to injury, using those very supporters (and very possibly that very pyro) in your marketing.

I would not smuggle pyro into an MLS game even if I were still a supporter in that league. I think you shouldn’t. But we have a mass supporters culture now, and the more you stomp on them for no good reason the more they’ll resent it. Wouldn’t we all? And with all that resentment pyro becomes something far worse than a display not everybody likes: it becomes a way for the disaffected and sometimes dumb to stick it to the Man who doesn’t give a shit about them as more than a cash machine.

You can have a proper supporters’ section. Or you can have franchise-funded cheerleaders. If you try to turn one into the other, for the sake of the twee faux-Britishness you imagine soccer moms want to clap along to, these things will happen. And if you then react by collectively punishing the innocent, you show even the rule-abiding what you really think of them.

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.

Fine, Buy That Scarf (With Reflections)

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

There’d be no need for this article at all if I hadn’t tossed off a Saturday morning quickie using the Whitecaps scarf scandal to promote southwestern British Columbia’s cup finals weekend. Funny ol’ world. A few hours after that post went up the Whitecaps announced they’d donate the proceeds from their controversial “Kings of Cascadia” scarf to the Vancouver Street Soccer charity[2]. A sensible compromise in time to save the Portland Timbers game (which the Whitecaps won), everyone was happy, good job.

However, I wish to raise three matters today.

First, how in God’s name were people calling this controversy “#ScarfGate”? I realize the “-gate” suffix has achieved a post-ironic cachet where it’s used simply because it annoys so many of us, but didn’t “scarf scandal” in that first paragraph look ten times better? If you must hashtag it in nine characters go with “#ScarfScam”. Bear that in mind if it ever becomes relevant again. Why didn’t I write this when it could have done some good? Because I’m shit, that’s why.

Second, consider a précis of what happened. The Cascadia Council – the group of Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver supporters who protect the Cascadia Cup after the 2013 trademark dispute – has a legal agreement with MLS wherein, if the Council fails to object to a proposed use of the trademark by MLS within a certain period of time, permission is automatically granted. Because the Cascadia Council e-mail listserv/spam filter/POP3 daemon/Christ knows what stopped working, the Whitecaps supporter representatives never heard about a proposal they would certainly have objected to and therefore, while the Whitecaps were (and are) legally clear to sell this scarf, many supporters were outraged.

We still haven’t heard the full story (what sort of e-mail breakdown? Are we sure… no, are we sure… that the e-mail didn’t go through but nobody read it?) And as I said on Saturday, this version of events leaves a neutral observer with a lot of sympathy for the Whitecaps. I’m not at all a neutral observer and I still calmed down a hell of a lot when I heard what “technicality” the Whitecaps had used to produce this scarf. It wasn’t a technicality; legally they did their duty and were absolutely in the right. The moral question is an open one and, honestly, there’s room for reasonable people to disagree.

That said, the Whitecaps knew very well that the trademark of the Cascadia Cup was the single most sensitive issue among their most passionate, influential supporters. They further knew this sensitivity was shared by the Timbers Army, who might well show solidarity over any exploitation. The Whitecaps front office is in constant communication with their supporters, and these channels (official and unofficial) were not used. If it was me, and I were genuinely interested in a respectful, cooperative relationship with my supporters, the supporters who make my entire marketing campaign possible, and I knew that I was about to try and profit off the one thing in the world they were most concerned about me profiting off of, I would have been very careful. I would have at least asked a representative “so, what do you guys think of the Cascadia scarf?” during one of our cold pizza meetings. To do otherwise would have been to risk the perception that I was sneaking it through, trying to crack the dam so the tide of commercialism could come rushing in. If I wanted my supporters onside and happy, this would have been absolutely the last perception I’d want to risk.

When the scarf dropped, the Vancouver Southsiders suggested a compromise similar to the one eventually adopted: the scarf would be sold but the proceeds would go to charity. This was not adopted until the supporters took the matter public, made their stand, and put pressure on the club hours before one of their marquee fixtures. This pressure produced the desired result. In short, the Whitecaps, having wounded their supporter relations for something like the billionth time, appeared content to let that wound fester until said supporters turned the wheel. The eventual outcome was highly creditable to all parties involved, maintaining both the supporters’ and the front office’s rights while boosting a charitable organization long supported by club and fans, but the way that outcome arrived was somewhat unsatisfactory.

Third, we should appreciate how close the near-revolt came to being a fiasco, for reasons entirely the supporters’ own. The averted sanction was almost preposterously mild. The Southsiders would not buy that scarf, encourage others to do the same, and sit down in silence for the first fifteen minutes of the Portland game. For the final seventy-five they’d be free to go nuts, as usual. I was worried this would be too soft and thank God I was wrong, but it was so short, so moderate, and so obviously aimed at the suits rather than the players that at least there was no room for anyone to object.

Naturally, many people objected. Among the most dedicated and hard-working supporters, support for this idea was not quite unanimous but probably as close as you’ll get in such a diverse group. Some dissenters made serious, cogent arguments against a protest on this particular issue, arguments that deserve respect. But among the less committed members of supporters sections, there was actual anger.

Let me quote from a popular post on the Vancouver Southsiders Facebook page. I promise I’m not cherrypicking: this post attracted huge comment and was “liked” as many times as the Southsiders’ founding president’s appeal in favour of action. All grammar and word choice as in the original:

I’m kind of embarrassed to be a Southsider at the moment. All I hear and read is how to protest a, albeit poor, business decision. Are you actually suggesting a silent protest?!?
I respect the Southsiders business practices and property. It has NOTHING to do with the players. Don’t buy the scarf, don’t buy beer, don’t buy food, don’t buy merchandise. All great protests. But, not cheering?!? Not making the atmosphere in our home stadium, in our first Cascadia match, ELECTRIC?!?
How preposterous!!!
Are we more worried about our relationship with the FO or how we look and act in the players eyes.
We will garner more respect with more proactive and respectful protests.

This was far from the only expression of this sentiment, right down to being “embarrassed” in a group standing up for its rights. Many said, while the issue was still in the balance, that they would break the sit-down strike on the same flimsy grounds: “it’s nothing to do with the players!”. Some were unaware even of how the Southsiders voted for their board members, but regardless felt their opinions on this subject were strong and informed. Had the Whitecaps called the supporters’ bet, we can’t be sure if their solidarity would have held. It would have been shattering if it hadn’t, a demonstration that we all roll over in the end.

It’s inexaggerably obvious this issue was nothing to do with the players. Likewise, when those same players came within an ace of going on strike a few weeks ago, it was obviously nothing to do with the fans. In both cases, an aggrieved party tried to get justice from a massive corporation by putting pressure on them in the strongest possible way. Only a dim-witted infant could have been confused by that, and in fact if you held your breath in the social media shitstorm for long enough you would have heard such infants saying “just get a deal done m8 ur business shouldnt hurt teh soccr”, as if there was no principle at stake whatsoever.

Anything which might impair these cretins’ ability to shout “BOOM!” on goal kicks for ninety minutes is “business” and therefore unacceptable. Questions of justice, of supporters’ culture, of being exploited are utterly irrelevant. Taking a meaningful stand is inherently a bad move because it shows disrespect for the players. The “players”, in this universe, are uninformed and incurious morons who live in cardboard boxes and take everything that ever happens as a personal affront. They hear silence around the cenotaph on November 11 and think “what did I do?” They are unaware that their supporters are humans and bewildered by the idea that they might have interests or desires. If the supporters section took fifteen minutes off, these mythical players would think “how dare they!” and not “hmm, I wonder what is going on.”

Such belief is a transparent facade for “hey, I’m just here for the party, don’t try to harsh my buzz.” We’re seeing this sort of thing around Major League Soccer. Even the most passionate and pressed-upon supporters groups are capable of only limited action, because as outraged and dedicated as their most important members may be there’s a mass of complacent selfishness behind them restricting their options. This has led to continuing encroachment on supporter privileges in many cities. Any “don’t buy merchandise or beer if you don’t like it” so-called sanction is unenforceable even by public pressure, ineffective, and ultimately still gives MLS what it wants.

Silencing the atmosphere at a major derby match is a public statement which reaches ears otherwise unengaged in club-supporter politics, and would-be scabs face the spotlight as they stand and shout while surrounded by seated silence. This is precisely what those “think of the players!” opponents dislike about it. But it is also, as we have just seen, a good way to get results.

I’m not promoting myself as a paragon of supporters’ culture here, and would be swiftly shot to ribbons if I did. We’re all ultimately dumb, selfish creatures who stand up and shout abuse at strangers because we like it. Making that good time bad to prove a point is a sacrifice, and not one that should be treated lightly. Standing up to a front office that’s exploiting you may, in fact, be the only valid time for a supporter to stop supporting. However, for such gestures to have any value they must be made in solidarity. Excuses to invalidate any serious protest show a selfishness that has no place in the collective culture of a soccer supporters group. If you’re that sort of self-absorbed fan then, by all means, attend all the soccer games you like, but don’t pretend you’re part of something larger than yourself.

(notes and comments…)

Four (Non-Playing!) Predictions for MLS in 2015

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

Many people are making their predictions for the coming 2015 Major League Soccer season. Unfortunately, I have no idea who’s good, who’s bad, who’s the best newcomer, whether Landon Donovan is dreamy or the dreamiest, or any of the other topics your garden-variety North American soccer writer preoccupies himself with.

However, I do have opinions. So here are four (non-playing) predictions for the coming MLS year.

MLS will continue to pick on its supporters. Back in January Los Angeles Galaxy supporters the Angel City Brigade were sanctioned by the league and the club[1] for the heinous and unprecedented crime of throwing streamers onto the pitch at the MLS Cup Final. For added justice, their punishment is also double jeopardy for earlier offenses that had already been dealt with. During the first eight matches of the season the Brigade will have no “supporters privileges” (a phrase which, itself, speaks volumes) and are forbidden streamers for all of 2015. If you think this overreaction is because the Galaxy supporters made MLS fans look too undignified in the league’s marquee event, you are probably being sensible. And if you then asked “hey, does MLS’s highlight video of that match have a bunch of approving shots of the Angel City Brigade with streamers and drums?” you’ve clearly seen these collective punishments before.

This very standard action by MLS met a very standard reaction from supporters. Various groups said “we stand with the ACB!” while spending huge sums on the single entity that majority-owns the Galaxy. The Brigade responded with “sanctions” of their own[2] that amount to not buying beer or merchandise from the Galaxy for four games. (Spend like mad at the fifth, of course!) Still buying tickets, still going to games and cheering their hearts out, still giving MLS much of what they want. That’ll show ’em.

So business as usual in Major League Soccer. Supporters are great when they look good on video and do coordinated, family-friendly chants, but corporate disapproval may come from anywhere and the suits’ vengeance has no appeal. Naturally there will never be any suggestion that, if MLS insists supporters exist to entertain its billionaires and promote its product, said supporters should find another outlet for their money and passion. The great cycle continues.

Watch for the next spit in the face of its most dedicated fans from Don Garber and company! It’s a surer sign of spring than the flowers opening.

MLS will continue to be sleazy. Another easy one! We are all familiar with the way MLS’s ill-defined allocation rules shift and twist when a player everyone’s heard of wants to go to a certain city. It’s one of the great mysteries of the universe how no team ever says “actually, Clint Dempsey, I think you’ll find you’re playing for Chivas USA now.”

Recently MLS and their players’ union agreed upon a collective bargaining agreement. The deal has not been made public; nothing unusual in that. But there was a total blackout over official MLS sources during negotiations that came very near to ruining the start of the season. When Gary Bettman locks out the NHL every few years he at least has to face the press; meanwhile, in MLS the official league site is gagged and a handful of dedicated beat reporters need to wrangle not-for-attribution tidbits from players and agents just so fans can have some idea what the hell’s going on.

Meanwhile, news from New York: MLS is sabotaging the NASL New York Cosmos in their bid to get a privately-funded soccer-specific stadium.[3]. MLS interference has been rumoured for some time but went on the public record courtesy New York Assemblyman Francisco Moya. This on top of throwing an expansion team at Atlanta to try and kill the NASL Silverbacks, continuing to poach the NASL’s best teams whenever possible, and working with a USL that, despite soothing words, still views NASL as an inferior upstart[4]. It’s a different side of the same coin: MLS isn’t interested in growing its game, or in growing supporters culture, just in growing its business. And the thing about a single-entity league with no promotion or relegation is that it is all one business.

MLS punditry is easy. If you identify their lowest possible motive, you’ve more than likely identified the correct one.

There will be more bad news for Canadians playing on Canadian MLS teams. About ten years ago the Vancouver Whitecaps hosted the Toronto Lynx to open the 2005 USL First Division season at Swangard Stadium. As was too typical for the Lynx it was a bore 0-0 draw. The only thing interesting about that game, ten years later, is that fifteen of twenty-two starters, and twenty-one players overall, were Canadians[5].

Tonight, when the Vancouver Whitecaps host Toronto FC, each team might start one Canadian. The Montreal Impact have already been busy, with two CONCACAF Champions League games in which no Canadians saw the field. With World Cup qualifiers and a Gold Cup this year, our top professional teams fly the flag of the United Nations. Again.

I know very few of you give a crap. But after years of the Whitecaps telling their fans “it is completely impossible to sign a Canadian from Europe! They demand payment in elephants made of gold!”, Sporting Kansas City recently signed standout Canadian international Marcel de Jong. It’s not difficult, they just don’t want to.

In Vancouver some fans who do pretend they care point to the Whitecaps signing a larger-than-usual number of players from their Residency program as a promising omen. It takes time to develop Canadian talent and the Whitecaps have only had twenty-nine years. Surely, surely, these young Canadians will be given the opportunity to break into the first team like Phil Davies and Bryce Alders… shit.

The new MLS reserve teams will be the most overrated development of the year. Reserve soccer is useful, obviously. There’s no replacement for a real match, and even if it’s not for the full stakes of a first-team game before 20,000 fans that experience does matter. Nobody denies this.

But as you know, this season the Whitecaps and many other MLS sides have moved their reserve teams to the newly-rebranded United Soccer League. Some people seem to think this particular incarnation of the MLS reserve program is going to be magic. Playing the Seattle Sounders reserves is one thing, but playing the Seattle Sounders reserves and the Harrisburg City Islanders, whoa, buy World Cup tickets now lads!

I don’t mean to pick on USL, who know their own business. Nor do I mean to pick on MLS (this one time), since they have a reserve program in an established, independent league that won’t get bored and go home like MLS’s reserve divisions always do. But Jesus, some people’s expectations! Some fans seem to think that playing MLS reserve games has suddenly become a ticket to the Premier League just because the name of the league has changed. “Three new professional teams! Whole new opportunities for our players!” I have a spreadsheet of the Whitecaps’ 2013 reserve players. Seven Canadians are on that list who were then over twenty years old and not on MLS contracts with the Whitecaps. How many of them are getting first-team minutes anywhere in the world right now? None!

Gagandeep Dosanjh had a promising start with FC Edmonton until his knee decided to stop working; that’s as close as you’re going to get. A few of those players — Yassin Essa, Brett Levis, Derrick Bassi — may be on the 2015 Whitecaps Reserves roster. Levis only got a cameo, but Essa and Bassi have been part of the Whitecaps Reserves pretty much since we joined MLS. Three years of reserve soccer is not what player development’s usually about.

I can’t speak for Toronto or Montreal, but in Vancouver the Whitecaps have filled out their reserve roster with available or interesting Canadians since they joined MLS. It’s the sensible thing to do. And it has led them nowhere. More games will help, obviously, but it’s no bloody revolution. The opposition will, if anything, be weaker, since MLS teams will be unable to send backup goalkeepers and bench players away to Richmond the same weekend they’ll be needed on the first team’s bench.

By the way, the attendance won’t be great either, not even for USL. Reserve team attendances around the world almost never are[6]. It’s curious that many of these same fans assume that the MLS/USL partnership spells certain doom for the NASL when about half of the USL’s independent clubs are shaky, it’s impossible MLS will make a profit on these teams, and they’ve scrapped their reserve program for financial reasons before.

(notes and comments…)